Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Riot Ensemble, Club Inégales

Last night I heard the first set of an evening of new(ish) music in a Euston back street. Club Inégales is not Milton Court, King's Place or The Forge (for example), being a private bar that generously lends itself to a eclectic, jazz-centric programme. As a space for musical experimentation it's (acoustically) not ideal, though the bar lends itself to the now-established trend for classical events such as Nonclassical and DG's Yellow Lounge that make a conscious effort to remove the threat of formality from concert-giving-and-going. The evening was introduced by Peter Wiegold, who instigated the club and perfoms with his own jazz ensemble (a super ensemble), who reminded us that there is a dedicated 'Rant' night where individuals can discuss their perception and frustration at the contemproary music scene. Clearly the space and its purpose are geared towards presenting music as present, approachable and purposeful.

This was the ambience that Aaron Holloway-Nahum, compering the evening on behalf of the collective The Riot Ensemble, seemed to be looking to generate. Brisk but useful introductions to each piece in the set was welcome, with a pair of screens in the room displaying the composer's name (and the text of the one song of the set).

The programme had been convened around this being Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday year, so the opening work was a wind quintet of his own. After a restive opening, Refrains and Choruses (1957) settles into continually moving tableaux of shapes and colour, rather like watching a lava lamp up close. I imagine it's a synaesthete's dream. The Atéa Quintet played very competently, assimilating not only the non-acoustic but also the slow exit-trickle of those who had, commendably, decided to give the event a go but felt that their Friday night held more potential than Birtwistle's investigative early music.

Next up, a first composition by the now celebrated Thomas Adès. The Lover In Winter is a setting of a Latin text for countertenor and piano which mezzo-soprano Celeste Cronje managed well. The dry sound in the room is particularly hard work for singers performing acoustically and this song used a treacherous mixture of long climbing melismas and phrases and ended with exposed, pontillist notes.

Cronje was well-supported by the pianist Adam Swayne, who followed the song with a new piece by Joanne Lee. The Hungry Caterpillar is an undergraduate piece for solo piano, and Lee says:
Piano is my first instrument so I was writing many piano pieces at this early stage. The work was a study in taking an 8-pitch tone row and seeing how this could be developed, a metamorphosis akin to a caterpillar/butterfly.
As good as her word, the music grows out of an apparenly minimalist opening to investigate the potential of a fifth with rhythmic rigour and increasingly heterogeneous lines in opposing hands. It's tricky! This was the first piece that really came alive in the concert, percussive and stark and brilliantly performed.

Finally, The Atéa Quintet returned to play Alastair Putt's Halazuni:

This what Alastair Putt says:
[Halazuni] takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful abstraction of such art, and its juxtaposition of rigid patterns and shapes with more florid, elaborate elements.
This is what the music does, pursuing the possibilities of the kernel of a melodic or harmonic idea exhaustively in a sequence of dovetailed sections. Though Putt offers details of the rigourous mathematical framework in which the composition is organsied, one doesn't hear cogs or scaffolding. The music sits somewhere between a familiar harmonic parish and something more alien, something more, well, Moorish. Certainly I couldn't help but think of Britten's vistas across the Mediterranean lagoon in Death In Venice conjured specifically by Putt's use of flutter-tongued flute.

If I needed one further element to help me absorb this final piece then - and I'm sorry if I sound like a broken record - it would have been to hear this piece in a marginally more generous space, if only to allow proper bloom on the intruments (and reward the dedicated music-making of the quintet). As Putt himself says of writing with the audience in mind, "I do care about how the music sounds in real space rather than in some abstract, formalised sphere". Well, he's not alone.

Nonetheless, this was a fine set in a carefully considered evening's programming. It was also a good opportunity to hear more-chamber proportioned work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle in his birthday year and to shift the emphasis on listening from confronting his expressionism to engaging with his more ruminative style.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Happy Days, Young Vic

It's startling, walking in off the Cut to find there's been a landslide inside the Young Vic theatre. The set for Natalie Abrahami's production of Beckett's Happy Days doesn't so much dominate the space as swallow it. A cliff face from the flies to the foot of the seating the round, the very real threat of this monumental carbuncle is not only in its size. There is also a trickle of stones that tumble down its face, an indication of the manner in which Winnie comes to be increasingly subsumed. More than this, the stage crew are kitted out as if dealing with the aftermath of a serious event and at the (preview) show I attended, one of them struggled to keep his footing.

I didn't feel immediately under threat myself watching this show. The violent electroacoustic klaxon ('bell' in the text) apart, I felt able to hold the performance to its fourth wall boundary. This is just as well, as the play, for all its good humour, is quietly end-of-days. Juliet Stevenson's Winnie is played as a middle-class suburban housewife suddenly stranded on a rock. I imagined Margot from The Good Life dropped into Martin Pincher. The mix of perky, repetitively mundane chat and the almost surreal incongruity of her situation are disarming. In both acts she mentions a passing couple commenting on her situation as if it must be voluntary. One is dependent on Stevenson to guide us through the implications of the possibility of her having a 'choice' as much as the grand metaphor that this hour-and-a-half monologue surely is.

I thought Stevenson's performance remarkable. Naturally it's quite an endurance test to carry a full-length play alone, quite without the bother of being unable to move. I am obliged to note my confusion at not being able to see the other character of Willy, Winnie's husband (David Beames) at all in the first half, by virtue of the sheer bulk and thrust of the set. Though it wouldn't have been an intention of Beckett's, it did force me to redouble my concentration on Winnie: her ever-so-slightly contrived optimism and deep, deep-buried fear. Such is the nature of being wholesomely middle-class, perhaps. There you go. If self-examination isn't the point of theatre then I can't think what is.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Answer To Everything, Streetwise Opera

Streetwise Opera's ambitious project The Answer To Everything is at once remarkably complex and at the same time single-mindedly focused. Although it is a situation satire based on the idioms, trappings and absudities of the modern corporate conference, Streetwise Opera are circumspect with the mockery in the show. It's conceivable that some of the participants in the work may well have had a similar line of work before falling on hard times. Poor choices or bad luck isn't judged in The Answer To Everything but assimilated in a clever tapestry of narrative meandering, operatic interpolation and film-to-stage fourth wall hopping. It's superb.
I saw The Answer To Everything at the London Short Film Festival at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. The film is at the heart of the show. It is a testament to the conviction of the company that such a high-quality film should have been produced to work hand-in-glove with the live performance (which includes film relay from the foyer of the auditorium and a brief mobile sequence inamongst the audience, necessitating sharp direction as the action moves from screen to stage). Although the piece is a double-barreled satire on reality-obsfucation of corporate hysteria and at the same time an umbrella critique of the lack of housing, the film helps to explode the idea that homelessness is a specfically urban problem. Locations move out from London to Manchester's suburbs and end up on a Northumbrian beach.

Inbetween, the 'Locateco' executives try to push their flawed plan for cheap urban housing projects with New Labour-echoing flannel. As I mentioned, the emphemeral nature of what they actually say provides an excellent dovetail to bits of actual opera. For example, Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga is sung by Elizabeth Watts as both cleaner and receptionist, whilst the corporate chorus move through the space like zombies - a shift in the perspective of 'foreground character' that itself has a clear resonance for those who have faced homelessness, one might presume.

Overlay of solo and group singing is extremely well-marshalled. The non-professional cast are incorporated without diluting the actual impact of the music with worthiness or undercutting with patronising tokenism. David Patterson's strong performance of the safety officer's song, one of many live solipsisms in film and staging, was the primary case in point.

Juxtaposing contemporary mundanity with solid operatic hits is a winner. One can easily imagine modern figures of speech, such as 'unexpected item in bagging area' or 'mind the gap' used as text. The surreality of opera at such a moment pulls the veil of artifice from the situation (rather like the slideshow 'error' that shows the reality of modern housing that the company are keen to cover-up). I was reminded of the video for Radiohead's Just in which a corporate bod has a moment of clarity which brings his own existence to a Schopenhauerian stasis.

Yet Streetwise Opera have no interest in identifying existential purposelessness in people's lives. Quite the opposite. The purpose of the project is clear (this is a triumph in itself, for any opera!). It is to identify the latent emotional charge in anyone's day-to-day occupation, whether it's the anonymous ruminations of a lady at the bus stop or the charismatic but vacuous grandstanding of the conference compere (the excellent Robert Gildon as 'Paul Hedges' in this performance) and giving it voice by grafting it to music.

We're all susceptible to the illusory when art is used in this way - the audience sing-along to the energetic pantomime of corporate commandments ("... downsize, upgrade, networking, feed the photocopier...") was infectious, good fun. Yet the nicely handled denoument manages the joy of emancipated thought without trespassing on proper ecstasy. It remains grounded. The group have come to the beach and enjoy a paddle but the situation hasn't crossed over into a wholesale metaphor, like the conclusion of Terence Malick's The Tree Of Life. The camera catches reality in the eyes of the participants. Therein is the light of vigour and renewed confidence rather than the reflection of aspiration, dying with the sunset.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Role - and more?

This article first appeared in

There is news this week that a new opera about the 1980s pop duo Milli Vanilli is in the works. Milli Vanilli gained notoriety when it was revealed that they had not sung in their own live performances, instead lip-synching to the performance of session singers. Indeed in a knowing coda to their own career the pop pair made an ironic commercial for a chewing gum, which involved miming to an operatic performance of Rossini's The Italian Girl In Algiers that's playing on a record in the background.

Clearly, miming to another singer is nothing new in performance. Why should it bother us though? The very reason that we get involved in the performing arts industry at all is to do with the buzz of live performance. It's a performing situation in which the directness of a performance is its unique, unrepeatable quality. It's dangerous, thrilling - and things can go wrong.

We have probably all been to a performance in which an announcement explains that a singer has succumbed to illness and cannot sing; that an understudy or some other replacement will be taking the role. On occasion this can mean the indisposed original walking their role in the production as it is staged while the covering singer performs from the side of the stage or from the orchestral pit. 

Though this can be disappointing, it's an accepted issue in live lyric theatre. It also means that there is plenty of opportunity for the prepared singer to step up and make themselves known. Indeed, this week Anna Netrebko was forced to withdraw from the opening night of The Metropolitan Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore; her understudy, Adriana Churchman grasped the opportunity with elán:
The star then was Anna Netrebko, who was scheduled to sing Adina again, until the company announced this week that she was ill with the flu and would miss at least the first two performances. 
Her cover, the Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, stepped up and had an assured, sparkling success in her Met debut.
Equally, in today's theatre, there is all manner of technological innovation. Puppetry to depict characters (Complicité's productions for ENO), film or animation inserts (The Opera Group's American Lulu, The Sunken Garden (below), Two Boys or Lucrezia Borgia at ENO) or actors duplicting characters (the Royal Opera's Eugene Onegin, ENO's Turandot) is diversifying that direct connection between the singing performer and how they are apprehended in the staging of the production.

This is worth bearing in mind when auditioning. Auditions are always more than a panel trying to find a singer for a single role. A panel want to meet someone who seems assured in their own performing. They're also looking for someone capable of working with the production team. By this I don't mean aesthetically - a professional doesn't have to agree with a director or a concept. Rather a performer should demonstrate assurance in their own job so that a director can feel secure in getting on with theirs, knowing they can rely on the performer to do the job for which they're hired. An audition may be a place to show a diversity of skills but it is certainly the place to demonstrate bankable competence in that one skill for which the audition was called in the first place: singing.

If a company knows it has a rigorously professional singer - well prepared, in command of their voice - then they can begin to think creatively about using that performer. They can extrapolate the potential of that performer to other media. They can imagine that the singer may be secure enough to cover a colleague in the event of a contingency. They might even begin to imagine using that singer in a future production that has yet to be organised. There's plenty to be gained beyond the one role!

Friday, 10 January 2014

Shoes in Opera

This article first appeared in

Are you standing comfortably? Then I'll begin!

Recently I was passed a clip of Anna Netrebko singing Verdi at the Mariinsky. The aria, Veni t'afretta from Macbeth, is seriously demanding yet the remarkable Russian soprano performs in a pair of high-heeled shoes that would scare off vertiginously challenged catwalk models.

Conventional wisdom for the performer is that one should wear shoes that are comfortable. What does that comfort mean, though? Going to an audition, performing for a group of strangers who would like to use you in their show is, for many of us, quite a nerve-racking time. Choosing a pair of shoes that you don't have to worry about is a sensible idea. You can get on and concentrate on singing without using part of brain for, well, balancing!

However, perhaps you want to show the panel what you can do, how you engage with a character or concept, or simply like to (literally) give yourself your own platform on which to perform? You might feel more comfortable psychologically wearing specific shoes. For some men wearing shows with a bit of a heel is rather important  for the impression of stature it provides the wearer as much as the audience: even former French President Nicholas Sarkosy famously wore shoes with taller heels.

Assuming you've successfully negotiated the audition and you find yourself preparing for a show your choice of footwear becomes even more important. If you are involved in a staged production there will be a protracted rehearsal period. These days opera and music theatre are breaking out of dedicated theatres and happening all over the place: in pubs, warehouses, all manner of disused buildings or even simply outside. You have the contract, so the pressure is off here - you can really wear what you want. Hollywood actor Matt Damon has a no-nonsense approach to rehearsal:
one of his least favourite parts of the film process is the pre-shoot costume fitting. "I try to get in and get out as fast as I can," he says. "When we get to the shoes, I get the most comfortable shoes that I can, because I don't want to stand around all day in shoes that nobody is going to look at."
However, plenty of people are going to worry about what you wear on your feet. Some people have that responsibility as a job. At the end of last year, Cheryl Knight of the Royal Opera costume department spoke to Radio 4 about her job as footwear supervisor:
‘Opera shoes? What a niche job! But they are important,’ said Cheryl, stressing the importance of comfort to opera singers who have to act as well as sing. ‘The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was asked what it took to make a great Isolde and she said “A comfortable pair of shoes”.
photo from
You can listen to the radio interview at the Royal Opera website, here.

Sometimes the shoe can even be an important part of the show itself. Can you imagine if the Prince were unable to fit the shoe to Cinderella's foot in Massenet's Cendrillon (right)? Mark Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas included an entire aria about Jimmy Choo shoes in their most recent opera Anna Nicole.

So a "good" pair of shoes somehow manage to combine the necessity for stability and comfort with the capability of leaving an impression on an audience and galvanising the person wearing them. No tall order then! The glamour of shoes may be what people remember but they are the most functional part of clothing.

What's your rule of thumb for putting your best foot forward in audition or rehearsal?

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Carmen, Royal Opera

This article first appeared at

We want to set our sights high on your behalf at Audition Oracle and decided to begin 2014 right at the top. Last night we visited the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to see Carmen. It turned out to be a complete experience of the wonder and absurdity of opera, with all sorts of things happening we can all relate to.

First of all, the announcement. The ROH Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, came on stage to tell us that Christine Rice would be unable to sing the title role due to a 'severe, sustained cold'. This is, of course, a great pity, not least for Ms Rice herself. Carmen might be the principal mezzo-soprano role in the entire operatic repertory and the chance to sing a principal role at Covent Garden is what most of us dream of doing.

Of course a withdrawal often gives someone else a chance. Quietly we all imagine this too. The last minute standing in in a major role has the potential to jump-start a career. Well, on this occasion, another prima donna due to sing the role later in the run, Anna Caterina Antonacci, was available to stand in. No fairytale for an understudy, or replacement near London then - though another star principal for us in the audience.

That was all the 'backstage' drama we got to see during the evening. However, in a production featuring a children's choir and a stable of live animals - a chicken, a horse and a donkey, as far as I could see - there's always the possibility of things not going quite according to plan! Carmen is a 'verismo' opera, a piece in which the drama lives through its proximity to real life. The animals help us feel that when we watch. There are smoking cigarettes, gun shots and real fires on stage too, nothing mimed or done with video. It was a performance where everything felt very present.

When it's like this, opera really grabs you. Above all, of course, opera is about the real singing voice, unmediated by processing or amplification. You can feel the exertion in coloratura runs in the singing or long melismatic phrases where the effort that must be going on seems at odds to the apparent ease of the singer. The sound is as much about the physical connection as the aural quality.

We had a super principal cast for this Carmen, including Sarah Fox as Michaela, Yonghoon Lee as Don José and Kostas Smoriginas as the splendid torero, Escamillo (whose first entrance is on the aformentioned horse!). The opera is full of little roles for members of the chorus too who were excellent and represent the standards to which we all aspire.

Of course, the life outside the theatre is rather more prosaic and brings us down to earth. On our way out we walked past Escamillo's horse being prepared for the journey home - very far from the sun of southern Spain on this wet first London evening of the new year!

Happy 2014 to you and good luck in whatever you have planned and are trying to achieve.