An Insight into Auditions: Professional Development Session Three

Last week, the Opera Works singers had a session with John McMurray (ENO Head of Casting) and Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager). Here is what Vivien Conacher, Mezzo-Soprano on Opera Works 2013-14, had to say:

It really doesn’t seem that long ago that I was applying to audition for the 2013/14 ENO Opera Works programme. In what feels like the blink of an eye, it is suddenly that time of year again and applications have been streaming in for the new intake. For all of us who are in the current programme, and also any singers who have applied to take part in 2014/15, auditions are an inevitable, yet often daunting, part of the journey. 

Luckily, part of the ENO Opera Works experience includes a Professional Development session with John McMurray (ENO Head of Casting) and Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager). John and Sophie were incredibly understanding and gracious in this Q&A session, offering honest answers to our many burning questions, no matter how small. I’m sure the rest of my Opera Works colleagues would agree that we all walked away with a greater knowledge about the casting process, as well as with some valuable advice about auditions. 

Jan Capinski has already written a fantastic summary of this Q&A session in his own blog http://singerjournal.blogspot.co.uk so rather than repeat what he has already recorded so well, I have decided instead to create a brief (and hopefully useful) checklist, as informed by our afternoon with John and Sophie. 

Auditions: What you CAN control

Repertoire:

  • Select pieces that show you fully, but pick rep that you could get through even if you were only feeling 70% on the day.
  • Do your research - turn up with a knowledge of the whole role and opera, not just the aria you’re singing.
  • If you’ve chosen an aria you can sing from a role you are not ready for just yet, feel free to mention this at the audition. It shows the panel that you’ve thought about it and are aware where you are at.
  • Prepare an audition “pack” of 5 arias. Get it right, and this package should last you for two years. Even if you feel like you’ve sung the arias a thousand times, the panel doesn’t know that, so don’t second guess yourself just because you’ve done the repertoire before.
  • Pick your first choice aria - you should stick with this choice for 95% of your auditions, again, there is no need to change for the sake of it. 
  • Try to show some variety in the mood/style of your arias and their languages if possible. But don’t worry if you mainly have Mozart and Handel in your 5 aria pack. It shows that you know where you are at and the type of repertoire that is appropriate to you and your voice type at the moment. 
  • Aim to keep things simple for the panel: pick standard repertoire (anything totally obscure should only be done for very good reasons).
  • Be prepared to do da capos.
  • A piece that isn’t strictly opera (e.g. Gilbert & Sullivan, Handle oratorio aria) is fine to include in your set of 5, so long as it shows something that your other arias may not.
  • Make sure you’ve performed any new arias under pressure before taking them to an important audition.

Appearance:

  • Turn up looking smart and professional. Your appearance should say that you are ready to work (rather than ready to go out to dinner).
  • Wear colour! It will make you more memorable. 
  • Keep it simple - avoid anything fussy or distracting (e.g. big jewellery, crazy colours or patterns) or clothing that is too tight.
  • For men, you don’t always have to wear a tie or jacket. For women, skirts or trousers are fine, but bare legs are usually a no-no (flesh tights are fine). As a rule, you should never wear jeans for an audition. 
  • Whatever you decide to wear, you need to be comfortable in it. Practice before the audition in the chosen outfit to decide if it works.

Tone:

  • Getting the tone right is vital - remember that you want the panel to think you are professional, punctual, well-prepared, flexible, and ready to work.
  • If you are unwell, better to cancel than to do a bad job of it. Unfortunately, the negative impression from a bad audition lasts a lot longer than the positive impression of a good one.
  • Greet the panel - it is a good idea to shake hands only if it is a small panel and if you have to walk past them to get to the spot where you will sing from.
  • It matters how you treat the audition stewards.
  • It matters how you treat the pianist - say hello, provide them with sheet music that is in a professional state, and say thank you.

Delivery:

  • Reduce your acting choices for an audition situation. You want to show the dramatic context of the aria through your vocal expression, rather than through big gestures or blocking. 
  • Eyes are important - don’t let your eyes dart around the room, but also avoid eyeballing members of the panel. Try not to sing down to the ground - even if you think it is showing emotion, it usually communicates very little.

CVs:

  • Bring copies of your CV to auditions (just in case)
  • Keep it to one page and scrutinise what you include - keep information up to date and relevant to what you’re auditioning for.
  • Mentioning directors or conductors you have worked with is good, but be sure that they would speak positively about you - it’s a small world and your reputation may precede you.

The post-audition / follow-up:

  • If the casting professionals have been encouraging about your audition, do continue your contact and engagement with them - let them know about any upcoming performances.
  • Remember that persistence is good but, but don’t pester them (they are busy people and may not always have time to reply).
  • An online presence is essential - even if it is minimal, you must have a website. Keep your online schedule up-to-date (people like John or Sophie will often turn to websites of artists they are familiar with if a casting problem arises). And be careful if moaning about an audition or performance experience on social media - it doesn’t take people long to realise what company/director/conductor you might be complaining about, and word travels, so think carefully before you post.

In the end, there is a lot about an audition that you simply cannot control. You can sing as well as you’ve ever sung in your life, but you might not be right for what the company is after at the time, or it might come down to a question of taste. That doesn’t mean a panel hasn’t taken notice. It’s just that they might not have anything to offer you at this point in time.

For all of us who are just starting out in the profession, we should take comfort in the fact that casting departments usually like to get to know singers and hear them several times. Often the professionals who get cast in main stage lead roles are tried and tested singers that the company have built relationships with over time. When hearing young singers, Sophie and John also were keen to explain that they are basing their judgements on the standard they would expect at that level - if hearing a college graduate, they have an expectation for what that should mean in an audition. They want to hear where a singer is at at the time, and they try to avoid making “snap decisions” about young singers.

In conclusion, when it comes to auditions, try not to worry about the things you can’t control, but take control of the things you can.

GOOD LUCK! 

 

Vivien Conacher

Mezzo-soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

www.vivienconacher.com

Tales of the Unexpected: Our third (and final) input weekend

It was back in October last year that I turned up to Lilian Baylis House for my first ENO Opera Works ”input” workshop. There were twenty singers including myself, some whom knew each other, others total strangers. Standing there in our obligatory jogging bottoms, there was a palpable mix of excitement and trepidation in the air as we awaited the start of the session… not quite sure what to expect. Four short months on, we now gather at Lilian Baylis House as a close group of friends, but maybe that’s all that has really changed. Because every time I think I know what to expect from a particular workshop, I am surprised. I have come to realise that only thing we can reliably expect from an ENO Opera Works weekend, is the unexpected. 

On Saturday 15 February, we were joined by voice and text specialist Barbara Houseman, a woman whose energy and enthusiasm seems to know no bounds. She led a mammoth session on the Saturday which covered everything from tension releasing exercises and mental preparation for auditions, to some physical ways to work on a piece of text and accent method approaches to vocal support. Barbara emphasised that the ideal state for singing or speaking should be one of ease and efficiency, we want minimum input for maximum output.  Sounds ideal - so how do we get there? As Barbara wisely pointed out, the only magic wand we have is practice

One thing that was particularly wonderful about this workshop was how holistically Barbara approached voice work. To get the body into an optimal state for supported singing and speaking, she encouraged us to find images that work for us, and incorporate visualisation into our practice. This may be picturing roots growing from the feet into the floor, to help us get grounded, or imagining our spines as a strong yet movable columns in the centre of our bodies (rather than at the back) to help us with solid but free posture. It was fascinating to see and feel the difference in physicality this exercise brought about.

In addition to the body, we also need to get the mind into an optimal state - ease and efficiency in speech or singing simply can’t come about in a state of tension or panic. For those of us who go into fight/flight mode under pressure, Barbara had many useful suggestions. If the breath is becoming locked, rather than focusing on deep in-breaths, Barbara suggested shifting the focus to the out-breath - if there is real breath release, she said, a good in-breath will happen naturally. For audition scenarios, Barbara advised that we should never speak or sing to no-one. When practising, set up some empty chairs to represent the panel, or sing to a pot plant, but don’t ignore the inevitability of others being present in the room. In the real audition, she advised us to move our attention outside of ourselves and away from our inner critic, to take in the room, what are the panel wearing, for example? And instead of focusing on a desire to achieve success (or a desire not to fail) to try an alternative thought - “how pleasurable and easy can I make this, for both myself, and the people listening to me?” 

One of the most unexpected moments for me in Barbara’s workshop was when we started working on text. Barbara asked us all to read a selection of dialogue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, keeping in time as we briskly beat out the iambic pentameter. We had no time to stop and think, to analyse the words or their meaning, to explore character, or to apply any conscious artistic decisions. This task was about the text, and speaking it in the rhythm it had been written. It was fascinating to feel and hear the vividness of the words just from speaking what was on the page. This really brought home the point that we don’t always need to “show” an audience what we think is going on. Almost everything we need as performers is already there in the text (and the music) - we just need to go with it and not get in our own way by overcomplicating things. 

This point was also made in our Sunday workshop, led by the brilliant Cal McCrystal, a director specialising in comedy and clowning. I had expected this to be a day of laughter and hilarity, which it was, but I was surprised by how much theory we managed to cover, as well as by how challenged we were in our discussions with Cal about performance. Cal emphasised the importance of trusting the audience - as long as they are listening, they will hear the text, he stated. Like Barbara, he pointed out that over analysis can sometimes get in the way. Audiences love to see glimpses of you as a real person, he said, and this is lost if you over-act. Cal also encouraged us to see the audience as part of the show, even as another character who we needs to create a relationship with. In general, we shouldn’t pretend that they’re not there - especially in comedy - as how can we achieve comic timing without reading the audience?

Cal’s workshop saw us participating in numerous theatre games and exercises - from the silly to the stressful, each task illustrating a different point about comedy, timing, and performance. One of Cal’s key points from the day was the importance of self-awareness - knowing how you come across to others, and using what you have when creating a character in performance. He stated that we should always endeavour to look for the character in ourselves, and reveal something of ourselves when we perform. He explained that often a stupid situation or character will be funnier if played with a real seriousness and sincerity that comes from oneself. This is much better than playing for laughs, as the best response in comedy, is when the audience is laughing at you, not with you. Cal showed us exactly what he meant by asking members of our group to recite silly poems or limericks, whilst acting out Juliet’s suicide scene from Romeo & Juliet. The moments that were played with total sincerity and commitment to the emotion of the scene proved to be hilarious viewing - especially given the very questionable text choices.

So that was our very last ENO Opera Works input workshop. Yet another challenging, inspiring, and exhausting weekend - filled with laughter, but also some interesting surprises. After all, if there is one thing I have learnt about this programme, it is to expect the unexpected. The only constant is jogging bottoms. 

Some notable words of wisdom:

  • Don’t go near people who tell you your problems without offering a solution (Barbara) 
  • Sometimes the worry and doubt are far worse for you than the thing you are worried about (Barbara)
  • Charisma is knowing yourself, liking yourself, and inviting others in (Cal)

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Vivien Conacher

Mezzo-soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

www.vivienconacher.com

Applications for ENO Opera Works 2014-15 close at 5pm today- to apply, download the application form and make the payment at http://www.eno.org/opera-works/apply!

'Sublime Grimes' - Peter Grimes returns to the Coliseum

Monday evening saw the Opera Works singers arriving at the London Coliseum to watch the dress rehearsal for the highly-anticipated revival of David Alden’s Peter Grimes. Here Hanna-Liisa Kirchin, mezzo soprano, gives her thoughts on the production.

Part of the course content of the ENO Opera Works programme is the opportunity to go to the dress rehearsals for every production in the present season. It is considered a “requirement” of the course that you attend. I’m not sure how the opportunity to see something like the company’s current production of Peter Grimes should ever be considered a requirement … it should be considered a blessing. As dramatic as this may sound, one cannot truly put in to words the effect that this wonderful piece had on me, as I sat at the dress rehearsal surrounded by my colleagues and - for the first time since I’ve been a trainee on opera works - a packed out theatre.

I love Benjamin Britten. I adore his music. I love the connection he had with his librettists, and the power of the works that he created. Yet, to my shame, I have seen very few of his operas in full, including Peter Grimes. I knew the story, and some of the musical items, and the Sea Interludes are some of my favourite orchestral pieces….they would certainly be in consideration for my Desert Island Discs. But I have never seen the opera in its entirety.

So, with a huge deal of excitement I prepared to watch the long awaited revival of David Alden’s hugely acclaimed production. The next three hours were, quite honestly, magic. The production is bare, yet not cold. The lighting, and the levels, create a dark world with the angles seeming to represent a world that is constantly appearing one way but is, in reality, another. A colleague of mine commented that the setting of the piece, and the scenery, allowed for the focus to be on the drama, music and the quality of performance - and what a performance!

 The orchestra is truly astounding. Edward Gardner helps to guide us through a soundscape that only Britten could have created. The Sea Interludes alone would entice me back to the show again, and the appreciation for the artistry of the house orchestra was justly shown during the applause. The chorus is a wall of sound - at its strongest blowing the audience away with the force of the storms present in the opera, and at its most gentle leading us in to a dream world of harmony and possibility. They move with incredible ease, and the combination of choreography and chaos is simply brilliant.  Without doubt, the chorus is one of the strongest attributes to this piece, and they too deserve the roar of applause they received.

The cast was, in my opinion, without a weak link. Each character, no matter the size of their part, was sung remarkably and with incredible, and aspirational, diction. Britten’s orchestration doesn’t help singers in their quest to be understood, but I can honestly say that I only really glanced at the surtitles during the larger ensemble scenes when there is so much being sung that it is better to simply sit back and witness the spectacle of the sound and the scene! Not only this, but each voice rang through the auditorium so beautifully, and clearly. No one was unheard, and it made the whole evening a true ensemble achievement.

It seems wrong to single out anyone, as it would be easy to praise each cast member equally. However, I must bow down to, and declare amazement at, Stuart Skelton and Elza van den Heever as Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford. There are few singers who can tackle these unenviable parts, and manage to combine clarity, projection and strength of sound with pure beauty and, in the case of Stuart Skelton, an element of danger. Each of them had moments that literally made the spine tingle - the Embroidery Aria was spellbinding, and I’m not sure I breathed at all during Grimes’ aria in the pub during the storm - it was watching true artists at work.

This was one of those evenings that affirms why I love being part of this world, and why I will work harder than I may even know how to in order to work in this amazing industry. Peter Grimes is a sublime piece of theatre. It is harrowing and disturbing, beautiful, mesmerising and powerful, and I would happily urge anyone to go and see it. In fact, as said by another Opera Works colleague, “I would drag people in from the streets to go and see it!”. If you only knew, you wouldn’t need to be dragged….you would be running to get a seat!

Hanna-Liisa Kirchin

Mezzo Soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

www.hannaliisakirchin.com

Making the most of your five minutes: Response Weekend Two

Last weekend saw the Opera Works singers working on incorporating the ideas from the previous workshop into their singing, working with renowned Handel conductor Christian Curnyn. Jan Capinski, baritone, gives us his thoughts on the weekend.

I hear that applications for next year’s Opera Works are open, which feels a bit odd, as it seems like we only started last week. But no, two modules down and only one more to go before the final performance. You know the old saying: time flies when there’s a lot of material to cram into a short space of time… Or something along those lines. This last Response Weekend was hard! As Catharine wrote last time, the approaches we were trying to apply were very physical in nature, and as such there was only so much preparation that could be done on our own. These things have to be tried ‘in situ’, and only having five minutes per person per session over four sessions is not enough time to master anything, but it does let you have a go and see what works for you. As Martin would say, it all goes into the toolbox, and at least if a director ever mentions Laban, states of tension, rhythmic constructs in movement, movement archetypes or undulation we will know what they mean and be equipped to get on with it.

So what have I taken away from this module and what advice would I give to those brave people applying for next year, should they get to be where I am now?

Don’t try to do everything at once. It’s tempting, because time is short and you do want to try out as much as possible. Unfortunately if you try tackling three or four different techniques or approaches in a single run of a scene, you get lost, it all becomes vague or non-specific, and you don’t get a feel for any of the things you’ve set out to try, because your coping mechanism is to revert to what you know. You set out to be brave and experiment, but end up doing what you always do. I found it a lot more useful to try one thing (two at a push) at a time and really go for it trying to focus on it as much as possible to see what impact it had. Some things were helpful, others not, but at least I can tell which were which.

A helpful idea that came up, the reason for the entire physicality module, was that you really don’t have to play emotion or subtext. You can focus on physical ideas and the expression of your body (rather than your voice, thoughts or soul), which allows you to put expressive tension where you want, rather than it affecting all of you including your singing. I think I speak for a fair few in the group when I say we found it very hard not to ‘act’. Our instinct is to tell the story of our character and convey the entirety of our prep work (plot, ideas on subtext, whirlwind of conflicting emotions) into every short scene we have. To go against these and focus on a series of simple gestures and use only that to convey the story is… Hard! But when done well it really works and leaves you free to sing uninhibited by an emotional overload.

The whole idea of tension is difficult for singers, because we spend years honing a technique which eliminates it. No one wants tension in the voice, or a tension in the body that adversely affects how they sing… But audiences crave tension - theatrical tension, and they want it to permeate and drive a performance, because it makes it true and exciting. How do we deliver what they want without sacrificing our vocal (and mental) health? We didn’t completely answer that question, but reducing the amount of things you try to do to the minimum required to achieve the desired effect is part of that answer. Don’t play agitated, but express the character’s agitation in a small tick or other gesture and you end up with something more powerful than your intuitive acting alone.

A helpful bit of homework we had to do was to find images that represented our ideas of what our characters might look like. I found it very vocally liberating to look at the mood board these images created and let that inform what I did on stage rather than try to act. I’d just plan what image I was channelling at any point in the scene (not necessarily adopting the pose but seeing it in my mind’s eye) and not think about how to sing ‘angry’ or ‘sad’ or ‘authoritative’.

On Sunday we were joined by Christian Curnyn, who (while nominally wearing his conductor hat) took a very hollistic approach to helping us be better performers, incorporating elements of Stanislavsky alongside his experience of working in opera and seeing what works, as well as all the physicality work we were trying to put into practice. I wrote down many quotes and paraphrases (visit my own blog for a transcription), but it all boiled down to being as specific as possible and sustaining it. The moment something becomes vague, self-indulgent or generically operatic it stops being interesting to watch, and in fact even to listen to. Between Christian and Martin no one was allowed to get away with pretty, lovely or nice. It had to mean something and go somewhere, no matter what aspect of our work we were trying to focus on.

It was an intense weekend, as ever, and very difficult to describe to outsiders, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what goes on at Opera Works and how it feeds into what we are trying to achieve - a performing culture where opera isn’t operatic (big with bold brushstrokes, sacrificing detail for scale, theatrical tension for generic beauty, etc) but is real, engaging and satisfying to performers and audience alike.

Jan Capinski

Baritone, Opera Works 2013-14

http://singerjournal.blogspot.com

Apply now for Opera Works 2014-15!

I am delighted to announce that we have now opened applications for ENO Opera Works 2014-15. All the information can be found on the Opera Works webpage and on the application page.

The application deadline is 5pm Monday 24 February- please make sure you send us your application by that date to avoid disappointment!

If you have any questions that are not answered on the webpage, please email baylis@eno.org where we will be happy to help.

Jessica Cowper

Opera Works Administrator

“We’re the dancers”: Input Weekend Two

Following on from Lucy Roberts’ post about the session with Jayke Branson Thom Catharine Rogers, soprano, shares her view of the Input weekend with Georgina Lamb and Olga Masleinnikova:

My mental image of how I was going to appear in the second Input weekend of Opera Works was something akin to Justin Timberlake in high heels behind Beyoncé in the SNL spoof of Single Ladies (look it up, it’s worth it).  This wasn’t all bad - he really does get some of the moves, but still looks a bit silly in a leotard.  By the end of Saturday, that mental image had been smashed.  I don’t know how I looked, but I know how I felt. 

Georgina Lamb, a movement director, choreographer, performer and our teacher for the day plunged us fully into the world of movement.  From the second round of the first name game/warm up of the day, we were communicating with our bodies, not words - our names had been replaced with swiftly invented sign language.  It felt like no time until we were attempting lifts with a partner.  How can all this happen in one morning?  I’m still not quite sure, I think George *might* be some kind of sorceress.  At the start of the afternoon we played a game where one by one we would race round the room, and spring up into the group who would lift the individual high above their heads for a few seconds before lowering them safely back to the ground.  When my time came I didn’t question for a second.  I just did it.  I mean, I’m light as feathers.  A tonne of feathers.  But I trusted myself to jump the right way, and for my colleagues to catch me.  No small achievement in a few short hours of a workshop.

After that, and a related exercise falling and allowing ourselves to be caught, we came back briefly into a more classroom-like formation, and I found myself almost in tears.  It didn’t occur to me until we stopped just quite how safe I’d felt.  The focus and mutual trust from everyone in the room was palpable. 

The rest of the day was spent choreographing first in pairs, and then in fours, a series of moves to get across a space.  George had set this up in such a way as it was for us a formalised game.  Even when incorporating the lifts we had learnt in the morning, we were still treating it almost as a job, as something mundane, and purely physical.  Then we stopped and watched each group in turn. What had been created from these games and physical exercises was dance. More than that, there were dances that told stories. On a high that matched the best music-making, we spilled out into the December dark feeling pretty blooming invincible. 

Sunday morning arrives with a very different picture. I can still remember how brilliant I felt, and how utterly beautiful everyone else looked the day before, but now there is pain. I drag myself back to West Hampstead, convinced that it’s my advanced age in combination with lack of brain cells that lead me to forget I am not a member of Frantic Assembly (the company with which Georgina Lamb has worked most). I do not even qualify to be a deluded individual in the audition stages of a talent competition kept in the show for comedic value. I think I managed to pull a muscle in my toe. How is this even possible? On arriving back at reception and signing in, clutching a coffee as if it contained the meaning of life, I discover I’m not as far from everyone else as I assumed I’d be. Two of us are convinced we’d even managed to tweak something in our respective tongues. Nobody is quite sure how we’re going to get through another day of this. But that’s what we’re here for, so that’s what we’ll do.

Thankfully this is a very different day. It starts similarly to Saturday - Olga Masleinnikova, a choreologist (a new word to me) has us moving through the space in different ways and at different tempi - but she wants us to bring far more conscious thought to it. When one person sets of purposefully at a very different speed to the rest, we all laugh, we can’t help it. But Olga wants us to question why it is funny. All day she brings our attention to these physical details, and our reactions to them. She also begins to teach us a language of movement, specifically dynamics of movement, and how to notate them. In groups we put together unison routines using an identical pattern of small movements, but each group free to apply their own dynamics to these movements, resulting in very different dances. The difference between how it feels like to be practicing the sequence as a task in my group, and the experience of watching the results of the other groups’ endeavours is incredible. Apparently we, a group of five strong girls, come across as an intimidating girl band, we had no awareness of this until we had an audience to tell us. One group (three large men and one small woman) created an intense comedy through playing with a scratch of the inner thigh. Every group had the same movement, but no other group had brought attention to it in the same way. 

As with all the information we’ve been given since starting out September, there is a lot to process. Thankfully there’s a lot of homework to help with that! I’ve come out of the weekend feeling as if I’ve had a month’s training, not two days. The practitioners we have the privilege to work with certainly everything they can into their brief time with us, but I also would love to give a little credit to the rest of my Opera Works colleagues. I pride myself on being sarcastic and slightly ridiculous, but I can’t be anything but sincere when I think about the commitment shown by everybody at every turn. I can’t wait to see what we create in our next Response weekend in January. 2014 is going to be an adventure.

 

Catharine Rogers

Soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

“Our brains are like parachutes…” Professional Development Session Two

Over the course of the year, the Opera Works singers have the opportunity to work with a variety of professionals from across the profession. This month, they had a session with Jayke Branson Thom, ENO’s Performance Psychologist. Here’s what Opera Works soprano Lucy Roberts had to say about the session:

Faced with writing about Friday’s Professional Development session with Jayke Branson Thom, a performance psychologist, I struggled to avoid the conflict between ‘keeping up appearances’, and giving an honest appraisal of the afternoon and how it resonated with me. Musicians don’t admit to feeling nerves, anxiety or self-doubt- the shame of it! We inhabit a higher artistic plane, untouched by the insecurities of mere mortals! Or so we lead each other to believe… Because performance psychology, whilst an open and everyday reality for the world’s most successful men and women in sports and business, is still a taboo subject in the music world (in Britain, at least). I for one made it through a major London conservatoire without receiving so much as an inkling that our minds could be trained to cope with the pressures of performing opera to thousands of people. This is where Jayke comes in.

It was a revelation to me that both London opera houses employ performance psychologists for their singers, and that these professionals are engaged to work with musicians across the board, helping them to clear unhelpful thinking patterns and deal with issues including nerves, sleeplessness, and mental blocks. In the short time that we had in the Balcony Bar of the Coliseum, Jayke de-mystified the brain, and explained how it is perfectly possible to train ourselves into better thought patterns using tools such as visualization and meditation. Learnt habits that are lodged deep into our long-term memory can affect our reaction to certain situations, such as auditions, in a way that is disproportionate to the actual event and activates our ‘fight or flight’ response. The result? Excessive levels of adrenaline: useful in a genuine life or death situation, but not in the audition room. It was reassuring to hear how these habits can be altered by going back to the ‘source’ - an early memory or bad experience that first triggered this response - and repainting the past in order to create new positive associations.

As singers we are no strangers to using pictures or creating scenarios when we sing to invest emotion and colour into the sound, and the acting techniques we have explored at ENO have only reinforced the difference these can make. Jayke expanded on this, demonstrating how finding the right colours and visualizations that resonate for the individual can dramatically change the quality of a note, and draw a much higher level of musicality from a performer. An exciting prospect, and it explains why she is used alongside coaches on Young Artist programmes, to help opera singers to access their most beautiful sounds and connect with audiences on an emotional level. This emotional connection is, after all, the reason we go to watch opera.

On ENO Opera Works, there is a common objective amongst the singers to develop a toolbox, the favoured term for a range of musical and dramatic skills and techniques to assist us throughout our operatic careers when working with different conductors, directors and colleagues. The exercises and techniques used by performance psychologists are an important component of this toolbox, helping musicians reach their full potential. But if this is the case, then why are music colleges so reluctant to catch on and provide these classes for their young musicians? Furthermore, why is it still such a forbidden topic in the music world at large? My feeling at the end of Friday’s session was that, if the brain and mind can be trained to our benefit as performers, then we would be mad not to take advantage of it. 

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Lucy Roberts

Soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

Check back soon for Catharine Rogers’ account of the Input weekend with Georgina Lamb and Olga Masleinnikova!

Winding back the clock: catching up with Alexandra Schoeny

 

Over the course of this year, Opera Works mezzo-soprano Lila Palmer will talk to various Opera Works alumni about their experiences on the Opera Works course, their performance background and their future performances. First, she speaks to soprano Alexandra Schoeny, who took part in the second Opera Works course (2008-9).

With a voice described as “Hauntingly beautiful” by Opera News, American Soprano Alexandra Schoeny is garnering a reputation in Europe and the U.S. for her ‘smooth voice, elegance of phrasing, musicality and interpretive skills…” She is also an alumni of ENO Opera Works. This week for the Opera Works blog, she winds back the clock to give Mezzo Soprano and current Opera Works singer Lila Palmer the dish on how the program helped her move a step closer to achieving an operatic career.

LP: So how long has it been since you completed the Opera Works programme?

AS: I was a member of the Opera Works programme in the 2008-2009 season.

LP: What was your background before beginning Opera Works?

AS: Before beginning Opera Works, I had received my B.Mus from Northwestern University, Chicago, USA. During my time in Opera Works, I was also completing my 2nd year of study as an MMus candidate at the Royal Academy of Music. 

LP: What are you up to right now?

AS: I am now a freelance artist. I have lived in the Netherlands since 2009, where I went to participate in the Dutch National Opera Academy. Most recently I was engaged as Artist-In-Residence for Cincinnati Opera’s 2013 season.

LP: How did Opera Works help you to grow as an artist?

AS: The work we did in OW was incredibly valuable to me as an artist, particularly in applying the principles I had learned at university, conservatory, and in the workshops put on by OW to repertoire. Particularly our work using the Stanislavski method has been of great use to me. I also was encouraged to take risks in the choices I made as a singing actor, and to push to the limits of what is possible in an aria from both a dramatic and musical standpoint.

LP: So do you have a dream role, if any casting people are listening?

AS: Susanna - Le nozze di Figaro. I have been chasing this one for quite some time!

LP: Having completed a fair number of opera education and training programmes, what would you say makes Opera Works unique?

AS: I found that the makeup of the course participants was one of the most diverse, as far as career and life experience went. Certainly much more diverse on that count than any conservatory program.  I also was very glad that we had a period to reflect between each weekend intensive. 

LP: What was your next move after Opera Works?

AS: After OW, I moved to the Netherlands to participate in the Dutch National Opera Academy. 

LP: Did you find Opera Works gave you skills to succeed beyond the UK?

AS: It’s impossible to draw a straight line between one program and one’s later successes, but I did find that I gained a tremendous amount of confidence from my time at OW. 

LP: You’re an American. Did you consciously have to adapt your diction to sing in Received Pronunciation (RP), or did that happen in an organic way? What was the biggest adjustment you made musically or personally to work over here?

AS: I didn’t worry too terribly much about singing in RP - If my r’s became a little too Amuuuurrrrrican, I was always happy to correct it, but I don’t recall it being too much of an issue. I have always had a decent ear for accent and language, which did come to my aid.

LP: Mark Twain famously said that the UK and US are two countries separated by a common language. Any funny stories for us about things being lost in (musical) translation?

AS: Nothing hilarious, but I have never been able to lose that pause that comes after someone says “hemidemisemiquaver.” “Sixty-fourth note” is so much more efficient! 

LP: What’s next?

AS: After a series of auditions in NYC, I am returning to the Netherlands to sing Dircé in Cherubini’s Médée, and then to sing Mrs. Julian in Britten’s Owen Wingrave

LP: Sounds wonderful! Toi toi with those performances, and thank you.

Interested blog readers can find Alexandra’s information and upcoming performances at http://alexandraschoeny.com/ and Lila Palmer’s blog on singing, style, and storytelling at http://songstorystyle.wordpress.com/.

Lila Palmer

Mezzo-soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

Twitter: @lilapalmermezzo

Hypnotic and meditative: Satyagraha returns to ENO

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Recently, the Opera Works singers watched the dress rehearsal of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha. Here’s what Danny Standing, Baritone, had to say.

When the 2013/14 season was announced I was so glad to see that Satyagraha was being revived again. I was so disappointed to have missed the 2010 production, which received rave reviews. Knowing Glass’s musical style, I was interested to see how he would balance his minimalist writing and still deliver dramatic material. I was also interested in how Phelim McDermott would approach directing such a work.

This is a stunning piece of theatre that kept me on the edge of my seat. Working in parallel with the slowly changing harmonies, the action morphs seamlessly between vignettes, creating vivid moments of action with what felt like very little movement. This could be down partly to the fact that the majority of the singing takes place at the front of the stage, with the action going on behind. This was created with the immense talent and stamina of the ‘Skills Ensemble’; fly artists, actors, puppeteers, stilt walkers, stilt walking puppeteers - it felt like there was little they couldn’t do. With a few dozen rolls of Sellotape they made Blue Peter presenters look like amateurs! Forgive me for being elusive, I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it; it’s one of those things that has to be seen to be believed.

Western classical music has adopted many new sound worlds over the years and India has provided many composers with new musical colours to play with. Gustav Holst, for example, wrote a series works in English using his own translations of the Sanskrit epics of ancient India. In doing so he fused western form with Indian content. In my opinion, Glass manages successfully to do the opposite, immersing the audience in sung Sanskrit with hypnotic and meditative like rhythms and harmonies in both the vocal and orchestral writing. The lack of English dialogue and surtitles was concerning at first, but this problem was short-lived as soon I was drawn helplessly into the dramatic power of Satyagraha.

Returning to the title role was Alan Oke: His portrayal of Gandhi was hugely impressive and after our most recent response weekend, one can only imagine the amount of time and energy required to tackle this iconic figure. All the principal cast performed impressively, from Sarah Pring’s moving scene where she leads Gandhi to safety, to Nicholas Masters’ grand entrance as Lord Krishna.

Overall it was a hugely enjoyable performance, and I’m so glad I finally got the chance to see this after three years of waiting!

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Danny Standing

Baritone, Opera Works 2013-14

There are a limited number of tickets available for the final three performances- click here to book your ticket!

Response Weekend 1…… “Throw away the first pancake!” Part 2

Following on from her previous post, Opera Works mezzo-soprano Hanna-Liisa Kirchin gives her thought on the response weekend, led by Opera Works course director Martin Constantine.

Each day arrives with new challenges that are different to those before and those that will come! Saturday morning arrived and we all met - coffee in hand, preparation and research in our notebooks and, ahead of us, the sense of the unknown of what the weekend would bring. Physical warm ups provided hilarity (and probably some bruises for the clumsier of us in the room!!) and broke the ice before the hard work began.

The weekend, named by Martin “Want. Do. Feel.”, was to encourage us to approach our repertoire with the same level of exploration and curiosity that an actor would approach their spoken text and, in further detail, to explore the intention behind thoughts, words and perhaps the music. To discover how ones feelings can invoke actions which, in turn, affect consequence. I suppose the idea is to leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparing a role, and to be prepared to go further in order to come back.

We had been asked by Martin to do our homework on the opera we had been given, and to consider factors surrounding location, setting, our character, our relationships with others, their opinions on us, our motives throughout the opera, our obstacles throughout the opera etc. Initially it seemed overwhelming, particularly as we were only singing about ten pages of the operas ourselves. Thankfully, everyone felt the same, but we had all thrown ourselves in to the challenge with great openness and awareness and the exercises could run their courses successfully. When we were asked to use these same observations on a scene from our life, recreating them using the acquired knowledge it became clear that the techniques we were learning were endlessly useful and would be adaptable in all future work.

Describing the weekend in great detail would potentially confuse both the reader and, probably, the writer - it’s tricky to put in to concise words what we did and how everyone reacted without transcribing my entire notebook! So, again, I revert to a selection of observations I noted down myself and from others in order to give an insight….

  • Exploring a scene, or a work, in a huge amount of detail can allow you to take a character to places you might not always have gone or feel you could dare to go to. It allows you to make mistakes and observe how a character can be affected by every external, and internal, element.
  • When a scene features “asides” (ie. Text that is perhaps directed at the audience, a higher being, or an exclamation to oneself) it is useful to have an image of someone, or their location, or to imagine a mirrored version of yourself.
  • In music where there is a great deal of repetition, such as Handel, consider the reason for the repetition. Is it to emphasise? Has it been received by the other person? Have they responded?
  • When you are singing about how you are affected by someone, and they are not in the scene, it can be advantageous with them there and then taking them away.
  • Don’t always feel the need to match the energy of the person you’re playing against - establish your characters energy and follow their organic path.
  • Actions must always be active, never passive.
  • There is a reassurance in the extreme reliability of this new acting and performance technique that we learn, and the knowledge that with the correct preparation you will always have a basis of understanding despite any obstacles you may face.

However technical the above may sound, we can be certain that we will be able to adapt it to all of our future work at some point. As Martin pointed out, and as Mike Alfreds had done before him, the time at which it all clicks in to place may be now, or it may be in years to come. However, having that knowledge in our toolbox to use whenever we need is a luxury and a gift. Directors often talk of this “toolbox” - a collection of techniques, skills and knowledge that can be accessed at all times in whatever capacity - and I think this is the perfect concept. After all, how can you hone a craft or art without tools?

"Like a pair of new shoes…."

This subtitle (again a gift from our original quote-queen) leads in to my final comments, and a common observation and remark that was made throughout the weekend - How, after 16 hours of intense work together, can we hope to achieve the same level of exploration and understanding when we need to use it again in the future and do not have the same luxury of time? How can one condense the time needed? Martin’s answer? That eventually, like anything that requires practice, it will become second nature. Comfortable. Like a new pair of shoes that is initially uncomfortable but provides happiness and enjoyment, and therefore we continue to wear them at different events and for different lengths of time to make our feet mould in to them…..we merely have to let our minds and muscle memory mould into this new technique.

Personally, I came to the weekend with the knowledge that I am seasoned “preparer” - often doing a huge amount of research and character preparation before rehearsals. But there came the difference, and the obstacle I would have to overcome this weekend. I have always preferred the subsequent actions and consequences to be as organic and unplanned as possible, and envisaged that approaching the text and rehearsal period in such an intense way would create a blockage and lack of freedom. However, after much conflict with myself, I wanted to see what would happen if I completely ignored my initial hesitations and went against my feelings. The result? I was more liberated and comfortable with my character than I had ever been. The knowledge of the role felt deeper, and the expanse of possibilities I had allowed me to be free and spontaneous without finding myself dangling off the edge.

The weekend was, I believe, a time of revelation and discovery for all of us in some way. One can only imagine where this journey will go and the future tools we will gather to add to our toolkits…..what an exciting adventure!

Hanna-Liisa Kirchin

Mezzo-Soprano, Opera Works 2013-14

www.hannaliisakirchin.com