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!