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. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Joyce DiDonato - wonderful blog and videos

I'm probably preaching to the converted here, as I guess most people reading this are opera singers, but if you're one of the few who isn't, or a singer who has had their head in the sand for the last few years, I really cannot recommend american mezzo Joyce DiDonato's blog highly enough. It is full of nuggets of gold for aspiring professionals, and she is wonderfully generous with her advice. I think she also provides a very interesting look into the world of top international singing for anyone curious to know what it's all about.

Check out her blog here:

Sometimes professionals in our industry like to shroud what they do in mystery to maintain a perceived advantage over the competition, but DiDonata shines like a beacon with her humility, humanity and generosity. She has also put out a string of little video blogs which can be found on YouTube. She posts videos as The YankeeDiva so look her up. 

This is one of my favourites, on breath 'support':

I'm a fan!

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Barber of Seville - words words words!

At the moment I'm up in Manchester rehearsing The Barber of Seville with Heritage Opera, a small company based here who have put on a string of touring productions in the north west of england over the last few years.

My role, Figaro, is one which I have sung many times since I moved back to the UK from Stockholm, and this time I revisit it in the fourth version I have learnt. The first english translation of Figaro I memorised I never sang due to me only covering it for Stanley Hall Opera in 2010 (I played Fiorello in that production).

I had my debut in the role and went on to sing it many times for Opera Up Close at the small King's Head Theatre in Islington, or London's Little Opera House, and on tour. I remember our director Robin Norton-Hale writing the new translation of the opera as we rehearsed in september 2010 - we would often arrive at the studios to be handed an new pile of music to learn. This was a somewhat last minute approach to things, but it added a kind of dynamism to the process and did mean that one didn't feel snowed under with everything before rehearsals commenced.

Two years later it was time to do it in the original italian for Pavilion Opera which was a big learn, and always provides its own challenges, as of course may words need translating individually as we learn so that we have full comprehension of what we are saying. Pavilion have a memory test, with accompanying bonus for those who pass, on the first day of rehearsals to check that everyone knows their part off copy.

And now I am singing a brand new english version with Heritage Opera, translated by Sarah Helsby Hughes and Nick Sales who run the company too. The rehearsal period is quite short with them, but it is a very warm, friendly group, and the people involved with the company on all levels are singers themselves which means that there is a mutual understanding of the craft which is sometimes missing when non-singers are running the show.

People often ask "How on earth do you get so many words into your head?" when I'm learning a part. To be honest, having the text tied to music gives a logic and shape to everything which makes it far easier to learn than if it was text only. I would find it way harder to learn a play or a long speech for example. Even a short monologue such as a sonnet takes me an eternity to learn compared to a musical setting of text.

But The Barber of Seville is still one of the most wordy operas I've ever done, especially with the amount of recitative and fast patter (machine-gun speed sung text) sections. And being the fourth version of the opera I've had to learn it has meant that it has been a little harder to shunt the other versions out of the way in my head. Sometimes a line from another version just comes out of my mouth totally unbidden in the rehearsals, which sometimes works with what is happening but sometimes sounds a bit clunky. As rehearsals enter their last week now this is happening less and less, thankfully.

Let's hope that by the premiere on Friday evening, all the other versions will have finally been put to bed.

In the words of Figaro in Largo al factotum "Quick as a thunderbolt, no-one is cleverer, I am the smartest man in Seville".

Well, he likes to think so, anyway.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Early Morning Auditions - aaarrgghh!

So, today I have an audition for a leading UK company at 9.37am. Am I mad to be singing at that time of day?

I would normally not really be keen on auditioning so early. Ideally, I would be auditioning for them after lunch, which would give me a slightly better take-off stretch with getting mentally and physically prepared. But this time I specifically asked if I could get a super-early slot as I have to get back to Manchester for lunchtime to start the last week of rehearsals with Heritage Opera on their Barber of Seville (in which I'm singing Figaro).

So, what have I done to cope? Well, I didn't get an early night, as I was at a meeting till late, then sorting out some admin when I got home. Ideally I would have been in bed by 11, as I set my alarm for 5am and actually got up when it went off. At least I will have been up for four and a half hours by the time I sing. I'll have a warm-up after breakfast at about 8am for 15 minutes before I leave the house, and hopefully I will be on good form when I walk through the door to the audition room.

Then it's straight to Euston and onto the train, by way of a Costa coffee joint.

One thing is certain. I will sleep well tonight!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Singing Lieder can be a nervous business for Opera Singers

Lieder singing is a lot more nerve-racking than opera. I perform a lot of opera these days and I feel that I am getting better and better at getting on stage, getting in a pretty good state, and rolling off the show.
There is a slight adrenaline release, especially in the premiere performance, and first few shows, but after that it becomes very easy.

Why then is it so nerve-racking to get up on stage with a pianist and sing lieder instead? Today I sang four Brahms lieder at a musical afternoon event at the London Buddhist Arts Centre in Bethnal Green in London. My nerves were at fever pitch beforehand for about half an hour, heart pounding, hands sweating, and although I got through the pieces with only one small text-blip in the first song ("Wie bist du, meine Königin"), which is strangely the one I know better than virtually any other song in the repertoire.

 I didn't really enjoy performing them in the same way that I enjoy performing Figaro or Germont, due to the nerves, but at the same time, the songs I chose gave me such scope to play with dynamics, colours and emotions that I felt I should have been enjoying it far more.

Part of it is of course that I had only one short rehearsal with the pianist a couple of hours before the gig, he and I both knew the songs beforehand, but we weren't really 'in sync' in the same way one is when working more regularly with one pianist on the song repertoire. On the other hand, one tends to have rehearsed opera for weeks beforehand. Another part is that lieder is utterly exposed compared with opera. You stand there, interpret and perform without a character to hide behind. It's you, the pianist and the audience. It shouldn't be underestimated just how much stage direction, movement, costumes and scenery help to dissipate nervous energy too through their spreading of focus.

Then, there's the fact that each Lied is only a few minutes long, so it's like starting a new mini-opera every couple of minutes. You also don't have other singers to share the load with, banter with backstage etc.

Interestingly I sang a lot of lieder in my student days, and it's a matter of being out of practice with it now. I don't feel at home on the concert platform in the same way as on the operatic stage because I do it so seldom now.

But lieder is such a wonderfully rich art form. I love the repertoire, especially Brahms and Schumann. Great poetry, magical intense and compact musical settings. Real interplay of piano and voice, intimacy and subtlety. It is a harder art to master the further into your opera career you go, as you get used to working in grand gesture and broad strokes in opera. But some great opera singers maintain their gift for lieder and the concert platform.

Time to change things for myself, create a new familiarity and renew my confidence for performing lieder (with ample rehearsals beforehand, please, to create a more relaxed experience).

That can only be done by doing it much more regularly.