ILL

I’ve got a cold. Please leave sympathetic messages and/or eulogies in the comments section below.

Fortunately I’ve timed this cold very well: although I should be singing this week, no-one is paying me to do so, and consequently this cold will cost me nothing financially. That’s not entirely coincidental – there are several preventative measures which I could have taken last week to stave this off. I didn’t because most of them cost money or are rather boring or both.

Singers are hypochondriacs. Even if you don’t start out that way, year upon year of relying for your income on one of the most fragile parts of the body will turn you into one. So far I’ve never had to cancel a professional engagement as a result of illness, although a lucky streak can only last so long, especially as roles get longer and heavier. There have been times when I almost certainly should have cancelled, but there are times when you have no choice – for example, when you find yourself singing niche repertoire without a cover (understudy), and so either you go on or the show goes off. So in the case of anything short of the more advanced stages of rigor mortis having set in, you’re going on.

Aside from that, the way that most opera contracts work, if singers cancel a performance because of illness, they don’t get paid. That doesn’t just mean for that performance: a contract is often arranged so that rehearsal fees and/or expenses all get wrapped up in a per-show fee, so in effect cancelling even one show will leave a singer seriously out of pocket, perhaps even making a loss on the whole contract.

(It does seem a flaw in the system that there’s no room for the company to pay an unwell principal their fee but to make the decision to put the cover on in the interests of all involved, but I can’t see that changing any time soon.)

So why is it that your favourite singer seems to be the one who cancels far more frequently than others? Well, assuming that your favourite singer is someone famous, because they can afford to, since a missed performance fee won’t result in an unpaid council tax bill.

But also because they can’t afford not to. I’m constantly surprised at how even some seasoned critics will comment that A. always sings wonderfully, on the occasions when she doesn’t cancel. So allow me to join the dots: perhaps A. always sings wonderfully because she cancels whenever she knows that she’ll be anything less than wonderful. I can’t imagine Le Gavroche serves many collapsed soufflés.

While there are exceptions, there is a strong correlation between vocal quality and fragility. To aim for the utmost degree of vocal quality is to take a risk, because the singer knows that quality requires a fresh, healthy voice.  That doesn’t mean that the singing which emerges will sound fragile – in fact, quite the opposite in many cases – but that the process of producing it is vulnerable to anything less than peak physical condition. It’s analogous to fast sprinters having vulnerable hamstrings.

In many ways it’s far safer to develop a less refined but more robust vocal technique, which a lot of singers do, knowing that it will allow them to sing even when they’re ill or knackered. But I’d bet that none of those guys is your favourite singer. Ultimately, it’s better for a singer that you’re disappointed by their absence than by their sub-par performance.

That’s a major reason why singers are constantly asking their agents to do whatever they can to increase their fees. It’s not (just) being greedy – higher fees bring added security, which allows a singer to take the risk of aiming for higher artistic standards.

Furthermore, I’m guessing your favourite singer is probably someone who sings the biggest roles, ones which simply cannot be performed at anything significantly less than full physical capacity. It’s not a question of an ill singer not wanting to present their Tosca, Carmen, Otello or Wotan to the audience that night – the roles simply won’t allow it.

So the next time your favourite singer has to cancel on you, bear that in mind. And if you’re still not happy, you could always switch your allegiance to one of the guys who’s standing at the back worrying about his council tax.

 

 

 

 

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Words and Ears and Brains

This morning’s poem on Radio 3 was this recording by Richard Burton of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo:

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If you’re anything like me, Burton’s reading will have hit you in the ears like a Gatling gun – the sheer pace of it is breathtaking, almost overwhelming. The technique required to deliver at that speed while maintaining the utmost clarity and precision, not to mention that trademark baritone legato line, is staggering.

Anthony Hopkins has spoken of the legacy passed on by Laurence Olivier to both Burton and himself, and it’s constantly fascinating to catch fleeting moments of that vocal DNA, each actor’s delivery being so clearly related and yet unmistakably distinct – a reminder that the point of classical vocal technique is to liberate, not suppress, individuality.

Back to this question of pace. Here’s Burton in the opening of Under Milk Wood in 1954:

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Compare that to Michael Sheen sixty years later:

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Just looking at the raw timings, Burton takes just over a minute to get to “tidy wives”, Sheen a good twenty seconds longer – a pattern which continues, cuts notwithstanding. Now, let me be clear – Sheen is an excellent actor and undoubtedly has the technique to go faster, so the difference is an artistic choice.

For further comparison, here’s Dylan Thomas himself in 1953, only just being pipped to the tidy wives post by Burton:

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Admittedly this is far too small a sample to draw any scientific conclusions, but it’s interesting to find an instance where our assumption that attention spans have got shorter over recent decades seems to be challenged. (Binge-watching box sets is another.) Which style you prefer is of course a matter of taste.

(If there’s something about current fashions in the delivery of text which bothers you, you might enjoy David Mamet’s True or False – there’s a preview article with a few of the essential points here.)

A couple of observations for singers. Firstly, Burton’s pace in the Manley Hopkins poem doesn’t prevent him from “word-painting” – imbuing individual words with distinct colours and flavours – his technique still allows him to do this. But what the pace of delivery does, for my ear at least, is to allow (or even oblige) him to maintain those individually painted words as part of longer phrases, structures and ideas. It’s very easy for singers, of art song especially, to gain easy favour by indulging in individual words, without necessarily keeping an eye on the broader intention of the poem. For my money it’s the latter which is more important. Not that I’m suggesting that singers should sing quicker, but that they need at all times to bear in mind the overall arc of the phrase, sentence and the poem itself if the meaning is not to be lost. Sometimes that will mean foregoing an opportunity to colour an individual word. And technique is also a crucial factor in achieving this goal, for singers even more than actors.

Secondly, my initial reaction to the pace of Burton’s delivery was to panic – I knew my ears and my brain couldn’t possibly keep up with this, especially in text as dense as GMH’s invariably is. In an ever-increasingly visual age, our ears have got lazy – or perhaps we’ve lost faith in their ability to cope on their own. But miraculously ears and brain stepped up to the plate. It just required me, the listener, to take a leap of faith, to trust the actor, and to commit to the process of listening.

I often get that same sense of instant panic when listening to singers, and my survival instinct in that situation is to cling to the surtitles or printed texts like glue, assuming there are any. Surtitles provide that dilemma for us – singers, or at least those with good diction and acting skills, dislike them, as do directors, but audiences are hugely in favour. What can we do about this? Taking away the paying public’s beloved visual comfort blanket against their clear wishes can hardly be the answer.

Instead, perhaps we as performers need to strive to regain the trust of our audiences, to nurture the rebuilding of their confidence in their ears and the aural parts of their brain. And indeed in us. We can deliver our texts with such clarity, commitment and technical excellence that surtitles become an irrelevance, and audiences begin lobbying for their removal.

Incidentally, whenever I’ve tried to read Under Milk Wood aloud it comes out sounding like I’m narrating Ivor the Engine. This bothered me for years until the day I read an interview with its author, where he admitted that the whole idea for Ivor had been inspired by his love for Dylan Thomas’ creation. So there it is: while the bearers of Olivier’s legacy are Burton, Hopkins, Sheen et al, I am the sole heir of Oliver Postgate.

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Posted in acting, Books, Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Wales | 2 Comments

Let ’em spin

March 1996. I’m a trainee physics teacher and we’re on a Maths and Science department outing to London, ostensibly to assess various venues for their suitability for school trips. It’s also an excuse for a bit of a party (hard-earned over the course of a tough year), and at an early stage of the evening we find ourselves in the Nag’s Head, opposite the back of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Through the fog of hindsight I’m never quite sure when I decided I wanted to be a professional singer. It can’t have been earlier than when I was 13, when I first started singing solos as a baritone, and was certainly no later than 23, when I applied to music colleges. What’s clear is that the idea must have been quite well-formed in my mind by this point, at the age of 21, because I shove a pound in the Nag’s Head fruit machine and tell myself that if I win anything, it means I’m going to sing in the opera house across the road one day.

On the fifth spin the reels stop on three bunches of purple grapes. The machine pays out.

I finally bit the bullet and started music college in the autumn of 1998, and if you’d asked me then to estimate when I would be ready for my Covent Garden debut, I’d have said, with absolute certainty, that it should come as soon as possible, since I was ready right now, or would be very shortly. In those days I wasn’t shy of backing my ability, even though that (usually misplaced) confidence would frequently get me into trouble.

Andy Warhol once said that no-one gets anything until they stop wanting it. And things tend to come along, if you’re fortunate, when you’re actually ready for them, rather than when you think you deserve them.

11am, Tuesday 4th October 2016. I set foot on the stage of The Royal Opera House for the first time, as a Guest Artist in their new production of The Nose. It feels like a significant milestone – I walked past the Nag’s Head on the way to the stage door, and I’d thought of those three grapes. I look around for a colleague to share the moment with. Perhaps I could tell John Tomlinson, since I’m pretty sure he’d at least feign interest, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Everyone is – understandably – preoccupied with their own tasks. I try to take the auditorium in, and check a few basic sight lines, and I put the milestone to one side. In actual fact, perhaps I’m a little disappointed at the lack of thrill inside me; reputation and history aside, it’s just another theatre, albeit a very pretty one; by now I’ve seen a lot of them, and most of them work the same way.

11.05am. I’m standing centre stage. We’re in the middle of Act 2 Scene 9, at the beginning of which I have a short solo. The rehearsal has stopped just after my solo ends. The director is shouting at me through a microphone. I’m not in the light. I need to get further downstage. It means reworking my positions completely, ditching what we’ve been doing for the last four weeks on the dummy set in the rehearsal room. Fine, I’m sure I can deal with that. Thumbs up. Now the conductor is shouting at me. He has a microphone too. I’m singing too fast and not following his beat. I was looking straight at him but there are bright lights shining in my eyes, I’m wearing a prosthetic nose which is slightly too big and a peaked cap which is slightly too small, and it’s hard to argue when everyone has a microphone except you. There are ten of my colleagues on stage with me, others in the wings, and an auditorium dotted with people. All of them are very good at their jobs. This is Covent Garden. If you’re screwing it up, the chances are it’s not someone else’s fault.

We start the scene again. I stand in the light and manage to sing at something resembling the right speed. This time we don’t stop after my bit and the scene continues. This means it wasn’t a total disaster the second time. I think. I go up to my dressing room and sit down. I’ve worked for eighteen years for this, I’m good at my job and I know my role backwards, and I wanted it to be perfect. I feel like crying but I don’t. I pick up the score, look at the awkward corners – frankly, the whole damn piece is an awkward corner – and get to work.

When you’re young you tend to undervalue experience, since it’s something you don’t have and there’s no shortcut to obtaining it. You can sing, you can act, you’re pretty, you’re working on your languages, you know your way around a stage. The operatic world is crying out for a talent like yours. What more could experience bring, other than grey hair and wrinkles and cynicism? I guess what I’m saying is that what experience brings is the capacity to get shouted at by men with microphones and carry on doing your work, screwing it up a little less each time. Or at the very least, screwing it up in more interesting ways.

The Nose opens tonight. It’s a very special show, in a very special place, and I’m very proud to be a small part of it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, and have a moment to spare beforehand, feel free to put a pound in the Nag’s Head fruit machine for me.

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A solution to No Balls

NB this is a post about cricket, so if you’ve come here looking for insights into opera, or indeed other possible insights that come under the category “No Balls”, you may need to look elsewhere for the time being.

A batsman being dismissed off a No-Ball, where the bowler has overstepped the mark, is often described as ‘controversial’. Since bowlers are required to bowl from 22 yards or further from the stumps at the other end, it’s difficult to see where the controversy lies – you quite literally have to draw the line somewhere.

Spectators often wonder why the bowler chooses to step so close to the line, and therefore risk having otherwise legitimate wickets (correctly) being given Not Out, rather than bowl from a few inches further back and remove the risk, realistically speaking, altogether. You sometimes hear bowlers argue that they are striving for every last advantage, bowling as close to the batsman – and therefore giving him as little time to react to the ball – as possible being a reason.

Let’s do some sums. At 80mph, a cricket ball takes 0.563s to travel 22.0 yards. (Of course, the batsman will play the ball slightly closer than 22 yards away, but let’s use that as an approximation). To travel 22.5 yards at the same speed would take 0.576s – a difference of 0.013s.

Let’s compare that to the difference between an 80mph bowler and a 90mph bowler, 90mph often being cited as a benchmark for a Test-level fast bowler who will trouble top-class batsman. At 90 mph, the ball will take 0.500s to travel 22 yards – i.e. a difference of 0.063s, which is considered significant enough to make life difficult for the batsman.

By comparison, the difference of 0.013s from bowling half a yard further back, while not being entirely insignificant, doesn’t seem to justify the risk of an otherwise legitimate dismissal being given Not Out.

(TL;DR – the advantage from bowling right on the crease is too small to be worth the risk of a No Ball.)

So why bowl from an inch behind the crease, rather than half a yard? (Or a foot or six inches, if the bowler is concerned that an extra 0.013s is too much?)

I’d need the view of a far better bowler than me on this, but I suggest that, just as most bowlers use a visual mark of some sort to mark the start of their run-up, they also use the crease as a visual mark for the end of it, for consistency – it’s far easier than judging an invisible point half a yard behind the crease, since the crease itself has to be kept clearly visible at all times.

So might a solution to No-Balling be to mark an extra line half a yard / a foot (or whatever) behind the crease, as a target for the bowlers?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

 

 

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I want to be an opera singer: Music College

May I draw your attention to an insightful post by the ever-thoughful Jan Capiński about conservatoire training for singers. There’s a huge amount of food for thought here, and I agree with a large majority of the points Jan makes.

Most important of all is the primacy he gives to the choice of singing teacher. In the long run, the quality of your singing and its development is what will make or break your career.

If you’re currently researching music colleges, my advice would be to give absolute priority to the process of identifying the right singing teacher and letting the rest follow that. I’ll deal with how you work out who the right teacher for you is in a post of my own at some point, but in the meantime, take a close look at what Jan is saying here:

The Pitfalls of Music College

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I want to be an opera singer: On the bench

Fresh out of the conservatoire and diving headlong into the world of professional opera singing, one, some or many of your first contracts are likely to be as a cover, which is what the opera business calls its understudies.

There’s a glib orthodoxy in the business that for young singers covering is “a great way of learning a role”. Let me disabuse you of this notion right now. Covering is a terrible way of learning a role. Compared with actually doing the role, you typically get less notice to learn it, less rehearsal time, less or no contact with the main directorial and musical team, less scope for your own input, development and interpretation of the role, and much less notice if you actually have to perform it.

As with a lot of aspects of this job, you need to bear in mind that the further up the food chain you go, the easier almost every aspect of the job gets. The notable exception is the pressure and expectation: if you’re at the top, receiving the best support that money can buy, and being paid more than everyone else, you’re expected to deliver. On the other hand, people know that covering is a tough gig, and so if you can do a decent job of it, people will be impressed.

At various stages of my career I’ve found myself covering a fair amount – not just when I was starting out, but also during a couple of phases (one of them being now) when I’ve been exploring new repertoire. Here’s some things to mull over as you sit at the back of the stalls trying to work out how the hell you’re supposed to take notes in the dark.**

By the way, I’m working on the assumption that your ultimate career goal involves being the principal artist rather than the cover. Even if it doesn’t, given the fees involved at all but the very highest level, being a lifelong cover isn’t realistically the viable career option it once may have been. So buckle up and keep your eye on the road ahead.

I’m also mainly discussing how covering works in the UK, but most of the points are transferable to some degree or other.

Polite, Prepared and Professional

A company will give a young singer a cover contract at least partly in order to have a closer look at them in a working situation. This means they can check out crucial aspects of your employability that can’t be judged in an audition: how punctual and reliable you are, how well you learn your roles before rehearsal, whether you’re able to work as part of a team, whether you smell nice, and so on.

That means there’s a sense in which this is an extended audition – in fact, that’s true of every job you do throughout your career – but bear in mind that it’s not just your performance of the role which is being assessed. In fact, that’s the one thing about which they already have an idea, which is why you got the job in the first place.

So make sure you know how to read a schedule, get yourself to rehearsals in plenty of time and decently turned out, try to be polite and professional to all your colleagues, and learn your words and music as thoroughly as you can before you arrive.

In fact, if you’re given enough notice you should try to get your role learned before the main cast’s rehearsals start, since illness can strike at any point, and if you’re called up before the official start of cover rehearsals and already know your onions then you’ll have solved a problem for some potentially very helpful people.

If you live nearby, or you can arrive early, it’s a good idea to ask about the possibility of some calls with the company’s music staff before you start rehearsals. Most companies are happy to oblige, and you’ll probably be getting the inside line on the conductor’s tempi and dynamics – plus you’ll get to meet one or two of your repetiteurs before the official start of rehearsals, which should make day one of your actual rehearsals slightly less daunting.

Eye on the Ball

Cover rehearsals are strange things, partly because you’re preparing for something which pretty much everyone present hopes won’t happen, but largely because if it does happen, you won’t be performing opposite any of the people with whom you’re rehearsing. (Unless something goes very horribly wrong indeed).

You need to stay aware of that during the process, and resist the temptation to build anything too specific with your cover colleagues. Keep an eye on the parameters – for instance, if you’re covering Tosca and your cover Cavaradossi is a foot-and-a-half taller or shorter than the main cast Cavaradossi, you need to avoid getting too used to the shorter/taller version, and apply your mental preparation to the question of how you would approach each moment with a taller/shorter partner. And so on. On the other hand, if you detach yourself mentally and emotionally from a rehearsal process, you’ll be unprepared in another sense. So it’s a fine line you have to walk.

You’ll also find yourself having to translate blocking and other movements through 180 degrees, since you’ll mostly be watching the main cast on stage from the front. If you need to spot the covers in a stage rehearsal, they’re the ones in the auditorium mumbling “Enter down stage left er… no, right…. hang on…” to themselves while performing discreet complex semaphore. Some people find these mental gymnastics easy, some so fiendishly difficult that they can’t make notes until they’ve rehearsed it themselves. If you’re towards the latter end of the spectrum, try not to worry too much since the assistant director assigned to the covers should also have comprehensive notes on your blocking. In the meantime, visualisation exercises should help a bit – essentially putting your mind’s eye on stage facing out, either while you’re watching rehearsals or when you’re reviewing your notes afterwards.

At the end of most cover rehearsal periods a rehearsal-room run of the whole piece takes place, or as much of it as is feasible with the forces available. People will often refer to this as the “Cover Run” or even the “Cover Show”. That’s a bit of a hangover from the days when many companies would schedule a run of the piece with the cover cast on stage with the actual set, and often with something of an audience too. These days that’s very much a rarity, but the idea that the final run is some sort of showcase performance remains in the minds and language of many singers.

For my money I’ve never found that idea particularly helpful, since as soon as you think of something as a performance you start making committed decisions, which you might then have to change fundamentally if you end up on stage with the main cast, set, lights, costume, make-up etc etc etc. I’ve not got any concrete answer to this, other than again to retain a clear focus on the ultimate aim of the process, which is to take you to the point where you could slot in with the main cast if the need arose.

You’ll sometimes find that various members of the management, casting department etc of the company show up to all or part of the cover run. Don’t read too much into whether they show up or not (I guarantee that your older colleagues will complain about it either way), but if they are there it’s a good idea to use their presence to put yourself under a little bit of the pressure that you’d get from performing in front of a full audience.

Keep Singing

The first two weeks or so of your rehearsals might well be spent sitting and watching the main cast, for several hours a day. Whenever possible, make sure you set aside some time for your own singing. Otherwise, without you noticing, singing becomes something that other people do, and your body and mind can rapidly forget what it takes to do it yourself.

The Meritocracy

There are no set rules for the relationship between a principal artist and their cover. Some will work very closely together, and some will never even meet. It’s another oddity of the cover process that there’s usually no formal introduction / meet-the-team moment for the cover cast.

My rule of thumb as a cover is to let my principal lead the relationship – some will come and chat to you every day, some will say hello and then go their separate way, and some will want to pretend you don’t exist. That might seem a bit odd, but as a principal meeting your cover is not necessarily a thoroughly pleasant moment, since they’re only there in case something nasty happens to you – it’s a bit like being asked to proof-read your own obituary.

You’ll also find that many directors want to ignore your existence as covers. Again, they’re not being rude (well, not necessarily) – covers arrive during a vulnerable part of the creative process, and it can upset a director’s vision if he suddenly has to deal with the idea that Cavaradossi might one evening be 6’ 7” rather than 5’ 1”. Try not to take it personally.

If you’re covering a singer who is at the top of their game, you will get an unrivalled insight into how they achieve what they do – just remind yourself that you’re not there as a fan, but to analyse their process and take whatever you find useful from it. My general advice about learning from other singers is that it’s usually far more useful to watch them doing what they do, and how they prepare to do it, than to ask them how they do it. For that reason, at its best covering can be a golden opportunity for learning.

At other times you might find yourself covering a singer who is having a hard time of it. You may even find that you’re pretty sure you could do a better job yourself. Try to resist the temptation to bitch and gripe about that – in fact, you’d do well to be careful not to give that impression at all, since if you’re correct in your assessment, the company grapevine will be in overdrive making the same comparison, and people will very easily jump to the conclusion that you’re the architect of that rumour mill.

Because covering involves a lot of sitting and watching, usually in the company of singers who like to talk shop and form opinions, it’s easy for covers to turn into armchair critics, and the world has plenty of those already. It’s better to keep focused on doing your job to the best of your ability, and let others worry about how everyone else is doing. And be careful even about saying “I hope I/you get to go on” and such like to cover colleagues – essentially you’re wishing misfortune on the principal singer, which is not a good thought to send out to the universe. It’s enough on its own terms to have done a good job of preparation, even if you’re ultimately not needed.

Bear in mind that a singer in a main-cast role will most likely have worked for years to get themselves there, and for one reason or another will deserve that position. If it’s not immediately obvious that the reason is the quality of their performance (and bear in mind that a lot of experienced singers deliberately don’t hit 100% until opening night, so don’t leap to conclusions), then try to work out what it is that they bring to the party, as a singer, actor, colleague, professional, and whether that’s something you too can develop.

I promise you that this business is, by and large, a meritocracy – even if all the merits in question aren’t always the ones you might think. It’s part of your job as a professional to work out what those merits are, and where possible to acquire them yourself.

Match Day

It’s common sense to tell you to make a note of what day, time and where the performances you’re covering are taking place, but in practice it’s easier than you might think to lose track, especially once official cover rehearsals have finished (generally after the first couple of shows). Some companies will require you to be in or near the theatre during every performance, but many will be happy for you to be further afield, provided – and this is very important – they know where you are, how to contact you, and how quickly you’d be able to get to the theatre if needed. Keep in contact with the Company Manager, and make sure you’ve got their mobile number handy.

Even when the company doesn’t insist, it’s never a bad idea to remain within range of the theatre if you can, especially if you’re covering a long and onerous role. While most problems can be foreseen, singers and their voices can occasionally grind to a halt in the middle of a show, so you never know when you might be needed at the shortest of notice.

Wherever you are, the best approach is to treat the build-up to each show day as if you are going to be performing, ensuring that you’re physically and mentally prepared if the call comes. That’s easier when you’re first doing it than when you’ve covered 100+ performances without being needed. Don’t get caught out – there’s nothing worse than opportunity finally knocking just when you’ve locked the door.

And if you take only one piece of advice from me, please please resist the temptation to double-book yourself e.g. by taking a concert on an evening when you’re covering. It’s hard to turn work down, but if a company calls you to go on and you’re not able to fulfil your contractual obligation to do so, it can very easily be a career-ender. You might think you can come up with a Plan B and have a colleague on standby to step in for your concert if need be, but bear in mind that from their point of view you’re asking them to help you take two jobs at once, one of which could have been theirs; and also that, if you need to put Plan B into action, they could royally stitch you up by turning their phone off. Difficult as it is when you’re earning peanuts, the best bet is to play it straight.

Oh, and that reminds me – don’t turn your phone off until the curtain’s down on the last night.

Stepping Up to the Plate

You’ll know as soon as the phone rings and you see the company manager’s number. With any luck you might have a couple of days’ warning, although it could be a couple of hours or less.

Don’t panic – most company and stage managements are excellent at dealing with crises (opera being what it is, they get plenty of practice), and you may even find a moment to wonder at the feeling of being at the centre of such a complex machine, and receiving all the support it can give.

Right, snap out of it because time is of the essence. You’ll probably get a chance to rehearse (briefly) with any costume, props, set and, if you’re lucky, colleagues you’ve not encountered before, but don’t hang about. Part of your preparation should be to identify which are the trickiest aspects technically, and make sure that you now cover those – for instance, if you have to climb a ladder, juggle some props, undo some buttons that you’ve not had the chance to rehearse with, make sure you’re not doing it for the first time in front of 2000 people. You’ll have a member of the director’s team with you, so discuss it with them and ask if there’s anything you’ve missed.

The same goes for the musical side – you’ll probably get a few minutes with the conductor, possibly with a pianist (and piano if you’re especially fortunate). Again, as part of your preparation, think about what issues you’ll raise at this point – I’d suggest looking at tempi of solo sections (especially if you want to do something differently from your principal), and discussing cues you might need at tricky entries. Don’t overload it. Five or six points are probably plenty at such short notice, and the conductor should be impressed and reassured if you’ve clearly got your head in order.

When you get a chance to spend a few minutes on the set, work out the sight lines of the theatre and particularly whether and where there are monitors. You’ll need to watch the conductor more than usual.

During the show, trust stage management more than anyone else – they can give you a huge amount in terms of your entries, props and so on. When you’re on stage, with any luck you’ll be surrounded by colleagues who know the show extremely well, and you’ll find that most will be hugely supportive. In fact, as a principal it’s usually very exciting to have a cover on, and the overall energy of the performance often benefits. On the other hand, don’t read too much into it if any of them don’t seem overjoyed at your presence – perhaps your principal was their best buddy and they’re upset not to see them there. Or perhaps their dog is sick or they’ve left the iron on at home. Keep focused on doing your job well and not falling into the orchestra pit.

Afterwards, don’t forget to thank everyone who’s helped you, especially stage management. (The last point is a general career rule. Your life is in their hands more often than you realise it. Do what you can to make sure they want to see you get through the evening in one piece.) Once the dust settles a few days later it’s also a good idea to send a message of thanks to everyone involved – via the company manager is usually the best way of making sure it gets passed on.

If the crisis hits early on – during the first couple of shows, or even during rehearsals – you may be asked to sing from the side of the stage while the principal, or an assistant director, walks and mimes the role. This will typically happen if the directorial team feel that the covers haven’t had enough rehearsal time to work safely on the set, so don’t take it as any comment on your ability or state of preparedness. Watch the conductor closely (under these circumstances there’s no excuse not to) and, especially if it’s a performance or public dress rehearsal, make sure you’re appropriately dressed – smart plain black is good since it’s not too distracting.

Hard as it is amid all the excitement, try to be sensitive to the fact that you’re there because of someone else’s misfortune, especially if it’s illness or injury, and you may well now be working with some close friends of theirs. Even if it’s all gone miraculously well and is potentially a major breakthrough for you, it’s best not to get too outwardly jubilant until you get home.

Climbing the Ladder

As I said at the beginning, your ultimate goal, whether you like it or not, is to do such a good job of covering that at some point soon afterwards you’re not the cover any more. That doesn’t really require you to get to go on – if you’ve jumped through all the hoops and done a good job without upsetting anyone, the management will be pleased that their decision to employ you has proved a good one.

If you do get to go on, and you perform wonders and receive rave reviews, don’t be too downhearted if overnight fame and fortune doesn’t immediately follow. The business moves slowly and it can take months or even years for the impact of a sudden success to work its way through the pipes, but rest assured that your good work won’t have gone unnoticed. In the meantime, be patient and keep making sure that the work you do today is as good or better than the work you did yesterday.

On the other hand you may reach a point where a company is so pleased with your performance as a cover that they want the reassurance of having you there as cover a lot more often, and so you keep getting offered cover contracts, rather than main cast roles. As with all offers, if you keep accepting them, they’ll assume that you’re happy to do the job, and may well keep offering more of the same. So if your ambitions lie elsewhere, at some point you (or your agent) will need to explain politely but clearly that you’ve enjoyed your experiences as a cover, but that you now feel you need to move on. That may mean there’s nothing for you at that company for the time being, which is a hit you’ll have to take. But in the long run polite ambition is a healthy thing for the development of your career and your artistry – just make sure it’s backed up with endeavour, professionalism and end product. Be patient. And when your moment comes, be ready.

** Use an iPad and a score-reading app. Cheap version, buy a torch.

Posted in Music, Opera, What they don't teach you at music college | Leave a comment

Opera tickets, going cheap

Here’s a couple of pie charts for you, showing the income and expenditure of the Royal Opera House in 2014:

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The sector to which I’d like to draw our attention is “Box office receipts” on the income chart, making up 35% of the ROH’s annual income in this, a fairly typical year.

What that tells us is that, if we imagine an large-scale opera house which aimed to break even on the box office alone, the tickets would need to be, on average, nearly three times the price of current ROH tickets. Or to put it another way, your £50 ticket to Covent Garden is actually worth over £140 – the other £90+ is covered by state subsidy, sponsorship, overpriced champagne, and so on.

There’s a further layer of subsidy which is perhaps less obvious, and that’s revealed when you look at the range of prices available. Tickets for main stage productions at the ROH start at about £10 (you have to be very quick to get those) and go up to a typical maximum of around £240. Compare that to a commercial West End musical – let’s say Phantom of the Opera, where the spread of prices is more like £20-£100. So while the posh seats subsidise the cheap ones in both instances, the extent to which that happens is far greater at the ROH.

Having said that, in our parallel-universe opera house run on ticket sales alone, if we sold all the seats at a flat rate, I would make a rough guess that they would each need to be sold at £250+ to cover our costs, even assuming we sell out every show. That is to say that even the most expensive opera tickets are still sold at less than cost price.

Some ticket-buyers complain that in practice opera is expensive because while there are cheap tickets available, they sell out very quickly since there are a lot of regular patrons who watch the on-sale date like hawks and snap up the bargains in a flash, leaving late-comers with only the more expensive ones from which to choose. While I see their point, it’s also hard to argue that we should come up with an alternative system where our most loyal customers are punished financially rather than rewarded.

So let’s say that you and I were running the Royal Opera House, or even heaven forbid the Arts Council. On Monday morning we might be having two conversations.

1. To what extent should the better seats subsidise the cheaper ones?  How would an alternative ticketing model look where we sold all the seats in the theatre at a flat rate on a first-come-first-served basis? In which case the reward for our most loyal customers would be that they get the best seats, rather than the cheapest ones, and last-minute ticket-buyers wouldn’t pay more, but would have to sit further back.

2. To what extent should the big-sellers subsidise the longer shots? That is, if we put on a show that could sell out twice over, is the best use of our various subsidies to make some or all of the tickets for that show as cheap as possible? Or would it be to increase the price of tickets for those shows, knowing that we’ll probably still sell them all, which would then enable us to make ticket prices for our less popular (or should I say, artistically riskier) shows much cheaper than usual?

Although I’m taking them to hypothetical extremes, these are the discussions which take place every day in the offices of opera houses all over the world.

Let me leave you with this thought: something can be expensive and still represent excellent value for money. If I offered you a brand new top-of-the-range Mercedes for £20,000, your response would not be “That’s a bit pricey!” but “Why and how is that so cheap?” Full-scale opera productions involve a huge amount of work from a huge number of people (most of whom are highly-skilled and very few of whom are paid particularly well), as well as a mind-bogglingly complicated supporting infrastructure. I hope it goes without saying that all of us who are involved in producing opera should always be looking at ways to do it more efficiently and cut out unnecessary expenditure wherever possible (N.-massively-B. without undermining the quality). But opera is, by its very nature, an expensive art form – and while the tickets aren’t cheap, on the whole they’re still incredible value for money.

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