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

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)

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