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Buckets of Fun

After a summer break where I tried to get as far from the world of opera as possible, I’m back on the road, and back on the blog, once more whinging about all the stuff that irritates me about a singer’s life.

I have long considered the two most frustrating periods in my singing life to be the last few days of a contract, when I’m champing at the bit to be finished with the last performance and on my way home, and those first few days, when my irritation at being reluctantly forced back out on the road is compounded with settling into unfamiliar surroundings, and trying to convince myself that I can be comfortable and happy in my new, temporary home.

Between these two bookends of grumpiness, I fall fairly quickly into an easy rhythm based around rehearsal, role preparation and too many late nights in that cheap bar that seems to lurk around the corner from every opera house.

As I’ve said before, opera can be a repetitive, boring slog, and you owe it to your own sanity to find ways to keep yourself amused.

With that in mind, today’s Ice Bucket Challenge presented a fun diversion on yet another wet and miserable free day here in Brussels. (August, my arse!)

For those of you who don’t engage with the often faddish world of social media, this latest internet sensation has proven an outrageous success as a fundraising stunt for Motor Neuron Disease (ALS) charities around the world.

The challenge is simple – cough up some money, or empty a bucket of iced water over your head, then nominate three friends to do the same.

This simple choice morphed quickly into “donate AND take a soaking” as soon as the public realised the vast amusement factor in watching your friends and colleagues drench themselves at the same time raising money and awareness for a worthy cause. There is an indecent amount of schadenfreude to be had whittling your list of potential targets down to just three people, knowing that it’s all for a good cause in the end.

I must confess, that whilst I was aware of Motor Neuron Disease as a serious medical condition, I would have been hard-pressed to define it had someone asked me. Here’s a description from the ALS Association website (www.alsa.org):-

“Motor Neuron Disease (or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, as it’s known outside the UK) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralysed.”

Last night I went online and made my donation to the Motor Neuron Disease Association (www.mndassociation.org), and at midday today I found myself standing on a balcony at the opera house, looking out over the centre of Brussels with a bucket of iced water cradled in my arms.

It really cheered me on this damp, dank day to think that my self-humiliation was benefitting (in a very minor way) another inhabitant of our little planet.

To me the beauty of the Ice Bucket Challenge lies in its ease. It makes doing something for charity simple, even for the laziest of souls. There’s no need to climb a mountain, or run a marathon, or engage in a 24-hour karaoke-thon to raise money for charity, when you can help just by making yourself look daft.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to take anything away from all those wonderful people who push themselves to their personal limits and beyond to raise money. We should all support such endeavour with all the sponsorship and encouragement we can muster, and strive ourselves to achieve such feats. There is an admirable courage and nobility in testing your limits for the benefit of others.

Personally, whist I have supported many charities down the years in some form or other, I have never yet set out upon a big sponsored adventure. I’ve long dreamed of making a sponsored motorcycle ride down the entire length of the Pan-American Highway, from Alaska to Cape Horn, but I’ve not done it yet. I’m sure many people out there have their own goals and dreams for a major charitable endeavour, yet, like myself, are still a long way from achieving them.

In the meantime, while you’re still in the planning stage of your great adventure, or even just for those days when you’re feeling a little bit lazy and little bit bored, take it from me, tipping a bucket of water over yourself and putting your hand in your pocket to help another human being is a brilliant way to pass the time.

Here’s the proof.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UBn-sOnrhH8&feature=youtu.be

http://www.alsa.org
http://www.mndassociation.org

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The Everyday Voice

I would like to start with a revelation. Despite appearances, and I know this will come as a great shock to you, I am not Anna Netrebko. And the sad fact – I hate to be the one to break it to you – is that neither are you.

Given that there are currently only a handful of genuine superstars in the world of opera amongst the tens of thousands of singers working in the profession, it is statistically quite unlikely that anybody reading this, myself included, is ever going to experience that stratospheric level of success.

I apologise for beginning so negatively, but the first truth any aspiring singer needs to face is that, these days, only a chosen few will ever achieve great fame and financial reward in our profession, no matter how good a singer they are.

The days when contract singers at the major opera companies were household names, and could command large fees from singing a relatively small repertoire of roles are long gone.

Opera today is about more for less.

Today, singers are expected to regularly perform to a much higher standard than the singers of yesteryear. Park and bark productions are now mercifully rare, and singers are expected to be competent singing-actors, capable of giving detailed and nuanced character studies, in addition to producing beautiful sounds, across a much wider range of repertoire.

And, owing to the present global financial situation, we are expected to do this for less and less remuneration with every passing year.

All across the world, purse strings are being tightened, funding is being cut, productions cancelled. Opera, make no mistake, is a luxury profession, and, in the current financial market, it is struggling to justify its existence.

It’s a pretty gloomy picture, I admit. So where do we, the non-superstars, fit in? What can we hope to achieve?

The good news is that, despite all the doom and gloom, if you’re motivated, you can still do well.

Luck, or the lack of it, many people will tell you is what makes or breaks a career. I don’t believe that. Luck may present you with an opportunity, true, but it is not luck which will enable you to take advantage of it. It is preparation.

Of all the skills an opera singer must develop, none is more important than a reliable technique. You’ll notice I did not say a good technique, or a perfect technique, but a reliable one.

Over the years, I have met too many singers who have become obsessed with perfecting their 100% voice, by which I mean, the sound that they produce when they are at their absolute peak of vocal and physical health. However, it is important to realise that a working singer rarely gets the chance to take to the stage under ideal conditions.

All too often you are fighting off a cold, or hay-fever, or you’re jet-lagged, or you’ve had a terrible night’s sleep, or you are exhausted from a busy schedule. It is surprising and a little alarming to realise just how few opportunities you will ever have to perform at your absolute best. Hans Hotter once joked that his voice was only at its best about 4 days a year, and on two of them, he didn’t even have a show!

Any opera singer is far better-off developing what I call The Everyday Voice. The highest level which you can consistently maintain in adverse conditions. Personally I try to aim for about 80% of my optimum. Some days I can do better, some not quite as well, but on average I reckon I can sing to about 80% of my full strength most of the time.

So, what does that realistically mean?

Well, for starters, it means setting your pride aside. It means learning to live with making the odd rancid sound, learning to accept a few bumps and warts. It means battling through the gunge when you have a cold, and know that you are producing an acceptable sound without causing your voice harm. It means realising that what you are hearing inside your head is not what the audience is hearing out front. It means that, sooner or later, you will perform a spectacular crack and yodel in front of a very large number of witnesses. But, most importantly, it means recognising that, whilst you are unlikely to bring down the house when you take your curtain call, you will at least have a few extra quid in the bank to help pay the mortgage.

I believe that too many singers today get reputations as cancellers, and they do so because they are chasing an unrealistic and unattainable ideal. When the conditions are less than perfect, they cannot cope, and end up cancelling. But, if you work hard at developing your everyday voice, you will be surprised by the level of consistency it is possible to achieve. Just look at Placido Domingo.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people compare his technique unfavourably with Pavarotti’s, yet Placido has arguably had the greatest operatic career of all time. Why? Because he figured out a way to sing at a consistently high standard day-in-day-out. Even today, when most singers his age are cashing their pension cheques, he maintains a schedule that would cripple most singers half his age.

His secret? Not a perfect voice, but an excellent “everyday” one, consistent and reliable.

In developing an everyday voice, you will find it’s not just performances but also auditions that become a whole lot easier. Beating yourself up for not producing perfect singing in the most imperfect of circumstances is futile and unproductive. Learning to accept your flaws as a singer is very liberating, and is the necessary first step in overcoming them.

Under audition stress, it is tempting for inexperienced singers to constantly offer excuses as to why they may not be singing their best. I cannot stress how much this undermines you in the eyes of audition panels. Ask yourself how the audience would feel if, before the start of the show, you walked onstage and reeled off a list of excuses as to why your performance might suck that evening. Nobody in their right mind would consider that acceptable, yet many young auditionees do exactly that when they find they cannot produce their perfect, 100% sound on command.

It is important to realise that audition panels are looking, not for the greatest voice they have ever heard, but for competent, reliable singers who are capable of delivering to a high standard across a variety of roles. They are seeking out confidence, security, and self-control as much as good singing and acting. Remember, their reputations rest upon the quality of their casting decisions.

Developing an Everyday Voice will give you confidence, a confidence that audition panels can spot a mile away. As with all relationships, trust is key to the relationships you should seek to develop with opera companies. They need to trust in your confidence, professionalism, and ability to deliver, and if you can provide them with that, you will, in all likelihood, find yourself invited back again and again in the future.

So, how does one develop an everyday voice? Well, there’s the rub. That process is different for everyone, so I’m afraid that’s up to you to figure out on your own. But here are a few things I’ve gleaned over the years. I hope they might serve as reference points to help you on your way.

1 – Never listen to yourself. What you hear in one acoustic is not what you will hear in another. Learn to sing through sensation rather than sound.
2 – When you practice, practice what you will be singing. Singers tire faster than instrumentalists. Use your practice time wisely.
3 – If you are rehearsing, sing out as much as possible. Marking will teach you nothing. Singing out is the only sure fire way to develop stamina.
4 – If you are not rehearsing, rest your voice as much as possible. As a singer you have limited resources. Rest is as important as practice.
5 – Do not practice the day before a performance. Sing through a few chunks of the opera just to keep the voice ticking over.
6 – Do not over-sing on the day of a performance. If you haven’t been marking in rehearsals the voice will be there. Trust it and don’t leave it in the dressing room.
7 – Do not over-exercise on the day of a performance. Opera is knackering if you commit to it properly. What you give to the gym, you take from your audience.
8 – Do not confuse mucus with tiredness. Fear will stop you singing before phlegm will.
9 – Do not confuse tiredness with illness. Know your limits. If a good night’s sleep doesn’t fix the problem, proceed cautiously.
10 – If you screw up, don’t dwell upon it. It’s opera, not brain surgery. Nobody dies. Except, of course, the soprano.

(From a talk I gave at The Singing Entrepreneur a while ago.)

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The Great Injustice of Independence

Are you in favour of Scottish Independence?

People ask me this question on an almost daily basis, and I am forced to share with them the bitter truth that is doesn’t matter whether I am or not. I don’t count. And I’m not the only one.

I am one of 800,000 Scots who currently live in other parts of the UK, none of whom will be allowed to vote on the issue of Scottish Independence.

Now, let’s be clear about this. I still live in the UK, of which, until any independence vote is successful, Scotland is still very much a part. I do not live in a foreign country. I am not an expatriate. Like every UK citizen living in Scotland, I hold a British passport, not a Scottish one, yet, because I do not live geographically in Scotland, but 340 miles as-the-crow-flies south of the border, the powers that be have decided that I am not entitled to vote. Given that the current population of Scotland is only 5 million, you can imagine the massive impact those 800,000 extra voters would have. Shame none of us get a say.

To give you some background, I was born in 1973 in Yorkhill, Glasgow, and raised in Old Drumchapel. My parents are both Scottish. They both served in the City of Glasgow Police, my father becoming a Superintendent in the then newly amalgamated Strathclyde Police Force, my mother serving as one of Scotland’s first female detectives in the Criminal Investigation Department.

My mother’s parents were Scots, her mother a West of Scotland swimming champion in her youth, and her father serving in the City of Glasgow Police during the Second World War. Prior to that he had worked as a bow-plater in John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank, working on many of that yard’s famous constructions, including HMS Hood, the great battleship sunk by the Bismarck.

My father’s parents were also Scots. His father was a postman in Banavie, near Fort William in the Western Highlands, where my father was born. He took up this post having been invalided out of the Scots Guards in the First World War after a dum-dum bullet ripped the back of his thigh off at the Battle of the Somme. After retiring from the post office, he and my grandmother opened the Tigh Na Bruach Hotel at Invermoriston on the northern shore of Loch Ness. My father’s sister continued running it long after they died, religiously serving the region’s booming tourist industry until a stroke forced her to sell.

I could keep going back further and further, but I assure you, you’ll find nothing but Scots.

My Christian name is Iain (a Scots Gaelic version of John), and my surname is Paterson, a sept of the clan MacLaren, historical natives of the beautiful lands around Balquhidder, right in Scotland’s glorious heartland, in whose magnificent ancient tartan I will proudly be married later this year.

For seven of my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to attend The High School of Glasgow, one of Scotland’s top schools, and a flagship for all that is good about Scottish education. Scotland’s oldest school, it was founded as the Choir School of Glasgow Cathedral around 1124, and has a proud 900-year history.

I lived the first 22 years of my life in my birth city of Glasgow. I was raised as a member of the Church of Scotland in Drumchapel Old Parish Church, and, as a teenager, I was honoured to become a Sunday School teacher in that church.

I received my formal Music Training in Glasgow at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, as it was known then, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, graduating from Glasgow University, one of Scotland’s oldest (founded in 1451), with a BA in Musical Studies. I was fortunate enough to be one of only two students in my year who received a grant from the Scottish Education Department to fund my studies.

At the age of 22, I was forced to leave Scotland in search of work, as there was none available with out national company, Scottish Opera. I have performed in many concerts in Scotland, and have participated in both opening and closing concerts for the Edinburgh International Festival.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I’m about as Scottish as they come, yet a couple of politicians have decided that I am not entitled vote on whether my home country, of which I am very proud, should separate from the United Kingdom.

And I’m not alone. Three are 800,000 of us out there in other parts of the UK who are just as proudly Scottish as I am, but who get no vote.

You’ll notice that I’m not decrying the idea of Scottish Independence. I stood in our Parliament building in Edinburgh and was almost moved to tears by the very fact of its existence. Whether or not I favour Independence is beside the point. The point is that the decision is being made without the input of too many proud Scots who would love to, and should, have a say.

That isn’t democracy. It’s a joke. And it’s a very poor foundation upon which to build, or even re-build a nation. I can’t help but think that the ghosts of Hume and Smith and their enlightenment cronies are looking down and frowning upon such injustice.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20048521

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Rise of the machines

As a PR exercise, you’ve got to admit, it’s not bad – Wagner’s Ring Cycle played “live” by a computer.

Bound to generate a response, that one.

And as an extraordinary feat of patient programming, you’ve got to admire the tenacity of somebody prepared to input the whole Ring, note by note, into a computer.

Hats off to you, mate. I give up in seconds if the wi-fi is even a wee bit slow.

You can even make the argument that hearing a digitised orchestra in a theatre environment is an experiment we should embrace, simply to see how far computers have come.

Yet there is a place deep, deep in my being that has been screaming “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!” day and night since I heard this story.

The idea of a computer replacing a live orchestra in some sort of half-assed sci-fi-meets-classical-music mashup absolutely chills me to the bone.

I’m not the only one. Almost all of my professional colleagues have expressed concern, disgust, and even outrage at the thought of a computer programme replacing a live orchestra.

It’s hardly surprising. It’s been 22 years since my first paid gig, and, like every conscientious musician should, I have steadily practiced and honed my craft throughout those two decades to make me a better performer in every sense. The idea that a computer could replace me after all that hard work and investment of time, energy, and money, is terrifying and appalling.

I’m sure there was similar outrage in the chess world in May 1997 when world champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by an IBM computer called Deep Blue.

Opposing the ominous onslaught of technology is akin to King Canute trying to stop the tide with a wave of his arm. Pointless and ridiculous. The relentless march of invention and industry has claimed millions of human jobs throughout history, robbing skilled workers of their livelihood and crushing communities.

This is true in almost every field EXCEPT the arts. We lucky few seem to have thus far dodged the twin bullets of industrialisation and computerisation, where so many other professions have been decimated.

Why? What’s so special about us?

Simply put, whether you’re a painter, poet, playwright, sculptor, composer, writer, dancer, or musician, you have something a computer can never replace. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all bible-thumpy on you and claim that it’s your soul, although many people might call it that. I’m talking about human expression. You are lucky enough to work in an industry which requires it for its very existence.

It seems to me that we have risen to be the dominant species on our planet thanks in no small part to our need to communicate. Words, thoughts, ideas, emotions – we humans have an insuppressible desire to share everything we know and feel, and throughout our development as a species this desire has expressed itself best, and most efficiently and poignantly, through art.

Art, and music in particular, is the one truly common language of our world. People who share not a single word of vocabulary in common can pick up their instruments and make music together. Intuitive empathy and human expressiveness in their most raw form allow musicians to understand one another perfectly.

This is a miracle of human existence that no computer programme will ever be able to emulate. As long as computers rely on mathematics and algorithms, they will never be capable of true musical expression.

So I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button just yet.

If, however, in true Terminator fashion, computers ever become self-aware, then we might indeed have something very serious to worry about.

01110011 01110100
01100001 01110010
01110100 01110101
01110000

*system loading*

01101111 01101011

*interface ready*

*Opera Hologram 7873, commercial human interface designation, Patertron online*

Good morning. How may I entertain you, today?

Hello Patertron. I’m a bit new to this. You were just downloaded this morning. Can you guide me through it, please?

Certainly. I am an Officially Designated Digital Performance Avatar of Iain Paterson, who was legally disenfranchised as a freelance artist on June 4th 2024 in accordance with the Artistic Digital Conversion and Optimisation Law of 2019. Your local server contains a digital database of every recorded performance of Iain Paterson, both audio and visual, and my Audio/Visual Generative Algorithm is designed to extrapolate future performances of the user’s choosing from this information.

Sounds complicated. Can you simplify that a bit, please?

I can recreate every past performance of Iain Paterson, and generate new performances, in the medium of your choosing. My permanent connection to the Online Opera Database, allows you to cross-reference these performances with other performers of record.

So I can choose which singers, conductors, and orchestras I would like to hear him to perform with?

That is correct.

So how do I begin?

Please specify – existing performance or new performance.

Let’s have a new one, I think. Can you do Don Giovanni?

Of course. Please specify audio or visual.

Audio only for now.

Please specify conductor from existing database.

Erich Leinsdorf?

Leinsdorf Decca 1960 located. Please specify other performers.

Can’t I just have the other soloists on the Leinsdorf recording?

Of course. Please specify orchestra.

Errr… just give me the Met.

More information required. Please clarify.

Ugh. Really? The Met. The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

More information required. Please specify era.

Which era? Are you serious? I dunno. They’ve always been good. Can’t you just give me a general Met sound?

Of course.

*engaging chronological optimisation algorithm*

*processing*

*optimising*

Your opera is ready. Commencing Overture.

Gaaahhh! That sounds shit! Just gimme some Metallica instead, ffs…

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Accommodate this! A dig at digs.

It was the mousetrap next to the bed that really put me off.

The filthy, threadbare curtains, non-functioning lights, the broken sofa, charming though they might appear to a 19-year old student coming down from a meth high, didn’t really do it for me either.

Thought it was glamorous to be a jet-setting opera-singer, did you?

Think again.

A hundred years ago things were very different. Opera singers were the movie stars of the day, sailing around the globe on the world’s most luxuriant liners in First Class cabin comfort, staying in the most exclusive hotels, constantly being feted in the finest restaurants. All at the opera companies’ or promotors’ expense.

Oh, how things have changed.

Nowadays, singers are expected to pay for their own accommodation and living expenses from the startlingly modest (and, trust me, it really would surprise you just how modest) fees on offer.

Most companies will pay for two air or rail fares – one to get you there, and one to send you on your way – but that’s it, and they will invariably try to get you on the cheapest airline available, so don’t count on little luxuries like free drinks or airmiles.

A few companies still pay rehearsal fees, but most don’t, so singers now have to make provision for supporting themselves for as many as eight weeks of rehearsal, without expecting to receive a cent of remuneration for their hard work. You will only be paid for your performances, and if you fall ill and have to cancel? Tough titty. There’s no sickness cover on offer.

In summary, for a 12-week engagement with the average opera house (2 months of rehearsal, one of performance), a singer can expect to receive 6 to 8 performance fees and a return air/rail fare, all of which is most often paid upon the completion of the contract (sometimes even months later than that). That’s it.

Last year, for example, I received no payment for a 6 month period, owing to various opera companies’ fiscal complications (read “pathetic excuses”). I know some singers who have had to wait years, and that is no exaggeration, to receive the monies due them.

As you can imagine, this makes managing the purse strings something of a strategic minefield for us opera singers. We have to plan ridiculous allowances in advance for such things as illness, tax, household bills, rehearsal periods, living expenses, and a myriad of other fiscal demands, which is hard enough to manage when opera companies cough up promptly, but nigh on impossible when they don’t.

But the thing that annoys me the most about all this, that makes me absolutely incandescent with rage to the point of turning the air blue with foul-mouthed ranting, is that, more and more often, singers are expected to pay for their accommodation in full, before they’ve even arrived to do the job.

For a 12-week engagement, this will mean several thousand pound/euros (and nearly double that in US dollars) that a singer has to part with in the knowledge that they won’t see a penny back until nearly 3 months later. With more sympathetic opera houses it is, of course, possible to negotiate an advance against your performance fees to cover this colossal expense, but this is the sad exception rather than the rule. Most companies don’t help out at all.

So you can imagine my vein-popping apoplexy upon arriving at my latest accommodation to be greeted with the aforesaid mousetrap. Admittedly, there was no toilet in the bedroom as in the ghastly picture above, but, between the plastic bags over the light fittings, the ill-fitting, filthy curtains, the broken, torn sofa, the lack of laundry facilities, and the charming view of the coal-bins across the road, I was out the door faster than a rat scurrying up a drainpipe. (I daresay I might have witnessed that too, if not for my exigent departure.)

For this delightful accommodation, I had been charged €75 per night for a six week stay (€3150). As this had to be arranged while I was still working on my previous job, the only information I had to go on was their website (which, naturally, looked very nice indeed) and the fact that this apartment was on the company digs list.

I spent three days juggling a very demanding rehearsal schedule, several heavy suitcases, and a number of hotels, before I finally managed to get into an decent apartment. (It’s an apart-hotel that is impeccably maintained, very comfortable, and a mere 10-minute walk from the theatre. All for €82 per night, breakfast included. Bliss.)

However, after all this faffing around, I was left completely exhausted, and my voice decided to give up functioning completely at the latter end of the week. It has taken two full days of silence for my speaking voice to return to normal, and I guess I’ll see what state my singing voice is in tomorrow when we resume stage rehearsals.

This could all have been avoided.

No apartment should appear on an opera company’s dig list that hasn’t been recently vetted as appropriate. Singers have enough shit to contend with without having to shovel this as well.

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Giovannian Rhapsody

It’s been a fraught few days in the world of opera. In the critical press, the sinister shadow of body-fascism looms large once more. Feelings have been needlessly hurt, and erudite, impassioned responses have been made.

Valiantly deciding to avoid the issue head-on, and in the earnest hope of giving my many aggrieved colleagues a little bit of a chuckle, I would like to present my latest utterly pointless creation – Giovannian Rhapsody.

As the title suggests, it is an attempt to convey the plot of Don Giovanni through the (admittedly somewhat unlikely) medium of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s amazing what utter bollocks you can come up with on the Eurostar.

Giovannian Rhapsody

Tired of your real life?
Need a fresh fantasy?
Fancy a wild ride?
An escape from reality?

Open your eyes,
as I stroke your thighs, and see..
I’m just a rich boy.
I need no sympathy.
Because I’m easy come, easy go.
Build you up, lay you low.
Every woman’s heart is nothing but a target to me, to me.

Anna…
Just killed a man,
after leaving you in bed.
Drew my dagger, now he’s dead.

Anna…
It was so much fun,
to watch his feeble life just ooze away.

Anna…
Oo-oo-oo-oooooh!
Didn’t mean to make you cry.
I killed your dad, but still, I can’t feel sorrow.
Carry on, carry on.
My libido’s all that matters.

Too late.
Elvira’s come.
In Burgos she was fine.
Now she bitches all the time.
Goodbye everybody.
I’ve got to go.
Leporello’s list will make her face the truth.

Anna…
Oo-oo-oo-oooooh.
Time to say goodbye.
You simply just don’t give me the horn at all.

I see a wedding! I’ll destroy it if I can!
I’m so louche! With my bouche, I will woo the bride and go!
Zerlina’s alighting while her groom is fighting me.
Poor Masetto! (Poor Masetto!)
Poor Masetto! (Poor Masetto!)
Poor Masetto, you’re too slow!
Now watch me go!

I’m just a rich boy. All women love me.
(He’s just a rich boy from a rich family, wasting his life with this whore-mongery!)

Easy come, easy go. Will you let me go?

You villain! No, we will not let you go!
(Let him go!)
You villain! We will not let you go!
(Let him go!)
You villain! We will not let you go!
(Let me go!)
Will not let you go!
(Let me go!)
Never, never, never, never let me go!
Oh, oh, oh, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!!!
Although Zerlina once was keener, now she really wants to go.
Her ceaseless screams have alerted them and I must flee, must flee, must fleeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Leporello would stop me. He’s due a surprise.
I’ll make him woo Elvira while dressed in my guise.
Deh vieni. It has worked on so many.
Lust’s gonna get out. Lust’s gonna burst right out of here.

(OOH, NO!!!…. OOH, NO!!!…. )

Anna’s father’s coming…
dead, though he may be…
Anna’s father’s coming…
coming to have supper…
…with meeeeeeee…..

(Hell is where my soul goes.)

*with massive apologies to Freddie Mercury and Queen.

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Blowing smoke

I’m often asked, “Isn’t smoking bad for your voice?”, and I always reply, “I don’t smoke.”

This can often provoke the most amusing expressions of confusion and befuddlement, particularly as I usually happen to be puffing away merrily when the the topic comes up. People, on the whole, don’t wish to be offensive and belabour the point, but invariably feel compelled to point out the bleeding obvious – “But you’re smoking THAT!”

“That”, these days, is a cigar. And whilst I do partake of an occasional slice of Cuban heaven, I do not consider myself to be a smoker.

Admittedly, ’twas not always thus.

As a good, self-respecting Glaswegian lad, I, like so many of my childhood friends, first caught the smoking bug in my early teens. I was thirteen years old when a combination of evolved genetic unhealthiness, rampant teenage adventurism, and relentless peer pressure saw me firing up my first cigarette. It was a habit that I cunningly contrived to keep well hidden, or so I thought, from all the adults in my life, until the morning after my seventeenth birthday when, after a hefty night of underage drinking with my cronies, my mother decided it was finally time to address the day-glo yellow tramlines which had formed along the first two fingers of my right hand.

Expecting, as any teen in this situation would, the full Sturm und Drang of outraged parenthood to descend cataclysmically upon me, I had braced myself for the worst only to discover that, of all the unacceptable forms of teenage rebellion for which she might upbraid me, smoking seemed to be pretty low on my mum’s hit list.

This undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that both she and my father (and pretty much every member of my family) had smoked like chimneys throughout my entire childhood. I remember family parties when I was a child being conducted through a pea-souper so thick that the people sat on the other side of the dining table might as well have been in another country for all that you could see of them.

So it was that my affirmative answer to the inevitable interrogative, “Have you been smoking?” was met with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, and a half-hearted, morally-hollow, “Well… You shouldn’t.” That was it. No Sturm, no Drang, and the subject was never raised again.

In the aftermath of my father’s passing a little more than a year later, smoking would become a kind of solace for both my mother and myself, something that we had in common and could silently bond over, an unspoken generational bridge that would allow us to spend time together without feeling that typical parent/teenager awkwardness. Time that allowed us to support one another as our respective wounds slowly healed.

Cigarettes were a crutch to me throughout my college years, and it wasn’t until I found myself in the chorus of Opera North, a fully-fledged professional singer at the still tender age of 23, that I finally realised I had to kick the habit.

By that time, I was smoking two packs of Marlboro Reds (the strongest ones, naturally) a day, and I decided rather than go the chewing gum/patch route, if I was going to beat the habit, I would be best served by going cold turkey.

So I did. And I haven’t had a single cigarette since. Not once in 17 years.

In the years following, whenever I felt the occasional urge for a cigarette (and that never dies, not completely), I would buy a cigar.

Cigars differ in many important ways from cigarettes. The tobacco, for instance, is pure. When you smoke a Cuban cigar, you are smoking 5 whole, fermented leaves from the tobacco plant rolled together by hand, and nothing else. With a cigarette, on the other hand, you’re smoking the best part of the periodic table. Search the internet yourselves and witness with horror the list of 599 additives that can be found alongside the cheap, roasted, machined tobacco inside a mechanically manufactured cigarette. This list was compiled by the Big 5 US tobacco companies themselves, and features chocolate, fennel, and prune juice, alongside less appetising treats such as ammonia, urea, and ambergris, not to mention literally hundreds of alcohols, acids and petrochemical poisons. It’s enough to give you nightmares.

To most educated minds, that alone should be enough to separate the two. However, many people, and justifiably so, might feel compelled to point out that smoking, in any form, has been scientifically proven to greatly increase the risk of lung and other associated respiratory forms of cancer.

Which leads me to the next significant difference between cigars and cigarettes – inhalation. With cigarettes you do, with cigars you don’t. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that this significantly reduces the risk of lung cancer, oesophageal cancer and throat cancer for a cigar smoker.

Also, unless you’re a deeply committed cigar smoker like Churchill, Hemingway or Orson Welles, a cigar is most likely to be an occasional indulgence than an ever-present prop. And so it goes with me. I enjoy maybe two cigars a month on average. Compare that intake with 40 cigarettes a day, and, in terms of health risk, there’s simply no comparison. When you balance 25 cigars per year (without inhaling) against 331 days per year when I smoke nothing at all, you can probably see why I no longer consider myself to be a smoker.

What began as a practical attempt to prevent myself falling back into the dreaded cigarette habit has, over time, developed into an infrequent, but deeply enjoyable hobby.

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “A woman is a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” For years, I had no idea what he meant, but recently I’ve started to get it. (The second bit, I mean. I can’t for the life of me imagine why any red-blooded male would choose a cigar over a woman.)

A cigar, for me, is a journey. I can switch off and escape the high pressure world in which I work, and, for a couple of hours, eschew that manic reality for a gentler, more thoughtful, relaxed world, where the cigar and its constantly developing flavours unfold upon my palate like a mini-opera, a pocket-epic, staged solely for me. Sharing the experience with others I find to be one of the more enjoyable of life’s pleasures.

Over the years, I’ve found that a surprising number of my opera colleagues are also cigar enthusiasts. Most choose to keep it quiet, as singers, more so than anyone else it seems, are often harshly judged for having the temerity to raise lit tobacco to our lips. For some reason, that has become a terrible taboo.

However, we brothers, and sisters, of the leaf share one thing in common. We have all, like Kipling, come to realise that a good cigar is, indeed, a smoke.

And that, once in a while, is no bad thing. No bad thing at all.

lemsip

Pass the Lemsip

Colds. The bane of the opera singer’s life.

I’ve got one right now as it happens. Nasty little 24-hour flu.

For most people, a cold is a matter of minor inconvenience. A runny nose and a sore throat aren’t enough to stop you from going into the office. You can persevere and push on through. If you’re feeling cheeky and fancy a sick day, you call it manflu and stay at home. The worst part is enduring the piss-taking of your colleagues.

But for singers, every cold is a big deal. It is a temporary disability, an injury to be suffered, worked through, and recovered from much like a tweaked muscle or a strained ligament for an athlete.

Colds are (sometimes quite literally) a pain in the neck. They’re inconsiderate bastards who invariably hit you at the most inconvenient times, in my experience most commonly during the last few days of stage rehearsals, or at the end of a season, when you are tired, run down, and vulnerable to pesky, stubborn viruses.

These days, there seems to be an alarming culture of cancelling performances owing to what are euphemistically referred to in announcements as “upper respiratory-tract infections”. Colds, to you and me. This shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the case.

Colds affect singers in different ways, according to how they produce their voice. Those singers who rely mainly on head resonance are, quite frankly, buggered, and will be completely incapacitated by a head cold. For those with a more sound technique, head colds and sore throats are obstacles that can, more often than not, be negotiated.

My personal weakness is sinus infections. For many years, I’ve had a deviated septum, which means the cartilage in the middle of my nose is offset. My nose has been broken several times, all caused by either rugby or youthful scraps. This has resulted in a near occlusion of the top of my right nostril. Whenever I get a cold and the nasal passages become inflamed, the occlusion becomes complete, the gunk can’t drain out, and if the cold is a stubborn one, I’ll invariably end up with a sinus infection.

So, why haven’t I had an operation to fix it?

Oh, I’ve considered it, believe me. Every time I get another infection, I ask myself the same question. The simple truth is that I cannot afford the time I would need to take away from singing. The best estimate for a healthy recovery is six weeks, the reality can be nearer ten. And then I’d need a couple of weeks to get my voice back up to speed. I simply cannot afford to take 3 months away from work for an operation to cure a condition that affects me, on average, once every couple of years.

And experience has taught me that I can sing through the worst of it. Two years ago, I performed the whole autumn season – Fasolt in Rheingold at Covent Garden and Don Giovanni at ENO – whilst suffering from a sinus infection. I wasn’t at my best for most of the performances, but I never cancelled. I never even had an announcement made.

If you think this sounds irresponsible, consider this – the vast majority of people in the theatre had no idea I was ill. They came to the show, enjoyed the performance, and went home none the wiser. I could have made a big song and dance about it – “Mr Paterson begs your indulgence for sounding like a rusty bandsaw” – but I didn’t think this was fair. The audience pays (sometimes a great deal of money) to see a performance, and if you make the decision to sing, then you owe it to them to sing without excuses.

As to why I never cancelled the shows outright, there are several contributing factors.

The first, and most important in my view, is experience. I’ve learned that a croaky speaking voice is no indication of the viability of my singing-voice. Some careful preparation, lots of fluids, and some canny musicianship has been enough to see me through. Knowing that you’ve survived battles previously is a great source of solace when faced with another one.

Professionalism has a great deal to do with it. You have entered into a contract, not just with the opera house but with the punters buying the tickets, to appear in a certain role on certain days. I believe that you should do your damnedest to honour that. “Should I cancel?” is not the question you should be asking yourself. Better to ask, “What do I need to do to get through this?”

Pride may be a deadly sin, but professional pride should be a pre-requisite for a life in opera. I do not have a reputation as a serial canceller, nor do I want one. I’ve only cancelled three opera performances in 22 years. I consider reliability to be one of my strengths as a singer, and I will not sacrifice that lightly.

Then there’s the money. Only those working at the very highest levels of our profession can afford to write off the loss of a fee. I can’t. Never mind ten of them.

So, you might ask, how does one avoid becoming a serial canceller? Well, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes, and magic remedies cannot be relied upon. The solution, as with so many aspects of singing, lies in preparation.

If there’s one piece of advice I would love every young singer to take on board it’s this – you have to get comfortable with your voice when it’s not firing on all cylinders.

Technique is what you rely upon when your voice doesn’t play ball. You need to accept that your voice is not a perfect thing, and that your true voice is, realistically, your average voice. The voice that you can produce day in, day out, no matter how you feel. Striving for perfection is a great goal. Falling short is the day to day reality, and no reason for cancelling.

I always talk about my voice in terms of percentage. Maybe twice a year, when the planets align, the sun is blazing from a cloudless sky, and I’m sailing across crystal-blue seas, sails filled by a strong following wind, then and only then, in those perfect conditions, does my voice achieve 100% of its full potential. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a performance on those days. Usually I don’t.

Most of the time, I reckon my voice sits at around 80% of its full potential. And I’m happy with that. I can live with it. I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it to be reliable.

When a cold hits, the immediate impression is that I have 0% voice, but that’s rarely the case. If I’m careful, and clever, I can generally coax it, more or less, back into shape. Adrenalin normally takes care of the rest.

As a singer, you always want to give your best, that goes without saying. But the reality is that everyone, sooner or later, falls victim to illness. How well you deal with it is one of those things that defines you as a singer.

Good singers don’t always sing at their best. And with the greatest, it’s the fact that you don’t even notice that makes them truly remarkable.

Fatbastard

Barichunks – a matter of some weight

I’ve just had my costume fitting for Don Giovanni here at Vlaamse Opera, and it’s good news – I’ve lost weight. I’m thinner than they were expecting me to be, and that’s always good for the ego. Yay for me!

Problem is, they must have been working from some seriously outdated measurements. I know for a fact that I am heavier now than I have been in the past 2 years. Admittedly, that is still considerably lighter than I was for most of my twenties and thirties, but still, it makes this morning’s costume fitting something of a Pyrrhic victory.

In my heart (over-strained as it was for many years) I have always been a Barichunk. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this is much like a Barihunk, just fatter. For a Barichunk, abs are something that other people have, instead of beer bellies. If I was wanting to pick a fight, I would say that we’re generally much better singers too, but that would be disingenuous. Some of my best friends are Barihunks. Honestly.

The weight issue is a thorny one in the world of opera. It’s something that is frequently spoken of in hushes tones, but about which nobody actually wants to go on record. Calling a singer fat to their face is akin to calling your mother Hitler, singers tending, as they do, to be a little bit touchy about such things.

But we can’t get away from the fact that, for the average Joe, an opera singer is either a hefty soprano wearing a horned helmet, or a big Italian bruiser with a beard and a handkerchief. These days, that’s a bit of unfair reputation. Most singers now are pretty good about watching their weight. None of us are ever going to be size zero catwalk models, but equally, with every passing year, there are fewer and fewer operatic Heffalumps torturing the boards.

The reason for this is simple. We live in the visual age.

Unlike literature, where so much is left up to the imagination of the reader, all our modern entertainments are visually based. In television, movies, and even computer games, the looks of the characters have all been pre-determined for us. This had been going on for so long that we now accept the ridiculous. Think about it – pretty much every leading man on television is almost comedically perfect. Seriously, does your doctor look like George Clooney or Patrick Dempsey? Do lawyers really look like Gabriel Macht?  And be honest now, does your ad-man dad actually look anything like Jon Hamm? Even Hannibal Lecter has been upgraded from scary Welshman to Scandinavian hottie.

And that’s just the men. There’s no need to go into what modern media has done to the female image. Airbrushing, retouching, and even surgery, are so commonplace that nobody bats an eyelid at the clearly fake and unrealistically perfect people plastered all over magazine covers and television screens. And, now, thanks to Game of Thrones, I’m even starting to believe that every medieval woman had a smoking hot body and a Brazilian. Of all television’s modern stars, only Girls creator Lena Dunham is genuinely flying the flag for normal-bodied folk.

Over the last 25 years, this phenomenon has wormed its way into the world of opera. Ideally, it shouldn’t matter a jot what a singer looks like. Nobody would criticise a javelin thrower for their looks. Who cares, as long as they throw the projectile further than the next person? How ridiculous would it be to criticise a snooker player for his looks? All we want is to see them make a maximum break. We accept Wayne Rooney as a great footballer, despite his somewhat, er, elusive charm, don’t we?

The big difference is that with these examples, we’re not really watching the sportsperson, we’re watching their skill. That’s a pretty tough thing to observe in an opera singer. In fact, the very best singers look as if they’re barely exerting themselves at all to produce that wonderful sound. It’s the lack of obvious skill that is admirable. It’s only natural then that when the people attending opera nowadays can’t see the skill, they will want something pretty to look at instead, therefore it’s becoming more and more important for singers to look as good as they can.

Nonetheless, I cringe when I hear people talking about this or that singer being hot or sexy. I’d much rather hear people admiring their singing and artistry, but I have to accept the fact that as many people now turn up just to see Jonas Kaufmann as to listen to him. (And do, please, give yourself a treat – shut your eyes and have a listen. It’s glorious.)

As much as I dislike this trend, I have to accept it. The simple fact is that opera has to embrace this visual culture in order to survive. People who can sit at home, grazing on their couch as they admire beautiful people on the idiot box, are no longer going to settle for opera singers who look like the gable-end of a house. Directors are placing ever more pressure on casting departments to find singers who “look the part”. This is much tougher than it sounds, because they still have to find someone who can actually sing the role, and who is both available and affordable.

My last two jobs have been Wotan (“leader of the Gods”), and Balstrode (“a retired merchant skipper”). I would venture that the ideal look for both those roles differs considerably from what one might reasonably expect of a Don Giovanni. Nobody really knows what Don Giovanni should ideally look like – Mozart and Da Ponte only gave us the brief description of “a licentious, young nobleman” to go by, rather inconveniently missing out “a bit like that hot, blond vampire from True Blood”.

However you cut it, though, I’m sure Don Giovanni needs to be a little more svelte than Wotan, and considerably lighter on his feet than Balstrode, so it’s back on the wagon, and the rabbit food, for me.

Ho-hum.

Huginns on Muninn

Huginns on Muninn

In Norse mythology, Odin sends two ravens called Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) out into the world to acquire information and knowledge for him.

Handy that. I could really use them right about now. Instead, I have to stick iTunes on repeat and brew yet another vat of coffee. Such is the difference between Wotan and the poor sods who have to memorise him.

Today I was yet again confronted with the bothersome truth that my memory is not what it used to be. I know, I know, this happens to us all, but it is galling nonetheless. I’ve always had a pretty sharp old noggin when it comes to memorising music, but these days I’m having to face the reality that things are not so…y’know…what’s the word?…

Nowhere is this more apparent than when I attempt to learn repertoire. That which used to take mere days to completely memorise now takes weeks. Months even. And that’s just the new stuff. I also find myself forgetting older rep that I considered bulletproof, etched indelibly on the hard-drive for life.

As I see out my last few shows as Wotan in Houston, I’m preparing for my next job, singing Don Giovanni in Gent. The first time I performed the role, the production was in the original Italian, but all subsequent productions have been in English. In Gent, it’s back to Italian.

Opening the score once again, I was genuinely pleased by how much I managed to remember, but was equally disappointed to recognise some yawning chasms of emptiness where I was hoping for even the tiniest residue of Da Ponte’s brilliant text. And this, I fear, is owing to my age. At 40, I’m still young for a singer, and many years from the scrapheap I hope, but 22 years of memorising endless pages of music and text have definitely blunted the sharpness of ze leetle grey cells.

Singing through the Don (or The DonG, as I like to call him), I found myself stumbling over lines here and there. It’s frustrating, particularly when it’s a part you’ve sung many times, and I began to suspect that the problem might be that I wasn’t hearing the cue lines from the other characters. I know this sounds like a bit of a stretch, but the reason we singers rehearse so much is so that we have a kind of Pavlovian-dog response to text and music. We call it physical memory – you hear your cue, and your line pops into your head without your needing to consciously seek it out.

Singing the cues helped a little, but there were still a few small (and not so small) gaps. I pressed on regardless, reworking the forgotten lines over and over, and it wasn’t until I got as far as the Act 2 trio that I noticed a curious thing – on my way through the piece, I had barely needed to glance at the text (or the notes for that matter) for Leporello and Masetto, neither of which I have sung for nearly a decade. I first sang The DonG when I was 35, having spent the previous few years singing his put-upon manservant Leporello (which I first performed at 26), and before that, the peasant boy Masetto (first performed when I was 20).

There is an irritating irony in being able to effortlessly recall the roles you no longer require, whilst being unable to hold on to the ones you really need. I’m sure that my memory of those roles was being constantly, subconsciously topped up every time I sang The DonG, but I’m sure it has more to do with age than anything else.

Many athletes and sportspeople find their careers over by the age of thirty, and even those truly exceptional individuals who manage to carry on late into their thirties find they can only very rarely continue into their forties. Bodies age, and while these people will always possess great skill, the tiring flesh stubbornly refuses them the ability to fully utilise those skills.

Without wishing to open the whole barichunks-are-athletes-too can of worms, surely it’s a fair assumption to say that a singer’s brain might age in just the same way as an athlete’s body (it is flesh and blood after all), and that mental performance will begin to deteriorate around the same age?

All I know is that Masetto went into the memory banks in just a couple of days, when I was young and my brain was empty and hungry. Even Leporello only took a couple of weeks. The DonG was harder and took a little longer to go in, so to speak, but it was still memorised in about 3 weeks – it’s just that I’ve failed to retain it.

This year I am staring down the barrel of 500 or so pages of music to memorise – Wagner was not the most succinct of librettists – and so a great deal of my time will be spent alone, locked in practice rooms, repeatedly battering notes and words into my thick skull. Life would be so much easier if I could have the experience I have now, coupled with the fresh, receptive mind I had when I was twenty.

Oh, well…

If you happen to see me muttering to myself, please don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker, it’s just a tired old brain negotiating a busy year.

And if you happen to run a coffee shop, I’m open to sponsorship.