The rehearsal room: a place of safety and challenge

This month, in preparation for West Australian Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor (which opens at His Majesty’s Theatre on October 26), we released a teaser video, with various interviews and shots of the rehearsal room environment.

This video has received a lot of interest, and led us to a conversation in WAO offices last week about just how interesting people find the idea of the rehearsal room. So this month I am writing about that.

Partly it’s mysterious – the rehearsal room is where ‘The Process’ takes place, before it becomes public. But there are also issues – of confidentiality, privacy, and the need for exploration in a place of safety – which would make a public process difficult if not impossible.

I have had both wonderful and horrible experiences in the rehearsal room throughout my career. I’ve been shouted at, shut up, shut out, had trees thrown on top of me (yes, really), witnessed tears, shouting matches, and long power struggles in a toxic atmosphere of mutual disdain. On the other hand I have been overcome with joy and emotion, held my breath with tension and delight, even felt that I was getting to the heart of being alive. It’s an atmosphere of extremes, as you can see – but equally it can also sometimes feel like turning up for work and doing an stock inventory.

On the surface, a rehearsal room is the space in which people rehearse – that is, prepare and repeat – a work before it gets on to the stage. And, on the surface, that’s exactly what happens: people learn, memorise, bed down their physical memories of movement and narrative, stand at the right point and say or sing the right words and music – in the right order!

Much more interesting, for both performers and I think outsiders, are the deep processes which happen in parallel. To enable exploration, risk-taking and stretching possibilities, one thing above all else is necessary: trust. It is the stage manager’s role to ensure that people are physically safe and protected, without the risk to them of danger or accident. And it’s the director’s (and conductor’s) responsibility to create an environment in which trust is the norm. This is all too rare, sadly. But it’s something I always try now to create in the rehearsal room, and it’s something on which Matt Barclay, director for this revival of Lucia, and I absolutely agree. So many performers feel hectored, undermined, criticised, or dismissed by a succession of creative directors that I’m surprised they find it in themselves to keep going.

With Matt and me, it helps that we’re both Australian. When international guest artists – whether performers or creatives – come to an Australian rehearsal room for the first time, they often remark on the amount of laughter in the room. I have a theory about this: that Australians are unusually good at having fun AND being serious about the work simultaneously. It’s as if a mild strain of larrikinism infects the workplace, and this infection makes Australian performers particularly good at risk-taking, kissing the joy as it flies, and resisting mindless repetition. Which is all to the good in my view. Sometimes artists from other countries, where focus can only be expressed through being solemn, find this aspect of Australian working practice difficult to understand, if not downright discombobulating. But put a room of Australian artists together and you can pretty much guarantee there will be laughter, teasing and jokes, as well as energy and focus. That’s one of the many reasons I still enjoy working in Australia.

For visitors to the rehearsal space, it’s important to understand that performers are like Schrödinger’s cat. There’s no such thing as a neutral presence in a rehearsal room. Every presence, every action, every word, either increases the sum of trust in the room or diminishes it. (It’s the same for conducting, actually: every beat, instruction or request which has no relevance, intention or connection with the sound undermines the musicians’ faith in the conductor just that tiny bit more; but every relevant, intent, connected action can have the opposite effect.)

Until next time

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Paull-Anthony Keightley

This month I wanted to feature  Wesfarmers Arts Young Artist, bass baritone Paull-Anthony Keightley, who has won the 2017 Opera Foundation Deutsche Oper Berlin Award. This will see Paull-Anthony contracted as a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin for a period of 10 months in the  2018-2019 season. We’re delighted that our faith in Paull-Anthony, and our belief in his gifts and talent, has been recognised in such a visible way, and we wish him all the best as he graduates from the Westarmers Arts Young Artist programme.

Following on from our Mentored Artist Sam Roberts Smith, who won the same award last year, we are on a roll!

STOP PRESS

After my interview with Paull-Anthony last week, a further important success has come his way. Last Saturday, he was awarded second prize in the Sutherland Bonynge Bel Canto Award, which took place in Sydney. We congratulate Paull-Anthony on this further triumph!

I asked Paull-Anthony a few questions which I thought would interest readers of this blog.

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Congratulations! First of all, tell our readers a little about the award you have won. Thank you, Brad – I’m still pinching myself. The award comes from The Opera Foundation for Young Australians and sees me join the full-time ensemble of the Deutsche Opera Berlin for the 2018/19 Season. The Opera Foundation also assists me with flights, accommodation and through the Goethe-Institut Australia, an intensive German language course. I will be performing in multiple roles over the season at this stage including Doctor Grenvil in La Traviata, 5th Jew in Salome, the Captain in Eugene Onegin and Sciarrone in Tosca, which I sang earlier this year with WAO.

You’ve been a Young Artist and Bendat Scholar with us for two years. We’ve loved having you on our team. What have been the memorable experiences for you in your time here? Where do I start? Singing barefoot during a long table dinner on Broome’s Cable Beach, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Wade Kernot teaming up to teach me “how to be a bass” before the IFAC Handa Australian Singing Competition and making my professional solo debut – these are just a few that jump to mind. What has helped me the most has been the opportunity to develop my skills in a safe supportive environment. Each year I have used the Bendat Scholarship to fund my singing lessons with Gregory Yurisich AM. His remarkable international career means his knowledge of the art form and the industry is infinite. I owe so much to him. I have also worked very closely with our Head of Music, Thomas Johnson. When I have found myself flustered, frustrated or confused he’s been able to point me in the right direction with careful consideration and endless kindness. I am very lucky to have Greg, Thomas and yourself as my musical mentors along with many of the WAO visiting artists who have freely given their time to share their stories and expertise with me.

The jump to a major European opera house is a big step forward. Now the news is sinking in, what do you hope to gain from your time at the Deutsche Oper? I’m honestly not sure what to expect! All I know is that the singers will be incredible, the productions will be breath-taking and the work will be intense. Ultimately, I want to be a working singer, so I hope this experience can better equip me with the necessary skills to do so.

You’re friends with our very own Sam Roberts Smith, who is this year’s Deutsche Oper winner, and who’s just starting his season there. Two young WAO artists in a row as Deutsche Oper winners is a spectacular result for us – will Sam be someone you can draw on as you prepare for the move? I am very fortunate to have dear Sam as a colleague and friend. For almost a year we have been discussing the logistics of him moving to the other side of the world, his repertoire for the 2017/18 season and his daily quest to master the German language. So, when I was named a finalist in the competition, I realised I could have to think about all these things for myself. From that moment (and long before) Sam has been a major support, therefore sharing the news with him was very special. I know the next 12 months will be a great journey for both of us, and despite the task being daunting, I will do my best to fill his very, very large shoes.

What has being a WAO Young Artist meant for you, Paull-Anthony? The opportunities WAO have offered me while a Wesfarmers Young Artist have been wonderful, but it is the people who have made it special. The performers, creatives, sponsors, technical, artistic and administrative staff have all taught me countless lessons. Every time I walk through the stage door at His Majesty’s a goofy grin appears on my face – I am very thankful to be a part of such a supportive company.

 

Until next time

Reflecting on The Merry Widow

Our recent season of The Merry Widow was a triumphant success. We sold out our last two performances, enjoyed excellent reviews, and achieved over 100% of our box office projected budget.

Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon’s production, with designs by Michael Scott-Mitchell, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, a new translation by Justin Fleming, and conducted by Vanessa Scammell, was a wonderful experience. Glamorous and stylish, it kept a beating heart of emotion and passion at its core. One comment we heard a lot of from audience members was “I didn’t know it was a love story before I saw this!”. And for me this was the production’s greatest success: it re-connected with the humanity and storytelling of an operetta which is sometimes presented in a very superficial way. We have been inundated with requests to bring this production back to Perth in the future. So stay tuned!

At West Australian Opera, our mission is to tell stories through the power of the singing voice. This wonderful production was a fine example of how to do that. Significant Company debuts included Vanessa as conductor, and as Hanna our much-loved colleague Taryn Fiebig. Although a WA native, this was Taryn’s first time with the Company, after significant success elsewhere, and it was a delight to have her with us. There are so many artists I would like to mention, but here I will simply pay tribute to Michael Loney, who as Njegus frankly stole Act Three with imperturbable aplomb.

What could we have done better? Well, an issue for some in the audience was occasional inaudibility of the text, coupled with a lack of surtitles. This audience feedback on the desirability of surtitles, even for opera sung in English, has been very welcome for our future planning, and for our opera in English next year (yes, really!) we will have surtitles.

Speaking of which, we are excited about our 2018 Season launch, which is planned for October 27. Our 50th anniversary season this year has been full of good things, and our final production in October – Lucia di Lammermoor – promises to be a celebration of our history and future, united in one experience. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, I urge you to do so – our box office trend means that the Sold Out sign may well be going up for this production as well.

Until next time

Bouquets and Brickbats

I have been sharing my thoughts with you in this blog for coming up to three years – the length of my initial contract as Artistic Director at West Australian Opera. And I am very grateful for all the feedback I have received from you, my readers, in that time.

This blog is more in the nature of an open door than a sermon! I am open to your opinions about hits and misses in the time I have been Artistic Director. I have advocated my choices with as much clarity as I could, and have made certain veiled processes hopefully just that bit clearer. What this blog has not – yet – permitted is to hear from YOU in the comments section: to answer your questions in the open, respond where I can to your criticism, to hear your suggestions for improvements, and to again explain WHY certain decisions are taken, to share with you as fully as I can the constraints and challenges involved in leading an opera company.

So please – let me hear from you! Courtesy and openness are all I ask for in this exchange, and I will extend the same qualities in return. I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next time

Casting: Part Three

I promised last month that in this post I would write about the qualities I look for in the singers I cast. I approach writing about this subject with caution and a little trepidation, because this is where an Artistic Director’s judgement, intelligence (musical and emotional) and character are most exposed.

In the more than twenty years before I became AD at West Australian Opera, I worked almost entirely freelance. I’ve had a variety of agents, and spent what felt like a long couple of decades pursuing conducting engagements, hurling myself at various barricades, and being met with a largely indifferent response. I was too fast. I was too loud. I was difficult. I was too young. I was too risky. I was too Australian. How could I conduct bel canto with a name like Cohen? – and so on. And all of this rejection happened to someone who, from the outside, looked like a conductor of promise and some success. All these bruises, twinges and occasional mortifications are still with me, as they would be with anyone, and it makes me keenly aware of my responsibilities as I currently sit on the other side as a decision maker.

Those who work with artists – agents, artistic directors, casting directors, producers – need to be able to draw on deep reserves of tolerance and patience, but I sometimes hear people say with a sigh that artists are “just like children” – which I take to mean demanding, capricious, petulant, self-engrossed. Yes, they can be – and I write as someone who has certainly been all of those things! Artists are sometimes excused from normal expectations of behaviour, because of their “creativity” and “temperament”. Actually, as a “creative” myself, I don’t share that indulgent view. My attitude as Artistic Director and conductor is one of determination to treat the artists I work with as adults, to honour their intelligence and common sense, and to be honest and as straightforward as I can be. Australian artists are some of the best to deal with in this regard – they don’t surround themselves with a carapace of grandeur, as a rule, and are often up for a laugh and a wry acknowledgement of how tough this business is. But every offer I decide for or against has an impact – whether financial, reputational or emotional – on the artist involved. And I feel the weight of that responsibility. I want to play my part in sustaining careers for singers – a return to the old days, if you like, where singers could develop like trees rather than flowers. It’s a tough gig, to be honest, to make this work in a business which currently chases the new like an old roué and throws off the known with something like contempt.

So – back to the qualities I look for. The voice must first of all be reliable and beautiful, both fit and fit for purpose. Technique needs to be solid and robust, with the capacity to perform when less than optimal (through a cold, for instance). Beyond the vocal, I look for real acting chops, for the ability to inhabit a role truthfully and project it to an audience; an ability to move well on stage, to understand and work with words, and a commitment to the process of getting the show on.

In the rehearsal room, collegiality is extremely important to me, and a bad colleague (sabotaging others, behaving narcissistically, sucking the oxygen out of the room) is like a red flag. We don’t all have to be nice – quite a few of us aren’t – but I expect civility and professionalism. And, where possible, I choose to work with artists who are passionately devoted to their work – who warm up, who are never late, who understand the need to temper intensity with humour, who love and respect their colleagues, who love opera and keep in their minds the extreme good fortune we enjoy to make our lives around it.

Naming names could be delicate in this context, but I want to mention two, connected with WAO’s 2017 season, which I cast. Our next two leading ladies – Taryn Fiebig (The Merry Widow) and Emma Pearson (Lucia di Lammermoor) tick all the boxes I listed just above. Not only are they wonderful singers, they are each a true artist. They immerse themselves in preparation and performance, they are a delight to be in a rehearsal room with, – I adore them both. AND they are both from WA! How lucky are we?

Until next time

Casting: Part Two

It’s obvious that casting sits at the heart of an Artistic Director’s responsibilities. One very early question in considering repertoire is: do I start with the singer or with the work? It’s all very well to decide we must present Norma, but without a singer who can encompass what is effectively three roles in one, in terms of register, tone and emotion, an opera company will be likely to have a failure on their hands.

In fact, Norma is a good opera to consider, as I share my thoughts about the casting process with you. It’s a truism that the world contains only a handful of great Normas at any one time. I have been fortunate to conduct the opera twice so far, both times with superb Normas. My first Norma was in London in 2004, and on that occasion we cast Nelly Miricioiu as Norma. It was a casting decision I was involved with, and one which I made with absolute assurance, because I had known and worked with Nelly for over ten years by that point. In the nineties, I had assisted the conductor David Parry on many projects, including recordings for Opera Rara and Chandos Records, where we had covered a lot of the Italian and nineteenth century operatic repertoire. After Nelly had met me, she invited me to coach and accompany her in her studio – an invitation which slightly intimidated me! But we became firm friends and have collaborated many times since then – I adore Nelly and her artistry. In 2004, we complemented Nelly with the wonderful Diana Montague as Adalgisa – a pairing made in heaven. So by the time I was invited to conduct Norma again, in Denmark in 2010, I had my views about what made a successful Norma, both vocally and dramatically. On this second occasion Hasmik Papian was cast as Norma, one of the small clutch of sopranos who are invited to sing the role around the world. Again, it was a collaboration of real understanding, and my previous experience in the work informed the support I was able to offer Hasmik in performance.

In a way, this experience raises the bar for my subsequent decisions, rather than making them easier. Were we to program Norma at WAO in coming seasons, there would be extended discussions about who we could cast – who was suitable, affordable and available – and to all of these discussions I would bring my personal history with the opera and knowledge of the singers I have heard perform it. Sometimes the least successful performances are the most instructive for a casting director – hearing the moments which stretch or defeat singers is the best test for understanding where the challenges in a role lie. And although I wouldn’t wish defeat on anyone, the chance to hear these moments has great educational value for me as I cast that role subsequently!

There are more general considerations in casting roles less specialised than Norma. The concept of vocal ranges and types is one on which I have a perhaps eccentric view. We all know about sopranos and tenors, but not many people outside the profession have heard about the German Fach system. This is a classification system for vocal types, which contains seven categories of soprano alone. I find this system, although useful, far too industrial, and that any classification system for artists is too reductive. I actually approach all my casting by listening – hard – to singers, and thinking “which roles would show THIS voice off at its best?”. Sometimes even the boundary between soprano and mezzosoprano is vague, so that (to go back to Norma) the same role has been sung by both kinds of singer over its performing history. Labels are a shorthand, but also create the danger of creating a framework which ignores the evidence of one’s own ears.

My happiest casting scenario is one where the work and the singer overlap with the greatest perfection. So, when I cast Danilo in The Merry Widow, I can hear the voice, see the physique, and understand the artistry and capacity of my preferred artist, all in one flash – not only that, but match it perfectly to the role, the opera, and the specific production. This was my experience in thinking of Alexander Lewis for our next WAO season, and I confidently anticipate his success in the role.

Next time I’ll talk a little about the qualities I look for in singers. In the end, as an Artistic Director, it can only be a question of my judgement and taste – for better or worse!

Until next time

The intricacies of casting – Part One

This month I thought I would share some reflections on the seemingly mysterious process of casting, since we are deep in planning coming seasons and casting is at the front of my mind. I am very much a poacher turned gamekeeper: freelance conducting was my main source of income for over two decades, and my role as WAO Artistic Director means I am currently on the other side.

The ambition, anxiety and insecurity of a freelance performer’s career are terrifying to most people, since it seems a crazily precarious way to keep body and soul together, let alone support a family. But I always say that, as performers, we each ran away to join the circus – and for most of us, our love of our work and its challenges compensate for some of the stresses associated with freelance work. With the decline in company artists (that is, under annual contract with an opera company) worldwide, there are more freelancers than ever before, all looking for a diminishing number of jobs. Many Australians continue to move abroad, as we have always done – back to Melba and beyond – in search of a wider arena and more range. On the other hand, there have always been artists who have made another kind of sacrifice – that of an international career – in order to build a settled family life in Australia, despite the paucity of work. In an era of short-term contracts, lack of security, and few benefits, it seems that more and more of the general population is beginning to experience the flavour of freelance work. This is not necessarily a good thing, in my view, but it does narrow the experience gap between us and other tax payers.

So how does one even go about casting? I have already shared in this blog my priorities at WAO – to cast local (WA), national and international artists, in that order. But that is only an order of priority. It doesn’t even touch on how I perceive an artist; whose opinion I value; and to whose judgement or recommendation I might even defer in ultimately making a decision. The responsibility for casting at WAO rests with me, and I am answerable for both the successes and the failures. I am pleased to say that my decisions since 2016 have generally been well-received, but inevitably my own view is somewhat more mixed.

I worked as a répetiteur (rehearsal pianist) and assistant conductor from the very start of my studies, and so played as accompanist, tuition pianist, coach, audition pianist, and chorus pianist. This was for many years the traditional training method for all aspiring conductors – a good blooding as a drudge, before being entrusted with the podium. I’m so happy I had this training, since it meant I spent (literally) decades in rooms with singers of all abilities and experience. Some tutored me, others shouted at me, others left the room in tears or tore their hair out at my occasionally appalling playing – and I learnt something from all of them. And most of all, I was submerged by the human voice in its infinite variety. All these sound memories live in my ears, and they are my own Alexandrine library. Much of this accumulated knowledge has become subliminal, and I don’t draw on it consciously. But I have become sensitive to the inflections in a singer’s voice, so I can hear and respond to indications that they need more time, that their breath is running short, that they are tired or fragile. Sometimes – as conductors do – I will ride over these indications, because something else (the dramatic narrative, rehearsal time, a scene change impending) must take priority at that moment. But I am tightly bound to the singers I work with, through a bundle of filaments – built by years of hearing, thinking and responding. These fine threads join pit with stage, and in the best collaborations they surge with energy, electrifying both us and the audience.

I realise I haven’t even got to the meat of my subject. Think of this as a preface; I will write more next month.

Until next time