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

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!

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