De-fringing the ginge

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Here’s a practical way you can get involved with my mop-crop to raise money for Macmillan Cancer:

I am inviting six of you brilliant tweeters to come to a central London location next Thursday, 24th July, not just to witness me lopping off my locks but to actually get involved in the shearing yourself, without losing a single strand off your own bonce!

Supervised by a member of ROH’s wig department, I will invite you to come up and shave a section of my head. It’ll be on a first come, first served basis, as there’s only so much area available!

To get involved on the day, all you have to do is make a donation (of any size whatsoever) at https://www.shaveorstyle.org.uk/shavers/liz-franklin-kitchen/ – then send me a note on Twitter @lfkmeister, and early next week I will select six guests, entirely at random, to join me on the day.

A heartfelt and enormous thank you to everyone who has already donated. Of course, you can be in the draw too, if you just drop me a note on Twitter.

Looking forward to seeing you next week!

Hair today…

There are times when we feel like doing something a little bit crazy, just to feel alive, or at least, a little bit important.

In the past, whenever I’ve wanted to raise a lot of money very quickly for a worthy cause, the best way I’ve known how is to organise a team of crack musicians and put on a concert. I’m involved with a number of charities, but one that I’ve neglected a bit lately is Macmillan Cancer, and I’d thought that maybe it was time to stretch my secretarial muscles again. But then, a few days ago, I was on the tube and I saw an advert entitled “Shave or Style”, encouraging people to don a fabulous new “do”, or indeed, shave the lot off.

I figured it’s not really practicable to put on a concert at the moment (season ending, people going away), and so I’ve made the almost unbearably uncomfortable decision to go for the Big Shave, in honour, memory and support of all those people who don’t have that luxury of choice.

My hair is a large part of my identity, and I’ve always been proud of my ginger locks, so it’s going to be an uneasy time while I wait for it to grow back.

Please take a moment to click on the link here, and consider making a donation. Thank you very much indeed in advance xxx

https://www.shaveorstyle.org.uk/shavers/liz-franklin-kitchen/

Aside

Big-boned and thick-skinned

When Irish mezzo Tara Erraught was hauled unceremoniously over the coals by critics for her physicality while performing the role of Octavian at Glyndebourne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, it baffled and angered hundreds of opera singers and fans. What on earth does your body size have to do with how well you can sing?

As a teenager, I, along with countless dozens of others, memorised the words to all the New Kids on the Block’s singles, and yes, I desired (but never got) a device for making my hair look like crinkle-cut chips (I would borrow my friends’). But I soon began to observe a phenomenon among my female classmates: they were becoming obsessed with how they looked. They would huddle in groups and read the fashion mags and long to look like Kylie, Demi and Nicole, and they’d go to great culinary and chemical lengths to try to achieve a similar level of whatever it was. Their levels of self-esteem seemed to correspond with their ability to look like someone else.

I thought it was all rather odd; these girls were making themselves miserable because they lacked the resources, both financial and genetic, to make themselves look like their idols. It dawned on me that, along with the advice my parents would give when being bullied for being ginger, if you ignore it, it might just go away.

So I ignored it, and went off to choir practice.

But it didn’t go away.

Over twenty years later, and I’m saddened to see articles that STILL try to tell us women how we should look in order to be attractive. Magazines that STILL reveal the “circle of shame” of some celebrity’s cellulite (heaven forfend); the comedian Sarah Millican having abuse thrown at her for recently wearing a dress to the BAFTAs that she liked and felt good in, and countless other citations. Who ARE these people? Does it make them feel better about themselves to hurl abusive comments around?

I’m fat. I’m 5’8″ and a size 18. I’m not expected to fit in society’s version of what hot. I sometimes wear cut-off leggings under a summer dress because my thighs rub when I walk. I sweat when the temperature goes above 21 degrees. But wait. What’s this? I’m voluptuous. I’m womanly. I AM hot. My boyfriend can’t get enough of me.

More importantly, I work in an industry that celebrates the most natural thing a person can possess: the human voice. The voice, whether it’s in pop, rock, jazz or opera, can enhance and transcend the five senses we use to observe the world around us. It transforms, heals, comforts and uplifts us far beyond the ability to squeeze into a dress better suited to a slightly tall child.

There are more than enough industries set up around the world to make women feel bad about themselves. We don’t need it in the classical music world too, thank you very much.

So, critics, if you really MUST criticise us (and goodness knows why you should even do that in the first place), then please take the time to learn what it takes to hone our craft. Understand that the training we do is sadly not on offer at Virgin Active. If it’s the case that you simply don’t like the sound we make, just say you don’t like the sound we make. That’s entirely valid. But don’t make sexist and puerile remarks about our figures; at best, it’s childish, and at worst (for you), it dilutes the currency of everything else you have to say.

PING! Ooh, there’s the microwave.

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Unexpected La Monnaie debut TONIGHT!

Very excited to announce that I am making my La Monnaie debut tonight in the title role of Lucrezia Borgia. As I write, I’m hurtling through the French countryside towards Brussels on the Eurostar, having receive a phone call about four hours ago. I’ll write more when I’ve finished listening to Joan’s awesome recording. Until then, here’s the press release from my agent: http://www.intermusica.co.uk/news/03-13/meister

No voices were harmed in the making of this production

It’s eighteen months since I left the ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, and the learning curve that started back in 2009 is certainly still, well, curving.  With each new production I’m involved in, new lessons are learned and new observations made.  I suppose the biggest thing I’ve learned, which can ONLY be learned “on the job”, is how to preserve the voice during gruelling rehearsal periods, sometimes in less-than-ideal climates.

Having come somewhat later to this profession than some of my colleagues, I missed out on opportunities to learn these vital lessons in college – I hadn’t embarked on an opera course until I came to the JPYAP in 2009, and so making the transition from chain-smoking, beer-swilling chorister to fledgling international artist meant some radical changes in life-style had to be made (I quit smoking in 2004 – still working on the beer thing).

But I digress.

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Thirsty work

My first role after leaving the Programme was the title role in Aïda at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago de Chile – the excited echoes of “Baptism by Fire” still resound in my ears.  Being in the “second” cast, my schedule was less demanding than some of my “first” cast colleagues, and so I was able to pace myself quite comfortably during the rehearsal process.  I only had three performances in this role but, given that they were over just five days, I knew I had to be careful not to celebrate too much after my opening night – while an ice-cold cerveza might be exactly what you think you need after an international debut, your throat, and your Intendant, won’t necessarily respect you in the morning.

What I hadn’t experienced much during my time at ROH was the dehydrating effect of adrenalin on the vocal cords.  Added to which, Santiago is well-known for being one of the most polluted cities in the world, so with these factors working against me, plus my relative inexperience, I certainly felt the pressure on my two subsequent performances.

I discovered a similar dehydration problem when I arrived, the day after my final Santiago performance, in Chicago, where I was to cover the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos and sing Erste Dame in Die Zauberflöte.  These two roles, even when combined, aren’t as vocally demanding as Aïda, but still a great deal of care has to be taken when you’re singing in a dryer atmosphere than you’re accustomed to.

Lesson 1: hydration, hydration, hydration.  Use a humidifier and/or a nebuliser wherever you go.  Go to www.humidiflyer.com  and http://evergreen-nebulizers.co.uk/omron/microairu22.html?gclid=CPCu06SPjLUCFeTMtAodmF8ASg to check out a couple of fantastic travel accessories. A bottle of water must become your best friend.  And don’t worry about the weird looks you’ll get from your fellow passengers – you’ve been getting those since school.  Isn’t that why you do this job?

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Use well the interval

Several weeks after returning to Blighty, and after some very relaxing down-time, I set about organizing my personal schedule for the next few months.  It was going to be an easy-ish time for me: it was now March 2012, and I had a return trip to Santiago planned for my debut in the role of Tannhäuser’s Elisabeth in the July/August.  I knew that, upon my return I would be straight into rehearsals for ROH’s Der Ring des Nibelung, where I was singing a Valkyrie, a Norn, and covering Sieglinde, so I knew I needed to have those roles under my belt by the time I left for Santiago in July.  But it was fine, I thought, it’s March.  Four months.  PLENTY of time.

Then the phone rang.  Santiago calling.  They’d just lost their Lucrezia Borgia to a back injury and could I come to sing the role?  Rehearsals start in seven weeks.

Suddenly my diary transmogrified from a calm sea of tranquility to “Houston, we have a problem”.  Seven weeks till Lucrezia begins, six weeks on production in Santiago, two weeks return to England before a quick turn around back to Santiago for Tannhäuser and then the ROH Ring.  Seven weeks to learn three large roles and two small ones.

Long story short…

Lesson 2: There’s no such thing as “down time”.  Of course, give yourself adequate time to recover from jet-lag, etc, but get straight back into learning your next role.  And the one after that.  (If you don’t have a “next role” in the diary, how awesome – you get to pick your dream role and learn THAT!  www.imslp.com is an invaluable resource for finding scores on the go and, if you have an iPad, I recommend you download ForScore, so you can store, and mark up, your scores.)  You just never know when your free time can be snatched away from you.  (Of course, you can choose not to accept the jump-ins, but if you’re an adrenalin junkie like me, that’s not really an option.)

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Nota bene

So, with all of that out of the way, I entered the second year of my career.  It was now August 2012, and I felt like I was returning home triumphant, with four new roles under my belt, a few thousand air-miles collected and some valuable lessons learned.  Time to get my teeth into some serious Wagner.  And what a luxury: here I am, singing on stage with some of my all-time heroes: Tony Pappano, Bryn Terfel, Sir John Tomlinson, Susan Bullock, Sarah Connolly, Eva Maria Westbroek, Simon O’Neill, Keith Warner, and so many others too many to mention.  Suddenly I felt like I was back on the JPYAP – I get to study these stage giants, see how they interact with one another, how they use their bodies and their vocal techniques to express themselves.  I also learned a great deal from being a Valkyrie; being one of several sisters, running about with horse-skulls, Hojotohoing like there’s no tomorrow, it almost felt like I was back in chorus with the camaraderie and the private jokes.  What I really loved here was the chance to really get to know my peers – people say there’s so much rivalry and competition among singers, and you might think this would certainly be the case among eight women setting out on similar journeys.  But I found this very much NOT to be the case.  We swapped stories of our lives, learned about ourselves and our worries and, best of all, we became a support system for one another.  As Keith Warner said to me one day in the canteen, “The best thing about doing a Ring Cycle is how everyone comes together and becomes a family – you don’t get that in any other opera as much as you do with The Ring.”

Lesson 3: You never stop learning.  Take notes from your colleagues – ALL of them.  Find out what their warm-up techniques are.  Ask them how THEY cope with the stresses of the job, and how they look after their voices.  Almost all singers LOVE to talk about this stuff.  Read Joyce DiDonato’s blog: http://www.joycedidonato.com/blog-archive/

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Pace.  Pace.  My God!

And so, on to The Minotaur.  Oh, The Minotaur.  Ker: the shortest role of my career, and possibly the most challenging one. The role of the Ker is a very violent and physical one (likened by my colleagues to “Turandot condensed.  With PMT.  And on uppers”) … The tears, the swearwords, the voice-shredding coaching sessions that went into learning that role.  Oh yes, THIS one goes to 11.

In my first scene I have to throw myself against a couple of walls, leaping about wildly with a giant wing attached to my left arm (being very careful not to smash it into the faces of the sleeping Christine Rice and Sir John Tomlinson – apparently, that’s not allowed), before tugging fiercely at the arm of the First Innocent (the marvellous JPYA Susana Gaspar), sprawled on the floor post-rape, whose heart I’m about to rip out and devour.  All of this while trying to remember all the nuances of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s complex score, and the notes he’d given me the night before (“Don’t forget, those semi-quaver triplets are supposed to be staccato, you know, like they do in all that bel canto repertoire.” “What, in the bit where I’m shaking Susana to pieces?  Ok, Harry, I’ll do my best.”).

I had decided in the very early stages of the rehearsals that the only way I was going to get through the next few weeks without losing my voice (and marbles) was to mark very gently while I learned the staging.  After the first couple of run-throughs, once I’d got a decent grip on the blocking, I thought I’d sing out, just once, at full volume, with the intention of returning to marking for the rest of the rehearsal period.  But I quickly discovered that the energy required to sing this role had quite an impact on the physicality I had brought to the role – I found myself terribly out of breath and pouring with sweat from the effort.  I realised that, by marking, I had been compromising too much, and so I knew I would have to sing full out for the rest of the rehearsal period, in order for my body to recalibrate to the demands of the role.

Singing a role like this requires special attention.  You have to be able to deliver these immensely complex musical rhythms and intervals, often leaping up 7ths and down 10ths, with the same accuracy and care as you would when singing Era Desso or Ritorna Vincitor.  You can’t simply scream a high C and then slam a middle E in full, growly chest voice (that’s what you might want the audience to think you’ve done, but if you ACTUALLY do that, you may as well have smoked 40 B&H). You have to figure out what your body is physically capable of doing while giving your vocal mechanism the space and care it needs to do its thing.

My approach here was to do exactly the same sort of warm-ups as I would for any other role; start quietly in the middle of the voice, and very slowly and with as much legato as possible, warm up either sides of the middle, until the whole range is warmed up.  Since I’m lucky enough to have a strong top to my voice, I pay more attention to the middle and lower registers during warm-ups.  Then, calmly, I hum (or, to be more specific, I “ng”) through my whole role, at pitch, sliding carefully between each interval.  This helps me to connect the different registers of the voice so that I can sing the role as a flowing piece of music, rather than what might seem like a hailstorm of complicated intervals.

And in between rehearsals and performances?  Lots of water, lots of sleep, and no booze.  Ok.  A little booze.  A girl’s gotta live.

Lesson 4: Learn what your physical and emotional limits are – by going right up to and beyond those limits, and then dialling back.  That can only come with preparation, practice, and experience.  And warm up properly.

That’s it for now – I’m off to drink a glass of water, learn an aria, read Joyce’s latest blog, and figure out how to sing Gloriana, upside-down, in a corset.

Two weeks of touring: part 2

…So, after a nice, comfortable, though largely sleepless night’s journey from Dubai to Washington, Jen and I transferred, not entirely seamlessly (it took two hours to get from one plane, through security, find our luggage and re-check it, then go through further security) to Raleigh, North Carolina arriving, luggage-less at around lunch-time.

Not knowing whether our luggage would turn up in time for the concert I had a quick shower, a spot of lunch, and went off in search of an emergency replacement dress.  I was directed by the hotel’s concierge to a boutique a couple of blocks away entitled Fine Feathers – I highly recommend that, if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods, you pop in and meet the very friendly and knowledgable staff there.  I must admit I was hesitant at first, as for a minute or two all I could see looked as if it had come direct from Alexis Colby’s wardrobe.  Within moments, though, I explained my situation to the assistant, and she rushed off to find me a stunning black two-piece gown.  I almost hoped that my luggage WOULDN’T arrive, so that I could buy it anyway.

Long story short: the luggage arrived in time.  I bought the dress.

The following day (I believe it was a Wednesday, but don’t hold me to it), the choir, orchestra and soloists gathered in the Memorial Hall to rehearse our one concert there, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  It was a good-sized room; I was told many artists perform here as a warm-up to performing at Carnegie Hall (where, indeed, we were performing next).  The acoustics were friendly, if slightly judgemental, as if meeting one’s prospective in-laws for the first time.  They decided we were worthy, however, and allowed us to perform a thrilling first concert, grabbing the audience to its feet the instant the last bar was played out.  John Eliot had expertly wrung every last drop of music from the score, adhering to every marking and gently asserting his own here and there.  It was a performance like I’d never heard before.  As the soprano soloist, I had less music to perform than anybody else on the stage, and so I had the privilege of one of the best seats in the house: right in the centre of it all, sandwiched between choir and orchestra, where I could hear every part, every instrument striking, plucking, blowing and singing what Beethoven himself could only imagine in his tinnitus-filled head.

The post-concert celebrations ranged from moderate to outrageous (I can only assume the latter happened, being in the former category), though all seemed well as we checked out of the hotel the following morning to fly to JFK.

I should mention that it is a tremendous feat of organisation to get over 100 musicians and instruments shepherded across the US – we were split into at least five different groups and with only a couple of people in charge of ferrying us around I must take my hat off to Sophie and Jan for organising us so well while actually appearing to be doing very little.  If you’ve ever been in a pub with a group of musicians and they decide to go for a curry, the organisation required to get them all into the same place can be like trying to staple jelly to the ceiling.

And so to Carnegie Hall.

What an experience that was – I’d never set foot inside this iconic place before and had no idea what to expect.  It was summed up in one word by bass soloist Matthew Rose who, after singing his opening words in the 9th Symphony, “O Freunde…” stopped to listen to the acoustic and uttered an incredulous, “Wow!”.  If North Carolina was the inquisitive in-law, Carnegie was the Bloomingdale’s assistant, showing how radiant you looked in your new Ralph Lauren, before offering you a glass of Champagne.

The concert that evening was even better than Memorial Hall – often, when giving repeat performances, the second night can be tricky; it’s hard to re-establish the electricity of excitement, the nerves and the thrill of the opening night.  But John Eliot had planned this well: he knew that we would rise to the occasion because, for goodness’ sake, it was Carnegie Hall!  It felt like Memorial Hall had been our dress rehearsal.  Once again, the choir and orchestra rocked and rolled, and filled the hall with incredible precision and bite.  I even let out an involuntary giggle of joy as the tenor soloist, American Michael Spyres, sang his aria with all the gusto of a young Nemorino – we loved him.

Our second concert, the following evening was, for me, the climax of the tour.  Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.  The choir and orchestra, along with two of our soloists (Jen and Matthew) had spent the previous weeks touring round Europe performing this piece.  I had only encountered it once before, in fact, at the beginning of their tour, when I’d stepped in at a couple of days’ notice to replace an ailing Lucy Crowe (she would have been doing this tour too were it not for the fact she was singing up the road at the Met).  Although I had initially felt less well acquainted with the piece than the others, John Eliot’s thorough rehearsals meant that I was practically off-book for most of the performance.  This helped greatly, considering the concert was being broadcast live on WQXR (there’s a link at the bottom if you’d like to listen-again).

Once again, John Eliot was on fine perform, wrestling every nuance out of Beethoven’s difficult score.  The visceral nature of the period instruments gave an extra thrill to the sound, the battle-calls of the drums and trumpets in the Agnus Dei, the soaring beauty of the solo violin in the Benedictus, were matched superbly with the relatively sparse forces of the choir (just 26 voices, though each one immensely well-trained, and most of whom are soloists in their own right).  There were many wonderful moments in this concert, far too many to mention here – have a listen for yourself.

The following day, we packed up once more and headed right the way across the US to California.  The weather was stunning, a cheerful 23-24C.  The one piece of information that we were given here was that our hotel stood not just next to the hall in which we would be performing, but across the street from the world’s largest shopping mall.  And there was a sale on.  Oh dear.

A number of dresses and lots of jewellery later, we turned up at Segerstrom Hall to see where our brief tour was to end.  To echo Matthew’s sentiment a few days earlier, “Wow!”  The hall was even larger than Carnegie, with an enticing acoustic to match – this was the one that took you to lunch and gazed flirtatiously into your eyes, making you wonder what might happen next.  Something about the hall looked rather familiar to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, till the artistic administrator, Jeff Mistri, pointed out that it was designed by the same feller who designed Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.  A-ha.

In a reverse of programming, our first concert here was our second, and last, Missa Solemnis followed the next night by our third and final 9th Symphony.  The once-tricky score felt completely easy now, and the music flew off our pages into the auditorium, causing one lone audience member to cry out, “Oh, THANK you!” a nano-second or two before the rest of the audience burst forth with cries of “Bravo”.

It was this “Oh, THANK you!” that resonated with us all afterwards – we laughed about it at first, but I think many of us took away with us that sense that what we had achieved here was something really very special.  The hundred or so of us on that platform are pretty experienced performers, and I’m sure many will agree with me that we’ve given countless concerts in the past that perhaps haven’t meant quite so much to us as these past few.  Often, and especially in the UK where there isn’t enough funding to rehearse anything much more than perfunctorily, and usually only on the day of the concert.  Here, we had been able to get right inside the music and explore its secrets – this was a long-term relationship, not just a quick fumble in a night-club.  It’s one I hope I will never forget.  I, for one, am grateful to every single person responsible for making this tour happen.  To my soloist colleagues Jen, Michael and Matt, to the choir and orchestra, to John Eliot, to the tour managers and all those in the theatres and halls, I say a heartfelt, “Oh, THANK you!”.

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You can listen to the live broadcast from Carnegie Hall here:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/programs/carnegie/2012/nov/17/?utm_source=local&utm_media=treatment&utm_campaign=daMost&utm_content=damostviewed

Two weeks of touring: part 1

 
ImageI returned last week from a gruelling, mentally and physically taxing, but greatly rewarding two weeks away: on Saturday November 10th I rounded off three days of rehearsals with Sir John Eliot Gardner, with an open rehearsal of Beethoven’s Symphony 9 and Missa Solemnis, with the winners of last year’s World’s Best Choir, The Monteverdi Choir, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique.  We were about to embark on a ten-day tour to the States with these two pieces, and this was our final rehearsal.  But rather than have a couple of days free to pack and generally prepare, I flew out to Dubai on the Saturday evening in order to give a recital of arias and songs with, by huge coincidence, the mezzo soloist from these Beethoven concerts, Jennifer Johnston.  However, she didn’t fly out with me, as she had planned to travel back to Manchester on the Saturday night in order to kiss her four year old daughter and her husband goodbye.  She was to fly out the following morning, and so I travelled with our pianist, Alisdair Hogarth (he of The Prince Consort fame).
 
Dubai is a strange old place – if you haven’t been there, you haven’t missed much – it was one of the coldest days of the year there, at 31C (it gets up to 50C in summer, OUCH), but most of the daily life there is spent indoors, travelling from your air-conditioned car in the garage to the air-conditioned, underground car-park, to the air-conditioned office or, in my case, the air-conditioned airport to the air-conditioned hotel, attached to the air-conditioned, giant shopping mall which contained the air-conditioned theatre where our recital was to take place.
 
Did I mention the place was air-conditioned?  It’s not great for the voice, but then, neither is being exposed to such outdoor heat, so it was a case of better the devil you know, than the one who’ll scorch your skin off.  One trick I used to help with the dry air conditions was to soak several bath towels and hang them up all over the hotel room, while leaving the shower on at full heat to get some steam going (the latter also helped to get the creases out of my concert dress).  
 
As I mentioned earlier, the hotel we stayed in was attached to an enormous shopping mall – it would have been great to have an extra free day to mooch around (this typically soprano-styled blood-lust would be sated in a couple of weeks, more on that later), but by the time we’d arrived and adjusted to the new time zone, it was late Sunday evening, and our recital was the following day.  Al and I went over to visit a composer friend of mine who lives in Dubai (in fact, she had been the brains behind our visit) and spent a gorgeous, balmy evening sipping wine in her garden.  Even at 9pm the temperature was still around 23C, though Jo mentioned that, on a couple of days a year it does get cool enough that you might consider wearing a cardi at night…
 
So, Monday arrived, and so did Jen.  The three of us had a somewhat bleary-eyed breakfast in the hotel before travelling back to Jo’s house to embark on a three-hour rehearsal.  Jen was on tremendous form, knocking out Wagner, Verdi and Britten at what felt like 8am.  Al had already done several hours’ practice the day before, and was so completely on top of the repertoire that we hardly ever needed to stop and go over things (I love working with such talented people, it makes my job so easy).
 
That afternoon, we arrived at the theatre to check out the acoustics (pretty dry, 500-seater auditorium) and to top-and-tail things for the evening.  At that point, another friend of mine, a trumpeter ex-pat, arrived and took me for a whistle-stop tour of the city centre and a quick beer, before dropping me back at the hotel so I could prepare for the concert.
 
The concert that evening was terrific – an almost sold-out theatre, mostly filled with ex-pats, meant that the three of us could take the time to chat with the audience and explain the scenes, arias and songs we were performing.  It was a huge success, though there was no time to stay and celebrate, as Jen and I had to get straight to the airport for our 1am flight to the States…….
 
 
 

I’m replacing Eva-Maria Westbroek for Royal Opera House’s World Gala

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I’m thrilled to announce that I’m to replace Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek for the Royal Opera House’s Extraordinary World Gala on Tuesday 30 October.

The Extraordinary World Gala is given in celebration of HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and features artists from both The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet.

I will be performing the soprano solo in The Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana.

As you might imagine, I’m very excited about this opportunity!

Feel the fear and do it anyway

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I’ve been reading lots of people’s Facebook statuses and having conversations with friends and colleagues about this topic quite a bit lately.  A huge number of us experience prolonged periods of self-doubt and anxiety when it comes to facing the advancement of our careers.  It usually creeps up when we’re about to go for an audition, or a performance, or even just updating our CVs and websites.

The very thought that you might stick your head above the parapet and be judged by a panel of experts – or an audience of Auntie Jean and Uncle Ken – can send the mind into a flurry of confusion, often resulting in sweaty palms, palpitations, and all manner of other anxiety-related symptoms.

It’s a fear that almost never goes away – I’ve spoken to dozens of singers at various stages in their careers, from those still in college to those with more than twenty years’ experience, and it’s same everywhere.  So, what causes it?

At this point I should say that I don’t have the answer – if I did I’d be a very wealthy person and wouldn’t have time to dedicate to my own anxieties, but I have a few thoughts, based on my own experiences and upbringing.

As a teenager, I wouldn’t say that I was lonely, but I was rather solitary in school – I didn’t have many friends, and spent a great deal of time hiding away in the music department.  While the other girls were learning how to kiss and put on make-up, I was playing various different instruments in brass bands, wind bands and orchestras.  I wasn’t very good at interacting with my peers at school because I had no idea who A-ha were, had no interest in Scott and Charlene’s relationship and was never going to be picked for any sports team.

Such was my lack of confidence in my abilities outside of music that I didn’t even want to TRY to fit in, for fear of being laughed at and rejected.  It’s safe to say that school was not a highlight of my life – I left with a small handful of GCSEs and a couple of A-levels, but I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I knew it would be music-related, but I wasn’t really prepared to work terribly hard, because I “knew” I would only be turned down.

It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Some ten years later and after countless “Thanks but no thanks” letters from music colleges, job interviews and opera companies, it’s no wonder my confidence was shot.  Added to which, in 2002, I underwent surgery on an eye which had been badly damaged in a childhood accident.  I had to wear an eye-patch for several months – the resulting self-consciousness made it even more difficult for me to find the courage to try for a stage career.  Eventually however, I found the balls to audition for a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; after a year of which I spent a few years getting chorus work with Glyndebourne, English Touring Opera and Welsh National Opera.  These years were still difficult for me though because, much as I loved the music I was singing and the colleagues I was singing with, I really wanted to be up at the front of the stage.  But I still lacked the confidence to take it further – more than that, I had this overwhelming fear that “people” might think I was ridiculous to think that I might be good enough to try.  But this was all in my head – nobody had ACTUALLY said anything like that to me, it was my own paranoia.

A crucial turning point for me was in the middle of 2007 when I was singing as an extra chorus member with WNO: that’s when I first heard about Dennis O’Neill’s vocal academy in Cardiff (then the Cardiff International Academy of Voice, now the Wales International Academy of Voice).  I applied and was granted an audition, but, on the day of the audition, I began to doubt myself again.  I’d tried to warm up at home before going, but the warm-up had been really bad.  My confidence was long-gone and I thought to myself, “What the hell are you doing?  Who do you think you are?  You really think you can maintain a solo career?  What experience do you have?  NONE!  You’re ridiculous!”

I was about to pick up the phone to call CIAV to say I wasn’t coming.  But then a thought struck me – if I didn’t go to the audition, then the answer would be a DEFINITE “no”.  If I went, then it would only PROBABLY be a “no”.  I figured, what the hell, and went.

Dennis heard me, and offered me a place on the spot.  Who knew?!

Following an amazing year of discovery (both vocally and personally, as well as in terms of repertoire) I found the confidence to audition for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at Covent Garden.  Again though, the same old doubts crept in, the awful feelings of “What if they all just laugh at me?  Am I really up to this?  I’m still terribly inexperienced on stage.” were almost overwhelming – just as overwhelming, in fact, as the auditions themselves.  You can certainly imagine my joy and elation when I was accepted to the Programme!

Still the problems of confidence and doubt didn’t solve themselves.  In fact, they just got worse and worse – now the stakes were even higher, and I had much further to fall.  There were so many incredible artists, many with much more stage experience than me who HADN’T been accepted, so I knew I really had to prove myself.

One of the greatest things about being on the Programme though is the fact they offer you regular sessions with a therapist.  While this has until recently been thought of as a taboo subject, it isn’t any longer, and so I’m happy to talk about the virtues of therapy.  After two years on the Programme and many wonderful, as well as not-so-wonderful experiences, I felt that, at last, I was a confident woman on the verge of an international career, ready to tackle the world at large.  Which was just as well, as only two months after finishing the JPYAP I found myself in Chile, singing the title role in Aida!

Since then, I’ve tackled some great roles, Ariadne, Lucrezia Borgia, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and I’m currently now back at Covent Garden singing some lovely, juicy roles in the Ring Cycle!

Of course, I still get those moments of utter fear and panic – I still get freaked out whenever Tony Pappano’s in the room.  But you know what is the most comforting thing?  EVERYONE ELSE IS GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING!

It’s great to have the ability, finally, to admit these fears to my colleagues – it brings us closer together as friends, and it make us treat one another with a greater level of respect.

I’m chuckling to myself as I read this back, as it reminds me of a quote I once saw while trawling through Google for some inspiration.  It went something along the lines of this:

“Turn up, work hard, take what gets thrown at you.  In years to come, you’ll look back and it’ll all seem like a strategy.”

Touring with the Monteverdi Choir

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Hello

Welcome to my new blog.  The next few months are going to be tremendously exciting for me, so this is my opportunity to keep you informed of new developments.

Next month I will tour with the Monteverdi Choir as soloist in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis for five performances in Chapel Hill (North Carolina), New York and Costa Mesa (California).

I will keep you updated on the tour and I hope to see you at one of the concerts.

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