Sarah Connolly Masterclass (ROH / NOS)

If there’s one thing that anyone will tell you about me, it’s how my unashamed mega appreciation of all things Sarah Connolly. There hasn’t been a single performance I’ve witnessed where I haven’t come away feeling totally inspired and wanting to find the nearest practise room to try things out!

Last night Sarah took a masterclass at the ROH with two mezzos (Hanna-Liisa Kirchen and Heather Lowe from the National Opera Studio), and I knew we were in for a treat. I sat, observed, felt green with envy and scribbled notes during the course of the evening. Apologies for the flurry of bullet-points – I hope you find these snippets ring true to your own singing, and you try applying a few in your next practise session:

  • Not all singers end up on the stage. Some end make successful careers as recitalists and chorus members. She had no idea what she wanted to do at 23/24, and it was only around the age of 32 where she thought she might like to dive into the world of opera.

Notes raised during Hanna-Liisa’s working session on Handel’s ‘’Where shall I fly’’, Hercules

  • What is your aria doing to you emotionally? What is it you are expressing? How can you emphasize things differently? Give your text reality and meaning.
  • Speaking your text through in a declamatory manner will allow you to find the natural rhythmic structure, and enable you to sing it as if it were spoken.
  • Don’t always worry about the meter in Handel; ensure you are always moving the text i.e. often you will discover that you must treat recitative accompagnato as secco.
  • Rubato is essential in all Baroque as it provides the music with a sense of expression and flow.
  • Don’t make your recitative appear to be ‘known’ – make it be the first time you’re having these thoughts. Think of your thought, and sell it!
  • Fill rests with energy and intention.
  • If you have awkward breaths to take, make them expressive. The audience probably won’t even notice.
  • Ornamentation: ensure you ornament on the correct part of the word. I.e the word ‘Pianti’, the ornaments should happen on pianti not on the weaker part of the word.
  • Make the most of explosive consonants ‘sposa’ – helps engage the support and natural flow of breath rather than wasting breath.

On the train journey home I mulled over all the musical and emotional responses I’d witnessed to Sarah’s guidance throughout the evening. I’ve no doubt that many of us have teachers that week in, week out, encourage us to apply these exact same notions to our own singing, but, witnessing the changes as an outsider really drives home just how important the emotional connection and consequent delivery is.

Personally, I’ve often caught myself feeling so totally obsessed with technicalities that I’ve often become somewhat apologetic about the emotional delivery for fear of the breath / ornamentation / expression / movement police. Perhaps we could all benefit from allowing ourselves practise sessions, lessons and coachings where the focus is on the sheer delivery of the aria (as if it were the actual performance) and seeing how this subconsciously resolves a lot of the technical issues we thought we had with ‘that particular phrase’.

My favourite part of the evening was Sarah exclaiming ‘’don’t worry about the possible car crash, I’m expecting it! Embrace it!’’ I think we all need to push ourselves to have that car crash, and explore all likely avenues – isn’t this singing malarkey meant to be fun, after all?!

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:

image1 image2 image3 image4

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

Other Voices – ENO community project

A few of us in ENO Opera Works are currently involved in Other Voices – a community project developed in response to Peter Sellers’ residency at ENO (he is currently directing John Adam’s new work The Gospel According to the Other Mary and Purcell’s The Indian Queen). The project is a celebration of the power of the human voice, and looks to retell personal experiences and shared history through multiple perspectives.

As well as singers from ENO Opera Works, the ENO Community Choir will also collaborate with The B.I.G Choir, a choir from St Martin in the Fields school, and an ensemble from Streetwise Opera. All participating musicians are looking over a wide range of music – ranging from Bach’s St John’s Passion to John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. We had our first music call last Friday with Stevie Higgins (Music Director), and worked on a first few bits of choreography (turns out my music-reading & choreography skills are to be desired after 7pm)– it promises to be something very different, and very special.

The first performance date is the afternoon of the 30th November at Windrush Square, in the heart of Brixton. Come rain or shine we will be there, and hope that you can come join us!

For further details: http://www.eno.org/communitychoir

Response weekend – Handel, Handel and more Handel.

Finally, the weekend where we got to put our weeks of music preparation into practise! Our scenes (music from Semele, Alcina, Orlando and Agrippina) had been chosen, prepped and individually preened, and it was time to explore and apply what we’d learnt in our Input weekend with Mike and Polly ( https://thalieknights.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/input-weekend-1-11-12th-oct/ )

Day 1

Today was all about detailed discovery. Working in our groups, we shared the key points we felt were applicable to both the libretto and our scene:

The Libretto

  • Given circumstances and facts
  • Character research – who am I? What is indicated in the libretto? Are there thematic qualities in the music which represent my character?
  • What is the through-line for my character?

The scene

  • What are my possible objectives? What is my super-objective?
  • Actions: what are the possible actions?
  • What are my obstacles?
  • Are there any turning points in the scene?

We worked with Martin and Rob Bottriell (repetiteur) on our scenes throughout the day – sometimes just with spoken text, sometimes sung, but always clearly indicating what our objective was. We then broke the scenes down, exploring different actions which may be applicable to our characters. I found this a really effective method of making us consider what the character wants in the scene, what they are feeling, and acting upon these sentiments.

Having a clear insight into our individual characters meant that as the day progressed, our performances became a lot less ‘generic’ – even simple objectives such as ‘I want to leave this room’ are important and give our characters a sense of purpose throughout the scene.


Day 2

We were joined by the lovely conductor Robert Howarth who specializes in early and classical repertoire. Having Rob at our disposal was such a learning experience – we explored our music in a stylistic context, and he really made us consider the text and the different ways in which it can be varied (especially in Handel opera where so often we sing 1 line and it is frequently repeated). For example, a line that was often sung in the Semele excerpt could be emphasized in three different ways:

You always complain

You always complain

You always complain

My scene – Alcina (I sang Bradamante) – had 3 Alcina’s. This meant that, despite the objective I had chosen remaining pretty much the same, I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand how differently each individual imagination shapes a scene; not one of my three Alcina’s had chosen the same objective or actions, and this resulted in the overall outcome being different each time. Some worked, some didn’t, and this was ok. As Martin kept emphasizing – the purpose of the weekend was by no means to ‘stage’ these scenes, and as the day progressed I noticed that we were all a lot more keen to take risks, to try new approaches and see if they worked. Knowing that there was no right or wrong installed a real sense of confidence in the group, and our feedback to one another became bolder and more constructive.

I look forward to seeing what challenges we face in Module 2!

Input Weekend 1 – Mike Alfreds, Polly Teale and Stanislavsky

Our first input weekend was spent with the awesome Mike Alfreds and Polly Teale (http://www.sharedexperience.org.uk/) exploring the groundwork behind the Stanislavsky technique; how to apply this to text, character research & development, rehearsals and eventually a performance.

I was a bit apprehensive about this weekend to start with – I would hardly consider myself a natural born actress, and Stanislavsky was something which had been somewhat thrown at us at college without any real explanation as to what it was all about, thus rendering it’s first proper introduction as a tad overwhelming.

Prior to our session with Mike, we were asked to read ‘Different every night’:

Different Every Night

and  were also given a short extract from Chekhov’s ”The Seagull’ which we had to have memorized for the day. With Polly, we studied an excerpt from Kindertransport (a play by Diane Samuels which describes the life in World War 2 of a Kindertransport child),

The scenes were broken down into main concepts:

Want: Objectives Self explanatory, what does the character want? I.e he wants to find someone to love, to lead an honourable life, to avoid confrontation, to find the meaning of life etc.

Scene Objectives What does a character want, and tries to obtain from other characters throughout a specific portion of the text? A character can have more than one objective during a scene, and what each character wants from one another, fundamentally gives the scene it’s structure.

Through lines This is the character’s main objective throughout the story – it generates plot, and functions in response to the plot.

Super Objectives Usually very general, and deal with concepts i.e to conquer the world, avoid commitments etc.

* Who is my character? What do they say about themselves? Do I say anything about myself? What are the possible objectives for the scene? What is the through-line for my character in the whole opera? What is my super-objective? What are my actions / wants? What are my obstacles in the scene i.e external, internal conflicts and even other characters themselves?

I’ve spent so much time thinking about characters in opera based around feelings, rather than looking at hard facts, that this weekend with Mike and Polly really came as a revelation. So often we ‘play sad / play happy’ and this leads to a generalized performance which fundamentally isnt honest and frankly, rather dull. Openly exploring sounds, mannerisms and potential actions associated with certain emotions has made me realize just how much involvement we need as actors in order to fully understand how to portray that character.  As a self-confessed ‘over thinker’, I’ve always found it difficult to just let go and ‘be’ a character, but after the work we all put into this weekend session and the feedback that was given, I think its much easier to understand what is absolutely necessary, and trust that knowing these foundations will serve your truthful portrayal of the character in itself.

We’ve been allocated our music scenes for this term (all Handel, HURRAH!). Our homework prior to the response session is to study the entire libretto and use the techniques learnt over this weekend in order to better understand our individual characters and our scene itself.. Watch this space…