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

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The best of Stanislavsky, or how to avoid generalised operatic intensity

We had our first Opera Works input weekend over a week ago now and I've deliberately put off writing this post. There was a lot to take in and I wanted to see what stuck with me the most, especially having now been to see a show armed with the experience of that weekend to see what struck me about what happens on stage from an audience perspective. I now think I know what I want to write about, so let's give it a go.

The weekend was an introduction to Stanislavsky led by Mike Alfreds and Polly Teale, who each took a day with us, working on excerpts of The Seagull and Kindertransport. There's a lot to Stanislavsky, and if someone asked me before this weekend what I thought the essence of that technique is, I'd have said 'actions' (where you assign a verb that you play to every line of text). I can confidently say I'm changing my answer now, it's 'objectives'.

Confused? Let's take a step back. To quote Mike Alfreds: As actors we are trying to recreate in the characters what we feel and do in real life. Simple enough, but how do you do it? What do you play? One of the problems with our intuitive approach to acting is our desire to play emotions, but the only way we can play is by pretending, which is led by our thinking. This is the problem: as people we don't think emotions, we have thoughts that provoke us to feel. Given the instruction 'play sad', most of us will slip into something that may indeed look like sadness, but will most often be generalised and simply not believable. Think am-dram or OTT opera acting. Or if you do tap in to something real, you put yourself at risk, because your body will seize up and you'll be in your own world, not the play's. You just can't really play emotions in any satisfying way.

Why do we feel? What can we tap into that will give us a better chance of conveying something real on stage? As human beings, we are driven throughout our lives by things we want (from the mundane, like a cup of coffee in the morning, to the profound, like a happy family life). We encounter obstacles on our way, which means we are at risk of not getting what we want. It is this that provokes feelings. Put all too simply, if we get what we want - we feel happy, if not - sad.

Mike Alfreds again: Before you go on stage, ask yourself: What do I want? Why am I going on? Why is my character entering the scene? It's so obvious, but watching a show lately and looking closely, I had the feeling hardly anyone on stage had thought about answering these questions. They were playing the lines, they were acting, it was all fine... but there were no stakes and it was just a bit dull. Once or twice someone really tried to play an extreme emotion and it was a bit cringe-worthy... and still dull.

From personal experience of doing exercises with Mike and Polly, if you want something, and play that want in a scene, more often than not you're going to run into another character who will stand in your way. Suddenly, there is an obstacle and you have to play this really involving game of trying to win and get what you came here for despite the interference of the other actor who wants something different. And this sense of competition actually does make you feel! You don't have to pretend.

What's more, your performance will be very much dependent on your partner(s) in the scene. You will constantly have to adapt what you do to how they react to you. The tiniest difference in how they say something can take you down a new road through the scene. Yes, the words will always be the same, as will the music and blocking (more or less). There will be cues to hit. But behind all that you'll be playing a different game, which will stop the whole thing feeling like just another run of the scene. If you're really playing your objective, all the rest of the Stanislavsky method happens quite organically and you don't even have to resort to 'actioning' until you get stuck.

There was a LOT more to the weekend, and the above is just the one thing I don't want myself to forget as I get back to my routine (though hopefully objectives will help me to stop thinking of it as such) of auditions, concerts and productions. For a different take on the weekend, more personal and comprehensive, and very well written, I recommend Lila Palmer's excellent post on the official ENO Opera Works blog: here.

To finish, a few quotes (paraphrased by me) from Mike that I scribbled down (Polly's day was more doing than talking, hence fewer notes):

It is your natural state as characters in operas to sing. It is your default means of communication. It should be completely natural. Not realistic, but natural.

You often find yourself so busy with the difficult bits, the problems, that you take for granted the fragments that are 'allright'. Look at everything!

Ideally you don't want to be thinking about actions, superobjectives, counterobjectives, beats, notes, singing technique, when you're performing. When you're playing a scene give all your focus to your partner. (Otherwise it gets self-indulgent)

If your partner doesn't engage with you, treat it as though it's their character that's doing it. This was in response to a question asked about those colleagues that give you nothing back. The moment they start singing they go misty-eyed and are so deep in 'singer-land' that you'll be lucky if they get the blocking right, let alone give you anything to play off of.

Be truthful to your character, even in small roles or chorus. Don't not play an objective, even if it's as simple as 'I want to deliver this message'.

Have a sense of your own presence. 'I am here'. A sense of you in the space. If you have that, you'll be seen and heard, even in a huge theatre. People these days (huddled over their smartphones) are rarely present, they're folded in on themselves.

Ideally rehearsals are to explore, not to fix things and set them in stone. If you know there won't be time to explore, do as much exploration as you can on your own beforehand.

Have a lot of craft, for use in emergencies.

Start to develop a critical eye when watching performances. Do I believe it? Why / why not? What gave me pleasure? Could it have been better? How? It will mean you'll stop enjoying shows so much, but it enhances your craft.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The other side of the table

This time of year is when traditionally I write a rant about auditions. I'm going to break out of that somewhat and, rather than rant, I'd like to share some thoughts on what it was like for me last week, when I sat on an audition panel for 3 days. It was a fascinating exercise for me, as it gave me a valuable insight into what those poor people on the other side of the table are going through... and yes, I mean those poor people on the panel. Please remember, I can only write from my own point of view, so I can't speak for every panel, but I have tried to incorporate some things I have been told by various people who are on panels as part of their job, and have just put my personal take on the points often raised in talks on auditioning. So here we go, my observations from listening to 60 singers over 3 days:

1. It's hard to remember people when you have only 10 mins with every person. You know how panels start scribbling on their notepads the moment you settle on a piece and you feel they're not giving you any attention? They're probably writing down what you're singing, and any distinguishing features you may have so that they can recall you quickly when they look over the whole process. This difficulty in remembering leads into the next point:

2. It's hard to stand out. If you're polite, do everything right and sing well, you won't stand out, which is good, because failure in any of the above would make you stand out in the wrong way. Being memorable in the right way is very hard to do, and despite having a few in my mind who were, I'm not sure what exactly they did to be so. I think it's a question of being yourself and putting the panel at ease. The standouts I remember were either very personable and endearing, or confident and willing to take charge of their own audition (in a good way). The latter is tricky to replicate, as you can come across as overbearing... So I think the only piece of advice to glean is this: be yourself, and as relaxed as you can be, and there's nothing wrong with not standing out. It's better than standing out in the wrong way.

3. It's close! When hearing people of a certain standard... they're all of a certain standard. When it comes to who gets something and who doesn't, it's so close you wouldn't believe!  It can come down to a gut feeling of someone on the panel and everyone else going with it. So not getting something does not mean you did a bad audition or didn't belong there or weren't good enough to get anything. It just means that this time you weren't the right person. As a singer I'm taking that one to heart, because it's a lot nicer thinking you weren't the right person than putting your abilities in question and losing faith in yourself. There were people we heard last week who were absolutely amazing, but didn't fit what we had in mind for the roles in this opera... to the point of me thinking 'I wish we were casting a different piece so I could offer this person something!'.

4. Black is not a good colour to wear. When the panel are sitting there for hours on end, a parade of people in black is... well, dreary for one thing, but it also makes it more difficult to remember people (what distinguishing features are they meant to scribble down?). Would you rather be the guy in the pink shirt, or the one with a funny nose?

5. Props and costumes... OK, this may be personal preference, but I think they will put more people off than draw into your performance. It's not what a panel expects, and yes, it will make you stand out if you come dressed as the character you're going for, or bring a prop for your aria, but whether it'll make you stand out in the right way? It's a risk you're welcome to take...

6. Handshakes. You can tell a lot about a person by their handshake. If you do shake hands with the panel, it's a bit like putting all your eggs in one basket, and it has very little to do with singing. Practice handshakes for when a panel encourages them. I had no idea how strong an opinion about someone can be formed from that one touch.

7. It's a lot nicer watching a performance than an audition. Try to think of it as such. Politeness is fine, but a bit of showmanship gives everyone a break from the formality of it all. Just don't overdo it ;)

8. Don't let a botched note put you off. I talked to some of the singers afterwards and they apologised for various cracks, harsh notes, wrong words, etc. I didn't hear more than half of them, and the rest I didn't really care about. It's never about one note, it's about you.

9. It is about you, not just your singing. The panel want to see a person, and ideally that person won't suddenly become just another singer the moment the piano starts. If you can be yourself all the way through your audition, seamlessly changing characters of course, but without that moment of cutting away from your own self, you give yourself the greatest chance of giving the right impression of yourself. Try to be the same person when you walk in, as you are talking to the panel, as you are listening to the intro and singing, and then saying goodbye and walking out.

I loved being on a panel and I loved it most when people sang well. Yes, it made decisions difficult, but it made me get back a bit of faith in the fairness of it all. I could see that if I'm ever rejected from something (and it happens a lot, to everyone), it does not mean I was bad. Or at least not necessarily. If I think I sang well, I can trust myself and put the failure down to... well, anything really: height, build, timbre of voice... but not my abilities. Which is a lot better for my sanity.

I think colleges should run more audition classes and sit students down as 'panel members'. The thing is, it's not really the same unless you're listening to strangers, and a huge group. But it gives people an idea of what it is to be on the other side of that table.

The panel are people too. Be nice to them.