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.'