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

Thursday, 27 October 2011

What is it about song...?

Just to air my brain out after last night's song recital with my year group in college, I thought I'd jot down some thoughts I had on the differences between performing lieder and opera.

I don't get to perform songs as much as I'd like to, especially the more intense ones, in a proper lieder recital setting. Yesterday's affair wasn't in fact that kind of setting, as it was in the RWCMD Foyer, a fairly traffic-heavy venue. It's amazing, however, how a performance of intimate songs can transform such a busy space into an oasis of calm for an hour, especially as some of the audience were just passing through and actually stopped to listen.

I think that's the magic of lieder: they draw the audience in, rather than emote in an over the top way, as opera (arguably) does. An aria tends to impress more than move people. Performing song therefore feels completely different to me, than performing opera. In fact, while I do enjoy concerts of operatic excerpts with piano, compared with a recital it feels like an incomplete art form. One can (and should always aim to) perform a song to its full potential in a recital, whereas opera without production values and an orchestra will only ever be a pale facsimile.

Singing songs, I also feel much more exposed and vulnerable. The relationship between singer and pianist has to be that of shared thought, emotion and musicality, and the slightest disagreement instantly comes across and kicks us back into the real world. But if it works, the feeling is almost like creating a new reality, conveying the full impact of a feeling or significant moment. The actual performance space melts away, and all that's left is a feeling that the audience have been invited to inhabit the performers' shared mind. Looking across the audience after my colleagues finished their songs, I could see many glazed looks, but not out of disinterest, but from pure focus.

It was a fantastic evening, a joy to perform and then listen to everyone else. I must also say that it felt great to present the audience with Polish repertoire and see that Karłowicz and Paderewski could give the likes Wolf or Tchaikovsky a run for their money.

Also, I can't wait to do Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with orchestra in May!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Where is the bile in classical music?

OK, so this is not a singing-related post, but these thoughts do (I think) inform me as an artist...

A friend told me recently that as said artists we should expose ourselves to as diverse a spectrum of art as we can. In fact, it's a line I hear a lot, but I'm afraid that what with my workload, I tend to revert to my tried and tested musical, theatrical and cinematographic tastes when I do have the time to relax. Luckily (or unluckily?) these are pretty far removed from opera, or in fact classical music in general. The music I listen to, specifically, helps me relax, clear my mind, or process my thoughts and feelings in a way that I can't seem to achieve with classical music. I need lyrics, but when listening to vocal music performed by classically trained singers, I tend to analyse more than listen. So for myself, my choice of listening music works well.

I recently had the rare chance of seeing one of my favourite bands perform live. This allowed me to see how they affect not just me, but other people. Also, a live performance carries a different impact. I know who's playing, but at a rock concert I don't know what they will perform, how I will react to the song choices, how the energy in the hall will flow...

Listening to New Model Army perform, seeing them sweep up the crowd with their fire and passion (impressive, with the band being in its 31st year of existence), I got to thinking about what emotions and experiences this music taps into, to move all these people, myself included, to a state of euphoria that at times borders on frenzy. And how does that relate to what I do? Will I ever reach an audience on that level, or is the music I perform too far removed, too irrelevant to pluck that string in a listener's mind or heart?

NMA's music draws on some very powerful emotions, with the lyrics quite often bordering on poetry (or at least that's what I like to fool myself into thinking). Disillusion, frustration, a sense of loss, futility, anger, resentment... and yet throughout all this negativity, a constant thread of appreciation and marvel at the beauty of life. Bilious music, often yes, but very human, and therefore moving and strengthening.

What emotions does opera tap into? Is there anything in operatic or song repertoire that draws on similar themes? What are the angry operas? The songs of revolution? The classical music of outrage? Or is it that through the sheer complication of form that composers cannot hope to reach those layers of people's minds in the same way as a self-taught musician from Bradford?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Banff OAT 2012

The Banff Centre's Opera as Theatre program information has been announced, and singers can now apply.

The repertoire choices for next year look very interesting: Mozart's Don Giovanni and The Secret Garden by Stephen McNeff. Glancing at the information provided on the Banff Centre's website, I can already see some changes from last year:
- the two productions will not share the same stage, but be in separate theatres
- the role of the chorus seems to be reduced to singing in just Don Giovanni, which is not a huge chorus part, as opposed to last year's Lillian Alling in which the chorus got to perform some very exciting scenes, and played a big part in the overall drama of the piece

The implication seems to be that roles will be single-cast (otherwise why the need for understudies?), which is a continuation from this year, although hopefully will be implemented differently, drawing from our experiences and feedback (for those new to my blog, a pretty much full account of OAT 2011 can be found in my posts from July and August, with a summing up here).

All in all I'd say it's an exciting choice of repertoire, and I'm adding this one to my list of places to audition for Summer 2012...

Link to the OAT 2012 website (with audition dates, application forms, etc): here

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

'Me? My name's Aristaeus, a humble personal trainer...'

Calls had been coming in over the last couple of days, warning me that it was more than likely I would be going on in the near future. I suppose I'm rather thankful for these calls, for although they did give a rather stressful quality to the end of the college week, at least I had the opportunity to make sure I was as prepared as I could be, should the summons to perform come. It did come, on Friday evening, with the show being the next day in Linlithgow. I got sent details of my flight from Bristol, booked my train and bus tickets for the morning, and set about stressing myself within inches of a nervous breakdown. This anxiety-fest was rudely interrupted by a visit from my former flatmate, who was visiting Cardiff and popped in for a catch-up. I was very thankful for the distraction, and after driving her home I somehow managed to fall asleep reasonably early.

Saturday, October 1st

I wake up at 6am, half an hour before I'd set my alarm to wake me. On the journey I decide to keep myself distracted rather than obsessively run my lines over and over. I rationalize this by telling myself that overdoing it might just fool me into thinking I don't know the lines and need even more time to prepare. Instead I'd rather assume that I'm secure, and any misgivings I may have are related to normal stress, rather than lack of preparation.

I am picked up at the airport by the company manager, and we drive to pick up the assistant director, buy some lunch and then we're off to Linlithgow. After settling into the venue, grabbing a much needed coffee, myself and the director set about going through my scenes at about 2pm. A couple of notes, a change or two, but we get through it in good time, and by 3.30 I'm released for lunch before the rest of the cast arrive at 4.30. We then all do a dialogue run, which the principals whizz through (in a double speed fast forwarded cassette tape fashion) only slowing down to do my bits at normal speed. They have good fun with it too, trying to trip each other up, taking advantage of the rehearsal being in a music room (the more obvious puns accented by a ba-dum-dum-tshhhh on the drum kit) and the jovial atmosphere helps me loosen up a bit.

At this point I have to say how grateful I am to the cast and crew for being marvelously supportive and helpful. I instantly felt I was part of the team and that the team was there to catch me should I stumble, but on the other hand had a lot of faith in me as well. Thankfully the dialogue run and short onstage rehearsal (dances, choreographed scenes and those with technical issues) go well and while not being overly confident I felt sure that although I may not give the performance of my life, I won't be an obstacle for the others and won't derail the show. I should also mention that I got heaps of support by way of email, facebook and text messages, all of which made me feel better about the whole thing, thank you all!

We wrap up rehearsal at 6.30 and the cast relax around the buffet that has been provided. I can't bear the sight of food, so focus on doing my pre-show pacing routine. Having been on my feet for over 12 hours I can feel the tiredness creeping in behind my eyes, but the mounting adrenaline is enough to keep it at bay, and come showtime I'm sure to be buzzing with excitement. Strangely, the director seems more confident than I do, and she decides to watch the show from the audience, rather than stay in the wings to be ready to prompt me, should I freeze. Oh well, I guess I have no choice but to be perfect...

Perfection is not achieved, of course, but the show goes well, with only one moment of slowing down to remember the opening lines of my monologue and one near-trip-up backing up upstage and forgetting there's a step there. These moments may stick out in my mind as MISTAKES, but as is often the case, they probably didn't read half as strongly as I fear they did. I also need to rethink my hydration strategy before my first scene, as I was not quite prepared for the heat and dryness onstage, which is not a worry one wants to be dealing with in an aria. Oh well, I'll know next time.

In the end it was great fun!

Also, I had let a couple of friends from Edinburgh know I was performing and they managed to make it, so it was lovely to get to chat to them after the show. Once they left, however, tiredness hit me like a sledgehammer. I tried hard to keep myself going at the post-show reception (wine helped) and the bus journey to Glasgow (beer just made me more tired), and after checking in to my hotel room and having a shower I was almost dead. I was however dying to tell someone about the day, and once I finally got the chance, recounting all the excitement over Skype just got me buzzing again, so it took me another hour or so to wind down. All in all, a 20-hour day, tiring, stressful, but exciting and rewarding. It is a shame about the circumstances which led to me performing (and I deliberately leave these out), but such is the job, and it's one I probably couldn't do if I wasn't excited and happy to be given the chance to perform...

Sunday, October 2nd

The day off. I'm informed I will be needed until Tuesday morning, with the decision about the show on Tuesday night still being contemplated by management. I meet up with Catriona to have a catch-up and yet again reminisce about Banff (one thing we both agree on, after the Opera as Theatre schedules, college, or any production schedules are going to feel like a walk in the park).

I then try and learn some new music for college, but my brain refuses to cooperate. My body also makes it clear that it would rather nap than look at music. In all fairness, I probably deserve to take it easy after yesterday, so I relax into a lazy day of window shopping, good food and crappy films on demand in my hotel room.

By the way, for anyone visiting Glasgow, I highly recommend the CitizenM hotel. Very modern, with a designer feel to it, comfortable and reasonably priced.

The high-tech hotel room, with your choice of light colour for the shower cabin

Monday, October 3rd

We head out for Stirling at 2pm and spend the afternoon and evening rehearsing with the orchestra. Up until now the shows had been with piano accompaniment, but the next 3 are with reduced orchestra, so the cast have to adjust and get used to performing with a conductor rather than the immensely flexible and forgiving pianists. The rehearsals go well and everyone is looking forward to performing in the MacRobert Centre, a nice modern venue with enormous wing space and fairly cool by theatre standards (Linlithgow was like a sauna in comparison). I say everyone is looking forward to tomorrow, I have as yet not received a clear indication as to whether or not I will be performing.

Tuesday, October 4th

In the morning the company manager informs me that I will indeed be going on tonight. I celebrate with a steak lunch and before I know it it's bus, venue, dialogue call, dance call, beginners' call, first half, interval, hell, and we're done. It's less stressful and much more fun this time round, and it's pretty amazing that I got to perform with the orchestra. It was a fantastic experience and I got to work with an outstanding group of people, to whom I'm grateful for all the support, encouragement and (to try out an Irish term) good craic.


My Scottish Opera debut behind me, Wednesday sees me fly back to Cardiff. It all seems a bit surreal now that I look back on it... better write it up before it feels any more like a dream that never happened.