Genug der Wort’!

The old AyePatz bleurgh has been sporadic at best these past few months, owing to a hefty/borderline insane schedule that has seen me taking on role debuts of Kurwenal, Hans Sachs, and Walküre Wotan in just five hectic months. All three roles have been new to my repertoire, and, unfortunately, whenever I’ve had the urge to set down a few thoughts, my Wagner-addled brain has frequently rebelled.

As Walther says to Sachs in the cobbler’s shop, “Genug der Wort’!” – “Enough of words!”

With our stage rehearsals here in Houston in full swing, I finally feel as if I’m starting to reclaim enough headspace to once more put pen to paper, or, more accurately, index-finger to iPad, such is the breathtaking scope of my typing skill.

Words, words, words. Too many damned words.

Words are at the very heart of what we, as singers, do. The great purpose of our lives is to find a singing technique that will enable us to deliver those words clearly and expressively through a palate of sounds ranging from the extremely beautiful to the coarse and, yes, even intentionally ugly, over which we have complete control. And if we can hold a tune, that helps too.

Without cleanly delivered text, musical and vocal skill don’t count for very much in the world of opera, as the audience won’t really have a clue what you’re wittering on about. And, let’s be honest, in a 5-hour Wagner opera, that’s going to get old really quickly.

Now before some of you go and get your knickers in a twist, I’m not saying that the words are more important than the voice, or vice-versa, an argument you hear far too often in this business, I’m sorry to say. We must never lose sight of the fact that the two are of equal importance, and that the ultimate technical aim of every opera singer should be the seamless blending of both.

However, I must stress the importance of being able to make your text clear and comprehensible at all times. With the advent of sub- and super-titles, you might think that this is less important that it used to be, but I maintain the opposite. If your text is clear, people have no need to take their eyes off the action, and that magical energy which exists between stage and audience remains unbroken, but if a singer’s diction is poor, the audience’s attention will be split, and that magic will be lost.

Therefore I say again: words are at the very heart of what we do.

My poor old noodle is full of the bloody things right now.

To put this into some context, Hans Sachs sings around 5,200 words, Walküre Wotan around 2,500, Kurwenal fewer than half of that. In effect, the three roles add up to a decent-sized novella (or eight or so blog entries for regular readers), all of which has to be committed to memory. 

Now I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember my grocery list, as is borne out by the fact that I invariably forget to buy some key ingredient around which the entire recipe usually revolves, so memorising this amount of text was always going to be a challenge.

Kurwenal’s German text seems a long time ago, but I think it’s still mostly lurking in the little grey cells. I’ll be going back to it in a few weeks to polish it up again in time for the summer. Sachs’ text was in English, and as far I’m aware, ENO has no plans to revise it, so in time I will let the English fall away and re-install the German text on the mental hard-drive.

Wotan is what’s currently at the front of my mind, and that needs to be etched into my mind like the runes of contract on his spear. I’m not going to lie to you, these past few weeks have taxed me to the very limits of my ability, and beyond.

Memorising is, for me at least, a long and arduous process. Much as I might wish for a photographic memory at times, the reality is that only seemingly endless repetition works for me. I’ve tried various different methods of teasing text into my thick bonce, but after 20-odd years, the only thing that works for me is repetition. And more repetition. And, just when I feel like chucking in the towel, more repetition.

Once I think all the words are, more or less, somewhere in the depths of my mind, the second step is writing it all down.

Nowadays I type it (with not one, but TWO index fingers, no less) on my iPad, but initially pen and paper did the job. I found out quite early in my career that the distance from brain to mouth can be almost as far as that from score to brain – you know all the text, but it’s not on the tip of your tongue the moment you need it. Writing it all down seems to help with this. Maybe it’s simply a confirmation that you do indeed know all of your text which gives you the confidence to trust yourself, or maybe the act of writing it down helps to form new neural pathways in the brain, perhaps re-organising your memory to help you access that information quickly.

But mostly it helps you to see the text as just that. Text.

When you look at an opera score, space is always at a premium. There’s a lot of information which the publisher is trying to cram onto the page in the most efficient way possible. This means that text is expanded and compressed to fit the music. We singers are all too familiar with the split – – – – – – ting of text, and also the squeezingofwordsintoassmallaspaceaspossible.

Writing out your text helps you to see the words, syntax, and grammar far more clearly, and this, in turn, will help you to understand how to inflect those words as you sing.

None of us are perfect, and we’ll always have incidents of word-salad when we perform – currently my issue is German pronoun-salad – but, for me at least, the act of writing stuff down helps to order my mind.

Give it a go. Who knows, you might even get the writing bug and start setting down your own thoughts as well?

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