'Why should acting play second fiddle to the voice?'
Many people say opera is 'all about the voice' but I'm not so sure. . .
When I was four years old I broke my leg after some foolhardy playground acrobatics and had to use a wheelchair for several months afterwards. The embarrassment of not being able to play with my friends or move about without a wheelchair did a strange thing to me: it made me introverted and shy.
So my mum decided to book me in for regular drama lessons with a wonderful LAMDA coach, who I'm pleased to say gradually gave me my confidence breakthrough. I discovered I could pour all my creativity into the characters I played and it unleashed a burning ambition to perform on stage. I'm very fortunate to now be doing this for a living on the opera stage.
Why is this relevant? Well I tell you this as a performer who comes at the world of opera very much from an actor's perspective but who also recognises that many in the opera industry do not.
Opera is widely known as perhaps the most intense art form as it combines so many elements of art and (certainly in the bigger houses) is produced on an impressively gargantuan scale.
The golden era of Pavarotti and Sutherland is now long gone and with it the inevitable demise of 'park and bark' performance. Opera directors now expect singers to have at least a basic level of both acting ability and physical fitness if they want a successful stage career - oh, and increasingly Hollywood looks aswell.
The problem for wannabe opera singers tends to stem from their training.
In London's music conservatories acting lessons are often seen as an optional extra and even during these lessons there be a separation between how to translate knowledge of playwrights such as Shakespeare into creating their own character in a professional opera production. At one or two sessions per week students face an uphill struggle to make any progress in this area and one-two-one acting coaching appears to be rare indeed.
Why, for example, at a great institution such as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (which is recognised as one of the world's most prestigious training centres for performers) can you only study opera and acting separately but not together? That I think would be joined up thinking but it has yet to come about. Imagine how much could be achieved artistically through the cross-fertilisation of teaching from both these departments.
Of course preparation is the key to the work of the singing-actor; knowing the music inside out; having researched the piece; having thoughts and intentions for each phrase or bar or word - these things can really help the singing-actor in their journey towards a convincing performance.
Yes it requires a lot of preparation and concentration, yes there is the conductor and projection of the voice to think about and yes it will take longer altogether but the performances that stand out in my memory are always those where the performers are really living the moment as the character and the 'inner voice' of character is allowed to shine brightly. When coupled with outstanding, elegant singing this can be truly electrifying.
Such an ideal will always be hard for students who have so much pressure piled onto them at music college to learn an enormous amount of repertoire in a short period of time.
In reality the majority of singers nowadays do not make a living from art song (as lovely as that would be) and instead will spend most of their work-life on the opera stage and many coming from the choral tradition will unsurprisingly have no idea how to navigate that.
Those singers who come from a musical theatre background often have more confidence on stage and this can be a great advantage early in their careers.
Reacting to another performer can be very possible even when singing opera - it will simply require more focus on the importance of acting from an early age and recognition that one strand is not subordinate to the other. For example I would love to see Meisner's theory taught and implemented in opera scenes as it is such a useful technique to use when you're out in the real world with a multitude of different performers.
Auditions are dangerous places to take risks with character and auditionees can become introverted with worry.
Singers are advised against doing (what is perceived as) 'too much' movement or gesture in auditions which is a shame.
When I am on a panel I certainly prefer to see someone truly 'living' the character with fire in their belly than someone playing it safe and trying to please, simply concerned with their vocal projection.
Yet exploring and finding the 'inner voice' is so freeing as it takes the performer away from concentrating on their vocal technique and toward conveying a living story, which is ultimately what audiences want to see and hear.
Perhaps more auditions in pairs or groups might be a good way forward? This happens often in final rounds of musical theatre auditions and enables the director and producer to see a range of things.
Yes it would add to the list of unknown factors for each auditionee but would give them more freedom to perform how they would in a stage setting as opposed to a static one.
It's a good way for the panel to distinguish which voices suit each other too.
The rise of small-scale opera over the last ten years has been a welcome development as it provides an intimate setting in which performers can have more freedom to act without too much concern for filling the space with sound. Often even the conductors are dispensed with, leaving the performers freer to take risks and allowing the fourth wall to be more present in their imagination.
The 'inner voice' can be just as powerful as the external and I would argue that music colleges need to do much more to introduce and mould young singing-actors into performers with real freedom to go out and create extraordinary art.
So yes I suppose it is all about the voice but it depends which one you're talking about.
(to see this blog in it's original context click here)
9th August 2014
The International Rameau Summer School took place on July 25th 2014 at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and proved to be an enormous success. It was exiting to observe the vivacious Catherine Mackintosh giving strings masterclasses in one rectial room and then witness James Halliday and Robert Aldwickle teaching singers the French baroque vocal style in another. This was a real immersive experience for all as the audience were invited to sit in on any sessions they chose and it was also a communal educational experience as we explored this lesser known musical world together. We are delighted that our fundraising efforts meant that many of the students were able to attend for free and we hope to build on this event in 2015. Vive le Rameau! www.rameauensemble.com
25 February 2014
My Opera company the Rameau Ensemble has just finished a busy week. On tuesday we appeared as guests on BBC 3 In Tune interviewed by Sean Rafferty and performed pieces from Castor et Pollux, Achante et Cephise and Dardanus (i sang my favourite Rameau aria 'Lieux Funestre' from the prison scene in act 4 of the 1744 version). This was part of the promotion for our debut concert of Rameau's Grands Motets at the gorgeous St George's Hanover Square at the end of the week. At only 6 weeks of planning the project was a great success and has spurred us on in our ambition to make Rameau's work famous in the UK this year. We are currently in talks with various UK festivals to appear with them later in the year, which is very exciting!
To find out more visit www.rameauensemble.com
15 October 2013
The Rameau Ensemble
When I was at the Royal Academy of Music someone introduced me to a french baroque composer called 'Rameau'. Similarly to most of the British public I had never heard of him but it turns out that this composer has gone on to be my absolute favourite. Why? It's hard to put into words but it has something to do with the achingly gorgeous harmony, extraordinary use of instrumentation and above all the sheer audacious risks he takes. Although still relatively unknown in the UK, some companies such as ENO have been performing Rameau's operas and i was very fortunate to be able to play the role of Acante on stage in the modern era premiere of Acante et Cephise at the Bloomsbury Theatre last year. This year i have decided to collaborate with some dear friends from around the world who share my passion for Rameau and have created the International Rameau Ensemble as a platform to promote his work in the run up to the 250th anniversary of his death in 2014. Our inaugural concert will be a new operatic piece constructed from many of his operas and is for a small ensemble highlighting the very best of his writing. It takes place on the 22nd November at my brother's church St Augustine's, Honor Oak Park and I pray the project will go from strength to strength. www.rameauensemble.com
4 July 2013
'The charity shop shoes'
That awkward moment when, leaving the palacial home of your tea-time host to get in the car for the evening performance of Handel's Messiah, the sole of one of your black patent leather shoes (those you thought were a miraculous bargain in the Gloucestershire Marie Curie shop 2 years ago) dramatically flops off in the hallway to shocked faces and you are forced to approach the amiable host (who has already generously satiated every one of your needs between the rehearsal and concert and to whom you were trying to appear highly professional) and ask them to fetch some wood glue and a rubber band with which to clamp said shoe and sole back together. Middle-class pandemonium naturally ensues amidst a melange of umbrellas and gift-bouquets of spray chrysanthemums, as the host frantcially raids the garage shelves and the other guests get in a flap with cushions about arriving at the venue in time to take their places in the choirstalls - then 5 minutes later finally the redeeming materials are procured. E'hem, thank you that's so kind of you. A quick Valium and sip of sugared redbush tea later and before you realise it you're stood in front of the audience delivering your "come for tea my people" and at last after every valley has been exalted and every rough place made plain your tense shoulders relax as everyone seems reasonably happy - well as much as the typically reserved british concert-goer can be. You go to step down from the inevitably wobbly staging block with your tenorial swagger satisfyingly restored and realise the copious amount of seeping glue has...oh.
9 May 2013
'The value of performing for free'
Recently I saw a Facebook shout out by someone looking for a tenor to sing the evangelist and arias for an unpaid gig in central London. Lots of tenors have the luxury to turn down events like this as they know they are in demand and have a right to charge. Yet I felt really called to sing this gig as I shared the conductor's passion to perform the piece in its original Worship setting. (As well as this I remembered a conversation with one of the humblest singers I've ever met, Felicity Lott, after a recital and asking her for advice as a singer to which she replied a) dont' take yourself too seriously and b) do be prepared to do gigs for nothing - very true.)The choir and orchestra were mainly amateur (I gather that some of them did not read music) and yet in the couple of rehearsals leading up to it I sensed a tangible excitement albeit mixed with fear of performing this piece - most of the participants for the first time. The project brought together a wildly eclectic group of people including church workers, people in IT, media, journalism and entrepreneurs and the result on the night was something quite remarkable. Unlike most oratorio nowadays this was free entry and brought in a post-work crowd in an array of both seasoned concert-goers and newbies. Also unlike most oratorio today there was such a collective feeling of shared vision and excited expectancy to convince the invited audience of the meaning of Christ's passion. It caused me to dig deeper into my role as the evangelist than perhaps i would have on a different occasion and unintentionally brought my work to a new audience plus new work opportunities.
The intensity of united emotion was indicated by those giving a standing ovation and by those non-muso performers with thrilled faces raving about the beauty of Bach while questioning 'what about the resurrection?' with fervent anticipation.
...This I thought, Bach would certainly have approved of.
5 March 2013
The other day someone asked me what it was like being an opera singer with the usual expression of slight surprise on their face... I dread this sort of question as most people want to hear how glamorous it is to be freelance; 'having fun' for a living, socialising with glamorous people in glamorous locations etc and although there is some (a little) truth to this - the reality is much more amusing. I'm going to use this twitter blog to expose the bonkers situations/ideas/people crazy opera world... #tenortroubles