Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It Takes Balls to Be an Opera Singer

This entry was inspired by a post in Cheryl Studer’s new blog: 
I'm looking forward to more such fascinating insights from Ms. Studer, and glad she's decided to bless the blogosphere with her presence!

For a production of Hänsel und Gretel in 2005 I had to learn how to juggle. I’d had some luck juggling in the past, but had never really learned the technique, so the director had an experienced juggler come in to teach me and my colleagues how to do it right. Performing opera is not unlike juggling, in that there are three things, balls so to speak, that have to be in motion simultaneously in order to assure successful performance: singing, making music, and acting the part.
Patrick, our juggling teacher, began by having us throw one single ball up into the air. He showed us that you don’t have to keep your eye on the ball to catch it - you just have to watch where you throw it, and when it comes down, your hand automatically knows where to go. (If you’ve ever watched jugglers carefully, you’ve probably noticed that they’re almost always looking up). Also, we were able to get used to the amount of power we needed to throw the ball high enough, or not too high, into the air, first with the right, then with the left.
It should be a given that you know how to throw a ball before you start juggling, much like you should always be working on your singing technique before taking it out on the stage. Nothing is more disappointing than having your stage partner forget everything you’ve worked on during staging rehearsals because all of a sudden they’re worried about their technique. If you let that ball drop, you leave your colleagues in the lurch.
The second step of our juggling lesson involved juggling two balls with one hand. Basically we were repeating the first step, but by adding the second ball, the whole action went twice as fast - kind of like learning a difficult passage of music slowly at first and then speeding it up. Then we took one ball in each hand, threw them up and let them fall. We were to listen to the rhythm when they landed. If we heard “ba-dump” that was correct. If it was “ba......dump”, we worked on it until we got the rhythm right.
This second step is crucial to the success of the third element, or ball - the action. Have you ever heard that joke about the conversation with an actor?
“What do you do for a living,” asked the reporter.
“I’m an actor,” said the man.
“What’s your -”
“ ... problem?”
Learning your music solidly makes taking the role on stage oh so much easier. I had the challenge recently of having to take over a role in Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk on short notice - I’d never heard it before, much less performed it. Within five days I had to learn and memorize the music, in some parts very rhythmically complicated. I had one or two stage rehearsals, and that was it. The simplest scene was the one I kept messing up, since I’d spent most of my time perfecting the more difficult passages. I went out on the stage during rehearsals with the easy phrases learned, but not well enough. So, while I was concentrating on the staging - making sure I enter at the right time, making sure the windows were open, making sure to start my action before pretending not to notice the tenor so that I can act surprised and get mad before telling him to go away - I skipped a phrase, switched my text and confused the conductor who was trying to keep me together with the orchestra, which at this point consisted solely of a lonely bassoon. We had to interrupt the rehearsal (the dress rehearsal, no less!) and start at my entrance again. Embarrassing....
Luckily, the premiere went along without a glitch. 
Even if no one notices it, dropping a “ball” during a performance always makes the singer’s own experience of his or her performance a little less enjoyable. Listening to the recording of the recital I gave last week, I’ve counted at least 5 mistakes of varying degrees, and I’m sure I’ll find more the next time I listen. I’m trying to forget about it, but since I only had the one shot to get it right (so far), I’m still rather angry with myself, wishing I would have practiced even more than I already did.
Back then during Hänsel und Gretel, there may have been performances where I made no musical mistakes, but I’m sure there wasn’t a night when the stage hands weren’t collecting tennis balls in the wings. The trick is, I guess, to keep practicing and practicing until everything flows smoothly, and you don’t have to think about it. Unfortunately, no step can be skipped. Knowing how to throw one ball in the air is just as crucial to the process as being able to juggle two or three, or even more. If you drop one, you just have to pick it up or let it lie, forget about it and act like you meant to do it that way.