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

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Is this a chamber orchestra which I see before me?

It's been a couple of days since term finished. I'm now back home in Poland and my body has decided some rest is long overdue, and has basically shut down. I'm not really surprised, I've felt some form of crash coming for a couple of weeks now, and I'm just glad I made it to the end of my singing commitments in fair shape.

One of these commitments, one in particular was a challenge, albeit an exciting one. Last Friday I sang in the RWCMD's Opera Gala with the college orchestra. It has to be said, this is probably a form of performing that I am the least used to: static concert with orchestra. It presents a unique set of problems, some of which I was ready for and some of which threw me in the first days of rehearsals.

First of all, the orchestra is behind you, in close proximity. The last time I dealt with a situation like that was performing in the Gate with Opera'r Ddraig and (to a lesser degree due to the size of the ensemble) also with the Rogue Opera Company. However there we had a fairly large stage space all to ourselves as the singers, and a set to navigate, and if anything it was difficult to hear the orchestra in places. With a pit orchestra, being onstage you usually hear very little of the orchestra, and that creates its own set of problems, especially with keeping time. In the college concert hall on the other hand, the sound from the not-so-chamber* orchestra was always close, and always on the edge of being overpowering (I'm speaking of my feeling onstage, not the received balance in the auditorium). That coupled with the acoustic of the hall (which I know to be excellent as far as the audience is concerned, but tricky for myself as a performer) meant that especially during first rehearsals of pieces, where the orchestra were reading the music, and sorting out balance seemed an unattainable dream, I was standing there, singing, but not getting anything back from the hall, hearing nothing but the orchestra. It's difficult to resist the temptation to try and 'give more' in that situation, but we have to, because let's face it: in a loudness war against 40 players, we don't stand a chance. So the only recourse is to stick to what worked in the piano rehearsals and trust that the conductor will sort out the balance somewhere down the line.

RWCMD Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Jones, rehearsing excerpts from Don Giovanni with Dorothea Herbert and Will Helliwell

The next awkward difficulty was with how static the performance had to be due to the limited ammount of space and also the necessity to constantly sing straight out. For someone who is used to a certain degree of 'acting' even in recital settings, this was a new-ish experience. After all, it's difficult to not let the music and text move you, or in a way even take over your body, and we all want to show that we're not just voices, but it's necessary to find a way to feed that into the confines of a concert performance.

Then we move on to the standard difficulty of moving from working with piano to getting used to the orchestral sound. This has a new dimension because of the proximity I mentioned before. On top the usual issues of lacking the piano's percussive element and the difference in texture, depending on where you stand, you lose half of what's going on. Standing by the first violins for the entire concert, I must admit I missed the cellos and double bass, especially as normally they would be my first point of reference as a baritone.

I guess the only advice that works when shifting to a new sound world is to stick to what you know and get on with it, trusting that those responsible for the big picture will get it right. Thankfully this concert was a success and the experience of working on it was a valuable one. I hope the orchestra enjoyed it as well, I know accompanying is not their favourite job. Not only is it seemingly less rewarding than other types of repertoire, but it's also incredibly difficult, and I have to say I was amazed at how well the players handled it. From my point of view, an orchestra accompanies much less than the piano. Because of the colour, richness, and (let's face it) volume, it feels more like they 'lift' the entire piece, with the voices just sitting lightly on top and being a bit of a finishing touch (soundwise, though we also have the text and story). I personally felt much more like a part of a bigger picture than like a soloist.

I apologise to any singers among my readers, this must all seem like I'm stating the obvious, but in case you hadn't noticed, that's what this blog is mostly about. Besides, it's good to remind oneself of the obvious every now and again.

* With regards to the size of the orchestra in relation to the form of the concert, a friend of mine upon walking into the hall to sit in on a rehearsal said: 'Holy <expletive>!'

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Auditions - a rant

It's been a busy term in college. Not only the standard workload of classes, ensembles to learn and assessments to complete, but several additional projects: Orpheus in the Underworld, concerts, collaborations with composers, managing Opera'r Ddraig's finances... but despite all that going on, what defined the term for me were the auditions. It seemed relentless, there always being an audition on the horizon, but now that I look back, I realise there were only 4 of them! Still, spaced out every 2 weeks or so, it was a pretty full-on 2 months worth.

I have to say, while they are in no way a pleasant experience, I do feel I'm doing better at them than last year (regardless of the outcomes - I'm still waiting for responses from all of them). I suppose it's mainly down to 3 things. Firstly, for the first time in my life I feel reasonably secure in my technique. There's plenty to improve, but at least these days it's consistent. Secondly, I have found much better audition repertoire for myself since I 'discovered' the top of my voice. Last year I was auditioning for opera courses with arias I had been singing for years, back when a top G was a feat (and not a guaranteed one at that!). I sang them fine, but they didn't show off any of the aspects of my voice that could be considered 'selling-points'. I couldn't have honestly said that I felt I sang them better than anyone else in at least some way (and if you don't feel you're bringing something exceptional to the table, then I'm pretty sure the panel won't feel it either). Finally, the amount of experience I've accumulated this past year (and let's face it, it's been a busy one: 6 operas, with substantial roles in 3 of them; first professional engagement with an opera company; vocal boot camp in the Rockies...) has significantly changed my outlook on the whole thing. I know I'm unlikely to succeed in any given audition, but I'm also able to think that I'm good enough to stand a fighting chance, and not to let the hopelessness of this profession get me down.

Why is it hopeless? I suppose that is putting it a bit harshly. It's just hard. These past months have given me a glimpse of the future, the dreaded 'year of fear', out of college, looking for work, living from audition to audition, probably working part-time to get the money for train fares... Then what is an audition? It's a day of stress, travel, preparation, all for a 5-15 minute window of opportunity. Before you get that opportunity however, you sit (or pace) in the waiting-room, surrounded by countless other singers, some of whom will (probably unknowingly) say things that intimidate or put you off. That is if there is even a waiting-room! I recently did an audition where there was only a freezing corridor. Then you enter a room, and your first glimpse of it is always a surprise. It's never what you expect it to be (listening through the door to the 3 or 4 singers before you, all of whom are of course amazing!), and neither is the panel. Even though they spent 10 minutes chatting to the person before you, they barely give you a single glance. Or maybe they're so far away you can't make out their faces. Or maybe they're so friendly you're taken aback. Hopefully you've had some time for a chat with the accompanist about tempi, odd corners, etc, but it's only now that you'll hear him play your intro (always a scary moment, especially if it goes horribly wrong). Fingers crossed that you won't be constantly worrying about the piano. The singing bit is the easiest part, it always seems to be just a bit worse than in practice, which is fine. Then a short chat with the panel, hoping they won't ask off-putting questions like 'So what are you doing about the middle of your voice?' (and I thought I had sung quite well at that one!). Or perhaps no chat, just a 'Thank you, bye!' (what did I do wrong?). Then back on the Tube, train, hours to run the whole thing back in your mind (even though it all goes fuzzy the moment you step out of the audition room) and try and think why the panel behaved the way they did and what to change for the next audition.

And how many of these will it take before you get a break? How much will you end up spending on travel? How much is the stress going to ruin your health? Why are you even doing this in the first place?

Well, the answer to that is: Because once you start rehearsing, you will be reminded that this is the best job in the world, and when you step onto the stage, it just gets better!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Dare to do more! - Natalie Dessay

We'd known since last year that she was coming, but it seemed too good to be true. Even as plans changed at the last minute I found myself worrying that it might not actually happen... but it did! Today we were visited by Natalie Dessay, who spent half a day working with our sopranos (and Joe). Originally we were all to have had the chance to sing to her, however circumstances forced her to shorten her visit, which was a shame, but still, we got a rare opportunity handed to us!

She insisted that the class be closed and straight away said she was probably more nervous than we were. All nerves were soon forgotten once she started working with our girls though. I'm not going to write a long spiel about what an incredible person she is, but I will confess to being surprised at how friendly, down-to-earth, genuine, unassuming and warm she was. Watching her work just put a smile on my face, and the fact that every now and again we were treated to her singing was an added bonus! In fact, everyone left the room with huge grins on their faces :) (or should I say: :D )

I could go on about how amazing it all was, but I don't want to come over as star-struck (even though I admit I actually am!). I'd rather post some quotes from her that I jotted down during the class. Perhaps some of you will find them helpful / insightful or funny, I will personally probably find myself revisiting this post to refresh my memory of a great day.

The one thing that she said to almost everybody, referring to many different aspects of performance, was this: Dare to do more! (Dare to be pianississimo; Dare to move; Dare to do it faster; Dare to take more time; Dare to use more ornamentation; etc) I think that sums up what I felt her approach is all about: never holding back anything, infusing every word, every note with intention and energy, heightening every contrast to the extreme, etc. Cliches? Perhaps, but hey!, if it works, it works.

Accompany yourself with your body! - on posture/stillness, not getting stuck and allowing your body freedom to move
You can't think and plan to the end, because you're not supposed to know what you're going to say. - on recit
If you have an aria on 1 idea, you have to work harder to add contrast to keep the audience surprised.
It's easier to sing if you're in control of the orchestra, than when being controlled by the orchestra. - on daring to 'drive' the piece rather than sit in the back seat
Using vibrato protects the voice. - on vocal hygiene, she also was an advocate of as round a sound as possible without losing clarity of text
If you want us to follow the text, you have to build it for us by using the punctuation.
Coloratura is not a question of voice, it's a question of articulation and precision.
In French music almost NEVER portamento. And even when it's written... think again!
Dare to go as far as possible with interpretation, even if you don't keep it when you go to perform. - on daring to deliberately sing flat and 'ugly', or just to not sing on ahs and ohs
Because you're able to do it so fast... maybe a bit faster? - on coloratura
Dare to add everything you want... but in style! - on ornamentation
Do you have a cadenza for this? (...) I don't like it, it's too simple.
Invent something that I wouldn't invent myself. - again on ornamentation, which allows you to show your personality and imagination
What is better for your voice, to go up, or to go down? Up? Well then go up! - on cadenzas

And finally our favourite quote, when working on Manon's aria Adieu, notre petite table:
I know it's written forte, but I think that's stupid. I called Massenet on the phone and told him it can't be like that.

The best thing about today was that everyone enjoyed it, including Natalie Dessay. In fact, there's another quote: Now that I see you are good, I will come back, which was a joke of course, but she mentioned returning a couple of times, so fingers crossed!

Photos by Kiran Ridley