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

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!):

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