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

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Rule One

There has recently been some uproar in our small community over an employee of a leading British conservatoire sending out a very poorly written set of guidelines for getting on in the musical profession. It was a hodge-podge of conflicting advice that included several offensive terms, but also made no attempt to explain the grim reality of the profession it portrayed (and let’s not kid ourselves: most of the broad stereotyping, casual sexism, toxic competitiveness, etc, that the memo described, cemented, and almost encouraged; is sadly true). As a conversation-starter at a symposium, it would have worked brilliantly and kicked off a debate on how we could strive to make our world better. But as a memo circulated by email with no context, only pearls of wisdom in the vein of ‘what happens on tour stays on tour’, it just sends the message: this is the world you’re entering, conform or fail!

It’s sad. We can do so much better, and it should start at conservatoire. Music should be a collaborative quest for the betterment of mankind through beauty… not a cess-pit of one-upmanship and insincere high-school posturing. 

I’ve always felt conservatoires didn’t adequately prepare students for some of the harsher realities of the profession, but obviously this isn’t the way to do it. Even some of the more light-hearted elements of the memo, which focussed on the social aspect of music-making, only serve to take the fun out of it! Telling students to be the life and soul of the party (but avoid getting a bad reputation, obviously) is a recipe for a generation of young people who will fail by trying too hard to be ‘fun’. Rather than just allow themselves to be infected by the fun of their slightly older colleagues through listening to anecdotes, advice, etc. 

So here’s my advice to students (or anyone else for that matter), and hopefully it’ll be a lot shorter than that memo (though my preamble has already made that unlikely). You’re about to enter a world of pain! Studies have shown you’re 3x more likely than a ‘normal person’ to suffer from depression as a musician. You will face rejection, sexism, racism, section-ism, instrument-ism, etc. You will also meet wonderful people along the way, have great banter, make memorable music, so it’s not all bad. Focus on the good stuff, be patient, be kind to yourself, learn as you go. And in all your interactions with others - there’s only one rule you need follow. My friends and I call it Rule One (I have unashamedly stolen it from a good mate of mine).

Rule One = Don’t be a dick!

Always judge yourself by Rule One. Is coming to a rehearsal underprepared ‘being a dick’ to my colleagues? Yes! Don’t do it. Is talking about so-and-so behind their back ‘being a dick’? Probably! Try not to. Is warming up in a shared dressing room when your mate has a migraine ‘being a dick’? Yeah, try to find a better place! Infecting everyone with a plague just to avoid missing out on a show fee? I refer you to Rule One. Is flirting with a colleague when you’re married ‘being a dick’? Sometimes, most often, and definitely if that colleague is your ‘underling’, and going beyond flirting earns you a capital D. Is calling someone out for ‘being a dick’ constitute a breach of Rule One? Unfortunately the answer is quite often ‘probably’ ;)

It is a simple rule at heart though, and may well be all you need to be a valued member of our community. I’m willing to bet it’ll serve you better in the long run than any elaborate ‘networking tactics’, in your well-being as much as in your career.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The show that almost didn't happen

This blog post is for myself, as much as it is for anyone out there who reads it. I'm writing these thoughts down so that I can always come back to them and remember what happened last week. I've been gushy about performances and projects before, sometimes even humbled, but I truly think my experiences in Dartmoor prison may have been the most formative I've had to date. That's why I'll try as hard as I can to refrain from gushing and just put down as honest and bare a personal account as I can.

To put the whole thing in context for you, the premise (as relayed to me by the organiser - Adam Green) was simple - we put on a reduced version of Carmen in Dartmoor Prison, with a chorus made up of inmates. I had done quite a lot of outreach work before with ETO and Garsington Opera, and it had always been very rewarding, so of course I agreed to take part, looking forward to the warm feeling you get from 'giving back'.

It's been a couple of days, and to be perfectly honest, I don't have that warm feeling. The project was indescribably amazing and worthwhile, and the high I was on directly after the performance was probably the biggest I've ever had. I also feel and believe we managed to make a positive impact on the people we worked with, prisoners and guards alike, and they on us. I will always remember the zeal and abandon that our chorus performed with, the energy they gave me during the Toreador was electrifying, and goes to show how powerful the art of performing music can be (but also made me feel that in every performance I've ever given, I could have given more, held less back, been more invested in the joy of what I do). Through their sheer focus and enthusiasm, the chorus truly became the stars of the show, and their smiles in the curtain call as they bowed will stay with me forever. Plus the sound they made! Every time someone asked 'yeah, but can they actually sing?', I smiled the same smile Adam did when I asked him the same question, and replied 'just you wait until you hear them'. Visceral, full-bodied and joyous, I can only describe it as the sound of freedom... The freedom to express yourself in the most extrovert way imaginable; the vocalised joy of working together in a group; the sound of people forgetting who and where they are...

And here we come to why I'm not filled with a warm glow, despite being genuinely in awe of the experience we all shared. We all worked together on this piece. The prisoners worked on their back stories from day to day, and handed Tom (our director) pages of 'question and answer' homework every morning. During rehearsals there wasn't really any feeling of there being 'us' and 'them'. We joked, laughed, explored, played, sang, drank tea, everything as a group of artists. In tea breaks the music making would continue, someone grabbing a guitar and a small group launching into pop songs, or our pianist and an inmate playing showtunes on the piano together. And then the call would end, and we'd go home, while they'd be marched back to their cells, just at the point when normally a company would go for a quick one down the pub. The magic would always end so abruptly. Once, when we got stopped mid-rehearsal because there was an ongoing incident elsewhere in the prison and everyone had to be taken back to their cells for roll call, I actually cried. When we arrived on the day of the show only to be turned away with the words 'there's an ongoing incident, we can't let you in and we don't know if the show will happen' I couldn't believe we may not actually see the guys again... Thankfully, due to the determination of the prison staff to go make Carmen happen, it did go ahead.

I don't even remember what I was expecting before the first day of rehearsals with the inmates. I was nervous, perhaps slightly frightened... But after hearing them sing, chatting with them, I quickly realised - they are just people. We all have in us the capacity for all things human - good or evil, regret or obstinance, indifference or empathy. Of course, I realise there are reasons for them being where they are, and that prisons aren't supposed to be nice places. But I did find myself thinking as we went on a guided tour of the facility - nobody deserves this, there must be a better way... 

To be fair to HMP Dartmoor, talking to the governors and guards, you get a feeling that they do want to do what they can to help the prisoners. There are courses in tiling, woodwork, bricklaying, and other qualifications the inmates can study for in order to have a chance of getting work after release. The atmosphere is respectful, even friendly. Everyone there is doing what they can to address the myriad of issues that crop up in a place like that - mental health issues, self-harm (the prison has pet ferrets that apparently help self-harming inmates), contraband, violence, a horrible drug called 'spice' that is so strong it can even affect guards who accidentally inhale it, the dietary requirements of each individual inmate (for the £1.30 the prison has to spend daily per prisoner on food), the need to exercise, and even the needs of pre-op transgender prisoners (one of whom was in our chorus). There is a lot of good will in that place. But the building is ancient and damp, the cells tiny, the number of staff inadequate (on weekends, when the prison operates on a reduced staffing, there aren't enough guards to let more than a small number of prisoners out of their cells, so most will be locked in their tiny room from Friday evening to Monday morning).

So while I feel immense pride in what our chorus accomplished, and gratitude for the chance to be involved in such a great project, I can't help thinking about how they must be dealing with the post-show come down (which all of us get) in that place. I simply have to have faith that they can hang on to the memory of that onstage feeling and go back to the world we created in the prison chapel, and that they can keep that feeling of freedom they had. I miss them... 

One of our more shy chorus members came up to me before the show and handed me a folded piece of paper. 'This is a letter for all of you professionals, can you share it with them? Just please don't read it until after you've left, I'm too embarrassed...' I won't quote much from it, suffice it to say I cried reading it. He signed off with this:

'Thank you for treating us all like equals.'

Damn right. We all are.


Friday, 10 March 2017

A (rare) day in the life of a cover

Covering has to be one of the most difficult things we can be asked to do. It's an important part of any young singer's initiation though, because what it boils down to is condensed craft and nerves of steel.

On the surface, when accepting a cover as part of a contract, you think it's all going to be great. You'll learn it, rehearse it, do a cover run, and then probably not go on. Easy. I've covered before, and gone on too, and I've even written about it, and it's not that simple even if you do get the luxury of rehearsals and a cover run on set. You'll have to deal with not having done it for 2 months for instance.

This was very much not the case yesterday, though. Yesterday, I went on in a show, having had no rehearsals on my cover (I'm singing chorus in said show, and a role in the other main stage production, as well as doing an education opera - the schedule can only accommodate so much), and to make matters scarier still, I was (and still am) ill. Not as ill as the principal, but still ill. When you think of covering, you think 'if they're ill, I'll go on'. You sort of assume you'll obviously be in the form of your life and it'll be wonderful. But actually, if you're in the show anyway, a company bug may grip you both, and it's just a question of who is at what stage of the illness. As a matter of fact, on this occasion, 3 days earlier my own cover was on standby. Never assume anything.

So I got the call after breakfast and immediately life was put on hold. So much for my plan to catch up on admin or rest after opening night of Patience. Nope, laptop away, Tosca score out (or, in this case, onscreen), headphones in. OK, so this is happening. It very quickly turns out that my bedroom isn't the ideal place to get into the right frame of mind, so I leave to set up camp in the theatre. On the tube people turn their heads, as I've got all my scenes looped on a playlist and am inevitably humming along. It's not often you'll hear someone murmuring the baritone interjections in 'Recondita armonia' on the Victoria line (with added coughs). I'm in the theatre by 2pm, go over costume with wardrobe, chat through the blocking with the assistant director, move my portable pharmacy to the principals' dressing room, go shopping, warm up, make nasal rinse, make ginger tea, all the while humming and counting my way through the music. At 3.30pm I get a coaching with the assistant conductor, sing through it, chat about the tempi, the spots where I need to catch the maestro's beat, then I do the tricky chorus scene one more time, and we agree there's nothing more to be done here. It's almost 4pm, so I go to sit in the stalls and watch the set get screwed into place, waiting for what will be my Stage & (no)Piano. I get 20 minutes or so to walk the scenes I've only ever watched a few times, which is fine, we'd talked through it an hour ago and I'd been imagining it, so I'm more or less on top of the geography. People start coming in for the balance call (or as far as I'm concerned - dress rehearsal), I chat to the maestro, who says we'll do what we can in the short time we have with the orchestra, but we may not do all of it because he has to give our leading lady some time - it's her first show (the role is double-cast and this is show number 2). Everyone wishes me well and it suddenly seems like my going on for a small role is a big deal. Yikes. Balance call is at 5.20pm and we do a good 2/3 of my stuff, with mistakes aplenty because I've never done it with a conductor before. Right, grab assistant conductor afterwards and dissect said mistakes and get him to show me what I can expect to see from the podium in those bits. Eat soup. Decide against eating soup halfway through. Walk my blocking in the dressing room again. Mime conducting myself through the mistakes from the balance call. 7pm get into costume. 7.25pm go down into the wings. 7.30pm Angelotti is on and this is really happening. 7.45pm or so, first scene is done and I can go up and worry about the tricky bit. 8pm go down and do the tricky bit and the interrogation scene. Suddenly, I'm in the wings and it's over... Or at least it would be, if I didn't now have to go change into my chorus costumes and do all the stuff I normally do ;)

It wasn't perfect. You can't get that in half a day, there's a reason rehearsals take weeks. But I didn't make any of the glaring mistakes from the balance call, nor did I stop, or hesitate after an unsteady entry. The cold, while annoying, wasn't debilitating. I came off feeling like I'd done what was required, and that's a hell of a good feeling. It was the first time I've been nervous in the wings for years, but also the first time in a long time I've been that excited while performing.

Now, time for some quick words advice for covers that came to me as I was lying in bed afterwards:

1. Be able to sing/hum ALL of it. Including other people's lines. This normally comes naturally over the course of rehearsals, but if you don't get to rehearse bit by bit, over and over again, then you need to get there yourself. Knowing it all gives you anchor points in case something goes wrong, it is often more natural than counting if entrances are tricky, and it also means you know the scene and therefore can be present. If you can't sing the whole thing on your own (your part, the orchestra and other singers in between), then you'll be a lot more worried out there.

2. Learn to conduct it, or watch the conductor if you can. Rehearsing with piano is one thing, but the orchestra sounds nothing like it. Standing on stage it also sounds nothing like the recordings. If you can spend some time watching a monitor with the conductor in stage & orchestras or shows, rather than watching the stage, you'll be glad you did. Fewer things will catch you by surprise.

3. Watch from the wings (or from behind in a rehearsal room), not from the stalls. It's good to see it from the stage's perspective at least once or twice.

4. Once you're on, that's it, there's only one way it can go, so stop thinking. Mistakes are ok, just move on. And know that everyone around you up there, and in the pit and wings, will help you in any way they can.

5. Don't imagine you'll always be on top form when you go on ;) 'That's not how the Force works', so be mentally prepared for it, otherwise a cold can add an extra bit of stress that you definitely won't need.

PS I'm sure a lot of my ETO colleagues, who did all they could to support me last night, will be reading this, and to all of you - Thank You!

PPS Covering is easy if the leading man gives you a good luck card with all your blocking drawn on it ;)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Have you brought any Mozart?

This post will no doubt be preaching to the choir, but having sat on a panel late last year and had discussions with my agent regarding my own audition repertoire, I thought it would be good to muse on the subject here. Auditions are an odd thing and putting together a set of arias that maximise your chances of employment often feels like a game of guessing the mindset of a mythical everypanel, while at the same time second-guessing your choices after every audition. If you're here expecting a recipe for the perfect audition portfolio, you're out of luck, I'm afraid. All I have to offer is more questions. I do hope that asking these in relation to each of your go-to or potential arias might just help you settle on a few choices and, as a result, give you some peace of mind. It might not, though...

Can you sing every note?

The most important question, and yet so often overlooked. I sang the Count's aria for years and with the stress of an audition I often struggled with what baritones often refer to as 'that %^&$ bottom A'. Coaches always said not to worry, because for one thing many top tier baritones did Count on the world's top stages with 'nothing down there', and therefore panels don't care about that as long as you have a stonking top F#. The thing is, if I fudge a note, regardless of whether the panel care (and despite what some coaches say, they might) - I do care, and it may put me off.

Same goes for coloratura. Don't be fooled by recordings or live performances of singers who have what I'd call 'approximate coloratura'. Just because they get away with it, doesn't mean you will in an audition. The truth is, with all these things, we need to set higher standards for ourselves as singers than what we're exposed to, especially in the polite British culture where coddling by teachers/coaches/music staff is a pleasant but not particularly constructive norm. If we don't expect more of ourselves then we're risking a decline in vocal standards across the board. But I was supposed to write about auditions...

Can you sing it any time day or night, with a 3-year-old at the piano?

The key to auditions is consistency, so make sure most of your rep is prepared so solidly that it is foolproof even at a 9am audition (yes, I've had one of those). You can have one aria that you only bring out when you feel the power flowing through you, though personally I prefer to stick to the solid stuff rather than vocal acrobatics I can't always nail. It's better to sing an immaculate Papageno or Masetto (so-called easy arias) than a pretty good Largo al factotum.

Is it controversial?

There is a reason most casting professionals recommend presenting standard repertoire. It gives them an instant frame of reference. From what you sing, they can extrapolate what roles you may be suitable for. Within standard repertoire, there are controversial arias - ones that can be sung in vastly different ways, about which everyone has strong opinions. This can refer to tempo, ornamentation, volume, character, etc. These are probably best avoided. If you take something to coaches and get the idea each coach wants it differently - find a new aria.

Do you care?

Why are you singing it? If it's just because someone told you it suits you, then don't bother. You need to enjoy singing the aria, otherwise how are the panel supposed to enjoy listening to you? Find joy in the singing, find something you care about and can identify with in the character. Don't take an aria just because you feel you should offer a Mozart/bel canto/German piece, for instance.

What does it show?

You want to send a clear main message - I can sing. The secondary message is - these are the things I can sing. Ideally you want to keep that second one as broad as possible while maintaining its clarity. I used to audition with Pelleas' tower scene, thinking it showed I could do French, difficult music and high singing. I was promptly told that all it shows is that I can sing Pelleas. That's not all that useful outside of a specific audition for the role. Then when putting together a 3-5 aria set, don't necessarily think each piece should show something different. They'll only hear one or two, and will want to look at your other offered options and be able to imagine how you'd sing them. If you offer 3 different fachs, they'll just be confused as to what jobs you're trying to go for.

Can you do the role now?

If not, probably don't bother offering the aria. There may be exceptions (specifically  covers / young artist productions), but offering Father from Hansel and Gretel at the age of 25 can send the wrong message - namely 'this guy has no clue'.

Do you know it too well?

The danger with overly familiar rep is that it can become under-energised in terms of performance, or a bit vague musically. Make sure you tighten all the screws every now and again. It's also good for the soul to introduce a new aria into circulation once in a while.

Of course, this mostly applies to general auditions. If you're going for a specific role, take the appropriate aria, on copy if necessary, plus pieces that are complimentary to that role. Taking a Handel coloratura aria to a Marcello audition is like bringing a knife... you know.

Well, that's it from me on this subject for now. I'm assuming singers out there can figure out their own equivalents for all my baritone aria references, otherwise they probably need more help than I can provide in a blog. In closing - don't blindly follow advice from teachers/coaches, listen to your instrument (it'll let you know if you're not ready for something yet, as long as you're not blinded by arrogance), and set high standards for yourself.