Landscape | Bloomsbury Theatre, London

At the very start of ENO Opera Works, we were told by the lovely Lucy Roberts (Opera Works alumni) that one of the best things to come out of the course is the bond we make with our fellow singers. I looked around the room and thought ‘nah’…..I was wrong.

Just over a year ago, 20 of us met for the first time during our ‘working session audition’ with Martin Constantine, at the ENO Lilian Baylis House. It was definitely the first time I’ve ever done an impression of a deranged cat (there were even more impressive creature creations, trust me) infront of complete strangers, and for a split second I’ll admit that I did  ask myself if perhaps I’d thrown myself into something I wasn’t ready for. These feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty are the exact sentiments which the course has enabled me to push to one side, and to allow myself to enjoy the ‘what ifs’ of performance.

The 13th May was our performance of ‘Landscape’ at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London.   Each weekend leading up to our 3 days in the space was rammed with devising (if I never see a devising room again, it’ll be too soon!), dancing (breakout Macarena providing a constant source of much needed chuckles) and creating – all the while using the tools we’d gathered right back at the start of the course with Input Weekend 1. Throughout Opera Works my lovely colleagues have always been a source of strength and motivation, and production week was no exception.

Here are a few images taken during the dress rehearsal of Landscape:

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Photos: With thanks to Rob Tsyon Knights Photography (http://www.robtysonknights.com/)

I feel incredibly lucky to have shared the past year with this great, supportive team of cagoule-sporting beauts, and I look forward to us seeing each other next week for our final Opera Work instalment – singing an aria on the Coliseum Stage.

Watch this space!

Module 3 Response weekend – Final audition preparation

Probably one of my favourite weekends to date – we got to ‘play’ around with one of our chosen audition arias using the tools worked on in our previous input session with Barbara and Paul. It was a weekend which also explored the culmination of months of input sessions – deciding what works for us as individuals, and seeing just how differently we approach our arias.

Sunday we were joined by the lovely Jayke Branson Thom ( https://thalieknights.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/module-2-input-weekend-jayke-branson-thom-leah-hausman-and-olga-masleinnikova/ )  who provided us with some last minute tips which could be incorporated in our mental and physical preparation when faced with any stressful situation. Below are a few points which struck a chord with me:

  • Take your time prior to entering the room, and likewise take your time walking to the panel, to the pianist, and to your standing position. Time will inevitably feel like it’s rushing past in such circumstances, so really try to ensure you slow yourself down, and make the room your space.
  • Ensure you have eye contact with each member of the panel as you talk.
  • Set the agenda of your audition – smile, and be approachable.
  • Don’t stand with your knees and feet locked – this prevents you from moving instinctively if you wish to do so.
  • Arm movements. Yes? No? Fundamentally – if they are part of your character portrayal, ensure that ANY movement carries a sense of energy and purpose.
  • Who are you talking to / singing too in the room? Are they on stage, or in your mind?
  • If you get something wrong during your aria, move onto the next character’s thought.
  • There must be a need to sing the start of each phrase, and equally (especially in Baroque music) there needs to be a reason behind the B section and the da capo.
  • Sustain a thought, and enjoy making the text yours.
  • The walk out of the room is just as important as the walk in – you may still be being watched, so try to avoid showing any negative signs of how you felt you performed (I always save this moment of wallowing for the train ride home, with a giant slice of cake!!!)

Notes from the pianist:

  • No loose sheets! Tape all your music together – don’t leave anything to chance.
  • Mark your breaths and any cuts clearly in the music.
  • Don’t feel apologetic about talking to your pianist and securing your tempo – this is your time to make the most of a situation, so give yourself every advantage.

MODULE 3 INPUT WEEKEND – BARBARA HOUSEMAN AND PAUL HUNTER

I don’t know where time has gone! This time last year my lovely Opera Works buddies and I had anxiously submitted our course applications, and now we’ve just completed our final input weekend. Geeze louise. Here are a few personal observations on the weekend, which went from the deadly serious to the totally ridiculous in the flick of a switch!

On Saturday we were met with great enthusiasm by voice and text specialist Barbara Houseman (http://www.barbarahouseman.com/) I always love the start of sessions when the visiting professional asks what individual things you’d like to focus on. Not only does this make you feel like the weekend work isn’t generic, but it’s refreshing to discover that so many of your peers also ‘suffer’ from similar issues. We covered a vast range of exercises to take away with us, ranging from tension releasing exercises, mental preparation for auditions and method approaches on how to support our voices even when speaking. A couple of points which I found useful were the following:

  • If you find your breathing becomes locked under pressurized situations, focus on the out-breath prior to your in-breath.
  • Imagine that your voice and its support are coming from your belly button. My teacher will no doubt roll her eyes when I mention this, as she’s mentioned it over 1000 times to me…
  • Practise singing to an object, even if it’s a plant pot (or in my case, maybe my unsuspecting kitten)! Don’t wait until the audition situation where you find yourself resembling a rabbit in headlights as your mind flicks between ‘should I look at them? Are they looking at me? I can’t find anything to look at!’
  • In an audition scenario, remove all negative attention away from yourself (and your inner critic) and practise observing the room. For example, what are the panel wearing? Do they look happy to see me?

Try to find ways to shift your negative associations into a constructive process, such as ‘I’m going to try and make the next two arias pleasurable for myself and the audience’.

We also spent the afternoon reading a section of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: firstly in strict iambic pentameter, then taking the text apart and seeing how it was structured in a way which required little interference from the reader. This work provided us with a refreshed approach to how we might tackle our arias:

  • Don’t just sing the music – say the words. Talking through the text will provide you with a natural indication as to where the stresses are, and which words are ‘unimportant’.
  • The singing will be kept active if you continue to keep the thoughts of your text active.

Sunday was spent focussing on all things ‘play’, with Paul Hunter – Artistic Director of ‘Told by an Idiot’ (http://www.toldbyanidiot.org/taught/ )  His style of working is mainly comedic, and he also encourages communication with the audience wherever possible – providing natural and spontaneous experiences for those on stage and in the audience.

We did a few exercises covering the idea of how we can reveal our character’s vulnerability, without showing the audience. For example, a lady has purchased a pair of shoes which she believes are the most beautiful in the world. However they only came in 2 sizes too small. Therefore, on the surface she seems like the happiest woman in the world, but there’s a small subtle sign of increasing pain in her eyes. Such emotions are often more effectively portrayed to an audience, as their subtlety has a greater impact.

Playing with such ideas allowed us to think about how we can incorporate this into a scene – is there an opposite physical journey in your scene, to your character’s expressed objective?

It was definitely an eye-opener of a weekend and I don’t think I’ve chuckled so much in one session. ‘Homework’ for our next response weekend now seems to be a never-ending array of suggestions and bullet-points, but given it will be focussed on our individual first-choice arias, I think we’ll all be looking forward to seeing how we can tailor what we’ve learnt, and apply it to our own characters.

ENO Casting Q&A session

With our final consultations looming, last Friday we met with Sophie Joyce (Casting and Harewood Artists Manager) for an informal approach on the ’do’s and don’ts’ of auditioning. Refreshingly, it was a very informal chat which provided us with useful insight from both sides of the coin. I’ve put together some of the main points, which I’m sure each singer could use as a healthy check-list to ensure that you emit the impression of being well put together.

What you can control

  • What you sing, and how you sing it
  • How you look
  • What time you arrive
  • How you present yourself AND your music!
  • Ensuring your CV is up to date, and you take a spare copy with you.

What & how you sing

  • Ensure what you are offering is something you’re confident you would be cast as now. Avoid repertoire that you think could show a role you may sing in 5 years time – trust that the casting department will know that certain roles will potentially lead to others. Focus on the now and show that you are sure of what fach you are, and what roles you are aiming for.
  • Your starter aria should be something you can sing with bells on, even if you’re not feeling at your best. Practise your auditions arias in succession, so you become used to one following the other: there is nothing worse than the starter aria being EPIC, and the second aria letting you down because you’re knackered and can’t make you way through another 4minutes of singing. This starter aria should be the same one you present 95% of the time.
  • If you don’t get a run through with the pianist, take 30 seconds just to establish correct tempo. Take control of the situation.

How you look

  • Hair off your face
  • No short skirts or anything too clingy – you don’t want to be drawing attention away from your singing.
  • Ladies – try to wear heels.
  • If possible, ensure that the cut of what you are wearing shows your general physique.
  • Ladies – no big, awkward earrings. The panel don’t want to sit there focussing on your jewellery, and last thing you want is to resemble this lady… !!

Small things which can make a difference

  • Practise introducing your arias. Nerves often get the better of us at the worst time – don’t be that person that forgets what they’re singing / who the composer is etc.
  • Knowing that you are fully prepared makes a big difference. For example, knowing that vocally and technically you would be ready to perform 12 shows provides you with the confidence to know that you have worked towards the correct stamina level to see you through.
  • If the panel are within walking distance to the door, shake their hand as you go in.
  • Regarding Chorus work – this is often a common way for emerging singers to gain experience and make contacts. If you don’t intend on remaining in the chorus, set yourself a 1-2 year plan.
  • Your CV is an insight into where you are currently in the industry. Keep it 1 page long. Don’t just accept work in order to fill up your CV. Sing things you want to sing, make contacts, and invite people to hear you sing. Networking is key.

Module 2 – Response weekend

Christmas holidays always tend to go by a LOT quicker when at the back of your mind you know how much preparation you have to do for an upcoming response weekend! Armed with our scene allocations and our completed homework tasks set by Martin, we launched into our first session of January, with the emphasis being ‘let’s play’.

Saturday was spent working on our scenes in response to the work we’d done with Olga Masleionnikova and Leah Hausman. We individually chose key points we wanted to work on, such as gestures and rhythms / motion factors / states of tensions etc.

One particular homework we’d been set was the animal study – whereby we had to choose an animal we felt best defined the character of our allocated role. How did this animal walk? Where is its focus? How does it breathe? How does it socialize? One key factor I learnt (the hard way) during this exercise was that swans are not always gracious. They may look poised whilst standing still, but their waddle is totally ridiculous and it isn’t long before you feel like a cross between Nicki Minaj and John Wayne….

An important consideration over the course of the weekend was not to try everything at once. Yes, it’s great that we’re learning new methods and approaches, but applying them all during one run of the scene often resulted in the approach coming across as non-specific. It proved much more effective to take one intention and push it to the maximum (and then reduce it) rather than slip into our default ‘actor mode’ or ‘playing’ of an emotion instead of allowing our portrayal of a single factor incorporate this emotion naturally.

Little notes during the weekend:

  • Be specific – as soon as you start to become vague, you will lose your audience and the scene will lose all momentum.
  • Don’t play your character, play real people. Find something that you can identify with.
  • You scene must have direction – if in doubt, use your objectives and possible actions to get you through.

Module 2 Input Weekend – Jayke Branson Thom, Leah Hausman and Olga Masleinnikova

Professional Development Session

Friday’s session was with the lovely Jayke Branson Thom (ENO’s Performance Psychologist http://www.wakeuptoabrighterfuture.co.uk/)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve rolled my eyes on the odd occasion when reading about very well known singers who admit to having suffered from crippling nerves before performances (probably because that little green monster on my shoulder mumbles ‘she gets nerves AND sings like a goddess – I may as well give up now…’) BUT, Jayke’s session was a real revelation. For starters, I had absolutely no idea that Opera houses employ performance psychologists for their singers, and that their abilities also help musicians, actors, and sportsmen alike.

Understanding that habits which rear their ugly heads in stressful situations can be altered by trying to go back and locating the source (perhaps an early memory or negative experience), and creating positive associations, was valuable information as I’d pretty much resigned myself to believing that not much can be done to combat nerves. Singers use pictures, scenarios and even colours in order to bring out the emotion and sound from our voices. Jayke was able to demonstrate simple techniques we can use on a daily basis which, over time, we can implement in a range of different situations.

Little tips she suggested:

  • When practising, spend 20 minutes being in ‘the zone’ i.e working dramatically on your piece rather than spending the whole session on technical work. Take the risk of practising your performance, so you can learn how to switch on / switch off. This will also help you to make clear dramatic choices.
  • Practise to make things about the aria i.e Think -> Access -> Tell.
  • Suspend your belief of being judged in an audition, and create a ‘platform persona’ – walk into a room as who you want to be in 20 years time as if it’s a gala performance and you have nothing to prove.

Helping musicians identify why they react to certain things and providing them with nurturing tools is so important. I came away wondering why these sessions aren’t’ offered Day 1 at Music College…


The Weekend

As someone whose Monday – Thursday life in an office is rather predictable, I’ve found myself eagerly anticipating each ENO weekend and the new things I will discover not only about myself, but also about my classmates. Knowing that this one was to be primarily ‘movement’ based, I’ll admit that I had two contrasting mental pictures of what it would look like:

  • We’d all discover hidden dance talents and the class would resemble a scene out of Pineapple dance studios, OR
  • We’d be asked to imitate carrots and other such vegetables.

Leah Hausman (director, movement director and choreographer) put us through our paces with a series of physical warm ups inspired by Jacques Lecoq’s work to ensure that we were openly communicating with our bodies, and a range of floor routines (aka ‘The Spiral’) which ensured we focussed on our pelvic muscles. All helped create awareness as to how these muscles contribute to our singing and physicality.

The afternoon session involved 4 masks. We would each put on a mask (with our backs to everyone else), and as we turned around we had to imagine that this was the first time we’d seen the sea and the horizon. Those of us in the audience would openly discuss what we thought was the ‘story’ behind each individual character. The aim was that the neutral mask would aid awareness of any physical mannerisms, and for us to notice how these are emphasized to an audience when we’re unable to rely on the facial expressions to tell the story. This was a great way of discovering things we do subconsciously (such as the way we stand / hold our heads), and discover how this comes across to an audience.

Sunday morning came round quickly. Unfortunately, quickly can’t be used to describe the rate at which any us were able to move, and yet as if by some small miracle, we were still able to muster enough stretch and flex for our guest tutor that day – Olga Masleinnikova (choreologist, movement director and teacher: http://www.olgamasleinnikova.com/) who uses combined dance-theatre techniques and Laban’s contemporary developments.

Olga dived straight in – making us move around the space at different tempi using all limbs at our disposal, all the while being acutely aware of the space we occupy. Attention was drawn to which parts of our body we were moving, how these parts are connected and how the speed at which we move can influence this connection. In groups we put together a small movement sequence in unison, using Laban dynamics we’d learnt during the day, such as Direct Vs Indirect, Strong Vs Light, Sudden Vs Sustained, Bound Vs Free etc.

It was without a doubt a lot of information to process over one weekend, but a real revelation to how flexible and responsive my body can be if I go about my movement with real intention. Olga advised we make a list of which areas of movement we find most difficult, those we relish, and that for 5 minutes a day we work on 1 particular area to improve our physical responses. I’m really looking forward to taking her up on this suggestion and seeing its effects.

As the afternoon came to a close we all crawled away into the darkness with our broken bodies in tow, yet with a positive outlook; with the tools we’ve learnt over the past 3 days, we can put ourselves back together in a way that will be so much more effective for our singing.

Other Voices – ENO Community Project – the performance

As mentioned briefly in a previous post: https://thalieknights.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/other-voices-eno-community-project/ this weekend was the opportunity for myself and other ENO Opera Works members to finally get to meet the full troupe of ‘Other Voices’ members from Streetwise Opera (a charity using music to help homeless people making positive changes in their lives), The B.I.G Choir (a training choir with a repertoire of popular Gospel), a children’s choir from Corpus Christie Catholic school and ENO Community Choir.

Directed by Stevie Higgins and Clare Whistler, Saturday’s workshop was a great introduction to each group’s retrospective music offering – covering Bach’s St John’s Passion, John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, Bob Marley’s Get up Stand up, to name but a few. The energy which each group put into their music was infectious, and it didn’t take long before we were all learning small segments of the main musical numbers – a great way of including everyone as much as possible (as someone who is more often found practising Handel than Bob Marley, a particular favourite was the ‘whyoooaaah’ section preceding Get up Stand up – I gave it my best Gospel wiggle!!) Such involvement was a welcome distraction from feeling the pressure of having Peter Sellars (director in residence at ENO) and John Berry (Artistic Director at ENO) quietly observing!

On Sunday we were joined by the children’s choir, and we now had all vocal forces in place for the afternoon’s performance in Windrush Square, Brixton. Clare Whistler’s direction had ensured we use as much of the features in the square as possible without ever compromising our delivery of the music, and this enabled us all to focus on the themes at the heart of ‘Other Voices’ (which aims to retell personal and shared history perspectives using our voices). Though the weather may have been on the chilly side, the reception by the local community and friends and family who came to support was warm and welcoming.

Singing is such a genuine expression of feeling that the weekend was a humbling experience to remind each person that regardless of age, race, beliefs and abilities – music is something that everyone can share.

Here’s a few pictures of the day:

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Photos by Rob Tyson Knights Photography (http://www.robtysonknights.com/)