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

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.

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