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

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.