Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Singer Website Media

This article first appeared at 

These days, to market yourself successfully as a singer you need a website. More than the pin-board (or what have you) on which to advertise, you need things to pin up. Here are some ideas for what you might try to put up on your website (or the social media sites that you use to connect with people). Some may seem very familiar but you may surprise yourself by what you can have missed.

 1. Words.

(See? We told you it would seem obvious.)

There are a number of ways in which you need to attend to what you write about yourself and your work though. Just like a CV there are different things to cover: introducing yourself; listing what you have done; talking about your capabilities, interests and availability. Perhaps you might want to write a news feed or a blog - just like the column on which you are reading this post. This may demonstrate the way in which you think professionally, or even show that you bring more to (say) an opera role than your vocal technique.

All the time remember that your writing style, not to mention accuracy - spelling, grammar, correct spelling of names and use of diacriticals (accents) - give an indication of your attention to detail. Or simply just how much you care. Make sure reviews & quotes are accurate and properly attributed. Wherever possible link to the original online piece from which a quote is taken.

2. Pictures.

Two things. Firstly, a good, clear, high resolution headshot is important as a focus point for advertising and also for programmes if you are employed as a soloist. Make sure your headshot is reasonably current (e.g. don't use a picture with a beard if you've shaved that off) and that it reflects who you are. Try not to make it fussy - it will become either distracting or may be inappropriate for some gigs.

Secondly: do try and get/find pictures of you doing what you do. Perhaps a friend has taken a picture of you at a curtain call. Or even in action. Have a look online - perhaps someone in the audience has taken a snap of you and shared it ("i went to this awsum concert check out the amazing singer lol" [+ image]) is not as rare as you'd think. (For example, here's a flickr account for an opera-goer who loves taking photos of curtain calls - and many high-profile artists are grateful in return)

3. Audio. You can spend as much money as you like on lovely studio headshots (hey, you're worth it) but remember, the audience come to hear you sing - and more importantly, those who might employ you are principally interested in how you sound. These days its fairly straightforward to buy a voice recorder and set it up discreetly at the back of a performing space. Still, you might want to get a professional recording done. Whether it's in a studio or in a performance space, make sure the acoustic is fairly clear.

We were at a singers' forum in 2012 where an agent despaired at websites with galleries with dozens of photos but not a single audio clip to listen to. Don't neglect this.

4. Video.  Video is ubiquitous nowadays. Good video camcorders can cost less than a voice recorder. Even HD video can be recorded on a smartphone and (roughly) edited on an app. The audio feed on smartphones and video cameras tends to be less good but the opportunity for a client or an audience to see you doing what you do is valuable.   Tips
  • Read what you write about yourself out loud. Get someone else to read it for you. Try not to use contractions or acronyms without writing them in full once, first (eg. "... worked at Welsh National Opera (WNO). Also for WNO...)
  • Check your links. Just as you keep your CV up-to-date make sure that links have not become obsolete over time.
  • Permissions. Credit third parties who take photos or record audio or video for you. Always make sure that the pianist/orchestra/conductor with whom you are working is alright with you recording something for personal promotion before you even set up the devices.
  • Don't use rubbish media (poor quality recording or you singing flat) simply as it's all you have.
  • It's difficult unprofessional to selfie (yes, I'm using that as a verb!) at work. If you've got a supportive friend who wants to hear you, get them a comp and ask them to press 'record' before you perform or take a photo afterwards.
People continue to be protective of being recorded. However, as it is almost impossible to control the capturing of audio-visual media as almost everyone has a means to do so, it is best to embrace the situation. Organising media for your website is mostly about taking the initiative about how you are perceived: it's difficult to contradict someone saying that you're known for, say, being a baritone in a bear suit if that's the only picture of you available online, which someone else took and distributed, tagged with your name. If you've got context for that photo on your own site, as well as other more conventional pictures or videos then the public will be able to see how mono-dimensional unique images or recordings are - and come to your site first in future. Making media is essential to selling yourself as a singer - and in this glass-half-full world of possibility for doing it you should think about it as part of your professional preparation.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2014

New year, new shoes as the unwritten novel has it. The Tete a Tete Opera Festival of 2014 has moved across town to King's Cross to the theatres in one end of the new Central Saint Martin's building and then on to King's Place, just the other side of the road. King's Place is a known quantity now, an asymmetric, stratified atrium that's well-suited for the informal communality spilling out after the set-piece shows. As it turned out, CMS is an excellent composite venue too: a pair (did I miss a third?!) of very different but superb, state of the art theatres, a wide open foyer (without the Riverside Studio's bottleneck) and a space outside sheltered under an overhang. All this is tucked around the back of the converted Granary Complex which affords some relative quiet for al fresco performing. Finally - and not to be sniffed at - the excellent bar serves drinks at studenty prices. The ferocious air conditioning in the Platform Theatre aside, it can be seen as an upgrade.

This year, for the first time, I was performing (Sarah Dacey's Stupid Cupid, given to an increasingly packed foyer over two afternoons). The same weekend I went to see Errolyn Wallen's Anon, a piece workshopped in WNO and performed here by a fine all female cast and three-piece band. The piece is a series of episodes, reflecting the process in which the material was worked up talking to young women in Birmingham schools. A recurring, reflective chorus - 'What would you do?' - is a super bit of writing and, for me, one of the high points of the Festival. Later we went over to the Studio Theatre to hear Possession!, whose principal attraction was in a capable string trio, two of whom played viols.

The next weekend, I arrived early to join a panel discussion on marketing. Such events inevitably cast a wide net. One goes in with a magpie mentality, trying to find information and ideas that will work well in your own case. There were not only good suggestions but also a room full of solidarity for trying to sell an artform - let alone individual shows - that somewhat embattled at the moment. Nonetheless, one still had to work to sift the relevance from a panel who run institutions (the OAE, King's Place and ETO) who have departments dedicated to doing what (usually) a single individual is trying to juggle when trying to produce work on the scale seen during this Festival. For example, it was suggested that one bring together an audience focus group, though it transpires that the cost of such research can be equivalent to mounting an entire Festival Opera production.

Either way, it got us all thinking about expectations and assumptions and talking to one another on the way to the weekend's opera. I saw Errolyn Wallen's Cakehead, a fringe amuse-bouche all but upstaged by a brilliant inflating costume that turned a soloist into a slice of Battenberg, and then Opera Kitsune's Spirit Harbour, a Noh-inspired fable performed with great competence and clear direction in the Platform Theatre.

From here we went on to see Tonseisha, Saltpeter's ongoing development on the writing and figure of beat poet Richard Brautigan. I had been involved in an early stage of workshopping the piece
18 months ago and wanted to see what had taken hold or moved on. The piece remains a portmanteau of strongly drawn disciplines. The slippery (beat?) abstraction of the simple romance narrative was seriously impressive. The musicians successfully found the roses in the midst of Kim Ashton's bramblebush score and the whole company embraced Gary Merry's direction, fizzing from one idea to the next with absolute conviction. Laughter tumbles into bewilderment into very real sentiment, and back again, briskly. The subcutaneous, double-bluff passion of the poem we all found on our seats
It's so nice
to wake up in the morning
all alone
and not have to tell someone
you love them
when you don't love them
any more.
was properly reflected in the performance.

The third weekend of the Festival featured a portmanteau of short pieces. Size Zero Opera's feminist diptych Women Box featured a piece coached by the former boxer Cathy Brown in order to invest the production with some authenticity. Brown spoke to us prior to the performance. The talk lasted seven minutes and took no questions. It was short and, er, punchy and - likely by accident - representative of the theatre to come.

The operatic pair constituting Women Box, Training is the Opposite and Women Conduct were bookended with Murizio Kagel's first and second string quartets, which worked as a pair of scenes with prologue and epilogue. Kagel's 'Theatre of the absurd' aesthetic of getting the performers to act out intentions and impulses moved consistently between the quartets and Women Conduct, in which a woman conductor wrestles with the different arguments and insecurities that continue to pothole the road to podium equality.

Most interesting though was the boxing-based work. Laura Bowler's boxer goes through the motions of a training session. There is very little singing but all the concerted effort that is familiar to a singer. It is as if one is watching the mechanism of a coloratura cabaletta on the outside; the singing equivalent of examining the Lloyd's Building. All the outwardness of conventional performance was turned in, complete with incoherently muttered recitative. The production seemed a little over-egged in the space (worthily aiming for intensity) but all the gestures and ideas shared the same focus. Above all I found no pressing feminist message being delivered despite the title, the sex of the performer and the pre-performance talk - the brevity and tangentiality of which was consistent with the piece itself. I see this theatrical unity as a strength, even if it's by default.

When I came out I also saw part of Caroline Wilkins' adaptation Victory over the Sun, which immediately struck me as carefully prepared and well-observed (for all its anarchy!) - and made me want to go and see the current Malevich exhibition (Malevich designed the 1913 original) at Tate Modern all the more!

The next day I saw Caitlin Rowley's (Hansel and) Gretel vignette Breadcrumbs, a foyer piece which fought a losing - if lyrical - battle with the reverberent atrium and audiences of two previous shows converging on the bar. Then, finally, to Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum, a Reichian-vernacular recounting of an incident at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 where artists and politicians fought a free speech battle over a catfish condemned for art's sake. The music was sure, if slippery. The performances were all the more impressive for managing it. We all laughed a fair bit. Cheap projected images and amplified strings were more of a hindrance than a help.

It's been another super Festival with plenty to talk about. Discussing the might-have-beens is just as important as celebrating the outright successes in this arena and there has been a healthy mix of both.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Learning a role

This article first appeared at

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

Saturday, 5 July 2014

What Makes an Opera Singer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudely Interrupted - Noise Off and even On

This article first appeared at

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Nudity on stage

This article first appeared at

Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times
There's a been a storm in a (a very small) teacup this week about a wannabe 'opera singer' stripping off during the variety talent show America's Got Talent. In the skit, a personal trainer takes her dress off while singing O mio babbino caro, revealing a red bikini with an apologetic shrug. There's nothing more to it than that. However, it usefully forms the polar opposite to the outcry against critics responding to Glyndebourne Festival Opera's der Rosenkavalier - in this converse situation the personal trainer's lack of operatic talent is obfuscated by the narrative & perception of physical attributes.

Elsewhere this week there has been real nudity deployed on stage in the genuine pursuance of lyric drama. The New York Times reports a bijou production of GF Haas' Atthis (above) in which a particularly brave soprano removes an undergarment of duct tape (yes, adhered to her body) whilst her character "sings of her despair over having lost her lover".

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Meanwhile over here at the not-much-bigger Print Room in Notting Hill, soprano Callie Swarbrick removed a virginal-white costume before the magnifying gaze of a camera (projecting its image across the set) in a soul-baring-and-cleansing action for Reunion, Christian Mason's part of Opera Erratica's Triptych (I saw Triptych - Swarbrick & the rest of the company gave fine performances in one of the operatic highlights of the year thusfar). In either case, the size of venue is worth noting for the proximity of the audience to the performers.

I think that the use of nudity in any of these situations - whether or not it has the necessary effect - is quite clear and doesn't need to be discussed. However, a colleague has recently pointed out an article about the pitfalls of introducing too much 'reality' onto the stage. The author quotes dramatic theorist Bert O.
As soon as you put something real on stage, it stops the theatre – or, more likely, the thing itself stops being real. On stage, says the Austrian writer Peter Handke, "Light is brightness pretending to be other brightness; a chair is a chair pretending to be another chair."
Funnily, we come back to the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier. Richard Jones' production opens with the tableau of the Marschallin (played by Kate Royal this season) naked in the shower. I had no problem with assimilating the 'nudity' of the performer with the aesthetic intent of the scene having realised that she was wearing a body stocking. The performer wasn't actually naked at all. What's the furthest you would be prepared to go to help realise the intent of a director? Does it make a difference if the nudity is written into the piece itself (say in Richard Strauss' Salome?)

Curtain Calls

This article first appeared at

Last night I was one of many who had the opportunity to see Terry Gilliam Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini at the cinema. There are all sorts of wonderful things to talk about but I thought I might just dwell on one of those things that often get left to the last minute in opera performances, if they get dealt with at all: the final bow. The Curtain Call is the opportunity for the audience to show its appreciation for the hard work the performers have put into the preceding show. It's also a chance for the audience to show it's relative appreciation of the merits of those performers. Either way, an appropriate acknowledgment of the reception given by an audience is advisable.

At last night's performance two of the supporting cast Nicky Spence and David Soar (Francesco and Bernadino) ran on and re-created a tummy-bump stage move from the first Act. This went down very well with the audience, self-referencing the sense of fun surrounding the event. Do you stay in character then, or appear at the curtain or take to the stage without greasepaint, actual or metaphorical? Well Spence and Soar probably see something of their own character in the likely lads of Gilliam-Berlioz's vision. Conversely Sir Willard White, appearing as a glitter-taloned Pope, clearly decided to continue to milk his casting against-type by remaining in character at the curtain of this same opera.

For many though there is the opportunity to step out of their role for a moment. For the character baddie (Iago in Otello, or Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress, for example) this can be a tricky area to negotiate, given the British public's increasing tendency to boo the baddie (i.e. not the performer but the character). Naturally I wouldn't want to prescribe how you take a bow, given that you may be responding to what happens on any given night, let alone a specific production. Just remember that actually taking the bow (or a ballerina-style curtesy, perhaps complete with self-effacing/decorous hand-on-decolletage) is a good idea, as is not taking too much time. It's nice to smile too! Curtain calls often involve walking back to join other members of a cast in a line, so don't be afraid to look behind you when you do this. You don't want to spoil the rapture of well-executed performance with the ignominy of falling over someone else's feet at the last.

What are your top tips for making the most of your reception at the curtain?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Filming classical music - The Voice and The Lens

Today I attended a day-long seminar entitled The Voice and The Lens. Being offered as part of the periphery of the Spitalfields Festival, this series of three illustrated lectures took in all sorts of examples of filming classical music.

We heard from Jonathan Haswell, a freelance director who has overseen recordings and broadcasts for the Proms and the Royal Opera, composer Miguel Mera, who teaches on the subject at City University and Barrie Gavin, who has produced a great deal of work on modern music and worked with the likes of Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Haswell suggested that bringing live musical performance to a screen is 'simply a different way of experiencing something that is beautiful' and sees his job as 'generating a level of excitement that is different to the live space'. To show this he shared some examples of work, explaining the preparation and technical execution of a performance recorded for the screen - of any size. It was fascinating hearing about how great performers contribute easily to the process by absorbing the suggested requirements of the screen director.

Mera looked back at the canon, playing through extant performances of concerts as well as feature films that use music. Moving on from the pragmatism of making the recording happen he discussed the vernacular of music in a film, touching on the issue of diegesis and looking at some films where music is not only integral (The Man Who Knew Too Much, dir. Hitchcock, 1959) but may also be said to have it's own visual lyricism, interchangeable with the music itself (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, dir. Leone, 1966).

Barrie Gavin has worked closely with composers and other principal practictioners in producing films about music. He was interested in moving away from the rather more coventional biopic (Mera had already identified the clichés of musicians on screen). Instead, Gavin tried to grasp the identity of his films within their outset and looked to develop the idea of metaphor - 'the problem with the subject is that music is invisible and we deal in creating images'.

An appointment later in the day meant that I was unable to stay for the open discussion on subjects raised. Clearly their were some musicians and filmmakers of note in the audience. I would have liked to have heard opinions on the future of cinema and opera, given that discussions of accessibility at The Royal Opera (as well as other production issues at Glyndebourne and New York's Metropolitan Opera) have thrown a spotlight on the practice. Classic FM put the question fairly succinctly.

These are sociological issues though. Today was about the technicality and grammar of transferring live performance onto a two-dimensional medium (pace 3D broadcasts!) which was satisfying whilst provoking all the right quesitons to get one thinking more clearly about it as an art sui generis. You can see Jonathan Haswell's work when the Royal Opera broadcast Manon Lescaut on 24 June (to which one can compare the cinema relay of ENO's Benvenuto Cellini, to be broadcast on 17 June). I have also written about cinematic relay of opera here.

Friday, 23 May 2014

New Music Theatre in London this May

One is able to see new music drama performances in London at almost any time. Usually the summer sees a spike in this sort of activity with the Grimeborn and Tete a Tete opera festivals. However, this May seems to have served up more than our fair share of diverse and probing musical theatrics. Or maybe I've just had the opportunity to go to plenty of them.

De Profundis is a one-man show by Paul Dale Vickers, setting - or, probably more accurately, based on - the poem of the title by Oscar Wilde. The piece is the full length production of Dale Vickers' entry for The New Musical Project earlier in the year. An hour-long work of steady affect provides solo performer Alastair Brookshaw a good platform for his stage and vocal talent, aided with some sharp lighting at the cosy but accommodating Leicester Square theatre studio.

The next day I went to the opposite extreme, just around the corner at the London Coliseum. Thebans is Julian Anderson's first opera, a commission from English National Opera and composed to a libretto from Frank McGuinness after Sophocles. Three self-contained acts essay Oedipus' enlightenment and downfall, the consequent totalitarian state under Creon and its attendant tragedy, and then - out of order - a flashback to the inbetween episode of Oedipus' demise in exile.

A consistent, rhetorical drama which is closer to the Greek model of the original than McGuinness' largely well-judged vernacular adaptation might suggest 'on the page' gives Anderson a nice basis for his imaginative score, with exotic percussion and notably beautiful music for the chorus. ENO's chorus (chorus mastered by Dominic Peckham) respond with excellent, well-calibrated and supremely musical singing for which the solo contributions (with baritone Roland Wood as Oedipus) are technically admirable gilding. I heard the space and light of a neoclassical score and the atonal angles of vocal lines from the same sort of period. Thebans is a substantial and an indisputably original work, which refers to a compositional period where this originality was well-prized.

The following week I was back in the fringe chamber venues of London. The Horse Hospital, complete with extant sloping walkways for its erstwhile patients, 'provides a space for underground and avantgarde media' which on this occasion meant Charles Webber's Room of Worlds to a libretto by former punk singer Eve Libertine. A conflagration of singing, speech, movement and a static but sophisticated digital montage told a story based loosely on The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, documenting a woman's experience of being socially marginalised in a patriarchal society as she is diagnosed as mentally unfit. The sold-out event boasted performances as committed I came across all month, particularly from Cara Mchardy whose uncompromisingly well produced, weighty soprano voice really deserved a bigger space in which to be heard effectively.

Since seeing this show the Horse Hospital has come under threat. More information about this unique, interesting and useful venue in central London can be found here.

BBC/Mark Allan, via classical-iconoclast
Last week saw the Harrison Birtwistle 80th birthday celebrations at the Barbican. I went to see Gawain - yes see, as it was semi-staged with lighting and basic stage marking. Gawain is only just over 20 years old, having been premiered by the Royal Opera (who commissioned it) in 1991 and then in a revised version in 1994. We got the original, more or less. This is a totemic score of mature, dense Birtwistle sound, less frenetic than Punch and Judy, more strident than the ruminative Minotaur. The intensity of the expressionism gives away the relentless vitality in the heart of the score, although it also provides a serious challenge to the singers; I heard the second half from the foyer where the balance through individual mics on the singers and (presumably) a mixing desk, had greatly clarity than in the hall (I had sat to an extreme side of the stalls).

The medieval English romance seems a comfortable fit for Birtwistle's music (for all its wild atonality, the score seems to have a restricted, decorous colour palette). The BBC Singers provide an off-stage Greek chorus, comparable in its accomplishment to the ENO chorus for Thebans earlier in the month, albeit behind microphones and consequently dampening the impression of its impact in the hall. Excellence was standard among the singers, though I marvelled additionally at Leigh Melrose, singing swaggering baritone-in-alt one moment and then padding about as a dead man walking the next - a more mellifluous encounter than the more parlando role of Wozzeck in which he shone at the Coliseum last year. Sir John Tomlinson reprised his Green Knight, a role written for him by the composer, on a day off from Schoenberg's Moses for WNO. I also felt that Rachel Nicholls made the Queen look a lot easier than it must have been.

On Thursday I was back in the wilds of a Zone 2 fringe venue, at the GOlive series in the Lion and Unicorn pub Theatre in Kentish Town. INvocation is a one-woman show, an hour-long drama from Peta Lily which reports back on the funny-to-surreal experience of trying to pursue a life in drama whilst wanting to tie down the reasonable trappings of a modern middle-class life.

INvocation is, unlike these other shows, a spoken drama (though we get snatches of a song and a particularly funny skit involving a suit of armour, Siegfried's horn call and a profit chart rendered in salt). The compelling and unifying element of the performance is the precision and consistency of Peta Lily's movement, which is continually engaged with the modest audience, never stinting, even when thrown the odd curve-ball retort during periodic fourth wall-waiving. In tandem with purpose and control of her face, body shapes and some voices - not to mention some sharply responsive lighting cues - this made for clear emotional narrative.

Finally this evening I went to Notting Hill's The Print Room to see a trio of operatic scenes from Opera Erratica. Triptych - Reunion, A Party and The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by different composers to texts by Patrick Eakin Young started off as if bearing some content-resemblance to Puccini's Il Trittico, but then the nuns start to take their clothes off...

In fact the switching of affect between the self-contained dramas is similar to Puccini's mix of emotional centres. All the pieces were a fully integrated mix of highly accurate and exposed singing against a spare, electronically processed pre-recorded track. In addition the cast carried out an interdependent matrix of prop placement, choreography and costume changes (well, largely removal!). This was all in a bright set designed by Gavin Turk which doubled as a screen for live and recorded projections. As with A Room Of Worlds, the use of recorded sound worked as there was no attempt to integrate this with the performers, balance-wise. Rather, recorded voices was treated as a separate entity, balanced to the room and with its own character retained as a feature rather than made to suffer some pseud assimilation.

I laughed properly and with abandon at the simple comic conceit of A Party and the outer movements were invested with genuine sobriety. All-in it's less than 75 mins long and well worth experiencing for yourself during its long run.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014


This article first appeared in

This weekend we all* watched the Eurovision song contest (*well, everyone on my Facebook timeline). If you want to read a blog post about the Polish milkmaids or the exotic Austrian winner you may want to look elsewhere. Indeed, if you want to rail against the scandal of the voting in which cold political statements are made with a warmly sequined 'dooooze points!' I'm sure there are columns for that too.

I - like Graham Norton - was more concerned with the two performers from Russia. The Tomalchevy sisters caught the collateral whip crack of opprobrium against their home country for it's perceived disdain for both the LGBT and European communities. Irrespective of the quality of their song or performance ('Shine' - video), they got booed.
Booing at a live performance is very extreme. On the contrary, most people get clapped in a theatre before anyone or anything has had the chance to establish any merit at all (Sir Edward Downes, formerly of the Royal Opera, was always clear on applause - that it was mandatory as an act of courtesy on the part of the audience).

Booing cannot be construed as forming part of the courtesy scale. It's a serious affair. For someone to boo implies that the quality of a performance has been more than low. No, a booed performance has simply slipped off the end of the aesthetic scale altogether.

This is desperately hard for a performer to take. After all, a performer may have been happy with the standard of their performance, whatever anyone else thinks. Even where it's imperfect by their own admission, a lot of work will have gone into preparing the role, let alone dispatching it on stage. Much more to the point - especially in the technologically long-winded, multidisciplinary situation of opera - the performer is the focus not only for their own work but also that of a large number of other people. With consensus and compromise (at its most positive!) built into the production process,  the scale of the task that is achieving universal satisfaction becomes apparent.

This is why it happens then: the grey area between aesthetics and technical achievements, seen through the widely prismatic taste of the potential audience. Then there are the political statements (Peter Tatchell popped up at an LSO concert on Sunday) and personal statements... perhaps you've seen this?

Carlos Kleiber waits patiently for the exceptionally vocal 'loggionisti' at La Scala to finish making known their feelings at his conducting of Otello in 1976. This longstanding group of self-styled cognoscenti claim to have appreciation for the music. Yet their motives may go as far as partizanship for favourite performers (or, as recounted by Thomas Allen in his biography, for money). More recently, Roberto Alagna lost patience after a perfectly good 'Celeste Aida'. Also this week the blogger Intermezzo flags up a story in which the director of the Staatsoper, Franz Welser-Möst is obliged to shrug off the booing of a fan of another conductor.

Nowadays audiences in the UK are fairly wise to the recently established position of Regietheater. Directors are seen as the decisive arbiter of a production, so dissatisfaction with an evening at a show is often meted out on the production crew at a premiere curtain call. However, it is also becoming popular to boo a clear-cut villain in an opera at the curtain call - all very well but still difficult for the hard working Nick Shadow, Iago or Claggart (for example) to take with grace at the end of the evening.

As for the Tomalchevy girls, they are blameless in a singing competition carefully constructed by everyone involved to cause the least offence possible. They'd be forgiven for thinking they can't win. But then, as all of us who perform, audition or demand to take any sort of stage know, that's the risk-reward compact of proper live art. As Franz Welser-Möst says in that interview, "Opera is like a sport... [Booing] is part of its lifeblood."

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Costume for Audition

This article first appeared in 

A colleague recently attended a workshop on singing auditions and working in rehearsal. Part of the day’s exercises was a series of mock auditions in which participants would sing to the group as if in an audition situation, so that they could get feedback on how they came across, not only through their singing but also their general presentation.

One of the suggestions from the panel was that on occasion it may feel appropriate to come dressed in a manner pertinent to the role on offer. Taking this advice at its word, one of the participants came dressed in costume, including a hat. This enterprising initiative was welcomed by the panel – although it was noted that the hat actually obscured the performer’s face, on balance not an ideal situation for a first-time encounter.

In general, the ‘rule’ (there’s no rule, just good sense!) for dressing for auditions is to be comfortable so that you can sing well. In America, the idea of actually coming dressed in a manner which shows that you are already thinking about fitting into the role on offer is more accepted. The culture of competition (in the business sense) is more established and this may lend itself to this trend.

The problem is, of course, that you may have the director and designer in the room who have their own ideas for a character’s look, which is immediately at odds with what you have decided to wear. Even if you have got reliable information about the direction in which the production design is going to go, this is still a risky business. The only way to dress for a role is to wear clothes that are directly relevant to the character as represented in the original text (or libretto) and of the period in question. Clearly, hats are difficult – obviously, a mask is not appropriate. Above all, wearing something distracting is going to be counterproductive. Make-up may have the same concealing-vs-enhancing issues; go easy on the eye shadow.

Don’t be put off though! If you feel comfortable – that word again – in the costume in which you have imagined performing and you feel that it is appropriate (donkey’s ears for Bottom, etc.) you may have a great opportunity to make a strong impression on a panel. Fulfill the promise of your own conviction. And sing well!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Eating Whilst Performing

This article first appeared in

Food is a very important part of singing opera. No, I'm not talking about the ever-present bananas in dressing rooms, or the cake that the very best colleagues bring to rehearsals (obviously averagely-good colleagues bring fruit and nuts but let's just be honest about the cake bit, OK?). No, food is often an integral part of an operatic story and as such it's needed on stage. There are some obvious ones. Hansel & Gretel (right) is about starving children and their day of reckoning in a gingerbread house. Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has more than one number dedicated to pies, though their manufacture is of more interest than their consumption.

More specifically, there are a couple of roles that demand the character eats as he - and it's usually he - performs. Scarpia is often having dinner, not least as wine is mentioned in his conversation with Tosca. Franco Zeffirelli's famous production for the Royal Opera in the 1960s had Tito Gobbi tucking into a meal. Perhaps it's a baritone thing then: Don Giovanni invites the ghost of the Commendatore to dinner (and Leporello, starving, swipes some of the food). Falstaff doesn't even bother to invite anyone and just gets on with it. There's a fair bit of getting drunk in opera too, from the most famous, Verdi's Brindisi in La Traviata and the Beve, beve chorus in Otello to The Elisir d'amore itself (here's a clip of the great Luciano Pavarotti taking the easy way out by not taking the cork out *warning, includes dancing*)   

The issue here is the fact that one is supposed to be singing at roughly the same time. Mouth-multitasking (mouthtitasking?!) is, on the face of it, fraught with hazard. What should a singer eat on stage? And how should they eat? Well, lettuce is often requested by some singers as it's moist, bland and light. Chicken is also favoured. The anonymous taste of such food means that it's unlikely to provoke the manufacture of saliva, flooding the mouth that needs to be used for singing. Food can also be a useful dramatic prop and to that end singers often spit it out. Drink is also good for this. We're talking about the artists decisions of course - in Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht a character is required to sing and gargle at the same time, and spitting the water out is part of what constitutes his character.

There are some substances that performers have to deal with that isn't food. This requires even greater care. Sometimes, food is used as a substitute for other bodily fluids, such as vomit. Blood is also more than just an issue of red fluid. In the Royal Opera's production of Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, a group of carnivorous bird-women have to run on stage and enact the consumption of dead and dying humans, with the stage blood dripping from their mouths. Glycerin is used, not only to achieve the best texture of the blood but also to avoid complications in the event of performers ingesting the fluid.

One other prop that's often forgotten in all this are those that produce smoke. Cigarettes are not only a directorial preference, especially in specific period productions, but also demanded in some operas, like Carmen, whose first act is set outside a cigarette factory. In the 1998 Glyndebourne production of Rodelinda, Umberto Chiummo's Garibaldi pulled off the stunt of singing almost the entire aria with a cigarette in his mouth (from 1 hour, 31 mins).   

Clearly a performer must have the last say whether this is a real cigarette (arguably illegal onstage anyway), a herbal one or a stunt cigarette that emits powder when blown. Perhaps the current trend for 'vyping' cigarettes, that produce steam are the way forward for such a prop. It's not just the performers that have to consider the food on stage. It can be a headache for the stage crew too, who have to prepare and clear up stage food. Makes the idea of a 'bun fight' seem so much more appealing than throwing butter around.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Singing Competitions

This article first appeared in

It's shop window season: the BAFTAs last week; the Oscars soon. Closer to home, The Opera Awards have just been announced. Competition is the complicated fact of the singing business, as in all mainstream arts industries. Auditions are comparable in their scrutiny but remain very low-key, indirect competition-a-likes with your peers. Like many, we've been watching the Winter Olympics recently, in which so much competition is decided not simply by the fastest, the furthest or the first. No, many of these important competitions are decided by adjudication, by panel marking. And just as in singing, whether its the right choice or the scandalous wrong 'un, all the competitors smile through the results as the simple act of participation can be its own reward.

We've not only been thinking about the Winter Olympics but also about a video we've recently seen in which the fine - and young - American soprano Angela Meade talks about the 55 competitions that she has won in her career. Quite apart from the boost in profile and consequent opportunities such success brings, there is also the not insignificant issue of prize money.

However, for all that the rewards can be sizeable for a concentrated period, it's not really a choice for making a living. Preparations for such competitions can cost in themselves, with extra singing lessons, accompanist and coaching fees, hiring rehearsal space - and turning down paid work in the run-up to competitions in order to preserve the voice and maintain form.

There are also age restriction issues on many competitions, designed not only to level the 'playing field' but also to restrict the competitors to those needing slingshot the start of their career with rather than established professionals looking for a pay windfall.

What's interesting is that for all that competitions are almost identical to auditions they differ in two respects.

Firstly, the reward of a competition win is instant. An audition 'win' leads to a contract which may be anything from a couple of days to a few months in duration. There is still plenty of work left to do.

Secondly, a competition usually has an audience. Not just a panel listening but also a proper audience, interested in hearing a new voice or the music in the programme. This is considerably more straightforward to singing to a small group automatically disposed to forensic examination of your abilities.

If you are accepted to compete in a singing competition, you have the opportunity to give a recital, can legitimately claim to have taken part and, this kudos aside, may even win one or more of a number of prizes. The occasion is usually rather festive. Natural nerves aside, it's fun.

An audition is functional, anonymous and has no reward other than the possibility of a contract, during which you will be required to continue to achieve the promise you have shown.

Or rather, that's one view. That fact is that the audition is the one place where what you do as a vocal practitioner and as a performer is given proper scrutiny. There's no 'audience vote'. The panel want to see if you can fulfill their requirements, free from extraneous pressures. As long as you look presentable and professional you are not required to splash out on a new suit or at Droopy & Browns. The work that you are doing in an audition is pressured because your work depends on it but there will be further opportunities, even with the same company. Perhaps the panel see that you aren't what they need for this contract but will earmark you for another. Good panelists appear at a number of auditions and often crop up at performances too.

Auditioning is an ongoing, organic process and rewards the dedicated singer. Competitions aren't really easy, despite how one might argue it - but they're the office party in a business that, day-to-day, values the dependable at least as highly.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Georgians Revealed, British Library

It's a rich time for Londoners interested in the 18th century. This the final month of the British Library's Georgians Revealed exhibition, a stylish show that stresses the influential cultural development of the period. As it happens we are not far from a new exhibition just down the road at the Foundling Museum which covers some of the same territory.

Indeed, the Foundling Museum, though tucked away in a self-contained corner of the British Library's (uncomfortably overly-air conditioned) space is representative of the art that literally jumps off the walls. Hogarth sold his prints to raise money for the children who could not be kept by their mothers; the entire exhibition is wrapped in a period-to-present montage in his familiar cross-hatched style. It is to the exhibition's credit that, in addition, we are not assaulted by piped Handel as well, though the patronage and success the composer enjoyed throughout the reign of all four Kings George would have warranted it.

If the rise of the middle class, the availability of education (largely through printing, not to mention a fresh focus on childhood) mirrors the social change at the start of this millennium, the Georgians also had their fair share of financial woes too - though John Soane's design for the Bank of England was, happily, not one of them.

Instead, spending power coupled to a wide obsession with social comportment meant that the seeds of Empire building were being sown and nurtured. At the end of the period, disposable cash and the end of cross-channel hostilities meant that travel to Europe and beyond was viable (if mocked in a particularly funny French cartoon). The example of a monarchy with German ties and goods imported increasingly cheaply from further afield had dribbled down to the moneyed middle class. They went in search of their own dynastic horizons abroad.

The Georgian period also midwifed Joshua Reynolds' Royal Academy and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. We were sure that there was more to be had that just couldn't quite be accomodated though. To tie up our visit we left the exhibiton and popped upstairs to the John Ritblat rooms. There, in the music cases on public display is a selection of three artefacts associated with composer Joseph Haydn's visit to London in the late 1790s. In addition to a letter there is a manuscript copy of his 96nd Symphony (the Miracle, so-called as it commemorates an apocryphal account of an audience member narrowly avoiding death by chandelier) and a contract. This wonderful document, signed on his behalf, details the remuneration for 55 works to be provided over a 5 year period for the sum of just over £900. A considerable sum in 1796, when the document is dated it also gives an indication of the esteem in which the leading composer of the day would have been held.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Don't forget the audience

On Wednesday this week I attended one of Club Inégale's Rants evenings. These boil down to an evening's symposium chat in a bar about a number of issues affecting those of us working in the arts. Three speakers talked for 10 mins each about their pet issues before the Club's founder, Peter Wiegold, chairing the event, opened it up to the public for discussion.

The most interesting of these was the first. Ghislaine Kenyon (who works principally in Art) wanted to confront the issue of coughing, and in doing so open discussion about the way in which performers can contrive to neglect their audience.

Her opening remarks, which she admitted had no statistical backing but were the result of many years of regular concert-going, focused on her idea that the coughing that is heard in classical concerts is linked directly to the audience's sense of embarrassment with or estrangement from the performance at hand. She told the story about Andras Schiff getting a member of Wigmore Hall staff to tell his audience that the pianist would tolerate no coughing whatsoever - and, furthermore - that he would indicate when it was acceptable to applaud*.

Using this topic - and story - as a stepping stone for other issues, she noted being behind Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies at the premiere performance of his 10th symphony last week. The experience of sitting behind someone physically reacting to the music had caused her to consider how we think of our behaviour in a concert situation.

Ms Kenyon suggested that many people feel distanced from the very performance that they had come to see. She remarked that players that make an effort to communicate in ways beside their music making often have the audience's greater attention. As simple an act as speaking to the audience - perhaps introducing music, particularly new music - makes a great difference in her experience. Perhaps it simply represents the performer acknowledging a mutual presence in the space and the purpose of that attention.

Following her talk, many of the audience comments focused on feeling ill-at-ease in certain venues, often due to the perception of the different class of the majority of the crowd (Wigmore Hall was singled out in this respect), or a sense of not being at liberty to behave in reaction to the performance at hand. Importantly, Ms Kenyon pointed out that such a sense of the entitled majority doesn't arise at the BBC Proms because everyone knows that the best positions to see and the concert are also the cheapest 'seats' - the promming arena.

Now, I have also been to a fair number of concerts of all types. As an audience member I must admit that I rarely feel estranged from the performers. This may be because I am, more often than not, in a performing position myself. I think the point that those leading the performance might do well to involve the audience has tremendous value - as long as it doesn't career down that slip road of being patronising, of trying to speak for the music before that music can speak for itself.

As to the behaviour of the audience of which I am part. I am faintly aware of distractions in the hall. Many such distractions are individuals reacting to other 'distractions' that I haven't seen. My experience is that whether those distractions are due to the performance or not they still pull focus from the performance itself: it's easier to forgive someone tapping their hands to the music than someone tapping on their mobile phone.

I had an opportunity to examine these issues last night.

I attended an orchestral concert at the Royal Festival Hall: Britten's Four Sea Interludes, Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto, Concentric Circles and Vaughan-Williams' 6th Symphony. The concert, given by the Philharmonia under Nicholas Collon, was excellent. The showpiece interludes from Britten's opera Peter Grimes with maritime turbulence and shimmer. The demanding violin concerto had the orchestra operating with astonishing ensemble precision for so many players and the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, made lithe work of the alternating spasms and singing line. His encore, which later we discovered to be the Bach D minor Partita, was played with the insouciance of a lazy cat allowing a ball of wool unspool from its grasp. The symphony had all of the aforementioned capability at its disposal to realise Vaughan-Williams' dark narrative of a country rocked by conflict.

I enjoyed the concert. There were a couple of the usual inventory of distractions that one encounters at any such event: latecomers arriving after the first piece; the rustling of free and purchased programmes; a poor soul who had a coughing fit in the final bar of the Symphony as it quietly came to its end.

I did note a couple of things that recalled the symposium I had attended only the day before.

Firstly, that the concert's start was heralded not by someone coming to say hello but by the disembodied announcement that mobiles phones should be silenced & that no photos ought to be taken (then the dimming of the house lights). This was all done warm-and-welcomingly but formally. Quite distinct was the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, who dressed in clothing that was obviously special but not formal by any conventional code and then spoke to the audience prior to offering an encore. Indeed his (intimate) performance of the Bach started as he was still finishing his final sentence.

Secondly - and rather unfortunately - we were spoken to rather briskly by a member of the ushering staff following the concert, who pre-emptively told us to leave the auditorium. We were in the process of exchanging our thoughts on the performance. Most of the audience had left and staff were beginning to clean up. 'Would you leave please' is a reasonable request from a host to a guest who has clearly overstayed their welcome. But to two people quietly discussing the event? 5 minutes after its conclusion? And an early conclusion too - the performance ended at 9.15pm, 20-30 minutes before conventional orchestral concerts usually wind up.

To the issues raised in the symposium and the experience of the concert then, I might add this coda. As we left I thought to distract our dampened spirits by trying to find out what the Bach encore had been: there had been no announcement in the concert; nothing in the programme; and, as it turned out, nothing online. A Tweet in the direction of the orchestra elicited no response, though a member of staff replied in a personal capacity with the answer. This lack of empathy from institutions both hosting and performing is precisely the issue that had been raised the previous day. One hopes it might be fairly easily addressed.

*Though this is an extreme story, I might add that I attended a concert hosted by Club Inégales recently, in which I heard a composer mutter of the audience ('I do hope they'll shut up so they can hear').

Blind Auditions

This article first appeared in

I watched the BBC's The Voice UK (the UK suffix to distinguish it from the Dutch original on which it's based) for the first time at the weekend. More than a decade of reality/fly-on-the-wall television makes for keeping a cynical distance from what is, ostensibly, an X Factor clone. However, I was intrigued to watch the principal gimmick of the show in action, that is to say the Blind Audition.

In one form or another blind auditions have always been around. The main idea is that the performer is given the opportunity to be judged on the precise criteria for which they are to be used. We've all heard the phrase 'a great face for radio', which highlights the appeal of the blind audition by turning its value upside down - the idea that an individual's appearance might be considered at odds with the qualities of their voice.

Blind auditions also serve another purpose, which is the drama of discovering that the origins of a talent can confound the expectations of those who hear it. The big reveal is a staple coup of a film such as Singin' In The Rain. Interestingly it's also constitutent of the drama in a talent show like X Factor where the audience and panel can already see the performer - only to have their prejudices confounded. Indeed, it's possible that the success of averagely talented (if brave) individuals in such a situation is as much to do with an audience or panel over-compensating for their embarrassment in judging a performer on criteria that doesn't - and shouldn't - consitute their ability.

In The Voice UK, a panel of celebrity perfomers sit in chairs facing away from the performance stage. The performer sings live (amplified/balance with a microphone and accompanied with a live band). During the 90 seconds of their opportunity, the panel have to decide whether or not they like what they hear sufficiently to want to turn round, which commits them to helping to mentor the performer towards other performing opportunities.

Of course, there are a number of political, face-saving and showbiz-like games that are played out in this situation. Essentially though, the panel judge what they hear on that criteria alone.

Age, dress, shape or skin colour are almost impossible to discern. Even sex can also be rather difficult. The sex of the performer is an important issue in blind auditioning. A study carried out in Princetone University over a decade ago showed that blind auditions had significant potential in overcoming the sex-bias of the constituent members of Europe and American orchestras
Traditionally, new members of the great symphony orchestras were handpicked by the music director and principal player of each section. Most contenders were the male students of a select group of teachers. 
To overcome bias, most major U.S. orchestras began to broaden and democratize their hiring procedures in the 1970s and 1980s, advertising openings, allowing orchestra members to participate in hiring decisions and implementing blind auditions in which musicians audition behind a screen that conceals their identities but does not alter sound. 
[Florence Nelson, director of symphonic services at the American Federation of Musicians] recalled how sensitive she was to the gender issue while auditioning. She remembers being told in the 1980s to remove her shoes while walking to center stage behind a screen, so the judges would not hear the "clickety-clack" of a woman's high heels.
There are two differences in this situation to what is now a conventional TV talent show. The first is that the audience - live and at home - can see the perfomer(s) before the panel. As a result, the sense of catharsis is different, though the 'reality' inserts and backstage cameras seek to open up the back story that democratises the performers' lives.

The second is also slight but has a greater effect. The Voice UK uses no compere, the presenter keeping a very low profile, even in voiceover to pre-recorded tape. As a result, the behaviour of the audience, the panel and the apprehension of the performer, even after we have heard them perform is not moderated. There are any number of conventions that the BBC keep in place, from editing the pre-record to the moody music that plays over a back story about an individual's battle with weight or bereavement but telling the audience what to think at any one point is reduced to nest to nothing.

Clearly a blind audition is not always going to be practical. Auditions for singers in particular may depend on very specific roles or the demands of a director. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that having confidence in one's own ability may be as surprising to a panel who, like many of us have experienced as an audience to talent shows, may harbour some prejudice despite themselves. This residual part of the 'blind audition' may yet work in your favour.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Firsts - Auditions and Shows

This article first appeared in

Did you enjoy the French-themed accordion burlesque show you saw last week?

What do you mean you’ve never seen a French-themed accordion burlesque show?

Well, it is enitrely possible that there was a French-th(etc.) show somewhere in this most eclectic and all-embracing city of diverse entertainment, last week. And that you might have been there. Even if you had, it’s probable that it would have been your first time at such a show.

First times are worth remembering. In this rather camp (and point-makingly extreme) example, you are the audience and may be seeing something new, individually or corporately. Perhaps you expected it. It probably made an impression. It’s also possible that you might have attended a general audition for a list for future casting and this is your first, rather leftfield project. Like singing Rosina to a company panel and ending up in a chorus for Moses und Aaron.

Turn that around: perhaps you knew the job would be somewhat exotic but were not told to expect anything unusual at the audition. What did such an audition consist of? Did you have to demonstrate a willingness to involve yourself in the ‘triple threat’ – i.e. to be able to sing, dance and act – as increasingly the demand of lyric theatre? Was there an indication that the work, as yet unspecified, might be new to you? Perhaps you were only asked to sing but the audition circumstances were new to you. Warm up rooms are notorious for queuing more than one candidate at once. You might have been asked to perform in a small group. Or use a prop, or a chair. Perhaps you came to the audition with sheet music and the panel asked you to try it from memory. All of us have had the accompanist who plays at a wildly different speed to every possible interpretation of the music at hand!

It’s very difficult to hang on to your sense of perspective in an audition situation. I’m sure many of us have the experience of going to auditions where the panel have made a small request which takes on the appearance of asking you to remove all your clothing (‘would you like to take off your jacket?’) or sing through a straw (‘could you try that top B flat pianissimo instead of forte?’). Auditions should be a place for a panel to hear what you are capable of, not to test your psychology. If a panel request is unusual it’s not to catch you out but to examine what you are already doing in a different light. Many stories of odd audition occurences involve one of the panel getting up and walking away. How many of such stories, I wonder, took place inside a building with changeable acoustics? For that matter, how many audition panels have been sitting down for four hours and simply want to get up and stretch? You are due the courtesy of being heard with full attention but being looked at and being heard are not mutually inclusive. Try not to worry.

I started this piece by talking about the audience. Why? Well, you may be singing a role debut that you have heard many times from the audience. Equally, whether you are singing Suzanna or Mimi or Maria for the fortieth time, it is almost certain that there will be one or two people in the audience who have never heard the music before, even on a recording. Perhaps you’ve done dozens and it’s press night – but everyone is keen to see what a particular music director has done to give the familiar some shine. Perhaps the director has made his Barber of Seville that French accordion player working in a burlesque club (*seriously, don’t Google this!).

The point is this. Remember that first experience of a new show. The awkward cocktail of being in the same row of seats but taking in something alien is central to the appeal of theatre. Live theatre is always a unique event, a never-to-be-repeated first time. It also reflects our experience of auditions, in which a small group of people must hear multiple performances of the same thing from individuals who have done their party piece on many occasions. The novelty – the frisson – of the exchange is crucial. It’s what makes the connection. The re-creation of a that first time is an event to be sought out and welcomed, not a hazard to fear.