This month international soprano Janis Kelly, Chair of Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music, shares her thoughts about preparing roles for performance and what singers at conservatoire should be considering today.
What were your earliest musical influences and when did you first become introduced to opera?
Our mother had an early love of music and sang to us as children. At sixteen years of age, she went into Biggars, Sauchiehall Street, where you could go into a booth and make your own record. She recorded The Dream of Olwen and Gounod’s Ave Maria and I can still hear her beautiful and mature quality of voice, despite the faint recording. At fourteen, my father saw a production of Eugene Onegin at Scottish Opera, which inspired a lifelong love of theatre and live performance. It was his drive that encouraged the six of us to sing harmony together and, as a family group, we would be sent out to perform semi-professionally and in competitions as far away as Aviemore near Inverness.
Our family home was full of music, with recordings played of singers such as Deanna Durbin, and we would keep our bedroom doors open at night and harmonise together.
Our father also built a fully functional stage in our garage, with flys, wings and lights, and we would improvise with friends and perform plays with music, dancing and acrobatics to the adults in the evening.
Amongst these early creative experiences Ian Bowman, head of music at Inverness Royal Academy, produced a performance of Così fan tutte with the Fort Augustus Abbey School. At fifteen years of age therefore, I sang my first Fiordiligi in English. We spent a whole year learning the music during evenings and weekends, taking inspiration from the Heather Harper and Janet Baker version being performed in London at the time. The piece has stayed with me throughout my career, both as a performer and as a director (Grange Park Opera, 2001). The teacher who taught me my technique, which has been a constant throughout my career and enables me to teach others, is the great soprano Elisabeth Grümmer.
You’re often described as a leading singing-actress, what is your advice to learning a role and making it your own?
I had the good fortune to work for ten years at the Opera Factory, an experimental opera ensemble founded by Australian director David Freeman. I came with a bag of tricks from college, ultimately limiting myself to what I was able do on stage. Through various exercises, we explored spatial awareness in a calm body and worked in groups, participating and observing, so that we could see each other creating and responding within the same environment. This was a slow process, rehearsing for three-hour sessions and improvising for over an hour, but we learned there are many ways of saying the same thing.
We would stay in character all day, and even all weekend, surprising ourselves with what we were capable of doing.
I would sleep on the floor when playing Susanna and take long baths when singing the Countess. On one occasion, when playing Despina, I went to Soho and followed an old lady who had walked out of a restaurant kitchen. For over ten minutes I watched how she walked and stooped, and copied her whole physicality. When creating a character, I lose myself, sometimes imagining my lips are three times bigger than they are, anything that helps to morph into another persona. Unfortunately, we’re in a fast-food era and time is no longer given to this important preparatory work. Lucille Ball remains my main influence for comedy.
Don’t put tension into your characters. Even if that character needs tension you must fake it, be grounded but keep your neck free. Feldenkrais is a way to find natural strength in the body with a deep core.
Remember your roots need to be strong to give you the freedom to create. Have an arrogant body and a vulnerable heart.
Just play on stage and be present, continually in the moment. The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan is a must read. I learned when inventing you do forget, it’s part of a process and rehearsals should be a safe place to make mistakes. At the Opera Factory we would do a whole week of improvisation before adding the music, empowering us to bring our own energy and ideas into the room.
As Chair of Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music, what advice do you have for singers pursuing a career today?
You need to be careful with young voices, take time and don’t rush. Singers like Magda Olivero and Anna Moffo took their time and subsequently had long-lasting careers. Develop your own ideas about performance and be able to talk about voices. Listen to all colleagues, all voices and go to concerts and competitions to find out what is going on in the world.
Part of my teaching refers to the speaking voice as there is a close alignment between the mechanics of speech and singing. In my own career I needed to work hard to drop my larynx, making the speaking voice warmer, putting it on the breath and making space. Practice your speaking voice for dialogue.
Listen to American theatre director Peter Sellers. When he talks about Opera, he makes it feel like it’s what we’re here to do. In theatres we see pain. Although we don’t feel it, we sense it collectively as we breath together. When singing I always imagine I’m speaking. The relationship between musical theatre and opera is important and you must be able to offer several facets and styles of performance to maintain a varied career.
The demands of raising a family, keeping a home, teaching, touring, rehearsing and performing can take their toll. I have used Buddhism and meditation during busy periods to maintain balance.
Singing and acting is so ethereal, and we must be calm to have the control required to create and play – you have to be in control to get out of control. Your voice will follow.
Theatre is my teacher as it requires me to question myself all the time. You must have courage, curiosity and a need to be on stage. Ask yourself, why does the world want to watch me perform? You need to be able to tell a story, so be prepared and proactive in making your own projects. Give of yourself and be vulnerable.