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

Saturday, 1 December 2012

So, what are your plans after college?

Last night I sang in a fund-raising concert in Abergavenny with some of my first-year colleagues from college. It was a great concert, with a responsive audience, a joy to perform, despite the church being freezing cold. Afterwards, we stayed for a glass of wine at the post-concert reception, where we had a chance to talk to the audience a bit. Apart from some heartfelt and heartwarming expressions of appreciation, quite a few of them displayed an interest in my future plans (I'm sure my colleagues got asked similar questions, most post-concert conversations tend to go along the same lines). It's a difficult one for singers to answer, at least when you're at the stage I'm at.

Does one take the optimistic route and say: well, hopefully I'll get into an opera studio next year and that'll be a spring-board into the profession, and before you know it I'll be the envy of all my friends... Personally, I don't tend to take that route, not because I don't think I'm good enough to get into an opera studio, or to get work, but because I know that once you reach a certain level it's not about being 'good enough' any more, it's about being who they want or need. And since I can only ever be myself, albeit the best I can be at any given time, I have to be ready for the fact that I may not be the one They (in the conspiratorial sense) want. A phrase to describe the attitude I try to take is: hopeful, but not expectant.

Thankfully, there's a straightforward and truthful answer I can give when asked about what's next. I can say I have work lined up for the Summer, which is very exciting, and go on to explain what that is, all the while keeping my fingers crossed behind my back that they don't ask about what happens after that. I was lucky with a few people, but then got pressed into revealing the truth:

There is only one plan, and it's a vague and scary one: audition as much as I can, and hope for success. At the BYO Anniversary Concert, Rosemary Joshua (world-class soprano) told us that for every 10 auditions she did as a young singer, she got only 1 offer. It seems the best approach in this case is to maximise your chances by lining up as many auditions as possible. There are however limiting factors, the most obvious of which is money (you'd have though that the tuition fees would be the end of it).

I see the twitter feed of one of my friends, who graduated this July, and since graduating she seems to have flown to New York 2 or 3 times, been to Germany even more times and still found time to visit Italy and Austria. All of this just for auditions (for companies, agents and competitions). Good for her! Except that not everyone... hardly anyone, in fact, can afford to do that. I haven't done the math properly, but it seems to be an expenditure of thousands of pounds pursuing contracts and prizes worth less than these travel costs.

Of course, success breeds more success, so I'm sure that once her travels pay off, there will be more work out of it afterwards, and it'll get easier to recoup the initial investment. Luckily she doesn't have to worry about it too much, but I know some people take out a loan to do what she does, and that is scary.

OK, I'm sounding a bit pessimistic now, and I've been getting complaints from readers ;) Guys, it's not all bad. There are plenty of opportunities locally, so we don't have to go jet-setting around the globe. And Rosemary Joshua said that yes, it's tough, and you have to learn not to take rejection personally, but performing more than makes up for it, because what we do is fantastic: we get to live and breathe music every day, we get to create worlds for others to escape to for a few hours. I've said it before, I can't see myself doing anything else. Whatever scale I end up working at, I love what I do and I will be happy doing it.

There's no point taking rejection personally (got one the other day as a matter of fact), because when you think about it, you aren't the only one they've not chosen. It's not personal! You're one of dozens, sometimes hundreds. What you can take personally is acceptance. I was given a vote of confidence by an opera festival to cover for them and sing chorus, and they obviously believe I can do it. This time last year I had just finished a contract with Scottish Opera, who also placed their confidence in me. I'm not saying this to big myself up, but to put things in perspective. I have successes to be proud of, which validate my continued pursuit of this career. I'm a better singer now than last year, and even the singer I was then was getting work. Surely it's not all doom and gloom, then.

So what are my plans after college? Auditions and patience.

Monday, 19 November 2012

We're all the same... in a good way. BYO 25th Anniversary

It's a small world, and as much as I hate starting a post with a cliché, this particular one was a sort of running theme for yesterday's 25th Anniversary Concert from British Youth Opera. I have to say, I've never been so glad of 8 hours spent on a bus (this is both ways, thankfully, and I am writing this courtesy of on-board wifi, so at least it's a semi-productive journey). While my role in the concert was only to slightly bolster the already formidable singing forces of BYO alumni in the final number, it was great to be in the audience and see the remarkable cross-section of singers who have come through this institution. You can imagine how interesting it was to hear soloist ranging from well-established singers I've seen and admired on the operatic stage like Rosemary Joshua (who was a principal in the very first BYO production in 1987) and David Kempster, through young professionals who are already making a mark as Young Artists at the UK's leading opera companies, all the way to this year's BYO principals, some of whom are still in college, and singers on every imaginable level of professional development in between.

For someone like me, reading the biographies in the programme and watching all these people perform was like looking at a road map of the singing world and all the routes one can take to get to where we ultimately want to be. Yes, they all had BYO in common, and the National Opera Studio figures in quite a few bios, but not all of them, and yet here they all are, with roles at major companies under their belt. It's comforting to think that it won't be the end of the world if I don't get into NOS, because there are other ways to success, all it takes is determination. It's funny how hung up we 'youngsters' can get on NOS and Glyndebourne Chorus. Yes, they're great, but there's a whole world of possibilities, so maybe we can afford to give ourselves a break and not act like failing at plan A is the end our careers (even before they've begun).

Another perk of being at the event as a BYO alumnus was backstage access and seeing how familiar everyone is together, regardless of age or standing. Maybe that's something that the BYO atmosphere evokes particularly well, but luckily it's not the only place I've experienced it. You can feel the unspoken words hanging in the air: we're all the same, really... in a good way. Yes, the small world means we are sort of competing, although that's not really the right word, I think a better way of putting is that we're all trying to find a place for ourselves in a slightly cramped space. Luckily most of us are polite people who don't push or shove and are ready to support someone who's stumbled.

Talking in the pub after, you don't even really think to yourself that the last place you saw the person opposite was the Coliseum stage or in an article about the Jette-Parker programme and how you wish that you get to do the same things... Well, obviously I've thought that ;) but luckily not at the pub, as most of these people don't provoke such thoughts, because they're just really nice. And when you do think about it, it's more about being glad that good things happen to good people and that since we're all not really that different, that means we all have a chance to find our place. And when we do, we'll keep running into our friends from back when it all started.

Once again, BYO has managed to give me a nice dose of optimism, and whether that's by design or inadvertently, I'm very grateful and glad I made the trip. It shows the company isn't just about the principal 'stars' but actually does something positive for everyone involved. Looking forward to the 50th!

Monday, 12 November 2012

We are trained professionals who do a job of work

We had a visit today from Simon Curtis of Equity (National & Regional Organiser, Wales & South West England), who came to talk to us about what Equity has to offer us as students and soon to be young professionals, but also to answer any questions we had about the profession, drawing on his extensive experience not only as a union representative, but also a professional singer for many years.

I won't go into detail about what Equity does, the website speaks for itself. I will just quickly say what struck us most. We are all young(ish), unestablished singers, still students despite years of prior study, experience and dedication to our chosen art form. As such, we are all trying to make it into the professional world, and in order to progress along the road to this goal we are very eager to add points to our CV by learning and performing new repertoire. This often leads us to think of performing as an end in and of itself, and any money attached to it as a bonus, letting us put the performance in the 'professional' part of our CV. We are grateful for our opportunities, as we know the competition is fierce in our little world, and with arts funding being cut left, right and centre every paid job is a win.

Or is it? It is understandalbe that younger, less experienced singers will be paid less than seasoned professionals. Smaller companies pay less than the world class ones, fine. But at some point the numbers stop adding up. Examples were given in the meeting: a Requiem for £50, a six week rehearsal period for an all-inclusive fee of £300, some singers being paid £100 while the colleague standing next to them was receiving £900. With the explanation always being: 'but it's paid work'. Is it really?

I have nothing against the concept of pay-to-sing. At least it's what it says on the tin and you usually get some training in the process. I have attended many a training programme and paid for it, either fees or expenses, and felt that I got a lot out of it and that it was worth it. But this pretend-to-be-paid-for-singing is a bit demeaning, and I have caught myself thinking: with the amount of preparation I put into this concert, the travel money, and day spent rehearsing and performing, I can't even honestly say I've made minimum wage. The worst thing is, if I don't take the gig, there's a long queue of young desperate singers who will, and I end up slightly poorer sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and waiting for success to come a'knockin'.

When do you say 'enough'? When do you stop thinking you should be grateful for the opportunity and start thinking you deserve to be paid for your work? With so little of the properly paid work out there, there is always someone willing to undercut to get a foot in the door, so we all play this slightly crooked game. Equity can't solve this problem, neither can we really, we can just count it all out for ourselves and pick a moment when we can stop taking the little jobs and freebies, or start asking for more and risk losing those engagements. It's just interesting to stop and think that we are in fact highly trained skilled and talented people working for pittance.

And as a footnote: you'll notice that on the list of things I counted as going into a typical gig (prep, time, travel) I didn't list rent, tax, etc. Not to mention the money it took to train at college... or something towards a pension... children? Well, lets not get ahead of ourselves, but still, putting these little gigs into a real world perspective is, well, a bit depressing. But it's what we do, and in terms of performing, we do it gladly. But it'll have to stop eventually, either by people starting to pay us for the work we do, or by us finding real jobs...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Carrying opera kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat

To those confused by the title, it's a Terry Pratchett reference, but worry not, the post is not about the Discworld novels.

We had a visit in college today from Music Theatre Wales, who led a workshop for student singers and composers. They are currently touring with an operatic double-bill of new commissions: In the Locked Room by Huw Watkins to a libretto by David Harsent and Ghost Patrol by Stuart MacRae with words by Louise Welsh. The workshop was meant to give us an insight into the process of putting on a contemporary opera, the challenges faced by singers, conductors, directors, how these are overcome and what to watch out for if you've never worked on new music before. We got to hear from the cast of In the Locked Room about their backgrounds, how they set about learning the opera and what the rehearsal process involved (this reminded me of my own thoughts on the subject from what feels like ages ago). We then heard a scene from the piece, had a go at singing it ourselves as a choir, and then we heard the dreaded words: any volunteers?

Inspired by my flatmate, who has prescribed herself a 'mentality-adjustment programme' consisting of doing something she knows is good for her, but that she doesn't want to do (if it were me this would probably stop at eating more vegetables, but she's being a lot more inventive), I raised my hand and steeled myself for what is a personal nightmare for me: sight-reading in front of my peers. It's bad enough in a rehearsal room (which I avoid like the plague by preparing well in advance so as to avoid embarrassment), where everyone is focussing on their own parts, but in front of an audience... of singers... Suffice it to say that, not being a natural or schooled sight-reader, my technique pretty much goes out of the window when I find myself confronted with what suddenly become meaningless dots on a page, so when I say I think I didn't make too big a fool of myself, we can put the whole experience firmly in the 'win' column.

Of course, this wasn't a masterclass in sight-reading, but rather a super-condensed look at the process of learning and interpreting contemporary music. After dealing with the dots and the words, we were guided through the scene by the actual cast, looking at character, and also all the other musical clues that the composer put in the score and how they relate to the drama of the piece.

The general observations and thoughts that I took out of the session, were these:
- Never take any marking the composer puts on the page for granted.
- So as not to get overwhelmed trying to get everything at once, start by dealing with the text in rhythm (most of the cast said this was their starting point).
- Before accepting a role in a contemporary piece, make sure you can sing it. Difficult, as there is no fach system to help (or hinder, but I won't get into a discussion of fach now), the vocal score doesn't give you many clues on the orchestration you'll be dealing with, and depending on your musicianship, a glance at the score may not be enough to imagine what you're getting yourself into. The one thing you can judge at a glance is range and tessitura, and perhaps it's best to err on the side of caution when making a decision.
- While the musical challenges may be hard, new works take away some of the pressures we as performers put on ourselves, such as comparisons with other singers. More often than not no one will have heard this music performed by anyone else, so you don't have to compete with the Callases, Kaufmanns, Bryns and Thomas Allens of this world. 
- Performing contemporary music forces you to up your game in terms of your musicianship, because the music is very often difficult and requires more constant focus than core repertoire, which we are all subliminally familiar with to a certain degree. 
- It also makes you approach standard repertoire differently, freeing you up to look at it as a piece of new music and go back to the bare bones of it, ignoring the weight of preconceptions we naturally form based on the performances we see and recordings we listen to.

Encouraging us to try and perform contemporary works whenever we can, the artists of MTW said that it is our responsibility as performers to carry music and opera forward into the future, by introducing it to audiences, but also by giving new composers the opportunity to create and hone their craft. I've often thought that modern 'classical' music is a bit hit and miss, but if no one performs it or tries new pieces out, how are we to ever discover the hits? And every miss is an opportunity to take aim again...

It was fantastic that the cast all stayed behind for a coffee and chatted with us so openly. It was nice to hear that these people we see on stage performing this often fiendishly difficult music aren't all freaks with an inhuman ability to learn it all in a split second (though I'm sure there are musicians like that out there), but they're just like us: STEP 1 - find a coach and get them to notebash with you. 

It seems obvious, but actually isn't. A friend I was walking home with actually said that hearing them say that they all had help learning the music relieved a lot of her own self-doubt about undertaking contemporary music projects. I'm sure she's not the only one who shed a negative preconception this afternoon, which means that the workshop can also go in the 'win' column.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the double-bill tomorrow night!

On a side note, I'm always on the lookout for new music to listen to (most often I end up steering clear of classical music, so if that's your area of interest, stop reading now), and it seems strange that I bought an album today that contains a song about the nature of music and how dumbed-down and stagnant it's becoming, which accompanied my journey into college for a workshop which dealt with innovative music and carrying our art forward. I love those kinds of coincidences, which is why to make this post a complete reflection of my state of mind, I give you: 

The Sound of Muzak by Porcupine Tree 
(the sound quality isn't brilliant here, but the video has subtitles)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Auditions: an attempt at rational thought

It's that time of year again: audition season! I made my views on the joys of auditioning known round about this time last year. I more or less stand by that, auditions still aren't my idea of a pleasant experience, but oddly enough it's the lack of auditions I'm finding hard to deal with right now. OK, I'm exaggerating, I am auditioning, I shouldn't complain, and yet...

For one thing, I appreciate that administrators must be receiving hundreds of emails and letters with CVs, and it's a logistical nightmare, but not hearing back after sending an application often has me and my colleagues walking around rather on edge. For those who don't know, auditions come up on quite short notice, so it's difficult to plan anything in Autumn (I suppose this applies primarily to the UK), because, eager as we are to please and not make waves, we feel we have to be ready to drop everything to go for that once in a lifetime opportunity (dozens of them there may be, but we all pretend that each is the one and only). You know that feeling you have when you know there's something you have to do, someone you should call to arrange something and it keeps getting put of through forgetfulness, busy dial tones, etc? It's like that, but there's nothing you can do about it, because the ball's not in your court. It's actually nice in a way to get the otherwise dreaded 'there have been so many applications that we cannot offer you an audition at this time' email, because you can tick something off the list and get on with life.

But then there's that one audition you were sort of planning your life around (with all the caveats of 'I probably won't get it' etc) and you get that very email. They heard you last year, they know you're a student (says so on your CV), so even though they didn't want you then, it's safe to assume you're not quite the same singer now... But no, actually the policy is: if they've heard you, they won't want to hear you again for a couple of years, they'd rather hear some new voices. Fair enough, but I didn't know that last year! Why did no one warn me? Why isn't this common knowledge, and if it is, why didn't I get the memo? I wouldn't have gone for it, I wasn't desperate for the job, I wanted to give it a good shot to get used to high profile auditions... Mistake. I wish someone had warned me, or at least told me to think about that being a possible outcome. To the singers out there: ask questions about this kind of thing, there are some golden nuggets of information and insight that your coaches won't divulge unless pressed. I understand, they are there to build your confidence (and improve your skills, of course), not second guess you. Still...

If I'm coming across as bitter, I'll beg you not to misunderstand. I'm still learning, and I have learnt that lesson now, and I'm glad. It took me some detective work to find out why I was denied the opportunity to even try, and now that I have my answer, I feel better. I am a better singer now than last year, and would have had a better chance than back then. But next year I plan to be even better, and you know what? I can wait. Not an easy three words for me to say, but I got there in the end.

I do have one more thing to add in terms of auditions, just based on my ever growing experience and conversations with coaches and colleagues I have had since last year. It's a thought that's not even specifically about auditions, but it's been a minor revelation for me (obvious as it my seem). As singers we are taught primarily to perform. That means sing, but also understand, interpret, act, etc. We are trained to deliver a product every time we perform, and that product is targeted at an audience. We are also told to treat auditions like a performance. That's all well and good, but is perhaps misleading in a way. Here's my revelation:

An audience, a conductor or director (the people you work with to create a show) and an audition panel - they are all looking for something different! You're free to disagree, because the differences are subtle, and the two latter parties are indeed ultimately trying to cater for the former, but here's my reasoning. Audiences are generally not interested in the mechanics of achieving what they are witnessing, they either enjoy it or not, and what they receive is the Performance. That's what they are looking for: the Performance, which is what we are trained to deliver. Creatives (MDs, conductors, directors, etc) are interested in the mechanics of achieving the Performance. They aren't always present at auditions and work with the people they're given. What they are looking for is a smooth, pleasant, productive Attitude from their singers. That means the capacity to perform, of course, to interpret, but also to be flexible and go with their vision. Our own personal Performance is most often just a starting point from which the final product will evolve.

What are audition panels looking for then? What can they hope to find in 5 minutes? Can they find a Performance? No, because that's what the creatives will be in charge of. Well, they can't really judge your Attitude, because they're not going to work with you, so as long as you don't have a bad reputation, they will assume on the basis of your experience that you can deliver in that respect. They're looking for a Voice. A nice noise. Maybe that's not all, but it's the main thing. You can give the Performance of a lifetime and not get anything, perhaps because you distracted from your Voice by overdoing the other elements of performing. Some people do deal with stress by relying on the character, thereby becoming someone else in a way. All well and good, but chances are the character isn't as good a singer as you are, gets carried away by emotion, which creeps into the Voice... Or something.

It's an odd thought, as a performer: for these five minutes I have to switch off or dial down a few of the things that I know are my strengths, not give all that I can give, because perhaps they might not want all of it (I suppose too large a menu makes it difficult to choose what you feel like eating and makes it easy to miss the chef's speciality), and just give them what they can't go without: a quality noise. Then trust them to know you can give so much more... I find that scary, perhaps because I don't quite believe my voice is enough on its own. But it has to be. Scary.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Problem Solver... or at least Identifier.

RWCMD singers' Facebook and Twitter accounts went a bit mad yesterday, raving about Paul Farrington's lecture, which sadly I had to miss. It did pique my interest for my session with him today. I had heard him called a 'vocal trouble-shooter' with a highly scientific approach to singing, and that the one-to-ones were a bit quirky and involved various accessories. With this in mind I was almost ready to feel self-conscious this morning, as my session was a public one. Luckily he was very easy-going and once he had uttered the words What I'm about to insert between your bum-cheeks is just my hip bone, so don't worry, we were well on our way to a nice working atmosphere.

I'll put a list of Paul's thoughts, quotes, exercises and suggestions at the bottom of this post (as usual), but for now I'd just like to describe the incident that stuck out most in my mind, and I think it's fair to say that others who were there would agree that it was tantamount to a mini-miracle. Upon 'diagnosing' a colleague of mine with tension in the root of the tongue, after an attempt at releasing it through exercises, Paul proceeded to actual physical manipulation. It looked like a painful massage on the front of the neck and under the jaw, with a fair bit of force applied. I'm sure you're wondering, yes, he is trained in the methodology of manipulation and no, you can't try it at home. Did it work? The colleague in question opened his mouth and the voice was barely recognisable! Well, that may be going a bit far, but trust me, the difference was collosal.

So is Paul Farrington a miracle-worker with a voice-altering touch? Oh, if only it was that simple. The example I described was only a release of tension, a taste of what can be achieved in a world where all tongues are perfectly relaxed, but after a phrase or two the tension did start creeping back in. It was however a fascinating experience to see and work with someone who not only hears that something is wrong in the voice, or can be improved, but who can also describe what it is exactly, down to the names of the muscles involved, and also has ideas on how to fix it that even utilise elements of physiotherapy.

If you want to find out more about what Paul does, have a look at his website:

Here are the thoughts, quotes, etc, in no particular order:

When he thought I was pumping too much air into my voice, he had me hum and sing the aria into a CPR-mask. It also took away any element of self-listening.

The jaw should drop only as far as it can go forward. Quite a few of us had to give the audience our best Bruce Forsyth impressions. If the jaw goes down further it goes back, putting pressure on all sorts of things that should remain pressure-free. You can get a taste for when this happens by jamming your fingers between your ears and jaw (careful, it can hurt if you're tigt there, but if you get your jaw forward, two fingers should be able to fit).

A whiney voice with some badly acted crying and sobbing creates a great space for singing high and yet keeping a forward placement.

To check if you have tension in the root of the tongue, try performing your piece making a farting noise. You can only keep it going with a loose tongue.

If you have tension there, try singing with your jaw resting on a hard surface (we had a Steinway in the hall, you may have to make do with something less glamorous) to help isolate the problem.

If I draw the jaw forward then the soft palette goes 'come on then, bring it on!'.

You can't have that party for one in your mouth. On sound going too far back and sounding good to the singer, but dead to the audience.

The jaw and the tongue have become part of your support mechanism without you realising it. They do work as a double act. Taking them out (of the support) feels scary and out of control, but the support is actually supposed to come from somewhere else.

As an exercise in bringing the jaw forward, you can try singing with what Paul described as an unfortunate underbite (as seen on some breeds of dog).

You don't need to open your mouth any more, the space is already there. If you need more, do it on the inside. Again, not letting the jaw go back and introduce tension.

There was a bit of talk about stress, and one tip was to combat nerves by focussing on engaging a muscle group that makes you feel stronger, and doesn't impede singing. The f*ing muscle which gives you an active back and slightly aggressive stance '... and your family!'. Just imagine someone's pulling at your bra straps. Or alternatively (some of us feel silly in bras) get a theraband (elastic tape used for exercise and physiotherapy) and stand on the middle of it, feet at hip width, with your hands down by your sides holding the stretched ends of the tape. Relax the knees (we don't want to the legs working up tension) and feel your back engage.

On articulating coloratura: it should be like moments of joy in the pubic floor. Support in general starts from the pubic bone. The diaphragm can't give us the subtle movements needed for coloratura, but the pubic muscles can.

A potentially controversial one: Taking low breaths lowers the larynx, which is not good when attempting to sing high notes, because the larynx physiologically needs to be up for them. Higher breathing makes it easier to sing shorter phrases that start high. You don't need the Wagner suck.

On turning the voice: you don't need to take the sound back before turning it. Your voice is a car, not a bendy bus, you don't have to take the wider route around corners. Try to find the shortest way up, not the detour, turn the voice but keep it forward. Singers obsess about the idea of space, we get told that you need a huge space to sing high, but if you take that thought and it makes you search for space at the back and jam all your sound there, you risk losing the forward 'on the mask' placement.

It's a duck. A happy duck. A happy American duck... from Texas. A happy American duck with attitude. - On getting the voice forward by singing in a caricature ugly voice.

You should be able to hum what you sing, it makes sure your vocal folds are going long and thin (which is apparently what they love best).

If you open up and let me in, it'll be less painful. 

That last one was probably when doing the fingers between ear and jaw thing, and I think I'll leave it at that ;)

All thoughts, quotes, etc are based on my notes from the session, I reserve the right to get things wrong in my paraphrasing, feel free to disagree, it's all just food for thought and a way for me to process my thoughts, treat it as a curiosity, feel free to disagree, can't we all just get along? 

Saturday, 22 September 2012

- Tenor Actor! - Um, it's just 'Actor', I'm actually a baritone.*

A Night at the Chinese Opera - Act 3 (The Old Crone) 

As I mentioned in my last post, this Summer seems to have been dominated by 20th century repertoire: first the Bernstein MASS in the Royal Albert Hall (quite possibly the high point of my singing adventures so far!), The Shadow of the Wave at the Tête à Tête Festival (see below), and last, but definitely not least, A Night at the Chinese Opera with British Youth Opera. It also seems to be the time of year when I get to practice the experience of covering: last year at Banff and with Scottish Opera, this time in BYO.

In many ways covering for BYO is a unique experience, especially when compared with my previous forays into understudying or what I've heard from my friends about how it is in various opera companies. First and foremost, you are guaranteed a public performance, which is a very powerful motivator and also a valuable opportunity, as the cover shows are usually quite well attended. It is worth noting that this performance is with the orchestra, which I'm pretty sure you don't get anywhere else.

A Night at the Chinese Opera - Act 2

Secondly, you are present for pretty much the entire production schedule, right from the first studio rehearsals. It does mean you are potentially in for a lot of long days (10.30am-9pm), but on the other hand you not only get to watch the show grow and take form, but more importantly you get to be part of the social life. Spending breaks with the cast and crew is a great way of getting to know people that in other companies you'd only really get to watch on stage. Here you have a chance to form a much wider team, and certainly in the case of A Night at the Chinese Opera I think everyone felt supported by one another. I personally really appreciated that so many of the main cast came to the cover show, and those that didn't manage to make it sent their best wishes. That kind of friendly atmosphere really makes a huge difference to how you work, how you feel and finally to the finished product. It certainly makes the time pass much quicker! Once it was all over we could hardly believe that 5 weeks had gone...

The short run of shows also means that the probability of a cover going on is not very high, which in turn means that there is less pressure on sticking to what the principals are doing than would normally be the case. Don't get me wrong, we had to have a solid knowledge of the show and the main cast's blocking, just in case, but once that was achieved we felt encouraged to make it our own. This obviously has to do with the fact that the cover show is a public one, and it shows how committed BYO is to the growth of every person involved in the season. In fact, the people in charge not only came to see our performance, but Stuart Barker (who was in fact the director for Chinese Opera) also came to some of the cover rehearsals, and both himself and Peter Robinson took the time to chat to every member of the company not just to see how we were all getting on, but also to find out more about us. It all makes for a unique process to be involved in.

A Night at the Chinese Opera - Act 3 ('Death by slow slicing!')
All photos by Bill Knight

This may all look like a marketing blurb, and naturally over the course of the 5 weeks there were moments of tiredness, crankiness and doubt, but those just come with the job and are to be expected anywhere. It doesn't change the fact that what with all the lovely people I got to meet doing it, the challenge of putting on a contemporary opera, the satisfaction felt after doing it well, and everything else I've touched on here, BYO was a great experience for me and I feel lucky to have been a part of it.

In other news, a video of the last contemporary opera I did is available to watch online here!

* The title of this post is inspired by what James H called out when he saw me come out of the theatre after our cover show. It's not the first time this has happened to me, so I should probably get used to it, but in Chinese Opera I was in fact covering the role of Tenor Actor. It's quite lucky for me that I do have some history in playing these slightly ambiguous roles (although here the clue is perhaps in the name), otherwise I might not have had the chance to take part in BYO this Summer. I would however like to express my gratitude to the company for putting the role down simply as Actor in the programme, saving me some awkward back pedaling should anyone ask what someone with my bio is doing singing a tenor part. 
To those who don't know, I am in fact a baritone, albeit a fairly high one, which allows me to slip into 'tenor mode' every now and again, under the right circumstances.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The colour of music

As you may or may not know, my Summer has been dominated by contemporary opera. First there was my London operatic debut (it wasn't quite as glamorous as it sounds :p) at the Tete a Tete Festival, performing my friend Tom Floyd's opera The Shadow of the Wave. Now I'm in rehearsals for British Youth Opera's production of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, where I'm covering the role of Tenor Actor (as if I wasn't confused enough about my voice type, everyone in the company assumes me to be a tenor until I set them straight).

It's all calmed down now, with Shadow out of the way, but the last month or two have been hard: there was a fair amount of difficult music to learn. And on the topic of learning contemporary music, there were conversations in both casts about how singers actually approach music that doesn't really 'roll off the voice', and if it does... You're probably wrong! For some people it's simply a question of repetition under the guidance of a 'mistake controller', others just have a knack for memorizing complex rhythms and melodies that have little to do with what's going on around them.

My personal approach is as follows:

The most important thing is time. While I can learn quickly, I avoid it if I can with anything more difficult than Mozart. With a lot of contemporary pieces, half the battle is tuning into the musical language of the composer. They're all quirky in their own way, and if you can absorb the quirks, you can feel more secure in your surroundings, so to speak, and this takes time. I don't mean months of daily work, but rather starting as soon as you get the score, and working little by little, even with big gaps between sessions for other things, but keeping the new piece as a recurring theme in your practice.

I also tend to write in beats in my score A LOT. Even for a basic 4/4 or 3/4 rhythm, but especially for tricky phrases. However what I don't do is memorize the counting (unless it's unavoidable), but rather practice a bit of conducting myself while speaking in rhythm. This helps me build an association in my mind between what I'm meant to be doing and what I can expect the conductor to do, which has one advantage over counting for myself: if something does go wrong (and to be honest, these things very rarely go perfectly), I can catch the conductor more easily than when I'm ploughing on ahead. In pieces where the rest of the music is more often than not more confusing than helpful, the conductor is usually your only friend, hopefully the friend least likely to make mistakes.

As for pitches and 'tunes' (if there are any), I don't really have a sight-reader's mind for intervals. What I rely on is what I'd call the 'colour' of the music. I can quite often pitch tricky notes out of seemingly unhelpful chords, if I get used to how they correspond, what colour they have in my ear. Oddly enough, when in that frame of mind it sometimes gets bizarrely difficult to sing notes that I'm spoonfed by an instrument or other singer (especially if you have to transpose by an octave! Who knew octaves could be so difficult?). This ear and memory for colours comes in handy in conjunction with a bit of muscle memory for getting back on track when I go off piste, because firstly I quickly know when something's wrong, and also sort of know how it should sound when it's right, so I can get it back even in the strangest of phrases.

I am by no means a particularly good learner or performer of contemporary music, but I enjoy the challenge and can feel myself getting better at it with every project I do. The approach I've described here has evolved over the past 3 years, and will probably require further tweaking next time I have some unnecessarily difficult music to learn.

As a parting thought: between Bernstein, Floyd and Weir, I have never found simple time signatures so difficult. The most mistakes I've made in rehearsals was in 4/4 phrases where I'd have to sing on the beat! That and those bloody octaves...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Is there madness in my method?

I am a singer. My training in the field of acting is limited to basic stagecraft (mostly of the 19th century variety), a rudimentary explanation of Stanislavski from a couple of directors, and then just hands-on experience of doing what I'm told on stage.

I have noticed however that recently the roles I'm preparing seep through into my 'normal' identity. I would normally have classified this as nothing more than in-cast banter for the most part, especially since over the last year I've played a certain type of character repeatedly (I hope it hasn't reached type-casting yet! I don't want to play misogynistic arrogant twats for the rest of my life), a type that lends itself to humorous caricature in social situations. 

However, the role I'm engrossed in now is a neurotic, slightly deranged painter, who is plagued by night terrors. I have 2 mad scenes in a 75-minute piece. I rehearsed them both yesterday, and since them I find I'm not quite myself and am having trouble sleeping. Before you say anything: I'm not a method actor and I'm not going crazy. For all I know, nobody has noticed any change in me, but I have! It's not big, it's not profound, it's nothing too serious, but it's there, and to be honest... I'm surprised. And it has me wondering if actors experience this as badly as musicians, and do they have ways of keeping it from happening, or do they feed off of it?

I would think of myself as level-headed, maybe even cynical. I've been praised for my intelligence as a singer, not my over-the-top emotionality. Yes, I'm a performer, maybe even an artist, so I have a degree of sensitivity (which has, I have also noticed, grown over the years, I never used to get moved to tears, these days it happens embarrassingly often, up to twice a year), but I didn't think that simply rehearsing something could get under my skin. 

I suppose it's a two-way street: I bring to my performance my limited (but ever-growing) life experience, but then have to endure and carry in my self whatever the character goes through, which (when set to music well) is heightened to pretty extreme levels, so maybe no wonder that something stays with me? A five minute mad scene (albeit repeated numerous times in a staging session) has me sweating buckets and left with shivers (before my teachers freak out, I'm vocally fine! That's one detachment I'm managing at present), then catching myself staring blankly ahead when normally I would probably be horsing around... 

You want to know what the most embarrassing thing is? This opera was written by two of my friends! See what you've done to me guys ;) ? And what I now want to know is where you in turn got the impulse to create something that has this effect on your performer.

PS This doesn't necessarily mean the piece is that good :P (that's up to the audience to decide) I may just be an over-sensitive wreck who should stick to comedy...  

Now for a shameless plug: The show in question is in London next week, on the 16th and 17th at the Riverside Studios as part of the Tête à Tête Festival. Book here!

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Converted to the MASS

I am a bad listener. When I first started preparing for Bernstein's MASS, I only really listened to the fragments involving the Street People (which was the part I sang) and thought it was quirky but fun, with some minor jabs thrown in to upset the apple cart and keep the piece from just being a jazzy Mass. Fool that I was... I then tried giving it a listen through (I have been horrendously busy over the past couple of weeks, so time was at a premium, otherwise I would have started with a full hearing). I failed. I found it off-putting and inappropriate for the Italian Summer I was enjoying. So I ended up going to the first rehearsal knowing my bits and having an overview of the plot courtesy of Wikipedia.

For the first 2 days the Street People rehearsed in isolation from the rest of the company, so there was no impulse for me to change my mind about the piece: fun in places, but too pretentious for its own good. My opinion changed throughout rehearsals as I got to know the rest of the music better, but the penny dropped when we had our first run through on Sunday. It was only then, experiencing it in the call-response sequence that starts with the Choir and Street People inspiring each other to vocalise their faith (all this as a response to the prerecorded fragments, as if to say: we've had enough listening, let us speak!), with the Celebrant trying to keep a lid on what is supposed to be a normal Mass. Then the Street Chorus soloists start to raise questions and express their doubts in religion, faith, and God. The Mass gets more and more disjointed, the Celebrant starts to lose control of the situation and the Choir and orchestra practically get won over by the doubting Street People in the cacophony of the Agnus Dei. And then the magic happens: 14 minutes of solo singing from the Celebrant, a true 'mad scene', reiterating every bit of music we'd heard and throwing it in the 'congregation's' faces with abandon and asking why they're so shocked to see a man of the cloth losing it: they'd all already lost it themselves long ago, so why this hypocrisy?! The finale tries to calm the scene, and does serve as a good palette cleanser after the bile of Things get broken, bringing it all back to a grand statement of unity (that does sort of come out of nowhere I think).

I do think the piece is flawed in the sense that Bernstein set himself an impossible task: conveying a crisis of faith around the form of a Mass. For all its grand scale and epic moments, it's a very personal piece I think, and one I related to as such. Starting with the premise of singing God a Simple Song, and then failing as the whole thing gets more and more grand, elaborate and over-thought, losing all sense of innocence, which in turn leads to the Celebrant's meltdown. The treble soloist then tries to bring it back to simplicity, but soon after we're served with the rather epic and pompous finale... Does that mean that we're doomed to fail in our search for a simple, innocent, meaningful faith? It's open to interpretation.

But many people won't bother trying to interpret anything. They'll take the cheesy moments at face value, appreciate the orchestral Meditations as clever bits of pretty writing, cringe at the musical theatre settings of the latin text, and politely indulge the Celebrant in his 'aria', then roll their eyes at the final canon. The piece was received very badly when it premiered, and I can see why: it's difficult to identify what it's supposed to be. The name and form also serve to alienate people who expect a real Mass (though that element of shock factor is probably intentional). It is not a Mass. It is a piece of theatre about religion and faith that raises questions without really answering them. Like in religion, we start with the answers, and then as more and more questions get raised the answers we are given aren't enough to see us through. As I said, the composer set himself an impossible task, because faith is so personal a thing that finding a language to question it, or even simply explore it, that doesn't rub people the wrong way is impossible. Even the fact that the Street People respond to the latin lip service prayers of the Choir in English, translating the text as if to say 'Do you even know what you're saying?' is jarring at first and can instantly strike some people as crude. If it is, it's deliberately so: like snapping your fingers to get someone's attention.

I could go on ranting, but I'll stop. I hope a bit of back and forth from the point of view of someone who's performed the piece will intrigue someone enough to give it a chance and keep an open mind. I personally think it is a masterpiece (though not all the music is of the same standard, but then again neither was Mozart's) and a few movements do regularly have me in tears. There aren't many good recordings out there, I would recommend the Marin Alsop for best clarity and quality of singing, and Kristjan Järvi's recording for energy and impact. Or you can just listen to it on iPlayer in the UK with us performing it, or better yet wait until the 6th of September to see it on BBC 4. Here's a little taste:

I'll just finish by saying that I think Kristjan Järvi did wonders with us and is quite rightly a great champion for this piece, and that I'll always remember Morten Frank Larsen's Celebrant, as well as working with all my fantabulous colleagues from the Street Chorus (we rocked it!). What a way to debut in the Royal Albert Hall, hey?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

I hate goodbyes

The past couple of weeks have been tough because of a number of goodbyes that had to be said and the fact that I found myself stuck thinking of my life as a series of short disconnected episodes. I'm not sure it's a feeling I can describe, but I think that it's something that other artists in 'the industry' can relate to (not that I'm in 'the industry' yet, but I've had enough previews to get an idea of what may be in store).

It started with our trip to the Orkneys with Carmen. As I wrote about the production in an earlier post, we were already a closely-knit team before going up, most of us having worked together on numerous projects before. A week in close proximity does strange things though. I had experienced a bit of this doing Orpheus in the Underworld in Glasgow: strange place, living out of a suitcase, not knowing anyone except the people you're working with. You end up spending a lot of time together, both in rehearsals and socially. You grow close, closer than you were before, no matter how much you'd worked or hung out before. You feel safe with these people, you can be yourself around them, you share experiences and stories that won't be funny or make sense to anyone who wasn't there, and it's as if the world narrows down to just that place, those people. For a short while. You go home and even though they are still in the same city, even though one of them is your flatmate, even though you'll see them again, you feel as though you've lost something. You miss it, you feel a bit empty inside.

Add to that the fact that before 2 weeks have gone by you have your last college performance with a group who have been there with me, and for me, for 2 years (some of them even 3). No more familiar team for college productions, no more concerts where we can whack out familiar repertoire that we've done together so many times that it's like second nature (I know how my friends introduce their pieces almost word for word now), no more people who know me so well that when they tell me not to worry about something - I believe them (and they know they can always count on my support as well).

I know the future will bring new people and new projects with new stories, new dynamics, and new colleagues. I also know (or at least believe) that I'll be seeing the leavers again (and hopefully working with them as well). But one thing is for sure: it won't be the same. It won't be worse, or better, it'll be different, and that's why I'll always miss these years in college, that week in Kirkwall, that Summer in Banff, my first Magic Flute, the Nozze di Figaro trip to Kołobrzeg...

It makes me sad to think that my life will turn into a series of adventures (to quote Alma) where I will meet and get to know people whom I will then inevitably end up missing, but it's a heart-warming sadness, because it means that all that we go through together stays with me and feeds the flame so to speak. I will work with new people, on the same operas perhaps, but to everyone I've had the opportunity to share everything up until now with:

To me you are irreplaceable.

From left to right: one of the lads, the rock star, my leading lady for 3 years, and a random pianist
I hope they will forgive me using this photo and that DD has a sense of humour ;)

Saturday, 16 June 2012

How long does it take to stage Carmen?

Well, in our case it's been five days! Today was our final studio rehearsal, we now get a day off and on Monday we fly to Kirkwall for the sitzprobe, and then have a couple of days to adjust to the venue and we're opening on Thursday.

Admittedly, we are putting on an abridged version, the show is about 2 hours long with the interval, but still, getting to full runs in 4 days is something of an achievement, and trust me, I wouldn't be posting about it if today's sample audience were saying things like 'It's a shame you have so little time' or 'It looks good for what it is'. Singing Escamillo, I actually get to sit out a fair bit and see what's going on from an audience's perspective (not too often though, as most principals also bump up the chorus), and those moments make me proud to be in this cast.

How did we do it? Well, the bare bones of it is that the director made us blunder our way through it with some extremely rough geography on the first day, and we then set about filling in the detail. I think it's fair to say that the speed with which we got to where we were this morning is firstly a testament to the talent of the individuals involved, especially the two main protagonists, who created fleshed-out characters largely by themselves. There wasn't much time for a company exploration of the piece or discovery of the intricacies of the characters, so I am greatly impressed that Sam and Joe inhabited their roles (Carmen and Don Jose respectively) so fully and decisively straight off the mark.

The second reason probably has something to do with how we are trained (I was going for something profound here, but I'm not sure I can actually put it into words). Being in these rehearsals, it always puts a smile on my face to observe how good my colleagues' instincts are! This is at its core a college production, and it shows that the RWCMD is doing a lot of things right (picking talented people first and foremost, I guess). For myself I think a lot of it has to do with how much we get to perform, and that even in concert mode we are encouraged to put on a bit of theatricality (in a tasteful way, of course). I often jokingly refer to these improvised mini-stagings as 'blagging our way through', but I have to say they build up confidence in our instincts, which is invaluable. It also means that we have good chemistry as an ensemble, seeing as we get to rehearse and perform together a lot, which has also payed dividends in this particular production of Carmen.

I'm not saying that putting on an opera in 2 weeks is the way it should be done (though what with the funding situation these days, who knows if it won't become the norm even for established companies), but this experience goes to show that, with the right group of people, it CAN be done, and to a good standard. I'm thankful that I get to work with just such a group!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

This is not a review

I've been watching a lot more opera in the last year than usual, both live and on DVD. The reason I didn't use to do it was that I find it very difficult to turn off my overly critical, cynical mind. It's not that I can't appreciate a good performance of opera, I'm just very easily put off by small things.

It's not even about the singing, though I admit that these days I go to operas mostly to listen to how 'real life' singing differs from 'college' singing, and then have a think about why it is different, which does mean a lot of listening out for technique and tricks of the trade (after all, I want to know what I'll hopefully be getting myself into). However most of the 'buts' I have nagging away at my mind after performances are usually to do with productions not being able to keep me in the world they create. Oddly enough, a cracked note by a singer doesn't necessarily destroy the reality the character's in (unless the singer then flags it up by becoming defensive). My pet hates are more trivial things like not looking at the person you're singing to (OK, you can do it if there's a reason for averting your gaze, but if it's just because you're focused on yourself or the conductor, it breaks the reality of the drama), bad fights, costumes or props that stick out of a design, rickety sets, etc. Small things that don't seem to bother most people I just can't seem to be able to ignore.

Which brings me to today's dress rehearsal. Innovatively designed (with projected backdrops and even 'frontdrops', a cinematic curtain, but quite understated and minimal use of set pieces in favour of a clever symbolic use of space), yet traditionally set, well sung, well played, well paced, in general a great show. But what hit me, was that although it was a rehearsal, and it was not absolutely perfect in terms of minor things like lighting cues, surtitles, etc; none of those little things mattered! The world created on stage was so carefully maintained throughout, the performers so committed to it, that I finally had an experience of 'switching off' my brain and just being taken in by it all. I'm not even a big fan of the composer! It was wonderful to see a production that took so much care to keep the magic going, that you never even thought it was odd that the boys had the snow from Act III in their flat in Act IV. We just thought: 'oh! times are not good, the poor lads have to sweep the snow from their floor!' and it was a fact of life.

I don't know if it's just a question of attention to detail, or inspired design, or commitment, but transporting cynics to a different, credible world in the way this production managed to do it will be my new benchmark for operatic performances. And for myself as a singer I acknowledge that a lot of responsibility for that will be on my shoulders, and as Martin Lloyd Evans and David Gowland said at the BYO workshops: technique, voice, acting; they're only a means to that ultimate end!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

No escape...

I hate auditions. I have mentioned it more than once on here, but now I have a new reason to hate them: even when I have none coming up, when I've got so much other stuff going on... I can't get away from auditions!

The reason for this is simple: college won't let me, and to be honest, they're right. This week I had a couple of sessions with Donald Maxwell (for anyone who doesn't know who he is, google him, his biography on his agent's website is a hilarious read, just scrolling down endlessly through roles he's sung at the best opera houses in the world), which my head of department said to use not just for singing, but also to pick his brain about my future (no, he's not clairvoyant, but apparently we have similar voice-types). So I did, and we chatted about roles that would be worth looking at, and then inevitably: auditions!

I sang him what I'd been auditioning with in the past 7 months (Largo al factotum, Pierrot's Tanzlied) as well as a new addition to my rep that I had just wanted to look at to have a go at Britten: Tarquinius' aria. Turns out the only thing Donald would recommend I keep in my audition portfolio was the Britten!

Before you jump to the most logical conclusion, no, I am not awful at the other 2 arias! However, as Donald said: they could do with being a bit more effortless. I can get through them fine, sing them in succession, multiple times a day, perform them in concerts, I enjoy singing them! But he has a point, they're not quite as effortless as I'd like them to be 100% of the time. He heard me on an average day, however I hadn't sung them in ages, so call it a 5-6/10 performance. The problem is, auditions pile on the stress, so getting above a 7-8/10 when on form is a good result.

Yes, Figaro and Fritz are roles I could sing, I should keep singing the arias (I haven't even been singing them for a year yet, after all, and some things come with time), but for auditions one wants something foolproof. Something you can sing on your worst day at 7am having rolled off your bed still drunk. BUT they can't be easy! They have to show off what you can do best! Ummm... help?

Donald's advice was to try some pieces that display similar characteristics to the Rossini and Korngold, but down one notch on the difficulty scale. Oddly enough, the Tarquinius can in many ways replace the Pierrot, and (apparently) shows off something that Donald thinks I am very good at: singing in English. Yay! Not only will I be the best opera-singer/whitewater-kayaker hybrid in the UK (I think I already am, though I'm not particularly great at either ;) ), but I may be the only Polish singer who develops a reputation as a specialist in singing English operatic repertoire*. After all, that is what Scottish Opera hired me for!

Armed with Donald's suggestions for new arias to look at, along with tips on how to work at making the ones I already have seem more effortless, I now have 6 months to come up with a winning formula. Shame I'm so busy...

* If anyone can think of a person who beats me in either category, please let me know by calling: 0800-SHATTERMYDREAMS

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The bigger picture - BYO Easter Workshops 2012

With the BYO Workshops now behind me I have a minute to sit down and put into words what this week was all about. I gave you an idea of what the first day was about, and Martin and David managed to extend and expand the same theme over the course of the entire week.

We played a lot of games, talked a lot about what it is we do as performers, worked on the text and setting of a sextet from Don Giovanni (Sola, sola in buio loco)... we didn't actually sing a note until the last hour of the penultimate day!

How did that happen? Well, Martin and David wanted to show us a different approach to the one we're normally used to in our voice-centric education. We're often told that any preparation should start with the text: translating, understanding, learning the phonetics, etc. But it's easy to be tempted by the dots on the stave and try and do everything at once, especially if we're in a hurry. This week we looked at the sextet as a piece of straight theatre, speaking the text, with all the repeats, finding a reason to say the words. We did the sextet as a radio play and then put it on its feet, still in straight-theatre-mode. Then David suggested what was probably the oddest exercise: delivering the lines in our speaking voice, in the natural spoken rhythm of the Italian... but following the melodic line of the music, going from high spoken voice to low, and vice versa. That helped us see how the composer heard the words in his head, and we could then set about finding our own reasons to deliver the text in the way he gives us. Only then do we get to singing it as it is on the page, but by that time, having sort of set a scene of theatre, the singing is only a natural extension of what we've been doing so far!

That coupled with the absolute ban on warming up imposed on us by David and Martin means that no one worries about technique, we're all just delivering the text and the thoughts, the singing just happens (phew!).

The last day is devoted to working on arias and songs, but in the same way: no warm up, no technical jargon, just the words, just the scene, no singers, just characters. It's a wonderfully free and safe environment, and as some of us later say: when we're watching the others, we're not actually listening to the voice, the singing, the sound, we're actually following a story. I have to say, it was an exceptional thing to witness (there were tears!) and I kept thinking: why can't we have this when we go to the opera? Why do I find myself sitting in a show listening to singers sing pretty tunes? Where's the story? It hasn't bothered me this much before, but after seeing what it's possible to achieve, I'll find it hard to sit through another mediocre show...

It all goes back to what we did the first day: turning our approach on its head. Don't aim for what you want the audience to see/hear, because then it ends up being a boring case of: oh yes, he's here to sing nicely and he's showing us he can. But if we take it upon ourselves to be responsible for the story, the audience will still get the music. In the end, the music, the words, the staging, the design and the singer all serve the same goal: the story. If the singer starts serving the music, or (worse!) his own voice, all we end up with is disconnected self-indulgence.

At the end we talk a bit about how to bring what we've been exposed to here forward into our lives. It's not easy, even in college. Maybe I should say: especially in college? The work we do with our teachers and coaches, and then our assessments are incredibly voice-centric. We end up thinking that what we do is essentially voice-centric, be it concerts, shows, auditions or exams. I suppose it's not college's fault, but ours for letting our insecurities drive us. Yes, we're in college to develop the building blocks that we'll then use to construct our characters and their stories: the technique, the languages, the stagecraft, the physical fitness, the dance, the research, etc. But at the end of the day we can't be slaves to any one building block, there's no point getting hung up on the fact that our teachers specialize and form their expectations according to their specialities. It's their job. Our job is to always remember there's a bigger personal picture for each of us.

I am incredibly grateful to Martin and David for a much needed step back to admire that bigger picture and hope to be able to hold on to the state of mind I'm in now. My gratitude extends to BYO for providing a safe environment for a workshop like this to happen without any pressure on delivering a product at the end of it. I wasn't sure what the point of locking a group of singers away in a building for a week was, but it turned out to be an incredibly valuable time.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Theatricality is bollocks!

I know, it's been a while. Life has been busy, then I was ill. Hopefully I'll get enough inspiration one of these days to fill in the gap since the last post, it's not as if there was nothing going on: thought-provoking concerts I went to, Figaro, my first Carmina Burana and B minor Mass, the birth of Sforza... I'll leave those for another day (fingers crossed).

At the moment I'm sitting in a Wetherspoon's enjoying coffee, breakfast and free Wi-Fi, looking forward to the second day of British Youth Opera's Easter Workshops. 5 days, 3 groups of 12 singers, 10.30-5.30. My group is being taken by Martin Lloyd-Evans and David Gowland.

The first thing that hits me is how small our operatic world is: I know 5 people in my group already, from Opera'r Ddraig, RWCMD, Scottish Opera and even Banff. Another couple of people in different groups are also friends. Despite the wide geographical spread of the participants from all over the UK, everyone seems to have at least a mutual acquaintance. This means a friendly atmosphere from the start, lucky us!

Martin and David start off by warning us we won't be doing any singing for the first couple of days, so they see no need for us to warm up early in the morning. This is getting better and better! Martin goes on to say how wonderful an opportunity these workshops are: there's no end result to aim for, no performance, no assessment. It's all about individual growth, everyone at their own pace.

The day is filled with games to help us get to know one another, team-building exercises, a bit of physicality work, and some time spent poring over the score of Don Giovanni, fishing for facts about the characters we are to sing later on in the week (by the way, there are hardly any facts in the libretto, but lots of preconceptions we wrongly assume are fact, they are actually only choices... I've played this game before, courtesy of Harry Fehr).

Despite the initial impression of randomness, a pattern emerges and I personally come out of the day with a couple of strong new thoughts in my mind, that actually serve as affirmation and expansion on what has been my approach up til now.

The morning session sees us discussing impossible questions: who is the best opera composer ever, best singer ever, what makes a great operatic performance, what makes a great singer... All of our answers come from what turns out to be an audience perspective, even the ones that deal with our own aspirations. Our great singer needs to communicate, give a strong sense of character, sing beautifully, etc. All well and good, but it's not something you can be if you just set out thinking 'I will be a character, communicate and sing beautifully'. All these things are how the audience sees us, it's not what the singer actually does! I mean, how terrifying and debilitating is hearing the words 'Just sing this phrase beautifully'? How do you do that?! Your mind shuts down all thoughts other than the technical ones and you become a larynx on legs (to borrow a phrase from our drama teacher, Alma Sheehan). But all you can do then (if you have nerves of steel) is make a nice sound. That's not beautiful singing. There are singers, as one of our group points out, who don't make a nice noise but sing beautifully (Maria Callas anyone?) .

The afternoon is character work, or should I say: fact finding. As I mentioned, there often isn't much the creators of a piece give us, but we make choices. Zerlina can be innocent, but nowhere does it say that she is. In fact I've always felt the opposite way. We are all bogged down by preconceptions that stem from all the 'definitive' performances we've seen on DVD, or historical practice, or our own first productions of an opera. We close our minds to the possibilities that we can explore, and if we do that, are choices aren't informed at all, they're just prejudice.

But once we make a choice, how do we convey it? How does one play innocent? Well, Martin says something painfully obvious, but actually quite elusive a lot of the time. Think of yourself as a person. We don't think of ourselves as innocent, funny, manipulative, friendly, good-natured, etc (well, some people do, but then they're usually wrong and end up being false because they aspire to fulfil their own vision of how people should see them). Again, that's how others see us. What do we do to make them form opinions about us? Well, actually, we just do things. We react to our world. Yes, we have emotions, but we don't over-indulge in them, we don't decide them, they're reactions and manifest themselves in our actions, what we do. Most of the time we as people don't think all that much, we just do.

Why not let our characters in an opera do the same? Yes, we make a choice about what story we want to tell, but once we decide that, we let our characters react to it. We may choose those reactions, because they won't really be our own, but we're not driving ourselves into the impossible task of playing to the audience.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Warming down

Just a short post today, as I have once again been prompted to draw a parallel between singers and athletes. It's not a particularly far-fetched idea, seeing as what we do is in essence physical, with an enormous emphasis on technique that is supposed to minimise muscular tension, but also training the muscles involved in singing to perform at exaggerated levels compared to their normal 'biological' use. We have to (or at least should) warm up to prepare our bodies for the exertion of singing; we run the risk of injury if we fail to practice good technique; we have a similar curve of our performance capabilities over age; the mental aspect of what we do can either give us wings or neuter us...

Adrian Thompson (my teacher) came into our Figaro rehearsal today, as we were staging the Act 3 sextet, to watch for a bit. I then met up with him later for a lesson in which we focused on Bach's Mass in B minor, which I'm singing in about a month's time. At the end he said that it's really good and important to have a proper sing after a day of staging rehearsals in order to 'warm the voice down', re-focus it after a hard day's work. He went on to say that rehearsals, especially staging ones, where it all gets very bitty, often singing half a phrase at a time, stopping and starting, are a dreadful strain on the voice. As you have to focus on so many things at the same time, the concentration is often not on the singing aspect of the work. 'None of us really sing properly all the time in these rehearsals, after a couple of hours you just lose the will to live, vocally...' That's why it's refreshing to find a room afterwards and sing a lied, song, or aria that puts the voice back to its proper place. A bit like warming down and light stretching after a work-out.

OK, you've indulged me this far, time for a 'treat' ;) How about some quotes from our rehearsals: (I'll leave out the more vulgar ones, so it'll pretty much just be director's lines)

'How do we feel about having some sexual teaspoon action?'
'Sorry, this recit seems to have become all about a chair... Who knew?'
'What are you doing at this point? Oh, just general tidying action? OK'
'I want you to go over to her and have another Hey baby! moment'
'I love that weird noise you're making!'
'OK, so now I want Cherubino to think of yourself as a woman, but Susanna look at him as a man, Countess becomes a man too, but sees Cherubino as a woman, just as he looks at her and goes back to being a man and wanting her as a woman...' I may not have gotten that one right ;)

March 15-18, Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff: be there or... miss it.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Enterprise (the venture, not the starship)

Last week was full of Figaro rehearsals, obviously. We got to the end of Act 2 and I have to say it's looking great! March 15-18 in Cardiff, if you can make it...

But there were other things of note last week that I feel deserve mention, namely college had REPCo week. The Repertory by Entrepreneurial Performers Company is an institution at college that provides start-up loans to student-led enterprise at the RWCMD. Apart from these loans, college also accommodates the student companies that fall under REPCo's care with rehearsal spaces, and a week when these companies can perform in college venues at highly discounted rates, while also having a certain priority in terms of schedules (basically, REPCo can take precedence over regular classes). All this creates a fantastic platform for students to put on events for themselves, providing invaluable performance opportunities for those involved, giving budding entrepreneurs a chance to test their ideas in a safe environment with support from a well-established institution like the college.

The largest REPCo companies are as follows:

The REPCo Orchestra, which gives students a chance to play in an orchestra when in normal college life they wouldn't have that opportunity, so either on their second study instruments or the youngest students in college. Last week they put on an operatic concert performance double-bill called Mozart vs Salieri, recreating one of the most famous musical showdowns in history, when Mozart's
Der Schauspieldirektor was pitted in competition against Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole. With actors playing the roles of the composers, and singers from all levels the vocal department, from undergrad to opera course, conductor Ian Peter Bugeja (artistic director of the orchestra) created a great opportunity for everyone involved to play and sing the challenging repertoire that is opera in the stunning venue that is the Dora Stoutzker Hall.

Sinfonia Newydd, a company dedicated to performing world premieres (only!) of new works by young composers. What started out as a small chamber ensemble putting on infrequent concerts with pieces by composers studying in college has grown into a beast putting on symphonic concerts (possibly the only opportunity for Cardiff based composers to have their large-scale pieces played), branching out into jazz, and holding an annual week-long festival where music merges with visual art. I have had the privilege of premiering a work with Sinfonia Newydd, namely a musical-theatre song by David Harrington, patient readers will find a recording of this work at the bottom of this post ;)

Opera'r Ddraig, a company very dear to my heart. This opera company gave me my first opportunity to sing a principal role in the UK in their very first production, The Magic Flute in 2010. Since then they have managed to put on a successful show every year. This year's double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas (so many 'ands' there) was the first time I've not been involved in the company as a singer. I have to admit it was difficult to watch the stunning piece of theatre they created and not shed a tear of regret about that fact. Being company treasurer however means that I get a bit more insight into how huge an undertaking it is to put on an opera! And how risky it is... Despite critical acclaim, impressed audiences, excited cast members, technicians and players, and even sold out shows last year, the company is ever in danger, with only the sheer force of the core team's determination keeping it alive. In its third year, I think many people in college, or even Cardiff take Opera'r Ddraig's existence for granted a bit. Has some of the excitement gone? Is it not something new and fresh any more? Is it ok to wait until next year to get involved? If that's what you think, then you're wrong. Every year is a new team, a new fight to get the company on its feet, find a cast, pick an opera, get money, negotiate with college, the venue, find orchestral players, sort out a technical crew, source costumes, props, design marketing tools, try and schedule rehearsals in a way that makes it possible from students from different places to come... Every year could be the last. All it takes is for one key member of the team to have to drop out and the whole thing unravels. A bad audience turnout, that's it... And it would be a shame, because if you ever got to see an OD show, you know that they are excellent. The energy of young people on stage, it's electric and irreplaceable! The effort that everyone, from director, conductor, through the cast down to the ushers put in to make these shows work makes them really special, polished yet fresh. It's a joy to watch even when the operas themselves are sombre and depressing ;)

In this financial climate it's a miracle that these companies exist! Don't wait for these things to fail before you get involved. It doesn't take much, even going to the shows is a big help, a visible show of support. If you can, then join your local youth company in any capacity (there's nothing worse than companies failing because no one can be bothered to sing/play/help), let's keep these things alive, because they have something to offer that the big companies don't. Intimacy, freshness, youth, excitement, and all this while maintaining high artistic standards.

A huge well done and fingers crossed from me to all the REPCo companies! Keep doing what you're doing, you make Cardiff exciting :)

As promised, Modern Song, with yours truly at the mic, Paul McKenzie on the piano, and the composer himself, David Harrington turning pages:

Monday, 13 February 2012

A tsunami every day

Wow, it's been a while since I've written, the reason being that it's been a hectic couple of weeks: music calls for Le Nozze di Figaro, henceforth to be known as Figaro, a visit to WNO studio rehearsals, the start of our Figaro rehearsals with our director: Harry Fehr, a couple of concerts, the dress rehearsal of WNO's Traviata, and auditions galore (St Magnus Festival, RWCMD vocal scholarships and prizes, BYO). 


With such a plethora of topics to choose from, what should I write about? My thoughts on auditions haven't changed since the (quite popular by this blog's standards) rant, the concerts and dress rehearsal weren't all that interesting, so Figaro it is.


Our first taste of staging the opera was actually at WNO, where we were invited to sit in on a studio rehearsal of the Act 3 sextet. It was in fact the first rehearsal of that particular scene, so we got to observe the entire process, which as you can imagine was fascinating. I suppose the most surprising thing was how small the difference between their process and every production I've done so far is. Yes, the average age is higher, the standard of singing as well, and I would assume that the risk of someone being underprepared is much smaller, but watching the WNO cast banter, joke about and have such a good time overall, I thought to myself: 'The way I am now is probably the most grown up I'll ever be...' And my friends can attest to the fact that I'm as childish as a 15-year-old at times.


Our own rehearsals are also great fun. It's just that kind of opera! We spent the first couple of days reading through a translation of the libretto together as a complete team, then made decisions about our characters: age, background, relationships between them, etc. With the scene thus set, we got started on Act 1. As I type this the act is pretty much set, though of course there's more detailed work to do. Tomorrow it's on to Act 2...


Figaro is sooo complicated to set! The interplay between characters is very intricate if you delve into it a bit, with plans and intensions shifting and changing with almost every line, the risk is you overcomplicate it to the point where you don't know what your character is thinking, which leaves the audience without a chance in hell! You can't imagine how many times we have discussions along the lines of:

- So, why are you saying that?

- Because this...

- OK, but considering what you say in Act 4 maybe your motivation is this...

- But doesn't he find about that only in Act 3?

- Ah, but what with the French revolution in the background...

- So exactly which line are we talking about anyway?


The director (who by the way is doing a great job of finding a balance between detail and clarity that should ensure that we have enough thinking on stage to give the audience a sparkling show, without muddying the clarity of the story even if they don't catch every little shift) told us that he'd been talking to Sir Thomas Allen about this opera, and got the advice: 'Every day will be like a tsunami' in terms of questions, clarifying the plot, making decisions as to where to go with the text, etc. 


I suppose for us, especially those who haven't done Figaro before (it's my fourth, and I'm finding tonnes of new detail and countless new thoughts and possibilities), the tsunami effect is even more tangible. Today we were revising Act 1, and were negotiating changes of plans / ideas / motivations with the director (plus technical notes about moves, angles etc) to make it work better, while being bombarded with extra notes from the conductor and language coach... It's mad, I tell you! Maaaad! But brilliant :)

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Keep it alive! - Roderick Williams

What a pleasure it is to sit down in an audience, having no expectations and be completely blown away!

(OK, I probably should have done more research into who Roderick Williams is, as it happens I only dug deep enough to find that he has sung the songs I intended to take into the class, in a BBC Radio 3 documentary about Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which I proceeded to listen to and thoroughly enjoy)

What blew me away? It's hard to pinpoint. Often after a recital you come out with strong reactions to a particular piece, or thinking 'those top notes blew my mind', or other such nonsense. This was different, as the whole package was so appealing. A singer who is extremely likeable from the moment he walks onstage, with so much ease in his technique that he can seemingly do anything with his voice in an effortless way (so important in lieder, and it was a predominately lieder recital), and all this backed up by a responsive and supportive accompaniment. How often do you go to a vocal recital where half the audience are singing students, and hear them whooping like crazy at the end?

This was followed by the masterclass, which was inspiring. Again, due largely to the fact that Roderick Williams is so unbelievably likeable, which makes you sit on the edge of your seat and engage fully with everything he says, all of which is valid, helpful, and well-meant. As always, some of the points raised (italics are used not necessarily as direct quotations, but close paraphrases):

Regarding auditions: The panel make their mind up in the first couple of bars you sing. Despite knowing this, remember to keep everything alive all the time, you may sway them back in your favour. This is doubly true in the case of pieces with a da capo (and came up when working one).

The more you can get into the language, the shape of it, the more exciting the performance.

When singing with a copy (oratorio for instance), be careful when you glance at your music, as you risk losing the personal connection with the audience.

German as a language contains a lot the information at the end of sentences, so you must make sure to sing through to the end. Keep it alive to the end!

Read through the text on its own, with all the repetitions, to see how hard you have to work to keep each repeated word alive.

It's good to take a step back and have a look at the words a composer had to work with and try to see why he did what he did (re repetitions, melody, harmony, etc).

Sad-faced singing is a bad habit to have (ultimately a bit boring and dead). Try to start with something that isn't your Matthew Passion face.

We want to see the same person singing as the one we see after you finish. This refers to that magical moment when the singer stops singing and relaxes. All interpretation, acting, etc are valid, but an audience wants to see you as relaxed as you are when you are just yourself, so not your 'singer-self'. This was said to me and rang very true, I wish I could be that relaxed person who has just finished singing throughout my performance, and I feel I got a taste of it later in the class, but it's a tough thing to get working, and even Roderick admitted he's still not quite got it yet (and yet in hindsight it was something evident during his recital, that there was no feeling of 'now I'm singing, now I'm talking, now I'm relaxing', and that contributed a lot to the sheer likeability of the performance).

Take the poem where you want, stop thinking about the technique. We don't want to see it working. This of course only works if you have the technique, but once you do, it's time to let go and focus on keeping the performance alive.

If you just speaking the poem is engaging and moving, we don't want the music to detract from that, it should enhance it.

Exit-sign-singing. Fixing your gaze on one point, or staring out into the middle distance may be a safe option (you feel like nothing can touch you), but it's a dead and boring one. Try not to overdo it.

Speak the words of the song as if for radio: intimate, slow, painting every word, getting every ounce of colour out of each syllable. Keep the audience hooked with the sounds of the words in your singing.

At the moment you're giving us a 3 on the dial... which as we all know goes all the way up to 11. A great quote about being fearless with the intensity of interpretation and engagement with the text, and I personally greatly enjoyed the reference to the film This is Spinal Tap.

You need to have the audacity to stand up in front of an audience and do whatever it takes to grab their attention!

See what you did? As you were saying the poem you walked up to us, you wanted to speak while being in and among us. That's how personal we need to make songs, despite being on a stage or way at the back by the piano.

When you walk onstage, before you even start singing, look around at every single person in the audience. They will like you for it! This is a tip given to Roderick when he was playing Papageno. It obviously works for building an instant connection with the audience and pays into his likeability as a performer. Wouldn't necessarily work for every operatic character though ;)

People always ask how much acting to do in auditions and I always reply: I have no idea!

For a lot of people (audition panels and even, in a strange way, audiences) our arias are unfortunately about one or two notes, and what those people don't want to see is our fear. The only way to negotiate this is to actually have no fear of these notes.

Whatever the director has you doing, even if you're immobile, in your mind every word, every thought has a specific direction and intention. Keep it alive! This may be done (in concert or audition scenarios) by running a film of a more active staging in your head while you sing. However, you can't really do this convincingly if you don't know the meaning of each and every word.

Be prepared! He told us a story of a production where despite being contracted to know their roles from memory on the first day of rehearsals (which is industry standard these days) some of the principals didn't. Don't be that person! There were also singers who knew their own lines, complete with translations, but hadn't bothered to translate things that were said to them by other characters, and so didn't react appropriately onstage. That's not what we do! This job isn't about sitting about waiting for your cues... It's amazing how often this mini-lecture on preparation comes up, and yet these situations keep happening (even in professional opera houses apparently). I can only say, I've come close to 'being that person' once, and it is an absolutely dreadful feeling (for me, at least) and I will not let myself come that close to it ever again (others obviously don't get that feeling, otherwise these situations wouldn't keep popping up all over the operatic world).

The masterclass ended on a heart-warming note:
Bye, and I'll see you on the stage in a couple of years!

What a great sentiment to end on... but I'll spoil it for everyone, because the reference to Spinal Tap inspired me so much, that I want to share part of my favourite scene from that film with you all (it is the one about the dial, so it is relevant to the rest of this post!):