Coronaclassical 2: Giving It Away

24th April 2020

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear – they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

What Disney in fact did was to keep producing their new content, increased their marketing, and heavily promoted an attractive offer of around 12% off for early subscribers. Speaking anecdotally, it was more than enough to make me sign up, with the prospect of several weeks at home and a lot of spare time suddenly looming.

Disney already had a viable business model for home entertainment set up, and so they were well-placed to cash in on a newly captive audience. And it’s to mutual advantage: subscribers can stump up £5 a month or so, knowing that their contribution will lead to more of the content that they enjoy. It really doesn’t take much – one or two flagship shows in most cases. I’m happy that my contribution to Netflix will help finish Better Call Saul, and similarly with NOW TV and Westworld.

So where did I get that nonsensical example in paragraph one? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

I’m combining separate examples for dramatic effect of course, although there are a few companies who have reacted in pretty much all of these ways. Elements of this response are apparent across the industry – freelance artists have been instantly laid off with minimal or no compensation, the cap has been passed round to the usual long-suffering and endlessly generous supporters, and most bizarrely, vast archives of digital content have been put online for free.

Now, if we are to assume that the current crisis will last a matter of a few weeks, and that we’ll all be back to normal by the beginning of the autumn season, this approach might make some sense. With strong hints over the last few days from the UK and Scottish governments, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and others, that realistically we need to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks – in other words, well into 2021 if not beyond – the penny should be beginning to drop that the wait to get back to “normal” may be a far longer one. There is even a non-negligible chance that this could be a permanent new “normal”.

For companies, a theatrical lockdown which reaches into next year means a long time to go without ticket income, or to rely on audience generosity with nothing to offer in return. For individual artists, it would take most of us beyond the period for which we had confirmed contracts, leaving us without even the support those might have offered, and truly out on a limb.

What then for an industry which has over the last few decades, rightly or wrongly, put all its eggs in the basket of live performance?

This business of releasing digital content free of charge was not without a certain logic, after all. The idea (I infer) was to treat it as a loss leader, to drum up interest (albeit often via a mechanism which was so vague that one suspected it didn’t necessarily exist in any genuine detail at all) in buying tickets for live performances – some of which might, with a bit of luck, turn out to be profitable.

But there was always a flaw in the reasoning here. A video recording of a live performance is, in itself, an artistic product, and there was really never any reason why, with some marketing legwork, a viable paying audience couldn’t have been built up for it over time. The era when people were used to getting movies and TV shows (as opposed to music – that’s a separate set of problems) online for nothing is very much over. If you’re not a Disney+ subscriber, and decide you want to watch Return of the Jedi on YouTube this evening, it’ll set you back £6.99. Would it really take much for classical music audiences to undergo the same paradigm shift? Almost all of the freelance artists we’re watching in those classical broadcasts are currently unemployed and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the next couple of years. Most of them will not be being paid for these broadcasts, and many would have received next to nothing for them in the first place. Would it be too much to ask that we take the opportunity to invite current viewers to contribute to their livelihoods? In fact, had we already done the work to establish the principle of paying for getting classical music on your TV screen, this could have been a genuine boom time for the industry.

Let me give you a concrete example. My YouTube channel contains a song recital playlist, which I made at my own expense a couple of years ago and which, between the various tracks, now has over 10,000 views. While I make no comment on the singer’s performance, the quality of audio and video is high, and at, say, 49p a view I could not only make a decent profit, but more to the point have the financial capacity to produce similar content once or twice a year at least – even under the current restrictions on social distancing and so on. However, the reality is that my huge, and in many cases hugely subsidised, competitors have set the going rate for viewing online classical music content at precisely zero. So I make a loss, and viewers are denied the ongoing production of new high-quality content. It’s the artistic equivalent of burning fossil fuel. And as with the boar seller in Asterix and the Cauldron, everybody loses.

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This moment in history could be an opportunity to think about the most fundamental basis of how our industry works. Without going into the personal details of the Placido Domingo affair and similar recent scandals, a business which sets itself up such that it relies on huge corporate and individual donations, and therefore needs to give them in return, among other things, some special sort of privileged access to “stars” which it is then obliged to create and place in positions of unassailable power, has created an almost-inevitable problem for itself. We lean on subsidies so that a proportion of our tickets can be sold below cost price, allowing the entire industry to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude to the fact that ours is an expensive product to make. At some point it’s surely not a moral outrage to ask those who consume it to pay for it. What might a truly egalitarian opera industry – where audiences are invited to make a grown-up decision to pay for what they’re getting – look like? 

And let’s think again about that expense. Our productions are expensive – but on the scale of television and cinema budgets, not impossibly so, especially if we begin to apply ourselves seriously to the idea of a potential global, at-home paying audience.

When we come to live theatrical performance, there’s no getting away from the challenges presented. If we’re honest, theatre was already approaching something of a watershed regarding audience expectations of mutually acceptable behaviour and how to share a space in the modern world. Will we need to rethink venues entirely – around a comfort-based individual experience, rather than cramming ‘em in? Will theatrical boxes make a serious comeback? Stuart Murphy’s latest brainstorm for ENO, touting the idea of drive-in opera, raises more questions than it answers. But at least it’s a sign that the industry may be willing to go back to first principles, which is surely the least the situation will demand – and this is not to mention how we might configure our singers and orchestra members at a safe distance from each other. Perhaps it’ll be like the post-AIDS porn industry, and we’ll need medical certificates before we can perform together without protection.

Let’s take the worst-case scenario, and say that the idea of staging a show in front of a live audience of thousands is a thing of the past. We’d all take a moment to mourn that loss. But as grown-up professional artists, our job is to imagine these scenarios, and prepare to meet these challenges. Opera and classical music on video has almost always been hamstrung by the limitations of pointing cameras at a stage, filming something with the pace and scale of theatre and concert hall rather than cinema or TV. It may be time to revisit seriously what we might be able to achieve by designing pieces from the ground up for screen rather than stage. 

Being restricted by the parameters of works designed for theatrical audiences two centuries ago is a choice we make, and other routes are available. If the ideal material to take advantage of a home broadcast format is limited or unavailable, we have a vast number of hugely talented composers, librettists, directors and designers who could produce it afresh. Acting styles might need to adapt, but they always have done in response to the dramatic tastes of the day. In addition, the quality of video and audio equipment people have at home is, in general, unrecognisably superior to what was available when these questions were first being addressed half a century ago. How do we make opera relevant to now? Making it now, for now, is always a good start.

This thing caught us all unawares. We’ve had a chance to grieve for the art that we’ve already lost. Take another moment to do so if you need it. But at some point we either choose to give up, or to get our thinking caps on and embrace this grimly terrifying, weird, and yet potentially wonderful new world, and ask whether it holds a place for those who seek to make viable, sustainable, profitable art. Are we up for it?

24.4.2020


Based on his hit blog series ‘Coronaclassical’, Paul Carey Jones’ lockdown diaries are now on sale via Amazon sites worldwide, and make the perfect Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in the world of opera and classical music. 50% of the author’s profits in 2020 will go to support the work of the Royal Society of Musicians.

“Something good to come out of lockdown.” – John Suchet

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Summer opera? Pray for rain.

It’s summer in the UK, which means lots of black-tie picnics in muddy fields. The British attitude to rain is summed up by the fact that we buy more roofless convertible cars than any other country in Europe, despite, logically speaking, having the least cause to do so.

Stiff upper lip aside, there’s another reason why you shouldn’t get too downhearted if the weather is gloomy on the day of your opera-going, and that’s that you might well end up getting better singing as a result. Here are three reasons why.

Sound travels further in cold air

Although sound actually travels slightly faster through warmer air, the effect is so slight that it would normally be imperceptible to most human ears. On the other hand, in cold weather refraction will often cause sound to travel further – good news for those of you with the cheap tickets at the back.

Moisture keeps the voices lubricated

The typical human body is around 60% water, and singers will spend a lot of time pre-show making sure they’re fully hydrated. It’s not my specialist subject, but I’d hazard a guess that anything more than 60% air humidity should help singers stay hydrated during a show, assuming that it’s not coupled with high enough temperatures to make dehydration from sweating an issue. Furthermore, sound travels faster in moist air, so you should get a bit more ping when it’s a bit damp out there.

Rain keeps pollen levels under control

Air pollution and especially pollen levels are a problem which, anecdotally speaking, is proving increasingly irksome to many singers. A spell of wet, cold weather with fairly low wind levels will help minimise the risk of mid-show vocal conk-outs, and of course in an outdoor arena the lack of wind will help the acoustics too.

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Local honey – an important ally in the battle against air pollen

So there you go – the ideal summer singing conditions are probably a coldish, damp, wind-free evening. Reasons to be cheerful as you wrap yourself in a blanket, crack open your Thermos and enjoy the season’s offerings.

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Wagner: Don’t bump into the furniture

“Ah, good old Cyril. He’s a delightful chap. Such a shame about his memory problems.”

As skewering of rivals go, it was the most effortlessly effective I’ve heard. A singer referring to a colleague of advancing years, getting right behind him, as one needs to do before stabbing someone in the back.

You see, there’s no comeback is there? You could cast aspersions on a rival’s singing, but people can hear for themselves and reach their own conclusions. You could belittle his acting ability, but again they can judge that too, it’s highly subjective anyway, and frankly even if true has hardly been a career-ender for a lot of singers. But as soon as there’s a question mark over the memory… well, even the slightest slips become signs of an irreversible decline.

It’s not that memorisation is the most important skill in a singer’s armoury, but its absence is a pretty-much-insurmountable obstacle to a career in opera. It is infinitely more important than the ability to sight-sing, and significantly more important than the ability to read music (or words for that matter). Those things can be got around, as can wooden acting or movement issues, assuming that the end product is worth it. But a bad memory is probably a deal-breaker, especially in this era where a prompter, while not unheard of, is highly unusual and taken to be a sign of a serious malfunction somewhere along the line.

And yet, along with many other vital professional skills,  the process of memorisation is barely touched upon at music colleges. It was referred to once when I was training, in a class where the professor suggested I try singing without copy. I said I hadn’t memorised the piece (and in fact was preparing to sing it with score in concert). She said have a go – you might surprise yourself. So I did, and I didn’t. The idea of knowing something by heart without being aware of it struck me as very odd at the time (as now) – I’m pretty sure I’ve never learned anything by accident.

I’m not really here to talk about memorisation though. It’s just that it’s on my mind, to the near-exclusion of everything else, because this is Ring rehearsal week 0 – which is to say, 7 days to go, 77,000* words still to be memorised.

I’m not going to bang on about word-learning, since it’s the most mind-numbing, soul-destroying process ever. One day I might attempt to write something which will help young singers to grasp some useful skills when it comes to approaching the process of committing a role to memory, which is to assume that Wagner doesn’t finish me off in the meantime.

For now, let’s take a look at how The Master might have helped us a little bit here and there, even though he caused the problem in the first place. Here’s Wotan giving his daughters the sharp end of his tongue in Act 3 of Die Walküre:

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“Erzog ich euch kühn, zum Kampfe zu zieh’n, schuf ich die Herzen euch hart und scharf, dass ihr Wilden nun weint und greint, wenn mein Grimm eine Treulose straft?”

And here he is in Act 3 of Siegfried making small talk with his eponymous grandson:

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“Wer schuf das Schwert so scharf und hart, daß der stärkste Feind ihm fiel?”

Now, you’ve no doubt already spotted the memorisation problem here – is it hart und scharf this time, or scharf und hart? And why couldn’t he do us a favour and stick to some sort of consistent order?

Let’s look closer and get into Wagner’s head – and more importantly his ear – a little bit. Wagner the poet gets a lot of stick, not least for his E J Thribb-like alliteration, but there’s often reason to his rhymes, and at the very least aides-memoire for his long-suffering singers.

You’ll no doubt be way ahead of me here – in the first extract it’s “hart und scharf” because it follows “Herzen”, and the second is “scharf und hart” since it matches with “Schwert”. Hooray for us and no excuse for not getting it right from now on.

But let’s not stop there. Look again at that first sentence – here it is with some of the consonants capitalised for your consideration:

“er-Z-o-G- ich euch -K-ühn, -Z-um -K-ampfe -Z-u -Z-ieh’n, -SCH-u-F- ich die -H-e-R–Z-en euch -H-a-R–T- und -SCH-a-R–F-, dass ihr -W-ilde-N- -N-u-N- -W-ei-N-T u-N-D- -GR-ei-N-T, we-NN- -M-ei-N- -GR-i-MM- eine -TR-eulose s-TR-af-T-?”

Alright I got a bit carried away there, but you get the idea – this isn’t just straightforward alliteration, but a quasi-structured pattern of consonants. (Bear in mind too that in theatrical German e.g. the G in “erzog” sounds like a K, Z sounds as TS, etc.) It doesn’t quite conform to any particular set of rules – the author saw himself, after all, as von Stolzing not Beckmesser – but the consonant groupings are no coincidence.

Any reader who ever took classes in Welsh literature will recognise the similarity to what we call cynghanedd – literally “harmony” or “chiming” – a major part of which involves patterns of corresponding consonants, usually according to fiendish rules, the complexity of which is crucial to producing the uniquely flowing sound of Welsh poetry**, as well as giving us an excuse to indulge in our national pastime of arguing amongst ourselves.

In fact, anyone seeking an insight into how a meeting of a guild of Meistersinger might have looked and sounded could do a lot worse than pop down to the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff Bay this week and sit in on the Ymryson y Beirdd (“Contest of the Bards” – also sometimes called Talwrn y Beirdd) – the attention to detail, controversy and debate, not to mention the resulting outstanding works of literature, are surely not a million miles from the corresponding events in 16th-Century Nuremberg.

I’ll leave you to carry out the same exercise on the second excerpt. It’s no coincidence, either, that the highlighted consonants are by-and-large the most significant in that section, and are the ones that coaches and conductors will harangue their singers about emphasising.

And yet they’ll also want a classic legato line in the singing, assuming they have a good sense of Wagnerian style. That was Wagner’s own desire – exceptionally clear consonants combined with an authentic bel canto legato. And here’s why some singers speak of Wagner as Superman looks at Kryptonite. If a singer has been brought up with the idea that legato singing is just about vowels, and that consonants should be kept to a minimum, if not dispensed with altogether, then Wagner’s demands will test their technique to breaking point and beyond. Either the clarity of the text will be lacking, or the line of the legato will be broken in an attempt to make larger consonants, somehow independently of the actual singing (often resulting in the notorious “Bayreuth Bark”).

Coming back to the Eisteddfod, if you’ve grown up singing in Welsh you have a head start here. In terms of how the language itself functions – the relationship between vowels and consonants – Welsh is probably closer to German than most other European languages, and more than that, the approach to the importance of language, words and poetry in song in traditional Welsh singing corresponds very strongly to Wagner’s attitude.

Plus we start them young. When I adjudicate at local Eisteddfods I often begin the day with the 4-6 year old category, and while the musical standard of the singing can be slightly idiosyncratic at times, I can’t remember a single instance where words – in terms of diction and meaning – weren’t crystal clear.

Here’s Bryn Terfel singing Gwynfyd*** by Meirion Williams, with that very same clarity of diction and meaning. This was recorded when he was a mere 27 years old – but bear in mind by that time he’d been doing it this way for a quarter of a century. And the skills, as he has demonstrated, are unquestionably transferrable to Wagner.

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I had a great ending lined up which would tie all of this together most elegantly, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was.

 

* rough guess + poetic license

** for examples of cynghanedd in English language poetry see some of the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also more loosely Dylan Thomas.

*** I don’t think there’s any strict cynghanedd in the text – although I’m happy to be corrected on that – but the flavour of it is certainly there.

 

Posted in acting, Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Wagner, Wales, What they don't teach you at music college | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

University Challenge Strategy Guide Part One

This guide was largely inspired by two experiences – firstly my own as captain of the Royal Academy of Music’s University Challenge team in 1999, and then from following the (much more successful) campaign of my friends at Newcastle University in the 2017-18 series.

It is aimed primarily at teams preparing for their appearances on the show. Institutions with a history of sending teams to UC will often have an experienced coach, official or otherwise, overseeing their strategy. Less traditional UC colleges might not have the benefit of that support, so this is an attempt to level the playing field a little bit.

I also hope that UC viewers reading this will gain an insight into what it feels like to be in the firing line, and therefore more enjoyment from watching the show.

I’ll be endeavouring to update and expand the guide, so any comments, disputes, queries or requests are more than welcome.

PART ONE

Everyone’s a novice

The biggest thing I can tell you about playing UC for real is that it’s absolutely nothing like it is sitting and watching at home. That might seem like stating the obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t seem to get this from the comfort of their armchairs, where you can tick off how many answers you reckon you would have got at your leisure. Since UC reappearances are not allowed, at the start of each series every competitor is a complete novice. Some will have had the advantage of better preparation than others, but nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of facing Paxman under studio lights with the cameras rolling.

It’s tempting for TV audiences to judge the Round One teams against the finalists from the previous series, but remember they were novices too when they started out. Watching a team improve their strategy and develop as players is one of the joys of following the series throughout its run.

It’s not what you think

The number one thing that hits you when you kick off for real is that at the front line UC is not a general knowledge contest. It’s a buzzer speed test. You could know the answer to every single question on the show, but if you’re slower than the opposition, you will score precisely 0. This is perhaps why older teams don’t tend to fare as well as you might expect, given their (one would assume) greater breadth and depth of general knowledge – the kids are, in general, going to be quicker on the draw.

So players need to be prepared to be confident and proactive in their use of the buzzer. Here’s the thing – the rules state that if you buzz you need to answer straight away, which seems to imply that you shouldn’t buzz until the moment you know, or think you know, the answer. But one of the unique features of UC is that in actual fact you have the time it takes Roger “The Voice of University Challenge” Tilling to enunciate your college and your name, plus the length of the buzzer sound itself of course. (Let’s call this the Tilling Interval.) Altogether that could be two seconds or more. So the optimum time to buzz is two seconds before the answer pops into your brain – in other words, your brain has the time to go “I know the answer to this, it’s……” and then it comes out of your mouth.

(I suppose this means it’s an advantage to have a long college name and/or player surname. While that probably shouldn’t be a high priority during team selection, if you do have various versions of your surname – perhaps an optional hyphen, patronymic or tussenvoegsel – then you may want to opt for the longer version.)

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Tilling Interval Dream Team

Of course relying on the Tilling Interval for your final recall of an answer is a high-risk strategy, and it depends not so much on you knowing things, but knowing what sort of things you know, and how well you’re able to recall them under pressure. I’ll come back to this point in the notes on preparation in Part Two.

The downside of the aggressive buzzer approach is that you will more than likely incur a few 5-point penalties for incorrect interruptions. Overall, a confident team will probably decide that’s worth it – after all, a starter + bonuses should gain you 15-20 points, so over the course of a match it’s worth taking a few -5 hits. You can’t score a goal if you don’t have the ball, and you can’t score your bonuses if you don’t get the starter. The crucial point is that your buzzer strategy needs to be a team decision – the risk is collective, and only works if it’s shared (although it doesn’t necessarily need to be shared equally – see Part Two).

It also depends on the team being clear about who is primarily responsible for which subject area, but again that’s something to which I’ll return in Part Two.

Alternatively you may decide that you’ll employ a more aggressive buzzer strategy if you go substantially behind (let’s say three starters – 60 points or so) at any stage, especially to a team who may have more firepower than you – again, that’s something you should discuss collectively.

One more thing – if you buzz in early (before your opponents), and then realise your answer is incorrect, you’re actually better off not giving it – otherwise you’ve eliminated one possible answer when it gets handed over to the opposition. Even more importantly, unless your brain is lightning fast it’s better not to change your answer or hesitate – the worst case scenario is to buzz in early, delay before giving the answer and then blurt out the correct answer but too late for the points to be awarded to you – you’ve just effectively handed 15 points plus bonuses to the opposition. If in doubt, stick to your original thought, unless during the Tilling Interval you’ve realised it’s wrong, in which case say nothing.

You can see two good examples of an incorrect starter potentially giving the opposition a hand from Royal Academy Jones here at 1’40” and 4’28”:

YouTube – RAM vs Salford 1999

One of the crucial factors about UC is that it’s a game of emotions and psychological pressure, and an aggressive buzzer strategy, even if only partially successful in itself, puts pressure on the opposition, and can in turn lure them into a more aggressive buzzer strategy than they’d like to adopt. So if you’re up against strong opponents, or if you go significantly behind, it’s worth being brave. You might as well go down fighting.

By the same token if you find yourself ahead in the game, and the opposition switches to more aggressive buzzing, then you have two options – fight fire with fire, and step up your own buzzing, or stay calm and focus on picking up on their incorrect early buzzes. Both involve an element of calculated risk, but for my money the latter strategy is probably smarter, especially if you combine it with good clock control.

Technical issues

Here’s something to bear in mind while you’re filming – the primary aim of the producers is, ultimately, to produce good television, not, as you might think or hope, to produce a fair or balanced contest. That’s not to say they don’t want to, but it means that if you feel you’re being hard done by, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, before and during the recording. After is too late.

Before the show, as a technical check you’ll be asked to test your buzzer. Don’t assume it will be in full working order – that set has been around a while now, and maximising your buzzer speed wasn’t a budget priority in the first place. Plus you might be filming straight after a perspiringly vigorous buzzer-presser. So check it, double-check it, and if you’re not happy, speak up.

You should also check your screen visibility – bizarrely in this day and age, you’ll have to share a screen between two of you, and under lights your view of it might not be at all clear. Check it carefully, especially if you have any mobility issues.

Once filming starts, if any of these things turns out to be an issue, don’t be afraid to stop the filming, and do it at the earliest opportunity. The same goes for any issues with the accuracy of the questions and answers – mistakes do happen, and they can’t be fixed once the contest is over. You’ll feel awkward, and don’t expect anyone to be grateful for your intervention (after all, you’re lengthening their working day) – but don’t be afraid to fight your corner.

This is when it can help to have friendly faces in the audience. While you can’t talk to them at any stage of the filming process, it can bolster your confidence to have them there if and when an issue arises.

Play your half of the game

Here’s another area in which the playing the game on TV is – or should be – different from playing it at home. In your living room you’ll attempt to answer all the starters and both team’s bonuses. In the studio, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained in paying any attention to your opponents’ bonus questions – and potentially you’ll cause yourself emotional turmoil of some sort. Your aim in the time they take to deal with their bonus round should be to regroup, slow your heart rates and focus on nailing the next starter question. While you can’t really natter away, some simple sign language and eye contact team discussion can take place – e.g. do we switch to a more aggressive buzzer strategy, reassuring any flagging team mates, and so on.

Conversely, when you’ve got the bonuses, be very aware of what you do during the third bonus. Even if you’re trailing and trying to move the game on, don’t get so tied up in this final bonus that you disadvantage yourselves for the next starter. Use the time you have, even if you know the answer straight away, and make sure you’re all focused (the non-captains especially) when the next starter kicks in – if your opponents are game-smart, they will be.

Successfully executing this strategy should put a lot of pressure on the opposition – it makes it much harder for them to build momentum, in terms of scoreboard position and emotionally.

Teams with official coaches will often have a stat-taker in the audience, analysing the match as it unfolds so that the team can focus on their own game. One of the things they should be looking at is percentage of starter questions won after an opposition bonus round. I’d suggest aiming for something over 70%.

Eat the clock

Here’s where we dip a toe in the darker arts. The rules of UC are something of an unwritten constitution, as you might expect from an old-fashioned British quiz show. Teams are not allowed an unlimited amount of time to answer their bonus questions, but how much time that actually is seems to be, as far as I know, entirely at the discretion of Paxman. (His application of this rule is perceived to be flexible – quite what it depends upon is anyone’s guess, and the subject of a much lengthier discussion than this.)

If you’re trailing on the scoreboard, or if things are pretty close, you’ll most likely be wanting to get on with things as swiftly as possible. So you won’t want to waste time on getting bonuses wrong – achieving this depends again on you as individuals, and as a team, knowing what you know and how likely you are to be able to retrieve it swiftly. That’s an aspect of the team play that will develop over the course of the series, and is a large part of the art of UC captaincy (see Part Two). However, take another look at what I said about Bonus Q3 above – don’t hurry yourself into losing the next starter for the sake of trying to catch up.

If you manage to get yourselves substantially ahead on the scoreboard – let’s say three starters, i.e. 60 points or so – then it’s in your interests to slow the game down, and as the rules of the game stand there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t. So if you know the answer straight away, or if you immediately realise that none of you will know it, don’t be afraid to confer anyway. You may need good acting and improvisation skills – if you just sit there chatting inanely about the cricket or Leon Trotsky then Paxman is likely to tighten the time constraints. This is where some team practice time can be usefully spent – especially in trying to keep a straight face. As a rule of thumb, if you’re 60 ahead and you’re not hearing Paxman’s trademark “Come on!” at least once per bonus round, then you’re not using up enough of your time.

And whatever else you do, if you’re leading and the opposition have incorrectly buzzed early on a starter, take the whole of the starter question before you buzz. There’s absolutely no reason to buzz early under those circumstances.

Let’s look at two great examples of clock-eating from Newcastle from the latter stages of their match against Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. Firstly their poetry bonus round at around 24’45” onwards:

YouTube – Newcastle v Fitzwilliam 2017

There’s some great work from Nielsen on Q2, controlling the pace as Chair 2 should, and Reynard’s meanderings on Q3 are lovely too. An important point here is that I can’t even tell whether they’re consciously slowing the game down or not – their deliberations appear entirely legitimate, and well within the unwritten rules of the game.

Now let’s look at their Maths bonus round at around 26’31” onwards. I’m especially interested in Noble’s headline-grabbing answer to Q2, which at the time seemed like a lightning piece of mental arithmetic. The alternative explanation – that he knew the answer and killed a bit of time by conferring – is, to the student of UC strategy, even more impressive. Note that I don’t know which explanation is correct, and I’m happy to let Newcastle Noble keep that to himself. What you should consider is this: why is a Maths teacher asking two medical students for their input on a question about Pascal’s Triangle? Either way, it’s a noteworthy piece of UC-ing, and great television.

Overall this match is an excellent case study of Newcastle at their peak – aggressive buzzing gives them a three-starter lead by 11 minutes in, and their game control – regulating the pace of their bonuses, plus an impeccable 100% post-opposition-bonus starter rate – means that from that point Fitzwilliam were never able to get back into the contest.

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Not racist but.

“I’m not racist, but…” The dining room table of a bed & breakfast in rural Leicestershire, mid-June 2016. A retired gentleman from Birmingham has just uttered the time-honoured phrase, invariably the prelude to a stream of muddled (in this instance, anti-Asian) invective which could only be categorised as anything but not racist….. “and that’s why I’m voting Leave on Thursday.”

Being of sound Welsh-Irish working-to-middle class upbringing, I responded as I had been raised to do – by ignoring the utterly nonsensical illogic of the monologue (not to mention the crass offensiveness of describing in detail how he was for no valid reason about to disrupt the lives of the mixed-EU couple across the table), making non-committal sounds of polite non-disagreement and attempting to change the subject as quickly as possible.

I thought nothing more of it until I awoke on the morning of June 24th to the head-banging mass stupidity of the referendum result. My first useful conclusion was to vow never again to meet the words “I’m not racist but” with silence.

I mean don’t get me wrong – I’m perfectly happy to listen to a racist diatribe, and then, with any luck and a fair tail-wind, to engage with it and attempt to unravel the false assumptions on which it’s based, whether successfully or not. But you don’t get to say “I’m not racist but…” and then express a series of racist opinions. That is literally what makes you a racist. You can say “I am racist and….” plus racist opinions, or “I’m not racist and….” plus non-racist opinions, but “I’m not racist but….” simply makes no sense.

When the writer A A Gill died late last year, opinion (especially at home in Wales, for perfectly valid reasons which Gill himself makes clear in his memoir Pour Me – A Life) was divided between whether he was a brilliant writer or a complete prick, as if the two are in some way mutually exclusive.

Gill on a lot of subjects I could always take or leave, but I could never quite tear my eyes away from his restaurant column. “One of the great misconceptions about dinner is that nice people make good food…. But it’s almost exactly the opposite. Great food is cooked by twisted, miserable, depressive, cruel, abused and abusive, needy, compromised and shamed people.” Perhaps that’s also true of writers, and from experience seems more plausible than not.

Gill’s memoir is self-indulgent, rambling, disagreeable, unattractive and at times incomprehensible. I thoroughly recommend it. He’s not someone you can ever imagine preceding a series of offensive, prejudiced outpourings with “I’m not a racist but” – he repeatedly leaves that for us to decide, from the content of what follows.

Three sections stand out for me. His feelings on religion I knew before, and they’ve always struck a chord. His thoughts on dyslexia were new to me – his own, how dyslexia is approached, and his broader thoughts on the British education system overall. There were many times during my career as a teacher where I felt I was being asked to turn daffodil bulbs into tulips, or vice versa, which is really not a valid objective no matter how good the gardener or how potentially fertile the bulb.

And then his thoughts on critics and criticism.

“The rule of criticising anything is – first you must love it, innately, the thing itself, the idea of it, the application of it. If you don’t wholeheartedly adore the medium, then why would you ever care if someone did it badly or well?”

“…. there is no such thing (as constructive criticism). Critics do deconstructive criticism.”

There’s food for thought there, for critics and artists alike. The two instances where I balk at critics’ writing is when I feel that whatever love they had for their chosen subject has diluted or disappeared completely, and when they attempt to offer solutions to shortcomings they (rightly or otherwise) identify. Singers constantly wish critics would do this, but the point is they don’t know how and it’s not their job.

Ultimately the aspect of Gill’s writing which keeps drawing me back to it is his humanity – as a restaurant reviewer, I never felt he was unbiased, objective, fair or constructive. What I did feel was that I had a clear vision of what it had been for him to experience that portion of his existence spent on that meal. I knew how it felt to be him at that moment. A shared experience with a fellow human.

After all, deep down, we’re all complete pricks.

 

 

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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

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.

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