Monday, 13 October 2014


This was really meant to be the other way up.  Starting from the inception of this not-totally-sane venture and following it through, in a scientific and disinterested way, to its culmination.  However, heck, firstly it was me, and secondly it was me actually in the middle of all of this, never mind writing about it, and the possibility of commenting on what I was far, far too busy experiencing just went right out of the window.

So what am I actually talking about?  Well, an opportunity came up to learn a role in a Brecht/Weill piece on a terribly short timescale.  And the chance was a little random in the first place as my agency had recommended me on the basis of the wrong opera!  I'd sung Mrs Peachum in the Britten version of John Gay's "The Beggars' Opera" when at music college.  Great stuff, but musically absolutely nothing to do with the Brecht/Weill version of the same piece, which uses the same situation and characters, but utterly different music and dialogue.  (Not that the latter would have helped anyway, because the version in question was in German.)

I'd been very excited when I first got the call from the theatre.  It's a great theatre, very near me, and I'd been wanting to sing for them for ages.  When it became clear that they thought I'd done this particular role, however, I explained that I hadn't, and directed them back to the agency.  I said how disappointed I was, and that I could probably learn the role in an emergency.  Upon talking to the lady at the agency, she said in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't let someone loose on such a role at such short notice unless they'd performed it on the German stage previously, and that they'd recommended other performers, and, well, that was that.  I sighed and carried on.

However, ten days ago I got a slightly panicked call from the theatre again; evidently the other performers couldn't do that particular date or something.  Long story short - they begged me to do the role.  The message landed in my voicemail at 10 p.m.; I spent an anguished evening asking friends and colleagues for advice (I am very lucky indeed to have such a great network of contacts willing to help!).

It was a very finely-balanced decision; definitely not without the bounds of possibility, but requiring unstinted focus until the performance and a huge amount of trust in myself as a performer and as a German-speaker.  Needless to say, I didn't get a huge amount of sleep that night, but at some point in the morning, as the dawn was starting to break, I just thought, BUGGER IT, I'm doing it.  

The bloke had said he'd ring me at 9 a.m.  When he did, I said I was actually standing at the stage door of the theatre and maybe we could discuss it in person.  Within minutes we had an agreement and copies of the score and libretto and a DVD of the performance were in my bag as I headed back home.

At which point the fun started!  Naturally, the entire process was a gut-churning mixture of adrenalin-fuelled excitement and soul-destroying dread, involving the detachment of much of my brain from functioning life for the duration.  Contact with friends and family was severely curtailed (sorry, everyone!).  Food and exercise had to be plotted in as necessary; I would have forgotten them for the most part, but was conscious that they were necessary to the higher functioning of the organism as a whole, and they therefore had to be allowed a certain percentage of brain function.

A few "highlights" of the intervening days:

-  the realisation that despite having looked over the score and thought, oh that's OK, the rest of the cast being actors meant that the whole shebang would have to be sung an octave lower than my normal tessitura.  *gulp*

-  waking to the incessant noise of the words I was trying to drum into my head.  Failing to fall asleep because of the same.  Repeat unto insanity.

-  realising with cold horror quite how much stage business there was to get my head around, quite apart from words and music.

Oh yes, it was . . . interesting.  I enlisted friends and colleagues, scribbled upon reams of paper and doodled upon scrolls of wallpaper which I then draped around my flat (see photo above for one of these in its growth stages!).  This really is when you realise how lucky you are to have people who support you, calm you, slap you gently back into reality, feed you, encourage you and remind you to actually breathe.  Thank you, everyone!!

Anyway, yesterday evening was the performance.  I'd had a run-through on a rehearsal stage the previous afternoon, with a couple of my colleagues who were nice enough to give up their time.  Their generosity of spirit reassured me hugely; this was mainly an acting role, and in true Brechtian spirit, the production involved a nod to the fact that the audience knew that we were in fact actors playing these roles, rather than actually "being" the characters.  Far too complicated right now to explain coherently what I mean, but in practice, I was reassured that if absolutely necessary (i.e. totally drying or venturing into completely the wrong scene), my fellow actors were free to feed me lines, and I to ask or to shout out that I couldn't hear the bloody prompter and that they weren't paying me enough to jump in etc...

The colleagues I met were superb.  Much reassured on the acting front, I was still pretty nervous about the one classic ballad I had to sing.  Doesn't matter how many arias etc one has memorised and sung on stage, the fact remains that when you transfer anything learned on to the stage, there is normally a bit of a memory blip whilst doing so. Well, there is with me, any rate.  I was a bit worried; this is a classic Weill ballad, the audience might well know it far better than me, and the logistics (pretty much darkness apart from a follow-spot, huge movements of stage machinery behind me) meant that any prompts would probably be inaudible and any words scribbed on fingers unseen.

Suddenly, there was nothing more to be done.  I was out on stage.  And BUGGER ME IT WAS FUN!!!  Feathers flew everywhere (I really, really hate having feathers up my nose, but in such a role it was permissible to fish them out again, and with something like five changes of feather jacket, a few here and there were probably unavoidable).  Most of the words came out in the right order (I rather think a further post is demanding to be written concerning acting on stage IN GERMAN - but it's going to have to wait; it would make this post interminable).  The ballad somehow got sung.  I managed to spit out the important verbal cues, and to be roughly where I was expected to be at certain moments.  I might have trodden on a couple of extras, but they forgave me (happily, I'd worked with one of them before, and she must have given me a good report - thanks, Alice :-) ).

When push came to shove, I even got the bloody ballad right.  Not the best singing I've ever done in my life, but the words came out, and I meant them, and - for me at least - they were not overshadowed by a whorehouse in all its glory being rolled out and used to the max behind me...

I ended the evening sweating and triumphant and happy; I am a couple of new friends up from these colleagues, and have gained a world of experience from being allowed onto the stage as an actress (there is an amazing freedom of timing, of improvisation, of expression, to be found.  As an opera singer, my constraints are usually slightly different).

So, still floating on a tide of adrenaline, and happy as a sandlark, and yes (this usually freaks anyone who isn't in The Business out), all that work was just for the one performance.  Still you never know; anyone need a Frau Peachum in the Brecht/Weill "Die Dreigroschenoper"?  Correct pronunciation of "Brecht'scher Verfremdungseffekt" guaranteed ;-)




Tuesday, 9 September 2014


I know, I know.  I do apologise; I have indeed been Missing in Action for FAR too long, and I thank all those who've either called me out on it or wondered whether I was OK or just sent silly jokes!  Trouble is, here in Germany, and in fact pretty much across Europe, once the summer season starts, unless you are singing in something like Bayreuth (oh!  I went to Bayreuth, to hear a friend sing, and it just occurs to me that I failed to report on it - duh!  She was absolutely glorious, I have to report), there's not much to say.  I had all these plans to get a tan by spending all my days lazily lounging by the local (and wonderful) outdoor pool - those got a bit scuppered by the weather.  Which was NOT conducive to outdoor-pool lazing this summer.  There were of course lovely interludes.  Normally I'd take advantage of these by hopping on my bike and dragging my beach mat, bottle of Apfelschorle (apple juice and fizzy water mixture - great until it gets really warm, at which point it really can't be recommended) and book down on to "my private Rhine beach".  (I might have mentioned this one before.  Bit delusional calling it private; it is often also occupied by dogs and children and, erm, the occasional naked man - but it is about two minutes' bike ride from my house and has no facilities, just beach and river and peace.  Except this summer, when the Rhine hasn't budged more than a couple of centimetres from the high-tide mark.  No beach!

So there I am, unable to bask in the sunshine and unable (hopefully temporarily but who knows) to practise at the theatre, as has been my almost-daily habit for the last five years.  In the short term this was due to a failure of the loudspeaker system (therefore no-one could lurk in practice rooms as, in case of fire, it would be impossible to contact them).  What to do?

Well, one solution has been to meddle a little in other possible complementary careers.  Never hurts to branch out a little, maybe? (I do wish, however, that my talents ran to branching out into such artistically-fragile careers as, say, accountancy, or plumbing!).  I am enjoying myself immensely; I knew from the start that I hadn't enough talent as an artist to make it per se.  However, mural artistry is different, and I think I may even become good at it one day.  Definitely not as good as my sister, but then she takes at least 14 hours to paint a lifesize but absolutely perfect anchovy, for example (I know; we worked together, giggling, to "transform" together a downstairs loo for our parents a decade or so ago - huge fun, and a wonderful example of different aspects of talent working together, with her providing every scale and fin of the smallest fish, and me enjoying getting the feeling of the octopus leaping at you from behind the toilet door . . .), but this is fulfilling and enjoyable work which might be fun to incorporate with  my opera career. 

So this is basically an advertisement!!  Should you know of anyone who might be in need of a mural anywhere in Europe, please let me know! 

Obviously, with the proviso that my singing work comes first...

Sunday, 6 April 2014

When I was younger and stricken with near-fatal romanticism, I was hopelessly conflicted as to whether I should be carrying my passport around with me at every moment.  On the one hand, I surely had to be prepared for a tall, dark, handsome stranger to ask me to dine at the Georges V at any moment (I vaguely knew it was in Paris, and even more vaguely realised that it was rather improbable, given that I lived in a small market town in the darker reaches of Humberside, as it was then, but Hope Springs Eternal in the teenage breast...).  On the other hand, I knew with a witchlike certainty that actually having the passport to hand negated any possibility of such a thing happening. 

Draining.

Anyway, living in Germany, you don't actually have that agonising choice.  You're meant to keep such documentation with you at all times, and therefore I generally stuff my passport into the inner pocket of my current handbag and basically forget it.  (Not without, I will admit, the occasional twinge of superstition that worries lest doing so will forever banish the possibility of the attractive-stranger-whisking-me-across-the-globe-for-lunch scenario.)

On this occasion, I was more than grateful, however.  There follows a cautionary tale...

Well, I was setting off across the country.  A good friend of mine was holding a birthday party, and it seemed a great opportunity to enjoy that and combine it with visiting other friends and a voice lesson or two - perfect!  I'd even managed to find cheap bus tickets there and back (this is all a little new here - Germany only deregulated inter-city bus travel about a year ago).   Long trip, and once we'd passed Frankfurt, well, that was it, we were trapped.

No worries, I thought, I had nothing planned . . .

The first phone call came as we were nearing Frankfurt.  I was tempted to ignore it - I HATE phone calls, especially from unknown numbers, as they do tend to be from affiliates of my phone company offering rubbish.  

I was tired and I could hardly hear her voice, and what's more there might have been a slight foreign accent to her German; I was more snappy than I should have been and frankly had it been me I would have given up on me there and then.

Thank goodness she didn't; I got a call back a little later, and because the air conditioning was a little less fierce, the basic tenor of the conversation got through; would I be able to go and jump in (i.e. sing a role I know, at short notice, in a production I don't know) the next night, in a lovely theatre in Switzerland?  That woke me up!  Naturally, I leapt at the chance.  It was a role still fresh in my memory, and vocally an easy ride, so all the possible scary factors were eliminated, and all I had to do was get there and enjoy it.

Of course, confirmation from the theatre (they had to wait until they heard from their poorly singer, who was at the doctor's) came JUST after we'd set off from Frankfurt and were therefore stuck in a hot tin can on wheels for hours.  Frustrating doesn't even begin to cover it!

Luckily for me, the theatre came up trumps.  Flights were arranged from my destination back to Switzerland (we'd thankfully gone to email by this time, as shouting over the phone was really not ideal - I had to bellow my email address out in front of all the other passengers, so if I get a sudden extra wave of those "Dear Beautiful Lady" messages, I guess I have only myself to blame); accommodation was arranged for me (the taxi driver who delivered me was MEGA impressed that I'd only been found the apartment that day - there was a huge exhibition on, and apparently the entire city had been hoovering their guest rooms and making a fortune renting them out - not a hotel room within miles to be had); everything went amazingly smoothly, albeit with me wandering through the whole process in a dream - totally surreal to be suddenly transported back over your initial starting point to end up in a strange country being treated like royalty...

I loved it.  As it happened, the singer who was ill chose to walk the role, so I didn't even have to go through the rigmarole of being fitted for a costume made for someone a completely different shape; I borrowed a shapeless black nightie sort of dress and sang the role from the side stage.  Met some wonderful people, enjoyed the performance, and even got given loads of Swiss chocolate.

Ergo, it PAYS to keep your passport always to hand!

And then, having been delivered back to where I was originally headed (got to love having friends who, having offered to put you up, are unfazed when you apologise that you're going to be late, and when they ask by how much, you admit, well, two days...), I had a glorious time there too.  A blur of singer friends and learning so much from my teacher; of coffee in hip cafés (I love Mainz but even I have to admit we're a little short on those); of meeting new people and, well, cooking for them; of long walks in the woods as the spring starts to warm up, including the unforgettable sight of a naked man feeding the ducks - I have included a photo thereof below, for those who believe I simply make all this up - those of a sensitive nature should forbear to scroll down; of great nights with friends which lasted longer than they maybe should have (friend with whom I was staying : "So did you get woken up by the dawn chorus again today, Katy?"  Me:  "Erm, no, we got in after it had finished!"); culminating in a fabulous impromptu concert late at night in a kitchen - if anyone is interested in managing a ridiculously-talented couple of musicians with actual catchy melodies, along the pop / good-to-dance-to lines, and sung by a totally unique voice, just get in touch, my finder's fee is totally reasonable...
I am inspired by the randomness of the above!
 PS I do apologise - there's me with several pretty pictures of Switzerland, and THAT'S what I choose to post?  It did amuse me, however.  And don't worry about the bloke in question being shy or reluctant to be photographed - he'd paraded several times past my friend and me before giving up and interacting with a couple of more grateful birds...

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Yesterday I took part in a form of theatre I'd never even considered as such before.  Here in Mainz, the carnival season is taken extremely seriously (it's Fassenacht, and god help you if you refer to it as Karneval or even Fasching!), and nothing more so than the Rosenmontag parade (not quite sure what Rosenmontag translates into in English; technically it means "Rose Monday", and is the day before Shrove Tuesday, but there appears to be no mention of pancakes here - maybe most people are too hungover to contemplate them...).  Anyway, it's the culmination of several days' HARD partying, the parade is hours long, the costumes and transport are meticulously constructed, several along current political themes, others following long tradition, and it's a quite awesome thing to behold, as I am lucky enough to attest from my previous years here.

However this year I had the opportunity to actually march in the parade - and I pounced on the chance.  A once-in-a-lifetime experience, with German friends here asking wonderingly how I'd managed it.  The Tierheim Mainz (the animal shelter here) was for the first time fielding a team, in order to "raise awareness", and supporters were invited to sign up, the costume theme being, naturally, pet animals (which might make their way through the Tierheim at some point).  My friend Nicola and I put our names down straight away - she went for a British Bulldog costume, I for a cat (she favoured patriotism over vanity, I sadly the other way around).

We had to attend some frankly inane and/or crazy meetings in order to qualify, but we stuck it out, and I have to report it was wonderful!

The day itself dawned (in contrast to today and the day before yesterday, both of which were sunny) grey and misty.  And chilly.  Damn.  I'd refashioned a plush fake-fur coat into a tailored shorter version complete with tail (a tail coat, haha), cat ears and paws.  I was hoping for sleek and sexy, but in the event preferred my health to looking slim, and therefore stuffed an extra coat underneath for warmth.  Well, lots of house cats I have met have been comfortably padded, so I reckon it didn't detract too much from the costume...

I set my make-up with powder AND hairspray against the ravages of the weather, and set out in costume, with all my key belongings stashed in a "fanny pack" (sorry Americans, that phrase still makes me giggle like a naughty schoolgirl!) which augmented my tail.  It was early (for carnival) and in hindsight I would have been better trying for a bus, as I ended up with blisters from having been on my feet in unfamiliar boots for such a long time.  That extra three-quarters of an hour, crossing a deserted railway bridge and trudging through a silently expectant city, probably did for my poor toes.  But who cares?  By the time I joined up with the rest of the gang, the excitement was starting to mount.

The weather was strongly reminiscent of various straggling and half-hearted parades I'd taken part in as a child.  Memories of sodden floats and disappointed adults kept drifting in and out of my mind, only to be forcibly ejected by the rousing appearance of a phalanx of burly blokes dressed in orange and black hooped skirts, Venetian masks and mad feathers, marching in as disciplined a manner as soldiers and blowing or beating the heck out of their brass-band instruments.  Any reservations I had had about marching stone-cold sober (we were asked not to bring alcohol on the march as it would invalidate the insurance, and besides, setting off from home just after nine a.m. was definitely too early for me to drink, no matter what the parade-watching protocols might be!) were literally blown away, as I felt my energy ramped up by the tangible excitement all around.  

This was a gathering of carnival clubs whose entire purpose was concentrated into this moment.  They had practised and sewn and hammered and laughed and argued together for the whole year, in order to march proudly out together, showing their city and the world their unity and purpose.  I was uplifted by their excitement, and by the time we set off (at the tail of the nineteenth float, in a procession which started at 11.11 a.m. and continued well into the late afternoon), I was hopping about with anticipation.

Well, from the start it was something special.  From a theatrical point of view (and when can I ever want to escape that?), the experience was immersive.  We were in the middle of a huge potential wave of energy, whose escape relied on us (well, that was at least the way I chose to experience it).  For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the experience was learning to trust my intuition on which segments of the audience would respond best to my yowled HELAU!!! (the carnival greeting here, echoed back and forth, a tangible connection between audience and parade).  Such a fabulous feeling upon seeing a gathering of those who would obviously respond, drawing breath and engaging my breath support (because those HELAUs and the ensuing miaows due to my costume really needed  to be produced in the right manner, or else I would have been voiceless today), and simply calling out in the sure and certain knowledge of a response.  

From the inside, therefore, I was breathing the togetherness of the crowd.  It was different from my usual appearances on stage, in that there was more OBVIOUS energy being passed back to the "performers", but I felt the same way - an exchange of energy was taking place, and it enriched both sides.

There's normally an orchestra pit and an imagined "fourth wall" between me and my audience as an opera singer; yesterday, these disappeared.  I met the eyes of those whom I was stirring up to make noise together, and it was thrilling.  For nearly three hours, I leapt around and played and vocalised, and it was glorious.  And afterwards, the knowledge that people had taken notice of the Tierheim made it even more worthwhile.  

So for once my photo is integrated into the subject of my ramblings.  Here I am mid-yowl, belting out HELAU to the crowds... long live carnival!!!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014


Well, that went... somewhat chaotically!!  I have a couple of performances of this role (hopefully more, although given the state of the theatre's finances, not something I am relying upon.

Anyway, I was looking forward to yesterday's first one.  I'd sung most of the rehearsal period, was thrilled to be able to get (mostly) into the same clothes as my colleague who was originally booked for the role (her legs are about double the length of mine and she's tall, slim and beautiful) and knew that if I just barrelled on with a champagne glass in hand, nothing could go wrong.

Which it didn't, it really didn't, until the Act II Finale, when I am meant to be starting my own rather riotous party, in this case being wheeled speedily along by my erstwhile lover in a wheelbarrow, legs up in the air, bottle in hand, whooping.  The idea was that I would end up in a particular place at a particular angle, so that I could step out, in contact with the conductor, and sing the introductory phrases.  

Well, I knew it was always going to be an interesting ride, given this particular colleague, and had come to giggling grief in a couple of rehearsals, but they'd changed the wheelbarrow AGAIN, and somehow my colleague got a little overexcited and managed to tip me out with a resounding thump, face-down on the stage, totally disorientated... it's hard to get the music precisely right when you're laughing so much!

It's also hard to negotiate tricky passages in the role when they are meant to be accompanied by ladies of the chorus, flocking around one's stage lover, being flicked expertly off by either a look or a stage tap on the shoulder.  Not this time.  Oh no.  Whether by accident or design, the first lady I signalled off with an imperious gesture simply stood her ground and stared back at me.  I restrained my immediate impulse to thump her and set about extracting my "lover" by force.  Which, at a point where breathing is at a premium and contact with the conductor essential, DIDN'T HELP.

Nor did hunting haplessly around for the black velvet jacket I had earlier twirled off.  It was meant to be "at the front of the stage, at the side", according to the assistant director's instructions, thrown there by someone from the chorus.  New thing since the dress rehearsal.  Fine.  Except they obviously hadn't thought that if such a garment lands in the wrong place, it's virtually impossible to see...

Ah bliss.  I love the theatre!

PS going for the most inappropriate photo vis-à-vis content ever.  That was the view as I cycled along the Rhine on the day before the performance.  Ghostly in the freezing fog, the as-yet-untrimmed pollarded plane trees seem to melt into the mist...

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Happy New Year!!

What an utterly surreal end to the year!  I have spent the last month or so immersed in Verdi, covering a small role in rehearsal, frantically scrabbling to learn the words whilst actually blocking all the moves (if I didn't say before, I was asked to jump in on the first day of rehearsals...).

Anyway, yesterday was the piano dress rehearsal.  For pretty much the first time, I was watching rather than singing, and I looked forward to seeing everyone in their actual costumes and make-up (and what a luxury, to see it from the auditorium!).

As I rushed into the theatre, people kept popping out of the woodwork, giggling, asking me if I'd seen the colleague who will be singing the role in most performances, and for whom I was covering.

Once I saw her, I understood.  Not only was she, understandably, dressed as I had been for the past month, but the costume designer had evidently got a bit of a thing about my hair.  There it was, in exactly the same mess as I generally pin it up in for rehearsals (the one time I wore it loose, a couple of weeks ago, it got tangled up in the wheel of a wheelbarrow.  Don't ask.).  And there, in all its glory, was my white streak.  Yep, the designer had decided that her idea of Flora now included the Morticia look, and so my colleague had had a fake white stripe stuck into her hair.

Combined with the occasional physical mannerism that I recognised as my own, it was an amazingly surreal experience to, in effect, watch myself on stage (yes, yes, in my dreams - my colleague has endless legs and is taller and slimmer than me, but the general effect was spooky).

Great end to the year, though!  Fabulous music and an unrepeatable experience.

Thank you for reading this, and I wish you a MAGNIFICENT year in 2014!!

Friday, 13 December 2013


What we do as opera singers is judged.  That is, of course, only fair.  People are paying to hear us sing.  Critics rate us, auditions weed us out, we are hired or fired on the basis of our reputations.  What I am concerned with here, though, is the situation where we are being judged on aspects of our performance that are without our control.  It's slightly worrying that there are layers of the opera world which don't seem to realise that as performers in the modern world, we do NOT have total control over what we sing or how we sing it.

There may be a few performers at the peak of our art who have the luxury of choice when it comes to roles, but most of us need to pay the bills and eat and boring stuff like that, and so if a role comes along which is singable and which fits with the rest of what we have going on, mostly we are forced by circumstance to take it. This applies particularly to singers on permanent contract with a theatre - of course, some of the roles they sing are not a perfect fit for them as artists.  However, it was, in many cases, not a choice.  When you're Fest, you often simply sing what's there, provided it doesn't actually harm your voice.  Some roles will fit, others will be taken on unwillingly but as part of the contract.  If you're independent, of course, sometimes you'll take something just in order to eat etc etc, (I would say, maybe this is just me, but, well, it isn't).  And we are judged on our choice of roles.

Within that constraint, there are others.  We are often dressed in clothes which do nothing for our figures.  Ditto make-up.  That's simply the way the opera world works now.  What is less obvious, though, is that we are constrained to accept the concept of the director as regards our character.  This can occasionally be a path to artistic discovery - an angle we may not have thought of ourselves, an overview gathering several conceptual strands together - but it can also bunch us awkwardly into a performance in which we are not intellectually invested.  And we are judged on our acting, and how good we look in our costumes.

You'd think that our voices were at least our own to command.  Not entirely so.  Conductors can - and do - ask for particular effects.  And sometimes it's a question of conform to their demands or leave the production (see comments on needing to eat etc. above).  What critics may decry as lacking sufficient dramatic power may in fact be us trusting the conductor enough to accede to her demands to feel the role lyrically - and what agents may interpret as blindly thundering around may, on the contrary, be our attempt to keep up with the conductor's request to let all our resources loose at a particular moment.  Again.  We are judged on our musical interpretation.

This isn't necessarily personal; I am incensed by how various friends and colleagues of mine have been judged recently by people who really should have known better, on aspects of their performance over which they had little control.

So; a plea to critics of all guises:  we may not be the masters of our own performance in all aspects; if you could please be aware of this, we'd be hellishly grateful.  (Newspaper critics; have you, for example, considered your situation in parallel with ours?  You may have aimed for a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalism position, but all that was offered was the post of music critic...).

And agents, whom we as artists naturally bow to in the normal order of things, well, there remain those who know what a voice is about, and I am lucky to know and work with a few, but (oh I shouldn't post this), there are those who really haven't a bloody clue about the voice.  

In an ideal world, one in which our artistic choices were our own, I would uphold our duty to be judged on our performances alone.  In this not-so-ideal world we get to live in, however, I'd simply like to ask those who legitimately judge us to take various considerations in mind...

Thanks!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Given how much of a cliché it is for opera singers to float around in satin ballgowns, dripping with jewels and made up to the nines, I can't believe that I have never once gone on stage in a fabulous meringue creation!  

So when I was rung up a couple of days ago and asked to leap in as an alternate for a small role in a Verdi opera (pretty urgent as the scheduling difficulties had evidently only come to light on the first day of rehearsal), I immediately accepted, thinking, aha, even in Germany in this day and age, surely this role is a shoo-in for cinched waist and fabulous décolleté (well OK if I'm honest, considerations of it being actual paid work, and keeping myself off the streets, also contributed to some degree to my decision).

So the first thing I did upon arrival at the rehearsal stage this morning was to trot hopefully over to the wall of costume designs.  It was filled with drawings of absolutely gorgeous ball- and evening dresses.  Hooray!!  Pay dirt!!  I eagerly scanned the bottoms of the drawings, where the character names appeared.

Tight black leather trousers and jacket... *sigh*.  I am sure it will look fabulous, but there's my ballroom dreams shattered once again...

Not the only things that were shattered, mind.  I came out of the morning session absolutely in a heap.  Having been laid up with a cold for the last four days, and only getting the score yesterday evening, I wasn't expecting perfection.  However a combination of the increasingly oxygen-free environment (it's never particularly pleasant down there, but when the entire chorus, soloists and production team are working hard, the available breathable air soon appears to vanish), a hot and sweaty rehearsal costume, and - basically - not knowing what the hell I was doing (in terms of character, music, staging - in fact, admit it, the entire bloody opera), took it right out of me.

Still, can't complain.  Great music - and all I have to do is cram it into my reluctant and stuffy brain (note to self: does not work properly in the aftermath of a cold).

Speaking of cold - and this of course is not helping either my voice or my return to full health - this was the view as I cycled in for rehearsal this morning.  No, I didn't mess around with the colour balance - it was minus 4 and everyone was suddenly frozen!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Well, that was pretty amusing.  I attended a concert of opera scenes yesterday evening, given by the chorus.  Many of them are friends of mine so it was a combination of support for colleagues, curiosity and a free ticket.  Never a bad thing.
 
Afterwards, I was chatting with a couple of women who eventually asked whether I was a singer too, and if so, was I a member of the chorus?  I said no, I was a soloist, and they asked if they would have seen me in anything.
 
Turns out they have between them seen just about everything I have done here, but totally failed to believe it was me each time!  (Yes, I *did* check whether they had eyesight problems, to forestall any snark comments...).

Slightly weird being in a profession where one is delighted not to have been recognised!

(They are now both coming to my next performance of Eugene Onegin - which they praised to the skies even before I let on that I was singing in it (thank goodness) as they said they still weren't convinced that I could possibly be the little old lady they remembered...)


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Back in rehearsal, as the weather slithers greyly and inevitably towards winter, for a revival of Mainz's Eugen Onegin, with me gladly resuming my role as the increasingly demented nanny, and one question looms large in my mind;  why the bloody hell did we put so much blasted KNEELING into this part??  Argh.  
 
I am very nearly there* with regard to my knee, but the act of sinking to my knees and staying there currently makes my body very uneasy, and I don't believe a chorus has EVER lasted as long as the eternal peasanty jubilations in Act I ...



* I hope!  Mind you, I was most chuffed today, having run into (almost literally; I was on my bike and it was raining...) a lovely choreographer I know, who seemed to assume I was built of the same essential stuff as dancers ("Broken knee?  Oh no, no, that won't have stopped you for long...").  I was immensely flattered.  It's not, of course, true - dancers will regularly practise and perform through unbelievable pain levels, and generally only give up on limbs when they actually crunch and fold underneath them...  I am in awe of such bloody-minded and strange creatures.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Auditions have to be the weirdest things out.  They simply do not comply to any rational scheme of things.  Logically, to do ones best, one should be well prepared, calm, decently rested, hydrated, etc etc etc.  That's what we aim for; we book travel so as to arrive in good time, we splash out on hotels when we have no money, in order to sleep well, we determinedly push problems to one side for the duration, in order to keep our minds clear and our focus untainted.

So how on earth could I have arrived at an audition a few days ago utterly ragged with exhaustion (travel plans had, to put it mildly, gone to pot), in anything but a calm and focused state of mind, only to somehow take a breath and surpass all that for the duration of the audition?  I even walked in apologising for squelching (there had been a bit of a plumbing failure in the corridor; my audition shoes are actually dance shoes, as they are light and flexible; fabulous for bunging in ones case, but slightly less wonderful when soggy, due to their suede soles...).

It doesn't work when the panic of other circumstances is deliberately induced (please don't ask me how I know this), but sometimes the hysteria of adverse circumstances allows one to slip into an attitude of devil-may-care (or MoFo, as expounded brilliantly years ago by a tenor friend of mine whose fascinating blog is a must-read for anyone in the opera industry), which turns incipient nerves into amusing passing thoughts, and lets the voice rip out unhindered by overthinking.

I have no idea yet whether I got the job, but I at least achieved my audition aim, which is basically to sing as well as I can on any given day; if I don't get the role, well it's not because I let myself down in my performance on that occasion.  They simply wanted something else...

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Haunted...

This is probably even more off-topic than usual (although that appears to be pretty normal with me - staying ON topic - whatever that is - would be fairly ground-breaking!). 

However, tonight I was attempting a self-portrait for the first time in decades.  I was facetiously challenged by my mother to do so, and, inspired by posing for a drawing class over the summer, out came the pencils and, squinting and smudging, I had a bash.

It's not particularly good.  Fair enough; that wasn't the point.  I can try again, and fail better, as it were.  That which I have stuck up here is not even half way to where I eventually decided I should abandon this particular Gorgon Medusa incarnation.  

What gave me pause, just before this point, was the ghostly appearance, in my mind, of my long-lost auntie Jackie.  I haven't seen her in decades; none of the family has (to my knowledge).  In studying my own face in order to try and transfer it to paper, however, hers came vividly to life in my imagination.  She was puffing away on a roll-up and her voice was tired and cynical whilst explaining marvels and she had an illicit dog under her arm and it occurred to me with a physical shock that she would have been of a similar age to me when I last saw her.  

I couldn't tell you precisely what it was that conjured that particular ghost.  Probably a line, an angle, a shading, rather than a definite feature; but, goodness, it had quite the effect of Proust's madeleines upon me.  I'm used to spotting transformed bits of me in the next generation, but for an older relative to come visiting through the medium of a bit of scribbling - well, it quite sent shivers down my spine.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Unexpected side effect of this damned knee injury:  my buttocks have declared war on me!  Yes, those poor overworked bunches of muscle, to which I had frankly never paid that much attention, have decided that they would be far better off without the rest of me and are threatening to secede.  The way they are feeling at the moment, I am inclined to let them...

First it was the right buttock, taking ALL the strain when I was oiking myself around on two crutches.  When there can be no weight at all on the left leg, there's only one possible pivot when heaving oneself to a standing position or trying to sit without crashing inelegantly and painfully back into sitting.  One side which has to take all the strain when standing, and, naturally, one buttock which bravely bore all the strain for about three days before protesting in the strongest possible terms against this unfair distribution of labour.  I apologised profusely but the resulting sulk built to epic proportions.

Then there was the left buttock.  After weeks of inactivity, it was finally forced to do its bit as I abandoned the crutches and attempted, hampered only slightly by the fabulously cyborg-like knee brace, to walk without a limp.  All that time listing desperately to one side really takes its toll on the musculature, and it requires conscious effort at all times to pull errant limbs into place (whilst attempting to avoid bashing the right inner knee with the brace, which totally spoils the effect, what with all the swearing and stuff).  And the cramps and aches as the left buttock finally had to pull its weight, after so much time out... well, let's just say, I had to have severe words with it.  Turning the other cheek is not all it's cracked up to be (erm, so to speak!).

And finally, now that I am back on my beloved bike (oh, the freedom!  The wind in my hair - OK a lot of it actually blowing sideways, it having turned rather viciously into autumn, rather than streaming through my flowing locks, but you get the idea; the sun on my face - yes, yes, mixed with a bit of rain, but I MISSED being mobile so much!), both aspects of my gluteus maximus are up in arms (wait; very dodgy figure of speech there; sorry).  The knee itself is quietly doing its stuff while I am cycling, humbly aware of the trouble it has caused and trying wholeheartedly to improve.  But ohhhhhh the pain in the backside that comes from renewed acquaintance with the saddle!

On a serious note, I am however all too aware that all of this shrinks into insignificance compared to the health problems of others.  A wonderful friend, one of my sources of true inspiration in overcoming whatever obstacles life chooses to throw in one's direction has again been clobbered without cause by the universe, and this time, despite all her courage, strength, and relentlessly dangerous sense of humour, could probably do with all the positive thoughts there could be.  So if anyone has time to send good wishes speeding towards the Blue Mountains in Australia in this coming week, please do so!  Get well soon, Carol x

Friday, 6 September 2013

Goodness, it's awkward trying to gauge the correct outfit to wear to a première in which I was meant to be performing but which, due to the slightly-mangled-knee situation, I am going to be supporting as a member of the public.  Worrying about dress is definitely not one of my usual preoccupations, especially when it comes to premières - I absolutely adore dressing up (one of my small sadnesses is the prevalence of modern-dress productions - I *like* wearing massive flouncy skirts and rivers of diamonds and breathtaking headdresses).  I am well aware that in this city of dressing-down and sartorial restraint (I'm being nice here.  There is a culture of jeans and T-shirts, which changes to jeans and jumpers when the weather closes in; wearing dangly earrings is often interpreted as going a bit over the top...) I stand out like a sore thumb at times, but heck, I'm used to it and it amuses me, so why not?

Well, this evening I really don't want to overdo it; I am there to support my colleagues rather than to glitter away happily, and I definitely have no wish to overshadow anyone.  I was thinking something classy yet elegant, then, and combing my wardrobe for something which might fit the bill.  I do have a few bits and bobs which come under relatively restrained, mainly generic little black dresses which I use for auditions, being absolutely the only singer I know who actually has to dress down for audition; however all of these, upon closer inspection, tend to leave my left leg far too exposed.  I have graduated to walking slowly with a knee brace, and have recently been brave enough to abandon the crutches, but I really don't wish to present a picture of ill health to the Powers What Be at the theatre, so the brace, in all its dalek-like glory, really needs to be covered up.

Longer skirt then - shouldn't be a problem for me as that's my standard attire.  Longer skirt without holes gnawed through by oily bicycle chains and aiming for something like elegance?  Hmm.  Bit more difficult, that.  Eventually I settled on one which matches well with a beautifully fitted little velvet jacket.  Ha, I thought.  Sorted!

And now the weather has stumped me with a last-minute reversion to high summer.  Last night it was nearly 30° until well past eleven p.m., and today is just as hot.  However elegant, a velvet jacket in a packed auditorium might just be pushing it in temperatures where a swimming costume would be more comfortable.  Damn - back to the drawing board!

____________

Today's random picture was taken on a very overcast day last weekend at the Botanical Gardens.  The sky was so depressingly grey behind the last sunflower standing that I couldn't resist taking it out completely and tweaking the colours to make everything just that bit more cheerful.  I hope it raises a smile!

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Apologies for the long hiatus.  I would love to report that I have been lazing on tropical islands, exploring long-lost cities in the jungle, wrestling alligators, overthrowing governments or pottering aimlessly along the Rhine; in fact I have been out of action due to a fractured knee.  First I came off my bike in order to avoid a small child in the road; then (evidently to make sure the knee was properly wrecked), I slithered and crashed on a suddenly-wet pavement, despite flat shoes (SO not me) and a crutch due to the earlier injury.

We shall pass quickly over the painful and inelegant stage immediately following the second splat (it involved ambulances, hospitalisation, more crutches - I stuck diamante on those, mind, just to give them a bit of je ne sais quoi, sad little changes of plan, helplessness and quite a bit of humiliation, including but not limited to being shoveled around in a wheelchair and crawling carefully up and down stairs on my bottom...).  Suffice it to say that I am at present in the totally frustrating state of being written off sick until the end of September, without a firm date upon which I shall be back to normal (apparently this is par for the course with knees, which are capricious things, but is not the easiest thing to convey to the Powers What Be at the theatre), and forced thereby to miss the première of Mefistofele, with my tigerlike role involving leaping around in vertiginous stilettos having been reluctantly handed over to another singer. Damn it.

I am very aware that Joyce di Donato went on as Rosina with a fractured leg, in a wheelchair - and I would have loved to work around this in a similar fashion - but she was the Star, and I am just a jobbing singer, and besides, the director's concept includes half the chorus dressing in identical costumes later in the opera, complete with silly shoes, all of which had already been bought and rehearsed in.  It just wasn't possible this time.

Not an awful lot more to say (for once, huh?).  Onwards and upwards, with a slight lean to one side and a state-of-the-art personalised knee brace providing that little extra something...  Come on, femur, you can do it.

I would be grateful, however, if in future, people could refrain from wishing me out on to stage with a hearty "break a leg!"...

Thursday, 27 June 2013

So where did *this* damn bruise come from?

One of the most intriguing aspects of rehearsals has to be the appearance of totally inexplicable bruises and scrapes.  I was going to say "unexpected appearance", but after a few productions I've come to expect them.  I dare say that in the days when we just got happy and fat (if there were any such), lumbered on stage and sang looking up to the audience from the sweet point on the stage, this wasn't the case, but nowadays... oh yeah. 

I approached the rehearsal stage rather carefully today, having managed to hurl myself rather spectacularly from my bike a couple of days ago.  (Nothing serious; skinned knee and elbow.  Can't imagine how I have got away unscathed in four years of cycling here previously, especially given the prevalence of lightning-quick toddlers darting through parked cars.)

Anyway, scraped knees and elbows are pretty much par for the course, given that cycling has been my chosen mode of transport for more than four years now.  However, looking them over, it was rather amusing how many other unnoticed bashes and scrapes they joined and blended into happily on a social level. 

I mean, seriously, how on EARTH did I get a dark-blue double-centred bruise on my upper thigh in the last couple of days??  There's no way any of the action in the opera I'm rehearsing (usually the culprit) or anything that's running is to blame.  

Just has to be the rehearsal genie to blame.   Not going to go there as concerns howling with laughter and throwing oneself all over the stage at the slightest opportunity.  Absolutely nothing to do with this particular topic.

Definitely.

And that's all I have to say . . .

Thursday, 20 June 2013

And it starts again... god, I LOVE the rehearsal period!  Today I spent quite a bit of time lying on my back in a box, with the lid inches from my nose, sweating like I never have before (cycling home yesterday evening, I passed a time/temperature display hanging outside a chemist's.  22:57 / 33°C, and so humid I couldn't apply make-up this morning because I was shimmering with sweat even before breakfast time...). 

First blood was drawn, I think on a spar of wood I misjudged slightly.  Only a rap to the knee, didn't even notice until someone pointed out I was bleeding onto the floor.  (Quite impressed with myself.  Never before managed to draw blood on the first day of rehearsal.)

My rehearsal costume drew wolf whistles; my favourite comment was a dry "Kein' Oma mehr, gell?" (Not a granny any more, huh?) - that much, it has to be said, is true.  Another small role, but oh what fun to be had with it.  The skimpiness of the dress and the height of the (vertiginous) platform stilettos stem from the character being seen as basically created following a man's wishlist... after the battering my ego took as a disabled old woman, it is going to be HUGE fun to be (for ONCE!) the saucy turn in an opera not distinguished by its comedy (the role is Marta, in Boïto's Mefistofele.  No, you won't have heard of it...)

My back aches already from hurtling around on the stage in those bloody shoes (the director asked me to run quicker one too many times; for information, snarling the equivalent of "You put them on, Sonny Jim, and THEN tell me to go faster" is not terribly effective with directors with a great sense of humour - they just laugh . . .).  I'm missing the communal theatre outing tomorrow due to agreeing to rehearse for the director's sake.  My feet hurt too.   Rehearsal clothes often smell.  There was NO air in the rehearsal stage.  Etc etc etc.

And yet, THIS is where I live, and this is where I come alive!  Line up a fabulous director, brimming with ideas and energy, and wonderful colleagues across the board, from new and interesting to old friends whom one can be horribly rude to at will . . .   Ah yes. I am very much looking forward to this fascinating process once again!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Argh.  Could there possibly be anything more irritating, in this land of order and regularity, than the ungrounded late-night bus timetable wibble?  All day, every day, the bus leaves that particular stop at seven minutes past the hour.  Sometimes there is another bus in between; during peak hours, maybe even two.  However, regularly at seven minutes past the hour, comes the bus.  My brain is pretty good at patterns, and that one had sunk in.  So after a première (good) and the party thereafter (managed to resist dancing competitions with the dancers, which is A Good Thing, and even held back from too much madness on the dance floor as I had forgotten to bring alternative (flatter; premières mean networking, which means showing  the best ankle you can... dancing in suitable première shoes can be quite literally crippling) shoes), I sauntered down to the bus stop (I normally cycle everywhere, but knew I'd have a couple of glasses of wine this evening so opted for public transport). Arrived smugly at three minutes past midnight.

Only to spot the blasted bus pulling away from the stop.

Closer inspection showed that - for absolutely NO reason that I can see - the bus just past midnight leaves at two minutes past the hour.  And the next one, at fifteen minutes past one.  Much gnashing of teeth!! I can see NO reason for these irregularities apart from sheer joy at disrupting passengers' journeys.  

I walked. Warmer evenings mean the scent of acacia blossom still hangs in the air, and with such an accompaniment, even stomping home annoyed in high stilettos is a pleasure - but still - irritating!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Anxiety Dreams . . .

We all get these of course.  Our subconscious simply tailors them to our particular requirements.  I find them occasionally useful yet often - as at present - baroquely absurd.  I have been having ridiculously vivid dreams for the past few weeks - possibly something to do with the weather, as spring has definitively not yet sprung here on the banks of the Rhine - grey, louring clouds have been an enduring feature, along with rain and unseasonal chilliness (I had to turn the heating on this morning.  It's nearly June, for goodness' sake!).  The sun has been notable by its absence.  And such weather gives me headaches, which make me ratty and irritable, and the constant feeling that my brain is being squished from above, forcing my eyeballs to bug out in a cartoonish fashion from the pressure.  

The simple ones, shared by most if not all performers, are those where you step out on to stage, only to discover they changed the opera/play/symphony without telling you; you often have to improvise madly despite desperately insisting you weren't told and have never sung/acted/played this piece).  That's enough to make you wake up sweating.  And a nice - if pretty unsubtle -  reminder from the brain to put in more practice, make sure the piece you're working on is learned as thoroughly as humanly possible, and then a bit more for the road.  Fair enough.  I've learned to either take note and step up my game, or ignore with dignity, as required.

Slightly more rococo variations are endless - different settings, clothing, audience etc etc.  This morning's was one of those.  I'd (in real life) been to a "Fiesta" I'd helped to organise; with a Spanish theme, we were trying to welcome in the summer.  Given the weather, however, we'd been forced to set up a couple of fires (it was a garden party), and despite my best attempts, the firewood was not bone-dry (ha ha, given the recent rain and humidity) and there was a thick pall of smoke and ashes adding "atmosphere"...  However much one tried to circle round to avoid this, the changing wind directions made it impossible, and even though I tried to compensate by drinking as much (non-alcoholic) liquid as possible, it was perfectly rational of my brain to worry about the condition of my voice before the performance tonight.  Fine.  Thanks, brain.  But did you have to translate that into my voice becoming a froglike croak that embarrassed me so much I failed to sing any of my lines, and instead cawed along ruining everyone else's lines?  And somehow I'd forgotten about getting dressed, and upon discovering this before my first entrance, decided that I'd go on naked, as this would distract from my lack of voice.  That apparently not being enough, my brain decided that I would now sing my role hanging awkwardly from a splintery wooden frame, which I proceeded to do whilst anxiously squashing down bits which might suggest I was not the old woman I was meant to be portraying...  

The worst however appeared out of nowhere a couple of days ago.  I smashed into that particular dream having just murdered one of my best friends (she has in real life escaped back to Canada, and I can report very thankfully that she is still alive and kicking).  I have no idea *why* I'd killed her - even my feverish brain apparently couldn't think up an adequate reason for that - but I now had to somehow wrap her up and hide the body, and was consumed in the hunt for proper wrapping materials and tape, and proceeded in jerky, interrupted scenes, to dispose of her, with many scenes reminiscent of something out of Laurel and Hardy (feet falling out of a cupboard, tape unwinding, the body slipping inexorably down a chute into view) but desperately unfunny and heart-stopping at the time.  As light relief, these gruesome scenes were spliced with some sort of concert in a HUGE arena, where I variously heard the introductory chords to my aria but couldn't find the stage, started to sing but provoked a mass exodus from the crowd, and came on to find a tenor singing my aria instead, because I had been late arriving - at which point my dream self, enraged, stood behind the poor man and simply roared louder than him.  Oh dear!!

Really, dear subonscious, I don't need this.  My current roles are well learned, and the one I have coming up is (a) small and technically uncomplicated and (b) not yet required to be off copy.  I thank you from the bottom of my heart for caring enough to warn me, and to provide embellishments which evidently amuse your creative impulses, but... enough, please!

Monday, 22 April 2013


So, once more to the ballet.  And to a real appreciation of the other arts and how they focus the mind on aspects of one's own craft which might need more work.  I watched a light descend dramatically low into a stage full of dancers at one point, and thought, gawd, had those been opera singers, two minutes would have sufficed for *someone* to have failed to heed any of the thousand warnings from stage management and been carted off to hospital with a bleeding forehead...

I know I've said it before, but they are so physically AWARE - of course the athleticism and the flexibility is amazingly impressive, but, well, I can't hope to achieve that (it's useful, though, as a comparison for those members of the lay public who believe that "anyone can sing" . . .  yep, most of us can howl happily through a tune in the shower - but those who power through an evening of opera on stage are to the shower-singing what ballet dancers are to those who happily tread all over their partner's feet after a couple of beers in the pub . . .).  The physical hangover of a good evening at the ballet is, for me, at least a couple of days of finding myself balancing on one foot whilst trying to extend the other gracefully (thank goodness for yoga in this respect.  Most of the time, I don't actually fall over.)

Thank you to my dance colleagues who gave so much tonight (whilst I am very aware that what we as opera singers do is generally no picnic in the park, we very seldom sweat so hard that a sudden turn will send an arc of sweat droplets flying from our foreheads and catching the stage lights.  That's, like, proper physical work.)

And then I get to cycle back home past the above panorama.   Yep, my life is good!

Friday, 12 April 2013


Well, yep.  Sometimes a day doesn't turn out quite how you expected.  I was singing the modern (Henze) role again this evening, my first outing as the Kurfürstin for... argh, nearly three months!! At times the system here feels absolutely crazy - six weeks of intensive rehearsals, then the premiere, a second performance a few days later - then a seemingly totally random series of dates, often separated by ridiculous blocks of time.  In this case it was made worse in that I started off being a rehearsal cover, then jumped in for the second performance, and then today's was a scheduled performance in my own right.  Still, as I said.  Nearly three months separated the last time I sang this from today.

So, reasonably enough, I was a little nervous about how this evening would go.  I had time to prepare and had sung through the role a few times, and had even got as far as watching the DVD twice (at least the dress rehearsal is recorded here, just for internal use, so that, should any roles need to be sung by someone jumping in at the last minute, they can see what they're meant to do when.  This probably works better when you are totally focused on your character because, for example, you have to sing it in a few hours and haven't a clue what the production is like;  I found my attention wandering horribly because I kept seeing bits I hadn't really seen from the front before and forgetting to watch my character closely.)

Which meant that I bowled up to the evening not 100% certain of being in charge of myself.  I was lucky enough to have had a refresher rehearsal earlier in the day, with others in  the cast, but still... for me, a lot of the memory problems in this piece are to do with counting rather than words or notes - I don't see WHY I should hold this particular note for four bars or six or whatever, so I have to remember to count them off rather than FEEL them,  Which, for me, is something that doesn't necessarily come naturally (yes, I know.  Those who know me personally will be laughing their heads off about that.  In other walks of life I have been known to be an OCD mathematical perfectionist.  Just not in singing mode!!).  And my brain "helped" by for insane little reasons of its own going through Act III of Tosca note by note, chord by chord.  Thank you, brain.  NOT.

So as the curtain went up I was having to breathe in a mindful manner in order not to panic.  

And then all the learning I'd so conscientiously gone through kicked in, and I SAW the pages in front of me, and I loved the prompter for saying what I knew came next but just reassured me I was in the right place...

Yep.  One of those evenings where everything comes together, and everyone grins at each other afterwards.  One of those.  I'm SO privileged to find myself in the middle of even one of those in my life.  

Happy!!!

Monday, 1 April 2013

© Martina Pipprich
So here I am as my first old lady!  This (me as Filipyevna in Eugene Onegin at Staatstheater Mainz) was taken from the programme, which is first circulated at the premiere - boy was I glad not to have looked at the photos until my singing was done!  I have written before about the strangeness of trying to appear old, in a world where youth and vitality are paramount.  It's a bit of a blow to the old vanity, however, to see concrete proof that I succeeded.  Here especially it is evident that the deliberate sagging of my facial muscles (except when I was actually singing) was effective.  Of course, this was the effect I was aiming at; as an artist, I am proud of what I have achieved with this character.  I dedicated my performance at the première to the memory of my dear friend and mentor Philip Langridge; he spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince me to let my barriers down; last Saturday, for the first time, I allowed the public to see my true vulnerability; old, increasingly lost, physically slower and weaker, the life energy not burning as strongly as before...   I am immeasurably grateful to the (wonderful) director for letting me explore this to the limits yet recognising that it cost me a lot to rein in my vitality.

That, however, was ON stage.  Offstage, my vanity is evidently unquenchable!  My need to appear as glamorous as possible increased exponentially as my portrayal of age and uncertainty grew.  This short recording is set to a photo taken of me at the première party - the irrepressible beat of the Brazilian music a counterpoint to the Russian-ness all around.  I was rather gratified that the tenor reported his family failed completely to recognise me, the difference was so great...

I'm looking forward to further performances.  The production is fabulous, and my colleagues absolutely top-notch; without their support I doubt I could have let go so completely.   Here's to life not daring to imitate art for at least a few more decades, though!!


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Once again, deep in the mire that the Germans call Endproben.  Those sticky, uncomfortable times before the première, when everyone is tired and emotional and could probably benefit from a week in bed but hey the orchestra (heavily unionised) is called for these rehearsals and so you just have to turn up and either repeat the same scene until you're hoarse, or wait endlessly and fruitlessly to be called...

These orchestral rehearsals, for me at least, are about calculating to a decimal point just how far in advance I should anticipate the conductor's beat.  (Now you see, those who consider singers stupid probably don't know about this sort of thing.)  All to do with physics.  The sound travels out from the orchestra to the public.  It travels at the same rate back to us singers.  Therefore if we wait until we hear the music from the orchestra, the public is going to hear our voice as late, compared to them.  The phenomenon gets worse the further back on stage you are, so there's a lot of thinking, hmm, moving back as I go here, must anticipate the beat earlier and earlier as I walk...  It's a particularly difficult aspect of staging for me, as it's pretty counter-intuitive.  You want, as a musician, to sing WITH the orchestra! 

Add to that occasionally-open side stages, meaning that any singing in that direction at certain times in the production is severely counter-indicated (i.e. all your colleagues say your voice is completely lost if you look left at a certain time).

And the beauty of the props or costume department substituting something totally unfamiliar at the last moment, probably without telling you.  I survived a new main prop - my samovar (sturdy Russian tea-making equipment) fairly unscathed, and even managed to maintain a freeze despite a colleague frustratedly ripping off her shoes in my ear, and throwing them, one by one, over the stage; was however despite everything proud of a conversation with the props department about sticking this new samovar together (I knew they were going to do it, there were a LOT of ribber bands around) where I actually managed to convey my wants / needs in succinct sentences, conveying (hopefully!) the fact that if they get the angle wrong, the spout of the kettle will probably end up embedded in my larynx at some point,

Not to mention the bittersweet loss of the spontaneity of rehearsals.  This is when a production is coalescing; solidifying.  From now on we are performers, but the playful, joyfully free, creative aspect is of necessity curtailed.  Every performance will feel different, of course.  However this loop back in time and memory will always take place on THIS harmonic shift; the envelope will be placed in her hand on precisely *this* chord.  Satisfying to have worked out the ways to get there at the right moment;  sighing for the time when this was all to play for and meant the world. 

Nitpicking is of course necessary at this point.  Doesn't mean we have to like it :-)

Friday, 15 March 2013

All aspects colliding at present.  Which is probably just as it should be at the point of the piano dress.  (First time out with make-up, original costume, lighting (of sorts), technical wizardry, so those are basically the focal points, rather than our singing or the music - hence no orchestra, just piano accompaniment.)

First time in my life I have *fought* to appear unattractive!  Or at least older.  The costume designer (who is also in charge of the make-up concept) was supremely helpful throughout costume fittings.  Her ideas are fabulous; nothing outré, everything suited to both the character involved and the overall concept.  She was fabulous (although maybe slightly bemused) when I wanted rid of a belt because I needed to get rid of my waist as an older woman; accommodated my barefoot ghost-wanderings (did I mention I'm fairly hard to kill here?) and wandered dangerously near obsessive territory when waxing lyrical about Granny shoes purchased unworn in Basel after a gap of nearly sixty years.  (Myself, I can see why they were unworn.  I think costume designers have a different take on fashion.)

Anyway she wanted minimal/nude make-up for us all, and... well.  I didn't.  I have worked hard to bend my body into an older, less sure frame for this; we collaborated upon clothes which hid my figure and projected an unfashionable image; for myself (in all my insecurity) I needed a slightly altered face from which to face the world in this persona.  I shamelessly played the "oh lord if you don't give me decent make-up you're basically telling me that I look about 70 au naturel" card, and in the end, I got my wrinkles.  Subtle, yes, of course, but... hooray.

Which is veeeery weird, because there was me arguing passionately AGAINST looking good.  How does that even happen in real life??   Interesting, though.

What I personally also found to be fascinating (in a sort of geeky technical way) was the conductor's comment that when I was right at the back of the stage, I needed to be more before the beat.   I took it on board by basically working out how far back along I was on stage at each point, and relatively when I needed to anticipate the beat because of that.  And people think that opera singers are stupid!  One of those paradoxical things where, if you stop to think and calculate, you often fall off the gate you're sitting upon because the world just got too damned complicated.  But if you just tell yourself, yup, further back means more anticipation of the beat, and allow your body to work it out on its own, it really does.  Wonderful!

There's more.  Of course there's more.  However a morning call tomorrow (first stage rehearsal with orchestra) means that I probably ought to stop now, and pray for a minimum of sleep.

And also for a proper Ending.  I shouldn't laugh, but I was out front for the last scene tonight, and all the repressed emotional fireworks ended up with ... the curtain falling JUST before the final passionate phrase.  Ill-suppressed sniggers all around, the director calling out plaintively that the Oneging had a couple of sentences still in him...

Ah, just for that, accepted with a grin between good colleagues, it's all worthwhile.  Fabulous!

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


This week  I met the Lord of the Underworld.

Turns out that said lord is a rather portly German with a greying moustache, piercing deepset eyes and a nice line in blue boiler suits.  He welcomed me to his domain with evident relish, exclaiming, aha at last we meet formally, Frau Marriott!! (In this theatre everyone says hello to everyone else, even if they don't know them from Adam.  (Which I bet freaks out a lot of visitors from less friendly parts of Germany and even the world.)  Ergo we'd said hello a few times, but somehow I'd never been to the world underneath the stage.  In fact it took a few panicked moments once the call came to start the rehearsal on the... rats I don't even know what it is in English!! Unterbühne in German - under-stage... before I remembered a narrow door by the side of the stage manager's desk into which one occasionally sees conductors disappearing.  I tentatively opened it, trod carefully down a dark staircase and entered a new world.

My new friend was so proud of his domain.  He explained about there being four separate podia (do I mean podia?  Each is a podium.  Pretty certain I do.  Greek comes to mind.), which can be operated separately or together.  They sink to a depth of two metres and rise even further than that.  He said a lot more technical stuff which I either didn't understand (things to do with cool machines, I think) or which passed me by completely because I was so enthralled with the feeling of being in a different world.  The light was not the same as above, there are gates and rules and occasionally shuddering movement...

And these things are available in theatres such as this, and are not used as much as (in my opinion) they should be.

I have been having an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine about production values, 
stage interpretations which differ from those specified by the composer, the loss of grandeur on the stage etc etc.  It's a good discussion.  There are lots of common points.  We both regret the lack of beauty on today's opera stage.  

And while she openly laments the rich costumes and lush staging of years gone by, for me it's something of a guilty pleasure.  I can, as a performer, see why it might have become too much, in the years of, say, Visconti productions.  Whatever you were trying to express would have been so easily overcome by your beautiful and overwhelming dress and surroundings.  Most of me, artistically speaking, would rather communicate frankly and directly with the audience.  However a little bit of me also yearns to wear a pretty dress.  In this day and age, that's pretty much inadmissible.  Shame!

Because yes, moving away from the sequins and glitter and surface was a good thing; however we have in most cases thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  If the public has NOTHING to focus on but a poor bloody performer in a modern cheap-looking nightie for twenty minutes of Mad Scene, with a background of nothing but scaffolding, have the directors no idea of just how much stress that particular performer is now under?  Alone, they have to provide the interest of the background, the costumes, any other players in the scene.  Been there, done that, had my batteries totally drained.

Some of the most powerful productions I have ever seen have been modern interpretations.  However many have denied the necessity of beauty.  And that, for me, negates their worth as art.  Beauty is powerful in a way we seldom allow nowadays.  A direct line to the soul.  Perhaps the most  beautiful production I ever saw was Strauss's Die Frau ohen Schatten, with stage sets by David Hockney.  Immaterial, non-referential, and totally relevant.

Were there a movement to bring the beauty back into opera in our time, I would gladly join it.  (It's not likely to happen.  We're really a community of cats who walk alone.  Not terribly compatible with political movements.)  Meanwhile. I shall do what I can to push for the shock of beauty in our modern world.  Supporting, of course, this particular production. Which starts in the dark nothingness of my proudly-introduced underworld as a nostalgic song, rising literally to the present as the older generation (myself included) joins in the song...

Whatever I meant to say about the magic of theatre, I shall elaborate upon later.  QUITE enough meandering words to be going along with!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Yesterday I acted my socks off.  Quite literally.

(I do apologise that I am writing again so soon after my previous (probably rather odd-seeming) musically mystical offering, but hey.  How often do you get to spout such a line?  Couldn't resist.)

This has all to do with my character in Eugene Onegin.  We (the director and I - more about him later) have had such fun with her.  I have been through a gradual descent into dementia, made all the more mind-bending by taking place within a journey that replicates another...

He's set the beginning of the opera in a train journey to St Petersburg that takes place after most of Acts I and II, when the family moves to St Petersburg.   I start off very uncertain and forgetful, wandering along the train in search of.. the loo?  The past?  Whatever.  The future is utterly uncertain, the present very insecure, grabbing hold of at least the certainties represented by (in my character's case) a samovar - the only way to make the past something remembered and solid.

And then the layers of memory kick in, and, wandering unsafe and uncertain (and probably still looking for the toilet!), she sees Lensky and Onegin...  The past comes to the fore once again, everything returns to the crystal clarity of what she's currently seeing... we're in the past/present (and if we're of a philosophical or over-thinking bent, we're buggered once again).

In this opera I had assumed from what was written that I would be out of the picture pretty much by the end of the first act.  Which is when my singing role comes to an end.  Nope.  Carry on, much wandering around in my nightie etc.  Well, fair enough.  Thought I'd got a promise that I was DEFINITELY dead by the time the family had reached St Petersburg in the third act, however (this would have perhaps released me to bow, after the première, after the break, therefore getting to tootle home at least an hour before the others!),

Turned out, yes I did indeed die , but I still have to wander (once!) across the stage.  As a ghost.  And in the slow, slow movement, reach out once to lightly touch Tatjana - and remind her with an invisible frisson that she has no-one in whom to really confide any more.

Except, ohhhh the WRONGNESS of crumpled socks when you're a ghost.  Tried it once, then went to the director and asked if I couldn't do this being-dead thing barefoot and upright, practising gliding along etc etc.  And the director agreed.  Wonderful.  Hence acting my socks off :-)

(The socks in question are hand-knitted, most likely by one of the prompters here, who always has knitting needles in hand.  As I have never knitted a sock in my life and have no intention of starting, I present a photo of a very weird pair of gloves under construction. They were for my mother at Christmas and I was making them up as I went along.  I can tell you that crocheting gloves is a jolly strange business, when you have no pattern...)