Nixon / Nixon / Nixon

Mrs CJ is away and I’m home alone, which means now is a good time to watch over-long movies about mid-20th Century US politics.

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Stone’s 1995 movie is as fancifully biased as you’d expect, but (some might say unusally) he doesn’t let that unbalance it – in fact, it liberates the later scenes from any straitjacket that historical fidelity might have placed upon them, and his depiction of Nixon’s early history and where his smörgåsbord of later neuroses and paranoia might have come from is surprisingly sympathetic.

Hopkins is as magnificent as you’d expect as Nixon – as with the film itself, his portrayal doesn’t shy away from making the internal explicit, and it’s fascinating to watch an actor who is so often mesmerisingly understated pull out so many stops. Here he is in a scene with Sam Waterston as CIA director Richard Helms (which was omitted from the original cut of the film):

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Hopkins’ Nixon has largely been eclipsed by Frank Langella’s portrayal in Peter Morgan’s Frost / Nixon, on stage and subsequently in Ron Howard’s 2008 movie adaptation. As an impersonation Langella’s Nixon is arguably closer – I saw the stage version in London and he wore Nixon’s physicality like a second skin, which came across even more clearly on stage than in the cinema. And inevitably in this milder dramatic context he captures more of Nixon’s mellifluous charm (which it’s easy to forget Nixon did actually possess). I wouldn’t want to pick one portrayal over the other – laid side-by-side they form two significant pieces of a uniquely complex character jigsaw. Here’s Langella’s Nixon about to succumb to the smooth interrogation of Michael Sheen’s Frost:

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I started studying Nixon when I covered the role for English National Opera during their last staging of Nixon in China ten years ago. When I first picked up the score I didn’t know much about him, nor did I have any particular interest in American politics outside current events. But it’s impossible to read a single paragraph about Richard Nixon without finding yourself getting sucked into the whirlpool of intrigue in which he was constantly elbow-deep.

John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s 1987 opera takes the brave step of showing Nixon – who had by that time become synonymous with his downfall – not at his nadir but at what was almost certainly his career zenith. Like its eponymous protagonist, Nixon in China seems to defy conventional (operatic, in this instance) logic: the libretto is probably ten times as dense, verbally and conceptually, as the ideal; nothing much happens dramatically or emotionally; and at first listening the music seems to chug along minimalistically without (in marked contrast to the libretto) having much to say. And yet the results in the flesh are absolutely spellbinding. It’s a piece which, I would argue, has yet to be fully appreciated – like Le Nozze di Figaro, it’s relatively easy to churn out an entertaining version of the first acts, but it’s the final act which needs to be properly understood and realised on stage if the piece as a whole is to reveal its true inner depths. Here’s Jimmy Maddalena in Nixon’s famous opening address:

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In the light of Washington National Opera’s current Ring cycle, an imaginative Tweeter drew parallels between Donald Trump and Siegfried, a thought which had been playing on my mind too. It certainly gave me an insight into why, when Wotan finally meets his heir in Act 3 Scene 2 of Siegfried, he takes an almost instant dislike to the man for whom he retains such high hopes, appalled by this blond moron who is blundering crassly through the conventions and constitutions he worked so hard to construct, and by his own flaws and misdeeds has done so much to undermine.

The same Tweeter tried to draw a parallel between John McCain and Wotan, which didn’t strike me as right at all, although he was admittedly constricted by confining himself to current political figures. (If John McCain is anyone in this metaphor then maybe it’s Siegmund, but that still doesn’t exactly strike me as luxury casting, no disrespect to Mr McCain.)

If there was a Wotan in recent US politics it was surely Nixon – a man who had fought his way to power and supremacy, sacrificing much of personal value along the way, and sowing the seeds of his own destruction in the very process. Reading the H R Haldeman diaries, which cover his tenure as Nixon’s chief of staff from 1969-1973, what’s striking is how inconsequential the Watergate affair appeared to Nixon and his team when it first appeared – a tiny grey cloud in the blue sky of his impending re-election. It’s impossible not to think of Wotan’s exchanges with Fricka at the beginning of the second scene of Das Rheingold, with the bill for Valhalla as the fly in this particular ointment. John Adams’ Nixon is even a bass-baritone, coincidentally or otherwise. And I imagine Nixon’s response to a meeting with Trump in his current vein wouldn’t have been a million miles from Wotan’s feelings upon coming face-to-face with Siegfried.

Yet even with such an almost endless wealth of material, both factual and fictional, to chew on, you only ever feel you’re scratching the surface of Nixon’s innermost thoughts and motivations. The man and what he came to stand for is a figure of towering and terrifying Shakespearean proportions. I’ll leave you with a clip of the real Richard Milhous Nixon – as much, to us now, as there could ever be such a thing.

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Acting outside the 98

Some more interesting thoughts on ‘good acting’ and ‘bad acting’ from our old friend Marcus Geduld here:

Quora: How do you differentiate good acting from bad acting?

When I was training at the National Opera Studio, we spent a week at the National Theatre Studio studying purely as actors, with inspiring sessions from Erica Whyman, Tim Pigott-Smith and Nigel Planer amongst others, under the sage guidance of our acting teacher, the incomparable Selina Cadell.

The Wednesday morning session was with Toby Jones, who was as fascinating as you’d expect. One thing he said in particular stuck in my mind.

Imagine you’re watching a stage where there are a hundred people acting. Ninety-eight of them are acting well. One is acting brilliantly, and one is acting terribly. Your eye will be drawn to two people: the brilliant actor and the terrible actor.

In other words, great acting and awful acting are not as far apart as logic might suggest. This thought came back to me while reading Geduld’s article, since there are actors he uses as examples of bad actors who many would rate amongst their favourites, and vice versa.

Ultimately, as with all art, the true magic is not what the artist produces, but the response in the brain, heart and soul of the audience.

(P.S. During his session Toby spent a lot of time on Lecoq’s seven tension levels technique, which included him improvising a scene where he got out of bed in the morning and set his house on fire, culminating in one of the funniest denouements I’ve ever seen. But what made it staggeringly impressive was that he provided a simultaneous commentary on which tension level he was applying, and how varying the way he shifted between them made the scene either terrifying or hilarious to the audience – which you would never have spotted without the commentary. As with everything in performance, the greatest techniques are invisible to the audience.)

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I want to be an opera singer: should I read my reviews?

“Don’t read your press: weigh it.” – Andy Warhol

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“Shut your eyes, Marion.” – Indiana Jones

Should I read my reviews? No. No, you shouldn’t.

That was the advice young opera singers used to be given, and it’s still good advice today.

But times have changed. When I was starting out, reviews were printed on paper, and were therefore much easier to avoid, or failing that, throw away and forget.

In the modern world most reviews sooner or later appear online in some form or another. Committed Luddites aside, it takes an inspired effort in the days following an opening night to avoid stumbling across some bits of what’s been said about your performance. Even if you’ve not deliberately sought them out (Should I Google myself? No, but you will) something will float along your stream at some point. A well-meaning friend or colleague will let something slip, or forward you the flattering extracts, thinking that surely you must want to read the good bits.

(I’ve even seen people sending unflattering reviews to singers “in case you haven’t seen what the awful man said about you”. Don’t do this.)

So let’s face it, avoiding your notices altogether is going to prove nearly impossible. In which case, how should you deal with reading your reviews – the good, the bad and the ugly?

You talking to me?

The most relevant skill you’ll learn at music college is dealing with seemingly endless sources of input, criticism and advice. If I had to describe an opera singer’s job, in terms of the day-to-day activity in a rehearsal room, I’d say I do something and then we stop and a dozen people tell me how I was doing it wrong and why. (On a bad day they don’t even wait until we’ve stopped.) Being an opera singer often feels like being a full-time processor of endless feedback. Over the course of a long rehearsal period it’s a lot tougher than it looks, but incorporating that raft of notes from the creative team is a vital part of building a performance.

What it also means is that it’s almost instinctive for singers to adopt that same attitude when they read reviews. Don’t do it. Critics have a job to do, and that is to write for their general readership, not for the subjects of the review. They aren’t writing for you, and their comments are not meant as notes or feedback, even if they sometimes read as such. They’re entitled to their opinion – in fact, they’re contractually obliged to state it as memorably as possible – and you’re equally entitled to take it or leave it.

Building your own team of people whose opinions you trust, and whose feedback you decide to value, is essential to your survival and success as a singer. That team should include your teacher, your regular coaches, your agent, and your close family and friends. That’s because, in their various ways, they have your best interests at heart. Hold their opinions close; and while respecting everyone else’s right to their subjective opinion, try to keep those comments a thick skin’s distance from your heart, or it will drive you to despair.

Please yourself

In other words, it’s not your job to please critics. It is your job to work with the director and conductor in discovering the most effective way of executing your collective vision of the piece. So you should concern yourself with what they think of your work, absorb their feedback and implement their notes as best you can. From the point of view of your long-term career, far better to get the director’s and conductor’s approval and bad reviews than vice versa.

Even more than that, you should make it a priority to develop your capacity for self-assessment – so that even if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself on the end of disapproval from any or all quarters, you’re still able to take a step back and work out whether you really were doing it wrong, or you just found yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong collaborators, or all of the above.

Try to resist the temptation to write the reviews yourself during rehearsals. At some point you’ll find yourself a couple of weeks away from opening night and you’ll get a gut feeling that this is a turkey which is never going to fly. The only thing you can do in that situation is to double your commitment. Firstly, because you don’t judge a cake while it’s in the oven – sometimes a sticky rehearsal process ends in a great show. Secondly, because once it gets to performance, you are the show: if you’re fully committed, the show might still get bad reviews; but if you give any less than that, you yourself definitely will.

Finally, remember that your ultimate professional responsibility is to the paying audience, and your every action in rehearsal and performance should be part of a labour of love to provide them with an unforgettable few hours in the theatre. You might wow them all, or you might only strike a chord with one of them – but if that one person is moved or thrilled or changed by your performance then you’ve done your job.

First impressions count

The first review someone reads will have a disproportionately high impact. Critics, or more to the point their editors, know this, which is why you’ll sometimes get home from the opening night party to find the first notices already online. (Love them or hate them, you have to admire the skill involved in being able to produce a coherent article and set of opinions in a matter of minutes.)

But from a performer’s point of view, it’s not healthy to absorb opinions when you’re in that vulnerable post-performance emotional state (even if you’ve stayed away from the bar at the party – well done you), and it can cause difficulties, especially if the second show follows hot on the heels of the first.

Ideally you wouldn’t read the reviews until after the last show, but realistically see if you can hold off until there’s a couple of days between shows, to allow yourself time to recover your emotional equilibrium if necessary. At the very least, try to avoid searching for reviews until at least 24 hours after opening night. Being patient has the added benefit that by the time you see anything, you’ll be reading several sets of opinions and not just one, giving them a much more balanced impact.

Keep it under your hat

As a general rule, try not to discuss reviews at work. I hope that’s common sense if they’ve been bad, but even if they’re good, take great care – there will be plenty of your colleagues who for their own reasons are trying to avoid them. If someone else raises the subject in a one-to-one conversation with you then it’s probably going to be fine, but otherwise, don’t be the messenger who gets shot.

Having said that, a lot of opera company press departments produce a round-up of their shows’ reviews, and some stick them all up on the wall and leave them there for ages, even when they’re awful. I hope no-one told you this job was going to be easy.

Take care before you share

In the same way, be careful about posting reviews online. Now, all of us have to do this at some point or another – life is easier if you have an agent or publicist who will do that on your behalf, but that’s not as standard as it used to be.

(NB while we’re on the subject, as a rule casting directors strongly dislike you including reviews or quotes in your CV/biog for auditions. Other people’s opinions are the natural enemy of the casting director.)

Bear in mind that the instant you post a link to a review online, the perception will be that you are endorsing the views expressed. (This is especially so with a medium like Twitter, which is pretty explicitly first-person.) So read it through carefully and take time to re-read it from everyone else’s point of view.

That sounds easy enough, but traps can lie fiendishly well hidden. For example, a while back I noticed a singer had posted a review which was very complimentary about everyone in the cast, but then singled him out as being (even) better. He compounded the error by quoting that part in his post. You will occasionally come across opera singers who have slightly fragile egos… no, let me be honest about this. A lot of opera singers have exceptionally fragile egos, and because most of us have learned how to hide it, you may not realise it until it’s too late. Upsetting a colleague unnecessarily is never nice, nor is it a good thing for you in the long run. So think once, think twice, and if in doubt, leave it out.

The same applies to responding to bad reviews – while it might be satisfying to have a pop back, more often than not you’ll only draw people’s attention to a criticism they probably wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

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“I am not a crook.” – Richard M. Nixon

Bad ones and Stinkers

Like a lot of singers, my brain has an endless capacity for retaining, word-for-word, every bad review I’ve ever had, while instantly obliterating the very existence of all the good ones. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of that feedback-processing mentality that a singer needs, although bear in mind that the ability to absorb positive feedback constructively is at least as important as negative.

In practice, this means that when a singer is under the impression that they’ve had unanimously bad reviews, often in reality they’ve actually had a load of good ones and one or two which were negative – or, horror of horrors, didn’t mention them at all. 90% of reviews, when taken together, inevitably come under the category “mixed”.

But every now and then there is no escaping the fact that a unanimous chorus of disapproval has been received. You’ve bombed. If you’re lucky, this will never happen to you. But if it does, what do you do?

In the short term, you’re going to have to get back on the horse and get on with the job. Trust in the work you’ve put in, and in the partnerships you’ve built with your colleagues. Keep putting one foot in front of another. These are the times when you really earn your fee: amateurs can do it when they feel like it; pros can still turn it on when the bullets are flying. It’s a tough, tough thing to do, but if you get out there and do it, your colleagues will be seriously impressed. Audiences read reviews beforehand too, and I’ve seen singers get warmer ovations as a result of critical maulings, as people seize their right to make their own minds up.

In the longer term, once the shows are over and the dust has settled, gather your team together and work out what – if anything – went wrong, and what needs working on. But take your time, by which I mean months not days, and don’t make any big decisions while the wounds are still open.

And remind yourself that it could always be worse – they could not be talking about you at all.

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If a flurry of bad reviews hits someone you’re working with, it’s doubly important not to dwell on what’s been written (unless they’re a very good friend and they want to talk about it), don’t offer any criticism of your own, keep helping them by doing your job as professionally and reliably as you can, and after it’s over give them a hug and tell them they’re awesome.

I love you, you’re perfect, now change

Good, bad or indifferent, never change anything just because of a review. This is the number one reason why it was always a good idea not to read them – you have to possess a will of tungsten carbide not to let the comments cross your mind when you’re on stage, and the temptation to change what you’ve worked on in rehearsal, consciously or otherwise, is huge.

If you find yourself wavering, try to retain a hold on the view that what we put on stage is the end result of the work we’ve all done in the rehearsal room. It might be great, it might stink, it might be right or it might be wrong, but it is what it is, and every performance is the legitimate result of that process. If the director or conductor suggests you change something during the run, that’s a different matter – but if they’ve anything about them, that won’t be a result of anything a critic has said.

So, keep singing your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.

A pinch of salt

“I always believed my reviews until I got my first bad one.” – opera singer, name withheld

If you’re sufficiently talented, hard-working and lucky to be around long enough to get a bad review, you’re probably going to disagree with it, and even perhaps come up with reasons why the critic wasn’t convinced, none of which are to do with you. The point is that as soon as you adopt that belief, you have to extend it to all reviews, not just the bad ones. Learning to accept compliments politely but with a pinch of salt goes alongside thickening your skin to cope with the brickbats.

(By the way, if you want to avoid bad reviews, your safest career path is in contemporary works, where there are rarely previous interpretations of your role playing on the critics’ minds as the curtain rises. If on the other hand your career leads you towards big, iconic roles in standard repertoire, fasten your seatbelt. )

As your career progresses, you will learn more about individual reviewers, their style, tastes, and default mood. They’re a varied bunch, and there’s really no such thing as “critical opinion” in the singular. Some of them are even open to a civilised exchange of Tweets. (As with all online activity, it’s best to keep it polite and professional; and again, try to resist the temptation to respond to specific reviews, about you or anyone else.)

And you know what? Sometimes – just sometimes – critics do have a point. But even if deep down you suspect that they do, that’s for you and your close team to decide and work on. Trust in your work, trust in your team, and keep doing your job.

That’s all. I’m off to Google myself.

 

 

 

 

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Opera – what’s the point?

Tough times at English National Opera. Those with an interest in the subject will have no doubt already have followed the news emerging of the current dispute between chorus and management. In case you’ve missed it, the details are here:

The Guardian – English National Opera singers to vote on strike action

Opera is a business which seems to be permanently in crisis. That’s a most-probably inevitable consequence of an art form which, if not designed explicitly to be loss-making, was certainly never conceived with the aim of making a profit on its own terms. ENO is just the latest company to hit a financial crunch point.

Plenty of singers have already pitched in with excellent arguments against cuts to (in this instance) the permanent chorus, and I wholeheartedly agree with almost all of the points which have been made. It does seem to me that the moment at which the battle for full-time opera companies, with a permanent body of singers, instrumentalists and other artistic staff, should have been fought was a whole generation ago, when UK companies first started doing away with their company principals, replacing them with a mixture of freelance guest artists and youngsters on various flavours of limited-term Young Artist contracts. Easy as it is to point out in hindsight, when we all chose not to insist on the importance of permanent contracts for one group of artists, we made it far harder – if not ultimately impossible – to win the battle whenever we eventually chose to draw a line in the sand, be that for choruses, orchestras or whichever other group happens to wander across the line of fire at the wrong moment. As things stand, we have ended up in a war where we are destined to spend the foreseeable future fighting a dispiriting rearguard action.

In the long run, if we are ever to win the broader argument in favour of the continued existence of publicly-subsidised opera companies, in whatever form, we cannot do so by solely preaching to those who attend performances. We can assume that they will not take much persuading to take our side (and if not then we’re truly stuffed). The arguments we really need are those which are pitched at the vast majority of taxpayers who have never attended an opera and most likely never will. As they might quite reasonably ask, what benefit do they gain from seeing tens of millions of pounds of their taxes go towards covering the losses of an industry which they will never use?

These are harder questions to answer, but we must resist the temptation to avoid addressing them. The answers do exist, and unless we’re brave enough to provide them we risk the perception that our only argument is that the world owes us and our chums a living.

Before I go any further, let’s briefly nail one very common contradiction in some of the arguments against opera funding. If what is putting people off opera is that the ticket prices are too high, this is an argument for increasing subsidy, not decreasing or abolishing it – it’s subsidy which keeps ticket prices as low as they are. So you can A) argue that attending opera is too expensive, or you can B) argue that opera shouldn’t be subsidised by the taxpayer; but you can’t argue B because of A. The lazy logical inconsistency of this argument rears its head again and again, and can’t be challenged too often.

Now, let me offer three arguments that can be put forward in favour of subsidised opera companies to those who don’t use them.

Who are we?

A national opera company can be a vital part of what defines a nation. This can simply be a case of national pride in the ability to produce world-class productions, but it can, and should, also run much deeper than that. For me, there’s an added frisson watching an opera by Britten or Purcell or Gilbert and Sullivan at ENO, just as there is in seeing Aida in Verona, or (in a different sense) Don Giovanni in Prague. Scottish Opera, to give one example from my recent work, has quietly been tapping into this – in spite of a limited number of main stage productions, they’ve stuck their neck out with recent productions of contemporary pieces by James Macmillan and Stuart MacRae, amongst others – Scottish composers whose operatic works might well not exist without the support of their national company. At a time when most countries are having some sort of existential conversation about what it is that defines them as a nation, a national opera company can provide crucial practical contributions to those discussions. There are operas which are, in various ways, identifiably British, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh, and are part of what those terms actually mean; and we hope there are many more to come. Perhaps there’s a sense in which many companies, in a search for ‘international’ status, lost touch with the communities and nations from which they originally grew, and the re-examination of those roots is a vital part of establishing their present-day value.

Where are we?

A properly-funded national opera company can take performances to areas and venues of their country at a level which is not feasible for other companies. I’ve been involved over the years with projects in Northern Ireland and Scotland which have done just this, and the sense of contribution to the life and existence of a community is palpable. In some senses it’s unglamorous and thankless work for a company to undertake, since for better or worse most media coverage of opera is focused on performances in capital cities and other large metropolitan areas. But as a way of binding some of the most remote areas of a country into the cultural life of the nation as a whole, it’s vital work, and you don’t have to be someone who attends opera yourself to value the importance of that.

Who do they think we are?

There’s an ambassadorial aspect of the work done by any successful national opera company. I was in Bolzano recently with Welsh National Opera’s production of Lulu, and almost daily I would be asked “Where are you from?” or just as frequently “So you are English?”. To be able to reply “I’m from Wales, just like this show” was something that not only gave me immense personal pride, but far more importantly also I hope raised awareness of our very existence as a nation, and one that produces world-class examples of a global art form. Whether or not we in the UK value it as much as we should, there’s no doubt that opera retains the highest cultural importance in many nations – not only the traditional homes of opera in Europe, but increasingly in the Far East, in South America and many other regions of the world, where the interest in Western classical music – and specifically British opera too – is growing annually. The level of expertise and enthusiasm in China, in particular, has to be seen to be believed. At a time when that is the case, do we really want to continue dismantling one of our best ways of building bridges to the world?

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Fighting the usual rearguard action.

It’s never much fun for artists to be obliged to make these arguments again and again, merely to justify our existence. It would be a far better use of time and resources if we could all just concentrate on producing our work to the very highest standards, and to let that speak for itself, safe in the knowledge that its value was appreciated. But as Stirling Moss once put it, the moment you take a penny of the public’s money, you forego the right to complain about the public feeling they have a right to your time. Most of us would far rather be, and are far better at, doing that by performing – but if we have to make the case in other ways, let’s keep doing so. Our strength ultimately lies in our knowledge and belief that what we do, the art we produce, is of vital importance. If we’re right about that, then it’s a battle we might one day win.

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Tõnis Rüütel

 

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Those who have met him will have fond memories of their encounters with my father-in-law, Tõnis Rüütel. On Tuesday afternoon Tõnis and his friend Mati Heinsar were driving in Latvia when they were involved in a collision with a tractor and trailer on the A9 west of Riga. Mati, who was driving at the time, was killed by the impact. Tõnis, by some miracle, survived, and is currently in intensive care in hospital in Riga. Opera Vlaanderen have very kindly given my wife Kai time off rehearsals, and she is visiting him today. Our thoughts are with Mati’s family and friends, and if you could find time to raise your thoughts, prayers and/or a generous glass of vodka to the recovery of Tõnis’ health, that would be very much appreciated.

Postimees – Lätis liiklusõnnetuses sai viga kinnisvarafirmade liidu tegevdirektor Tõnis Rüütel

Eesti Päevaleht – Mati Heinsar: südamega mees, kes hoidis isa mälestust ja sooje inimsuhteid

 

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Filling the Gaps

A quick one by way of an anecdote.

September 2008, and I’m preparing for a recital with my long-time collaborator, pianist Llyr Williams. We’re running through Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, which we’ve performed many times before, but not for a year or more at this point. Something sounds different in the accompaniments – some meaty bass colours I’ve not been aware of before. I ask Llyr whether he’s changed something in the way he plays them. He tells me that he had a concert tour scheduled with an orchestra for that summer, which was cancelled at the last minute. He decided to fill the unexpected spare time with exercises to strengthen the little finger of his left hand.

You can’t always control whether you end up with gaps in your diary, but you are always in charge of how you use that time.

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Pursuing Goals: Marcus Geduld on Acting

Here’s a link to an article which caught my eye recently. It’s a response from Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director of Folding Chair Classical Theatre in New York, to a question on Quora.com: “What are some of the telltale signs of a bad actor?”

Now, I don’t particularly approve of the wording of the question – I don’t think it’s helpful to label acting “good” and “bad”, and even if we do, it’s a false extrapolation to use it to label actors “good” and “bad”. Just as good people sometimes do bad things, “good” actors are sometimes responsible for a lot of “bad” acting – and vice versa. But much of what Mr Geduld writes rings true, in sung theatre just as much as in spoken theatre and film, and I concur almost entirely with the examples he gives, subjective as they are.

Points 6, 7 and 10 are especially interesting from a singer’s point of view, and call to mind Stanislavski’s quotation of the great Othello, Tommaso Salvini, replying to an actor asking him what was required to become a tragedian:

“You need only three things: voice, voice, and more voice!”

Quora.com – What are some of the telltale signs of a bad actor?

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