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This blog is a combination of new material and previously published archives... Mostly about singing, music, opera and the life of an artist. Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

'You're a what? Really?' Facing that dreaded question...

Something I am repeatedly confronted with is how old insecurities and fears never really disappear, and how the same lessons often need to be relearned. This can be viewed as a bad thing: you never just wake up one morning and feel 'successful,' despite any number of milestones achieved, but it could also be seen as a good thing: perhaps everyone you perceive to be 'ahead' of you in the game is struggling with the same problems, so why worry?

I was reminded of this while perusing Carol Kirkpatrick's website, http://www.ariaready.net. (She also puts out a free newsletter.) Although aimed mainly at students and apprentice level singers, much of her advice is still relevant to the working professional, especially us jobbing freelancers. Her March newsletter particularly caught my attention: answering that awkward question (especially when asked by someone outside of the business) of "what do you do?" A seemingly simple question that can tie a singer up in knots. Obviously, if we were world famous, Renee-/Placido-/Bryn- level singers, no one would NEED to ask us. They would already know what we did. But having to explain the vagaries of the music industry, and exactly our own place in the pecking order, whilst watching someone's eyes glaze over, can be disheartening in the extreme. It can be very tempting to say something general, like 'I work in the arts' or stick with 'I teach music.' I have even been advised to tell outright lies: 'Oh yes, me and Placido, we sing together all the time!' (I'm SURE no one EVER does that.) I was delighted to see her newsletter on this subject pop into my inbox for two reasons: 1) I thought I was the only singer who experienced this particular neurosis, and 2) she promised a helpful formula to compose a truthful but empowering answer. Hoorah! (Go to the web link listed below to read the article in full.) Now, I know we all MEAN to do these very useful quizzes and exercises, but, well, there's all this other stuff to do, and practicing, and, ahem... Don't worry. I've done your homework for you (well, part of it anyway):

(Carol's questions are in italics)

Why does this very particular question make you panic and feel so uncomfortable?

Fear of being seen as a 'fraud'-of being asked to 'prove' I am a singer...fear that discussing what I do with someone not familiar with the industry will put up a social barrier between us: many people seem to think Opera Singers are some kind of alien species. Fear of sounding 'pompous.'

Write down the exact conversation going on in your head. (Be able to un-jumble it and get at least one solid thought down.)

If I just say opera singer they will ask something awkward like 'are you famous' or 'do you know so-and-so (insert the name of your least favourite crossover/popera singer here)' or something equally naff or ask 'where have you sung' or 'where are you singing now' and their eyes will glaze over while I explain about touring with regional companies and covering in big houses and basically destroy their illusions about what being a performing artist is. Then they will look at me as if I am a liar and have just wasted their time and that I am a delusional fantasist and never want to speak to me again. And that's just the people who like me. (This is an edited version: the exact 'conversation' can be much worse.)

And finally, she instructs us to write our own 'personal statement' to have at the ready for answering that pesky question. Here is mine:

'I'm an opera singer...I have sung at Covent Garden, and worked at the Met in New York. I'm free lance, so it's quite unpredictable what I'll be doing from season to season, but always exciting! I also teach, and sometimes do local performances. If you're interested, here's my card: you can see upcoming performances on my website.'

Now, you go on Carol's website and do the exercise for yourself. I'll see you when you're done.

It really was a surprise how little that inner dialogue has changed since I was a student / apprentice / aspiring opera singer. Even though I now earn my living as a singer and no longer need to hold down a support job; even though I can cite working in opera houses that the average man or woman on the street may actually have heard of; the old fears still remain...if only I'd done this exercise back in the day! So if anyone reading this is exactly in Carol's intended demographic, I hope you will realise that you are not alone, and that the person asking this question is not trying to catch you out or make you feel a fraud or a failure. At worst, they are just making polite conversation. At best, they are really interested, don't know much about what we do, at any level, and really (really!) don't realise they are being ever-so-slightly offensive when they bring up the name of that so-and-so 'popera' singer. See this as an opportunity to educate someone (gently, please) and possibly persuade them to come to a live performance. It's also a great moment to practice your own confidence-boosting mantra ('I am an opera singer, a real one, yes I am!') Most of the time, the person asking the 'dreaded question' is now very excited that they have met an actual opera singer, and they feel a bit special. Their eyes are only glazing over in confusion because they can't imagine why you appear to be apologising for being something so fantastically exotic. And sometimes, they are even envious. No, really. Now, go do your homework!


Other articles on the web in a similar vein:


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Songs from an Enchanted Island

(I am researching and refining a song recital themed on Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry. The following is a first draft of the programme notes.)

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Caliban, The Tempest

In W. H. Auden's essay 'Music in Shakespeare' the author explains that there are two types of song in Shakespeare's plays: the 'called-for' and the 'impromptu.' The first is requested by another character as a form of entertainment, the other when a character cannot express him- or herself in any other way. Ariel's songs in The Tempest, however, do not fit into either category: 'For Ariel is neither a singer, that is to say, a human being whose vocal gifts provide him with a social function, nor a nonmusical person who in certain moods feels like singing. Ariel is song; when he is truly himself, he sings.'

Shakespeare's plays, and the works of other poets of the first Elizabethan age, are indeed 'full of noises,' and have served as rich fodder for song and opera composers, in Shakespeare's era as well as through subsequent centuries into our own. Caliban's island, never specifically identified, is thought to be Caribbean or Mediterranean, but given the wealth of magical, mystical and supernatural stories, poems and songs created there, the real Enchanted Island surely is Albion: Great Britain.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

What do divas really get up to at home? Well...

A colleague recently posted on Twitter something along the lines of: 'waiting in for a delivery of furniture. Yes, this is how exciting my life is when I'm not singing somewhere...'

It got me thinking about what we divas do in between gigs - other than practice, prepare for auditions and answer fan mail, of course - so I made a partial list:

1) going for walks/foraging for wild food
2) trying to avoid housework (so much easier to avoid when I'm away from home, but I'm getting pretty good at it even when it's staring me in the face)
3) writing blogs
4) planting/tending/harvesting garden
5) spending time with my chickens/cats/goldfish/children/husband
6) knitting/sewing/making
7) teaching
8) making plans to: exercise more/learn to cook/learn to speak Mandarin, etc.
9) indulging in paranoid fantasies of never getting hired to sing again and being reduced to busking on the front lawn in my pyjamas...

You get the picture. Recently, the big domestic project has been renovating the family bathroom. It got me thinking about how much 'project management' singers have to do (you thought we just got up, ate a few bonbons, took deliveries of flowers and got into the limo to go to the opera house didn't you?) I noticed myself going through the same process as I would putting together a recital programme or recording a CD, even down to the bits I find tiresome and wish I could skip over...and here is my little list of advice - to myself as well as others:

1) Get on with it! 'Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.' Don't be afraid to enlist others for the jobs you are not expert at. I am not a plumber, nor am I a sound engineer.

2) Do the boring stuff, even when it feels like it gets you no further toward your goal. It does. Eventually. Yes, the woodwork really does need to be cleaned and prepped before it is painted. And those songs really do need word-by-word translations.

3) Our plumber turned up at 8 a.m. every day. Start early. OK, I don't recommend singing scales so early in the morning, but emails can be drafted, texts translated, research done.

4) There will be delays, problems, disappointments, etc. Know this. Allow time for it in the schedule. Same goes for budget. Expect the unexpected, and don't let it throw you too much.

5) Nothing is ever perfect. Nothing. Know when to let go and decide that it's ready/finished/time to start on the next project.

That's it, I think. Now...where's that limo got to?

Sunday, 17 February 2013

From Amahl to the Met: my Mum, Me and Opera (Or, Thank Goodness for the Met HD Broadcasts)

Recently, I had the unusual experience of watching the Metropolitan Opera HD Cinema broadcast...from the Green Room backstage at the Met itself.

Covers at the Met are required to be in the theater during simulcast performances, and since the television monitors backstage show exactly what audiences around the world are seeing in the cinema, we were all in the Green Room that day, enjoying the show. You may think that singers working at the Met would be too cool and cosmopolitan to behave like over-excited children whilst watching people we know appear on TV. You would be wrong.

The afternoon of the HD broadcast was also the day I would later fly to Atlanta, GA to visit my family. My mum no longer enjoys travel, so her only way of sharing this production with me is to attend the broadcast at her local movie theater. This was the closest we would get to actually seeing the opera 'together.'

We have a long history, my mum and I, regarding opera and singing. An excellent amateur singer, she was the leading soprano and soloist in our church choir when I was growing up, and it was through her that I found my first voice teacher. Mum had started taking formal voice lessons at the local university, and her teacher was tasked with forming a local chorus for a touring production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. We both went along to the auditions, and after accepting both of us into the chorus, the teacher suggested that I should also be getting some formal voice training. Still in high school at the time, I started lessons and went on to study music at university. I feel quite blessed that both my parents always supported my choice of a career in music...especially when I met fellow students for whom that was not the case.

Several years, and two academic degrees later, when I was a finalist in the Luciano Pavarotti competition, Mum confided to me that she had always wondered what it would have been like to sing a role on the stage. (In her youth she had known several aspiring opera singers, but had never pursued a professional singing career herself.) She attended the rounds of the competition in New York and in Philadelphia and was thrilled when, as I was singing Sempre Libera from La Traviata, Maestro Pavarotti himself sang along as the off-stage Alfredo.

After I emigrated to the United Kingdom, it obviously became more challenging for Mum to attend performances I was involved with. She did make the journey to New York and Pittsburgh when I came back across the pond to perform in some contemporary opera premieres, and the advent of social networking via the Internet allows me to share recorded performances and photos with her almost instantly.

And so technology helped us to share another musical experience, in real time, and a few hours later we were able to rehash the whole performance in person. We had a lovely time sharing comments from both sides of the stage, and by the time I headed back to New York she was well-armed with gossipy inside information to share with her opera-going friends and mahjong buddies.

From Amahl chorus to the Metropolitan Opera, my mother has been there with me in one way or another, as inspiration, teacher, fellow chorus member, biggest fan, patron and supporter. So, thank you Metropolitan Opera of New York, for your HD cinema broadcast series, and allowing my mother and me to share this part of our journey. And thank you Mum. For everything.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Metropolitan Opera: a view from the inside...

In September of this year, I commenced my 'debut season' as a Metropolitan Opera singer. The Met is an amazing place, and one of the things that impressed me most was the way artists are treated with respect and professionalism. I worked there as a cover: someone who fully rehearses and prepares for an operatic role, and then waits in the wings in case another singer is unable to perform, but barring that event, doesn't otherwise perform the role in that house. Even so, I was repeatedly congratulated, officially and unofficially, on my 'debut' at the Met. My name and photo are on the official Met roster. I am a Metropolitan Opera singer. (Wow.)

These are a few notes I jotted down about my experiences there...

Week 1 of rehearsals for The Tempest, The Metropolitan Opera, New York, Monday:
I have a 10 a.m. call to do a 'flying' rehearsal, which consists of being fitted into a harness (borrowed from one of the Valkyries in the Ring, not mine, which is being custom made) and being hoisted into the air. I suddenly realise, because of a strong burning sensation, that all of my body weight is now being concentrated in my hips. And..then I am asked to sing. A Capella. Yes, I do need to find out what it feels like to sing in this position, but it would be nice to know if I am in the right key...not exactly what I had envisioned my first vocalizations as a principal singer at the Met would be like...

Released from this unusual experience (and I hasten to add that everyone is very apologetic, helpful and polite) I am directed to the wardrobe department where I am thoroughly measured (still in the harness, which has to be worn under the costume) and squeezed into the main cast Ariel's costume which consists of stretch Lycra. Photos are taken. Return to the rehearsal space and back to dangling on the end of a rope. The rope (or wire, as it is alarmingly called) is threaded through a chandelier, so my character will appear - with the full costume and theatrical effects, of course - to be a Harpy who has suddenly transmogrified from said lighting fixture. I have to release a giant set of wings as I begin my ascent, while a group of acrobats proceed to pull and release ropes which make the chandelier, and me, swing quite violently across the room. Again, I am asked to sing, only this time with the assistance of a recording of the scene's music.

Back in my street clothes, I find my way to the music rehearsal (feeling slightly embarrassed about sneaking in like a child late for her first day at school) just in time for the coffee break. I get to meet a couple of fellow cast members and covers, and listen to some of my role being rehearsed, before we all break up for lunch, and both myself and the main cast Ariel are released for the day. Welcome to the Met!

After the excitement of my first day 'trial by fire,' the second day is positively sedate. All I need to do is listen to the main cast rehearse with the conductor (who is also, fabulously, the composer), take notes and generally look interested. However, today is also my younger son's 6th birthday, and I am an ocean away from him. I pass a note around the rehearsal room (again playing at naughty school child) which reads: 'My son is 6 today - will you help me sing Happy Birthday to him at the lunch break?' Several singers acknowledge my missive, and I figure that ought to make a sufficiently impressive sound. When the lunch break is called, myself and my fellow conspirators gather in the best spot for cell phone reception, and I ring home. As I am waiting for my husband to pick up the phone, several other singers ask what is going on and offer to join in. By the time we start in with Happy Birthday, both casts of The Tempest are gathered round, who sing with full operatic gusto, spontaneously breaking 4-part harmony, and I have to stop singing because I am welling up.

More music rehearsals today, plus a little bit more acrobat training for me. In another scene, my character is hiding inside the chandelier, which is resting on its side on the floor. I learn a routine where I emerge from the chandelier, climb on top, stand, squat, lie down (verrrry comfortable!), and generally perch on this oddly shaped piece of set. I start to wish I worked out more. A lot more. I am videoed doing this oh-so-graceful routine so I can practice at home...

Today both the main cast Ariel and I have flying rehearsal. I watch her go through the routine (the one hanging from the chandelier) and then I get strapped into a harness and do the same. She has done this particular production before, so she knows it is possible to sing and fly at the same time, and therefore feels safe marking the part down an octave. I have no such experience to back me up, so when it is my turn I take advantage of having a live pianist and assistant conductor in the room, and give it to them with both barrels. Considering I haven't had any coaching yet and I am dangling from a wire, it goes pretty well. I hope music schools are incorporating acrobatics into the curriculum for aspiring opera singers...

Week 2, Tuesday:
This is more like the covering jobs I am used to. Sitting in a corner watching the main cast being put through their paces, and trying to take notes/remember what moves go where in the music/shadow perform what they're doing, and generally try to behave and not distract, or at least not to gossip too much with the other covers. Reassuring to know that in some respects, the Met is like any other opera house.

Not called to rehearsal today, but it is payday, so I find my way to the payroll office, which is in a part of the building I have not visited before. On the way out, I get turned around, and end up on the wrong side of the house. A stage hand kindly directs me to the correct elevator bank, the route to which takes me into the front of house area, and I suddenly find myself with a view of Lincoln Center Plaza I didn't know existed. Those huge arched windows actually go up 6 floors, and it it quite breathtaking from the inside at that height. Looking down into the lobby area, I can see the famous crystal chandeliers and red carpeted staircases. I fish my phone out of my handbag and surreptitiously snap a few photos before wending my way out of the building.

An email comes through from the rehearsal department informing me of a change in today's schedule. Instead of observing both morning and afternoon sessions, the cover cast will be observing in the morning and rehearsing in the afternoon. OK, I know I need to be prepared for everything and anything, no problem. Then, on the subway platform waiting for the train to Lincoln Center, my cell phone rings. The rehearsal department, giving me a heads up that the lady I am covering is feeling unwell, and I (can't quite hear the rest, as a train rumbles by on the other track)...OK, I suppose they mean I'll sing it from the side while she goes through the motions? Whatever, at least I'll arrive in good time to warm up a bit and find out exactly what's going on.

Actually, she is not there at all. It's all me, acting, climbing on bits of set, and singing. For the main cast, the head producer, and the conductor. Who also just happens to be the composer. No pressure then.

Week 4, Monday:
Stage rehearsals in the main auditorium begin for our production. Now there's no mistaking where we are. This is a truly iconic opera house. In the afternoon session, the covers have a music call. This is the first opportunity we have really had to hear each other sing. Cue a bit of nerves all round and no excuses for marking! Still, it's good a) to get a chance to really sing out loud after days of listening and b) to get this little ritual of 'so what are this lot really like?' out of the way.

Morning session only today, watching and taking notes. It is useful to see the machinery in place instead of having to imagine all the 'special effects'. I also get another harness fitting, this time with the head of the technical/design team, who impresses me greatly by lifting me off the floor (by the harness) with his bare hands. It fits. And it is far, far more comfortable than the previous, borrowed harness. This harness, and a complete duplicate costume has been built specifically for me, something that doesn't happen in every opera house. Even if I never get a chance to perform in this run, it feels a bit special that somewhere in the costume storage at the Met there will be pieces of clothing with little labels with my name on them...

Chandelier scene on stage. And, surprise, I am handed a rehearsal leotard and led to the principal dressing rooms to change so I can have a go too. The technicians strap me into my harness while the main cast Ariel is lifted and the crew practice their cues for the scene. When that has been done to everyone's satisfaction, I am fitted into the 'harpy' costume pieces (including some oversized bird-claws that make it nearly impossible to walk) and put through the routine. I'm shown how to shuffle on my bottom to the base of the chandelier, present my bottom to the acrobat who has the responsibility of attaching me to the wire, and make the necessary adjustments while the chandelier is raised and I am hoisted into the air along with it. I do my best to unfurl the wings at the right moment, move my bird-claws menacingly, and stare straight at the conductor/composer and sing the right notes in the right order. I am singing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Well, I am singing whilst hovering over the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Close enough.

(I have to report that I never got to 'go on' in this production. The main cast Ariel was far too healthy for that. I did, however, sing in a couple of promotional events at outside venues, and was duly billed as a 'Metropolitan Opera singer' for these appearances. And I must admit: that felt very nice indeed.)
The Metropolitan Opera performance of The Tempest, by British composer Thomas Ades, will be broadcast on the Met's Saturday Matinee radio series at 1:00 p.m. ET and on BBC Radio 3 at 6:00 p.m. GMT on Saturday, 29 December 2012

Monday, 5 November 2012

How I survived Sandy, or, there is more to New York City than Times Square

I had planned to round off my series on 'Time Travelling via the Opera Tour' with memories old and new of New York. (I am currently there, in my debut season on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, covering Ariel in Thomas Ades' The Tempest.) The planned blog was full of charming anecdotes about my life in New York prior to emigrating to the UK, introducing my eldest son to my favourite city, and the anticipation of introducing my younger son to the delights of the Big Apple when they came to visit me during their half term holiday.

Then came Sandy.

Now, in many, many ways we were very lucky: my family's flight arrived safely, on time, the day before the city started shutting down in preparation for the storm, we never lost power during the worst of the bad weather, had plenty of food and supplies in, and their flight back to the UK happened on schedule. We were unhurt, warm, safe and dry. However, my vision of gamboling in Central Park, showing the boys around the Metropolitan Opera House, visiting the Museum of Natural History, etc, etc, had to be revised slightly.

Our digs were in a vacation rental apartment in Brooklyn. Fine and dandy if the subway system is running, but a world away from the 'famous' bits of New York if not. I was contractually obligated to be within 20 minutes of the opera house during Wednesday's performance of The Tempest, which involved taking a bus to downtown Brooklyn, walking across a bridge to lower Manhattan, which was still without power, wandering through Chinatown and SoHo until finally flagging down a cab, which then crawled through the gridlocked streets up to Lincoln Center. Not a journey I fancied with kids in tow. (Eerily, the last performance at the Met before the hurricane was The Tempest, and the first after two nights of cancellations was also The Tempest. Made the storm scene quite prescient...)

It quickly became apparent that the public transport system was not going to be restored before the family returned to the UK, so we found ways to experience the city from our side of the East River: real American trick-or-treating (it is a competitive sport to see who has the scariest decorations on their house in Brooklyn), authentic New York pizza from Tony's Pizzeria, a day at the local shopping mall with enormous cheeseburgers for lunch, plus a rummage through the Salvation Army store to see what charity shops look like in the USA, and a visit to the zoo in Prospect Park. My family returned home with plenty of good memories and souvenirs of their time with me in New York. And, let us not forget, we survived an actual hurricane. What I did on my school holidays, indeed.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Time traveling via the opera tour...keeping it in the family, part 3: Perth

When he was in his early twenties, my late husband (the father of my eldest son) worked for a time in forestry on the Duke of Atholl's estate in Perthshire, Scotland. He often cited those days as being some of the happiest of his life: he was young and healthy, he was working outdoors in the fresh air, and he felt in harmony with the world around him. One day while up in the hills clearing bracken and planting pine saplings, he took a break to eat his packed lunch. All at once he realized that he was not alone on the hillside. The hot breath that he felt on the back of his neck was a roe deer, who had curiously approached him from behind. At first he daren't move, for fear of frightening the animal away, but then he decided to offer it part of his sandwich. As he sat there sharing his lunch with a beautiful wild creature, he wondered if there could be a better way to earn a living.

The opera tour's northern-most venue was Perth Theatre. I sang there both times, with and without my young son.  Both times, I/we travelled by train, enjoying the stunning scenery to and from Scotland. The second time, I struggled to picture myself and my son managing a push chair around the cobbled streets, filled with tourists and outdoor tables in front of restaurants. I vaguely recollected searching for the childminder's house, barely finding it in time to get to the theatre, then back again after the show was finished, checking us both into our hotel, and getting up bright and early to catch the train back the next morning. On this occasion, I was able to take more time to enjoy the town, spending time (and a little too much money) in a craft and bead shop, eating in one of the fancier restaurants, taking photographs of the architecture, and learning about the history of the city.  I bought some postcards to send home to my sons, and wrote a reminder on the back to my eldest about the time we spent there together, and how Perthshire was one of his father's favourite places. The card was, of course, an aerial photo of the Atholl Estates. '...your dad probably planted some of those trees.'