IMG_0134.JPG

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.

IMG_0169.JPG

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.

IMG_0114.JPG

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

IMG_0110.JPG

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.

IMG_3377.JPG

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.

IMG_0100.JPG

#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!

IMG_0093.JPG

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

20140618-162313-58993263.jpg

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.)

20140613-143412-52452849.jpg

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