Hello from London!
I am writing to you on a cold, cloudless Halloween from the Barbican centre, London. It’s week eight here of this term at Guildhall but it feels as though it could easily be year eight — so much has happened and I already feel as though I have undergone some kind of metamorphosis. For example: I grumble like every one else when someone forgets you're supposed to stand on the right NOT the left of the escalator if you don’t intend on walking up; I no longer answer with a cheerful “very well thanks, how are you?” when anyone asks me “you alright?” because they aren’t, despite what I suspected for so long, asking how I am but if I need help; and, I have become obsessed with Britten compositions (a very unexpected shift in musical preferences for me).
However, on a more serious note, it is within the gloomy (architecture-ally speaking) walls of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama that I have found my new home and I absolutely love it.
Since beginning eight weeks ago, I have been continually fascinated by every aspect of music learning and making here. It is just so busy. The Opera Course, I had been warned thoroughly, was going to be an intensive and incredibly demanding experience . . . well, what an understatement!!
The Opera Course consists of twelve students in year one and twelve in the year above. Although we are all working within this small department, the two year levels are kept separate. The “oldies” (my rather unflattering short name for the group of extremely talented singers in year 2) are busy preparing three operas for performance (one of which, Menotti’s “The Consul”, opened last night) and are a sort of ghostly presence in the school; everyone knows they’re there, somewhere, but we never see them because they are in secret rehearsal rooms deep in the depths of the school, only emerging to sing beautifully on the Silk Street Theatre stage. I am an understudy this term in The Consul, my role being that of “the Foreign Woman”. Apart from my amusement at the appropriateness of this being the name of my first character here in London, I found it to be a challenging bite-sized role to cut my teeth on — and I am very excited to attend the performance of the work on Wednesday evening.
The twelve of us in first year — we have inventively named ourselves “The Year” in a text message group — are a mixed bag of students from the Guildhall Masters programme, two Australian sopranos, a Spanish mezzo-soprano named Carmen (you can imagine the first thing every single one of us said to her) and four New Zealanders (Filipe Manu, Benson Wilson, Fredi Jones and myself). According to every student I’ve met so far, the entire school (staff included) is agog with incredulity that there could be so many New Zealanders in the Opera Course in one go. We have very loyally responded, without a shadow of exaggeration or boast, that New Zealand is chock-a- block full of wonderful singers and there is sure to be more to follow. They are preparing for the invasion of 2018 as I write.
We have been divided up into eight operatic scenes tobe performed in four weeks time. Roughly, we have about three each. Since I was an understudy in The Consul, I have only two scenes: Act IV Finale of Le Nozze di Figaro beginning from Susanna’s aria “Deh vieni non tardar” (I am Susanna) to the end, and a sparkly little duet scene between Marie and Tonio in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. In order to support our learning of these scenes we are given (a daily onslaught of) coachings from a range of vocal teachers, specialist language tutors and pianists. These coachings are the best part of the process for me, so far. The coaches we are meeting are incredibly experienced and, naturally, very exacting in terms of their expectations. I am constantly being pushed to reach for more, more, more — a general note being “think faster, faster, faster”. (I feel as though my brain is preparing to run an Olympic mile sprint race, poor thing.) Although it was, and is from time to time, a little overwhelming, I feel so extremely lucky to work with the people I am being coached by and the colleagues I am surrounded by. The other singers on the course are a constant source of support and inspiration: one of the rank had her Wigmore Hall debut the other week and it felt strange watching her sing so marvellously that night thinking that earlier that same day we had been horsing around in a “stage fighting” class being decidedly unglamorous. Yet, there she was, singing like a true bel canto beauty and making everyone cry.
What makes this course the intense experience that it is, I think, lies in the expectations of our Head of Department and the director for our scenes. The “scenes” are not really“scenes”: they are snippets of an actual operatic production. They are to be fully staged, costumed with a full set team of stage managers, lighting directors, prop makers, makeup artists, wig-doers . . . the whole deal. The expectations, therefore, are outlined as thus:
Know every word of what you are singing
Know every word of what everyone else is singing
Know the historical/social/political/cultural context of the opera
Know the orchestration of the scene
Know every dynamic — yes, even the ones for the second trumpet and fortieth oboe in Eb
Watch the Opera three times (preferably live) read the play too . . . and see the play
What did your character say five scenes ago? Yes, know that in Italian/French/German/Russian AND English
What did the source text say? Not the libretto — don’t rely on the libretto.
What’s are the other conjugations of that verb? No, not your one, his one?
What’s a synonym for that adjective?
Maybe you should just learn Italian
Plus what do you actually think of this character? What’s your opinion?1
Your opinion, not your read opinion
Would you character like cheese? Why not? Please justify with reference to five historical sources and ten quotes from the libretto.
It sounds simple, and I think it is, really. Except that, like most “simple” things, there are two million hidden complicated factors involved! There is a never ending level of depth to dive into with even these scenes, so I am beginning to understand that what they are trying to break down how we thought about preparing a role and getting us to critically piece together a more thorough, effective and stimulating formula that will make us into the most efficient and creative artists we are able to be. I think I speak for all of us newbies when I say that in the first week of the scenes rehearsals (we were given a time frame of four weeks to get our chunks of music to this level of detail) it came at us like a tonne of bricks how specific in your knowledge and technique you actually have to be before you can call yourself “prepared**”2.We have been so fortunate to have been purposefully surrounded by people who have held us to these expectations and not let us get away with anything less — I can’t wait to get my hands on the next scenes because now I know exactly what is required of me and how I need to manage myself to get the results, I think I will find the whole process a lot less intimidating and far more creatively exciting. As they keep reminding us, they are not trying wanting us “to get it right, boxes ticked”, they want us to really absorb and grow. As someone obsessed with trying to “get it right”, this is the habit I am finding hardest to kick!
My teacher here at the school is Yvonne Kenny. We are working together to piece together the entire role of Susanna from Figaro, a role which she believes is perfect for my voice at the moment. I am really enjoying my lessons and I have already started to feel my singing change to become more grounded and perhaps, dare I say it, a bit more . . . lyrical! — The Soubrette Confessional.
Outside of University, I have tried to make the most of London’s fantastic cheap tickets in every theatre scheme. For just NZD$10 I was dazzled by Sabine Deveilhe singing a truly unbeatable Queen of the Night at the Royal Opera House’s Die Zauberflote (also starring the Australian Siobhan Stagg as a sublime Pamina); similarly, last night I attended the controversial Katie Mitchell production of Lucia di Lammermoor featuring Lisette Oropesa. Oropesa received a thoroughly deserved standing ovation for her mad scene — her singing was, hands down, the best live singing I believe I have ever witnessed. She will be a defining Lucia of all time, I am betting on it now. There was not a dry eye in the house by the end. Fascinatingly, people were not so moved by the story nearly as much as they were by the exquisiteness of her bel canto singing; the power of a true diva!!
A couple of nights ago I attended a Wigmore Hall performance by the Hesperian XXI and their brilliant helmsman, Jordi Savall. Since performing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra last year, I have taken a keen interest in Savall’s recordings of early music, particularly those featuring his late wife, acclaimed soprano Montserrat Figueras, or “the voice of emotion”, as she was hailed. Experiencing their music live was both inspirational and a reminder to me of why I am here to study and why I adore music so much.
I decided, a few weeks ago, to enter into the Bach Society of London’s annual Bach Singing competition. In order to be eligible I had to learn seven arias, including three from the “Passions”. I knew approximately . . . two and a half, so, when my brain wasn’t scrambling to think of all the shades of sensuality colouring every. single. syllable. of “Deh, vieni non tardar”, it was scrambling to understand Bach harmonies. I’m going to call it an experiment called “How Much Bach Can I Learn in Three Weeks”. I got through into the Semi- Finals (the only Guildhall representative through!) after singing three pieces in an initial audition, a panel featuring Ian Partridge, and I then had the chance to perform in St George’s church in Hanover Square. This was an experience I will always remember: despite the nerves of performing pieces I had never performed before, I was able to look up at the back of the cathedral-esque church and sing into one of Handel’s favourite musical performance and practicing spaces, featuring the organ he played. Amazing historical stuff! Although I didn’t make it to the final four, I am incredibly proud to have got to the top ten and I now have a bit more confidence in my new-found music learning process.
Next up for me is the English Song Competition at the University and then, of course, the scenes performances. I will send news of these things when they are done and dusted!
(One of the immediate plans I have is to set my alarm clock for a sobering 5am wake up call tomorrow in order to get to the reception desk at the Hall in which I am living to beat out the other eager music students to book a practice room at the Hall. It is the funniest thing — we all arrive, looking at each other contemptuously, waiting to get our hands on the booking sheet sitting beside the receptionist and off- limits to us until exactly 7am (we begin lining up at 6am). I think the receptionists fear a blood bath each time. The main competition comes from Dave the Pianist: you get there before Dave, you have won the game and you get the best practice room as your prize.)
I want to say a heartfelt “THANK YOU” to you for your support and for your encouragement. Studying in London has been, so far, the most exhilarating and rewarding experience of my life I am doing my level best to push myself and strive for all the goals I set a the beginning of this journey. I wanted to learn to be the best singer I could be; being here, surrounded by the history and the vast amounts of experienced, fabulous musicians, I feel very grateful to every teacher and mentor I had and have in New Zealand — I do feel that I was ready to meet this challenge head on and, with as much grace as I can muster, I intend to continue stretching and growing in the months to come.
With many a jealous thought about how much sunshine I am currently missing, And also a lot of love,