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

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.

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