MAY 2021: In conversation with Janis Kelly

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.

APR 2021: Vocal Boot Camp for vocal inspiration

Founded by mezzo-soprano Catherine Hopper, Vocal Boot Camp is a growing community of singers who want to learn about their voice, develop their sound, and feel more confident in their singing.

Earlier this month, 160 people took part in a series of Zoom sessions over five days, with as many as 100 singers interacting live at any one time. Following this initial success, and with sessions made available on-demand for two weeks afterwards, the organisation is now consolidating and planning next steps.

‘Vocal Boot Camp has organically grown into a business from something I felt I needed as a singer and which I wanted for the singing community. It fulfilled its purpose with five very different teachers, who are very much at the top of their game, offering a variety of perspectives into vocal technique. Afterwards people told us they felt revived and proactive about their singing.’

Catherine Hopper, Founder, Vocal Boot Camp

The course was not a replacement for the detailed work of a singing teacher, neither was it tailor-made to the needs of each participant. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives to professional singers who already had a technical understanding of vocal production, but who wanted a boost and to be inspired. At the start of each session participants would warm up together, followed by the talk and then a live Q&A, all lasting up to an hour each day and giving access to teachers you may not be able to work with on a regular basis.

A course has also been launched for the amateur choir singer to get ready for live choir rehearsals. Back to Choir, will cover posture, breathing, breath control, range and tone, and is the full vocal workout needed to feel confident in your voice again. With the premise ‘Singers have been silent for a year, but now it’s time to get your voice back’, this initiative has many benefits for singers of all ages and stages.

There are many ideas being developed for further courses, including a more holistic approach for professional singers; considering mind and body and not just vocal production. Feedback shows there is an appetite for experiencing these courses as a singing community, and future plans will reflect what professional singers want in these times, not least a little bit of motivation to get back to the practice room and to be ready for when work starts coming in again. Visit the Vocal Boot Camp website for further information and updates.

MAR 2021: In conversation with Malcolm Martineau

This month renowned accompanist Malcolm Martineau shares some preparation and performance advice…and his thoughts on the importance of song to singers working today.

What would you say are the essential ingredients for a career on the recital platform?

The recital platform requires a love for words and an ability to switch quickly from one style to another. An opera role sits within the same repertoire style, whereas an evening of song can be infinitely varied.

Within a three-minute song, a singer must be emotionally connected with every phrase. Never ask ‘What’s normally done here?’ Think of a back story and remember that any great art has a myriad of ways of commenting on a poem.

Be respectful to the composer and poet in the choices you make. Read the score!

Trust that your instincts are fine and don’t imitate…YouTube and Spotify can be a curse! You need to find your own voice and what you want to say and never need to sing anything you don’t like.

There’s no alternative to memorising. You can’t be imaginative and emotionally expressive if reading from a score…you cut off your ability to use imagination if absorbing information. Audiences can also feel short changed. If there’s no time to memorise, don’t do it!

Often based on poetic text written centuries ago, how do you make the Lieder recital inventive and relevant to audiences today?

The things that happened to people four hundred years ago are the same as happen to people today…we all appreciate nature, have best friends and experience death, unfaithfulness, lust and longing.

You need to make sure your emotions are real. The singer must find something relevant within the text themselves. Otherwise, the audience never will.

As an accompanist you feed what you feel into the phrase, how you hesitate or push on. When you know a singer well you can help advise and it’s interesting when they’re convinced with what they’re doing. If it’s fake it won’t work.

It is essential that a singer can put together a recital programme. This may feel like a jigsaw but remember that singing solidly for 2 hours can be hard, even with an interval. Think practically and be certain about the songs you present at the beginning. Start with something undemanding, rather than something which requires unflinching technique.

What are your top practice and rehearsal tips and how do you continue to keep ‘match fit’ and motivated?

I always practise six weeks ahead of the repertoire I need to perform. Don’t practise to get it right, practise not to get it wrong.

In lockdown there’s been a permanence of uncertainty, but there have been advantages too. Not practising to a deadline ensures bad habits are not ingrained. It’s slow work, but with no end gain you build a physical pattern of practice and a ‘non-panic’ button.

Don’t give yourself any additional reason to panic in performance. Nerves are often about not feeling prepared.

Finish a rehearsal on stage with the first song (do it again if you’ve already rehearsed it).

With such an international following as an accompanist, what performance advice would you give to singers working today?

Start building song repertoire through performance when you’re young. Opera can take over quite quickly and the intimacy and detail of song will feed precision in your opera singing.

Don’t let a mistake in performance affect the rest of your programme…that’s live performance and audiences like human beings. Remember that 98% of the audience may not even notice your mistake and those who do probably won’t even care.

With song it may be less important to make a beautiful sound all the time, as audiences will be listening to your voice and not to what you’re saying.

Where possible, endeavour to schedule your work so you have a block of opera and a block of song as both are very different. You ideally want to perform songs more than once, as you never really know a song until you perform it. By communicating through performance, you access more of your emotional self and can find something you may not have found before, learning too from the energy and reaction of the audience.

FEB 2021: Opera UK – Reflections on diversity

Below are some highlights from Dr Caryn Solomon‘s closing comments at Opera UK’s Roundtable discussion this month. It was a fascinating opportunity for the industry to share views about inclusion and accessibility in opera. Join the discussion! Join and Support — Opera UK
  1. What does it mean when your voice is silenced, excluded, taken from you? It means it has no power. It means whatever you have to offer dies even before it’s born.
  2. One of the wonders of opera – and art in general – is that it ​invites us to be other kinds of beings – in other times, places and circumstances. Or, to be the things we already are – but in some deeper, more implicated, complicated way – that we may not have thought about yet.
  3. Opera turns us all into listeners, into people who pay attention to other voices, other experiences, other perspectives.
  4. Sadly, we seem mostly to live in layers of silence that come, not from lack of speech or song or story, but from lack of listening.
  5. I’m talking here about what I would call ‘deep listening’ – a heightened sense of receptivity – the opposite of our usual cultural training which teaches us quickly to analyze and judge. We need to do more than simply observe – we need to ABSORB.
  6. Living respectfully with other people comes with true listening.
  7. Respect for listening itself, as an engaged and creative act, is part of the project of building respect for each other.
  8. Imagine becoming a living example of an organisation that truly recognizes listening, so often portrayed as passive and receptive, but really, at its best, a conscious, imaginative embrace and incorporation of what is heard. What a brilliant aim for Opera UK!

Dr Caryn Solomon, Sat 13th Feb 2021

JAN 2021: In conversation with Christine Jane Chibnall

Christine Jane Chibnall is the longstanding Director of Planning & Head of Casting at Opera North, having previously worked at Welsh National Opera in the 1970/80’s. Following over 37 years of collaboration and co-production with other opera companies, cross-discipline art forms and international Festivals, this month she shares her insights about casting and advice for singers auditioning today.

What has been your approach to casting over the last 40 years?

Different companies have different ways of casting – leaning more vocally, dramatically or somewhere in between. At Opera North we have resident music staff who look after musical considerations, except when casting early music and specialist repertoire where we sometimes involve guest conductors. However, perhaps more unusually, we also heavily involve directors in the casting process, which can often result in a longer timeframe when considering options. I was surprised when a leading British director once explained he was simply told who the Cio Cio San was going to be in his production of Madama Butterfly, because clearly the right chemistry in the room is of vital importance.

There are many ways to cast any role, and all directors will be looking for different things, I have therefore always endeavoured to put a selection of singers in front of a director.

Some singers are very good in audition but less good when they get into a rehearsal room, so dialogue/music working sessions can often be much more revealing in telling us how an artist may engage in a production process and how adaptable they may be. We try to see singers in performance when casting for specific repertoire, but it can be difficult to judge if it’s not a good production and auditions, although limited, can be more useful. Getting to know the singer is crucial when pulling teams together and so it’s important to give appropriate time to the casting process.

How should singers approach auditions?

Auditions are an imperfect science, but a necessary evil. I want to see personality in an audition and use it as an opportunity to get to know the singer better. I would rather see something interesting, that isn’t perfect, but has the seeds of something exciting that will develop during the rehearsal process and come to fruition during performances. Sadly, some singers seem to peak at the audition.

Regarding repertoire, we look for variety in language and style. Often singers are unsure whether to present roles in which they would be immediately employable, or arias that show their potential in roles that they are not yet ready to sing. I would suggest it is fine to do the latter, but that it is wise to be honest and acknowledge you may not sing that role right now.

It is important for us to know that an artist has a realistic sense of what they are capable of. This context is important for a panel, whether in live or recorded audition.

Managements are struggling to come to terms with the shape of auditions in the future. We are getting better at judging recorded videos, however it’s difficult to judge scale of voice – which doesn’t give a level playing field with varying access to high-quality equipment. This is an area that is being looked at as we emerge from the pandemic and beyond.

Remember that repertoire choices should be varied, reflect your personality and be relevant to the Company you are singing for. Ultimately however, find an aria that tells a story and always sing any accompanying recit, which can tell a panel as much as the aria itself.

What do you look for in a singer?

I look for someone who can communicate a story or an emotion which reflect their dramatic thoughts. A celebrated conductor once said to me ‘She has a very beautiful voice, but what good is that to me?’ Connection to the text is essential.

Increasingly, I’m looking for artists who have many tools in their toolkit.

Whilst singing on the mainstage, singers may be asked to take part in projects, education programmes, recitals, talks about their work with the Company. Vocal talent is a given and should only be one part of their offering. They must have versatility, dedication, self-discipline and motivation to develop the skills and craft necessary to forge a career as a freelance singer.

What advice would you give to singers working today?

I would urge all singers to watch theatre and other artforms. Listen to other singers and watch their performances in the same role to see how they differ.  

Don’t expect a straight line from music college to whatever stage you want to sing on. There are lots of ways to get from A to B, and life experience is essential if you want to really engage with the operatic repertoire and confront the major issues of the human condition they explore.

If there is one single piece of advice I would give to any singer, it is don’t ever open your mouth and sing a note unless you know why you are singing it. You need to have something to say to be interesting.

However, returning to the essential point that a singer is a communicator, now more than ever we need to remember that we do what we do for audiences and not for ourselves. We must continue to remain relevant and reflect and serve the communities we live in.

DEC 2020: 10 tips for recording recordings…

As we look forward to sharing our Grange recordings in the New Year, we’d like to share some tips that you might consider when preparing your own recordings…and they don’t need to cost a penny!

At a time when auditions are being held online, with recordings often requested for prior consideration, keeping audio and video up-to-date/relevant to your repertoire journey is crucial if ever asked to provide material at short notice. As high-quality content is more important than ever before, here are a few tips to consider when planning your recording:

  1. If recording on your own device, use an additional microphone or Zoom recorder, it will make a substantial difference to the sound quality captured. Ask around, you may know someone who already has you what you need.
  2. Ensure there is no sound disturbance which might ruin your perfect take.
  3. Ensure the light in the room is sufficient to show your features clearly and that you’re not in silhouette (i.e. with a bright light source behind you).
  4. Ensure the frame is not too close and shows ¾ or full body, giving a sense of physicality as you sing. You may want to shoot on different cameras and cut together a variety of angles. Although that would be good for promotional videos on your website/YouTube, you should send companies a single take with no cuts.
  5. Ensure the piano has been tuned.
  6. Brief your accompanist to what you’ll be presenting and send music in advance if needs be. Ensure your repertoire is varied in language, style, period etc, and shows what you can do well now, not what you might do in several years’ time.
  7. Ensure there is time for rehearsal outside of the allocated recording time (preferably on a separate day if schedules allow).
  8. Don’t underestimate the time needed for recording and don’t try to record too much in one go (two arias per 40mins/1hour is preferable).
  9. Ensure you factor enough breaks for you and your accompanist and that there is food available if recording lots of pieces on the same day. You might also want to think about dress code and/or whether you want to have a change of clothes for variety of takes.
  10. Lastly, ensure you are well rested on the recording day and have lots of water to stay hydrated!

Top tip: Every time you undertake a contract, ask if there is any recorded content and/or photos that you can use on your own website for promotional purposes. Good quality stage photos in performance add variety, colour and interest alongside existing headshots. Companies may be more than willing if you credit them and the photographer accordingly.

The above doesn’t have to cost anything, but will give you the best chance of singing at your best and getting the best out of your recordings. You might also choose to spend some money hiring a good venue, outsourcing technical support, purchasing editing software etc, etc. This doesn’t have to be excessive but should be factored into your ongoing budget, with a little money put aside for that purpose each time you do a gig. A tax-deductible expense, there’s no reason not to make this as important as your singing lessons and coachings.

The first time someone from a casting department hears you will probably be online, so invest in your digital presence as your window to the world. This takes time, thought and preparation, but is an investment well worth making.

NOV 2020: In conversation with Christopher Luscombe

This month theatre director Christopher Luscombe discusses working with singers and what directors might be looking for in the rehearsal room.

As a director, what attributes do you look for in a singer?

I suppose all directors look for the same thing – a singer who is genuinely interested in acting, and wants to explore the text as well as the music. Having said that, I’m the first to say that the music comes first – a singer obviously needs to be comfortable with the score. The most important things after that are a desire to tell the story as well as to sing the notes, to have imagination, emotional intelligence, and to be prepared to make mistakes and look a bit of a fool occasionally. I suppose the last bit boils down to having a good sense of humour.

How important is the craft of theatre and how can this be woven successfully into singing technique?

I think there’s a danger that craft has become a bit of a dirty word of late, and yet there are so many helpful rules that we should observe in stage acting of any kind. Needless to say, we sometimes choose to break the rules – that can be exciting and liberating. But it’s helpful to know the rule that’s being broken. And rehearsals are a lot more productive when there’s a shared technical language. This is something that you pick up with experience of course, and nobody is expected to know it all, least of all at the beginning of a career.

I find I’m still making discoveries every day about technique and craft. But the important thing is to be on the lookout, and to enjoy adding to one’s knowledge.

Singing technique and acting technique are sometime hard to marry. It can be frustrating at times when everyone wants to face downstage all the time. But of course that isn’t necessary, and there are ways and means if everyone works together.  

What draws you to work with singers?

I love working with singers because I’m in awe of their talent, and I love hearing them sing every day. I also love the fact that they arrive on Day One knowing the material! This is very unusual in spoken theatre, and it saves so much time. I also find singers are fun to be around, and – contrary to the tedious stereotype – lacking in ego and vanity. I came to directing opera quite late, so maybe I’m still in the honeymoon period, but I always seem to have a great time with singers.

What advice would you give to singers working today?

Coronavirus has changed the industry. Whether or not it’s changed forever remains to be seen, and I hope we’ll get back to our old lives again very soon. But I suspect things are going to be tough for a while, and they weren’t exactly easy before. So the important thing is to think positive.

See as much as possible – not just opera, but all forms of theatre. Keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the business and in the outside world. All we’re doing is holding a mirror up to nature, so the more our work reflects the world we live in the better.

Grab every opportunity to perform – you’ll always learn from it, and you never know where it’ll lead or who you’ll meet. Always turn up on time, and always do the homework. And when you’re in rehearsal, turn off your mobile and watch what everyone else is doing. The rehearsal room is an escape from the everyday – so make the most of it.

OCT 2020: Launch of Opera UK

As colleagues on the continent enter lockdown lite and start to close their doors again, in the UK we continue facing local lockdowns, regional tiers and the inevitable national circuit breakers to come.

Our European Houses and Concert Halls have achieved much over the last few months however and there’s been some interesting takeaways. With a fifth of the capacity they were designed for, large auditoria and expansive foyers have become daunting rather than inspiring spaces. Without the shoulder-to-shoulder security of large gatherings, audiences too have been learning to applaud again…more tentative with the distance now separating them. Everything has changed, drawing painful parallels to the industry we once took for granted.

If there were ever a time to communicate and learn from one another, it’s now. Last week Opera UK launched with the remit to future-proof our sector through professional collaboration, support and advocacy. It will become a resource for individuals as well as companies, and everyone’s voice will be needed to build an inclusive and sustainable future for opera.

To find out more about Opera UK or to sign up as a member please visit their website. I’ve joined the conversation, will you?

SEP 2020: In conversation with Ann Murray

This month, celebrated mezzo-soprano Ann Murray shares her early musical influences and the advice she would give to singers working today.

What are your earliest musical memories and who are your singing inspirations?

Having noticed I had a voice as a toddler my mother took me for singing lessons when I was four. Like the Eisteddfords in Wales, the Feis Ceoil was a central part of Irish culture and I was taking part in competitions from five years of age, like most children at the time. Aged seven, I was one of the founding members of the Young Dublin Singers Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath and went on to St Louis boarding school, Monaghan, where I joined the choir and took part in various school productions.

As I tended to imitate what I would hear, I rarely listened to records…which were expensive to get hold of in any case! In earlier years I therefore had less access to opera and was more exposed to live performances of Lied and Oratorio. While at University College Dublin, however, I was cast as the Shepherd Boy in Rome Opera’s 1968 concert performance of Tosca, which was touring Ireland with the wonderful Magda Olivero in the title role and which she went on to sing as her MET Opera debut aged 65 in 1975.

At that time, I was competing in the Feis Ceoil and the adjudicator suggested I might consider pursuing a career in singing. One thing led to another and I auditioned for the Royal Northern College of Music and was invited to study with Frederic Cox, recognised as one of the finest singing teachers of the twentieth century. He had a great knowledge of the repertoire and encouraged an easy technique with no unnecessary pushing. Some of his other pupils included Elizabeth Harwood, Rosalind Plowright, Ryland Davies, Paul Nylon and Dennis O’Neill. At the time the RNCM were presenting an exciting range of repertoire including Lohengrin, Peter Grimes, Norma, Verdi Requiem and Werther, but no one was damaged vocally, and all were encouraged to sing healthily.

I have always learned something from the people I work with and believe that singing with great colleagues raises your own game. Two singers I particularly admire are Edita Gruberová and Margaret Price and have been lucky enough to sing with them both.

What are the realities of maintaining a successful career and what advice would you give to singers working today?

The cruel reality is that you will have already spent a large portion of your fee before even leaving the house (tax/NI, agent’s fee, travel, concert dress/dry cleaning, scores, music/language coaching etc). As a freelance artist you must take all this into account and ensure that suitable financial provision is made for yourself.

Work abroad often involves long periods of repertoire preparation for the next contract, and this must be factored into your free time, as well as time for children and family commitments. Do not underestimate the preparation time required to learn a new role. You may find additional pressure not to be ill, absent or under prepared if understudies have not been contracted.

Dull discipline is the foundation of any successful career. You cannot fly on stage if you’ve not done this work in advance.

Don’t feel you need to sing all the time in your own practice – read the libretto, look at how important you are in other character’s lives. What are they saying about you? Be inquisitive. Become a detective and think of imaginative backstories you can draw on…regardless what a director may ask you to do on stage. Don’t see this as an onerous commitment. It should be an ongoing process, letting your imagination run free and enabling your performances to become as unique and creative as you are.

AUG 2020: A lockdown launch

Despite ongoing uncertainty surrounding rehearsals and public performance, I feel incredibly privileged to present these ten singers as their careers go from strength to strength. Steve Phillips Management offers hands-on career management and bespoke representation to a hand-picked roster of artists working internationally and we look forward to sharing their careers over the years ahead.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, uncertainty continues to dominate our industry. However our varied and adaptable roster are ready to take whatever challenges lie ahead.