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

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:

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