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

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The three Ks

I've written about this before, but the subject has been coming up in all sorts of places including a meeting with an Equity representative at OperaUpClose (where I'm currently singing Eisenstein), chats with other singers, and when this article made the rounds on the social networks.

I have worked for free, paid to sing, worked for rates that make you want to cry, but also worked for sensible pay, and even pay that seems ludicrously generous. I don't want to try and write a rousing post on a theme of 'singers of the world unite and refuse to work for free/pittance'. It's not going to happen. Part of the problem is the idea that we need to undertake these freebies to fill out our CVs and gain experience in order to be in a stronger position when being considered for 'the good work'. I'm not even sure if it does in fact help us in the eyes of a panel, I've not heard much feedback either way from the decision-makers I've spoken to or heard speak publicly on the matter. Personally, I feel I become a better performer with every show I do, but it's getting harder and harder to justify working for next to nothing and I do find myself saying no more often than, say, a year ago. The other part of the 'problem' is that most of us performers love what we do, love being in shows so much that we are hungry for the rehearsal process and the stage (however small) and because of this we say yes more often than perhaps we should. Gullible idealistic bohemian fools? Maybe...

Like I said, I'm not going to save the world with a blog post, but since the conversation is happening and awareness for the issue is rising, I'd like to pass on a piece of advice I got from a colleague that helps me decide for myself if a job is worth taking. And I use the word job deliberately, as most of the offers that come in and require careful consideration by these guidelines use a word that has come to set off alarm bells in my head: opportunity. If someone offers you something they themselves call a fantastic opportunity, stop and think! It means they are setting themselves up as being a benevolent giver of favours, when more often than not they are asking for a favour themselves (this being you giving your time, effort, commitment, talent, training, etc... for free).

When such 'opportunities' come up, my rule is to check it against the three K's: kicks, kudos, kash.

Kicks - enjoyment, fun, artistic fulfilment. Is it a piece I really want to do? Are these people I'm going to love working with? Will it be a fun process that will also teach me something valuable? Is it for a charity I believe in?

Kudos - exposure. Will I be seen by a lot of people? Will there be important people (critics, casting executives, agents, potential sponsors) in the audience? Will the contacts I make with the company, cast, director, MD, etc over the course of the job lead to me being potentially recommended somewhere else?

Kash - money. Will this job pay my bills? Will it cover my immediate expenses incurred to undertake it (travel to audition, travel to job, dining out, coffee, accommodation)? Does the pay reflect the time I have to put in outside the rehearsal room to learn the material? Does a show fee reflect the fact that on a show day, to deliver my A game, it's best not to be distracted by other work? Does the pay help me offset the costs of my training (college fees, years of not working a steady job but spent honing my craft, the cost of lessons and coachings I undertake on a regular basis to stay on form)? Assess the number of hours/days actually involved in the process and work out the hourly/daily rate they offer and compare it to what you think your time is worth (and if you don't have an idea about that yet, get one!).

Checklist done, and the rule of thumb is to only take jobs that give you two out of the three. There will be exceptions. It's hard to say no to something that makes a very strong monetary argument for example. Or to a friend, or a heart-wrenching charity. However this checklist works for me for most things that aren't an obvious gut-reaction yes or no, and it might work for other people out there as a way of giving a bit of structure to the uhming, ahing, but-ing, and general nervous thinking that often comes with these 'opportunities'.

And remember (WARNING, the following paragraph may be considered by some to be condescending, I apologise in advance), once you say yes to something, whatever it may be, treat it like you would working for ROH. Deliver your A game, because it's your reputation on the line, and you're the one who committed to it by saying yes. I've seen people display really poor attitude on shows that they complained 'weren't real work'. Well, grumble if you must (just make sure you trust who you're venting to), but take the actual work seriously, because in this job word of mouth is king, and I've lost count of the times I've been asked 'Have you worked with X? What is he/she like?'. And I'm not who you'd call an 'important person' in the grand scheme of things. The people who sometimes ask me these questions, however...

In an ideal world we'd always be paid what our time is worth, but the reality is that everyone does freebies. We hope that one day we'll stop... But then again there are friends that I like to believe I will always say yes to if I can only afford to, because I love working with them. I love what I do, and feel fortunate that I'm here doing it thanks to enormous ammounts of support (both moral and financial) from family and generous individuals, trusts, etc. Here's to hoping that this love will develop into a steady career where my job is also my hobby!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The best of Stanislavsky, or how to avoid generalised operatic intensity

We had our first Opera Works input weekend over a week ago now and I've deliberately put off writing this post. There was a lot to take in and I wanted to see what stuck with me the most, especially having now been to see a show armed with the experience of that weekend to see what struck me about what happens on stage from an audience perspective. I now think I know what I want to write about, so let's give it a go.

The weekend was an introduction to Stanislavsky led by Mike Alfreds and Polly Teale, who each took a day with us, working on excerpts of The Seagull and Kindertransport. There's a lot to Stanislavsky, and if someone asked me before this weekend what I thought the essence of that technique is, I'd have said 'actions' (where you assign a verb that you play to every line of text). I can confidently say I'm changing my answer now, it's 'objectives'.

Confused? Let's take a step back. To quote Mike Alfreds: As actors we are trying to recreate in the characters what we feel and do in real life. Simple enough, but how do you do it? What do you play? One of the problems with our intuitive approach to acting is our desire to play emotions, but the only way we can play is by pretending, which is led by our thinking. This is the problem: as people we don't think emotions, we have thoughts that provoke us to feel. Given the instruction 'play sad', most of us will slip into something that may indeed look like sadness, but will most often be generalised and simply not believable. Think am-dram or OTT opera acting. Or if you do tap in to something real, you put yourself at risk, because your body will seize up and you'll be in your own world, not the play's. You just can't really play emotions in any satisfying way.

Why do we feel? What can we tap into that will give us a better chance of conveying something real on stage? As human beings, we are driven throughout our lives by things we want (from the mundane, like a cup of coffee in the morning, to the profound, like a happy family life). We encounter obstacles on our way, which means we are at risk of not getting what we want. It is this that provokes feelings. Put all too simply, if we get what we want - we feel happy, if not - sad.

Mike Alfreds again: Before you go on stage, ask yourself: What do I want? Why am I going on? Why is my character entering the scene? It's so obvious, but watching a show lately and looking closely, I had the feeling hardly anyone on stage had thought about answering these questions. They were playing the lines, they were acting, it was all fine... but there were no stakes and it was just a bit dull. Once or twice someone really tried to play an extreme emotion and it was a bit cringe-worthy... and still dull.

From personal experience of doing exercises with Mike and Polly, if you want something, and play that want in a scene, more often than not you're going to run into another character who will stand in your way. Suddenly, there is an obstacle and you have to play this really involving game of trying to win and get what you came here for despite the interference of the other actor who wants something different. And this sense of competition actually does make you feel! You don't have to pretend.

What's more, your performance will be very much dependent on your partner(s) in the scene. You will constantly have to adapt what you do to how they react to you. The tiniest difference in how they say something can take you down a new road through the scene. Yes, the words will always be the same, as will the music and blocking (more or less). There will be cues to hit. But behind all that you'll be playing a different game, which will stop the whole thing feeling like just another run of the scene. If you're really playing your objective, all the rest of the Stanislavsky method happens quite organically and you don't even have to resort to 'actioning' until you get stuck.

There was a LOT more to the weekend, and the above is just the one thing I don't want myself to forget as I get back to my routine (though hopefully objectives will help me to stop thinking of it as such) of auditions, concerts and productions. For a different take on the weekend, more personal and comprehensive, and very well written, I recommend Lila Palmer's excellent post on the official ENO Opera Works blog: here.

To finish, a few quotes (paraphrased by me) from Mike that I scribbled down (Polly's day was more doing than talking, hence fewer notes):

It is your natural state as characters in operas to sing. It is your default means of communication. It should be completely natural. Not realistic, but natural.

You often find yourself so busy with the difficult bits, the problems, that you take for granted the fragments that are 'allright'. Look at everything!

Ideally you don't want to be thinking about actions, superobjectives, counterobjectives, beats, notes, singing technique, when you're performing. When you're playing a scene give all your focus to your partner. (Otherwise it gets self-indulgent)

If your partner doesn't engage with you, treat it as though it's their character that's doing it. This was in response to a question asked about those colleagues that give you nothing back. The moment they start singing they go misty-eyed and are so deep in 'singer-land' that you'll be lucky if they get the blocking right, let alone give you anything to play off of.

Be truthful to your character, even in small roles or chorus. Don't not play an objective, even if it's as simple as 'I want to deliver this message'.

Have a sense of your own presence. 'I am here'. A sense of you in the space. If you have that, you'll be seen and heard, even in a huge theatre. People these days (huddled over their smartphones) are rarely present, they're folded in on themselves.

Ideally rehearsals are to explore, not to fix things and set them in stone. If you know there won't be time to explore, do as much exploration as you can on your own beforehand.

Have a lot of craft, for use in emergencies.

Start to develop a critical eye when watching performances. Do I believe it? Why / why not? What gave me pleasure? Could it have been better? How? It will mean you'll stop enjoying shows so much, but it enhances your craft.


Thursday, 10 October 2013

The other side of the table

This time of year is when traditionally I write a rant about auditions. I'm going to break out of that somewhat and, rather than rant, I'd like to share some thoughts on what it was like for me last week, when I sat on an audition panel for 3 days. It was a fascinating exercise for me, as it gave me a valuable insight into what those poor people on the other side of the table are going through... and yes, I mean those poor people on the panel. Please remember, I can only write from my own point of view, so I can't speak for every panel, but I have tried to incorporate some things I have been told by various people who are on panels as part of their job, and have just put my personal take on the points often raised in talks on auditioning. So here we go, my observations from listening to 60 singers over 3 days:

1. It's hard to remember people when you have only 10 mins with every person. You know how panels start scribbling on their notepads the moment you settle on a piece and you feel they're not giving you any attention? They're probably writing down what you're singing, and any distinguishing features you may have so that they can recall you quickly when they look over the whole process. This difficulty in remembering leads into the next point:

2. It's hard to stand out. If you're polite, do everything right and sing well, you won't stand out, which is good, because failure in any of the above would make you stand out in the wrong way. Being memorable in the right way is very hard to do, and despite having a few in my mind who were, I'm not sure what exactly they did to be so. I think it's a question of being yourself and putting the panel at ease. The standouts I remember were either very personable and endearing, or confident and willing to take charge of their own audition (in a good way). The latter is tricky to replicate, as you can come across as overbearing... So I think the only piece of advice to glean is this: be yourself, and as relaxed as you can be, and there's nothing wrong with not standing out. It's better than standing out in the wrong way.

3. It's close! When hearing people of a certain standard... they're all of a certain standard. When it comes to who gets something and who doesn't, it's so close you wouldn't believe!  It can come down to a gut feeling of someone on the panel and everyone else going with it. So not getting something does not mean you did a bad audition or didn't belong there or weren't good enough to get anything. It just means that this time you weren't the right person. As a singer I'm taking that one to heart, because it's a lot nicer thinking you weren't the right person than putting your abilities in question and losing faith in yourself. There were people we heard last week who were absolutely amazing, but didn't fit what we had in mind for the roles in this opera... to the point of me thinking 'I wish we were casting a different piece so I could offer this person something!'.

4. Black is not a good colour to wear. When the panel are sitting there for hours on end, a parade of people in black is... well, dreary for one thing, but it also makes it more difficult to remember people (what distinguishing features are they meant to scribble down?). Would you rather be the guy in the pink shirt, or the one with a funny nose?

5. Props and costumes... OK, this may be personal preference, but I think they will put more people off than draw into your performance. It's not what a panel expects, and yes, it will make you stand out if you come dressed as the character you're going for, or bring a prop for your aria, but whether it'll make you stand out in the right way? It's a risk you're welcome to take...

6. Handshakes. You can tell a lot about a person by their handshake. If you do shake hands with the panel, it's a bit like putting all your eggs in one basket, and it has very little to do with singing. Practice handshakes for when a panel encourages them. I had no idea how strong an opinion about someone can be formed from that one touch.

7. It's a lot nicer watching a performance than an audition. Try to think of it as such. Politeness is fine, but a bit of showmanship gives everyone a break from the formality of it all. Just don't overdo it ;)

8. Don't let a botched note put you off. I talked to some of the singers afterwards and they apologised for various cracks, harsh notes, wrong words, etc. I didn't hear more than half of them, and the rest I didn't really care about. It's never about one note, it's about you.

9. It is about you, not just your singing. The panel want to see a person, and ideally that person won't suddenly become just another singer the moment the piano starts. If you can be yourself all the way through your audition, seamlessly changing characters of course, but without that moment of cutting away from your own self, you give yourself the greatest chance of giving the right impression of yourself. Try to be the same person when you walk in, as you are talking to the panel, as you are listening to the intro and singing, and then saying goodbye and walking out.

I loved being on a panel and I loved it most when people sang well. Yes, it made decisions difficult, but it made me get back a bit of faith in the fairness of it all. I could see that if I'm ever rejected from something (and it happens a lot, to everyone), it does not mean I was bad. Or at least not necessarily. If I think I sang well, I can trust myself and put the failure down to... well, anything really: height, build, timbre of voice... but not my abilities. Which is a lot better for my sanity.

I think colleges should run more audition classes and sit students down as 'panel members'. The thing is, it's not really the same unless you're listening to strangers, and a huge group. But it gives people an idea of what it is to be on the other side of that table.

The panel are people too. Be nice to them.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

ENO Opera Works 2013-14

Last week I started the professional development course run by English National Opera. It promises to be great and rewarding year, and I've written a few words about the first day on the Opera Works Blog:

http://enooperaworks.tumblr.com/post/61670690664/introduction-to-opera-works-2013-14

The course runs on weekends once a month, with intensive workshops that I hope to write about here. As we have all been encouraged to keep a journal I think this will count and may be of some interest to you guys. For now, have a look at the link above, and watch this space...

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Shopping for tools - BYO 2013

In the course of the rehearsals that go into a BYO production one can almost forget that it's still a learning environment. Yes, principals and covers get more coaching than you'd expect in a professional company, and the average age is lower (not by far though, in the case of some work I've done), but other than that it runs like pretty much any opera production. Our director for Paul Bunyan, Will Kerley, definitely doesn't want us to forget we're here to learn. He reminds us regularly that all through the process, and even when we leave, we should always be shopping for tools that can help us do the best possible work we can. Be it physical warm ups with the incredible Mandy Demetriou which help us rid ourselves of restrictive tension, watching more experienced colleagues at work, or the words of advice imparted every now and again by the creative team.

Yesterday was our last day in the rehearsal room, and in the build up to our final floor run of the show we got our notes from the last run mixed together with some of those words of advice I mentioned. Luckily, as it was a notes session, I had the opportunity to write some down (Will speaks a fair deal quicker than I type, but I tried my best). Peter Robinson weighed in as well with a few tips on dealing with conductors. I'm going to leave these pregnant sentences pretty much as I wrote them down, as I think the reader's imagination can put them into your personal context better than I can explain them all. Some are quite specific, others fairly abstract, but if you're a performer most of these will have meaning for you. If you're from the other side of the pit, you may find it interesting reading the language that we use and maybe gain an insight into our process. Enjoy!

Will Kerley:

Take possession of the material. It's an act of collective imagination that involves both performers and the audience. If you're broad and clear in your imagination, the audience relax because they know you're driving. Don't let them feel uncomfortable and guessing.

Performative utterances change the state of things, every word changes what the audience see. Will's favourite example seems to be Oberon saying  'I am invisible; And I will overhear their conference.' No one in the audience has any problem accepting his invisibility to the other characters from that point onwards.

Master your props. Props love jumping around, you need to show them who's boss. Every prop you take in your hands does something.

Be aware of the whole picture - you need to be aware of where the audience focus is meant to go.

The material is strange - moments of human truth separated by huge caricature sequences of energy. There needs to be a truth going throughout.

Never apologise.

Get what you need without looks of fear at the conductor.

If you address the audience directly, make sure you talk to different people and include everyone.

Every piece of art needs a combustible mix of spontaneity and discipline.

Doing something gorgeously textured is a trap - it's gorgeous, but can be non-specific, bland. Sound isn't everything. Everything needs to have a deal behind it. Generalised beauty is the bane of opera.

Freelance people tend to keep a constant level of low level work (email, smartphone, score, music). Work when you work, rest when you have a break.

Who is doing good work that I admire? Can I get in touch with them. At this stage of your careers you have a lot of power - there are people who want to help you, because they had help along the way.

What have I planned to say and what is new to me? Play the difference between the 2. Opera tends to default to the latter.

Visible transitions - enjoy them, embrace their theatricality.

Hats can be taken off. They're more prop than costume. Use them.

Playing a 'stupid' character - play the opposite! He's very smart, quick, but the world is a very very complicated place. It's the opposite of people that makes them three dimensional - smiling friendly villains, depressives with moments of joy.

Dialogue - hit the cues, stretch the lines, play humour with a light touch, earn the pauses. Pitch, pace, tone, rhythm are just as important in speech as in music.

Stance - singers tend to set on the balls of their feet, it's more grounded if you take the weight back.

Find the right time to work the right material. Don't just run it over and over again.

Peter Robinson:

Conducting is a method of non verbal communication. Get used to the idea of using the conductor as a source of information. 

It's fine to look at the conductor, except when you pretend you're not. Just include the conductor in the scope of what you're doing. 

A good conductor will be breathing with you and getting the orchestra to do so, he will in essence be on stage with you. 

Don't assume you know the tempo or length of pauses. 

Jan CapiƄski:

Just kidding! Though I do want to add a few thoughts I've had personally that have been inspired by Will's way of working with us, if you'll indulge me:

Don't do other people's worrying for them. Some people love saying 'oh, that'll never work'. Even if they're potentially right, it's not our job as singers to worry about whether something will work, and even if we do, it's rarely our place to say so out loud (exception: safety first!). Rehearsals are a time for trying things out, and undermining an idea can very quickly change a creative atmosphere into one of poo-pooing. There are people whose job it is to make things work technically: directors, stage managers, designers. Go with whatever crazy ideas are thrown into the mix and let them worry about it, they're better at it than you are!

'Keep a tenacious hold on your dreams.' This Will Kerley quote has been the source of some deep(ish) thought for me. Most of the people I've had the pleasure of working with have been just that: a pleasure. Kind, supportive, understanding... There are others though, who make you feel bad about yourself and will turn your dreams (big and little) sour. Often it's not even what they say (to you directly or behind your back), but how they say it or how they look at you. I've been congratulated on performances in such a way that has made me want to give up. They say all the right words, that coming from anyone else would give you wings, but in such a way that it brings you crashing down. Finding a comfortable balance of trust in this business, being able to be open with colleagues about what we want to achieve, is made very difficult by these negative people. It can also be quite easy to become one of them, all it takes is a bad day sometimes. After all, everyone needs to vent now and again. However, if you become that kind of person, you're in this job alone, because (knowingly or not) you push everyone away by tearing them down to build yourself up. I hope I am growing into a more generous artist, because I myself have gained so much from other people's generosity (in advice, energy on stage, good humour, or even allowing me my space when I need it). So many aspects of this business work a lot better with a 'Do unto others...' attitude, I just hope I can deliver that even on the bad days, and never inadvertently step on someone else's dream.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Advice from someone who's been there before

The other day British Youth Opera organised a rather special treat for me: it was one of their LINK sessions, in which cast and covers of a current BYO production get to work with an established professional singer who has done their role before. In my case, covering the Narrator in Britten's Paul Bunyan it was all the more special as I got to spend an hour working with Russell Smythe, who performed it in 1976, which was the first performance of the revised version of the operetta we know today, and unless I'm mistaken only the second ever production of it in history.

The Narrator is a pretty unique role, in that the music he has to sing is pretty simple and not all that interesting in itself, which is probably Britten making sure that whatever happens the audience will be able to hear, understand and follow the words. And my, oh my, are there words... In the course of any one of the three ballads the Narrator pushes the plot along further than the rest of the opera put together, with the songs having literally dozens of verses. 

In my session with Russell we focussed on what we both found to be the major challenges of the role: memory, boredom, clarity of text. We talked about how difficult it was to memorise the vast amount of text set to repetitive music, and although I had already done this work, he described a technique that may help in future (one that he himself didn't know when he did the role, but wishes he had): humming and chewing. The exercise is broken down into the following steps:

1. Humming and chewing: with your lips closed, speak the text while making an exaggerated chewing motion with your jaw and lips. This warms up your speaking apparatus and makes you go through the text without actually hearing it.
2. Repeat this, but randomly let some text come out by opening your mouth. Allow for about 20% of the text to come through.
3. Repeat again, releasing about 50% of the text. You've warmed up your voice and given your mouth a good workout, and also gone through the text 3 times already.
4. Rollercoaster: now speak the text, but modulate the pitch of your voice from the lowest comfortable pitch right up into falsetto like a rollercoaster going up and down. Further warm up for the voice, more muscle memory for the words, and all the time getting the text away from the music in preparation for the next exercises.
5. Greek chorus: imagine you're on stage with someone else who is performing the text, but they do so very quietly. In your mind's eye listen to them, and then act as a conduit projecting their speech to the gods in the theatre - using a loud supported voice and exaggerated diction to make sure everyone in the Festival Hall hears every word. But remember, you're not the performer at this stage, you're just amplification.
6. Mime: now we start to involve the imagination properly. Without speaking, try physicalising the text - miming it as if in a game of charades. However make sure to make the mime big! It'll feed into your imagination when you go on to perform the piece, providing associations and images for the text that will make sure you've memorised it more securely than if you just rely on muscle memory.
7. Repeat the same, but now sing the text on a single pitch, reinforcing the associations.
8. Sing the text, but in a completely different style to the one you will be performing: scat, soul, rap. Take it away from the constraints of the prescribed music and put it firmly in the world of your imagination and musicality.

For a 4-minute piece, you've just spent 32 minutes going through it 8 times, not only memorising the text, but also building up a relationship with it that will keep it alive in your mind when you come to perform it. Time well spent, I'd say, and it helps combat the second problem we discussed with Russell.

With wordy passages it's easy to slip to an operatic default of just singing, and sure, the audience will like the nice noise you make for a while. By verse 6 however, they'll be thinking about what drink they'll have in the interval. Peter Robinson uses a great line when working with us: 'invent the words!'. No matter how many times you've rehearsed, the audience are hearing it for the first time ever, and should believe you're saying it for the first ever time. The Narrator has many many many words - a challenge, but also an opportunity to get away from singer-land and become a real story-teller. Never pass on an opportunity to use a different colour, find moments of contrast, of suspense, jokes... Speaking of jokes, set them up for the audience! Flag up that you're about to say something funny (unless that kills the joke), otherwise if you just smile and wink afterwards and go on to the next line, they'll probably miss it (the ballads are relentless in their lack of rests).

We also had a look at making sure the text was clear. What with the piece being firmly set in the world of American folklore, with a rich poetic text by Auden, a lot of the context will be unfamiliar to a British audience. Words like the whirling whimpus, Yiddish Alps, the logging game, not being something an audience expects to hear, need to be meticulously pronounced and infused with meaning. 

The nice thing was that Russell was in no way imposing his own take on the piece. He was just sympathetic to the challenges he himself had to tackle, and having faced them, and also had a wealth of experience since, he could offer incredibly helpful and practical advice. He also showed me some of his source material, including photos of North American landscapes that inspired him, notes from the 1976 production, and some limericks the cast had written about one another in the rehearsal period and dressing rooms. Unfortunately I was only allowed to look at them from a distance, apparently they were a bit too improper to be read... 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

You have to be like a swan (Ann Murray)

A dreary day in a barn turned into a pretty inspiring experience, thanks to the boundless energy and enthusiasm of Ann Murray DBE, with whom we worked as part of Garsington Opera's offer for their young singers. As ever, I'll include my notes from the session below, in the hope they'll spark someone's imagination. It's always difficult to describe these masterclasses to someone who wasn't there, especially when Ann is one of those people who give plenty of metaphorical examples of what they'd like you to try. Nonetheless before I simply paste the notes, I'll try and describe what I personally got out of the session, both as a participant and observer (though I won't bore you with a blow by blow through my aria!).

The first thing that was a bit of a lightbulb 'ping' for me was when Ann said:
You don't have to be louder than the orchestra, you have to be in front of them.
She meant aurally, not in terms of tempo of course. It's a great way of thinking about it, as it means you don't have to try to fight the ultimately futile 'loudness war' with the band. What saves the day is projection forward. This is as much a question of where you place the voice (nice and brightly forward, ping rather than volume), as of projecting your thought and intention.* The moment you sit back and just 'sing it' it loses life and it doesn't travel past the orchestra. The orchestra provide us with a wave of emotion that we can then surf, and when you surf you're always ahead of the crest of the wave (I assume :P) - in front, anticipating and projecting forward.

An image I loved that referred to how often we take our singing lessons, technical thoughts, hang ups, etc with us into performance was when she said:
You have to be like a swan - we see the grace and elegance, not the diddly-diddly of the paddling feet.

She also repeatedly mentioned housekeeping. This referred to taking it easy in sections that lead up to big phrases, as well as coloratura and simply making sure you're singing every single note. It also came up when Ann pointed out that as singers we can't sing our hearts out for 6 hours a day practicing. We can however spend that time on housekeeping: sorting out our vowels, the pitches, rhythms, writing out and thinking about our words and stories, as well as where you can save energy to have it for the key moments.

Regarding my own singing (to future Jan when he revisits this post), though it came up with pretty much every singer today, Ann was very particular that we keep all vowels in the centre of the voice, or conversely get into the centre of every vowel. I was singing in French and working way too hard on working hard to keep the vowels correct/idiomatic and where I needed them to sing the key top notes and ends of phrases (and these two did not always match up in my first attempts). What she said was that all the notes are closer than I think, in the same place. Especially notes that are close together on the page (pitch wise) should be close to each other vocally. It's so easy to overcomplicate these things...

Finally, she said something to me that rang very true and was a much needed boost for me.
Sound young! You'll have more years being as old as me than being as young as you, so make the most of it.
Having had a fair bit of feedback recently from auditions saying that my voice sounds too young (not undeveloped, for the same feedback commented on my fine singing and impressive vocal technique :P), this was very nice to hear. It's strange, but I notice that panels do often like male singers to sound...overly mature? But I even had the thought watching Cardiff Singer of the World: Wow, I'd rather be 30 and sound 25 than be 25 and sound 50! So to have this reinforced by Ann was great, because apart from anything else, it'll give me the confidence to stop myself from manufacturing 'mature colours'.

Anyway, that's enough from me! Tiny disclaimer regarding earlier paragraph, and then on to notes...

* I must stress this is my personal interpretation of what I heard and felt in the room, Ann herself did not go into technique as such, and was adamant that everything that she offered was an exercise for the moment and to be taken or left as we see fit.

Notes:
Domesticate it - find the situation you're in and play the story.
Don't be self-indulgent, make the audience come to you.
Long upbeats! Every note on the page needs to be heard.
Don't get tempted to think 'I can really sing it so I'll just plonk these notes in'.
React to the music and ride the wave of emotion it provides.
The big notes will sing themselves, take care of the short ones.
Don't think A B A B, it's not four sections, every section is a story.
Think of the consonant sitting at the bottom rather than trying to lift it on a jump, as it may disconnect.
If you put too much on the bottom note it's difficult to lift it up, especially if you're going for tenderness.
Keep all vowels in the centre of the voice.
Coloratura can't be sloppy or swoopy. Get on your vowel and stay on it, don't modify unnecessarily and stay in the centre of each small note.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

What are we paying for, and is it what we need?

In any venue the Green Room is always a hub for interesting conversations. During the interval of our last performance of Maometto secondo one such discussion really stuck in my mind and I’ve been wrestling with the subject for a while now. We were talking about college, conservatoires, in the UK and abroad, now and back when our principals (one of whom now teaches at one of the UK’s leading music colleges) were students. 

The conservatoire route is still the standard way into the singing profession, but there are some troubling tendencies plainly visible on the music college scene: 
- fees are constantly rising
- year groups are getting larger (especially at post-graduate level, and I know that’s strange considering the ever-growing costs of study)
- the amount of individual tuition is being cut across the board

I came to the UK having studied in Poland, where I had 3 singing lessons a week (with an accompanist), along with 4-6 hours of language coaching (and learning the languages, not just phonetics) in small groups, had 30-36 hours/week of classes (drama, dance, music skills, etc) when we weren’t in production, and did not pay a grosz for it (education in Poland is still nominally free).

Why did I come here then? Well, the standard of teaching in Britain is a lot higher. You may get less time with your singing teacher and coach, but get a lot more done. The arts scene is also a lot more vibrant, which means that you are more stimulated to work hard. If you can afford it, I’d still say this is the best place to study music I’ve come across.

However, with fees going up and groups getting bigger, there is more and more money being pumped into the system by us, the students. Part of this is of course offsetting the cuts to funding that conservatoires have suffered, but from an end-user standpoint are we getting our money’s worth?

One of our Maometto principals said: ‘They’re spending too much on opera productions’. Wow! Brave words. The operas put on at colleges are the most visible effect of their work, they are the living posters of a course. Full period costumes, lavish (by my Polish standards) sets, full orchestras and technical teams, frequently A-list directors and conductors. They are fantastic and great fun to be in as well as to watch. But do they teach us enough to justify the cost? Could the same learning outcomes not be achieved in a minimalist black box studio setting where the performers can’t hide behind production values and have to convey everything with their singing and stagecraft? The money saved could go into increasing the teaching provision...

Every singer who’s been to music college knows that when there’s an opera on, college life stops. You can barely fit your 1:1 lessons in around the production schedule, forget about languages, movement, etc. Even if you could go, you’re too tired to fully benefit. Don’t get me wrong, productions teach you a lot:
- stamina
- pacing yourself through a rehearsal period
- exploring an opera in depth
- the physicality of wearing different period costumes
- working with an orchestra
- working with a technical crew
- working with theatre lights
- learning professional etiquette
However apart from the first 2, most of these can be picked up reasonably quickly ‘on the job’, as long as you are confident in your own skills in terms of singing and acting. A black-box production gives you almost as much of an education in all these aspects as a full production, for what must surely be a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately it doesn’t work as well in a prospectus photo-spread...

I don’t intend to ramble on about this for much longer, and I hope I'm not coming across as ungrateful. I’ve enjoyed college life immensely, especially the opera productions. I’ve learnt from both the big ones and the shoe-string-budget ones that come up in college or with small companies outside. I still think the conservatoire route gives one the best environment in which to grow as an artist, especially in a culturally vibrant country like the UK. This post is just meant to infect you with some of the doubts I’ve been struggling with since that Green Room discussion. And I’ll leave you with one final observation:

The most prestigious operatic finishing schools most college graduates aspire to, with dozens of singers competing for each coveted place, have built their reputations based on offering staggering amounts of individual coaching, not on presenting high-budget shows. The National Opera Studio is a prime example, but a similar philosophy lies behind the Jette Parker YAP at the Royal Opera House, or even Dennis O’Neill’s Academy of Voice (whatever name it operates under). The students at all of these do perform, they perform a lot! But they perform in stripped down settings that put the focus on them and what they’ve learnt through endless hours of coaching, not on production values. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Imagine you're singing with me.

I haven't often had the opportunity to be in an opera chorus, and I have to admit I'm finding this season at Garsington Opera to be a bit of a re-education. I remember my last foray into the crowd-scene world: the Banff Opera Festival, where our director Kelly Robinson (currently directing Guildhall's Owen Wingrave) told us why he thinks the chorus plays a vital part in any opera. He said we create the world that the main characters inhabit, and it's down to the chorus whether that world is alive and vibrant and gives the story a place to come to life. The production we did then (John Estacio's Lillian Alling) was all about the title character's journey across the North American continent, and the chorus had to create a completely different world for every place she visited, and this involved a lot more than simple costume changes.

We have a similar challenge in Garsington this year, with the men of the Maometto Secondo chorus having to portray a huge contrast between a desperate Venetian militia defending the doomed city of Negroponte and the invading Turkish horde. Throughout the rehearsal process we were exploring how to make that contrast as stark as possible, without falling into the trap of making the Venetians so pathetic as to be dramatically and musically dull (the impact of a introvert physicality on your singing is unexpectedly huge!). It was very rewarding to hear people commenting on the success of that after last night's dress rehearsal.

We were thrown an unexpected curve-ball by the venue itself though. Garsington Opera has it's roots in the open-air country-house opera tradition, and although we perform in a purpose-built acoustically stunning building, the walls are transparent and most of the show is performed in the daylight, with the sun only setting in the second act. This means there is little that can be done in terms of lighting until well into the later half of the performance, and as our director Edward Dick pointed out to us - the chorus have an additional job: directing the audience's attention in the way that the lighting design would normally guide people's focus.

I'll admit to a passing sense of frustration initially, when trying to navigate between creating the aforementioned personalities of the Venetians and Turks, and being told that what we were doing was too much and distracting. It was only when we entered the venue and I fully realised what we were dealing with that I really understood the importance of not drawing the audience's attention away from the story of the main protagonists. In the daylight, the public can see every tiny detail on stage and every little move registers! It really i quite uncanny if you're used to how it works in a conventional theatre, where a subtle spotlight solves the problem of where we want the audience to look.


Does this mean the chorus have to just stand there and look at the principals? Well, yes and no (with a huge lean towards 'no'). There's a world of difference between just standing there and being there with the purpose of giving focus. The amount of still attention required is (for someone used to either being an active principal, or part of a lively - if dimly lit - crowd) astonishing. You may be still, but you have to listen to every word, breathe every breath, feel every intention that the main character is going through. Otherwise you will find your attention drifting, and run the risk of pulling the audience away with you. It's a lot harder to create an energised still tableau than one might think, and the key seems to be in mentally joining in the principals' journey, both musically and dramatically.

Paul Nilon (singing Erisso) captured it best when he said: Imagine you're singing with me. It really does keep you energised, breathing with the story, and (when watching someone with as exceptional a technical command of the voice as he does) teaches you a lot about performing at the same time.


Monday, 20 May 2013

Make it easy for them

It's been a while. My only excuse is that I have recently had a shoulder operation and typing with my arm in a sling wasn't comfortable. Besides, I don't think you've missed much, as I try to keep this blog less a journal these days than a diary of useful thoughts. This is why I'm not going to attempt to catch you all up on my life since the last post, although perhaps I'll revisit this year's BYO Easter Workshops in a separate post, and if you see me in person please ask me about my trip to Ischia (performing The Bear in the house it was composed in!!!). What I'm going to focus on today is some basic stuff that all singers (and even non-singers) probably know already, but there's never any harm in reminding yourself.

All that follows is courtesy of Sarah Playfair and Garsington Opera, with whom I'm fortunate to be working this Summer. The company has organised us a series of talks that we can attend, and the first one of these was on a 'getting your foot in the door' theme. The first thing Sarah touched on was the 'first approach', when a young, unknown singer attempts to contact a company to get an audition, or wants to appear on their radar some other way.

Make yourself findable online.
Apparently companies do look up names that are mentioned to them. If you've worked with an external director or conductor in college, or done a show outside, and made any kind of impression, there is a chance you will be mentioned to someone in a position of power (in a casting capacity, not evil mastermind or politician). Similarly if such a person happens to see you perform, they will want to find out more about you. Make it easy for them. Have a website, no matter how minimal, that gives them a bit of information about you along with your contact details (for technophobes, a quick tip, be careful when putting your email address on the site, as you may get a tonne of spam - guard against it by using hyperlinks). Your professional name should ideally be part of both your website address and your email. Once you have your website, keep it up to date and expand it as necessary. There's nothing worse than finding a site that hasn't been updated in months. Think of your website as part business card and part CV.

Think hard about how you write an email to a company.
So you want to audition to people? You'll have to write to ask them to hear you. Don't send a 'hi everyone!' email to all the agents and opera companies you can find. It looks awful. Take the time to research who you're writing to, how these people want to be contacted by prospective auditionees (don't write to the artistic director, it'll probably get lost), attach what they want (if in doubt stick to your CV), write politely.

CVs.
When writing your CV, bear in mind what it's supposed to do: make it easy for the reader to get the relevant information about you at a glance. Yes, it's nice to stand out from a stack of identical documents, but it's a lot easier to stand out in a negative sense than a positive one (the tactics seen in Legally Blonde may not guarantee success). Avoid too many different fonts and colours. Keep it clear. There's no need for a huge photo, it can be distracting and also bumps up the file size when you attach it to an email (try to keep this under 300kB and in .pdf format to ensure the recipient sees it the way you designed it). Check and recheck your spelling, taking extra care with foreign names of roles and operas (accents, capital letters, etc). Make the things that matter stand out (easier said than done if you're sticking to a chronological listing).

Things to include in your CV:
- your age (don't lie! - if you feel tempted to, just don't include it; if you came into singing late, say so)
- training
- teachers (some people don't like to know though, you can't please everyone)
- performances (with dates!)
- languages you speak or can sing in
- full roles you've studied
- your working status in the UK (or whatever country you're applying to)
- a photo
- relevant skills (first aid, acrobatics, dance, playing an instrument, etc)

Don't include:
- education prior to music college unless it's relevant
- reviews (if you feel the need to brag, put them on your website)
- only include your religion if it's relevant (ie if it influences the way you work)

When attaching your CV to an email, be aware that it'll probably be filed by the company. Make it easy for them by making your name the beginning of the file name, and include the date of the CV.

On a personal note I can confirm that companies do file CVs! I sent mine to a company a year ago, never got an audition, however they offered me a job a month ago due to being in dire need of baritones. I couldn't take the job, that's life, but it is positive proof that if your information is easy to find, good things can come of it.

Auditions.
We didn't go into these in great detail, but here are some tips to bear in mind:
- don't offer repertoire you know the company simply doesn't perform
- you can't know what companies are looking for, and unfortunately it is a buyers market, so if you don't get something, don't let it get you down - there's probably nothing you could have done
- there are very few people who get in everywhere straight out of college, don't assume you'll be one of them, assume you're one of the majority who'll have to work for it (it's down to luck as well as talent)
- try to maintain your sanity
- be nice in the audition, and this includes the stewards and other auditionees

Sarah told the story of when they were casting the Kenneth Branagh film of The Magic Flute, and the steward in that case was Kenneth Branagh's best friend and reported back on everyone and how they behaved outside the audition room, which did lead to someone not being cast!

Being asked back.
Once you get a job, make sure they'll want to work with you again: prepare, don't distract people when they're working (as a lot of this job is sitting around and waiting, find something to do that is discreet), be nice to everyone involved (opera is a team effort and everyone is of equal value). Make it easy for them to work with you.

It may all seem obvious, but apparently a lot of people haven't gotten this memo yet, so I'm just doing my bit to spread the good word.

I realise that this is a post just for singers, so I'll try and make the next one more interesting for everyone else. How about 'A day in the life of an opera chorus'?

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Gospel according to Maxwell

Our Lucretia rehearsals are approaching the point of complete runs of the show. To mark this occasion, our director sat us down to have a talk about opera in general. Just one of the perks of having Donald Maxwell at the helm of this production: he's always in a bit of a 'teacher' mode, or as he himself said today:

'I wouldn't want you to get hung up on the hurdles you have to jump. There are a lot of hurdles in opera. My job is to hopefully remove as many of these as I can, so you can focus on giving a good performance.'

While he was speaking specifically about his approach to directing Lucretia (where the hurdles in question are complex music, the looming title, a wordy libretto and the odd slow scene where at first glance there doesn't seem to be much happening), I think it's a good way of describing his attitude as a teacher and mentor.

Here's what struck me in today's talk (the title of this post is what Donald later called the session):

On the subject of acting in opera, Donald (having a reputation as stage-animal extraordinaire) said that there are remarkably few people who naturally integrate it seamlessly into their performance so that you don't see any hint of the mechanics involved in singing. Names mentioned include Natalie Dessay and Suzanne Murphy. He once said that to achieve that level you need either phenomenal skill or tremendous courage, preferably both. So what about the vast majority who don't have it as a natural gift? The answer seems to be osmosis. It only takes one great actor in a cast to elevate everyone else, just by offering what comes as natural to them on stage, the others pick it up and go with it. Donald described what was a hugely beneficial part of his own career: singing duets, especially with a partner whose skill set complemented his own. In duets you are constantly watching the other person, focussing on them, rather than yourself. Then you can incorporate what you see them do into your own palette of skills. When performing arias, on the other hand, all you end up thinking is:
'Well, I've stood still for a while now, I think I'll move my arm... Oh, that doesn't really work, does it? Maybe if I add the other... Oh dear, that's awful! What am I doing?'
At this point we all burst out laughing, because I think that thought process is terrifyingly familiar to all singers!
One final observation on acting is one that's easy to forget: 'Sometimes simple is enough.'

We now have a fairly set blocking for the opera, and what Donald wants from us now is to inhabit it and give our takes on these characters, within the framework of the sometimes precise moves we've been given. He says it's easy to forget in conservatoires, that it's not a test, it's a performance. In every audience there's always someone who doesn't know the opera, may never have been to an opera, didn't read the programme, etc. That's who we're performing for. And we should enjoy it!

He encouraged us to develop skills that will increase our employability: diligence in preparation, openness in rehearsal, readiness to try even the strangest of ideas, courtesy, etc. The days of divas are over, what makes people want to work with you is your dependability. On the subject of employment in general, he also said to take whatever work comes your way, as long as you can sing it. There's no point getting hung up on fachs and ideal roles, as you may never get your dream part. As for offers you think may be an odd choice for your voice, physique or character... Well, the person offering you the job wants you, so who are you to second guess them?

Then came a difficult topic: what if you're not succeeding? What if you're not a star a year out of college? Donald reckons there are three questions you need to ask yourself:
1. Am I improving technically?
2. Am I getting work?
3. Am I enjoying what I do?
If you have 2 out of the 3, you're fine. With just 1, give yourself 12 months and then see where you are. If it hasn't improved, then maybe it's time to...

OK, that was the sermon, now for a reward: quotes and stories!

'Opera can often turn into a person delivering a lot of intensity while singing, and that's not the same as acting.' Those who know the opera may remember there is a section where the Male Chorus describes Tarquinius' thoughts as he comes to the decision to go to Rome and test Lucretia's virtue. After we ran the scene for the first time, Donald commented on my performance: 'This is one of those scenes that can turn into you acting out intensity.' To be fair, I was mostly listening to our tenor and gazing intently out into the middle distance... He offered a solution:
'Tarquinius is drunk, and you know how when you're drunk you get these ideas that seem so good at the time. Maybe think of yourself as a lad on a night out in Cardiff who's just thought: I want chips! And I know where they make the best chips - Swansea! That's what I'll do, I'll go to Swansea! And while I'm there I think I'll have a kebab... Yeah! That'll be great!'
For those of you who see the show, try to forget that. It's a good scene, and the audience don't need to know I'm thinking of chips and a kebab...

On singing 'goodnight' over and over: 'I think the intention for Tarquinius is: Wow, she's even better looking than I remembered, I came here with a purpose, but this is going to be fun as well! You know, the usual baritone stuff.'

On NAs: 'Ah yes, there's always that moment when a cast member shuffles over to the DSM and whispers: Just so you know, I will succumb to a sudden short-term illness next Tuesday between 4 and 6 PM'

'If you're not getting any notes from the director or conductor, don't assume they're not watching you, allow yourself to believe it's because you're doing everything right.'

Saturday, 23 February 2013

When to say 'no'

For those waiting for more Donald Maxwell stories, rest assured I am writing them down, but on this particular occasion I'm going to write about something else: when to say 'yes' and when to say 'no'.

Now I feel I should start off by saying that I personally have no idea, and tend to err on the side of 'yes', and it's all been fine so far, in fact if I hadn't jumped on an opportunity in December by (perhaps foolishly) accepting a concert with only one day to learn half of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, I would probably not be in the fortunate position of having an agent. Let me stress however that the whole adventure was a very stressful experience and a bit of a gamble: I learn music fairly quickly these days, but I'm no sight-reading machine and I don't feel comfortable if I haven't spent time to prepare to the point of excess. Despite my discomfort during the gig in question, however, I delivered and scored a significant win!

You'd think this was a great argument for the 'always say yes' approach. Maybe not... I was recently told off for taking on too much, and although this didn't refer to my singing per se, but rather my volunteer work for Opera'r Ddraig during a time of audition madness (which is still going on, in fact, I'm writing this on the train to London for 2 auditions in 1 day!). At the time I thought little of it, I fulfilled my commitments to Ddraig, sang two auditions to the best of my ability (I mean this in a good way: I sang as well or better than I ever have in auditions... Didn't succeed in one, but that just goes to show a singer's career is rarely an out and out success story), and all was well. But now, a couple of weeks of rehearsals and auditions later, I'm tired.

Not vocally, but mentally. With a recent injury stopping me from getting out on the water to paddle, I find my life revolving solely on singing, and to be honest I've had enough. If I'm not rehearsing or auditioning, I'm learning new repertoire for upcoming projects, travelling, looking for accommodation for the Summer rehearsal period, or going to the opera (fun, but not really a moment of 'switching off'). I even find myself talking to friends, or what's worse my girlfriend, only about singing...

So I've decided to do something that I have never done before: pull out of a gig without any health reason. In hindsight I should have cancelled the moment it became apparent that the concert was to be the day after the final show of Lucretia (of 3 in a row) and leave me barely a day off before starting rehearsals for The Bear with a contemporary song cycle looming as well. I feel bad, but my diary is still not really my own until I leave college, so a degree of prioritising is necessary and as I'm learning the value of taking it easy every now and again, I am beginning to appreciate the value of saying 'no' when necessary, and actually trying to preempt potential crises.

Is there a point I'm driving towards? Um... Not really. When do you say 'yes' and when do you say 'no'? Who knows... Say 'yes' whenever you can, and 'no' whenever you have to.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Learning to think operatically.

As college life settles into the familiar steady tempo of the Spring opera production, outside the rehearsal room I can feel that the dreaded 'real world' is drawing ever nearer. This will be my last big opera at the RWCMD, apart from Walton's The Bear which I am lucky enough to be singing in the composer's house in Ischia over Easter... but that's far away and doesn't really involve the college production machine, so for all intents and purposes The Rape of Lucretia will be my last hurrah as a student here in Cardiff.

We've just completed the first week of rehearsals and have a good sketch of Act 1 as a starting point for when we move into larger rehearsal spaces. It's a challenging piece, with difficult music, a libretto thick with metaphor and an overarching problem with the title: it gives everything away! The audience know what's going to happen from the moment they see the show advertised. Then they read the programme and know that it'll be my character doing the deed. In fact they may be disappointed with the first act, because not that much really happens, and with that title hanging over the whole thing the static slow-paced action turns into quite a tense experience. You know there's a storm brewing, but can't really see or hear it, there's just something in the air, but you still sort of hope the weather-man has got it wrong...

Or at least that's how it feels in my head, how I'd like the audience to feel. And yet as a performer it's so easy to fall into the trap of playing a villainous violent arrogant rapist from the outset. The Act 2 rape scene dominates the entire piece for me. It's so intense that I found it difficult to learn quickly, reading it drained me after half an hour, I couldn't get through more than a couple of pages a day... And I wouldn't normally call myself a slow learner!

It's learnt now, thankfully, and we'll be working on it when I return from auditions next week. I have to say, even after only one week, working on this opera has been a great experience and I can see it's going to teach me more about stagecraft than I've learned in my 10 years in music colleges! This is thanks to one man, our director: Donald Maxwell. 

For those who don't know who Donald is, perhaps this story will give you an idea: We were discussing the musical difficulties of Britten's score, and Donald said:
'It's not uncommon for things to go wrong in this music, even in shows, so it's important to know how to get back in. You may see this in today's dress rehearsal of Lulu, which is a much trickier opera.' 
This lead me to ask if he had been in Lulu himself (it's not very often performed), to which he said that he had. As a joke I asked:
'Donald, are there any operas you haven't been in?'
'Well yes... There are... Although I can't seem to think of any right now.'
While I'm pretty sure Donald isn't out to compete with Domingo in how many roles he has under his belt, he has a wealth of experience that few singers can match, and this stems from the fact that he is in constant demand as a brilliant singing actor, and having seen him on stage I can attest first hand that he is formidable in both aspects of that term.

So that's our director! It's my first time being directed by a singer, and it's straight into being directed by someone who's performed my role, no less... And it is fantastic, a true learning experience, because Donald relates what we do in rehearsal to other applications outside our production. Every session is crammed with useful tips and universal life-savers, as well as illustrative stories. I'll be writing down the gems to post here as regularly as I can. Here's the first one:

 Have the courage to not engage with other people.

What? Sacrilege! Everyone knows these days it's 'director's opera' and that naturalism rules! Well, as Donald put it: 'Natural doesn't always work for opera.' There's a certain energy and communication one needs in opera, which is where the phrase 'think operatically' comes from. This energy and communication need to reach the audience, who are separated from the action by the stage, the pit and however far they're sitting (depending on how cheap their seats). They want to see our faces (I know I do) and although in real life we always look at the person we're talking to, if you put that on stage and have to turn side-on, you're cutting yourself off from half the audience, who'll only see the back of your head. 

Of course, there's a line, and Donald is the last person to advocate 'park & bark'. You try and keep it as natural as possible with a clever use of angles and stage geography, but as a performer, you sometimes have to have the courage to deliver a line with your back to the character you're speaking to and do so with supreme confidence in the fact that you're communicating strongly enough for the audience to not even notice it's not quite naturalistic.

Still sounds artificial? Well, it wouldn't if you'd seen Donald demonstrating it. In fact it often looked more natural his way than the naturalistic way. 

This stretches also to how we time our movement and speech/singing. There was one moment where Collatinus had to deliver a line stoping someone else, which involved him standing up from his seat. Well, in real life we'd stand up as we say 'Stop!', as would probably be the case in straight theatre. In opera, it looks a lot better if you stand up and then deliver the line.

I think this has to do with how time passes differently when there's music involved, especially as singing is for the most part slower than speech. Keeping our bodies moving at their normal speeds means that they will simply get ahead of our words and we'll either end up stuck waiting for the words to catch up, or we'll have to put in extra movement. 

Opera's never going to be naturalistic, and those who try and make it so are fighting a losing battle. It's all about how close you can get to something the audience relates to, which is usually something that looks natural and harmonious. But if we're taking speech and cranking it a notch up by turning it into singing, surely we have to do the same with movement and gesture, so that they all match.

I could go on, but I've already expanded what was a couple of offhand comments by Donald into a huge debate with myself... I''m still at the stage where I have to think these things through, for him it's just the way he is. 

It's going to be a great 6 weeks!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Discovering the Wheel (A week with John Fisher)

I think 'privileged' is the only word that accurately describes how we all feel this week at the RWCMD. Since Monday we have been lucky enough to be working extensively with John Fisher, who I think must be one of the world's leading vocal coaches. Perhaps best known to the public as Chairman of the jury of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, he has held senior posts at such opera companies as La Scala in Milan, The Met in New York, La Fenice in Venice,  De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, WNO here in Cardiff, as well as working as a producer for Decca Records and Deutsche Grammophon. He regularly works with the best singers in the world, but this week we had him almost all to ourselves (well, to be fair we shared him a little with the NOS trainees, but still...). Apart from a public masterclass, he worked individually with all us MA Opera students, and I was fortunate enough to get two such sessions, as well as sit in on several others.


As ever, I will paste a list of my notes from the week below for my own future reference, and perhaps to serve as inspiration to anyone who might be reading, but first I'll try to briefly summarise what this week has all been about. What exactly is the mysterious Wheel in the title?

As John pointed out repeatedly during the week, what we do all stems from the text. The music and our singing is all about conveying the energy of the text, which is why he emphasised the importance of figuring out how the composer set about setting the words. It's not enough to do what's on the page, you have to understand why it's there in the first place: find the reason for every marking the composer gives us. Learn to speak the text in an energised way that's fully aware of what you're saying before you even sing a note. Then when we eventually get to the singing part, we get on the Wheel, and once on, we don't get off. It's aways turning, feeding energy into the text, the notes, the rests, phrases, the orchestra, the audience and then back to us, our support, breath, voice, text, notes, rests, phrases, audience, etc.

It sounds vague, but standing there and working with the man it all made sense to me, and I saw both in myself and my colleagues how much we lose by stopping at a rest for example, or not letting a longer note live, bloom and travel, or how much more effective and impressive it is to LET a note sound rather than MAKE it sound (it's as if the Wheel hits an obstacle, jars, rather than glides smoothly on). It is taxing, in that it requires us never to lose concentration. You can never stop thinking about energising what you're doing, even when you're not singing (or especially then, the silences are often more important than the notes). But that concentration saves us a lot of inefficient muscular work, like when we have to restart with every phrase rather than stay on the Wheel.

Another thing I noticed was how complicated we sometimes make life for ourselves. A couple of times, after introducing a new approach and asking a singer how it felt, John was surprised to hear us say: 'it feels less in control'. He always replied that it is in fact more in control, more supported, and that's certainly how it sounded to listeners. Why then did we feel out of control? I think it's because doing a lot of hard work, which John would deem unnecessary (unhelpful even, like over-modifying vowels), gives the illusion of control.

For me personally, this was one of the most valuable insights: don't work harder than you have to just to feel more in control. Another was the feeling of sending out a ball of energy at the end of every phrase, energising the rest to prepare for the next phrase (even if there isn't one)*. The next was preempting top notes, making sure that they come into their own (or in other words: the vowel sounds out) where they are written. This sometimes means anticipating them slightly, to stop myself from hitting them because I feel I'm late in making the sound. All that, and of course the Wheel ;)

* If my Head of Department ever reads this, she's bound to go 'That's what I've been telling him for years!'... I hope it's of some consolation to her that (fingers crossed) the penny has finally dropped :)

Once again, I want to reiterate how amazing it has been to start the new term off on such a strong note. I leave you with my favourite John Fisher quote:

'It's simple!!! That doesn't mean it's easy...'

And now for the random and confusing notes:

- When changing styles, you don't change how you sing.
- The end of a phrase energises the next one.
- Vowels are simpler than you think, even closed ones or 'dark' ones can be placed on the mask, without too much jaw work.
- Always put in the work before going to singing: text, why it's set a certain way, differentiating repeats. - Take a second to think about what the composer meant.
- When you arrive on a long note, don't take a break: immediately lift it, energise.
- What we do is chamber music, whatever the forces involved: the 'accompaniment' informs what you do and vice versa.
- Never apologise. Long notes need to reach the other side of the hill.
- Never sing the diphthongs, stay on the vowel as long as possible. Also, don't anticipate consonants.
- Don't make it happen, let it happen!
- Be aware of your body and posture when studying.
- 'U' vowels are very friendly vowels, as are 'i' vowels, but people seem to be afraid of them.
- Sing notes as if you're never going to leave them, even if they're short (intention, not length).
- Final notes: throw them up, let them fly, and then end by catching them, ready for the next throw.
- When taking a half step back in dynamic, increase the energy.
- Motivate before you sing. Breathe, motivate, sing.
- Imagine and visualise the vowel before placing it.
- It's simple! Doesn't mean it's easy...
- Bel canto: it's all about the vowels: the vowel must speak where the note is written, so the preceding consonant belongs to the previous note.
- Imagine the orchestra can't play without the energy you give them.
- A rest doesn't always equate to a breath. Neither does a comma. You can observe both without breathing. Too many short breaths may lead to shallowing the breathing, which leads to tension.
- Accents in bel canto are in the vowel, nothing to do with the consonant.
- A portamento isn't a slide, it's a link.
- If you make a decision to do something (optional top note) then flaunt it. If you can't, don't do it.
- When you're intimate, increase the energy.
- If you want to bring the audience to you (intimate moments) you do it with your support, the energy of your sound feeds back to the support, like a wheel that winds and reels the audience in.
- In cadential figures where you have a fermata on a first note, allow it to establish before you move off it to embellish.
- Even in recit, where we have some liberty, rhythms should be respected, especially rhythmic proportions.
- Use the energy of the word, the intention. Never try to make more sound, it'll happen on its own.
- It's not about the voice, it's about the energy and the text.
- When preparing, you need to get as close to the language as possible. Never underestimate the value of the grunt work.
- Sometimes when you see an interval you think you have to change something and shift position to make it. 9 times out of 10 you don't have to do anything.
- 'Oh' is not a word, it's a vocalisation of an emotion, so you have to decide what the emotion is, feel it and energise it before you sing the 'oh'.
- When there are short notes, don't short-change the vowel, or it becomes a diphthong or gets lost.
- Your imagination will do a lot of the work for you: imagine what you want to do (the sound you want) and then let it happen, don't make it happen by working the muscles.
- At the ends of phrases the energy always goes up, which will help if you 'don't know how to come off a note'.
- In combination vowels in German, find the pure vowel before moving into the diphthong. 
- The pauses between phrases are as important if not more important than the singing. They need more energy than when singing.
- With a leap, put consonants on the lower level and use them to bounce up and lift. Make sure they sound on the vowel where they are written (you may have to anticipate them).

'More! We want to hear it! You're pleading with him... Beat him into submission with the top note.'

'Don't feel you have to to modify. Just take the step and let the sound flower.'


On auditions:
Don't do them if you don't feel 200% in control. Think carefully about arias: 4-5, contrasting etc. but they have to be things you love and enjoy singing.
There's never one moment you will feel 'Yes! Now I am ready'.
You have to have something to say, being correct is not enough.
Don't get paranoid, try not to cancel if you're working and are ill, but when it comes to auditions, if you're not feeling 100%, don't do them.