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

Sunday, 21 December 2014


With Christmas approaching I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the bizarre social life we singers seem to lead. As I'm home in Poland at the moment, and in the rare position of being here for more than a week, I'm looking forward to catching up with all my non-singer friends. Having moved to the UK to sing, I suppose I'm subject to the realities of singer life more than most, as almost everyone I have met in my 5 years in Britain is from 'the industry'.

So what are these realities? Well, for one thing you meet people either in college (or some other long-term educational course) or in productions. Music colleges tend to be quite highly strung environments, even though the order of the day is to pretend that's not the case. But we're artists being judged on a daily basis, and even if it's all done with the intention of helping us grow (or forcing us to), we will take it all quite personally. So your college colleagues will either be the ones that support you, undermine you, or just steer pretty much clear of you. Obviously the only ones worth hanging out with are the former, and while you still have a choice, just leave the rest to do their thing. The bond of college experiences faced and tackled together is usually one that lasts, and given a bit of effort can make for a lasting friendship. I'll come back to the effort part later on. The key thing for me about college was that (while I like to think I got on with most people) you can choose who you spend your time with. Call them cliques, or groups of well-meaning like-minded people, they are an inevitable fixture of a highly-strung environment full of neurotic arty-types. Just go with it and try not to take it personally is my one bit of advice if you're at music college, want to be friends with everyone, but are finding it a bit difficult.

Once you're out, the game changes a fair bit. At the start of your career you meet many new people. You meet them in rehearsals, and everyone is there to put on a show. You soon figure out that as you're all in it together, for hours on end in one room, there's not much scope for picking and choosing. You have to get on with everyone. Luckily, you are united by a common goal (the show), and perhaps even more so by common enemies. There is always adversity in any rehearsal process and nothing binds people together more effectively than being able to complain about what bothers us. It could be anything: a clueless director, overbearing conductor, impossible set, tricky music, boiling hot costume, poor coffee... Whatever it is, you all bond over it and quickly become a company, once you get past what Chris Gillett calls the dog-like bum-sniffing and posturing phase of the first few days (if you want an insight into what the life of a singer is really like, read 'Who's my Bottom'), and the unifying glue of adversity manifests itself.

The thing about 'friendships' forged in the face of adversity though (or forged through making something truly special, that also happens), is that once the show is over, you find yourself with little to talk about. To most people you say 'hope to work with you again soon' (in many cases you do actually mean it) but know that you won't be seeing them in a pub any time soon unless it's by chance. If you're fresh-faced and a bit naive, you'll say 'let's make sure to stay in touch', but I've found that most times, you just don't. Sorry. I have very many friends/colleagues who I love to work with, they're great fun to be around in rehearsals or in show runs, we regularly go to the pub while we work together, sometimes cinema trips and BBQs happen, I even trust them with bits of personal drama I may be going through... But the moment the last night afterparty is over, that's it. Until next time...

Sometimes you do stay in touch. It's hard to predict, most times it's with people you can have non-singery conversations, but that's not always enough. Friendship takes effort. In many ways it takes more effort than a romantic relationship, which of course needs nurturing, understanding, empathy, etc; but becomes a regular part of your life, one which you work at every day, hopefully growing closer and closer to that one person who can stand to listen to you retelling rehearsal stories that are only funny if you were there, or will be there to silently hug you when you've just got another rejection, or will understand when all you want to do is stick a soap on and order takeaway... Friendship on the other hand doesn't usually have the benefit of daily contact (once you're outside college), so it takes thought, willingness and sometimes a kick up the bum to just get on with it and meet up.

But here's what non-singers rarely understand. Even with all the best intentions in the world, if I'm rehearsing a show for 7 hours a day, I'm most often thinking about it almost 24/7. I sometimes carve out a bit of my weekend to catch up on admin (a horror that deserves its own blog post), but if I then go on to attend a social function, I'll have to use up valuable energy reserves to steer my mind away from the show I'm working on, or the catatonic state it wants to be in to regenerate, and force it to deal with conversation. And I would never call myself an antisocial kind of person, it's just that 'the job' takes over and one wants to be selfish with ones time...

Maybe it's a skill I need to develop. I'm getting better at admin (not constantly feeling I need to reply to everything ASAP), I worry less than I used to about things I can't control... And whenever I'm not in show mode I do try to catch up with my friends. Because without them, in the absence of a show, my life would be pretty empty. It's often said that the life of a singer is a lonely one. Certainly empty hotel rooms, solitary dressing rooms, or those moments you realise you're in a roomful of people you can't talk to about something really important to you; they are lonely. But most of the time you're actually being a singer you're having fun, laughing, joking, solving problems as a team, etc. It seems far from lonely. But I look at all the older, wiser singers who disappear the moment the stage manager releases us, because they have a home life (complete with friends) that they've figured out how to save their energy for, that regenerates them so much better than the pints some of us are heading out to get, or the mindless TV others of us are going to watch in order to clear our heads... I hope I figure out how they do it, because while I love my job, and I love my colleagues, I do find myself constantly apologising to my friends for neglecting them (and as many of my friends are singers themselves, they neglect me right back, with the same heartfelt and honest apologies).

And I find myself missing some kind of community and the permanence that comes with it. Because when I'm not being a singer (which I urge all singers to try), when there is no show, that's when it gets lonely. At least I'm lucky and I get to be home with my family, and see some of my oldest friends, have pointless conversations, sing old songs around a fire, and be part of what I left back here: community. And I take comfort in thinking about all those slightly older, but so much wiser singers who managed to figure out a healthy balance between the joy of being a singer and the happiness of having a life outside singing. There's hope for me yet ;)

Friday, 31 October 2014

A survivor's guide to touring

I  wish this post's title didn't feel quite as literal as it does to me at the moment, as probably the defining memory of this tour (MWO Carmen) for me will be the collision we had on our way back for  one of the shows... But as everyone keeps telling me - these things happen, and I will try my best not to dwell on it in the following paragraphs, though it does stay with you. But it also makes you thankful for everything you have, which is ultimately a good thing.

So touring... It's a funny old thing. With the structure of this particular tour, we spend most of our time either driving or hanging around. Various company members have differing approaches to staying over after/before shows, but however you do it, it's very tiring. It's a kind of tiredness I'd not experienced before - it's not crippling, but it never leaves you, no matter how many days off you have. Maybe it's my body conserving energy for when I need it, which is my 5 minutes of glory on stage as Moralès and then all the ensemble scenes where 8 of us try to generate the impact of a full-sized chorus. But for the hour or so I spend on stage performing there are 3 hours hanging around and about 6 hours of driving to deal with.

In many ways these extra hours become the meat of life on tour. And you spend all this time with your cohort, sharing dressing rooms, cars, green rooms, hotels, cottages, etc. This is where I have to say that I have lucked out massively. I don't think I've ever worked with a better group of people. We have fun both off stage and on, with running in-jokes galore which do occasionally spill into the performances, which I think is great, because it keeps us on our toes and prevents the show from becoming stale (with a tour of this length it is a real concern). If you ever see me in person, do ask about that time with the rubber chicken ;)

But it doesn't take much imagination to envisage what it could be like if the company wasn't as like-minded and easy-going as we are. With no personal space, there would be nowhere to get away. It could end up being quite a trying time... But like I said, we lucked out.

So as this is supposed to be a 'guide', I suppose my first bit of advice would be - surround yourself with good colleagues... OK, so that's impossible, because we have no control over who we get cast alongside. I guess I could modify the advice to - be the best colleague you can be. It can be tempting to let yourself be a bit down and moan when you're tired, but it's infectious and in the long run unnecessary. If it has to be done, do it in private, or temper it with something positive. After all, you may be touring some of the country's smallest and most dilapidated venues in the worst weather in living memory, but it could always be worse - you could be stuck in an office. Face it - you're living many people's dream! Be thankful and smile.

Always bring your chargers. Running out of battery is no fun, especially as getting your head down over your small screen (or a book) may be the only approximation of personal space you're going to get, as well as being your line of communication with the outside world (which, despite the feeling that there is nothing outside the tour, is still spinning merrily).

Be kind to yourself on the days off. As tempting as it may be to try and 'get on with your life - do your admin, line up auditions, do said auditions, schedule lessons and coachings, or do teaching; it'll add to the tiredness, so pace yourself and accept that you deserve a half-day in bed with Netflix from time to time.

Book your accommodation in good time, as cheap rooms can be tough to find on short notice.

You may think touring is a good opportunity to do some sight-seeing and get to know the country. Hmmm... It's not worked out that way for me. If we have enough time for a walk, it's normally only as far as the nearest decent coffee or the shops. It may just be the way my mind works, but again it's that thing of conserving your energy for when you need it - the stage and the driving. That being said, driving around the UK in nice weather has been a joy, especially away from motorways - it really is a beautiful country.

There are some gadgets I've found come in handy, with the winner being a Bodum travel mug with built in cafetière. Freshly brewed coffee that stays warm for the entire drive back is a wonderful thing. That and a Pratchett audiobook.

So touring... Try it if you can. It's an experience.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Singing made me unhappy

So I’ve been out of full-time education for over a year now, Opera Works is a thing of the past too, and I’ve come to a realisation. For the past 3 years or so singing was making me unhappy. It had turned into a mind-game where I was trying to please everyone (my teachers, coaches, audition panels, employers, head of department, conductors, directors, etc) but getting very little return in terms of my own joy. I kept having to convince myself I was on my way to a better future, to a career as a working singer, I was paying my dues and that it was a necessary phase that would pass… But it just became the way I was. 

I would overthink everything, which wasn’t helped by all the lectures and Q&A sessions on my various courses that sold the line ‘if you do X you will be employable’. Sing this repertoire (even if you hate it, suck it up), wear this, walk like that, stand just so, shake hands with the panel (or actually never do!), do these ornaments, vibrate on every note, suck up to so and so… Follow the magical unwritten (but oft spoken of) rules and then everyone will want you. Except they don’t. All you see is people ‘doing it all wrong’ and getting what you have been striving for. To someone like me, who likes rules and patterns that order the world somehow, not being able to understand how success is achieved was frustrating and depressing. And it infected everything I love about my ‘job’. I didn’t even notice it happening (there were enough good things in my life apart from singing to keep me happy), but various recent events and circumstances have given me a ‘forced opportunity’ to assess and reevaluate my attitude as regards singing. 

The tipping point was the decision whether or not to apply to the NOS. A long time goal of mine, I have unsuccessfully auditioned for the programme twice, but also had the opportunity to closely observe friends get in and do the programme, as well as speak to alumni. I know what the programme is, how it works, what it does to and for people. I recently went in for a consultation (honestly - to assess my chances of getting in this time) and the penny dropped. I would hate this! I’ve only just gotten out of institutionalised training and started to rediscover the joy of singing for no one but myself (well, and my employers and audiences, but you know what I mean), found a really good teacher and embarked on a path of progress that is only measured against my own criteria, not anyone else’s. And here I was subjecting myself to judgement and hanging my hopes on the opinions of people who I don’t necessarily agree with half the time. That’s not to say that they’re wrong and I have a monopoly on truth, in fact they are right, but so am I. There is no one way to make it in this profession, nor is there one gospel of singing technique (even if there were only one ‘right’ way to sing, there are infinitely many ways of talking about it and assessing it). 

The half hour I spent in the studio that day was probably the most important experience in my singing life. I got positive feedback and some notes on what to improve (that I agree with wholeheartedly and am working on), but also a lot of opinion dressed up as fact, which is the way with schools and is to be expected. But I’ve been in school a very long time, and it made me unhappy when I finished my first degree, and again for the past 2-3 years… I don’t want it any more, I don’t want to go back to school*. I want to channel Sinatra and do it my way. 

Because what has taken me back from the brink of packing it in was the realisation that there is only one thing that really matters, one recipe for success, and also one goal that motivates me in a positive way because it’s mine, judged by me, and not geared towards pleasing anyone but me - get better at singing. For an over-analytical thinker like me everything else is a distraction. Rep choices don’t solve vocal problems, they can only hide them. Audition wear doesn’t get you hired, and as important as first impressions are, 'self-conscious' is not the one you want to give. So to hell with the ‘rules’, just do the one thing no one will argue with or have contradictory opinions about - get better at singing. And don’t do it for your teacher, coach, or the panel. Do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll slowly go insane and be unhappy. 

Since I made this my one rule I’ve had more success in auditions, am enjoying performing again, am able to stand up for myself in situations I would have normally stayed quiet… And I’m happy. Also, I’m hopefully getting better at singing. 

* Not that there is anything wrong with NOS, colleges, or any of the courses out there. They provide fantastic training and I owe everything I am to the courses I’ve done. But they’re not for everyone, and doing them forever doesn’t mean you keep improving, so there has to be a time when you take the step into the real world… Not that singing has anything to do with the actual real world, but that’s a rant for another day.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Teachers - trust and loyalty, but not at all costs

One of the most important relationships in our lives as singers is the one we have with our singing teacher. In career terms it is probably the most important. Your teacher is the person you trust to guide not only in your technical development, but quite often you will need their help when making repertoire choices and choosing what roles to accept in the early stage of your career. It's an intimate relationship, what happens in lessons should stay in lessons, it should be a time you are free and safe to get things wrong without fear, in order to stretch your capabilities. More often than not no one will ever hear you singing as well as your teacher hears you in that room... Or as badly. The trust has to be incredibly strong and work both ways, which is why the first months with a new teacher are often a huge leap of faith.

And it doesn't always work. There is arguably nothing worse than being stuck with the wrong teacher. Even a universally regarded teacher may not be the best one for you. And even if you've found the right one, there is quite often a time limit on how long they will be your best option. This is because of many things.

First off, teachers while trying to impart an overall solid technique often focus on their pet likes and hates, and what they have to offer may not be what you need at any given time. You can also get used to one another and lessons just turn into minor tune-ups and ego boosts, while habits that both of you take for granted strengthen and chip away at your technique. By the time they get so bad a teacher who is used to you notices them you'll be facing a huge challenge that could in other circumstances be avoided.

Some singers reading this will be up in arms defending their teachers, saying I've just been unlucky in who I've gone to, their teachers never let them get away with anything bad, etc. Maybe they've hit the jackpot, or maybe their trust is blinding them. It's a difficult thing realising that the person you've entrusted your voice to isn't perfect... But perfection doesn't exist, it's all about finding what objectively works best for you at any given time, which often doesn't mean the most comfortable option.

I think I've been lucky with the teachers I've worked with over the years, every single one taught me something important and helped me turn a corner in my vocal development. And they've all been different, despite ostensibly teaching the same 'good technique'. But various friends have not been so lucky, or have become complacent in their relationships with their teachers, or have stopped having lessons (which to my mind is the biggest mistake a good singer can make). I have also made the decision to change teacher a fair few times, the same with coaches (although there you have more license to shop around... Teachers do not generally like to share pupils, for good reason - that would imply that the trust necessary for them to do their job isn't there).

The key is to make sure you take stock every now and again and ask yourself:
- am I getting better?
- is my career progressing?
- if not, why? what feedback am I getting from my rejections, and are there recurring themes?
- is my teacher tackling these themes with me, or dismissing them? (audition feedback is very often opinionated and not founded on any foundation of technical knowledge... but if it is consistent from multiple sources, it does mean there is a problem you have to face up to, even if it's just a problem of perception)
- watch yourself back and notice what annoys you about how you perform, is your teacher addressing these things?
- am I too comfortable in lessons? do I come out of them with ego boosting reassurances ('I think that's great'), but not actually having improved, only tweaked?
- am I being challenged every lesson, or are we going through the motions?

There are many types of teachers/coaches out there, offering different things. You need to decide what you need most now and if you're getting it from your teacher. Here are some broad categories, and various teachers may be a combination of different categories. I may also have missed a lot of types off here, these are just from my experience of music college and private teachers.

The builder:
A quick imparter of the fundamentals, sees undergrads through their first period of rapid progress as they discover what is what. Unfortunately due to the law of diminishing returns and how the learning curve of singing works, there will come a time when the fundamentals are working well enough and what is needed is more detailed work rather than just going on about 'more support' and 'more space'. Progress slows down, can even stop as you plateau, and you wait for a penny to drop that can almost teleport you to the next level. Some teachers don't deal in small change though...

The working singer:
A teacher who is usually (but not always) still enjoying a career. They have a great working technique (as opposed to perfect technique, see Iain Patterson's excellent blog post on the subject: http://ayepatz.com/2014/06/18/the-everyday-voice/ ) and they try to teach you how to do what they do. It'll be a combination of good technique, short-cuts, metaphors and habits that will get you sounding good. But it may not be the best you can sound. However it will work, be reliable for the most part, even if it is a personal technique that isn't quite calibrated to your instrument, but rather your teacher's. They also know a lot of repertoire by virtue of doing it. They know what it takes to deliver it on stage and will teach you that, give you tips on how to go about preparing a role and point out potential problems along with fixes. Unfortunately what you do on stage isn't necessarily what you need to do when auditioning, and they can't quite navigate the difference.

The stylist:
Someone who knows repertoire not just from doing, but from study, passion and interest. They know style, language, history, performance practice, etc. They will do everything they can to have you doing what the composer asks you to do on the page. Every little marking on the page and colour that could be put into the music. Technique sometimes takes a back seat. Most coaches fall into this category, which is great, bacause they set you a bar that you must try to achieve with the technique you have. But at the end of the day I think you have to prioritise healthy vocal production over artistry. Once you're secure enough, they aren't mutually exclusive, quite the opposite, but they do need to happen in the right order.

The noise-enthusiast:
In many ways the opposite to a stylist. They like tone and will want you to deliver it consistently. The music takes a back seat and the voice becomes the priority. But sometimes they don't address how you make the noise thay want (they may be busy playing the piano rather than watching your veins pop out). They will get you sounding better in a coaching room, which will translate to sounding better in auditions and small rooms, but because you may not be delivering your tone in the most optimal way, you may notice a big drop in effectiveness in large spaces or when matched with an orchestral texture.

The 'master':
Someone who mostly does masterclasses. A celebrity. My pet hate. They will take credit for improvements in your performance that are not actually down to them, but to you getting more comfortable with the masterclass environment. I mean, it's natural that the second and third time you sing something will be better, as stress subsides, so they shouldn't take credit for it. They can raise valid points though and offer 'penny-drop' thoughts. Masterclasses are a valuable way of getting a new opinion on your singing and snippets of advice, but beware if they become about the master rather than the student.

The technician:
Never mind about the music, the markings, or what noise you make. They just focus on how you make it, and how to get is as easy and optimised as possible. They often read treatises, watch videos of great singers and analyse exactly how they do what they do, they have a strong opinion of what a perfect technique should be. They don't necessarily have one themselves, or they may have a fantastic technique coupled with a less-than-fantastic voice. In any case, they will leave the style and language to coaches, and not let you get away with any sound that is not efficient in its production. The leap of faith is trusting that the tone will come as a consequence of technique, rather than you manufacturing a pleasing sound by means which are not in line with an efficient technique. 'It's a lot easier to sound like a great opera singer than to sing like one' is something you may hear, and the difference between the two is that only one of those options will last a long time. It will also be more reliable in less-than-perfect conditions (so basically 360 days a year).

The trouble-shooter:
I wrote about one once. They are a technician that can adopt very targeted strategies to deal with specific issues in vocal production. Recovering from a medical condition or procedure, dealing with a specific muscular tension, give them a problem and they will solve it. Asking them to make you sing better may be overkill and get you embroiled in a very confusing series of countless exercises each working on a different aspect of singing, but that don't readily form a coherent 'big picture' of how one should sing.

Almost everyone thinks their teacher is a technician. Certainly most teachers think they are, because they try to teach technique. But it's about how they teach it. As singers we have to strike the seemingly impossible balance of trusting our chosen teacher implicitly, but also remaining very critical as to whether we are really getting what we need from our teacher. Life would be amazing if all teachers were perfect stylist-technicians who also knew what it takes to have a successful career...

Great teachers who have been amazingly good for us for a long time may suddenly stop being the best option for various reasons. It doesn't mean they are bad teachers, or that we are fickle. We owe it to our voices to not be complacent about our choice of teachers and coaches, to not get too comfortable, to keep challenging ourselves to improve.

As ever, the author's opinions are his own and may be partially or completely wrong.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Going beyond the obvious - Kasper Holten and the NOS

I've just returned from a 'masterclass' at the ROH with trainees from the NOS. The workshop (a much more appropriate word in this case) was led by Kasper Holten and took the form of him directing 3 singers as if they had just turned up for a first rehearsal of their aria in a production. He distanced himself from the word masterclass, saying that he didn't feel like a master who has all the answers about these arias, but rather wanted to see what he and the singers could discover about the characters together.

Indeed the whole thing ran like a rehearsal (albeit mic-ed up for the talking and with a surprisingly large audience). There was a brief chat about the context of the aria and an initial idea that would then be explored phrase by phrase with some rough blocking and a lot of talk about what the reality of the character's situation actually could be, rather than it just being a set number in a musical piece. I personally found it reminiscent of BYO workshops I've been on myself - an exercise for its own sake, but inspiring and invigprating to participate in (even passively). What quickly became apparent was that the operatic world (both singers and audiences) are very easily trapped in the constraints of preconceptions that have grown around the staple repertoire over the centuries, mostly because of the overwhelming temptation to just deliver the beautiful music beautifully. Kasper Holten worked hard to guide the singers to delve a bit deeper than the obvious mood of an aria, to find the ambiguities in the characters, to realise that playing what we instinctively feel it should be is an almost sure way of only doing the most boring interpretation.

Does Santuzza have to be an innocent victim who falls for the wrong man? Or can she be complicit in the tragedy, after all, she admits she knew that he only got involved with her because the woman he really loved had gotten married. She knew, but went along with it anyway, so maybe she does bear some of the responsibility for how things turned out and now that is driving her mad.

Does Faust serenade a house just because he is a young man feeling an overwhelming love? Or is he struggling with the fact that he isn't a young man at all, but an old man on borrowed time in a young body, chasing after an innocent young woman. She is innocent - poor, but pure. He is in league with the devil and is about to shower her with gifts in order to seduce her. Surely part of him knows, deep down inside, that he can never match her innocence, because he has lost his, and all he can offer her is corruption. And as he thinks of her humble, innocent dwelling, and of her purity, perhaps this isn't a love song, perhaps it's him coming to terms with a subconscious guilt while at the same time succumbing to an obsession with her as a symbol of what he has lost...

Or not. Maybe neither of those interpretations would work in context. But even briefly exploring them, probing the opposite of what we think a scene is, reveals nuance and colour that we had no way of accessing before. We owe it to ourselves as performers to explore more than one obvious way of reading a scene, especially if that way has been done before... many, many times over... and is available to own on DVD...

There were more things touched upon in this session, like physicality, dynamics, repeated words, the importance of specificity, etc. But this obligation to go beyond the obvious is what stuck in my mind and had me yelling 'testify!' on the inside.

It's a difficult ask though, because not all audiences like to be challenged in that way. They know how it should be done and want to be given what they know. Singers also don't always want to explore something that doesn't come naturally and easily. Actually, sometimes directors and conductors don't either.

The last thing Kasper Holten said was: It's great to be able to work with a stage director and explore various takes on an aria, but 90% of the time you won't be working with a good stage director. You'll be dealing with a revival director who has a week to put on a show and for your big aria his only input will be to stand you under a tree to sing for 5 minutes. It's then easy for a singer to start making excuses - they didn't give me any help, but it's our responsibility to perform and interpret, even (or especially) in that scenario. And it's performers who come up with their own take on an aria that deliver gripping performances even if they just stand under a tree for 5 minutes. But to come up with that kind of performance you have to explore more than one option...

Friday, 2 May 2014

Don't judge a book by its last page

Recently someone said to me that the problem with vocal pedagogy these days is that the teaching of singing is too sound-based, meaning that teachers and coaches are trying to get their students to create a certain quality of sound, and judging the effects of their teaching on what they hear the student produce. This makes sense, as in most lessons or coachings here in the UK the person teaching you is doing so while playing the piano, so their attention is divided between their performance and what they can hear of yours. It may not seem like a big deal, after all they have been doing this for years, and certainly coaches can play most standard repertoire almost on auto-pilot. Singing teachers though - not so much, and it's them we turn to for help with our technique. Still, maybe it's not as big a deal as the person in question was making it out to be. After all, making a good sound (as in impressive, consistent, pleasant, agile, etc) implies that there is good technique behind it...

Or does it? And even if there is good technique behind it, is it the best possible technique? We see children on talent shows presenting an adequate or even impressive facsimile of an operatic sound, but as opera singers we know that it's not a healthy thing for these kids to be doing, even if the sound is ok. We watch crossover artists and wince every time they pull a face or their shoulders go up, so we know there are flaws in how they are using their voice, but for the most part the noise they make is actually quite pleasant (if it wasn't, they wouldn't be where they are), even if we purists will never admit it. So a bad technique doesn't necessarily mean you can't make a decent sound, even though in the long run such 'cheating' will wreck your instrument.

These are extreme examples, of course, and actually for us singers it's the more subtle cases that are actually the most dangerous. Where is the line between vibrato and a wobble and how can you tell whether you're on the right side of it? I've heard all manner of pedagogues advocating vibrato as a great thing - it protects the voice, vibrating is clear evidence that you have good air flow and 'support', it means you are achieving optimum resonance... But what if the sound you're making only sounds like a healthy vibrato, but the mechanics behind it are beginnings of a wobble that will soon become habitual and increase in amplitude? Who is going to catch you in time and help you readjust your technique? It sounds fine and the people you trust (your teacher and coaches) are all basing their advice on your sound.

Audition panels may spot it, if there's someone who knows enough about singing on them (and that's hardly a given I'm afraid), but will they give you feedback? Will you trust their feedback over the words of your vocal training team? How many times will you have to hear the same thing before you think there might be a grain of truth in it? Let's say 3 (once is one person's opinion, twice could still be statistically insignificant). Assuming you get feedback from half the auditions you do (and that's a generous proportion only ever achieved by singers who have agents asking for feedback on their behalf), half of it is probably well-informed, and half of that is honest rather than polite. That's 24 auditions you've done before you start thinking there may be a problem (call it 6-12 months of your life gone?). Worse still, you're probably getting work, because you sound fine and there's plenty of opportunities out there for fine-sounding singers, which means you think you're on the right track, when actually you may have plateaued in your development, or are letting a bad habit get worse.

There are teachers out there who don't play piano in lessons. They watch you like a hawk, devoting 100% of their attention to what you're doing, all aspects of it. When I was studying in Poland we always had pianists in singing lessons, so that teachers could focus on teaching and students didn't feel so harshly exposed and vulnerable (because the first couple of times you have an a cappella lesson it is horrible!). Even if your teacher does play, it may be worth asking them not to and to have a look at you. The clues pertaining to your technical flaws (and we all have those) aren't necessarily in your sound YET, but may be in your jaw, tongue, ribcage, shoulders, left pinky, etc.

As you can tell, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this point for a few days now, almost to the point of paranoia. I'm not looking to freak out the singers reading this though, it's just something which may be worth considering if you want to get the most out of your teachers (and who doesn't? we don't go to them to be complimented, after all). There's more to singing technique than doing whatever makes you sounds good. It's a bit like a whodunit - the point of such books isn't flicking to the last page and finding out who did it, it's everything that leads you there. And with that clumsy analogy I think it's high time I stopped writing ;)

Friday, 4 April 2014

Context isn't always helpful

I recently sang my first ever Messiah. It was in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, India. While it was my first performance of the piece, I had been working on it for a few months prior to the trip, so I was more than familiar with it... unlike the audience, who turned up in their hundreds (we estimate the audience was 800 strong) to hear the first ever full-length performance of the Messiah in Goa. The following concert on the trip was in Mumbai, where Handel's best loved oratorio had not been performed since 1962, and the audience turnout was even stronger (around 1000).

Over here in the UK the Messiah seems to be done everywhere and all the time (especially around Christmas), to audiences that will most likely join in the singing or at least hum along. One of my fellow soloists from India suggested I start a tally in my score to see how many Messiah notches I can amass. To say it's a familiar piece here would be an understatement.

In India however we had (for the most part) a virgin audience. Not only that, but in Goa we were performing to people who didn't have much to do with western classical music before. Watching their reactions to the performance was priceless. Sure, there were people with puzzled looks on their faces, obviously not really sure what to make of the whole thing - strange music being sung in a bizarre way (while we were setting up for rehearsal some of the locals asked when the microphones were going to arrive... well we showed them!). But there were also people who reacted to the music in ways that we would never see here in Europe (burdened as we are with our sense of propriety and respect for the hallowed art of classical music), and yet were so organic over there. A lady in the front row danced to the Hallelujah chorus. A gentleman came with his Bible and prayed with the music. A few people were listening so intently you would have sworn they'd fallen asleep if you didn't later see the tears in their eyes during He was despised. You could see the audience be literally moved by the piece and the performance. 

It was a fantastic thing, and an experience I will recount to people whenever they mention that classical music (or opera in particular) is elitist and unaccessible. It isn't... and if it is, it's only because we have made it so. 

Yes, the fact is that classical music relies heavily on the generosity of a certain class of private individuals (with public funding being cut every year it's no surprise!) and therefore these wealthy people will naturally be a part of the audience, and quite a visible one... But why should that stop anyone else from going to experience the same performances? Cheap tickets can always be found! Yes, there is also a very visible group of people educated in music, either at university or on their own fuelled by a fierce passion for the art. Many critics will hail from this group and then seem to write only for the benefit of their own kind, leading the uninitiated to believe that if they were to want to join the audience they have to make up for their lacks in education or risk 'not getting it'... But the people in Goa definitely got the Messiah without reading up on Handel. 

I'm not saying that research and preparation is a bad thing. It can help you appreciate what you are seeing and hearing more, but it's rarely essential. Music or opera can also be taken at face value and very often it will work! It will move the audience. Of course, there are bad concerts and shows, just like there are bad books, films and tv programmes. 

Anyway: economy, history, politics, education, etc have made classical music what it is today - a very polite and civilised way of spending an evening, an excuse to dress up a bit, a bit of a middle-to-upper-class thing. But the essence of it isn't that at all! Stripped of its context the art stands on its own and has the capacity to move, fascinate, challenge, reward and please. I wish everyone the curiosity that drove our Goan audience to the church that night, and may it drive us to try things we wouldn't normally call 'our cup of tea' and let us experience them unashamedly.

One of the audience in Goa sketched all the way through the concert, 
capturing the soloists and conductor.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The language barrier - breaking the spine

As opera singers we are expected to sing in foreign languages. This is a fact. The degree to which this expectation stretches varies: I have heard some questionable pronunciation from non-native English singers in British houses, I've also had the comic pleasure of listening to non-Polish singers attempt Górecki or Chopin, and I'm sure the Italians have to put up with a lot of butchering of their language. Some people will settle for intelligible, others will strive for the idiomatic/vernacular.

However high or low you aim, you will need help. Speaking the language you're trying to sing in helps, and one of the things I'm thankful to the Academy of Music in Kraków for is that they tried to teach us exactly that. 3 hours of Italian a week for 3 years, 2 hours of German/French for 2 years, if I remember correctly, and that was all vocabulary, grammar, writing, conversation, etc (not much singing though). Over here in the UK it's all about phonetics, which is also great, because unlike in Poland my tutors here would not settle for imperfect pronunciation. The ideal from a student's point of view would be both approaches, but sadly with fees rising and what's on offer at colleges shrinking it's left to us to find the time and funds to make up for lost ground.

And here I am learning a role in Czech. It's a language I have never had to work in before. I've been to the country, but gotten by just speaking Polish. It has made me realise how hard it can be to get into a new language. My parents had me learning German and French as a child, not to mention a few years living in England, and Italian just naturally comes with the territory of singing, so as a fifth language it came quickly (not that I'm fluent or even far beyond basic in any apart from Polish and English). Tackling Janáček (who in terms of word-setting is the Czech equivalent of Britten) was initially a very steep uphill climb due to my lack of previous contact with the language (except an hour in Banff, which I foolishly didn't have the sense to record). A few months in I feel I've broken the spine of it and I'm not relying so heavily on the phonetic transcription I copied from a book (by the way, if you think Castel is overpriced, try buying the Czech equivalent!).

Why am I writing this? Everyone knows languages are hard. We just deal with it - get recordings of native singers, get phonetics books, get coaching... I'm writing on the off chance that people who can make decisions that will help young singers will read this and see our need. How could they help you ask? Well:

Colleges could make the effort to help in familiarising students with more languages. Perhaps rather than hammer away at Italian for 4-6 years sacrifice some of that time for a term each of Russian and Czech (any other rare-in-the-UK but regular operatic languages out there?*). Before you attack me, I know some colleges do offer coaching in those languages, but some do not, and they should, and not just as one off sessions. A term of regular input would go miles towards familiarising our ears with how it should sound and how to read it.

Companies helpfully tend to bring in language coaches. The problem is that by the time you get to work with them in rehearsal it becomes fixing ingrained mistakes (because you need to be off copy by the start of production), while trying to deal with the staging side of things. Now I know offering language coaching to a chorus is not always going to happen, but many companies take the time to teach their choruses the music (so everyone is on the same page and learning to be a unit from the word go) and it's great if the language coaching happens then. Principals and covers aren't so lucky. Now I'll be honest - I have not asked Garsington if I could have some Czech coaching from them, not because I don't think they'd provide it, but because by the time I thought of it I'd pretty much figured out a process of doing it myself. A slow, painful process (involving books, recordings, youtube, coaching, etc)... So I don't know if companies practice offering their contracted singers access to language coaching before rehearsals, but if they don't, they should at least consider it. Take a few of the hours that coaches come into the rehearsal room and use them to give principals some 1:1 time. Even an hour on just the language would be invaluable, and singers would feel they get some excellent support.

There are probably very good reasons these things don't happen - organisational, priority-managment, things I haven't thought of... But speaking as a singer, it would be nice to be prepared by college to deal with the less common languages, or to get offered support from an employer (in hindsight I should have asked - tip to all of you who have yet  to face a new language).

In the meantime, for all of you who didn't get the generous steeping in foreign languages that I have been given (thank you Mum and Dad!!!), I now feel your pain! Keep at it ;)

*Sanskrit doesn't count, no matter how popular Satyagraha becomes...

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The grass is always greener

It gave me quite a buzz seeing how popular my post on training and audition opportunities in the UK was. It also drove home the point that there is a serious gap in how colleges prepare young singers for the realities of the big bad world. I suppose this means that those of us who are enterprising enough to go out looking for a break, rather than waiting for it to come, have an advantage. Maybe, maybe not. I know quite a few singers who run themselves ragged going from one audition to the next, or from one small company to another, never taking the time to think why they aren't doing as well as they think they could be. So while you may think 'great! this guy has done all the hard work for me, I just have to go for everything now', trust me, it's not that simple. Statistically speaking, for most of us, the more things we go for, the more rejections we will get. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger... but they don't know what it's like to say 'here I am' and continually get told 'no, that's not what we want... we don't want you'. And then to see your friends be the person that is in fact wanted. So before you rush into applying everywhere, stop and think how much failure you can handle, as at this stage in our careers we are quite fragile creatures, and no matter how strong or oblivious you think you are, there will be a point at which it can get to you.

Sermon over, and on to the good bits. I promised a list of German opera studios, and I intend to deliver. The UK is pretty saturated with young singers, and there simply aren't as many proper opera houses over here as there are in German speaking countries. Many German/Austrian/Swiss houses have opera studios, and these work a lot like the Jette Parker YAP at the ROH: a small group of young singers are on contract with the house for a year or two to sing small roles, cover medium or main ones, and receive coaching and professional development advice. They are usually paid a modest monthly fee for this, enough to get by. It works like an introduction to the world of fest contracts (normally 2 year full-time engagements to join a company's ensemble of soloists).

The way these studios and fest contracts work is very closely tied into the fach system, which governs pretty much all casting in Germany. So if you don't know what fach you are, or your audition package is geared towards showing variety and flexibility rather than one particular selling point, you almost need not bother going for them. To see how the fach system is interpreted by each house, you can explore their ensemble on the website and see who sings what and which roles tend to be bundled together. It's a rather impersonal approach to singers, but it works for the houses and for safety's sake they simply stick to it. In the UK things are a lot more fluid, and there are more chances you will find yourself singing varied repertoire (provided you have the notes) rather than be type-cast straight away.

All of the studios pre-select applicants based on a recording, then invite chosen singers to audition. I have only auditioned live for one of these studios, but it's worth noting the process was completely different than in Britain. The singers were heard in blocks according to voice type (45 sopranos in a row!) singing one chosen aria each. We did have the opportunity to rehearse with the pianist. Then after all singers of one voice type were heard, a list went up detailing who the panel wanted to hear again, along with which aria (from your submitted list of 5) they wanted. There was then a break to allow the singers to prepare and the panel to recover, and then they listened to the second aria from the recalled candidates. Out of the 45 sopranos, only 6 got recalled. Of 11 baritones, only 1 was heard again. It's a hell of a trip for one aria ;) But I suppose that since you only get invited if they like your recording, it at least means they gave you due consideration, and there normally isn't an application fee (however the cost of recordings, recorded post, etc does add up).

Other considerations include age limits (30 seems an average, but for men it can go as high as 34, and for girls as low as 28), language (some studios require a certificate attesting to your level of German with the application), travel costs (can you afford to go audition, and how many studios can you visit), etc.

So here we go, a list (probably not complete, but it's a start)! Have fun, I'm too old to go for most of these anyway ;)

Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich)
Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Düsseldorf)
Semperoper Dresden
Staatsoper Hamburg
Komische Oper Berlin
Oper Frankfurt
Oper Köln
Opernhaus Zürich
Staatsoper im Schiller Theater (Berlin)
Staatsoper Hannover
Oper Stuttgart
Oper Nürnberg
Theater Basel
Oper Graz
Theater Lübeck
Opernstudio Niederrhein
Theater an der Wien 
Thüringen Opernstudio (Weimar)

So that's 18 German-speaking YAPs compared to 2 in the UK (3 if you count the NOS). Go figure...

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Shrug, smile and keep going

There are some lucky singers out there who just seem to float through life from successful audition to rave review. I think it's worth appreciating the fact that that is not the case for most of us, and anyone who reads opera periodicals will know that some of today's greatest stars went through periods of serial rejections.

Still, that does not serve as much of a comfort to those just going through the experience. Statistics are not kind to us singers. Many of us will not get to work at the level we dream of, and those rejections are like splashes of cold water in our faces, reminders that perhaps now is the time to reavaluate where we think our place is in the grand scheme of things.

We react in what I'm sure is the least healthy way: by resenting those who made the cut, those who are living our dream, especially that immediate one. We question why these peers of ours are better? We convince ourselves that they aren't, that the system is broken, that they have connections, that they don't deserve what they have, and the world would be a fairer place if it was us there instead of them... Now hang on, even if some of that were true, it's not their fault. And if it was us there, would we want that resentment being directed at us by others? Besides, how do these feelings get us closer to achieving our goals?

They don't, but at the same time they are unavoidable. It's a horrible world we singers live in, because most of us deal with these feelings every couple of weeks. Of course, they aren't always as overpowering as when we fail to get something we were banking our lives on, or at least gearing up to for months. You'd think it would get easier with time, that we'd have so much practice of getting rejected that it'd just wash over us and we could shrug it off. And some people do, or pretend to.

I am not one of them. I don't even think I want to be. I think these lows are what makes the highs in this calling all the more special. And we can get highs at every level of the 'profession', so we should learn to appreciate them, rather than let the feelings of resentment and entitlement convince us that we can't be happy until we achieve great things. B*llocks! If you can't be happy singing where you are now, chances are you never will be. If things don't go your way, all you can do is feel bad, vent, shrug, smile and keep going. We aren't in this to follow a plan and do it the one right way. Sometimes getting lost because of all the big avenues to success are blocked to us means discovering narrower, more obscure paths that are great fun and very rewarding. Who knows, maybe more so than the standard factory-belt that we all somehow want to be on because we think it offers guaranteed results.

So did writing this make me feel better? Not yet, but I just think back to what Barbara Houseman told us in the last Opera Works weekend: what is needed is a healthy dollop of f*ck it. Shrug, smile, and carry on doing what you love.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

John McMurray (ENO Head of Casting) Q&A session

One of the perks of ENO Opera Works is the time we get to spend with the main company's casting department. From the entrance auditions, where we sing to (among others) Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager), through initial consultations with John McMurray, Sophie and Jane Robinson (Head of Vocal Training and Opera Works Course Director), up to a final mock audition for the casting department. Part of this face time is a Q&A session, which for our group took place yesterday. It was (quite predictably) very informative, but what we weren't expecting was how informal, relaxed and pleasant a chat it was, with John and Sophie very quickly putting all the eager-eyed but slightly intimidated singers in the room at ease and answering even the silliest questions with good humour and understanding.

We started off by talking about the dress rehearsal of Rigoletto we'd just seen, and following a question about how this particular opera was cast, John launched into the story of putting on a big Verdi opera at the Coli. It being a tough sing for many of the roles, and the house being so big, means that it becomes problematic for a company like ENO to cast. There aren't that many people in the world who can sing the lead roles anyway (and as many articles in operatic press and blogs point out, there are fewer and fewer big voices out there, for various reasons), and of those few how many will want to take the extra effort to prepare it in an English translation? So you're left with a pretty small pool of singers from which you need to secure a cast. This does mean they tend to stick to singers who are tried and tested, preferably by ENO themselves.

This brings me to what I felt was the most valuable insight I gleamed from the session (worry not, a full list of notes will follow below): the way the casting departments think means that getting into a big company is not just a question of auditioning well once or twice. To quote John:

What we at ENO are trying to avoid is making snap decisions about people.

This makes sense, as this is a prestigious house that can't allow itself to take all that many risks with casting. They do take some risks, giving opportunities to young or untried singers who they feel are ready, or could be special. These don't always turn out as expected, but that's just part of life, and it's not the mainstay of day-to-day operations. Mostly they prefer to get to know people over time before casting them. This is done either by following their progress after an initial general audition, or seeing them perform somewhere, or by giving them some covers to see how they cope with it.

When talking about the season in general, it struck me how few people actually went through an audition process per se in order to be cast. Of course, you have to audition to get yourself on file, but when they're actually casting they seem to instantly start thinking of names and checking availabilites, rather than putting out a call for applicants. The names that stick get invited to sing or present themselves to the conductor and director , and if all goes well that's that. No 5-round audition and recall process.

The other valuable thing I learned was that CVs don't figure all that highly on their list of priorities. All they serve as is a guide for them to place you within 'the system' - ok, this is where this singer is at in their career. The nitty gritty either doesn't interest them, or in fact muddies the picture for them. All they want to know is where you are now, so they can judge your singing according to that. One page that clearly shows where you worked recently and gives an indication as to what level you'll be working at soon is enough.

When asked about people auditioning for ENO 'too early' in their career, John said it isn't that big a problem, as they judge singers according to what standard they'd expect them to be at the stage the singer is at. If you're a recent graduate of an opera course, you will be compared to other recent graduates, and probably not get cast then and there, but the impression you make will be according to your level of experience. So it isn't a question of auditioning too early, but rather being sure that you do yourself justice when compared to your peers. If you feel you need a bit more time or work to get up to the standard expected of the tier you're on by virtue of age and training, don't audition fo the big boys yet. This means you need to know what the standards are across the board, and for college students from outside London it may mean a trip to see some student shows in the capital and measuring yourself up to that, because those will be the shows that companies like ENO will be going to see and forming their opinions on.

That's enough personal insight from me for now, over to John and Sophie:

The career in general

A lot of things in this business are based on other people's taste - things you can't control. But those you can, you need to work hard at - be organised, punctual, etc.

It's unforgivable to fail an audition because of something you can control:
What you sing
How you look
When you arrive
The state of your sheet music
How you treat the pianist
The first impression you make
What your CV looks like
How you treat the stewards

Self awareness is a big deal in this business.

Your reputation will precede you - professionalism, being a colleague, etc.

A bit of bitching and moaning is fine, it's natural. But a lot - wears everyone down and mmakes people dislike you.

Being mean to stage managers is never a good idea.

Persistence is a good thing. Just know the difference between persistence and being annoying.

Make the most of every step of your education and career. Nurture the contacts you make.

If you have a relationship with an important person, they have show an interest, keep them appraised of your career.

Don't get annoyed if people don't reply. See it from their perspective (there's only so many times they can write 'well done, we may come see your show, we may not').

You can get stuck covering. It can also be the level you are and you'll never go above it, and you need to be able to deal with that. For some repertoire (the big stuff) you will notice that covers tend to be of a much lower standard than principals, because if they were good... they'd be singing it themselves somewhere.

Chorus work can be good, but in terms of furthering a solo career it depends on what opportunities you get as a chorus member, as well as if your workload will allow you time to become a better singer.

It has become very hard to have a career these days without having come through conservatoires. To get opportunities to audition, you need to fit into the system.

Mid thirties are the hardest time in your career - you're getting more established and expensive, but the young singers on your heels are comparable and cheaper.

Having an agent just for the sake of having an agent doesn't work.

Websites: You have to have a website. Aim towards having recordings on, not necessarily a huge amount. You need to be happy with them, and also with recordings of you not put up by you (youtube, etc). Keep it up to date. An up to date schedule tells companies if you're available. If it's not up to date, you may end up pissing companies off with them wasting their time chasing you when you're not available. It's better to have no information on than wrong information.

Directors tend to google their casts. Casting directors google if they are searching for solutions to problems that arise.

Social media - twitter can be useful for building profile. Be careful what you put on facebook.

Being diverse in what you do (gigging, crossover, additional careers like photography and knitting) is ok, but don't be so diverse (or look as though you're so diverse) you no longer look serious about classical singing.


You can do the best audition of your life, but if the people listening to you don't need what you are, nothing may come of it.

Sad truth - the negative impression of a bad audition lasts much longer than the positive impression of a good one.

You have to figure out how to audition!

Don't audition if you're not well, unless you can't avoid it. It usually only works when auditioning for someone who already knows you.

If you're singing an aria that you can sing from a role you may not be ready for, flag it up in the audition - show you've thought about it and are aware of it.

Acting in auditions - reduce your acting choices. Don't stand and deliver, don't act it out. You want to show you know the dramatic context of the aria. Eyes are important.

Where you look - acknowledge the existence of the panel, but don't stare at them. Judge each panel separately.

Singing down is rarely a good idea.

Say hello.

Be able to do what they expect you can do. Be sure you are the level you should be.

Audition rep - sing what you think shows who you are, not what you think they are looking for. Don't take role specific arias unless asked, or unless you think they are 'your' rep. Don't second guess yourself too much. Don't get bored with your audition package - the panel don't know you sing it all the time. Just because you're bored doesn't necessarily mean you're boring.

The whole thing about auditions - you don't want to intimidate the panel. Odd rep choices (non-standard) intimidate them, they think about what they're listening to, not who they're listening to.

Which piece you start with - it should almost always (95%) be the same one.

Your audition package - 5-6 arias (even if they ask for 3). Make sure you can sing them in various orders one after another. Especially each of the other 4 after your go to first choice. It should last you 2 years, and never bin the whole thing, change them one at a time. Be sure you can sing your whole package even if you're only 70% fit. Don't restrict language choice, but don't panic just because you have nothing in a particular language.

It can be worth doing an audition you're not bothered about just for the audition experience and to practice your arias under pressure.

You need to specialise your audition package. Don't give the impression you don't know what fach you are.

Getting the tone of an audition right. You want to suggest you're ready to work, you've put effort in, you know it's an audition not a concert, that you've thought about what you're doing and why you're there.

Audition dress: Look smart, professional, ready to work (not go out to dinner). It doesn't have to be a suit, a jacket is a good idea, you can take it off after the first piece if it's appropriate. Ties aren't necessary, nor are collared shirts if you have a smart t-shirt. Black is NOT a good idea (that's one I figured out for myself). Tight clothing can draw attention to your technique in a bad way. Practice wearing what you're going to wear to be comfortable in it. No jeans! Women can wear trousers, they don't have to (trouser roles don't necessarily need trousers). Don't wear distracting colours, jewelry, shoes, cuts, patterns, etc. No bare legs (Sophie says fleshy tights are fine ;) ).

CVs and experience

Doing a role that you don't think you're vocally ready for (say in small house) can give people who come to see you the wrong idea. Be careful.  Age-appropriateness is a different concern, especially for male voices (basses and baritones are often expected to sing older roles), and is usually less problematic as long as you can actually sing the role healthily.

CVs aren't what casting departments are basing their opinions on. You do need stage time, you need to find opportunities that give you what you need - how to pace a role, deal with touring, how to rehearse. But don't do stuff just to 'beef up' a cv.

If you include directors and conductors on your cv, treat them almost like references. Don't include people who hate you.

CVs are a rolling thing, keep them up to date, get rid of the less important stuff as more relevant things come up, keep them a page long.


Sometimes what gets you cast has to do with things other than singing - height, build, availability.

What ENO are trying to avoid is making snap decisions about people. They prefer to get to know people over time before casting them.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Life outside college - a beginner's guide

Spending a bit of time in Cardiff has been nice. I nominally still live here, but I find myself in London for increasingly long spells. I've been catching up with various people and invariably get asked what life out of college is like and if I've conquered the world yet. Not only that, those who can see the end of their conservatoire journey on the horizon listen very intently to my tales of moderate success and undending attempts, making mental notes on ideas they might want to pursue. I thought I might as well try and make it easier for everyone. You may also want to read my notes from Sarah Playfair's talk on professional conduct when contacting opera companies.

As a disclaimer, I'd like to point out that what follows is a hefty part of my own research and experience, but is by no means a complete list of opportunities out there. This is also very much a UK-specific post. I will attempt one on German YAPs soon. Unfortunately the deadlines for many opportunities have passed, but feel free to revisit this over the Summer to make sure you get in there in time.

So you're about to leave college and don't even know where to begin? Here are a few ideas, depending on what you want to achieve, along with my thoughts on them. I'll do my best to update whenever something new catches my eye, so if you find this list useful, you may want to bookmark and revisit every now and then...

1. Summer Festivals

These are always a good starting point. Opportunities are plentiful, the commitment is relatively short, the money relatively good. If you get in on the ground floor you're looking at chorus work, maybe covering, or if you're lucky some small roles as well. The best thing about them is they are used to having students or recent graduates working for them and they will take care of you. It's a painless way into the profession, and you get to watch some fantastic principals very closely during rehearsals and fairly long runs of shows. Some of the festivals run young artist schemes that are a great way to get some repertoire under your belt and be heard by agents, critics and other companies. There are plenty of festivals to choose from, so here is a list of the main ones to get you started, google can handle the rest. In terms of deadlines, it's a good idea to get your CV to them in the Summer, when the respective companies' current programmes are up and running (that's when they can start thinking about auditions). Auditions are normally in the Autumn (Sep-Nov).

Glyndebourne - let's face it, it's the most prestigious, well-paid, offering the highest standards of opera making. With money tight and fees being capped all over the place, the other festivals are catching up and often employ comparable casts and standards, but usually for shorter seasons with no touring company. The problem with Glyndebourne is that with people auditioning from around the world, the auditions can be a bit of a cattle-market, and they have been known to send out the dreaded 'we never want to hear you again' email. If you apply for an audition, make sure you're ready.

Garsington Opera - I am happy to call this my Summer home this year. They do their utmost to cast their covers and tiny roles from the chorus, and covers get a showcase to which agents and representatives of other opera companies are invited. Every other year they put on a production featuring their Young Artists (usually former covers). The company has a family feel to it and Wormsley is a beautiful place to rehearse and perform in.

Grange Park Opera

Opera Holland Park

Longborough Festival Opera

Buxton Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera - the nice thing about this one is that it is actually in the Autumn, so can be combined with a Summer contract for a nice 6-month spell of work... if you get in of course.

Tete a Tete - a testing ground for new works, it's not something you can audition for really, unless it's for their main shows (worth writing to them), but rather you may end up there if you know a composer whose work is being put on. Worth a visit if you are interested in where opera is going, and networking opportunities are good.

Grimeborn - again, not one that auditions for its season, but rather acts as a venue for independent productions. Worth googling every now and again in case someone is holding auditions, as it is a good place to perform to get a foothold in London.

2. Further training and YAPs.

If you feel you need an extra bit of input and structure, here is what you could consider. Regardless, never stop having singing lessons!

Opera courses - most colleges run these, usually for people who have completed a post-grad course in singing. They get you performing roles on stage with orchestra, seen by press, opera companies and agents. Apart from that you get the normal college fare of lessons, coachings, languages, movement, drama, etc. London opera courses are supported by full scholarships, so you don't pay fees, but are hard to get onto, and have a slight tendency to take people from within the college itself (upgrading postgrads, or taing on their own graduates). Outside London you'll be looking at high fees (with some scholarships available), but much lower living costs, and a slightly less rat-racey atmosphere (however you will also get less exposure to the London scene, see point 6). Applications start Sep/Oct, with auditions Nov-Jan.

British Youth Opera - offer workshops and mainstage opera productions with orchestra. BYO is a great avenue into the London scene, a great place to meet people, and the workshops are always inspiring.  Applications open in Autumn, auditions are usually Jan/Feb.

National Opera Studio - offer a tailor made course for every singer they take. The NOS is supported and closely monitored by the Big 6 (see point 4), so you get great exposure while on the course. It is very hard to get in, with hundreds of singers applying (and it's an expensive application) for a dozen places, but even getting to the final round is a fantastic achievement and means you get heard by the casting departments of the main British opera houses. Apply before Dec, auditions Feb-April.

Opera Works - is ENO's professional development programme. Not to be confused with the Harewood Artists, it is not a YAP. This is a part time course that offers fantastic training in acting for singers, musical input from ENO music staff, consultations with their casting department and various other classes and opportunities. One word of advice - when considering this course, don't think of it as a way to 'get in with ENO'. It doesn't work like that, it's a training programme that you should be on for your own development as a performer, not as a short-cut. Apply by Jan, audition Feb/Mar.

Jette Parker - the best British YAP you can apply for. Competition is fierce (over 400 applicants for 5-6 places) but the rewards are great, you join the staff of the Royal Opera House, receive in-house training and perform small roles on the main stage, as well as bigger ones and scene productions in the studio theatre. Apply in the Autumn, audition in Nov/Dec.

Samling - a week locked away in a remote hotel with some of the best teachers and artists out there.

Britten-Pears - a bizarre application/audition process, and you need to sift through the programme to find things worth applying for, but a very prestigious scheme

Co-Opera Co - a bit like BYO in that they provide training opportunities (workshops, audition classes, etc), but also have paid touring productions. The structure and what's on offer in this company changes quite fluidly, so visit the website to see if there's anything for you.

3. Small-medium opera companies

These vary so much I feel I can't really go into that much detail. The money varies a lot, but chances are you will find yourself pursuing some or all of these, because outside Summer it's between the big houses and this lower tier of companies that the opportunities lie. There are many more out there, the best way to hear about them is through audition notification services (see 5), or by looking at biographies of young up-and-coming singers. Some may not pay well, but offer benefits like doing long runs in London and attracting important visitors or press. If you need help deciding whether to take poorly paid work, I wrote about this problem here. Also, make sure you explore every opera company before blindly sending out CVs, get a feel for what they do and think if that's what you need  to go for (see 8).

ETOOpera Project,  Mid Wales OperaDiva OperaOperaUpClose, Opera de BaugeBampton Classical Opera, Clonter Opera,  Winterbourne Opera, Chelsea Opera Group, Opera LokiSurrey OperaHampstead Garden Opera, Kentish Opera, Midsummer Opera, Riverside Opera, Charles Court Opera, Pavilion Opera, Guildford Opera, Opera in Space, Opera Lyrica, Pop-up Opera, Silent Opera, Opera della Luna

Contemporary/new works: Music Theatre Wales, Size Zero Opera

4. The Big Six and general auditions

The Big Six are: Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North, Scottish Opera and Glyndebourne (which I've covered). They are where all singers want to be working. The first four have full-time choruses, which are the most stable form of employment a singer can find in this country.

General auditions are held regularly, but waiting lists are long (around 6 months), and don't expect feedback or offers straight away. They are there so that the opera company can put you on file, and from there they may invite you back to hear you for something specific. This can take several months. If you don't hear back, you can normally try for another general audition after 2 years to give them an idea of how your voice is developing. As you can see, it's a long game, so maybe wait until you feel ready to impress. Either way before you go, get acquainted with what operas they do, how they are cast, what the venue is like, just to make sure you show them something they may find useful in you. While general auditions are the standard way in for most agent-less singers, it's always good to be seen by the companies in performance, so if you're in their neck of the woods, ask the company you're performing with if they've invited casting departments from other houses.

A note on chorus auditions. These come up quite infrequently, are very popular, but it's worth noting - the panel for these can be different than for general auditions. If you are thinking of having a go at a chorus audition with the hope of being considered as a soloist, you may be wasting your time (and the panel's), because the big wigs from the casting department won't be there until the final round. Rule of thumb - don't go for it if you don't want a chorus job at all. That being said, extra chorus lists (called in for the bigger shows) are a good thing to be on file for, as it is 'a way in' and normally good money for work at a high level of music making. And as Richard Monk commented on Opera Talk, with budgets getting squeezed, many companies cast small roles and covers from within their full-time chorus, so a few years of such work can be a great start on the road to becoming a soloist, an opportunity to pay off student debt, work with the finest musicians on a grand stage, and get some roles under your belt.

5. Agents and audition notification services

I'm not going to waste space by pasting a list of agencies. Google 'artists management' or your favourite singers to see who represents them. Auditioning for agents is hard, they normally invite people they've seen on stage (another group of people to make sure are invited to your performances).  If you are being courted by an agent, ask around about them. Various agencies have varying levels of intimate contact with opera companies, so different agents will be getting tips on different opportunities. You can start a career without them though, it just means a lot more work on your part organising yourself and making sure you're applying for as much as possible. At least then you get to keep all the money you earn.

Speaking of which, before you sign anything, carefully establish the ground rules:
- What is the agent's commission? (these vary from 10%-20%, with 15% being a standard starting place)
- Is it an exclusive contract? If it is and you get offers of work directly (through recommendation or your own networking), then the agent will still want a cut, despite not actually helping secure the gig.

Remember, agents are supposed to work for you, not you for them. In the end it should be a personal relationship with regular contact and you should be confident that they have a plan for you that you're happy with.

To help organise yourself when you don't have an agent, there are audition notification services out there. You pay them a regular monthly fee to get daily or weekly information about upcoming auditions. It saves you having to spend an hour a day googling all possible combinations of the words 'opera, audition, role, baritone, looking for, chance of a lifetime'. The most popular ones are: YAP Tracker, The Opera Stage, Audition Oracle

6. A note about London

If you went to college in Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, or anywhere outside London, I have some harsh news for you. They are great places to live in, but if you want to work, you will probably need to break into the London scene. The capital is where the work is, it's where the auditions are, it's where you can (with some self-sacifice and perseverence) forge a life where you are performing all year round (even if it is in the back room of a pub). I'm not saying that taking one small opera company job after another is the way to forge a career, in fact it's a frustrating life to live, but it's a place to start, and as you will find out - good work breeds more work. It's better to be seen performing than in an audition (unless you're good at the latter but unengaging in the former, or get stuck in bad shows), and in London you can make sure you perform regularly in a way that is simply not possible elsewhere. You will then find yourself being told in auditions 'I saw you in so and so, I enjoyed it', which makes for a nicer audition.

Breaking into London can take time and luck. It's easier if you study there, but if not, be on the lookout for people putting on shows at Grimeborn or Tete a Tete, have a go at getting into BYO, go for the Summer festivals (they rehearse in London and you will meet important people), make friends whenever you are in the capital.

7. Watch your peers

As a young singer the best way to get inspiration on what to do next with your life is to look at those who have been there before, preferably recently. Go to performances near you, buy programmes, read biogs, browse singers' websites, note companies they worked for and try approaching them. Keep up to date with your colleagues, talk about what's out there, recommend them for things if you get the chance, karma will hopefully reward you.

8. Decide what you need!

Being out of college means you are finally your own boss and can do what's best for you. You won't be prey to college politics and casting that shoehorns people into inappropriate roles just so that a particular opera can be put on. Decide what you want and need. It may be that you need stage experience, or to learn roles, in which case apply for all the small companies you can find. If you don't want to be constantly learning repertoire and performing in small venues, take the time to get more singing lessons and focus on your vocal craft and audition rep. There are no hard and fast rules about whether or not a dozen roles performed in pubs and cattle markets look better on a CV than extra chorus on a big stage, so try not to get hung up on filling out that particular piece of paper. Focus on your singing and performance abilities, do whatever you need to keep these improving. Your life belongs to you now, not college, so focus on yourself (in a good way!), get better, stay healthy, and be patient.

Oh... and you may need to get a day job...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Making the most of your 5 minutes - ENO Opera Works

I recently wrote up my thoughts on the last Opera Works weekend for the official course blog and you can read them here. I decided not to repaste that text here and trust that you won't hate me for making you click a few extra times. As promised in that text, I'd like to expand on what feedback we got from Christian Curnyn on Sunday, with some of the quotes also coming from Martin Constantine (course leader). I'm afraid I didn't write down who said what, and some of it is me paraphrasing what was said anyway, but hopefully it conveys the underlying sense of what they were both trying to say.

I'll start from the end, when Christian stayed behind after the session was over to take a few questions from us, and these were geared more towards professional advice than performance technique. Here is the advice he gave us in response to our questions:
On the rehearsal process:
Be meticulously prepared, but be prepared for changes, esp in translations / new productions.
Come in with ideas, but no preconceptions.
Check with baroque rep if the conductor wants you to come up with your own ornaments or not.
On auditions:
Keep still and relaxed, but have intent behind it. Have a theatre in your head.
If you think about the noise you're making, you never sing your best.
On performing Rameau:
Recitative is not free at all! It's metronomic, you can put a beat to it. That's why the time signature changes all the time, he didn't do the Mozart/Händel thing of writing it out in 4/4 and filling bars in with rests that you can (and should) leave out when performing. There should be a pulse, it's not a cat and mouse game where the continuo section follow the singers.

And now the meat of the session, remarks made on our attempts at performing our scenes. I say attempts, because we weren't trying to actually put on a final performing version of any of them, but rather trying out different ways and approaches (as I wrote on the ENO blog). To better ilustrate how 'out there' these attempts were trying to be, I've added a video below that gives you an idea of the kind of physical theatre we were trying to incorporate. I do think a lot of the things Christian said apply as general rules for good performance and I hope they will inspire the performers among you to maybe think about whether you achieve them in your own craft. As for 'audience' reading this, next time you're at the opera or theatre, check if the professionals are actually doing a good job ;)

Differentiate thoughts, don't sing the music, say the words. Especially in translation in recit, go with the text, not the musical rhythms and stresses.
Don't suspend the thought before you start to sing.
In recit - don't lock your memory to notes, lock it to words.
Ornaments are meant to move the line forward, not to stop it. Don't flag them up.
Keep the singing active by keeping the thoughts active.
Find the reason you go into song, not recit.
Keep phrases going to the end, don't weaken endings.
When using actions (Stanislavsky), don't let them become stage directions.
When appealing to gods, you have to have belief that they are in the room listening (or deliberately ignoring you). Otherwise it turns self-indulgent.
Don't slow your body down to the music. It can be a good choice in a production, but as a habit it is unhelpful.
There's nothing more artificial than opera. You have to either go against that as much as you can and find the natural, or embrace it whole-heartedly. Don't just sort of go with it.
In Handel - realise that it's already seasoned, you don't need to add anything. The emotion is in the music already, the moment you add any sentimentality to that it becomes too much. All it needs is action and thought, not more emotion.
If a gesture comes naturally to your body, don't stop it mid-flow, think what your body is trying to do and go with it without second-guessing.
Don't fall into a pattern of thought-stop-sing-think-breathe-stop-sing-slow down for ornament-stop-thought. Keep the flow.
Don't play the status - don't play king and princess, play real people. (People all feel the same way and are driven by the same things, status is a physicality)
When you talk to people, they are rarely actually listening, they are always responding by thinking ’what? so? why?'. Playing a scene is reacting to other people's reactions, it's not acting.
There needs to be direction!!!
Some arias are not in real time, they are a frozen moment. You don't have to 'stage' them.
Pointing to yourself on 'I' must be a decision, not a habit.
You have to think about how to make life difficult for your character, otherwise you'll find yourself with nothing to play.
You can be economic in movement without being economic with text and meaning (a teacher explaining).
When you're thinking of something your face is naturally quite masklike. Don't let acting face affect the singing and cut the audience off (closed eyes, scrunched face).
It's difficult in opera (esp early) not to fall into the trap of word-painting, which kills it (over-seasoning).
Slow walking is very unnatural. We don't walk slowly in real life.
Don't put on a mezzo sound. Use your voice. (Fach determines what repertoire you sing, not how you sing it).
Signposting and overtelling aren't truthful and don't travel well. Face-acting - few people pull faces in real life situations, but singers do it all the time, because of our need to tell every aspect of the story.
If you try to tell  the audience a complex story, it becomes vague. Try telling one aspect of it and trusting them to intuit the rest.

And now have a look at this and try to imagine opera singers doing it in a handelian aria:

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Whatever you do, don't mention the fees!

While I am still ill, I will try and make this post more coherent than the last. I was inspired today by Christopher Gillett's blog post about singers' fees, and how it made me think of various times I found out that I or one of my colleagues was paid less than everyone else (sometimes despite singing a bigger part!), or that a fixer/organiser took a huge cut for themselves without telling the performer.

As Mr Gillett points out, these things happen for various reasons, not always nefarious by nature. No one would argue with the notion that experience and reputation should influence the money a performer is paid, as should the size of the part undertaken. The lack of rehearsal pay is a baffling phenomenon that I guess I'll just have to get over and live with, but the variation in fees that sometimes has nothing to do with the valid reasons listed above (and it does happen, in opera as well as in oratorio) seems to me to be facilitated by the performers themselves.

As a student I was never sat down and told what the financial realities of the job were, and I felt awkward asking. Nowadays when I talk to my agent I get an idea of what the reasonable rates can be, and having recently become a member of Equity I have access to what they consider the minimum rates to be. As I mentioned a while ago, money is not the only consideration when accepting/declining work, but let's face it, sooner or later the 'I guess that a guy gotta eat' mentality does kick in. 

I mentioned that we ourselves as performers facilitate the sometimes unfair phenomenon of varying fees. Mr Gillett's blog refers to the unspoken agreement that one doesn't talk about fees... Funny that no one ever told us students how much we can expect to be paid, but I was told 'whatever you do, don't ask others how much they're getting'. It's part of the culture. The intention may well be to keep money out of art, not spoil the rehearsal room atmosphere with the rude matter of pay. Maybe back in the day when everyone was making a decent living from it (was there ever such a time?) this made sense, but now that funding cuts abound and companies are forced to search for savings wherever they can have we not given them the perfect smokescreen to cut a few corners without fear of causing upset? After all, the young singer who has no agent will indeed be grateful for the opportunity, and will have their peers jealous of the fact they're working at all... Why would the singer in question risk rocking the boat and asking whether what they're getting paid matches up to what their college year-mate (who happens to have an agent and is singing a considerably smaller part) is getting?  

I'm not saying it happens everywhere all the time, but it does happen. We don't know how common or rare it is, because we ourselves don't talk about it. Are we doing ourselves a favour? Would changing the culture and being more open about fees only sour the atmosphere without really changing anything? I do think more and more young singers are getting frustrated by the lack of information, and some change in attitudes may be on the cards. Personally I've always found that any pressure to not talk about something gives the impression of something fishy going on...

Well, not always ;)