Hello everyone! I’m now back in London after 3 weeks in sunny Spain. It was great being back with the team at Opera Valladolid who always take such good care of us, and also to be working with a really wonderful group of colleagues.
This year’s opera was Gounod’s Faust. It was actually my second time singing this piece, having toured with it years ago with Swansea City Opera, but singing the smaller role of Wagner. This brings us to Valladolid’s offer of the role of Valentin and what it meant for me to sing it. It was one of those contracts that for several reasons went a little bit beyond ‘learning a role and performing it’, and I thought these were worth sharing.
A bit of context is needed. Or rather... several bits of context.
Starting from my earliest memory of this role and music, I was a student at my local conservatoire (I must have been around 19 or 20 at the time), and my then singing teacher gave me a score for this aria I had never heard about called ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’. She told me ‘Don’t work on it now but it may very well be a role for you in the future’. I had a look at the score, listened to a recording and thought ‘Why would anyone write anything so high?’. This was in the same year that I was told in a Summer course that with time I’d also sing Figaro in Barbiere and I thought all these people were absolutely mad because, after all, I was struggling with getting an E out consistently, let alone have top G’s to spare for these roles...
Off I went my merry way and about 8 years later the G’s came and with them came a few tours of Barbiere. Valentin, however, during my Guildhall years, was always pointed to me in the following terms ‘It’s for the others. You‘ll mostly do comic roles because *insert impersonation of Avant de quitter ces lieux with a really over-darkened voice* and you’re not that type of singer’. A comparison with colleagues from the same year would then be used in a way that sometimes felt demeaning and really didn’t make me feel inspired or confident in what I could do.
I’ve always been against dismissing someone in a certain role because of one’s personal preferences with regards to colour of voice. My motto has been: ‘If I’ve got the notes and can make myself heard without hurting myself, then I can sing it. The rest is a matter of wether or not it will be to other people’s taste and that’s not something I can control’.
This was the first piece of context that I wanted to give you and I think it deserves a bit of pause to reflect upon the type of environment that’s usually fostered in Music Colleges. It’s true that the profession is competitive and difficult, but from my personal experience, I strongly believe that the best tool you can give to a young singer is the presence of mind and thought independence to block out (rather than contribute to) what Leontyne Price already called in her day ‘The Noise’. That cacophony of different voices that constantly bombard you with their opinion, sell it as gospel and, more often than not, make you feel unworthy, incapable and borderline incompetent. Music Colleges, in general, are creating an environment that’s nurturing the inner saboteur in each one of us, rather than giving us the confidence and creative tools to fight it and be at a place of acceptance of what we can do, rather than in a place of constant reminder of what we CAN’T do. (I’ve read a wonderful article about this which is really worth a read.)
That said, the second piece of context that I wanted to give you brings us to dealing with all that emotional luggage as you’re about to perform one of those roles that you’ve always been told you can’t do. Before even accepting the role, I did my homework and tried it out a couple of times to make sure I could sing it, so when we went into rehearsals, I knew that although I’d have to pace myself during the process, I could really sing it and make some music with it, not just get the notes out.
However, during production, you always go through ups and downs: some days you just don’t wake up very fit and you have a bad day and that’s usually alright. However, the experience of having a bad day when you’re preparing something with the previous context of ‘You’ll never be able to sing this’ that I’ve given you, can be something terrifying. Suddenly, that cacophony kicks in uninvited and you’re left to deal with that unwanted mental load.
What to do then?
Now, bear in mind that I’m writing this from the comfort of my living room, with 4 performances of the opera behind me that went really really well, so of course that the first thing I will say to you is that: ‘Don’t be silly, stick to the fact that you’ve sang that role well countless times before in lessons and other rehearsal sessions and just shut out *The Noise*’. Of course the experience of The Noise when you’re opening in a matter of weeks is something completely different and requires a different approach. For me, that approach involves staying active both physically and mentally (go for a run or the gym, and grab yourself a good book), be open with the colleagues you’re closest to about the things you’re going through, don’t hide and try to play invincible when you’re at you’re vulnerable. The most likely outcome is that you’ll actually make the other person feel at ease to share their own concerns as well and you end helping yourself while helping someone else. And how great is that?
Lastly, remember: it’s your profession. It’s not who you are. It’s always worth it asking ourselves the question ‘Who am I?’ from time to time. If you experience silence immediately after, that’s all the proof you need that you’re not entirely defined by your profession. Yes, it’s an aspect of who we are, but it’s not its entirety so find out all the little things that put you in touch with who you really are and that don’t involve your profession.
I cannot begin to tell you the good that this exercise of creating separation between who I am on stage and who I am off stage did to me. Suddenly perspective kicks in, the part of your Ego that wants to prove wrong everyone who told you couldn’t do it switches off and you feel much more relaxed. The way you approach the momentous task which is going on stage completely changes. I went on stage for the first show trusting again all the work that I had done and knowing that my discipline but above all my perseverance would serve me well.
At the end of the day, it was that same preserverance that had brought me there and the merit of that alone can’t be taken away by any kind of ‘Noise’.