Thursday, 24 July 2014

Learning a role

This article first appeared at

How do you perform at audition? Most of us will offer our audition pieces from memory. Of course, success at that audition will oblige us to committing a role to memory. If you know the music, it's easier to connect with the audience and makes for a better performance. If possible it's best to have learnt the music.
So, how do you learn your music? Well, we all have our own tricks (and we'd love to hear from you about your own ideas). For the time being, here are our ten top tips for learning a song, aria or role.
1. Start early
Whatever you do, when you know what you are going to be doing, start preparing it. This is particularly important for the freelance singer, whose most carefully prepared schedule can suddenly fill up just when you think you had the time to get the role learnt.
2. Do it at pitch
Of course, you will want to know what edition is being used, what the cuts are and whether your arias have any transpositions. An avoidable issue is preparing baroque music at the wrong pitch. Find out whether the performance will be at modern concert pitch (A=440Hz in the UK & Europe) or whether it is going to be at another pitch (the most widely used baroque pitch is A=415Hz). The difference may sound like a trifling semitone but will feel like a pothole if you've prepared it differently.
3.  Highlighter pen
If you like, use a highlighter pen to highlight the text underneath the music. Just highlight the words as they are all at the same linear level and will de facto underline the music (which will move all over the stave)
4. Attend to your sort of learning - visual, auditory, kinaesthetic
Do you imagine the score or the scene in your head as you perform? Are you immersed in the sound of the music and of your voice? Perhaps making your own (small) gestures helps not only to create the sound you want but to remind you of the contour and duration of the music? Be aware of how you learn and help yourself!
5. Read the text
... aloud. If you want to make sense of the role you need to make sense of the words. Separating out the words may also help to separate out difficult rhythms before adding the sung line back in.
6. Translate word for word
If you don't understand the text, make a word-for-word translation. It's not enough to understand the gist - knowing each individual word affects how you shape phrases.
7. Listen to the other roles
The other parts are important, not only so that you know your cues. Often the music in one role may be the same as in another, making it easier to learn. Even when there are small differences, those differences can help act as signposts.
6. Break it down
2 pages at a time is better than 10 pages at a time; 2 bars at a time is better than 10 bars at a time (etc.) It's also better to do four sessions with short breaks than everything in one long go - above all though, find what's best for you.
7. Use a metronome
This is a good way to structure your learning. Learning notes slowly is fine but singing them at a consistent pulse is essential, even if you know that the tempo is likely to change (i.e. it's not as big an issue as the pitch issue)
8. Repeat
Do it again and again. And again... thinking of different things to stop this from being boring is a creative & constructive way of investigating the role, though you do want to achieve consistency in the end.
9. Invest in a coach
Get a coaching session. You'll hear the piano part (reduction or actual accompaniment) played properly; you'll get a second set of ears hearing what you can't; you'll get the experience of working with a pianist, essential for taking a piece to audition; and if the coach is good then you'll get notes of pronunciation and even interpretation. It's a worthwhile investment.
10. Repeat...
... yes, ok. But you get the message!
Finally, remember - don't learn it until you get it right; learn it until you can't get it wrong!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mondrian at Turner Contemporary, Margate

The Red Mill, 1911
I would love to know what Mondrian might have made of The White Stripes. The American rock duo's celebrated second album, released in 2000 is titled De Stijl, after the artistic movement that Mondrian started in 1917. The album cover, included in this exhibition at Margate's Turner Contemporary, riffs on the grids and blocks of colour that are typical of Mondrian's most familiar late work. Of course, this being The White Stripes, the only colours are in fact black & white and red.

My interest in knowing Mondrian's reaction revolves around one issue that I hadn't credited enough, and that's that red colour. Clearly, Mondrian was as concerned with the primacy of the paint on the canvas as the figurative content of the landscapes he was producing in the early 1900s. Coming into contact with Theosophy, which looks to examine the divine in life and nature, caused Mondrian to attempt the same sort of investigation in his painting. Individual colours (often the 'primary' colours of blue and yellow) are separated out in his subsequent paintings, often rendered in a pointilist style with the red introduced as a congruent, vital central colour. The accompanying booklet uses the picture of the The Red Mill as its frontispiece and I can see why.

The exhibition, over three and two-half rooms of the first floor of the gallery seems to have this at its centre but there's much more: the beautiful draughtsmanship of the early pictures; almost abstract landscapes that would have you thinking about his kinship with Paul Nash, even before reading about it; the cubist-like canvases that are yet a world apart, as he's simply not trying to do the same thing.

The exhibition is really super, necessarily curated with fewer pictures than a Tate-sized blokbuster, but carefully selected to make its point. Personally I could have done with just a little more light in the first room. Otherwise the hanging gives the canvases plenty of space and hangs them at a good height (I'm 6ft exactly) and without too much barrier fuss so that one can get in and really absorb the brush stroke and impasto. A strong show.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Bartholomew Beal at The Fine Art Society

A heap of broken images... well, I wouldn't say broken but certainly stacked up, wrapped in bubble wrap and being generally fussed over. At least, that was the scene of the ground floor of The Fine Art Society when I walked in this morning, which is clearly re-organising.

There's no such kerfuffle in the clean, crypt-like the lower ground floor where Bartholomew Beal's solo exhibition A Heap Of Broken Images is being shown, well-spaced and lit. The title of the exhibition - as for many of the individual pieces - is from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. The figures which populate the gorgeous, tending-to-psychedelic canvases are their focus point. Some stare out to a distant horizon, some are lost in a task. All are the progeny of the lines and allusion of TS Eliot's text. It's to curator Sara Terzi's great credit that she has Beal's copy of Eliot's Selected Poems available for reference (as well as a timelapse montage of photographs showing Beal in his studio, sitting, reading the text as much as he is painting).

Though Beal's paintings are all marvellously accomplished in imagination, draughtsmanship and brushstroke the narrative from the printed text to the images is of equal interest. The links are made through Beal's own margin notes, translating passages, fixing his own reference or even sketching a brisk study. Sybil, yearning for death in the poem's Greek-language prologue is caught in a lovely study of a young woman barely below the surface of water (the refracted light on her cheek is particularly splendid). A lilac hyacinth, referencing the Lilac of The Burial Of The Dead's second line is the more robust of two stems clutched by The Hyacinth Girl.

The men in the paintings are pictured with an existential divide, either lost to the world in a minute task taking all their concentration or staring out into the distance, often strained, with the exception of the wonderful The Drowned Sailor: the apparition of a white-bearded Davy Jones stands , translucent in front of his wreck below a collage of colourful abstraction - Chinese lanterns, or jellyfish.

In a note to accompany the catalogue, Edward Lucie-Smith suggests
Like many avant-garde impulses, his work has its roots in a return to tradition.
Indeed the exhibition has adopted this observation, with accompanying text being rendered in Chicago, the typeface used by Apple computing from the 1980s. It's an unassuming but opulent collection that I enjoyed looking at but that has also inspired me to pick up a long-neglected copy of Eliot's poetry.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

What Makes an Opera Singer?

Last month Radio 4's Today programme invited classical crossover singer Russell Watson to speak about singing in relation to the imminent World Cup. When Watson was introduced as an 'opera singer' it raised hackles. Many wrote in demanding that the BBC correct their 'mistake', offering their own definitions of what an opera singer is supposed to be. These boiled down to 'someone who sings in operas'.

The next morning Joyce DiDonato (at the time rehearsing the title role in the Royal Opera's new production of Maria Stuarda) came onto the same programme to speak as advocate for opera singers. Her points were about: the acoustic sound (without amplification); projection over an orchestra and into a large auditorium; and maintaining a consistent quality for the duration of an opera (2-3 hours), referred to as 'stamina'.

These are reasonable criteria on which to call someone an 'opera singer'.

What bothers me is that these aren't the criteria everyone uses. They're neither exclusive nor universal. I'm not convinced that a layman hears someone sing and feels able to assess their vocal stamina. Part of revisiting these exchanges from last month was hearing of a colleague, who sings relatively little opera, telling his hairdresser that he's an 'opera singer' as a quick way of describing a portfolio singing career. It's certainly a universal shorthand for something.

Telegraph critic Rupert Christiansen had useful words to describe his experience of seeing ENO trying to take opera into a West London school earlier this year:
The problem is the unamplified operatic voice. The kids don’t like it, don’t understand or identify with it: they think it is “very loud” (by which they probably mean over-resonant) and faintly ridiculous.
This is a more immediate, universal description of an 'operatic' singer for me. It looks to cover the unusual character of the singer trained in the bel canto tradition. It focuses on the important issue of acoustic performance (subordinating the issues of the space being filled or the duration of the performance). This is why I am relaxed about some of the classical crossover fraternity allowing themselves to be described as 'operatic'.

Being relaxed about nomenclature mustn't mean that we are relaxed about the quality of what we hear. There is, no doubt, a great deal of money to be made by those who can see a way to exploit the 'unusual' sound of the acoustic singing voice by using it as a hook on which to hang all manner of saleable ephemera: showmanship, spectacle, fashion. The operatic singer's defensiveness stems from trying to preserve the integrity of the voice in the face of this.

This afternoon, Radio 3's Music Matters programme hosted a live panel discussion, 'Why Does Opera Matter Today?'. Across an articulate panel, cultural commentator Paul Morley suggested that he could sense this defensiveness, talking about 'protectionsim of the voice'. This prompted Danish National Opera artistic director Annilese Miskimmon to note how 'infuriating' it is when crossover singers who do the same job try to separate themselves from opera singers 'when they are actually on the same team as us'.

The marketing of opera or crossover singers is a closely related but separate issue. The crossover salesman is as good at manipulating the received idea of 'opera' as the operatic fraternity is bad at re-working it. In the meantime opera singers and the opera industry, corporately will continue to wrestle with selling itself in the twentieth century. I wouldn't go as far as the exasperated Igor Toronyi-Lalic, who had terse words for defensive opera singers in the wake of the Watson/DiDonato episode. However, I accept that being vigilant about protecting the integrity of great singing doesn't mean attacking someone choosing to package similar talent in a different way.

Rudely Interrupted - Noise Off and even On

This article first appeared at

Last week we heard that the opening night of the Aix Festival Ariodante was disturbed by protests. The news that industrial action from French stage hands had spilled across the performance itself is quite startling.

Disturbances are relatively rare in classical music performances. Perhaps the most high profile recently has been the story of a concert-goer being thrown out of a performance of part of Handel's Messiah by other audience members. On this extraordinary occasion, the audience had been encouraged to express themselves however they felt the music moved them but the suggestion, designed to be an open and inclusive gesture, backfired.

This is not an example of disturbance having a direct effect on the performers though, off-putting though it may be. There have been examples recently of performances at the Proms being disturbed by politically motivated interruption. The attitude towards these hecklers was largely, from those both in the hall and in the media, that their protest was misplaced - that the music and its performance should not only be ring-fenced from such demonstration but that it is also the most eloquent way of helping those caught up in these issues-off to be understood.

These two issues may be why it seems shocking that a stage performance should be interrupted. It is generally accepted that what happens on the stage has its point, its argument - that it should be allowed room to work itself out. Part of this understanding is that the audience should be trusted to take the message and experience as they see fit. In this country there was great consternation at a Birmingham Rep Theatre production that was cut short by public interventionMore recently the more discreet lobbying of the Metropolitan Opera meant that plans for a simulcast (live cinema relay) of John Adams' The Death Of Klinghoffer was cancelled.

In Aix, at a production of Mozart's Magic Flute running alongside Ariodante, the director successfully saw off any similar disturbances by making a statement to remind the audience - the public - that the performance was the most eloquent way to campaign against injustice and to make the case for something better. Indeed, the very task of the performer's efforts is to render, in good faith, the intentions of the creative team to expose and examine some issue of  humanity. In this series of blogs I have already mentioned the reasons why it is the duty of the audience to receive the performer with good grace. The surprise of being stopped during an audition (the microcosm of performance) can be for good reason but it can still be a bit of a shock. For the production performer with no prior warning and undertaking their work with the greatest, highest intention it can be profoundly unsettling.

Do you have any experience of being stopped suddenly during a performance? What was your reaction? How did you deal with it?