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

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...