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:


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:


Compare that to Michael Sheen sixty years later:


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:


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.




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

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

I want to be an opera singer: On the bench

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polite, Prepared and Professional

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

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

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

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

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

Eye on the Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Singing

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

The Meritocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Match Day

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Up to the Plate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing the Ladder

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

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

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

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

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

Opera tickets, going cheap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Opera, Theatre | 1 Comment

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.

Nixon (DVD)2

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):

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 16.38.22

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 those watching – 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


“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




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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