A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Summing up

So, it's been a week since I got back from Banff and I've had time to wind down and reflect on the 5 weeks I was there.

First of all, the program was intense. We practically didn't get any time to ourselves until a week before the shows. Perhaps principals and people who were only in one chorus were luckier than the rest of us in that respect, but I'm pretty sure everyone was kept very busy. This element of the organization was deliberate, and has its upsides and downsides. For one thing, it's hard work. Over 50 hours of classes/rehearsals a week meant that we essentially crammed more than a term's worth of college into 4 weeks. On the other hand, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and this way of working definitely builds up stamina and self-awareness, which is what the program aims to do. Another side-effect of the long hours was that there wasn't much time for individual practice or working notes from the previous sessions. Sometimes it wasn't even a question of time itself, but if you got an hour off at some point, you were too tired to focus on more work, so you had to use that time to rest.

The staff were phenomenal. It's thanks to their dedication and inspiring attitude that the heavily loaded schedule seemed in some ways to fly by. We didn't get to work with some of them as extensively as we would have liked to (more time in smaller groups with J-P Fournier would have been amazing), but on the whole I couldn't fault a single class I attended.

The program focuses on the rehearsal process. While there are general classes in the mornings, you spend most of your time in rehearsals, with individual lessons and coatings allocated in your spare time. Being in both operas, I had very little of said spare time, and most of that was assigned to coachings on Guglielmo. This meant I only got a couple of singing lessons over the course of the program. Others were much luckier than me, and I understand that the rehearsals had to come first, but I wish there was a way of balancing it all out better.

I'll just quickly touch base on the understudy aspect of my experience. Again, due to time constraints it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Covering is always a tricky business, and depending on where you get work as a cover, you may or may not receive extensive rehearsal time, or a covers run of the show. In a training program, however, I had hoped to get some time on stage and perhaps some form of performance to sum it all up. Unfortunately, as most of the covers were involved in both operas, or had to juggle chorus and minor roles in Lillian Alling, there was only time to focus on musical coaching. I did end up learning the role quite well, with a better understanding of it than I could have gotten preparing it on my own, but at the end of the day, as a cover, I felt pretty useless. If I had had to go onstage to perform, I would probably have been a major hinderance to the rest of the cast, never having done the blocking. I should note, that the staff were made aware of these concerns and I'm sure in future years this will be addressed.

All in all Banff was a fantastic experience. The program delivered on its aims, though perhaps not quite in the way I was expecting. The classes all broadened our horizons and expanded our pallet of expressive tools, the productions were rewarding to put on, and as I mentioned earlier, the staff were exceptional. However, a program isn't just schedules, classes and shows. What made Banff OAT 2011 the wonderful experience it was, were the people. Through some combination of good casting and luck, we ended up having a fantastic group of dedicated participants, who worked well together on stage and off. The people I met there weren't just good colleagues and fun guys to hang out with (which they definitely were), they all inspired each other, supported when someone needed it, and together created the atmosphere that made my stay in Banff something I'll always remember.

Here endeth the cheese. I hope reading this you don't get the wrong impression, the program is intense, but I'd definitely recommend it both as an experience and as an education in itself.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


Day 34 - Saturday

This morning we had a meeting of all the participants and staff to sum up the program. I'll write my own take on this when it's actually over (on Monday or maybe Tuesday, watch this space), in any case the Post-Mortem (their words, not mine) turned into more of a discussion about the business, rather than the program itself.

Kelly opened with a quote from Calvin Coolidge (30th President of the US):
'Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.'

Other words that resonated with me:
- 'There's nothing else I can do.' I can't see myself being anything but an artist, hopefully a singer.
- 'You're never going to be in control of your career.' Sad, but true, the decisions are almost always made by other people, all we can do is try to ride out whatever comes our way. Unless you're an entrepreneur and are willing to risk it.
- 'The world doesn't owe you anything.' David Agler pointed out that as a generation, we seem to be fooling ourselves that we're entitled to something, having gone to college, forked out cash for lessons and coachings, but ultimately, nothing comes easy, especially not in this business. The hard work never stops.
- 'Keep trying to reinvent yourself.' There's nothing worse for an artist than to stop growing. Finding a niche and work is one thing, but every now and again it's good to take a look at what you're doing and find things to tweak or even change, in our attitude, our repertoire, our habits, or just to find something completely different to do, to make coming back to our niche exciting again. It also makes us more employable if we're interesting people, because interesting people are interesting on stage.

A new perspective, same view, different viewpoint
(really it's the only picture I took today, and I felt you deserved a break from all this text)

David Agler also quoted Judith Forst's recipe for success:
1. Know your music.
2. Arrive to rehearsals 5 minutes early.
3. Be nice to your colleagues.
So simple, and yet so often not the case. If you're not doing all 3, time to reinvent yourself.

We also talked at length about auditions, how they're not the be all and end all (work ethic is, much more than auditions), but as they are a big part of what we do, here are some tips from the conductors, directors and repetiteurs we had here:
- maintain a level of formality, no one will hold it against you if you dress up and address the panel formally, but they may be put off if you don't
- don't ask for feedback, they're busy people, you won't get it
- don't get offended by the panel cutting you off, seemingly ignoring you, etc, it probably has nothing to do with you anyway
- make sure to present who you are now, not who you hope to be in 5 years (repertoire choice!)
- the result may have nothing to do with talent, you may just not be 'the most right one', and that doesn't reflect badly on you, you haven't failed, you just weren't who they were looking for
- be yourself, don't act (apart from getting into character when singing)
- don't necessarily sing from the opera they're casting for (you may not deliver what the conductor wants, while someone else does, so you lose), but offer things in the same style
- don't sing if you're not well
- give clean copies of the music to the panel and the accompanist (only include markings that tell them how you perform it, but don't crowd the page)
- no handshakes unless the panel offer their hands!
That last one is something I've discussed a lot with British singers, some of whom say it breaks the ice. Some things Kelly said today should convince everyone that it's generally a bad idea. These people sit there for hours on end, a handshake wastes half a minute or so of their time, if there's a queue of 200 singers, that's a lot of time wasted. Furthermore, you're stressed, do you really want their first impression of you to be your sweaty palm? And the clincher: disease. They don't want to risk catching a cold or worse. Besides, I've been brought up to view it as rude, it's up to the higher status person to choose whether or not they want to shake hands, and you never know, maybe the panel were brought up that way too. You can be friendly without it.

The faculty also stressed how small a world we operate in. Auditions are a small part of our lives, and just one of the ways we can get work. How we conduct ourselves in our work, our school, programs like this, with our colleagues, all that gets passed on. The decision makers talk, they all know each other (or know someone, who knows someone...) and they comment. And no news spreads faster than bad news, a bad reputation is very easy to get, but very difficult to shake off.

Anyway, 2nd and final show of Lillian Alling tonight...

Opening nights

Day 32 - Thursday

In the run up to tonight's performance Lillian Alling we get an opportunity for a bit of a lie in, as we are only scheduled for a brief rehearsal in the afternoon to work out the curtain calls and some notes. Then it's the usual: hair & make up, chorus warm up, and we're off. As we rush onstage for the Ellis Island scene it hits us: there is an audience out there! Well, I suppose that was to be expected, but honestly, I hope I never become immune to that rush of adrenaline. It's an extra kick of energy to be harnessed to bring something new to a performance. Kelly would maybe disagree with me, as he has his own view on the phenomenon of performing to an audience (which I'll touch on later, but I hope the two aren't mutually exclusive), but I feel that the audience brings something very important to the space. What we do as performers can be broken down into a myriad of basic elements, and most of these are grounded in repetition. Our work on vocal technique is based on repetition and refinement, we learn music by going over it again and again, internalising staging and the overall rehearsal process is incredibly repetitive... They do say (this isn't a completely abstract 'they', I've actually met and worked with some of 'them') that the goal is to perform every time as if you were doing it it for the first time: it's the first time you have that thought, you say that line, you meet this person. Unfortunately it is sometimes a struggle, depending on what the process has been, how the work has gone, what difficulties have arisen. But then you walk out onstage with the audience out there, in the dark. You know they're there, the air in the theatre is different, the temperature, the acoustic, etc. That moment, when you walk out and know that this isn't Kansas any more, we're not rehearsing, that's what I find helps me break away from 'singer Jan'. You surrender and trust that the work is done and is there to help you cope with any problems that may come up, but it's sort of out of your hands, there's no getting off, no going back, no more polishing to be done. The 'rehearsal' part of you switches off and you're free to be the character. It's a great feeling, what can I say, and this is just speaking as a chorus member / minor role.

Cairan and Melanie, or Scotty and Lillian
Both winners tonight!

The show goes very well, not perfectly (they never do), but it has an energy about it that I think let the story shine through the performance, and that's what it's all about. The audience's response and the feeling in the company were both very positive, and we retire to the after-show reception in (/for) good spirits.

Room 413 at the after party... shame about the hair

Day 33 - Friday

Today is Simon's birthday!

Before we get to this evening's Cosi fan tutte opening, we have a notes session with Kelly in the afternoon. It's quite philosophical this time, with a long chat about how we feel it went, 'digging past the surface of awesome'. This is where Kelly delivers the line that makes me worry that he may not agree with my feelings from last night: 'Never feel you need the audience. We should perform the same whether they're there or not.' The thing is, we never quite manage to do the latter. Of course I agree with never saying 'it'll be fine with an audience', and perhaps I'd rather think of it in terms of always thinking/pretending there is an audience, rather than pretending they don't make a difference.

Cosi opens to a great reaction from the crowd, with plenty of laughs and applause, as it should be. I'm happy for the principals, as they've been through a difficult process, and they deserved a show they could be proud of, and judging by the audience's appreciation, they got just that.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Dress rehearsals

Day 30 - Tuesday

It's the final straight, dress rehearsals and then we start the shows with Lillian Alling on Thursday. This morning we work on notes for the LA chorus scenes, in the afternoon Kelly restages our barn dance (just to add some fresh adrenaline to tonight's dress). Late afternoon sees the singers and supers gradually passing through hair & make up and start the nervous pacing in the dressing rooms and war zone. To solve my hair's tendency to rebel against styling I am made to wear clips in it for an hour before stage time, and to avoid the clips making marks I get a stylish buffer of tissues. This harks back to my supermodel adventure on Day 5. Ah, those were the days...

Like 2 supermodels before a fashion show

The Lillian Alling dress rehearsal goes reasonably well, though not without stress and hiccups on stage and off. I myself lose half my beard during the Norwegian scene, almost sending our leading lady into fits of laughter. Never trust tape, from now on it's glue for me (which is a shame, because it's disgusting stuff). I also get muddled during a costume change and miss an offstage chorus entrance (literally by a single beat!). Apart from that the run was a study of how colleagues deal with the mounting stress, and once again I'm left in awe of Melanie Krueger, whose Lillian is vocally superb every single time without fail and with no audible marking.

Day 31 - Wednesday

We are in for a treat this morning: Judith's husband, Graham Forst (a classics professor), gives a lecture on Da Ponte's collaborations with Mozart, showing how they bent the structure of comedy to herald the coming age of romanticism. The lecture is informative, engaging and above all hilarious. There's nothing like watching an inspiring lecturer, not a beat skipped, waking the audience to attention with perfectly timed jokes, and this all flowing more from personality than preparation (I may of course be wrong on this, but that would be in a way even more impressive). We leave the room with smiles on our faces and the worst jokes stuck in our heads ('So from the start of the opera we are in denial... and we're not even in Egypt.' OK, so maybe you had to have been there), and I like to think some useful information about the structure of comedy and how it works (asexual trickster servants facilitating the overcoming of the blocking character and the inevitable feast and wedding at the end reinforcing the importance of the structures society builds to protect us from our human flaws... or something like that).

We then have notes with Kelly in the afternoon, where he says that calling last night's dress 'verage' would only be slightly harsh. There's another level to bring it to, that much is sure, and apart from the usual notes (words, cut offs, cues, blocking) there are two pearls of wisdom:
- when receiving 'physical' notes, make sure to run them before the show to get them into your body, otherwise even if you remember the note, your body will betray you
- communicate thoughts, not feelings
The second sounds like a slogan, but often gets forgotten when singing, because as musicians we are prone to channelling the mood (which is usually the orchestra's job), but as actors our job is not to reinforce mood, but to tell the story. I'm not sure whether the risk is greater when singing in a foreign language (where the temptation is to fall back on the music and just convey a vague idea what it is we are actually saying, filling the void with 'feeling') or in ones native tongue (where we assume the audience will understand our every word and 'get it' without us having to work too hard). Maybe it's time to reconcile with Stanislavski?

Is there a butler convention in town?

This evening it's time for the Cosi fan tutte dress rehearsal. Again it is a study in stress management and warm-up habits. Other than that it goes quite well for a rehearsal, though because of the limited involvement we have as chorus, my impression may not be the best informed.

Pre-show antics

Together for the first time, 2 timeless symbols: the Apple logo... and the Soviet Star

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Counting down

Day 29 - Monday

Morning: no lie in today, we're called for a Czech language coaching at 10am. Actually it's more of a crash course, as the entire company is there and we only have 45 minutes. Still, we get a useful hand-out and I now have the basic vowel and consonant sounds on my dictaphone. Funnily, when we split into smaller groups to practice speaking using a sheet with standard phrases, I end up with Alex, who is of Ukrainian descent, so we both switch between Czech and our native languages. All in all, a pleasantly Slavic morning, if a tad on the early side.

Afternoon: we work through notes from last night's run of Lillian Alling. Another tiring session in the theatre, with most of the time spent sitting around waiting to be called, most of us feeling under-energised. Luckily the dress rehearsal is tomorrow, so with opening night in sight we're sure to pick up some adrenaline and get back some of the excitement that drives us on stage. The tiredness we're feeling is normal: these notes sessions and technical runs of tricky blocking are normal at this stage of production, everyone knows they can expect a lot of sitting around and waiting, so don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining, it's just that knowing how it works doesn't make it any less draining.

Some memorable quotes and motifs from the past 4 weeks

Evening: Cosi fan tutte stage & orchestra. Nothing thrilling to report, just a lot of backstage time either working on our next individual projects, relaxing with a book, standard banter or singing along with the PA feedback from the stage.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Opera, opera, opera, opera... and then a day of being human?

Day 27 - Saturday

Morning: Catriona and myself have a coaching session on the Il core vi dono duet from Cosi with Joel Ivany (the director of the main production of Cosi here) and Robin Wheeler (one of the repetiteurs). It's great fun to get the duet on its feet and see how different it is from the last time I did it. New team, new approach, and it's good that Joel prefers to explore the scene with us, rather than have us copy the blocking of the principals.

Our input into the War Zone's decor

Afternoon: more Cosi as we launch into the piano dress (or stage & piano, as they're known in the UK). It's the first time we're in costumes, so that provides some fun, but for the most part it's sitting around for the chorus, which I try to put to good use by working on my dialogue for Orpheus.

Costume fun

I don't get much of a break between sessions, as I go to a presentation of the Banff Centre's new commission: The Last King of Scotland. It's a new opera by Stephen McNeff, with a libretto by Giles Foden (the author of the book on which the 2006 film of the same name was based). At present it's a work in progress and has been workshopped over the past two weeks here with some of the OAT participants, as well as soloists brought in to work on the main roles of Idi Amin and Garrigan. The presentation is of a couple of semi-staged scenes from the opera. It is interesting comparing all of the new operas I've been involved with or close to over the last couple of months. They are all so different: John Estacio's Lillian Alling is almost like a film score with singing, cinematic, grand, accessible; Tom Floyd's operas are more modern, but quite melodic at the same time; while The Last King is eclectic and atmospheric (with great use of African percussion and the vocal ensemble), but the sung solo lines are rarely melodic and quite difficult to follow, which makes for a more demanding experience. There seem to be fans of each of these approaches, and I don't think I'm enough of an expert on contemporary music to have an informed opinion (or one worth sharing for that matter).

Evening: stage & orchestra time for Lillian Alling. The stage element is definitely the stronger one this time round, but hopefully there'll be enough time to tighten it all up. The principals once again deliver full performances, which considering it's their third day in a row is no mean feat.

Day 28 - Sunday

The long-awaited day off! First order of business: sleep in. Then another inspired initiative: we rent cars and drive to Lake Louise for a day of light hiking.

Lake Louise: 'Yes! Nature! I win!'

The lake itself is stunning (if the atmosphere is slightly spoiled by the huge hotel by the shore), and then a short hike later it only gets better.

Mirror Lake

Agnes Lake

We reach a second lake, then a waterfall, and then a third lake with a teahouse and free range chipmunks bustling around the tourists. We enjoy some tea and cakes (yes, even in the mountains we manage to maintain a high degree of sophistication) and then head back to enjoy some mexican food in downtown Banff and then a soak in the hot tub. Some of the tourist infrastructure here dates back to the turn of the century, when the railway was built through the mountains (as I find out from helpful information signs by the trail today), and at first catered for well to do people and was run by the rail company, who brought in Swiss guides (who promptly went about conquering the local peaks) and built luxurious hotels, picturesque chalets and isolated teahouses. See, it's not just about the singing, sometimes it's nice to have a day when you can just be normal.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

When the sun shines here *

Day 26 - Friday

Morning: I wake up around 8am to see thick clouds outside the window. Having nothing scheduled until 11.30, I decide to grab a coffee and despite the grim weather, go for a walk to clear my head (it's been a hard couple of days... and nights). I'm very thankful that I did, as just as I get down to the Bow River, the mountains play their little game of 'we are mountains, and we can change the weather in an instant!' (I've been watching Eddie Izzard lately, hence the change in style). The clouds lift, not quite in an instant, but with a fairly brisk, flowing motion, revealing the view. It's a stunning 10 minutes, I stand rooted to the ground, even forgetting to take out my camera until almost the end of the show. All this with the river practically splashing at my feet, with the distant rumble of Bow Falls providing the continuo for the birdsong that begins to fill the air (is there any literary prize for blogs?). The rehearsal in the Church barely deserves a mention after that perfect walk.


Afternoon: we take what we staged this morning (crowd scenes in Act 2 of Lillian Alling) and try it out in the theatre. Kelly ends the rehearsal with some sage advice: take any opportunity you may have to 'be onstage' outside of rehearsals (or in breaks), not just to walk the set and blocking, but to get a feel for the auditorium, the darkness behind the conductor, to make sure that come showtime we 'make the audience come to our space, rather than perform in the audience's space'.


Evening: piano dress of Lillian Alling. It's our first go at getting all the costume changes right and there's definitely room for improvement. On the plus side, the show looks fantastic, so the frantic quick changes aren't in vain. The principals have another go at singing the whole opera out in full voice, no mean feat, and in fact I'm left there picking my jaw off the floor after Melanie's performance (she's Lillian, the titan title role).

Dan enjoying his costume

Tomorrow we're in for fill runs of both operas, which I'm sure will be a tough day, hence I decide to have an early night for once.

Photos from today start here.

* This is a quote from a chorus scene in Lillian Alling

Friday, 12 August 2011

I can't hire you!

Day 25 - Thursday

Morning: masterclass with Tracy Dahl (incredible Canadian coloratura soprano). We are treated to some great performances today, and in between working on balancing registers, posture, stillness, coloratura micromanagement, calming down facial expressions, etc, Tracy delivers some memorable lines:
- 'I can't hire you, there's no point trying to impress me.'
- when vowel modification is done well, nobody knows you did it
- you have to find a way to marry your technique to a face that a director will like
- choose a place to be angry that doesn't cost you (in a surreal neo-romantic rendition of the Queen of the Night's second aria)
- comedy doesn't float, it's crisp with hard edges

Afternoon: Joel introduces staging in the Cosi overture, to set up the stage (we can't preset it, as a row of chairs has to be placed in front of the curtain line). After that we have another understudy session with Kinza, this time tackling the bigger ensembles.

Dan, psyched for the rehearsal

Evening: the Lillian Alling wandelprobe (first run through with orchestra, with the singers tracing their staging). Hearing it in it's entirety for the first time with this cast I'm certain it's going to be great show. The four main principals have a tremendous amount to sing, with the role of Lillian Alling rivalling the biggest in lyric soprano repertoire. They all manage to pull it off with style, and I'm sure it'll only get better. It's a pleasure and a privilege to watch Judith Forst (Canada's star mezzo-soprano, aged 68) perform, there's just no substitute for experience.

Chilling out between chorus entrances

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A dramatic turn of events *

Day 24 - Wednesday

Morning: a 10am chorus call provides a rude awakening after last night, but is soon overshadowed by a full company meeting, where we are told that one of our colleagues has been sent home and replaced. It's not entirely a shock, but I'm sure it affected everyone. Kelly handles this extremely uncommon and difficult situation very well, explaining the reasons for this drastic step: while this is a learning environment, the program is aimed at entry level professionals, and demands a degree of preparation which ensures that everybody benefits from the process. If someone is behind in that respect, then the entire company of a production suffers, the atmosphere and energy sour, and little meaningful progress can be made. I won't go into detail about how it has been with respect to this situation, fascinating as the full story is, but this isn't the right forum to expand upon it.

I'd much rather say right now how amazing it was to watch the replacement singer, a professional who'd done the role before, brought in to 'save the day' so to speak. Needless to say, the cast were worried sick at the prospect of having to redo the work they've been doing for the past 5 weeks with someone new, not thoughts you want to be having a week before opening night. However, I think they needn't worry. Having done the role before, obviously knowing it inside and out, our 'ringer' managed to get through an entire act over the course of a 3-hour rehearsal. A joy to watch: one sing through with the maestro, one walk through with the director (with no singing), then one run through of the scene. That's it! Inspiring, educational, and very positive to see the show come together for once.

Only one photo taken today, and it's out of focus...
a glimpse of the Albanian incarnation of Ferrando

Afternoon: we have an understudy session with Kinza, ironing out the kinks in our Italian. With chorus schedules easing up a bit we get more opportunities for individual work and hopefully we'll have more sessions on Cosi as covers.

Evening: back on the main stage for Act 2 of Lillian Alling. 2 big crowd scenes to stage, and not much time to do it in, but we manage to put together a rough sketch to build upon some other time.

* A sneaky reference to the upcoming album by Dream Theater, also drawing a parallel between what's happened here and what happened to the band a year ago.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The day I almost gave up blogging

Day 23 - Tuesday

Morning: understudy coaching, then a masterclass with Dominic Wheeler. This was one of the best masterclasses I've ever attended, even though I wasn't singing. It's great to listen to advice that is instantly understandable, makes sense, and most importantly works! I actually found myself taking notes:
- make a conscious decision: sing the energy of the music, or against it
- every breath needs emotional investment and a thought that is carried through the phrase
- the difference between a native singer and a non-native (referring to language) is that the former naturally colours the vowels with emotion, while the latter has an artificial precision
- slurs over phrases (in Puccini for instance) indicate that the balance between legato and text should tilt slightly towards legato
- carry vowel shapes into the silence to achieve a clean cut-off
And my personal favourite:
- good rhythm increases your character's IQ

And now this blog can become my reference if I ever need to refresh my memory.

Afternoon: we run Act 1 of Cosi, then rush down to the Church to refresh the staging of the Brooklyn Boys. During the dinner break we celebrate Xavier's birthday with carrot cake and the loudest rendition of Happy Birthday I've heard in a long time (with everyone going for the high note, as singers do).

Coconut carrot cake!

Evening: a rather tiring technical rehearsal for Lillian Alling. As I said some time ago, these are always hard, but necessary. Problems of a personal nature make it a tougher than usual though, with a see-saw of apathy and manic antics. After rehearsal we head to the bar to celebrate Xavier's birthday properly, a much needed opportunity for distraction.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Puccini, fatigue, rain, leopard-skins and more (while London burns)

Day 22 - Monday

Morning: singing lesson with Tracy, a great half hour of identifying how to go about singing Puccini. Semitone scales, getting that nice 'ee' space for the top, letting every note live rather than singing straight, getting a seamless legato line... I wish I could say I nailed all of that, unfortunately for now it's just a list of things to work on, but a definite improvement was made nonetheless.

Afternoon: the first full run of Cosi. There isn't much to say, first runs are almost always sketchy and never perfect, but they are a logical necessity, an essential prerequisite (if you will) for a second run. These are usually better.

Watching the action from backstage

Evening: 'notes and bits' for Cosi, which last only an hour for chorus (and were needed for botched up set changes with stairs ramming into the main set and other such issues caused by the unexpected, and yet planned, darkness onstage). Then it's down to the Church to set the Vancouver rain scene in Lillian Alling. We do so well (though this may have been Kelly's sarcasm) that we are released a bit early. This just about makes up for the walk back up to the Centre.

Raising crops of brollies

The funny thing about today is that I'm seeing madness slowly descend on the group. Bad jokes provoke insane laughter, some people look a bit like zombies, everyone is slightly different to when they arrived, some guys feel the need to improvise a song about Alex's leopard-skin print top. It's been a long time, but what doesn't kill you...

As a rude wake-up call: the news about London seeps through (we are in a bit of a bubble here, if I hadn't made that clear before). We read and watch coverage in disbelief and worry for friends.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Say it isn't so! A weekend with no photos...

Day 20 - Saturday

The schedule for today is very relaxed for most of us. I only have movement in the morning and a half-hour chorus call at noon. The rest of the day is divided between swimming, the hot-tub, a walk up Tunnel Mountain, watching TV and reviewing some music.

In the evening we have our Chorus Showcase in The Club. I'm singing Non siate ritrosi followed by the trio E voi ridete from Cosi fan tutte. As our understudy performance has been called off, Catriona suggest we get all of the covers involved in the staging of these two numbers, so I get to deliver the aria to the girls (who obligingly touch my leg when I ask them to), backed up by Ferrando, watched closely by Don Alfonso, and with Despina doing some housework in the background. This is probably the only time in my life when I will be able to publicly perform Mozart in my Vibram Five-Fingers shoes (to underline abbiamo bel piede). In true form my false moustache falls off before I reach the end of the aria, on the actual word mustacchi. Luckily the girls are gone by then, so I get to put the incident to good comic use.

The rest of the evening goes very well, with some of the highlights being Keith (baritone) singing Belle from Beauty and the Beast doing all the characters, April singing Another new voice teacher (oh, how close to home that one hits), Michelle's rendition of I love a piano, and the cutest performance of the Papageno/Papagena duet I've ever seen (Sarah and Emmanuel). All of this supported by the inspired playing and leadership of Kinza. A fun concert followed by a great night (from which I'm sure there are some embarrassing photos of yours truly with a coffee pot, but we won't get into that here... I hate iphones at parties).

Day 21 - Sunday

Nothing much to tell, it's our day off and it's a very lazy one. I go into town to get some cash out and then take a walk by the river to have some 'me' time. Then it's some Offenbach, TV, and a film night in the lounge. Once again I'm getting that sense of disconnection with reality and the 'me' time becomes very introspective (I'm very deep sometimes... well no, that's a lie, I just have bad moods).

Okay, so I haven't taken too many photos, because The Club doesn't like my camera, and the walks were just repeats of previous ones. I apologise profusely and to soften the blow I'll include ALL the pictures I did take (luckily they share a consistent theme).

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Non-PC comments and male strippers onstage?

Day 19 - Friday

Morning: movement and a reminder of the clog dance. My favourite element of Tania's warm-ups is the first thing we do each session - stretch out our spines and massage our muscles with an assortment of balls, as you can see below:

Then it's a quick breakfast, before a Cosi covers session, this time it's all 3 men, going through the trios and recits. This session is a showcase of constructive criticism: after one recit we hear 'We should do that again, because for now (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) it sounds like Guglielmo, Don Alfonso and their special slow friend...' Of course I exaggerate, the session was brilliant. We are informed however, that the understudies will not be performing excerpts (this was an idea that had been bounced around by the staff) due to lack of time. Oh well, shame, but it takes a bit of mental pressure off and I can start focussing more on Orpheus in the Underworld.

The boys return from war (or a Chippendales show)

Afternoon and evening: Cosi in the theatre, working through Act 2. The chorus is so on the ball that we are released early, which is great! All that's left today is a run through of tomorrow's concert with Kinza, which is shaping up to be a very funny affair, so hopefully the late start (10pm) won't scare away the audience.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Bring me my Broadsword and clear understanding! *

Day 18 - Thursday

Morning: movement at 10am, having missed yesterday's session I find it difficult to get into the groove of the final exercise Tania sets us (choreographing a sequence in pairs, but unfortunately I get assigned to a threesome, switching into pairs, so get less time to get a feel for it). However the warm up beforehand was much appreciated. We then have to run off to another building for a chorus music call, before running back to the movement studio for a session with J-P Fournier on stage combat! What a thrill: we get to practise with knives and broadswords! It's only a small taster, as we have an hour for a dozen or so people, but I'm allowed to film the most useful stuff: chokes and slaps. I wish we did this kind of stuff in college, because even in the profession you don't always get a fight director (although you should if there's any of that kind of malarkey going on), and as J-P says: theatre directors think they can choreograph fight scenes, but usually they haven't a clue. And I will say, just an hour with him has changed many of my ideas about the rules in stage combat, and I've been in a few contact scenes before...


Afternoon: we work through Act 2 chorus scenes for Cosi, with some input from David Agler, then it's off to acting, where apart from a stimulating massage and a few games, we take a look at how given circumstances and objectives change the story we tell. Chris divides us into pairs and gives us all the same banal dialogue (Hi / Hello / How are you? / How was your weekend? / Fun, and yours? / etc), but gives each pair a different set of given circumstances (anything from a recent breakup, through suspicion of marital infidelity, to two sisters dealing with an attempted suicide). The same texts tells a completely different story every time.


We finish slightly earlier than usual, so Aaron and myself take the opportunity to have a look at our recit, and are joined by the girls to go through the quintets and sextet. I sometimes think this manic schedule we have here stems from the organisers not trusting our young selves to do anything constructive with our free time. I think they underestimate our drive, if we were given a bit more time, we'd be able to do more individual work on our music, blocking, or notes that we're given. As it is, we rarely have the energy to put in extra work outside scheduled rehearsals, which is a bit of a shame.

Evening: it says 'clog dancing' on the schedule, but what it really is, is Tania and the chorus trying to decipher choreography for the Norwegian scene (a barn dance in North Dakota) from a DVD of the original Vancouver performance of Lillian Alling. It goes quite smoothly, with a lot of helpful input from our resident folk dance expert, Catriona. We are then asked to transfer it from the movement studio to the stage, and as a reward for our hard work Kelly lets us go earlier than usual. Never has a drink been more deserved, but first: laundry (it's important to have priorities).

* Broadsword by Jethro Tull (great song, even better album)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Oh, how I wish I could grow a beard

Day 17 - Wednesday

Morning: everyone gets to start at 10am with movement (our schedule has shifted from 9.30am-9.30pm to 10am-10.15pm), except myself and Jeremy. We are scheduled for a 2-hour costume fitting from 9.30, for which to be quite honest I barely wake up. Luckily it only lasts 65 minutes, so I have some spare time for breakfast and a look at Cosi before my next session, which is a short coaching with Kinza on Non siate ritrosi and the laughing trio from the aforementioned opera, which will be performed at this Saturday's concert in The Club. Then it's time for our traditional Lillian Alling chorus sing-along.

My one chance to see how I would look with facial hair

Afternoon: a select number of chorus members attends the Cosi staging rehearsal to fine tune the church scene and handover of military paraphernalia in the Bella vita militar reprise. After that it's time for my first singing lesson with Tracy Dahl. The lesson is fantastic, with quite a few issues highlighted and tips given and gratefully received. It'll be a great day for me when I can honestly say I use the same voice for high operetta repertoire as for the lower operatic stuff. In the meantime I'm happy with every small step taken on the path to vocal consistency.

Singing in offstage chorus from the auditorium

Evening: stagger through what we've staged in LA. The show is slowly coming together, we focus on ironing out kinks in the blocking (sorting out traffic and trying to find the perfect 'banana' - Kelly hates straight lines across stage).

Lillian Alling, the thief

I spend the rest of the evening in Maclab with a great group (Simon would call them 'the best group', in fact I'm sure he did, but he calls every group that and it's a bit of a running joke) before retiring to bed, only to wake up James and end up having a long late night chat.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Darkness breeds philosophy

Day 15 - Monday

Morning: we have a new movement teacher, Tania Alvarado, and also move to a new movement studio, one that comfortably fits all of us inside. The new sessions threatened to bring back pilates, but Tania's approach is very gentle, more of a warm-up than a work-out. After that we walk down to the Church to continue work on Oakalla Prison.

Both the afternoon and the evening session are in the Eric Harvie theatre, working through as much of Cosi as we possibly can. Like all first stage&piano / tech rehearsals it's slow going with lots of sitting around for the chorus. It's very tiring, but such is life: day after day in rooms without windows. I'd almost forgotten, what with all the stunning views from our rehearsal studios here.

Cosi onstage

There are rumours of another jazz gig tonight, but we go to the wrong building, and I'm too tired to move, so end up going to bed. Because I'm in both choruses, I miss both sessions with Christopher Hunt, our new acting teacher (this is a trend that will most probably continue).

Apart from tiredness, I'm feeling a sense of removal from my 'real life'. It's almost as if nothing exists past the mountains on the horizon. There's only these shows, this scenery, these people, this way of working. It takes actual effort to remember to reply to emails, text messages, etc. It seems odd now that I write it down (and you're probably thinking I'm making it up to add drama), but nevertheless it's a fact.

Day 16 - Tuesday

Morning: another refreshing warm-up, then I have another coaching on Cosi with Gordon, as we may be performing excerpts sometime next week with the understudy crew. It's nice to have some time to sing on my own, as opposed to chorus work (which is fun, but vocally tiring). It even affects my singing in the 30min chorus rehearsal we have directly after, like a 'soloist hangover'. Nobody mentions it, so who knows, maybe there's no point in getting hung up on this whole 'chorus blending' malarkey? Or perhaps there's a middle ground I've yet to discover.

Afternoon: Lillian Alling hits the set! In true form I claim the 'first fall onstage' trophy, with a display of over-energetic boxing in the Brooklyn Boys scene. We manage to work through a substantial chunk of Act 1, despite the staging being a bit trickier than that of Cosi (Kelly makes extensive use of the various levels onstage, as well as the stairs, lines of sight, etc). The most fun is had when the Telegraphers first scale their posts, I certainly don't envy them that scene anymore (well, secretly I do, but it's nice to be able to have a laugh).

The Telegraphers on their high rickety posts, senza safety harness

Evening: LA chorus vs the set, and we get to meet most of our supers, who will be intimidating us in scenes 2 (Ellis Island, where they will be border officials) and 9 (Oakalla Prison, they play the guards). Again, slow going due to the set and new people for Kelly to bring into the scenes, but the final product promises to be well worth it. I am however so tired that I pretty much head straight to bed.

'Oakalla, near Vancouver... but much closer to hell'

Monday, 1 August 2011

More career choices and JAZZ... man, the jazz!

Day 14 - Sunday

Today is quite laid back: no movement in the morning, no acting, rehearsals scheduled from 12.30 to 9pm (only). This is good, as my batteries still haven't quite recharged yet after last week (I'm not sure how I'll feel after the coming week, as it'll be 7 working days before our next day off).

Morning: while most people have all of the morning off, I have coaching with Gordon Gerrard on Cosi recit, the first 30 minutes of assisted work on it since our run through over a week ago. There's a lot still to be done and precious little time to do it in. One might argue that a spending a whole day hiking was a waste of time, but anyone saying that should realise that after five 12-hour days ones brain suffers a huge drop in efficiency. A day off a week is just about enough to keep insanity at bay.

Afternoon: we hit the stage! We have our first Cosi session in the theatre, on the (almost built) set. It is a big leap from walking on cardboard cutouts and taped lines, some of the platforms are over 8ft high, the stairs can be moved and there are enormous projection screens at the back. Coming back to the stairs, the aim of this session is for us to work through all the set changes in the opera, as they are the chorus' responsibility. I am assigned to the stage left stairs in the position of most responsibility, namely operating the lock/roll switch (and pushing as well of course). I'm already a bit paranoid about that switch, as the stairs roll quite easily, so if someone were to step from the top platform onto unlocked stairs, well... Like I said, I'm a bit paranoid about the switch.

The set is massive

All in all, it has been another opportunity to expand my growing palette of skills. Now I can add 'stagehand' to the list of jobs the Opera as Theatre program has prepared me for. I guess I can stop worrying about my voice, there's plenty to fall back on.

Evening: we revisit Scene 2 of Lillian Alling, and then move on to Scene 9 - Oakalla Prison Farm. Ellis Island is a bit less daunting now, musically I feel we're getting to grips with it, and Kelly makes sure we stay invested in the drama. Don't get me wrong, there's room for improvement on both counts (and Kelly would probably argue that actually they're not two separate counts, but one and the same), but I think that the fact that my panic about the music is dissolving is a good sign. Scene 9 moves quite briskly, it's a lot easier musically, and so far the blocking mostly involves digging potatoes out of the ground. Hmmm, I sense another prospective career...

On our way home we catch the last fanfares of the 1812 Overture performed by the Big Brass orchestra in the amphitheatre, complete with cannons (which I failed to capture in the photos unfortunately). A few of us go to Maclab for a pint, and we are joined by Les (LA conductor) for a very pleasant chat. After that it's back to my room to blog... or is it?


Frustrated by the uncooperative internet connection I head back to Maclab to take the edge off (I hate it when technology fails me), and thank God I decided to go! Apart from meeting up with other participants and enjoying some unbelievable antics from Xavier, there is also a drum kit and synthesiser set up, and the show starts soon after I arrive. At first it's just keyboard and trumpet. This soon gets augmented by a trombone. The trombonist promptly switches to trumpet, but lo and behold, another trumpeter jumps in to join the mix. That's a bit too much trumpet, so one of them decides to relieve the pianist... who then sits behind the drums and (failing to find any sticks) plays them with two pens. The guys keep swapping instruments and are then joined by another trombonist, a singer (who also plays trumpet), and a very large cherry tops off this jazzy cake: a sousaphone! I've left my camera in my room, but perhaps that's for the best, some things can't be recorded, they can only be experienced and remembered. This was by far the best night I've had since coming here.