Hello everyone! As I’m on my way to Lisbon for an afternoon of Music Coaching at the Opera House, before we start rehearsing for L’enfant et les Sortilèges next week, I thought it was the perfect timing to write to you a little about about what it was like to become Mad King Suibhne. After 2 sold out shows at ENO's Lilian Baylis House and 3 shows at Messums Wiltshire (also sold out) I've spent the last week in the most fundamental of hibernations: eating and sleeping, but I finally feel a bit more recovered from the madness marathon.
I thought I would share a little bit about what it was like to rehearse for such an amazing project and about the process leading to five very fulfilling and well received performances.
Starting from the very beginning, I received the invitation to take over the role in mid-September: I already knew about the Opera because I was working with Noah and Ella (composer and director, respectively) when they were preparing Suibhne and Noah was kind enough to let me have a listen to a few snippets. When it finally premiered, although I didn't have the chance to see it, I saw some excerpts on-line and became completely enamoured of this music. It conveyed a longing and a melancholy that adapted beautifully to the subject matter and, to a portuguese guy for whom the concept of saudade is part of the national identity, this music really spoke to my soul.
Noah sent over a vocal score of the opera and although this was quite late in the evening, I was so excited about the project that I opened the file on my iPad, already in bed, together with an on-screen keyboard and started plonking a few notes here and there to have an idea of what the rest of the music sounded like. I had been warned it was quite a long role (more on that on a few paragraphs...), but the music seemed manageable in the amount of time I had and so I said 'Yes'.
I had about 2 months to completely learn this role from scratch so the following day I immediately started learning the score: bashing through the notes at the rhythm of 1 scene a day (there's a total of 7 scenes and I'm in every single one of them for quite a bit), which meant that by the end of a week I had an idea of how it all worked. With the help of some piano accompaniment I got sent, I went about memorising it during the week after. I then started coaching it with Noah which was fundamental for me to direct my own homework: finding out exactly what he wanted with that music and how to make that match the musical portrait of the character that I was already forming in my head. We met about once a week, and after working on the scenes with him and scribbling down all his indications, I went home and worked on those things on my own.
At the same time, I was obsessively reading through the text, including Ivo Mosley's scene indications and I also read an abridged version of the original irish tale of Buile Suibhne, so I knew where this story was coming from. I watched a few movies that dealt with madness and, obviously, a 'few' versions of the mad-scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. After all, for me this opera was going to be a mad scene that lasted for a whole 90 mins. It was very interesting for me to study the different types of body language that different singers chose to use in order to convey the complete psychotic dissolution of Lucia. Not unlike Suibhne, her madness is caused by extreme familiar pressure, which triggers a murder, followed by a sever case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With Lucia, this happens at the very end. In Suibhne it happens at the very beginning which means you have to sustain that highly dramatic and disturbed emotional landscape for the rest of the Opera. I allowed these ideas to marinate in my head until we started staging the piece and while I was memorising the music. In the end, they eventually permeated into my choice of vocal colours and when we started the stage rehearsals, I already had the character fully realised in the way I was singing it so I thought it would only be a matter of matching my actions with the sounds I was making. Little did I know... but we'll get to that!
When we finally got to the beginning of November, I asked Noah to sit in one of the orchestra-only rehearsals so that I could become fully aware of the orchestration colours and check practicalities such as 'don't sing pianissimo if you're being accompanied by french horns' and sitting on the session and becoming aware of that soundscape was invaluable work. I also got to hear first-hand what the new finale that Noah composed sounded like and boy... was it one of those moments where every singly hair in my back raised.
Two days after, we started staging it and what followed was the most intensive rehearsal period of my life. We blocked an entire opera in 3 days, with a cast that was completely different from the first time the Opera had been put on at Bury Court Opera. This would have been a true Mission: Impossible if it wasn't for two things: the great rehearsal atmosphere that always reigns in Ella and Noah's rehearsal rooms, where the precision of their music and stage direction makes everything so much easier to assimilate and apply; and the other thing the absolutely STELLAR ensemble of my trusty 6 mad voices! Most of the ensemble had done the Opera at Bury Court so they already knew it fairly well. These girls were incredible and an absolute joy (and a hoot) to work with: Kathleen, Yara, Charlotte, Maddie, Anna and Olivia.
The production was the most physically demanding one I’ve ever done so far. Suibhne’s isolation in the forest meant he’s always leaping from tree to tree which Ella repeated wonderfully by using ladders and different levels, so there was a lot of running, climbing and jumping involved. How one prepares for something like this is a matter of really Singing the role in beforehand and even so, we still have to overcome the challenge of singing after moving a lot. What worked for me was to do a proper physical warmup before the shows, and I mean the sort of warmup I do before a lifting session at the gym, so that not only my muscles are warm, but also my breath and heart rate. After that, I tried to do some simple vocalising (my main warmup session usually happens 4h before a show) on that accelerated heart rate and breath. It helps a lot, but it never really stops being a challenge.
The other big challenge with a dramatic role such as this one is to keep the body language of a character who’s constantly tormented by his demons for 90 minutes. If we think of the great mad scenes of Bel Canto Opera, those usually last for 10 minutes and then the character either dies or the Opera ends (or frequently both). In here I had to keep that violent and deranged state of mind for the entire show, for every single scene because Suibhne leaves the stage for about 5 minutes in total. It is difficult, there’s always the risk of your body tightening to the point where it becomes impossible to sing, so what I tried to do was to take every single moment where I wasn’t the attention focus of the scene to relax and take some deep breaths to make sure that my rib cage expanded fully.
All in all, it was a gargantuan challenge and a tour-de-force of a role for me at every level: technical, musical and theatrical, but I’m so grateful that it came my way and I’m incredibly happy with the result as well. As a young baritone, I don’t really have the chance to portray characters with the psychological density of Suibhne and it was an incredible and exciting exercise.
I’m now moving on to something completely different, about which I will write in a few days time, but I do so with a heart full of gratitude and a sense of accomplishment and joy for having worked with a remarkably talented team of people.
There’s a wonderful documentary about it all on the way that’s currently being edited by Creative Movie Solutions and I CANNOT wait to share that with you!