The how and why of striving.
One of my resolutions for the next ten years (!) is to be more vocal (no pun intended) about the process. We can get so caught up in the deadline that is the public performance, that the actual work itself, the preparation and rehearsal, can go unnoticed. Performing opera is intense. More hours devoted to learning, practice, thought and repetition than most people can imagine. Ultimately, it is our job to make it look easy.
Winding down towards the end of 2017, and speeding towards 2018 which is our TENTH year, I have been going through the archives, and found some words of advice and explanation written in the heat of production, but stand true for almost every opera we tackle. They not only give a window into the process and pressure of staging-performing opera with young, pre-professional artists, but also into the motivation and efforts of the company in striving for excellence, which is essentially what sets amateur and professional apart - less about the money available than the level and breadth of experience of the professionals involved, and the standards that are subsequently applied.
A letter before leaving the rehearsal room and hitting the stage.
Dear Studio Artists:
Firstly, because you're 'in' it and can't see what we see out front, I wanted to make sure you realise that our work is shaping up to be extraordinarily moving and affective. There are moments where EVERYONE is invested and doing what they have been asked to do, and it is spellbinding. And that is even before we add costumes, lighting, set etc.
There are a few things that are troubling me, I am aware of some rumblings of discontent, and I would like to make some thoughts clear now, before we hit the stage next week.
As I said in the very first rehearsal - although we are undoubtedly a team - at this part of the process, the stage director is dictator. There is no other way to get a group of young performers to tell a cohesive story. Your individual thoughts are welcomed, and encouraged, especially at the very beginning of the blocking process, but in the end, as we hit the stage, what the director wants to see from you is more important than what you personally want to bring to the piece. Opera is an ensemble art. The best opera is when every single person is as invested as another, for each other. That applies onstage and offstage. Everyone must be invested in making the best opera-as-theatre we can make. Not the best singer, the best prima donna, the best impression. The only 'ego' in the room is the material itself - the opera. The leader of the 'ego' is the artistic director.
In this instance, it happens that I am both artistic director - that is, the 'boss' of the music, drama, sets, costumes, performers, performances, and the director of the staging of the opera. That means, if I want a particular movement, expression, tempo, mood, or look, it is my prerogative. As AD I am ultimately responsible for every element, and I take on that responsibility with a very clear concept of what this production needs to achieve to work for an audience.
I have high expectations of every single member of the team - talented, extraordinary people - but if those expectations are not met, I will act in the interests of the company, and the production, even if it is harsh or unpopular. A professional attitude, not the pay-check or the financial situation, is why opera survives. If every single person in opera was paid what they are entitled to, it would not survive. We subsidise and make sacrifices for our art form because we believe it is a vital life force. We do not ever do it for the money, because it doesn't equate. How many hours does it take to read about, research, learn, master, refine a role? Before we even start rehearsing (and, if we're really lucky, being paid to rehearse) the hourly rate doesn't even bear thinking about, because there is far more to know and learn about our role and the opera and the context than we could ever hope for recompense. If you're in it for the money, for a secure and stable income, a career with a trajectory, then you should probably not take this life on. "Life in opera is unpredictable, poorly paid, and subjective. You have to love and devour the process, not the destination" as Joyce DiDonato says.
For most of you, it is your first [xxxxx] opera. So I do understand that you probably underestimated how tricky it is to memorise. What we are asking you to do is to work to attain a professional level. And with that comes assumptions I make, based on the fact you are all 'qualified' musicians - every single one of you has at least one music degree. I expect that you can teach yourself notes, melody line and rhythms. Because you are aspiring professional singers, and you have expressed your desire to acquire the skills to be employed, I expect you can memorise English text, translate foreign text, including Latin, and read and think about context, social and historical conventions, interpret composer-librettist indications. An opera rehearsal room is not a school where this sort of information should be expected to be learned. Books down from XX/XX, means that if you have any doubts about your capacity to hold your part, you should seek help independently, in time for that deadline. The hours provided by our company are for ensemble - refinement and expression, not for note-learning. Although we did make allowances at the beginning for the 'oddness' of the score, to assist in learning, it was assumed that you would turn up for the first production call knowing your music. Knowing meaning, if your starting note is played and you can't sing your part with correct melody-notes-rhythm unaccompanied - you don't know it. It is a learning experience for me as much as you in realising that many of you needed to personally devote hours more than you have done to learning-perfecting your own, important, vital, clearly audible-visible part in the opera.
Below are my expectations (and those of professional companies) of the preparation, etiquette and attitude in rehearsal rooms. Bear in mind that as a professional singer, I have worked with more than twenty-five internationally renowned directors. And there are many, many more directors and productions in the US, UK and Europe that I have been fortunate enough to observe. To date, none of you have had such experience at that level, and I understand that you may feel that I am demanding more than you are used to, but I make no apologies for that. I do know what works, and importantly how to present you all in the best possible light, as well as what the most discerning audience members are expecting to see/hear/get for their money.
I work from the premise that everyone involved thinks as I do - that being involved in an opera-as-theatre production, spending three or four weeks in a rehearsal room refining a director's treatment of an opera, for a paying audience, is a gift, a privilege. And that we, as artists, have a responsibility to the numerous people we never see in the rehearsal room, but who are vital to the productions existence (donors, supporters, boards, audience, venue providers, partners) to make it as brilliant and vital and exceptional as it can possibly be. The reality is that, as performers, we do not have a lot of personal input. There is no room for individual ego. We are a conduit to the end-vision of the artistic director, who has chosen the composer, librettist, director, conductor, creative team and performers - conjured up a recipe to make magic. It sometimes feels as a performer that we are the most important element, but we are not. We are a part of a whole - it is necessary for every individual on stage to be as committed as the next throughout the whole process, or we don't have opera that works as it should.
DETAIL: notes, and application.
The detail and context I ask for is not uncommon in professional opera. Those of you who were at the Paul Curran Master Class had first hand experience of that. What you feel works is not necessarily what looks best from out front. There is an implicit trust that is required when a director asks you to do something at a particular time, or a particular way. You may not like it, it may go against your own personal vision for your character or your role, but it is not 'your' production. So you do what the director asks. You find motivation, subtext, reason, and make it work, because the opera is bigger than you. Bigger than that moment.
It is expected that you take a director's note and turn up the next day having absorbed the previous days changes, comments etc.. This cannot happen without thought and application. It is not enough to acknowledge: notes must be absorbed, and most times, rehearsed/walked through on your own - over and over in your mind, or on the floor before the rehearsal begins. Repeatedly making unnecessary mistakes is unprofessional.
For those of you who have not worked in professional theatre, below is standard rehearsal-performance etiquette. We may not have the resources of many professional companies, but we do hold the same expectations of all members of our company. Most of the below relates to the wasting of rehearsal time. Opera costs money. Time is precious. There is a hierarchy and an etiquette to make things work as efficiently as possible.
1. Come to the rehearsal knowing your music. (There are sometimes extenuating circumstances - replacing a singer at the last moment, etc.) It is disrespectful to all those concerned to be ill-prepared. It gives the impression that you don't care, about your colleagues, about the production, about the company, about the artform.
2. Do not take it upon yourself to correct a colleague or give advice or translate/explain direction. It is not your role. You are there to SING, not be an assistant, a pedagogue, coach or member of the creative team.
3. Be on time. If the call is 10am, or break resumes at 11:30, it means be in your place ready to for the downbeat. Don't wander in, and have to be called to order.
4. Don't interrupt to ask questions that are trivial or unnecessary*. Don't get into a debate or challenge a conductor or director during an ensemble rehearsal, unless there is widespread confusion and it can be quickly rectified. Better to make notes and ask questions one on one.
5. Be pleasant, be collegial, be pliable, and open to suggestions. Do not defend yourself or justify. Direction is not criticism, nor is it personal. Unless asked to explain why you did something, just accept that what you did didn't work from ‘out front’, and do what you're asked.
6. When someone else is working, BE QUIET. Make it a habit NOT to speak whilst another singer is working.
You are constantly creating your reputation. Your work, and how your approach your work, follows you from inside the rehearsal room to the professional arena. The world of opera is small, and people ALWAYS ask for references, formal or informal, before dishing out a contract. You may be in Melbourne, Australia, but opera at the professional level is a global game. Nothing you do is in isolation, your work is always in relation to others, and you are well-advised to remember that, if you are serious about employment.
If opera is important to you, then you commit to the process with authenticity and commitment. No one is professional because they can 'just do it' - that is a talented amateur, and there LOTS of those. A professional has a range of highly-refined skills, and always works at a level that is worthy of having someone - a stranger - pay for a ticket. An amateur goes by what they feel, if they feel like it - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - usually watched by a crowd of friends and family, so that is ok. It's not ok for Gertrude Opera. People have invested (with no return - this is opera, after-all) thousands of hours and dollars in our company, in a building, in our music staff, creative teams and productions. We push hard in the rehearsal room to live up to expectations, but also for our company standards. In fact, for opera's sake, we push hard to exceed expectations.
CREATING YOUR FUTURE THROUGH SELLING
I cannot stress how important it is for you all to do your bit in selling tickets. My family and friends pay and come to see the work because I talk [ENDLESSLY...] about how fabulous you all are, and how wonderful the piece is, and because they believe in my commitment to opportunity given to young singers to develop and refine their craft, and have undertaken to support the company with their wallets and their presence.
If you don't convince all the people you know to come and buy a ticket to support your work, even if you have to explain the privilege of seeing you perform opera in public, to enlist their help in bringing along their friends and family, opera is unlikely to have a future! Sad but true. Word of mouth and emotional connection are the best persuaders.
Pictured above: Guest Vocal Coach Noëmi Nadelmann working with 2017 Gertrude Johnson Fellow - GO Studio Artist Darcy Carroll, with Maestro Brian Castles-Onion AM at the piano