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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, 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.'

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Time-Travelling via the Opera Tour...Keeping it in the Family, Part 2: Exeter

 When I first performed in Exeter, toddler in tow, luck was on my side. The people running the digs we stayed in were not only lovely and welcoming, but have become true friends. Both professional artists, she a painter and he a sculptor, they have a wonderful open-minded outlook on life. The house was full of art, as you would expect, and the garden full of sculpture. My son had a lovely time discovering the different (life-sized!) animals – sheep, dogs – and people dotted around inside and out. We were advised to visit the Exeter Royal Albert Memorial Museum, with its famous collection of stuffed animals dating back to Victorian times. Local hero Gerald the Giraffe, part of the taxidermied menagerie, greeted us as we entered the impressively ornate museum building. My then two-year-old son took great delight in using his new vocabulary in the museum: ‘giraffe’ (his favourite animal at the time), ‘statue’ and –embarrassingly- ‘that statue is a man, because it has a willy!’ Well, it was a replica of a Greek statue, after all.

On my return visit, I stayed at the same digs, as I had stayed in touch with our hosts. As it turned out, I was one of the last lodgers to stay with them: they had sold the big, rambling Victorian house, and were completing their dream house on a parcel of land at the bottom of their (former) garden. Complete with floor-to-ceiling windows along one side, and a two-story artists’ studio outbuilding, it was something right out of ‘Grand Designs.’ We had a lovely time catching up on all the news, mine and theirs, with their grown children getting married/producing grandchildren, and my remarriage and expanded family. I made an attempt to visit the RAMM, but it was closed for renovations. I spent the time instead window shopping at the delightful boutiques and independent shops in the area around the museum, and raiding all the local charity shops and relieving them of their wool supplies.

More recently, while performing at another theatre in Devon, I made a detour to Exeter to visit my artist friends, who were having a joint exhibit in a trendy gallery in Topsham. Again, we had a lovely catch-up session, and it was wonderfully surreal to see so many sculptures and paintings - that I had originally seen in the artists’ house and garden - in the formal setting of a gallery. I felt privileged in comparison to the other patrons who were visiting the exhibition, and it was strange – when noticing the many ‘sold’ notices – to imagine these pieces gracing someone else’s home. I was also reminded of why this couple had always remained in my thoughts: here were two lives intertwined with art, creativity, and love. They had met as students at art school and built parallel careers as practitioners and teachers, while raising a family and creating a beautiful home. An inspiration to artists of every discipline, and one of the many unexpected positives I discovered while touring en famille.

The artwork of Margaret and Roger Dean can be viewed at: http://www.theartroomtopsham.co.uk/port_Deans.html

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Time-travelling via the opera tour…keeping it in the family.

Several years ago, I took my toddler son on tour with me. With an opera company. That may sound completely bonkers, and I don’t recommend it for the faint-of-heart, but we did it. I was a widowed mother, wanted to work for practical reasons, and needed to continue as a singer for other, not as easy to quantify, reasons…so my little man had to come along for the ride. Taking a small person with you on tour is interesting. It exaggerates the usual challenges of combining a performing career with motherhood (the irregular hours and sporadic income which make arranging childcare a creative patchwork of heroic proportions, for example) as well as intensifying the positive aspects and intangible benefits of raising a family whilst pursuing a career in the theatre.

I managed, with great difficulty, to book digs and local baby-sitters and child-minders for all the venues of the tour (with the invaluable advice from a married couple in the orchestra who also had occasion to tour with their progeny.) Somehow, my son and I both lived to tell the tale. And met a lot of interesting people along the way. And visited every museum, zoo, park, castle and charity shop in Britain. He had a separate collection of ‘tour toys’ (acquired at aforementioned places) that lived in my car and thus didn’t have to be packed and unpacked every time we left home. My son developed an unnatural liking for museums and stately homes (all the suits of armour, probably) (come to think of it, he REALLY likes ‘Horrible History’ books now), learned sooner than most little ones how to sit still during meals, use real cutlery (can’t always depend on finding child-friendly restaurants on the road) and today could probably sing the entire score of The Magic Flute (if he were so inclined…he prefers to play the guitar).

Several years later, remarried, with my son now in school, and with a baby brother (and three step-siblings) to keep him company, I had the opportunity to tour with the same opera company, and retrace some of our journeys. It brought back strong memories of our little travelling family circus. Several of the same cities and venues were on the agenda, so I revisited the same museums and attractions, and even stayed in some of the same digs. It allowed me a unique window of perspective of my life as it is now compared to then, and to examine my memories of the time I travelled to these places with a toddler in tow. First things first: it was a lot easier. A lot. I spent the first week away from home, child-free, in a kind of stupor, not knowing what to do with myself. Don’t get me wrong, I had prepared: brought lots of books to read, my knitting…but mostly I retraced my steps, no push-chair in front of me this time.  Specific memories, insights, and visits with old friends will be shared in future essays. For now, here are my top tips on touring, with or without children:

1.      Charity shops are GREAT. You can get books to read in your digs or hotel room, wool to knit or crochet, gifts for the folks back home, clothes (pack lightly!) They are also endlessly entertaining. And cheap.
2.      Many museums and art galleries are free, and also good for your process as an artist…look for inspiration. Public libraries are also good. Yes, you can’t check anything out as you’re not local, but you can read newspapers and periodicals for free (Opera magazine, anyone?), do some quiet study (sometimes digs can feel a bit claustrophobic), and they often sell off ‘redundant’ books VERY cheaply. 10p each. Not an exaggeration!
3.      Parks, footpaths, walks, natural attractions…yes, you have a show to sing that evening, so take it easy (or save it for a day off), but don’t miss out on these aspects of your ‘working holiday.' Healthy, inspiring, and a definite fringe benefit of being on the road. Again, FREE! And the photos look great in your Facebook/Twitter timeline…
4.      If a venue is in a big city or obvious tourist town, the iconic views are easy to find. But if the venue is a little more obscure, you might be surprised at a city’s ‘claim to fame.’ Check out the local history. Also, if your performance is part of a festival, go to other performances if time allows…lectures, workshops, lunchtime concerts and ‘fringe’ events are often free or very low cost.
5.      Travelling with children brings the need for keeping costs down into sharp focus…however, even child-free singers need to bear in mind that spending all your free time on tour visiting the local high street shops and restaurants is a really nice way of coming home…with no fee! There is something irresistible about shopping while away from home. Call it the hunter-gatherer instinct, or the feeling of being on holiday, whatever: channel this urge into cheaper alternatives.
6.      If your children stay safely at home while you tour, it can be tempting to buy expensive souvenirs and gifts out of guilt. Again, there are more thrifty, and thoughtful, alternatives: text/email photos or short videos of the sights, or better yet, of yourself: in your digs/in the theatre/in costume…be creative. Seeing where mummy/daddy is staying, what the show looks like, etc is very comforting. Some souvenirs cost nothing: a pretty pinecone, pebble, leaf, or freebies from the hotel/airline etc. (for the younger ones...the older ones see through this, unless they're working on a cool collection of air-sick bags!)
Something interesting Mum saw on the road...
Bon voyage!