Today marks the first day of December and soon I will begin rehearsals for the Christmas Elf with Northern Opera Group in Leeds. With this in mind I thought I would share with you how I prepare and learn a new role.
After receiving the music I try to read the libretto (sung text) to get an idea of the overall story. This helps me to understand my character’s arc, their basic relationships with others, how people discuss and describe them and their key moments in the production.
If I am working on a piece that is in a different language to my own. I will take time to translate the libretto. This can be quite a time-consuming task. I aim to source/create a word-for-word translation. I often consult Nico Castel’s libretti Series, which can be found in music libraries such as at the Royal College of Music. This series contains a word-for-word translation, a phonetic translation and a poetic translation.
This series often helps speed up the process but I try to cross-reference with a dictionary to make sure I really understand what is being said and how it progresses the action of the story.
For each role, I often have a different time scale as I have to juggle all the projects that I have on the go along with other personal tasks so I try to work out a schedule for my learning. I try to break up the role, so as opposed to one big task I have several smaller goals. I use post-it notes to show different Acts, Scenes, and dialogue. If I am working on an opera by Mozart or Handel I will use different colours to differentiate between Recitatives, Arias, Duets , small ensembles, and Finales. These sections then make the overall task more approachable and easier to schedule.
I will then highlight my text and the music. Whilst I am doing this I create a list of the pieces that I am in, I acknowledge if there are any moments of tricky coloratura and harmonies as I personally make them a priority when scheduling in time for memorising. I always like to learn the first entry at the start and then move on towards the more difficult areas as I like to have a small victory to keep my motivation simmering.
After some careful planning, I will work out when to
schedule singing lessons and coachings, so that I can work on the role with my
teachers who know my long term goals or coaches who have expertise in a particular
language or period of music.
I will then sit down with my score at the piano and note-bash, and learn the melody methodically. Sometimes I create learning tracks that I can use whilst travelling on the tube, or in between singing practise.
Then with my schedule set, I make sure that I keep to it and with my fingers crossed and hope that nothing unforeseen turns up. Once I have the music underway I then have to start work on learning the words. But I will save how I do that for another time 🙂
Saturday 19th October at 19:30 pm, opening night, Sunday 20th October 15:00 pm matinee performance sees the culmination of three weeks of intensive but ever so enjoyable rehearsals for Arcadian Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet. We are in the fabulous Roxburgh Hall Theatre, Stowe School, MK18 5EH a beautiful location mid-way between Banbury off the M40 J10 motorway and Milton Keynes M1 J14. (Tickets)
During the rehearsals, I have learnt so much working under the watchful ears and eyes of Justin Lavender and Alison Marshall and I can’t wait to take to the stage next Saturday to help bring this opera to life.
Some Pictures From One Of Our Rehearsals
The story is such a sad story. I remember as a teenager, about the age of Juliet in the story, traveling to Verona on a family holiday and visiting the site of Juliet’s balcony. At the time I just could not have imagined being in her position, a forbidden love with an impossible decision that brought with it unintended consequences.
The music is so beautiful and, in this production, we will be singing in English accompanied by the Arcadian Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Although current productions of Romeo and Juliet are more often than not updated, the set and costumes designed by Stage Director Ali Marshall, put the action back in the wild and dangerous times of fifteenth-century Italy, when gang warfare was also a fact of life.
James Hutchings (Tybalt) practicing swordplay with William Branston (Romeo)
Justin Lavender, Musical Director
Our Music Director is Justin Lavender, he was originally persuaded by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten to abandon nuclear engineering for music. His international debut was as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles at Sydney Opera House. This success led to engagements with opera companies and orchestras throughout the world at the very highest levels. In 1990 he made debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, singing the leading role of Arnold in Rossini’s spectacular masterpiece, Guillaume Tell, as well as at the Wiener Staatsoper as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte. His debut at La Scala, Milan, in the title role of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory came the following year, along with Demodokos in Dallapiccola’s Ulisse at the Salzburg Festival. (MORE)
Alison Marshall, Artistic Director
Alison Marshall initially trained for five years at the prestigious Tring Park School for the Performing Arts after which she studied for a further three years at the Royal Academy of Dancing. She then became a professional ballet dancer in Germany, rising to be a solo dancer, appearing in many of the favourite classical roles as well as several roles that were created especially for her. While there, ballet roles permitting, she would occasionally sing in the extra-chorus of the opera company resident in the same theatre. (MORE)
I do hope that if some of you are in the area you can come along to watch, I’ve advised my parents and grandparents to bring along their tissues. Yesterday I introduced my old friends and previous neighbours to come to watch the Fire of Olympus opera in York and they really enjoyed it, especially that for their first experience of opera it was sung in English and they could understand everything. So if you’ve never tried opera and always wanted to know what it is like I recommend Romeo and Juliet, a story you probably know, again sung in English. We’d love you to come along and support us. All my best wishes, Charlotte x
One of the great things about working as an opera singer is that I get to collaborate and work alongside so many amazingly creative and artistic people, who like me are passionate about what they do.
Whilst working on The Fire Of Olympus with Radius Opera this year I have had the opportunity to work under the baton of Ellie Slorach, a wonderful conductor who brought the opera’s music to life.
During a break in rehearsals, I asked Ellie if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions so that I could share a little of her insight into the world as a conductor. I hope you enjoy what she had to say.
1 How did
begin training as a Conductor?
I began training aged 18 at University of Manchester because
they had a student conducting program and I auditioned for that and managed to
conduct all of the student music society ensembles in my time there, which was
amazing as the best way to learn is just to do it, with people in front of you,
much better than standing in front of a mirror or alone in your practice room. Then I went on to do my Masters at the Royal
Northern College of Music.
2 So how did you know you wanted to specialise in conducting before you started University?
I didn’t really know I thought it looked fun and I’d done a tiny bit at school with primary aged children, I’d led the rhythm sticks group rehearsals and warm-ups for chamber choirs, it was on my mind to do it as I really enjoyed it. I am naturally a leader so I thought that was a good aspect of it. When I got to University it had a great conducting program so when I auditioned for that at the end of my first year I didn’t look back.
I used to play the piano, the oboe and I sang, playing and
singing in ensembles – Mark Herron and Justin Doyle were my conducting tutors
at the time and they were the heads of choir and orchestra at the time and very
3 Who were
your musical influences?
My teachers at University I mentioned and definitely my teachers from where I studied at High School Anne Boult (Piano) and Jenni Phillips (Oboe) they were real influences on me at the time. I guess the big music world right now, we were really lucky at the RNCM to have Sir Mark Elder who came in to do masterclasses, he is very inspiring.
4 I saw on-line you were involved with New
Adventures can you explain your role in that company?
My role is for the production of Romeo and Juliet, a new production, I was the young associate conductor so I shadow the main conductor on tour to see how he worked with dancers and had little bits and bobs for myself, such as rehearsals, rehearsals with the cover Romeo and Juliet dancers in the different touring locations.
5 Now you are
working with Radius Opera on the Fire of Olympus what would you say are the
major challenges or differences between conducting for contemporary dance and
conducting for opera singers?
I think there are many similarities. For a start you are standing in the pit with the orchestra who can’t see the dancers or singers and you are the messenger. So the music isn’t the only focus of what is going on, it is the whole drama or the whole dance that is going on so the whole of the arts as a collaboration. So I feel that the role is similar in trying my best to accompany what is going on stage and equally, I have my own musical ideas to add to that and the dancers and singers bring their own ideas so I have to respect that too.
The artists also have logistical things such as the singers need to breathe, dancers need to breathe too and sometimes they need longer to take a breath, the logistics are similar but the main difference is that in the opera world the music Director has a say about what the singers are doing and will coach the singers, in the ballet world the music director is not a director and I’m not expected to tell the dancers how to dance. So, in the contemporary and ballet dance world, I’m more accompanying the dancers in a helpful role as a vehicle to help them dance better without coaching them. I can breathe well like a singer and in the opera world, it is more of a coaching role I can feel when a singer needs to take a longer breath. To see if dancers are falling out of turns etc. ballet conductors sit in a studio and watch for weeks and weeks.
6. What is your view on this opera we are doing now,
what challenges did it bring and what do you like about it?
The challenge of a brand new opera is there are no recordings and no-one has ever done it before so the good thing about that is we have some ownership over it as the first people to do it. This Opera is a kind of pastiche of Handel’s operas. So there are stylistic traditions but we’re not quite sure what traditions to keep and what to break. From a musical directors point of view, the music is quite complicated and hard for singers to memorise so I am trying to be as clear as I can with queues and word entries and I have to think about that more than an opera people know such as the Magic Flute.
7. As a conductor how do you bring the story alive through the music?
I’m driven by the drama in Opera, so when the orchestra arrives I have already had the privilege of sitting through the three-week rehearsals so I know what the drama requires from the music. For example where I need to shorten notes because there is a bang on stage or we need to lengthen a note because the singer needs time at that point to express their feelings more slowly and so on. So when the orchestra arrives I have formed my opinion of the drama so I know what needs to be done. The orchestral rehearsals are actually quite practical and become expressive as we build on our understanding of the on-stage action.
8. To finish what is a fun fact about you?
My hobbies aren’t that cool I have very standard hobbies, running and I really enjoy baking. I’ve just started bread making so fresh bread each week is my new thing I love the smell of it. I guess that’s a fun fact to finish on.
This week I traded in my Jane Austen for a dose of William Shakespeare in the guise of a lovely opera composed by Charles Villiers Stanford with the libretto by Julian Sturgis based on the bards play Much Ado About Nothing. Having the opportunity to be a part of this rarely performed little gem has been made possible by David Ward and his production company The Northern Opera Group.
I met up with David when I was last in Leeds and he kindly agreed to an interview which I wanted to share with you. I hope that you find his insights and detailed answers as interesting as I did.
1) Can you tell us about Northern Opera, when did you start, where are you based, what is your mission, goal, and hopes for the future?
We launched Northern Opera Group in 2015, with the aim of
bringing operas outside of the core repertoire to audiences in the North of
England. There is some great opera to be had in the North, however very little
outside of the main operas (Figaro, Boheme, Carmen, etc.). I’ve always been
interested in the further reaches of the repertoire, and having this as our
focus seemed a great way to offer something new to existing audiences, and find
all sorts of repertoire which might appeal to audiences who wouldn’t usually
consider going to the opera house.
Our first production was Menotti’s ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’. We thought we’d see how this first production went before committing to any more, however, we had a great response from participants and audiences so we seemed to be on to something!
Since then, we’ve staged another eight productions and launched our annual Opera Festival, which provides an opportunity for us to bring audiences and artists together for a few days to enjoy varied performances, but also to debate and pick apart opera through a programme of discussions, workshops, and other events.
Alongside our focus on rare repertoire, we’re also committed
to producing both professional and community operas. We firmly believe that the
best way to get new people involved in opera is to enable them to take part,
and we welcome people of all ages and abilities to take part, for free, in our
We’ve grown quite substantially year on year so far, and over the next five years we hope to establish the Festival as a key part of the UK’s annual opera calendar, expand the number of events we’re able to programme, and increase the scale of our community work by bringing together professional and amateur musicians – this will start with our December 2019 production of the delightful festive opera ‘The Christmas Elf’!
2) Why did you choose an opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by Charles Villiers Standford?
I first came across the opera in 2016 when we were looking
for a rare Shakespeare opera to stage as part of the nationwide Shakespeare
400th anniversary celebrations. I was instantly attracted to the work – the
characterisation is so colourful, the vocal writing so attuned to both comedy
and drama, the libretto so craftily weaved from the original play!
Back then we were only able to stage a select number of
scenes with five actors and piano, so the ambition of staging the full work
When planning for our annual Festival, it’s important to
find a headline opera that the whole programme can hang off. I like to have a
theme that brings each Festival together (previous years have been Great
British Opera, and Opera and Asia, for example) and with such an amazing and
broad range of repertoire available around Shakespeare and Opera, there was
always only going to be one opera that I wanted as our headline production!
Now the company has grown considerably since 2016, we’re able to bring the full opera to the stage – with orchestra – and, crucially, we’ve found the right venue which suits the opera perfectly. Morley Town Hall is a resplendent Victorian venue which – rather ashamedly – doesn’t have any existing classical music provision. We love to bring audiences to new and interesting venues, and we’re sure that artists and audiences alike will love discovering Morley Town Hall at the same time as they discover Stanford’s ‘Much Ado’!
3) The original opera was first performed in 1901, the setting Messina, in Sicily. What is the setting of your production?
My approach to directing opera – particularly operas
originally set a long time ago – is always to find settings which resonate with
both the opera and with audiences. Sometimes this means keeping the original
setting, how often for a work to communicate with audiences, and to help bring
out some of the key themes of the opera, restaging the work to a more familiar
setting can help the work speak to a new generation of audiences.
There were some obvious questions to answer as I began preparations for this production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – notably which war is the production centred around, and in which places would we find such a close-knit and hierarchical community? The more I sat with the opera, and the more I thought about times and places that would resonate with audiences, the more I was drawn to the idea of moving the action to 1950’s small-town USA.
Coming out of the Korean War in 1953 was a generation of kids who hadn’t perhaps fought before, but who were brought up on heroic military exploits from World War Two. They were part of an extremely hierarchical society, where the pillars of the community found in ‘Much Ado’ – the Priest, the Chief of Police, the Mayor (Leonato) – rule supreme.
They were of a generation taught to respect their elders, to
fall into clear societal positions, where the man was head of the house, where
Scouts and Little League Baseball kept young boys rooted in the expectations of
maintaining a certain way of life, and certain social structures.
But amongst this inflexible way of life, there are the early rumblings of a cultural revolution emerging. Claudio and Hero may be the archetypal young lovers who are the bastions of rural small-town life, but in Benedick and, in particular, Beatrice we see a new generation emerging. A generation that won’t simply nod along with how society expects them to behave. Beatrice – in my eyes a young Katharine Hepburn – can go toe to toe with the boys, and this contrast between our leading couples of Beatrice/Benedick and Hero/Claudio perfectly exemplifies this emerging clash of cultures.
As much as I would have loved swanky New York 1950’s aesthetic, this idea of small-town USA is central to the opera. The community is extremely tight-knit; everyone knows everyone and, returning from a War when they were simply three of many, Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro return back to the bosom of their town as notable personalities – big fishes in small ponds. There’s also something about the confusion, deception, and hot-headedness of the opera that lends itself to the sweltering South (there’s a reason why Tennesse Williams’ Deep South settings work so well with his characters).
Next week I will bring you part two of the interview in which we discuss some of the characters in the opera and you can read David’s thoughts about attracting new audiences to the world of opera.
I can’t believe how quickly the years have passed since I started my studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow. Keeping my blog and sharing my experiences has been a great way for me to look back and reflect, allowing me to set new targets and goals for the years ahead. To celebrate this, my sixth anniversary, I thought that I would select several posts at random from the last six years and share their links with you. I hope you enjoy them, maybe you have other posts that you remember, let me know.
What an enjoyable week I’ve spent at the Veronica Dunne International Singing competition in Dublin, Ireland. I sang alongside my peers, met the most lovely generous couple, Susan and Glen, who hosted me and a fellow soprano Claire Lees from London, and I’m hoping to stay friends with them both for a long time to come.
“Inaugurated in 1995, the Competition was created to honour the lifetime’s work of Dr. Veronica Dunne, Ireland’s Grande Dame of singing. Ireland is known throughout the world as a land of song, and in the classical and operatic field, this is in no small measure due to the unique and dedicated teaching of Dr. Dunne.”
Dr. Veronica Dunne – Photo By Frances Marshall
To get to this stage I submitted an application with videos to get through to a live audition at one of six City locations throughout Europe and the US. 160 singers were selected from 35 Countries for live audition my location was The Wigmore Hall in London, which was a treat in itself. I was thrilled to get selected as one of the 50 competitors that got through to the live preliminary round of the competition in Dublin on Friday/Saturday, and even more so to get through to the 21 singers selected for the quarter-final on Sunday especially as I had sat in the audience and listened to the most excellent singing.
Sadly the quarter-final is where my adventure ended, I was hoping to give you all good news on Sunday evening but I discovered the result at twenty past nine Sunday evening and didn’t have time to put this post together, and you know what I’m like I was optimistic of getting through to the Semi-finals. It was fun though and a great experience plus my first ever visit to Ireland!
Wigmore Hall, London
The Natioanl Concert Hall
Inside The NCH
Each round was held at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and was open to the public. It was a great honour to sing for such a prestigious jury: Jane Carty; Richard Bonynge AC CBE; Orla Boylan; Peter Carwell; John Gilhooly; Olga Kapanina; Andreas Massow and Evamaria Wieser read more about them here.
I’m going today for my personal feedback which is a bit nerve-wracking but on the bright side I get to hear from this star-studded jury what I need to improve on to give me a better chance in future competitions and auditions.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of singing, with George Todica on piano, for my brother Matthew’s fairytale wedding to his long-term partner Alexander in Peckforton Castle in the Cheshire countryside. This amazing venue was such a romantic location for a perfect day. I was also a Groomsmaid so after singing I had a quick dash to the back of the great hall to join the procession. When we were choosing wedding songs to celebrate the marriage service they had to be none religious as it was a civil ceremony so we selected songs about love and commitment it was very emotional especially when I was singing as they signed the register.
Inside the Great Hall at Peckforton Castle
George played Widmung as the sun streamed through the stained glass windows as we walked down the aisle in the Great Hall on a stunning candlelit and autumnal coloured rose petal strewn white carpet, Matt and Alex had chosen clear glass columns with white petal trees strung with candles in little balls it just caught my breath.
It really was an absolutely beautiful service with gorgeous promised vows to each other, there was just an amazing vibration to the day with six of Matt and Alex’s fabulous girl friends and me as groomsmaids and four groomsmen including my younger brother Thomas who did a reading with Alex’s brother Josef.
I’m just so happy to have a new kind, caring and talented brother in the family.
There are some people who pop into my life just at the right time, and Russell Lomas was one of these people. In 2012 I entered a biennial interdisciplinary music competition held at Arley Hall, Northwich – The Warrington Competition For Young Musicians. Just before the competition, I had sadly broken my fifth metatarsal in my right foot and I was in a walking boot and crutches. My Dad parked in the wrong car park, 800 yards away, because we didn’t know the venue (learned a lesson from this and always try to check parking and travel arrangements in advance now). I was hobbling along a path in what I hoped was the right direction when a very lovely but bemused man came running over to me and shouted wait here and I’ll get my car. This was the first time I met Russell, and his generosity of spirit never changed the whole time that I knew him. Later I found out that Russell was the accompanist for the competition, he played for me in the vocal heat, which I won, and again in the grand final.
Russell, Me and Colin Blamey – Lytham St Annes 2013
He must have enjoyed those first encounters as he offered me the opportunity to perform with him in several recitals over the years that followed. Giving me so much good advice, too much to list, but lessons that I will take with me into my future career, and which I have stood by during my training as we kept in touch even when I moved Glasgow and then later to London.
I have plenty of happy memories singing alongside him, he always used to know where the best cafes were at every venue and taught me to always bring a packed lunch just in case! This advice has helped me save money when on tour, and if you’ve followed my career so far, you’ll know I’ve needed this tip. And if you’ve worked with me, this will explain why you’ve seen me always pack a lunch and dinner.
Elloitt Gresty, Me and Russel Loams – Rochdale 2013
Me, Elizabeth Lawton and Russel Lomas – Preston 2014
One of my favourite stories about performing with Russell, was when we performed at a charity event for YouthPositive in Manchester at the Etihad Stadium, which is Manchester City’s home ground. Russell, however, was a very big Manchester United fan and gave me a cheeky smile when we arrived for our warm-up session, as he lifted the leg of his trousers, proudly displaying his Manchester United socks, which were still tasteful and black. But both he and I knew that he had stayed loyal to his club, and this still makes me giggle to today.
Russell With Me At The Etihad Stadium – 2013
Me and Russell -Chief Constable’s Charity Ball July 2015
The last time we performed together was in April 2016 at Walton Hall, in a concert for past winners of the Warrington Competition for Young Musicians. It was a wonderful evening performing with Russell alongside some amazing instrumentalists.
Me with Russell at Walton Hall – 2016
I’m so pleased that I was able to tell him about my graduation and success at the Pendine International Voice of the Future competition at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, he was so pleased and proud of me. It was shortly after that I heard the sad news of his passing and I will miss him immensely.
Here is a video of us performing together in Preston 2014. The song is A Piper by Michael Head
To help celebrate International Women’s Day the Royal Academy of Arts approached the Royal College of music to suggest a collaborative performance entitled “In Tune with Feminist Futures” inspired by revered female artists, including Royal Academicians Gillian Wearing, Sonia Boyce, and Phyllida Barlow.
This was an ideal opportunity for me and my friends on the Women In Music module to perform some of the pieces that we have researched and prepared for our recital lectures on the 8th March.
It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to work with accompanist Leanne Singh-Levett who has helped me to shape my songs, one of which is quite a difficult and quirky contemporary piece by Kaija Saariaho called “Il Pleut”. Leanne will also be accompanying my friends Katy Thomson and Esme Hurlburt with their contributions to the evening.
There will also be performances by the Maconchy Quartet, Maren Bosma violin, Eloise MacDonald violin, Joanna Patrick viola, and Lily Hope cello.
The programme for the evening will consist of:
Lisa J Burgess Clouds Judith Weir Lady Isobel and the Elf-Knight N Boulanger Soir d’hiver A Mahler Fünf Lieder: In meines Vaters Garden; Laue Sommernacht Maconchy Allegro feroce from String Quartet no 1 Beach Take, O, Take Those Lips Away Beach The Year’s at the Spring
The recital is to be held in The Reynolds Room, Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly and starts at 6:30 pm. So if you are in London on the 9th March and want to come along and join us you can get tickets from the Royal Academy of Arts website.
On Thursday I had the opportunity of going to see ‘Hamilton’ at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. I went with my brother and his friends to the Matinee viewing at 14:30. It was exciting as I was a jump-in for the ticket, so I didn’t know much about the show other than it had been well received in the media.
This musical theatre show is about one of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, whose drive and ambition lead him to become an American war hero and George Washington’s right-hand man. It was quite an empowering story to watch because it demonstrated what successes can be achieved if you keep working hard and persevere. However, the show also demonstrates the personal costs that this lifestyle can incur. The Hip-Hop musical highlights explain that he was born out of wedlock, then orphaned as a child, and despite these challenges sought higher education when he was in New York beginning to make his connections to the American Revolutionary War.
As a student of Opera, I was keen to see what parallels there were in this piece, especially because it attracted such a large audience, I wanted to see what I could take from the production and apply myself to my own work or future collaborations with composers and producers. It was interesting to see that the story was told mainly through rap, instead of spoken dialogue and then further developed through songs, duets and ensemble pieces. This is very similar to the common structure of opera. Instead of the rap, Opera uses recitative, semi-sung music that allows the progression of the story. The songs could be directly compared to arias because they were sung by a soloist, they enhanced the narrative by focusing on the key emotions felt by the character at that moment in the story. Creating empathy between the audience and the players. I would be very interested to hear from people whether this kind of musical storytelling is easier to connect with than opera? Is it because there is a more modern beat and rhythm behind the rap. (If you are interested you can access the album on Spotify)
I was very impressed by the high energy level of the performers and their ability to rap, sing and some of them dance. It was also brilliant to see a truly diverse and talented cast.