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Sachs-pertise

Not everyone who approaches a mammoth role like Hans Sachs has the luxury of knowing several famous exponents upon whom they can rely for advice and support.

Normally you’re lucky if you know one person with the first hand experience necessary to help you avoid the pitfalls that such vocal marathons contain.

I’m in a very fortunate position. I know several.

Norman Bailey, Gwynne Howell, Sir John Tomlinson, Bryn Terfel, and Gerald Finley are all singers I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter during my career, and all of them have offered support, encouragement and advice as I undertook my cobbling odyssey.

It’s 18 years since I worked with Norman Bailey, but his good advice has stayed with me ever since. I was then a young chorus member at Opera North in Leeds. We were doing Onegin and Norman was playing Prince Gremin. I was playing Zaretsky, and, as we didn’t share a scene onstage, our paths might never have crossed. However, our company manager announced that Norman didn’t want to stay in the tour venues and wondered if someone who was already commuting was prepared to give him a lift. My hand shot up so quickly I nearly dislocated my shoulder.

Three nights a week for the next six weeks, I drove Norman back and forth to Leeds. The world really must be a small place, as it turned out he’d attended Hillhead Academy in Glasgow at the same time as my Mum and Uncle, and they all knew each other.

We talked about many things on our commute, the most important thing being why singers should stop worrying about the German “Fach” system of vocal categorisation. He told me that he could sing Sachs and feel so fresh afterwards that he could start all over again, yet Dutchman would send him to his bed in a darkened room for a couple of days, despite the received wisdom being that the same voice should be able to negotiate both roles comfortably.

I first met Gwynne Howell when I was a Jerwood Young Singer at ENO. We were both in Tim Albery’s production of War and Peace and I had a coaching session with him on “Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, at that time one of my audition pieces. After the first hour, such was my inexperience, we still hadn’t made it beyond the recitative.

Years later, Gwynne and I would play the opposing kings in Verdi’s Aida. We had another session, this time on Amonasro, and I remember him effortlessly demonstrating a phrase from the Triumph Scene which had repeatedly tied me in knots. Here was a semi-retired bass schooling a young bass-baritone in easy Italianate baritonal singing – I evidently still had much to learn. Gwynne has kindly followed my career ever since, and has always been ready with a helpful word whenever it has been needed.

Everybody who knows me, or has read this blog, or follows me on Twitter, already knows the huge esteem in which I hold Sir John Tomlinson. There is insufficient time and space here to record my many encounters with him so, following the suggestion of Twitter’s lovely @Opera_Cabbie, I plan to devote an entire future blog to my experiences working with the great man. It’s safe to say, though, that no other person has had as much influence upon my Wagner career as Sir John. So if you don’t like what I do, blame him.

When I attended the dress rehearsal of Meistersinger in Cardiff five years ago, little did I think that I would find myself years later stepping, quite literally, into the shoes of Bryn Terfel. Some opera singers can become quite possessive about roles and productions, but that never seems to be the case with Wagner singers. During rehearsals Bryn checked in with me several times to see how I was doing, and his kind encouragement could not have come at a better time. I was in the grip of “The Fear” and knowing that he’d been through the same thing helped me no end. When we did the Ring in New York I got to know him a little and he has never been anything but supportive and lovely. Unless the rugby’s on. Then, if you’re not Welsh, forget it. (They won when they met Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend, but I’m not bitter. Next time…)

Gerry Finley is not only one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, he’s a wonderful singer, too. As a junior principal at ENO, Gerry was one of the regular guest singers and I looked (and still look) up to him hugely. I never really got to know him then, and, were it not for the fact that his wife and my fiancée are good mates, I probably still wouldn’t.

With just a few days to go before the premiere, I desperately needed some advice on when and what to eat and drink during a show of Meistersinger, and Gerry came to my rescue with some invaluable dietary advice. It might sound daft, but when an opera takes 6 hours to perform, knowing when, where, and with what to refuel is vital. I, quite literally, would not have made it to the end without him.

I guess the point I’m making is that young singers should never be afraid to approach more experienced singers, as, in my experience, they are usually more than willing to offer a few words of wisdom that will help you to get your head around the job at hand. Sometimes, if you’re really fortunate, they will offer an observation that seems pretty innocuous at the time, but which will bear fruit many, many years later.

As a singer who has been lucky enough to receive great advice from many great singers down the years, let me tell you this – you’re never alone. There’s always someone who’s trodden the path before you, and you’re a fool if you don’t seek their counsel.

As an embryonic cobbler, I cannot thank Norman, Gwynne, John, Bryn and Gerry enough. A more supportive (and more experienced and august) team of Schumachers I cannot imagine. It is in great part thanks to their kindness and generosity that I have felt able to take on this fabulous role.

Thank you, Masters.

BUNTE PERSONALITY GANZ

Beckmesser’s Bunker

In the finest, self-established tradition of taking the piss out of whatever show I happen to be currently working upon, I would like to present “Beckmesser’s Bunker”. I realise that I’m several years too late jumping on the “Untergang”-substitute-subtitle bandwagon, but I hope it may raise a smile or two nonetheless. If you are even slightly offended by bad language, you will have a field day with this. You have been warned. Enjoy!

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Guardian article on Meistersinger

After several months of silence, where any free writing time was devoted to the mammoth task of re-translating Hans Sachs into English, I finally managed to find enough free time and energy to put down a few thoughts on Meistersinger, which the Guardian newspaper kindly published. Here’s the link:-

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/04/i-hope-our-artistic-leaders-will-heed-sachs-advice-the-survival-of-eno-may-depend-on-it

Enjoy!

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Getting it wrong

There was a moment this afternoon when my larynx nearly escaped through my forehead.

Like a fighting bull suddenly unleashed from its pen, it charged around the inside of my skull, pounding and pummelling, bruising and battering, and gleefully goring the previously proud, pompous matador of my vocal technique.

Minor haemorrhaging from ears and nostrils aside, I can’t help feeling that this is an improvement from yesterday.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Tristan und Isolde. After a decade of mucking about with Tolkien and Monty Python, I finally get to kick back and enjoy a Cornish pasty on the Love Boat.

Whereas the Ring is essentially an extended treatise on the nature of power and control, and Parsifal a meditation on faith and human weakness, Tristan is all about love – surrendering completely to passion, and throwing away everything you hold dear for its sake. It’s a wild, frantic, emotional roller-coaster of a story, and Wagner’s music certainly reflects that, nowhere more so than in the vocal writing.

Tristan and Isolde are gargantuan roles – endless vocal marathons that make near-impossible demands on the singers. Brangäne and Marke are far less histrionic, but still require greatly skilled singers who can spin out beautiful lines seemingly without effort.

Then there’s Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal servant/guard dog. He is mostly required to exclaim loudly/bark. A lot.

52 Top Es, 36 Top Fs, 8 Top F#s, and 4 Top Gs make this the highest role I’ve ever sung by a country mile. In several places toward the end of Act 3 Kurwenal is even required to sing the same tessitura as Tristan.

It’s high altitude singing. Nosebleed territory. Earbleed territory. Punctured forehead territory.

Needless to say, the vocal carnage described above is what happens when I get it wrong.

Recently I’ve been working with a young baritone who first came to me thinking he might be a low bass in the Sarastro mould. After a couple of sessions it became apparent that there was a great deal more voice at the top of his range than he previously realised. The goal we’ve steadily pursued is to help him find a suitable support upon which to base his singing, ultimately enabling him to easily access those dizzying heights.

Over the years I’ve heard many cockamamie theories propounded by singers and teachers about how to sing high notes, but the experience of working with great singers myself, listening to them and observing their techniques up close, has taught me that they all have one thing in common when it comes to singing top notes – a bulletproof abdominal support.

It would appear that human voices are subject to the laws of gravity, just like everything else, and like everything else, from trees to skyscrapers, you won’t hit the heights without well-established foundations. If you want to build high, you’ve got to think low.

Studying Kurwenal alongside teaching my baritone student has afforded me a useful opportunity to more closely analyse my own technique, reassessing exactly how I approach my vocal support.

Simply put, all the hard work and heavy-lifting is done by my abdominal muscles. I have the sensation that they pull outwards and downwards when I sing. Every time I open my mouth to sing, I actively seek out that sensation.

That’s it. I try not to think about anything else. The moment I become aware of the position of my larynx or my soft palate, I’m doing it wrong.

That’s what happened this afternoon. I backed off my abdominal support as I went for a top F#, and my larynx suddenly made a bid for freedom. I got it badly wrong.

Getting it wrong has always been an important part of the learning curve for me. The bullfight analogy, whilst facetious, is useful insofar as it goes to illustrate that every singer makes mistakes. We’re human and sometimes we screw up, regardless of age or experience. The aim is to eliminate those errors in the privacy and safety of one’s own practice room, so that the public, hopefully, only gets to hear the polished, practiced version.

If you’ve ever watched motorsport, you can see a similar ethos at work in the minds of racing drivers. Throughout practice sessions, they constantly seek to find the very limits of control. Sometimes they get it wrong, spinning out of control and crashing, but this gives them new data that they can apply to their next run. So, too, it goes with us. With repeated practice, we each try to eliminate the faults and errors a little bit at a time, hopefully getting closer to our ideal with every repetition.

However, unlike racing drivers and their mechanics, we singers don’t have the luxury of opening ourselves up to make a few tweaks to the engine. We’re not machines which can be easily stripped down and reassembled, therefore our primary method of assimilating technical information has to be through sensation. Our telemetry is how it feels, and learning what feels wrong is equally as important as learning what feels right.

Possibly more so. Speaking for myself, the column headed “things not to do” certainly contains far more entries than that headed “things to do”.

Michaelangelo used to say that, for him, the finished sculpture already existed within the rough-hewn marble block, and that he was simply removing the excess. And whilst I’m a long, long way from being a vocal Michaelangelo, I frequently experience a similar feeling – that a particularly tricky note or phrase already lies within me just waiting to be uncovered, and I simply have to remove the excess. The mistakes.

Over the years I have come to firmly believe that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not making progress.

So the next time you’re practising, try pushing yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you might find you’ll learn a great deal about your voice.

Go on. Get it a little bit wrong. Just for me.

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Zen, and the art of opera detox

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an opera singer in possession of a bit of spare cash, must be in want of a motorcycle.” Jane Austen, petrolhead, 1813.

I love motorbikes. Always have.

However, like most seventeen-year-olds with terrified mothers, I wasn’t allowed to have one. A car was fine, even when driven with that exhilarating mix of youthful inexperience and ill-founded over-confidence that only a teenage boy can muster. But a motorbike? “Creation of the devil,” she would say. “One-way ticket to an early grave.”

This deep-seated loathing and general distrust of all things two-wheeled was founded, not entirely unreasonably, upon a bike accident that a distant cousin had suffered a few years previously. He nearly died, and suffered some quite horrible injuries, from all of which (other than the loss of some teeth) he even eventually recovered, I’m happy to say. But that was it for bikes, as far as my mum was concerned.

And she wasn’t wrong. I proceeded to have enough scrapes, bangs, and prangs in the family car over the next year that I’m lucky to be sitting here typing this today. If I’d been on a bike instead of in a car, I wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t until just a few weeks after my thirtieth birthday that I finally sat my motorcycle test. I would have done it sooner, but one of the unforeseen consequences of pursuing a career as an opera singer is the prohibitive insurance premium.

Insurance companies class opera singers as “entertainers”, which puts you in the same risk bracket as millionaire rockstars and professional footballers. They like to assume that all we “entertainers” hang out together, constantly riding around on the back of each other’s motorcycles. If you have an accident with a famous person on the back of your bike, it could cost the insurance company millions. So, to guard against this, they load the premiums.

I call this Pavarotti Syndrome, as I was once genuinely asked, when applying for bike insurance, if, as an opera singer, I knew the big man personally, and, if I did, would I be likely to give him a lift anywhere? Despite my pithy response about perpetual wheelies, they still quoted me an annual premium of nearly £2,000.

So it was that I simply couldn’t afford a bike until I turned thirty. Apparently it’s much safer to ride around with Pav on the back when you’ve entered your fourth decade.

Having been starved for so long, and having watched, green-eyed with envy, my best mate Leigh hooning around on his Honda as we rehearsed A Midsummer Night’s Dream together, I decided it was finally time.

I signed up to Ridesure Motorcycle Training at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey (the home of BBC’s Top Gear), where I proceeded to fall off with great alacrity and abandon whilst Jeremy Clarkson was racing some hideously expensive supercar up and down the runway just a few metres away. (It was an SLR MacLaren, if you must know.) After five full days of incredibly patient tuition by Ridesure’s owner and general bike-Yoda, Trevor Wilbourn, I managed to pass my test first time. The very next day I bought my first bike.

Over the next few years, I confess, I went a wee bit bike nuts.

Desperate to sample all that the biking world had to offer, I bought four very different bikes in as many years. I signed up to a Police training course, then followed that up with an advanced motorcycling course.

I rode everywhere. Welsh National Opera tour, Glyndebourne festival, even commuting up to London to ENO and Covent Garden. In 2009, I bought a big Yamaha tourer to take with me to the Bregenz festival in Austria. Over the eleven-week period, I clocked up over 4,000 miles riding a succession of incredible alpine passes. I even rode from Bregenz to Bayreuth for a stage audition, as you can see from the picture above.

Fourteen months ago, I was forced to sell the big Yam to help pay a pretty hefty tax bill. I was awaiting payment for four completed contracts from four separate companies, all of whom decided to go on summer break without paying. Sadly such things are far from uncommon these days, but normally it’s only a single company defaulting that you have to weather at any given time. I was just particularly unlucky as things turned out, but I needed cash, so the bike had to go.

It’s fair to say I have since been pretty grumpy without a motorcycle in my life.

I’m very lucky. I have a good life. I have a gorgeous fiancée, a good job, a healthy family, money in the bank, a roof over my head, and food on the table. What the hell do I have to be grumpy about?

But that’s the thing about motorcycling. It has a pull, a magic that draws you in a way that other hobbies simply don’t. For many, that magic lies in the call of the open road, touring and camping, for others it’s in the intricate engineering, or the high performance. For some, it’s all about the polishing.

For me? It’s the peace. The calm. Yes, even the Zen.

Opera singers have busy brains. People think we just stand there and sing, but a singer’s mind is constantly multi-tasking. Words and music have to be remembered and reproduced. You’re thinking about technique. You’re watching the conductor. You’re acting and reacting to the stage drama around you. Checking that you’re well lit, or not blocking someone else’s light. Reacting quickly when something goes awry. A singer’s mind is constantly on the move.

Riding a motorcycle is also a busy mental pastime, no doubt. On advanced training courses they tell you to assume that every other road user is trying to kill you. Consequently, riding a motorcycle requires 100% of your concentration.

There’s a calm centre to that level of focus. You can’t think about anything other than riding. Everything else just melts away. Riding a motorcycle is the one time when I am completely free from the world of opera. For me, that is beyond price.

And for this reason and no other, after fourteen months, I’ve put a deposit down on a new machine.

I can’t wait.

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Acquired Instinct

If you want to succeed as an opera singer, it’s vital that you have a good relationship with your singing teacher. In that regard, I was very lucky indeed.

Jeffrey Neilson Taylor was more than just a teacher to me – he was a mentor, and, in many ways, a surrogate father. He would have been 84 years old last Saturday, had cancer not finally taken him in December of 2010. (That’s him in the painting above, playing for Huddersfield Town Football Club, as depicted by his brother, Yorkshire and England cricketer Ken Taylor.)

For nearly two decades, Jeff patiently guided, nurtured, and moulded my approach to singing, so much so that his voice remains a part of my singing consciousness to this day, sometimes encouraging, sometimes reproaching, but always with that unique blend of charm, humour, and blunt Yorkshire pragmatism that I came to love so much.

I studied with Jeff for twenty years – I’ll save the tale of how we met for another blog – and in all that time, there were no “Eureka!” moments, great revelations, or massive leaps forward, just regular, relentless hard work that led to slow, steady vocal improvement.

Looking back to my very first lesson, it’s easy to assess the technical issues facing that naive, inexperienced teenager. In later years Jeff would joke that my one great strength as a beginner was that I had none. I was a clean slate, so young and fresh to singing that I had not had time to develop any bad habits that needed unpicking.

“However,” he would take great pleasure in reminding me, his eyes creasing up with gentle, mischievous mirth, “that doesn’t mean you were a natural. Far from it.”

Most of the early vocal issues facing me were to do with breathing. As a then violinist of 12 years, I had a fair idea of how to shape a phrase musically, but absolutely no idea of how to control my breath. “Breathing with the music”, as my old violin teacher used to call it, is a far cry from literally making music with your breath.

The main issue affecting me was that my breathing was shallow. When I observed myself in the mirror taking a breath, I could see my upper chest inflating, and my shoulders rising, but the bottom of my torso, the tummy and abdominal area, didn’t move at all.

It’s probably not surprising that Jeff, a former professional footballer prior to his singing career, frequently used sport to illustrate and illuminate his teaching. Over the years it would provide many analogies that would help me to get my head around vocal technique.

He told me to go swimming. “Your problem is that you’re trying to tell your body how to breathe deeply, but your body already knows how. You’re just getting in your own way and tying yourself in knots.”

He suggested that I try ducking down under the water, blowing all the breath out of my body, and waiting as long as I could bear it before coming up for air. “When you’re starved for air,” he said, “your body automatically opens up to take in as much as it can. Try and memorise that feeling. That’s the space we’re looking for when you sing.”

When I went to the pool, I saw what he was getting at, but it took many, many months of vocal exercise and practice to apply that lesson to my singing. Even to this day, if I’m not careful, I can find my breathing starting to become shallow, and I have to actively resist it.

I also had another problem with stopping my breath. I would hold it briefly between breathing in and breathing out. Golf provided the analogy this time. “You’d never stop the club at the top of your backswing, would you? You just change the direction of the swing smoothly. It’s the same with breathing. Change direction smoothly.”

Ah, it all sounds so simple, but that little nugget of wisdom took nearly two years to be fully assimilated. Whenever I would get nervous (which was quite a lot, as regular readers of this blog will know), I would find myself slipping back into the bad habit of holding my breath.

And this is the point I really want to make here – change takes time. There is no such thing as a quick fix.

In the past few years, younger singers have started approaching me for advice, often asking if I would agree to coach them. Something that I have found with a great many of these singers is that they are seeking that elusive quick fix. They’ve started enjoying a modicum of success, and, now that they are regularly working at a professional level, they are starting to panic when they run into problems. They sorely need that quick fix in order to keep working.

I see their fear and desperation, and, as someone who’s been at this game for a few years now, I recognise it all too well, and both empathise and sympathise with their dilemma. They’ll come into a session with their particular vocal issue clear in their mind and hope that, in the space of an hour, you’ll be able to fix it for them.

But you can’t. Of course you can’t. Singing technique, at its most basic level, is a series of learned habits. Identifying the problem is only the start of a long, involved process that will enable you, with time and hard work, to let go of the bad habit and totally embrace a new one.

To boil it down into two words, singing technique is simply this – acquired instinct.

That might sound somewhat oxymoronic, but it’s entirely in keeping with the often counter-intuitive nature of singing. As a singer you don’t practice until your brain grasps the concept, rather you practice until your body instinctively carries it out. Or, as I am fond of saying, don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong.

Most of the time, it’s pretty easy for a teacher to identify a problem, and to point it out to a singer. But that doesn’t fix the problem. It’s the hours, weeks, months, and years of hard work that follow which do that. And that’s where a great teacher comes into their own. Endless patience, encouragement, discipline, focus, and unwavering support are those values that set them apart.

A great teacher will be with you every step of the way, as Jeff was with me.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-jeffrey-neilson-taylor-footballer-opera-singer-music-teacher-1-1495961

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Utopia or Never Never Land?

No, since you ask. That’s how I would be voting, in an ideal world.

If Alex Salmond achieves his goal of an Independent Scotland this Thursday, I trust that history will record that it was done by disenfranchising over three-quarters of a million Scots.

As one of those Scots, I have to accept the fact that two men, apparently on opposite sides of the debate, colluded to deny one in six Scottish-born UK citizens the right to have a say in the future of their nation.

Such an act would be decried in the court of public opinion as a breathtaking breach of human rights were it to occur in any third world country. Yet in 2014, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it happens and nobody bats an eyelid. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way democracy ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

This is no foundation upon which to build a new country, and it is important to realise that’s what the Scottish National Party are attempting to do – build a new nation.

However much they look to the past, and Scotland’s proud history as an independent nation, they are not reclaiming anything for future generations. That old country disappeared long ago, and the world has changed beyond all recognition in the intervening 307 years. That the USA didn’t even exist then just goes to prove how much. No, the task that faces the SNP is creating a new, modern Scotland from the ground up.

If we believe all the projections, estimates and promises that the Scottish National Party have made, we should have no problem. New Scotland will indeed be a 21st century Utopia, where every citizen will prosper, sharing in the great wealth that is promised to us all. It sounds amazing. I’d love to live in such a society.

Unfortunately, in the real world estimates rarely turn out to be accurate. Take the Scottish Parliament building for instance. Scheduled to open in 2001 at an estimated cost of £40 million pounds, it eventually arrived 3 years late at a cost of £414 million.

Nope. You read that correctly. Four hundred and fourteen million pounds. Over ten times the original upper estimate. And part of the roof in the debating chamber collapsed just two years later. Every UK citizen paid for the new Scottish Parliament building, not just those resident in Scotland. Had that cost overrun fallen solely upon those living in Scotland, the project would never have been finished.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6382177.stm

That’s just a single building. The Scottish National Party, if they are successful, will have to create an entirely new political infrastructure, and it will have to be financed solely from the public purse of the 5.3 million newly created Scottish citizens, rather than the 64 million citizens of the United Kingdom. Only the most incredibly naive of us would believe that there won’t be horrendous budget overruns, the burden of which will fall upon those poor New Scots. That’s no Utopia we’re being asked to believe in. It’s Never Never Land.

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

That’s the question that will greet voters on their ballot papers on Thursday morning.

It should really read, “Are you ready to gamble everything?”

The first question makes it all sound like a theoretical exercise, a painless hypothesis to be idly discussed over coffee or a pint. But make no mistake, voting Yes is the biggest political gamble you will ever make in your life. And, let’s be clear on this, it’s not a minor wager, it’s an all-in bet, the true consequences of which cannot be foreseen. There’s no going back.

By voting Yes, you are voting to replace an existing political system, however flawed it might be, with another which has as much basis in reality as Thomas More’s Utopia or J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land.

Projections, estimates and promises are all that the SNP have to offer us. Nobody really has any idea what the final cost of creating a new country will be – how can they? – but there is one fact that cannot be avoided – it will all come out of your pocket.

I urge all my countrymen to consider this when they make their mark on Thursday. Don’t vote for an unattainable ideal. The reality will fall far short and you will be left carrying the cost and the burden.

Second oil-field to the right and straight on ’til morning won’t take you to Never Never Land.

Don’t chase the dream. Face the reality.

Vote No.

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The Fear

We’ve all been there. Cold sweats. Pounding pulse. Butterflies. Clammy palms. Dry mouth. Sticky throat. And then the orchestra starts playing a completely different opera from the one you were expecting.

Thankfully, most of us wake up at that point and thank our lucky stars that it was all just a horrible performance anxiety nightmare. (I do know some unfortunates to whom this has happened in reality, but thankfully such things only happen once in a blue moon, and usually only in last minute jump-ins.)

However, anxiety dreams like these – and they are incredibly common among opera singers – just go to show the levels of stress and pressure to which performers in our profession are subjected. Even the normally safe haven of sleep provides no guarantee of respite from The Fear.

The Fear, and how one deals with it, is a subject that very few colleges and training programmes dare to approach. Dealing with nerves is an integral part of our profession, yet a young singer can sail through college and a Young Artist Training Programme with nary a word being spoken about the subject.

There seems to be an unspoken agreement amongst the powers-that-be that a performer who suffers from bad performance anxiety is simply “not cut out for a career in opera”. Which is complete bollocks, frankly. Insulting, uninformed and lazy. And normally uttered by someone who wouldn’t recognise performance anxiety if it swam up and bit them in the arse.

Many great singers throughout the history of our profession have suffered from debilitating stage nerves. Even today, in an age when psychology and therapy are no longer considered dirty words, I know of many fine colleagues for whom it is not just a battle, but an ongoing war of attrition, yet they bravely face down their demons and put themselves out there on that stage every day.

I even have a couple of friends, talented singers and stage performers both, who suffered so badly from stage nerves that they simply decided it was more hassle than it was worth and subsequently retired from the profession. To say that these people “just weren’t cut out for it” is deeply insulting to their talent, skill, and fortitude.

The Fear can hit anyone, at any time. I’m sure if you asked most singers, they’d tell you many tales about times when they’ve simply wanted to run away and hide. I confess, it’s a pretty regular occurrence for me, and this ain’t my first rodeo, as the man says.

One such occasion was in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madrid a few years ago. Their Bottom cancelled a show, and my good mate, fine singer, and all-round-top-bloke Darren Jeffery, who was singing Theseus, stepped up to sing Bottom, while I was drafted in at the last minute to (quite literally, as it turned out) fill his shoes as Theseus. There was very little time to rehearse, and, if it hadn’t been for a remarkably, given his own worries, cool and sanguine Darren talking me through it over a cup of coffee before the show, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I was supposed to be doing.

I remember sitting in front of the mirror as my mind furiously churned over my predicament.

“What the f**k are you thinking, you idiot?… You’ve never done a jump-in before!… You haven’t sung this role for two years!… This is your house debut!!… You’re really gonna screw this up!!!… This is it – your career will be in the toilet after this….”

I was horribly nauseated. In fact, I was physically sick about 30 minutes before my entrance. It sounds insane, but I remember testing how far the window opened, and trying to see how much of a drop it was to street level. I was giving serious thought to legging it, and to hell with my career!

Needless to say, the drop was too far, and I was too fat to fit through the window in any case, so there was no running away. I somehow made it through the show, though I have no memory of it other than nearly crashing Theseus’ sports car into a big hole in the middle of the stage, and Hippolyta’s little toy dog humping my leg at some point. The rest is a blur.

With the benefit of hindsight, my level of performance anxiety that night was nothing when compared with my debut as Wotan in Rheingold at the Proms last year – the hottest evening of the year, singing with Maestro Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, a full-house, a live radio relay, singing the role from memory on only 4 and half hours of rehearsal. I hadn’t even sung the whole role through with an orchestra at that point.

The funny thing is that on that night, I wasn’t testing windows as potential emergency exits beforehand. I was sitting in the green room, quietly playing Scrabble on my iPad. I felt weirdly displaced from the whole affair. It was as if everything was happening to someone else, and I was just tagging along for the ride. To this day, I still break out in a sweat when I think about it, but at the time I was eerily calm, for reasons I still can’t adequately explain to myself today.

Stage nerves are very much on my mind today, as tonight we open a new production of Richard Strauss’ Daphne at La Monnaie in Brussels. I play Daphne’s father Peneios (oh, how the penis gags have been coming thick and fast), a minor role with a four minute aria and not much else to do. As I write this, I am sitting in my favourite local coffee shop, and not feeling nervous at all, but I know, from 20-odd years of experience, that about 30 minutes before the show I will be sitting in my dressing room suffering from all the stress related conditions I described at the start of this blog.

I might appear outwardly calm. I may even be playing Scrabble on my iPad, but I can assure you, inside I will be in turmoil, questioning myself and my abilities, questioning my right to be there in the midst of such a good cast, questioning why the hell, after 20 years, I’m still putting myself through this.

But I know, when the time comes, I will step onto the stage and try to do my job to the best of my ability, as I always strive to do. Experience has taught me that I will always go through hell in moments leading up to a performance, but experience has also taught me that I will get through it and come out the other side, for the most part, unscathed.

For anyone planning on attending a show here in Brussels, you’ll be reassured to know that, while it’s only about 25 feet from my dressing room window to street level, I’m still too fat to fit through window.

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#3wordoperaheadlines

Two separate, and seemingly disparate, elements have influenced this week’s blog.

The first was a recent conversation with a friend who challenged me to summarise the plot of the opera in which I’m currently appearing – a new production of Strauss’ Daphne at La Monnaie in Brussels – in 10 words or less.

This is trickier than it sounds. Strauss’ plots, particularly the Greek ones, are never the most easy to condense, as is evident if you read the summaries printed in theatre programmes. I don’t know about you, but I find myself re-reading whole paragraphs again and again in the vain hope that I will better understand the hierarchy of relationships with each subsequent reading.

This amusing diversion in turn led to us to challenging one another to summarise other opera plots in ten words or less. (I have a sneaky suspicion that those ridiculously strong Belgian beers might have made this conversation appear more creatively amusing than it actually was.)

To relate the second element, I must first confess to a habit I’ve picked up in my years living at the end of 45-minute train commute from London – upon entraining, the first thing I look for is not a free seat, but a discarded newspaper.

Living in the stockbroker belt, this is normally never a problem. There’s usually a stray Times (my freebie of choice owing to the excellent sports and arts coverage), Indy, Guardian or Torygraph lurking on a luggage shelf nearby. Once in a while though, there’s only a Daily Fail.

Let me state for the record that I am not a fan of the Daily Mail. I find their politics are not to my tastes, and I will only pick up a discarded copy if there’s nothing else going.

However, there is one thing I reluctantly admit to admiring about the copywriters at the Daily Fail – their ability to reduce any complicated story to a three-word headline. It’s astonishing the amount of information (and emotional judgement) they are able to pack into those three words, and it’s done in a way that sucks you into the article. It’s only when you read on into said article that you realise how many salient facts have been glossed over in order to facilitate that salacious headline.

This morning, as I was pondering potential subjects for this week’s blog post over a superb latte in my very cool local coffee shop in Brussels (how many coffee shops play Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and The Wall in their entirety to the mid-morning clientele?), these two elements magically coalesced in my caffeine-addled brain into one simple hashtag – #3wordoperaheadlines.

How might the plots of our favourite operas appear if they were condensed into sensational three-word Daily Fail-style headlines?

It occurs to me that this might make a diverting Twitter game, so I’m going to post a few on my Twitter account @AyePatz and see if it catches on.

I’m also willing to bet that the non-tweeting readers of this blog could come up with a few belters, so please send me your ideas via the comments section of this post, and I’ll tweet the best of them.

Here are a few examples to get you started.

“SINGER MURDERS COP” – Tosca #3wordoperaheadlines

“ROYAL LOVERS POISONED” – Tristan und Isolde #3wordoperaheadlines

“SIBLINGS MASSACRE FAMILY” – Elektra #3wordoperaheadlines

Over to you.

UPDATE

I am delighted to announce the winners of #3wordoperaheadlines, who win nothing more than a mere moment’s fleeting Twitter glory.

In 3rd place, for his slightly plagiarised Giulio Cesare, is…

@William_Berger

SAW. CONQUERED. CAME.

Nice!

In 2nd place, for his slightly tasteless, but highly amusing Billy Budd, is…

@johngilks

SAILOR GETS HHHHANGED

But the overall winner, for his, quite frankly, INSPIRED Rigoletto, is…

@rufusstilgoe

BACK. SACK. CRACK.

Love it!

Thanks to all who played along and cheered up a very slow afternoon of rehearsal!