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

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... 

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