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

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.