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

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...

No comments:

Post a comment