Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Minack Theatre in July

So, last month I performed for the second time at The Minack Theatre in Cornwall. The opera was The Marriage of Figaro, the company New Cornwall Opera, and I played The Count. It was rather a different experience from last time I was there, as this time we were in the middle of the heatwave that was gripping the country in a bear-hug of suncream, shades, ice cream and barbecues (or sweaty, grimy discomfort it you were unlucky enough to find yourself in London at the time).

Here are some pics that I took during the week. Hope you enjoy them.

Evening performance of the opera, from high up in the audience.

Act 2 finale: The Count and Countess face-off in the middle of the mayhem.

After the matinee the audience thins can almost feel the heat!

Cherubino gets out of the furious Count's grasp.

The Count arranging his tryst with Susanna for that evening.

Friday, 21 June 2013

10 Heldentenors singing top C

Well, this little clip I found on YouTube was interesting. A compilation of 10 heldentenors singing top Cs. As a heavier tenor voice it is generally not thought of as a note within a heldentenor's easy range. Indeed, in the score of Götterdämmerung they are only asked to 'skim' it in this section.

What is fun to hear is how several of them extend and even seem to have fun singing it. My personal favourite is Lauritz Melchior who has a wonderfully round sound, and sounds superbly connected on his C. My grandfather Set Svanholm comes in a close second, with a bright and metallic note, held with obvious relish. A couple of the more baritonal voices don't sound so comfortable, especially Ramon Vinay.

Have a listen and see what you think:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Auditions post follow-up: to move or not to move post of last week with audition tips garnered an unprecedented number of hits to this blog. Through the social media channels where I advertised it a number of discussions and comments came up.

The biggest area of discussion in an opera forum on Facebook was undoubtedly whether one should stand still in an audition or not. It seems that there are a whole range of opinions on this:

"Very interesting blog, and some very valid points. The only thing I would say is that the 'standing still' thing is not universal - some panels take standing still as 'not acting' or want to see how you move on a stage. Virtually impossible to predict which side of the divide a panel falls on, though my experience suggests that Anglophone panels tend to prefer stillness and European/non-anglophones are much more idiosyncratic in this regard!"

"I agree with the comment above, and have heard so from directors- show us you can move! There does seem to be a divide."

"I agree with the first post about the movement, but even here in (continental) Europe, there are a lot of "less is more" fans on the other side of the audition table. Irritating but at least I have learned to suggest rather than lunge." 

"I have heard so many people say Don't move around too much in auditions - it is fascinating now to see so many people say the opposite. When I'm on the other side of the table I much prefer people to stand still!"

So, you see, there is no universal opinion on this. I will stand by what I said - that it is best to stand still and let the rest of you express what you are singing with your face and voice being prominent in this process. Gestures also take on an added weight when they come from stillness.

It is very interesting that there appears to be a cultural divide in this issue, with the 'standing still' school of thinking being more prevalent in the UK.

But at the end of the day, it's up to you to decide it you want to step forward at a key moment in the music, if you want to be rooted and subtle, or if you want to rush up and grab the hands of a panel member as you declare undying love in your aria. (This may have unforeseen consequences for your career though. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Monday, 3 June 2013

Tension and Release in Opera (part 1)

Tension is a much discussed word in our world of singing. Of course, physical tension in the body, or at least in the wrong places, is one of the enemies of good singing. We learn how to balance tension and relaxation. Where we need a degree of tension to support the sound, to create air-flow, and where we need to let go of tension, such as the shoulders, neck and jaw.

But, my friends, there is one tension that is rarely talked about in singing lessons and college, but which great actors and directors are aware of (don't worry, I'm not including myself in that elevated tribe), and which any good actors training course will develop an awareness of. Dramatic (or psychological) tension.

On a larger scale, most good drama has a build up of tension towards a climactic point, and then a release of tension towards the end. This is often referred to as the dramatic 'arc' of the piece. The more palpable that tension, the more it communicates and carries the audience with it, and the more effective the release, the more satisfying the piece will feel to the audience at the end.

Tension is uncomfortable, release is pleasant. A great artist can hold this discomfort and allow it to rise. A mediocre artist is always short-circuiting and avoiding tension. It is human to diffuse tension in daily life, to smooth our ride.

Notice how if you say something risky for example, you will usually laugh at what you said or keep talking shortly after you said it, to diffuse the tension. What happens if you instead hold the person's gaze, shut up, and keep a serious expression on your face. The tension rises. It is uncomfortable, but can also be very exciting in the right context, such as a flirtatious situation. In a confrontational situation it invariably becomes a status battle. Almost inevitably, if you don't, the other person will break the tension with a nervous laugh or a change of subject. Dramatically exploiting this stuff is dynamite!

For more on status games in acting read Keith Johnstone's brilliant book on improvisational theatre, Impro.

Drama teacher Justin Cash ( defines tension in drama in this way on his website:

"Tension can sometimes be used as an interchangeable term with conflict. But where it differs, lies in the development of suspense in a performance. As the audience anticipates certain outcomes in the plot, the tension builds. An obvious example of rising tension is in a mystery or whodunit. The development of tension usually parallels the advancement of the plot, leading to a crisis or climax. Tension is closely linked with timing."

Tension and resolution are at the heart of music as well of course, and provide its driving force. Classical music is built on structure such as symphonic and sonata forms which develop themes to high points of tension followed by release. A great conductor really knows how to tap into it.

It could be argued that tension and release is the great motive force of life itself, and the cosmos, but this isn't the place to get overly metaphysical in my musings.

In theatre, Michael Chekhov, the great russian actor and teacher, calls this architectural structure the Law of Triplicity. The plot generates, unfolds and concludes: exposition, development, conclusion. There is polarity between the beginning and the end. A transformation takes place in the middle.

This is seen both in the story as a whole, and in each individual character. The climax for one character might not be in the same place as the climax of the opera.

Next time you are preparing an operatic role, see if you can approach it from this perspective. Figure out what the difference is in your character at the start and at the end of the piece.

What is the transformation the character goes through? It may be huge, life-shattering, or subtle. What is the cause of the psychological tension that is building? What is the key moment in the opera, the tipping point in your character's journey? What does your character feel more of as this point nears? What is the effect of the rising tension on the characters body and movement? What is the effect of the release of this tension? The new state towards the end? How can you feel and express this tension at a more profound level?

Playing with the larger scale tension like this can give another dimension to the roles you are singing, giving them a mythical resonance, and pulling the audience into their journey. Without any tension and release your characters may seem flat or uninspiring. It will lack interest. Opera is, after all, all about making things compelling and bringing out the drama in these amazing musical stories.

In part 2 I will look at smaller-scale interpersonal tension and how we can draw on it in our operatic roles.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The 50th Law applied to Opera.

I have recently read a very interesting book by Robert Greene in collaboration with the rapper/businessman 50 Cent called the 50th Law. The book is basically a treatise on succeeding in art or business through developing boldness and conquering fear. The book covers the illusory nature of most of the fears we feel, how the hold us back, and how we can smash them once and for all and reach our potential. Detailed is 50 Cent's rise from drug dealer in the New York ghetto, to international rap star, to entrepreneurial businessman.

Greene also wrote seminal books on strategy 'The 48 Laws of Power', 'The Art of Seduction' and 'The 33 Strategies of War'; amoral books full of historical anecdotes and facts and quite unlike anything else in the often preachy and vapid self-help world. In fact you usually find them in the business section at the bookshop. The information in them does put a large onus on the individual to apply their own code of ethics to them, and in a way Greene is simply recording the strategies and techniques he sees in the world around him, not passing moral judgement on the. Not to everyone's taste, I know.

I am not a fan of 50 Cent or most rap, but I think that the information in "The 50th Law' can be applied to the careers of opera singers, and provide a roadmap to overcoming self-imposed limitations which block us in our careers. It is a wonderful book, and will leave you feeling emboldened and driven. It is after all often fears, large and small, that hold us back from advancing our careers - "Am I good enough to audition for this company yet?", "What will people think of me if I market myself like this?", "What if people discover that my top G isn't very good?", etc.

In the next few weeks I am going to provide summaries of the different chapters of the book, and try to apply them to the world of opera today, with a bit of carpe diem spirit.

Watch this space!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Come and see Heritage Opera's Barber of Seville

Well, we're half way through the tour of Heritage Opera's The Barber of Seville, and it is a rip-roaring production full of laughs and colour, even if I say so myself. If you live in the North West of England and haven't been to see it, please do try to come along to one of the remaining shows.

The cast is: Count Almaviva - Nick Sales 
Rosina - Melanie Lodge/Ailsa Mainwaring
Dr Bartolo - Richard Woodall
Don Basilio - Stephen Holloway
Figaro - Stephen John Svanholm
Berta - Sarah Helsby Hughes
Fiorello - Matthew Palmer
Musical director - Benjamin Cox

The remaining shows are: 
Brownsholme Hall, nr Clitheroe - Thurs 30th May, 7.30pm
Lancaster Grand Theatre - Friday 31st May, 7.30pm
St. George's Hall, Liverpool - Sat 1st June, 7.30pm
Nantwich Civic Hall - Monday 3rd June, 7.30pm
Lowther Pavilion, Lytham - Friday 7th June, 7.30 pm

If you want to book a ticket you can do so through the Heritage Opera website

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Auditions: 5 tips for success

Auditions are never fun. It is fundamentally an unnatural process for any singer to have to go through. We are trained for and thrive most in performance situations, not in an empty room with a table and small panel at one end, and a piano and us at the other. Although auditions do become easier the more you do them, the fact that you are being judged and scrutinised so intensely, that there are only 1-5 people on a panel, and that you are not getting any energy back from an audience make it somewhat fraught.

On top of having done countless auditions in the last 14 years, I have sat on an audition panel before, as well as had audition coaching and advice from the casting department at one of the UK's main opera houses.

Here are 5 tips which I think will benefit most singers:

1. Be prepared
This is the most fundamental thing to bear in mind for any audition. Bring repertoire relevant to the coming seasons or operas of the company you are auditioning for. If you are bringing several arias of your own choice for a general audition make sure you know them inside out. It is not a good idea to bring something you only started looking at a week before the audition. You should have taken the arias to your teacher and to a coach, and ideally to a language coach too, to make sure everything is as finely tuned as possible.

Also make sure you know what you are aiming for interpretatively. What is the 'objective' of the character when they sing that aria. What do they want? What is standing in their way? Where in the aria does that 'objective' change, if at all. What 'actions' can you tie to each line, phrase or verse. Can you internalise these? Connect specific feelings to each line or key words? Use a sequence of images in your mind to evoke the emotions of each section as it comes? If you are unclear on these terms, any book on acting will help you, especially on Method. I recommend Mike Alfreds' "Different Every Night".

Even if you think you can get by, it is very clear to a panel if you don't understand the text you are singing. Be clear and apply the thinking processes the character would going through over and over again in the practice room.

Know the aria so well that you can singing it on autopilot. If you get distracted by something in the audition, you want to be sure that it is so 'in your body' that you will carry on singing it automatically.

If you are auditioning for a specific role, and have had to learn an aria from that role specially, the same applies, although you may have far less time to prepare it. A good method I have found is to go over the words several times in your head as you lie in bed about to go to sleep and as soon as you wake up. Research has shown that the subconscious mind absorbs things more readily at these times.

2. Own the room

When you walk in to do your audition, do so with pride, and expansiveness. Even if you feel you are faking it. The panel want to feel that you are a confident performer. If you walk in and own the space they can relax. They want to feel solidity and trustworthiness, and it gives them confidence in you. If you walk in meekly, apologising for your presence with poor body language and a quiet voice, you may feel you are being authentic to what you feel at that moment, but the panel is hardly going to see you as someone they want to have on stage in front of hundreds of people representing their company.

Before I go in, indeed before any performance I do, I like to do an exercise which I gleaned from the Michael Chekhov acting technique which uses expansion as a physical gesture. This opens your body and 'energy'. Simply expand yourself outward rapidly from a neutral position, arms out wide, head back, chest open, feet apart, standing tall. Like a star shape. Stretch out and up as far as you can in a gesture of total opening, and audibly or silently shout "YES". Imagine your energy or aura expanding outwards too, way beyond the body, filling the room with vitality and life. Then return to neutral. Do this several times. You will feel more relaxed and open, and will communicate more freely when singing.

If you are near the panel when you enter the room, or if one of them signals to shake their hand, then do that with the whole panel, keeping good eye contact with each of them. Make sure to speak with confidence, not quietly or sheepishly. If you are a long way from the panel, just walk in confidently, speak loudly and in a friendly manner. Smile. If this is the first time you meet the pianist, then greet them with a handshake and friendliness too. The panel will pick up on this sort of thing. Even speak loudly to the pianist when informing him of tempos or any cuts in what you are going to sing. You are a professional musician, and an artist who knows what they want!

3. Stand still when singing

Some singers walk around and move a lot in auditions, but one thing I have learnt is that companies like to see a solidity and a rootedness. It is preferable for a singer to be rooted to one spot and to convey interpretation through the music, face, and to a certain extent, gestures, when they are singing in an audition. This also makes it easier for the panel to focus on what you are doing. And, as in point 2, it gives them an impression of solidity, trustworthiness and reliability instead of airiness and insubstantiality.

4. Dress well

Look at your best. By this I don't mean perfect suits or DJs for guys, or concert dress for women. But dress like you would if you were going out for a meal or date. The panel like to feel you have made a bit of an effort, that you are not just treating the whole thing as something you do between hanging out with friends, and a trip to the amusement arcade.

This means go for smart casual. Stylish and classy. A pair of trousers, a smart or fashionable shirt open at the top button, a blazer, and importantly, a good pair of shoes, is a good look for a man auditioning. I can't comment so much on what is right for a woman, but the same thing applies. Look like you've made an effort, but not extremely formal. Use colours which work for you, your eyes, and your complexion.

If you have never looked into this sort of thing, or have no interest in clothes, or are a style disaster, it could be worth booking a session with my friend Sudarshan's company or something similar. It is money well spent, and dressing well can up anyone's attractiveness substantially. All stuff that an audition panel are looking for, whether we like it or not.

Of course, if you are auditioning to play a Witch or a Villain you may want to fine tune your look even more, and aim for a darker look. But I would draw the line at fake warts, eye patches or plastic scars.

5. Hit them with your best shots EARLY

This is one which I'd heard about but never really believed until I sat on an audition panel last year.  Within the first few seconds of you starting to sing most people on an audition panel have decided if they want you or not.

Social and psychological research shows us that we form our opinions of people very quickly, based on the first few seconds of meeting them. This can change if someone is in our circle or we meet them repeatedly, but in an audition we only have the one chance, that five or ten minutes, before we disappear out of their lives again.

As singers we usually get the chance to choose the first aria we want to sing in a general audition.This makes it extremely important that you pick something that shows off the unique selling points of your voice right at the start. If it is power you have in abundance there is little point singing an aria where the only fortissimo is right at the end. Hit them with some big notes immediately. A baritone would be well off picking something such as "Or dove fuggo io mai...Ah per sempre" or a mezzo "Va".

Similarly, it it sweetness and beauty of line pick something where your most radiant singing shines through from the start. Practice the opening over and over so it is technically flawless. With a good opening your own confidence for the rest of the aria grows to. A poor opening can, conversely, be something you never recover fully from.

It is a harsh truth, but if you have an amazing beginning you can be go far, but if you start slowly and build into it, peaking later in an aria you will have already missed your chance nine times out of ten.

An audition panel has sat through countless singers on an audition day. It is not particularly fun. If someone starts in a poor or un-commited, uninteresting manner, they will take that as an excuse to switch off for the rest of the audition and think about what they will have for dinner that evening. This is the simple truth.

Conversely, a brilliant, powerful first few seconds snaps them out of the haze and forces them to take notice. They are waiting for someone to blow them away, to surprise them. If you feel apathetic about it, or do exactly what every other singer of your voice type does then it's not going to be particularly interesting to the panel.

Hit them with your best shot immediately!


So, there you have it. Preparation, Presentation, Rootedness, Style, and Starting Well. Five essentials for good auditions. I hope they prove to be useful for you.

I would love to know if you have any additional ideas around these, or other tips. Please do comment.