Archives For Interviews

Here is a picture of me with one of the designers, Giuseppe Belli and the Director, Phelim McDermott.

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Giuseppe Belli, Me and Phelim McDermott

One of the best things about getting involved with Scottish Opera on projects like ‘BambinO’ is that you get to work with a great team of amazing people.  Everyone has an important part to play taking the project from concept to final production, the Director, the Composer, the production team, the creative departments like costume and set building to the Designers themselves.  So much goes on behind the scenes to give us, the performers everything we need to bring the production to life.

To give you a flavour of the diverse range of skills used in an opera production one of the designers, Emma Belli kindly agreed to take part in an interview with me so that I could share a little insight into her world.  Emma works closely with her husband Giuseppe and they have been involved in many fabulous projects together.  Those of you who follow my blog may have seen some of their work before as they designed the sets and costumes for ‘La Rondine’ and ‘Sir John In Love’ whilst I was at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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Designer Emma Belli

Emma – What are the best things about your current job?

When I was about to start University, I saw a show at West Yorkshire Playhouse called ‘Shock Headed Peter’. It was one of the most enjoyable and stunningly visual things I’d ever seen at the theatre…. full of invention, music and dark comedy. It was Phelim’s show. So eventually getting to devise a project with him is a gorgeous thing. I feel so lucky that I get to work with lovely talented people and that I get to share this with my husband. The tremendous support of the Creative departments at Scottish Opera actually make the job rather easy. They can achieve anything you think up… and what a lovely project. It’s quite a gift to us as designers.

Is this work what you wanted to do whilst at school?

I come from a family of artists. My grandad advised me not to be one or marry one! …. because it is hard. You have to be very self-motivated and determined. So I thought I’d choose a job in the Arts that would allow me to use my wider creative skills…. But where I could get a job. I also liked history and English and was a frustrated musician. So, I started to think that theatre might be good. Then I went to a Pet Shop Boys concert. It was really theatrical and over the top. It was designed by a theatre designer David Fielding…. and I thought, ‘gosh, this is his job! I want a little bit of this’. So, at about 12 years old I started to tell people that that’s what I was going to be. When I was training, the landscape of theatre design altered and it was no longer possible to get a residency at a theatre. So actually, it’s been as hard as being an artist after all…. and I married one too! (I later worked with David Fielding on an opera production for Bregenz). I’ve never regretted pursuing it as a career.

What were your favourite subjects at school?

Art. Design Technology. English Lit. Drama and History. But I loved sport too…. and find it has lots of parallels with theatre.

Did you go on to further study, where, and what path did you take?

I did A levels at Bradford Grammar where David Hockney had given some money for a theatre. They gave me a key as I was so keen! I then went to Leeds College of Art and did a foundation year. Followed by Theatre Design BA Hons at Betton Hall which was part of Leeds University. I started an MA there too but in the same year won a design competition to design King Lear at Cambridge Arts Theatre and another competition where I won a training position with the BBC in costume. I didn’t complete the MA but moved to London to work in TV Costume… it felt like I just needed to go and get on with it.

 

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The set for ‘La Rondine’ at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

 

How did you meet your partner/husband? Do you always work together? How long?

I met Giuseppe at Bretton Hall. He was the Resident Designer on my degree. After university, he was working on a low budget feature film and needed a costume designer. He called me as I had just finished some training with the BBC. We were working closely together but neither of us wanted to mess up our friendship. It took a year of meetings for tea and cake, art galleries, theatre trips and London parks before we got together. We just wanted to make sure it was going to be right and have longevity. At first, I was working long hours in TV and Giuseppe was doing mainly film special effects. We started not wanting to be apart so much and finding filming was totally exhausting and pressurised. We began to seek a way to work together. It’s been about 18 years working together now.

Do you work all around the world?

I haven’t traveled that much for work. Some designers do…. our work has traveled more widely than we have! Once a show is designed, you don’t really need to go with it when it tours. I would find it very difficult to travel outside the country at the moment as I need to be around to be a mum too.

Where do you get inspiration for your designs?

Inspiration is part research, part experience and part gut instinct.

What’s your favourite part of the design process?

I like making models and getting them to look as perfect as possible…. and the anticipation of sharing the design for the first time with the Creative team and cast. Then I like opening night when the work is finished and the pressure is off!

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How difficult is it to manufacture what you visualise?

We carefully design to fit budgets and the support teams available. However, it’s surprising how often we do need to step in to finesse things. Between us, Giuseppe and I can do most things. We are very practical. We always pull it together even if we are let down. We are perfectionists and our own critics, and we keep our standards high. If we find a talented collaborator, we hold on to them for good! Over the years you find companies you trust and makers with a true talent in interpretation and realisation. Working at Scottish Opera is a joy because the skills and experience in the whole building shine.

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Has there ever been anything that you visualised that couldn’t be made? Did you make adjustments?

Part of the designer’s job is to consider practicalities and technical solutions, rigging, construction etc. It involves objects but also the space around objects, the way things move and work. If something wasn’t completely thought through, it wouldn’t leave the studio. This avoids costly mistakes and time wasting later.

What’s the work that you’re most proud of?

We made West Side Story in Wandsworth Prison with Pimlico Opera. Great piece, challenging environment, an enormous impact on all of us. Theatre as rehabilitation is an extraordinary thing. We were very proud of this production.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?

I just want to remain interested in my work, earn enough doing it and share the best bits with my husband. I hope I can pass on my love of theatre to my children as I feel it’s made my life very rich.

Do you have any hidden talents? E.g play an instrument, sing, yoga teacher, mathematician?

Hidden talents…

I’m brilliant at soldering?! (which I use model making)

I’m a great swimmer, played netball and hockey for my county. Represented Leeds at rounders and long jump! Hmmm…. very competitive!

We have a great and full kitchen garden…. which I love to do with Giuseppe. It’s bursting with produce right now.

I’m a parish councillor.

I make special birthday cakes for my children….. using all my model making skills!

I’m an expert on Angry birds, Minecraft, Dr Who, Lego, and Playmobil.

 

Thank you, Emma, for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope that you all enjoy reading her fascinating insight

You can check out more of Emma and Giuseppe’s work on their website.

Here is a link to Scottish Opera’s Facebook page with some pictures of the costumes designed by Emma for ‘BambinO’

 

 

 

 

The established photographic artist Pascal Barnier combined his holiday to Scotland with an opportunity to see me in my first operatic main role, as Eve in the Dove Opera “The Walk from the Garden” in Glasgow. He also came along to listen to me sing with my friends in the RCS Chamber Choir at our concert in St Mary’s Cathedral. Pascal is the artist that created several of my social media banners and I love his work and his passion for colour, vibrations and light that he says he imagines when listening to my singing.

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Having My Picture Taken With Pascal Barnier Just After My Performance In “The Walk From The Garden”

 

Over the past few months he has been listening to my first album “Canzoni D’Amore” whilst he creates and I’m truly honoured that he has used my songs as inspiration for some of his work. He has decided to group these images together and use them in a book “A Collision of Classical Music and Photographic Art”.

We first met on Facebook about 18 months ago when Pascal created a blog of his works. It’s great to collaborate with other artists and the photographic creations he gave to my parents last month were just lovely. I have also helped him out by reading the French to English translations of his other books and made suggested improvements to his English translations, although I didn’t want to alter the flow too much as I felt that it was important that his work sounded authentically French.

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I was thrilled when Pascal agreed to let me interview him for my blog.

Pascal did you study art or photography in Higher Education or are you self-taught?

Both.

I actually studied photography autodidact until I was 18 years old. I then took a degree in Graphic Art and Printing along with photography lessons and art history. Then a 35mm projection degree to explore the continuous use of light.

When I read a magazine or book on the art in printing, it inspired me to meet the artists, to find out about their techniques and to work with the best images for reproduction. I seek to know the history of my photographic subjects.

I was also Head of the foundation of a painter. It was in an old chapel, the wall covered with a fresco of 700 m2, which represented the vision of the painter, the Apocalypse of St. John.

For about two years I have done personal research on art and parallel research on light.

So I would say that about 40% of my studies were through academic routes and 60% through self-taught research.

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Where does your passion for your work originate?

I have always been fascinated by light. The sunrise, sunsets and lightning during storms, sun rays through the clouds or through the branches of trees in the forest. At first I tried to draw, then to paint and finally I discovered photography.

When I was little, my grandfather always said, if you want to achieve something, work hard at it, keep learning until you arrive at what you want. So for 30 years, I have not stopped and my passion is still there. I can patiently wait for hours at sunset, or walk for kilometers in order to take a picture, and for me it’s magical every time.

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What inspires you, for example in your flamingo series I wondered why watering cans?

I have a degree on the acquisition of language and sign language. For me, shapes, objects, colours tell stories, they produce vibrations and make music. Flamingos standing on one leg, remind me of Yogi or Egyptian scribes, observing the world like someone ancient and wise, their pink feathers to me take on the colour of the morning sky, in the light of the new day.

In my work, I try to offer the public a different view on the world. The flamingos are there to act as guides, which encourages the viewer of my images to visit the locations rather than just watch as a spectator.

Watering cans symbolizes sharing, I hope that my images carry with them lessons that flow like water. To me a safe it is filled, it is closed, it is buried, but a watering can when it is full, it can be emptied when you need it, and fill it back up and start again.

As an artist who is in a touring show, every day they start with a new audience, sharing their passion, their work to bring happiness to everyone who comes along.

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What is your musical taste, do you play any instruments?

I love music that tells me story that fills the imagination with background images, such as classical, jazz and folk. I do not like repetitive music, containing a phrase that is repeated indefinitely.

I love the harp, violin, and piano because you can feel the music as the vibrations penetrate through your skin. Unfortunately, I’m not a traditional musician, but rather a different type musician, someone who plays the camera to compose visual melodies.

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What inspired you to make me the subject of your work?

Your first comment on my blog attracted me to yours, a wonderful discovery. Which I have continued to read ever since. I liked the way you talked about your passion and I found so much in common between the ways we both worked. Then there was your voice, I had to organize recitals in the painter’s foundation and had come across many singers who I considered “technicians” of their art. But your voice overwhelmed me with light, colours and images. I knew then that our artistic worlds would in some way fuse together. Working with you is to be in a world where song gives birth to pictures and where images are singing. Why would I not want to share this with the world around me?

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Is there anywhere that people can see your work?

I have a website that I hope will integrate with my library and also my shop (late June) But you can find my work at the following sites :

http://www.bgallery.co.uk
www.saatchiart.com/pascalbarnier
http://www.pptart.net
https://www.daylighted.com

and soon, I hope to exhibit my work at a shop in Brittany, in La Baule, with photos on paper, aluminum, plexiglass, books, CD, scarves and mugs.

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When I was putting together my slides for my PechaKucha presentation last week it made me think about everyone that social media has introduced me to.  I have met such a vast array of gifted people passionate about what they write and so helpful in sharing their knowledge with me.

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When I worked with the ballet dancers in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ last month it allowed me the opportunity to get to know Emma McBeth a little better, she’s from New Zealand.  Emma is in the third year of her ballet course but we didn’t bump into each other in the first year because she spent her first year of study in Sydney, Australia.  During the Easter break I was working out a fitness program and wanted to incorporate some dance, as that’s far more enjoyable for me as it doesn’t feel like a session in the gym because it always passes so quickly, but believe me the after-burn is just as intense.  Emma very kindly offered to run me through my paces and we had a fabulous session working out and having fun.  I was intrigued to know more about Emma and her training and took the opportunity to find out about her life as a trainee ballerina.

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After The Workout

 

At what age did you first start to dance and how did it all begin?

Formally at eight years of age starting with Tap and Jazz then continuing with ballet.  My Mum had lots of ballet videos at home so I started to get inspiration from dancing in the living room.  My main inspiration was how I was brought up being encouraged to have fun with dance, just moving around the house and I progressed to proper classes at eight doing exams.

Do you have one significant ballet that was your favourite?

We had all the classics on videos, one of the ones that really stood out to me was Don Quixote all that Spanish flair, one of those ballets that I’ve always wanted to do the solos and the pas de deux etc.  I did the pas de deux and solos for one of my productions I did back in New Zealand, at the time I thought ‘oh my goodness this is the best day of my life’ it was so much fun.

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Royal Opera House – London – Don Quixote

 

How long do you dance each day, do you take weekend breaks; how do you structure your training?

At the conservatoire we dance Monday to Friday 9am until 6pm full time, warm ups are usually 08:30, it’s pretty much advised you also do your own practise too.  I come in on a Saturday and practise and now I’m in the third year we also have classes on Saturday mornings with Scottish Ballet on a rota basis.  Sunday is usually a day off but I use that time for other projects so I usually occupy myself.

A typical day we would have ballet class for two hours, 15 minutes break, maybe a two hour contemporary technique class, in the second and third year you have release technique class that can involve throwing ourselves around the room it’s a lot of fun and in the first year Cunningham technique strengthening the core and finding out the contractions and release.  We then have 30-45 minutes lunch then maybe a solos class or pas de deux, contemporary or ballet repertoire classes, rehearsals for shows and things like that. Two days we have a jazz class for versatility, Pilates on Tuesdays, a wide variety of modules.

In first and second year there is theory work and studies, dance anatomy, music and dance history.  We had a workshop on nutrition too which was very beneficial.

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New Zealand

 

When did you start performing on stage or in front of an audience?

From when I started ballet we had end of term productions, my first one was Alice in Wonderland.  I used to do competitions each two months and I’d do solos for that so I got lots of performing opportunities from about the age of ten.  It is good for confidence, good practise for solo performing and being in front of an audience.  When we performed in end of year productions I saw it as a celebration of the year and an opportunity to work together with the other dancers in elaborate costumes, we did Beatrix Potter and the costumes were fabulous, I was a kitten from Tom Kitten, the huge masks were the best fun thing ever, a great production. 

The most memorable performance was in 2012, I competed in the Genee International Ballet Competition and I made it to the finals, the top 12. The finals night I performed to a full theatre, fortunate enough to perform three solos in front of a panel of international judges so that was amazing.  There was apiece premièred that night and I was lucky to perform that choreography too. It was the most amazing thing and shared with the most incredible people and dancers and that’s when I really knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to perform professionally.

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Emma Just Before the “Genee International Ballet Competition”

 

I finished school and I was 17 receiving university entrance and excellence in my NCEA qualifications and completed all my RAD ballet examinations.  I then auditioned for ballet schools elsewhere.  I went to Sydney for a year and trained there and then I got a scholarship offer to study in the UK, I auditioned and got accepted into several schools but was really impressed after visiting the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and decided to come and study here, I loved the fact it was a multi-disciplined Conservatoire.  

What other subjects did you study?

In my final year I did History, dance, physical education, chemistry, calculus, and English.  The dance education I had at school helped me a lot as it included choreography which has been very beneficial, I love choreography.  My favourite subject outside of dance was History and I am still fascinated by the subject.  We did a golf module in Physical education that I remember, we would spend an entire afternoon playing golf which was great fun.  We also went canoeing down Whanganui River for three days which was quite an experience.  I play piano too and started when I was eight, I balanced that, school and ballet and many other activities and I am glad that I did.  When finishing school I passed my ATCL Diploma in Piano Performance, my knowledge of piano and music has helped with my musicality and appreciation for the class pianists.  I collaborate with a girl in the Masters piano course and we worked on a Bridge week project last year and we’re working on another project at the moment, she is a fantastic friend to have and we work really well together.  Another great reason to come here to meet such fabulous people and without my piano background we may have not connected in the same way.

What is your proudest achievement/s?

The Genee International Ballet Competition final in 2012. I also proud of being cast in the lead role of La Sylphide in the show last year, it was a very special thing.  It was a romantic ballet and I’d never imagined performing a lead role in a romantic ballet.  The coaching sessions helped me a lot as a dancer, actor and performer – picking apart the solos and the mime scenes, valuable advice I’ll never forget.

What is next for you?

Since this is my final year at the conservatoire, I’m auditioning for ballet companies in the UK and Europe.  I have a final End Of Year Modern Ballet Graduation performance on the 5th and 6th June at the Conservatoire. 

Long Term aims?

Perform in a ballet company and keep a professional performance career as long as possible.  A ballet career isn’t very long and you need to maintain good health and stay without any injuries that’s ultimately what I’m concentrating on at the moment.

Emma’s Show Reel

I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s fabulous to read how hard my fellow students work here.  Emma is such a lovely girl and I really wish her the very best for the future after she graduates this year.


From Emma's facebook

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George Todica and I first worked together when he was asked to accompany me by our Conservatoire for the Kathleen Ferrier competition in Blackburn. I was starting Year 2 and he was commencing the third year of his Piano course.  He also accompanied me in the Llangollen Eisteddfod last year and we were finalists in a German lieder competition this year.  It’s a privilege to sing with him because he isn’t doing an accompanist degree he trains as a concert pianist and has so little time to spare.  A few months ago we auditioned for a series of Grieg master-classes to be held in Bergen, Norway and I’m thrilled to let you know that we were accepted on to the course which I’ll tell you more about soon.  It’s taken a while to get this interview together due to rehearsal schedules but finally I persuaded him to put a little time aside to tape this interview so that you can see what a trainee pianist goes through.

Here is a sample of George’s playing 🙂

What age did you first start playing piano?

I started playing at the age of three, my brothers, who were 12 and 14 at the time, taught me at first as they were already in school and knew how to play. They taught me little songs with one finger to start with, I remember I had a big pink book but I don’t remember what it was called, whilst I was in Kindergarden to play for the family. At the age of five I had my first official lesson with Silvia Panzariu in Iasi, Romania where I grew up because my Dad who is also a musician saw potential in me. She was a teacher at the High School the lessons were once every fortnight before I started school. I was always excited for my lessons. At about the age of six my brothers got their first basic computers and to test my love of piano my father offered me the choice of a computer or continued piano lessons and I chose piano.

How often did you practise each week?

I don’t remember exactly initially I enjoyed playing new pieces and I enjoyed learning new songs often for hours at a time; but exercises, playing things over and over again I didn’t particularly enjoy, I think that was probably about one hour each day. Silvia was my teacher for most of my childhood then I went to her daughter Ralucia and she taught me from about eleven for a few years. They were a very musical family. When I was fifteen I changed to her sister’s husband.

When did you start performing on stage or in front of audiences?

I learnt a lot before I got into School so I used to compete each year. I used to enjoy the competitions as I used to win first prize from the age of seven. I used to be more concerned about my walk on and bow than I was about my playing. I had to wear formal little suits, my parents wanted me to look special and stand out and they got me a burgundy jacket and I used to look at all the black jackets and think ooh no one else is wearing a burgundy jacket. I used to sing a lot when I was young and in a choir as a bass when I was older but I was really drawn to the piano and as we had a piano in the house it was very accessible so I concentrated on that.

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What other subjects did you study at school in Romania?

Our system makes us do compulsory subjects until very late; Romanian literature, Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, in final exams you can choose between History, Geography, Philosophy and Economics, I chose History which I enjoyed. Music was outside of choices.

When did you come to study in Scotland?

In Year 10 in Romania I won a scholarship at the Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh where I spent a very enjoyable year, I studied in S6 ( advanced highers ) studying classical History, Philosophy and Music and passed my examinations.  When I finished that year I went directly to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Was it difficult to leave home and move to the UK?

I had been sort of prepared for it because I was travelling to outside competitions and concerts being organised by my piano teacher Iulian Trofin, I would travel two hours to his class on the bus. I met him when I was ten and I studied with him until I came to Glasgow. From eight, I always walked half an hour to school alone. It was very difficult at first even though I spoke English quite well, I studied it in my last four years of school. I learnt English from cartoons and things and speaking to my friends to practise whilst we played computer games I just picked it up from this. It was strange not coming home at the end of each day, but they were very nice, kind and supportive to me in Edinburgh and I was allowed to phone home so it was mixed with lots of excitement.

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Absolute 1st Prize At The International Competition “Citta di Cesenatico”, Italy

What are your proudest achievements?

Winning the scholarship to Edinburgh definitely it absolutely changed my life, if I hadn’t got that I wouldn’t have thought to apply to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I wouldn’t have had the funds to move to another Country either. I was offered a full scholarship for Edinburgh including flights. I won my first international competition when I was 12, I went to Italy with Mr Trofin and I won first prize in my category it was a big prize for me at the time.

What’s a typical training schedule like for you?

I have been living in Scotland through scholarships during the past four years and I never had to worry about working in a bar or shop thanks to this, so that I could focus on learning piano every single moment, seven days per week. I usually strive to do an average of at least six hours piano practise per day excluding improv sessions, stretch breaks, research. I usually get up each day around 7am, I like early mornings waking up with the sun to relax, eat and check my e-mails and I usually get to school by 9am – at least three hours dedicated practise in a practise room before lunch around 1pm because mornings are most productive for me, then I’ll break off and do other work, then go back for an hour and a half solid practise, then have dinner around 5pm, then I’m usually back in school practising from 6pm to 9pm other than on a Sunday when they shut earlier.

What is coming up next for you?

I have two competitions in April and May in Sussex and Portugal. I have a concert in Edinburgh on the 6th April at St Giles Cathedral at lunch time Mozart, Ravel, and Enescu. Then of course I’m moving on to a master’s course I have accepted my offer of a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland because I’ve really enjoyed my four years here and got into the atmosphere of the Conservatoire. I was also offered places at RAM and RCM but I felt that the transition process would just take up valuable time. I have a new piano teacher Norman Beedie and I feel I can continue to learn a lot from him and make better progress here. I have a partial scholarship for masters and I am in the process of applying to trusts in the hope that people will help me to stay here. 

What are your long term aims ?

I believe I have a musical voice and the potential to bring something new to music to teach people to enjoy pure music, just the actual syrup and honey that comes out of classical music and not just consider it a type of genre people like or don’t like. I want to promote this music to help for its own benefit not just make myself a career, to share the joy and light that it brought into my life since I was really young and I like sharing that and helping people to see what I see.

You can listen to George’s music on his new You Tube channel or Google+  or Facebook  . George also provided the beautiful accompaniment on the Aaron Copland American folk songs that I shared with you all earlier this year and on my album Canzoni D’Amore.

 

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Judith Howarth ( Photograph By Gordon Wilson )

Whilst in rehearsals for Jonathan Dove’s Opera ‘A Walk from the Garden’ with Scottish Opera I’m grateful to be receiving professional coaching from Judith Howarth, one of the most sought-after sopranos in Europe. Judith is also a vocal teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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You Can Read More About Scottish Opera By Clicking On The Image

 

I asked Judith in one of the Dove rehearsals if I could ask her some questions for a blog interview and for my personal interest and I’m very appreciative that she took the time to answer in fabulous detail to share with us all.

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To Buy Tickets for “The Walk From The Garden” Click On The Image

 

Judith first of all thanks for agreeing to an interview for my blog I’m very grateful for your time and help. My first question is what do you think are the vocal challenges in the role of ‘Eve’?

The role has lots of colours that can be used, vocally. Singing in English is always a challenge and getting the words clear but not spoiling the sound of the voice is tricky, but of course, perfectly possible.   You must develop vocal and physical stamina for this role. It sits quite high in the voice and so is vocally demanding.  With modern music, it is always a challenge to find “the line” but it is very important, so that the music does not just sound like notes.

Which vocal fach is Eve?

In my opinion, Eve is a light lyric sing.

What vocal fach are you and has this changed over the years?  Do you think these definitions are a good idea or pigeon-hole singers?

I am a lyric coloratura. My voice has changed immensely over the years. I have always had the ability to sing coloratura and I have always had very easy access to the top of my voice. I don’t think that I have ever had a light voice and the darker qualities that I use now have always been there but I did not use them for many years. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that I am still performing and that I think that my voice is better than ever.

I do think that there is too much emphasis placed on what voice types young singers are! First of all, it doesn’t matter and secondly, no one knows how a voice will develop and how long it will take. Emphasis should be on letting the voice develop naturally. That means stretching it a little occasionally but always sing the correct repertoire. It really annoys me when pupils ask me what voice type they are and what do I think that they will become, it’s stupid. ( Memo to myself “never ask Judith what voice type she thinks I am!” 🙂  )

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Judith Howarth As Madam Butterfly

 

I’ve heard you talk of stamina before, what sort of exercises do you do to improve your stamina before a big performance?

Stamina is built up over years and also I build the stamina for each performance during my private learning and the production rehearsals. It takes time. We all need to find our limits and I am afraid that it comes from occasionally over singing. I did this a lot as a student because I am greedy to sing all the time, especially when I am having a “good ” day. I actually don’t like exercises. I usually sing the slow part of a bel canto aria and get the voice nice and “high”. I also sometimes just sing along to a recording of Rutter, Karl Jenkins or anything that I like and is gentle.  I never practice the top. I know that it will work because I have done the practice. All singing techniques are in the songs or arias, so I prefer to sing songs rather exercise. I am afraid that they bore me. I also keep physically fit and the demands on the body when singing a large role are immense.

Having good breath control is so important, what is your biggest advice for young singers on improving this?

Yes, breathing is paramount. Total relaxation is the key.  One can practice breathing at any time. Totally relax and the take a slow intake of air. If you do this 3 or 4 times correctly, you will get high because of the amount of oxygen that you are taking in.  Breath control is also paramount as you sing on the flow of air. It must be controlled so that there are no “bumps” in the “line”.  Singers must also totally relax between phrases. You must release the diaphragm otherwise you will hyperventilate. Breathing is the first thing to be affected when a person is nervous, so try to control the flow of air.

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Judith Howard In Faust – Photograph By Minnesota Opera

 

I read about you being called up to fill in for a sick singer and flown in on a private jet which sounds terribly exciting.  What do you do if you have a cold, do you sing on through colds?  Do you know any quick remedies for a blocked nose on audition days for example?

The first thing is that if you are unwell, then don’t sing if you can avoid it. We all get colds and there have been times when you have to perform. The more well known a singer becomes, the more intolerant the public are if the singers performance is not perfect. They expect the best every time.

There are no remedies for colds I am afraid. I do drink lots of water and hot drinks, avoid talking and get lots of rest.  One can sing on a cold. It all depends what type of cold. If the chords are coated with mucous that is because the body is protecting them. If you have to sing like this, you could do damage so try to avoid it. You have to be patient as a singer. Things take time, years sometimes. There are no quick fixes to becoming a fine singer. Practice, advice, and above all listen to your body. A decongestant will help to unblock a nose. I would always advise that if you are doing an audition, you have to decide whether you think that you can do yourself justice.  If you can’t, then you should try to reschedule, because people always remember a bad audition.

Judith I read that at my age you were working as a Principal at The Royal Opera House, what impact did moving from Scotland to London have on you at such an age?

When I moved to London from Glasgow, I took everything in my stride. I was keen to see the world and be the best singer that I can be. The only reservation I had was that my husband was still in Scotland.  We took it in turns to travel to each other at the weekends. It was the best thing that happened in my career.  It taught me so much and for that I am eternally grateful.

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Judith Howarth as Maria Stuarda ( Photograph By Robert Workman )

 

What has been your favourite role to-date?

I don’t think that I have a favourite role. There are possibly three that I adore. They are Madam Butterfly, Mrs Mao, and Maria Stuarda. I also used to love singing Violetta which I have sung at least 45 times all over the world. I have been very blessed and very spoilt.

I am passionate about passing on my knowledge and experience and am now asked to teach worldwide which I am delighted about. Everyone deserves a good technique and an opportunity to be a part of this wonderful world of opera!

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Judith Howarth As Mrs Mao

 

What role is left that you’d like to fulfil?

There are a few roles that I am booked to sing and a few that I want to perform.  They are Tosca, Amelia in Ballo, Norma, and Aida . There are more but these are the ones that come to mind at the moment. I have sung so many that I forget.

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I first met Charlotte McGuinness in my first year at the RCS during a cross discipline collaboration and she ended up strung up like a puppet 🙂  Whoever said that blondes have more fun was obviously hanging out with the wrong brunette.

I was so pleased CharlotteM agreed to let me quiz her about her course and hopes for the future:

Charlotte, as you’re in your final year of your three year BA Acting degree  at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), it must all be getting a bit real for you now, so when you finish your degree have you decided what your next step will be? What would you like to do next?

I really want to do acting with writing as an add-on, it is obviously hard as an actor to have that that as their only job and wait around waiting for a phone call every day.  So you have to have a secondary job, in London before I started my course, I did a foundation course and I did all the phone jobs and retail jobs to supplement that, so I want to get into writing as that is still creative and I hope to make my own work with our company ‘Ink Dolls’.  The world is so big with social media and social networking and everything you’ve got to be ready to take on every aspect.  I was really inspired by the women who wrote Upstairs, Downstairs they wrote it and put themselves in it.  The same with James Corden and Ruth Jones the creators of Gavin and Stacey to stop getting themselves typecast they wrote for characters to give themselves acting challenges outside their usual casting, they wrote it, developed it then put themselves in it as the actors.  It’s just another way into acting.

Sometimes you do have to create your own opportunities, it’s the same for singers, so how do you know where to start in your speciality?

I think if you want to get into it, you just have to be brave and leap, we started this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, we were looking at how to develop new stuff we were writing.  I did a mini internship recently at the Channel 4 Glasgow office producing in their creative diversity unit, making sure their creative programming is varied.  I read lots of projects that have been put forward and it is interesting to see there are funds to create new and exciting projects.  For example have you heard of Scrotal Recall, the program was written and developed using funds from C4?  It is now a successful big programme.

What are you doing at the moment at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland?

I love comedy, I love to do that, at the moment we are rehearsing for ‘The Country Wife’ my role is Lady Fidget, she’s a Tory MP’s wife, very coiffured the original version of the play was written before even Shakespeare wrote his plays so when you first hear it you think this is odd.  It was banned at the time because it was too outrageous, the lead man is Master Horner who is very horney, which is not very subtle, the modern equivalent is the Russell Brand sort of character, the story is from France and he, Master Horner, claims he’s an eunuch .  It’s a lot about public face and private face and my character reflects rich people’s perceived obsession with how they look, honour, dating the right man, upper class, then you see what she is really like underneath.

So you are keeping it quite farcical or realistic?

It is quite farcical which is hard with a modern interpretation.  You start thinking its high style and ridiculous, possibly Oscar Wilde style and then you get into it and there’s no truth in that at all.  You’ve still got to develop the acting, get into character.

Is it true that some actors develop the character from the shoes they’re given?

It’s funny you should say that we had so many challenges with shoes in the last week, we have these costume parades, when you come in front of the Director and they see all this stuff and ideas get developed, so you parade yourself out in this catwalk thing and about eight people are just staring at you and ideas get thrown around, people are readjusting your sleeves and adding or taking away from your costume.  Robert Carson our Director is quite fabulous anyway and he was into detail, for example, he wanted my character in a bigger heel because my costume was quite conservative and he still wanted my character to be sexy and believable.  I was like oh heck because I’m running around all over the stage in 4.5” suede pink shoes (Charlotte M’s smiling back at me now “I knew you’d like that” – “Oh wow I do!”).  So now I have to glide in and be very dignified and it forces me to take smaller steps, very birdlike, so I guess it’s all helping characterisation.  You can’t just move without reason you have to think about heel toe, heel toe.

In singing we don’t get our costume till late and we’re told it’s all about the voice, all about the voice.  But I think costume is so important, when I went to see Cinderella at the Opera last week I was quite disappointed with some of the costumes.

Your degree is in Drama, if I was 17 and asking you about what to expect what would you say?

The majority of our work in the first and second year is skills classes, movement which is different to dance; animal studies; colours; personalities and exploring all aspects of those.  Voice lessons how to reach the deep parts of your voice and how to have more gravitas, Shakespeare pronunciation.  We have classes in singing, choral and personal and participate in dance sessions.

That sounds jam packed!

We also do acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil, I was asked to do things I’ve never ever done before, but we started with stuff you’d do when you are about 11 like cartwheels, balancing.  I did parkour instead of acrobatics second year, getting grounded.  Workshops including improvisation which is great, you have to fail and get it wrong and explore, it’s the only way to learn to fail and fail again and work on getting things right.  Then we do a big project, ours was ‘Russians’, you start with ‘The Seagull’ laid back understated it’s all about what’s not said.  Then in the second year we carry on with skills classes and a Shakespeare outreach where you teach secondary school students with workshops and games on how say Macbeth develops.  Everybody has energy boards and we develop that on the stage and get into a scrum, we did this project with ‘King Lear’.  We did a big show ‘Coriolanus’, a Shakespeare tragedy about a Roman leader, we took it on tour to Russia.  You have to go for it but it’s crazy and you can’t be afraid to explore Shakespeare large.  Then we build into our high style and Oscar Wilde style which is bigger and we have a Panto which is even bigger, we have the archetypes, the lovers and all of that and a full exploration.  Finally we go back into Film in February, so we go from the glitz and glam of Panto to solid acting pared right back.

Gosh the course can’t be accused of being stale and sticking with say Stanislavski!

It’s important to be versatile.

Do you see yourself as being an advocate for Shakespeare and Drama in say the school curriculum?

Absolutely!  I went to a High School that was put in special measures who gave no encouragement to go on to higher education and they have now converted into an Academy, we did Drama but then only at 13 and 14 it wasn’t part of the English curriculum.  Aside from the fact that for people with reading issues like dyslexia drama and play acting so helps to relate to problem issues in a different way and helps with understanding text. For a lot of people they would otherwise not come into contact with plays and drama productions if it wasn’t covered at school.

I read about you getting into photography in this article  , how did you get into that was it something your Mum was in to?

My Mum went to a similar school to me and they were encouraged to go into offices or shops, people got married and didn’t really consider an arts career.  So my Mum wasn’t part of that world, she was very artistic but she went off to be a secretary and secretarial college, so eventually she retrained as a teacher and now she’s into politics.  But I love art and I sketch and draw, and photography is just an extension of that and it’s something we could develop together and she encouraged me.  I did fine art and photography and carried it through to ‘A’ level.  I did a lot of dark room stuff.  I love fantastic images I researched Annie Liebovitz photography a lot and a guy called Tim Walker, Gregory Crewdson very colourful images, but I like black and white too.  My friend Rob and I used to photograph each other for projects, he’s in Les Mis. at the moment on the West End.  I’m glad I did develop it because I can use those skills to create headshots and posters and I know how to use Photoshop so we can cover lots of our own marketing.  We were clear about what we wanted our logo to look like we used a designer in Greece.  We helped create the poster for ‘Flat Pack’ our play we created for the Edinburgh Fringe.  Em J my partner in Ink Dolls came from a background in the arts as well and it helps with staging, costumes and just how we want things to look, I’m getting quite involved with typography at the moment.

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What do you feel is the most important characteristics for an Actor?

Be aware of what makes up your soul, be aware of your character, be aware of your unique characteristics; be sure you represent your quality – whether it be sly, charming, crazy, or romantic.  People can audition for three to five years just to get into schools like the RCS if it’s something you’re serious about you can’t just have a quitting nature.  Maturity, confidence, experience, love, loss, having a presence , foundation courses, rep years, get experience on the Fringe, mini courses, NYT just getting experience and what the demands are and being around other actors, its relentless.  A good memory is helpful you have to remember monologues with just one day’s preparation.  Go do all the crap jobs to build your character and meet some great characters, see the world around you, and don’t just stay in the rarefied environment of the classroom.  Audition tutors are a good idea too, it does cost quite a lot but so is the cost of auditioning and re-auditioning, they will tell you to concentrate on your strengths and give your critical feedback.  The top Universities like Oxbridge are sometimes easier to get into than the best Drama schools and they have organisations who offer Oxbridge application training to get into those organisations, it’s something you shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to do I wish I’d have known about it.  It is all about you and they help to teach you how to make yourself shine and hope that someone needs the character that you are.

I think a thing to remember is that no Actor, not even someone I admire like Leonardo DiCaprio started out perfect, they will have a back catalogue of less than perfect performances that have helped to hone their skill over the years, until today when he isn’t type cast and can trusted to truly represent a variety of roles, it is unrealistic of 21 year olds to expect to be perfect from the off.

Were there any days you thought you couldn’t do it?

There have absolutely been times where the pressure and the multi-tasking for example when we lived with everyone who did ‘The Flat Pack’  project with us, we didn’t have our internet set up, we’d just given everyone the script, sometimes the hours are so long, so little time for sleep and the house was so mental you forget to eat and we were so busy that it seemed the project might not get done, had we taken on too much? I can’t believe I thought it was a good idea to write, direct, produce, one of us act in it, market it, raise the funds, there are days where you are so exhausted that you just think I can’t do this.  With all big projects I would imagine there are days where you think the monies going to run out, people aren’t auditioning, it’s just a game sometimes of whose the last person standing.  Just remember have faith, keep on going, pick yourself up, get some sleep, if you have a modicum of talent its often those who can handle the most, have great friends, family and remember to be a regular person and that this is a job, you are a person first and foremost and don’t lose sight of that.

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Read the fabulous 5* review in The Herald http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/stage/review-theatre.25791991

A Cold Day In June

June 12, 2014 — 26 Comments

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The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is a mixed discipline conservatoire that covers a wide spectrum of training in the arts. One aspect is Film Studies and Digital TV and one of the friends I made last year, Michael Ferns, is just about to release a short film called ‘A Cold Day in June’ after graduating in 2012. He promised me an interview for my blog so even though he’s busy in London I nagged, scratch that, reminded him politely to tell me more about what he’s been up to:

What is your educational background Michael?

I went to Balfron High School, to the west of Stirling, you leave school after just 6 years, instead of the seven years you have in England, the Scottish system is a little bit different, so I started at the RCS age 17 and I was there for three years, then I graduated with a BA in Digital Film and Television. I really enjoyed my time at the RCS the place is great, the contacts you make there are great, the cross curricular collaboration is good.

Who were your favourite people to work with: singers, actors, dancers?

Talking to you Charlotte I’m going to have to say singers 🙂  but it depends what for, music videos: I enjoy creating videos with singers and bands and of course with my films with actors obviously. I met Billy Boyd when he contacted me after seeing and liking my website. it was a dream come true as he was a star of one of my favourite film franchises of all time Lord of the Rings (he played the part of Pippin Took).  He wanted a music video to ‘Please Stay’, we started the first video which was a basic concept just at the end of my 3rd year before I graduated; we used a lot of people from my class. He was really happy with that. We did the second video with him on location in Penrith in the North of England and in Glasgow called ‘The Clown’ which was rather more ambitious than the first. We filmed it in November. It involved sinking Billy Boyd in a boat into a freezing cold loch.

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Were you in the water or were you dry?

I wasn’t dry it was pouring down with rain, but I wasn’t actually in the water, it was a very arduous experience.

Can you see the music video on-line?

Yes , I will send you the link.

Here it is, well worth watching, a message that not everyone you know with a smile is happy:


Congratulations for your BAFTA how did you win and what were you awarded for?

When I was 17 we got funding from the Lottery and The Co-op to make a period feature film called ‘Kirk’ based on the Scottish Legend of this Reverend in the 1600’s who believed fairies lived on the top of the hill of the Parish where he lived, everyone in the village thought he was crazy. He wrote a book called ‘The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies’ published in 1691 it’s still available now. The film was based on his writings, his wife thought he was crazy too. He died on the top of the hill and loads of people believe he was taken by the fairies and we made the film based on his story, it was very low budget, everyone was doing stuff for free. We won the best feature film at the Manchester Film Festival and I won the best Director at the BAFTA New Talent awards 2010.

Wow that’s impressive. Were you nominated or did you put yourself forward?

We were nominated. There were three nominees that year. We had no idea we’d won.

Did you get a red carpet treatment?

Yes there was a red carpet actually and there is even an embarrassing acceptance speech on line somewhere. I don’t particularly enjoy being in front of the camera. I certainly wouldn’t want to act. I would love to be able to sing but I can’t, I would love to be able to do that but as my singer friend Lawrence will testify its not my area of expertise.

Ahh but do you enjoy your own singing? Could I tempt you to do me a Vox-pop to go with this interview? 

Maybe totally alone singing to myself, but no I wouldn’t want to inflict it on too many people at once. I’m quite good at auto-tuning software though so I could get you a polished version later 🙂 .

So what’s next for you and what are your hopes for the future?

Having moved to London I’ve signed with a commercial agent to make tv commercials but I’d love to make big budget feature films, like Lord of the Rings or Jurassic Park, something big and impressive.

So what is the definition of a ‘feature film’?

What everyone would consider a film at the Cinema, the bigger the budget the better something with heart, not really Transformers for me as I like films where you care for the people in the movie?

What are you favourite Top movies?

Jurassic Park

Lord of the Rings Trilogy, so many but those are my two favourites.

Did you like the Hobbit?

I didn’t really like the Hobbit, maybe because my friend Billy isn’t in that one. I don’t know, it was ok I thought it lacked a bit of heart. It was a big CGI spectacular but I missed the funny characters. It was good for what it was but it wasn’t what Lord of the Rings was.

I agree with you on the Hobbit.

How many people are normally on your production team?

On the latest couple of short films and adverts its normally about 20 to 25 and I would say it depends on the cast number on top of that and if there are children you need chaperones.

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Have you swapped into other roles or do you stick to the directing?

Not on set but I edit a lot of stuff and work as an editor but I don’t really get involved in sound, lighting on the set.  You can get editing work for experience and earnings whilst you’re waiting for directing opportunities.

What made you decide to get involved in this line of training/work?

It was from my Grandfather who was the Director of the Scottish Film Council and he set up the Glasgow Film Theatre and the Edinburgh Film House, he was the youngest director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, he had a camera and stuff he could give me and he knew a lot of contacts although many of them have passed away now. I think through his knowledge I was exposed to it and I got the bug when I was about 12 getting family to act in home videos for me, you know it went from there.

Do you ever write stories for yourself?

Generally if you’re a Director – you’re a director and you work with writers, my latest short film I wrote myself with my partner Lawrence Smith, we shot it three weeks ago and that’s being edited at the moment, I have a trailer for it you can link to. It’s called ‘A Cold Day in June’. Its set over an hour (the film is twenty minutes long) following a tragic accident where a young girl falls off the end of a pier and drowns and the aftermath of that. There are two sisters, the mother and her sister who is visiting, who suspect the younger son of potentially being involved, the mother worried that her husband who is the boys stepfather will blame the son because it’s not his son and it’s his daughter that has died. So it’s about her in this horrible moment thinking about what to tell her husband.

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Sounds very hard hitting

So are you planning on filming any opera singers one day soon?

I’d absolutely love to collaborate with Charlotte Hoather on her first epic music video.

Ah that would be cool, awesome.

On the top of a hilltop or something.

Definitely this is starting to come together, maybe involve dance as well if it’s going to be epic!

So that’s the dream Charlotte.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress on my Website and Facebook.

Fabulous Michael, thanks so much for this interview I bet your fingers are itching to edit this piece after you read it 🙂 .

Hmmm I best not suggest a Ruselka’s ‘Song to the Moon’ video as he seems to like submerging people waist deep into freezing cold lochs.  I think I’ll re-learn Summertime 🙂  

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