Monday, 21 July 2014

The Cinderella Diaries - Part 1

I've just arrived in Ferreira do Zêzere in Portugal.  No, I’m not on holiday.  I'll be spending the next two weeks here rehearsing and performing the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola.

This is not just any opera role.  For me, Cenerentola is a dream role.  I began learning the aria "Non piu mesta" last year at the opera studio, and I was immediately hooked.  Something about this aria just clicked for me.  It felt like home for my voice.  Comfortable but not boring.  Challenging but satisfying.  I loved the thrill of the extreme high and low notes, the rush of the coloratura, and the sweetness of the lyrical sections.  The aria became a fast favourite for me: a staple item for recitals and auditions.  And I knew that someday, somehow, I had to perform the entire role.

It was such a good fit!

So naturally I was excited to discover that the Zêzere ArtsFestival would be putting on a production of La Cenerentola this summer.  I was determined to get cast.  When I did masterclasses with my teacher in Paris, I chose to spend the week focusing on "Non piu mesta".  By the end of the week the aria was in fairly good shape.  I recorded the final performance and sent it to the festival, asking to be considered for the role.

A few months later I received the email: I had been cast as Cenerentola!  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  After all, what girl doesn’t dream of being Cinderella, if only once in her life?

Bibbity bobbity boo!

Of course, it wasn't just the glamour that appealed to me – I knew it would also be a great learning opportunity.  Since graduating from the opera studio, I had only been able to find concert work, and after months of "parking and barking" I was chomping at the bit for the chance to sing opera again.  I would be able to learn and perform major role in the standard repertoire – and one which suited my voice very well.  In short, it was a dream come true.  I got the score and immediately set to work.

Learning a role can be a rather long and tedious process. It's the boring side of opera – the unglamorous grunt work which the audience never sees.  First there is the task of simply learning all the dots.  You spend countless hours studying the score in every possible way.  Bashing out notes at the piano, listening to recordings, and toting the score around to countless cafes, buses, airports and libraries for silent study.  If you have a substantial enough sized role to learn, as Cenerentola is, after a while the score becomes something like an extra limb.  It just automatically goes with you everywhere.

Of course, some days you take a more passive approach to score study...

After you've learned the notes, you of course need time to sing everything in: to practise the role technically and musically, and really get it "into your voice."  Here is where trusted teachers and coaches step in – to lend a second pair of ears and help you sound stylish and polished.

But all this is just the first phase of learning a role.  Because after all, opera is performed from memory.  Singers are expected to show up to the first day of staging knowing everything from heart.  To get to this point, you can’t just know the notes.  You can’t just have it "in your voice".  You have to really get the role under your skin.  And there’s only one way to do that: repetition, repetition, and more repetition.

This is the point where you start to go a bit mad.  You sing bits of recit to yourself while washing dishes, waiting for the bus, or chopping vegetables.  You mutter your text to yourself as you ride the train or walk down the street.  Inevitably, people think you're a bit crazy.  After a while, you get used to receiving weird stares from passersby because, without realising it, you were just muttering through that tricky bit of the duet.

When I first looked at the score for La Cenerentola, it was a bit like staring up Mount Everest.  Surely the task was unsurmountable!  How would I ever learn to sing all those notes, not just accurately, but with elegance and style, and from memory?  How would I ever know so much music so thoroughly that I'd be able to sing it all under pressure, in front of an audience, while following complicated staging?  But of course I knew it wasn't impossible.  I just had to keep chipping away at it, and eventually everything would become second nature.

I will conquer you, Everest!

Learning La Cenerentola has had its own unique challenges.  Some of these I was prepared for, and some came as a total surprise.  Of course, having sung the aria, I knew there would be a lot of coloratura and high notes.  Not a big problem per se – that’s the kind of thing my voice does rather well.  But when I looked at the full score, I was confronted with an unexpected enemy.  Patter.  Lots and lots of patter.

For the uninitiated among you, patter is the art of singing lots of words very very fast.  The most well-known examples of this are Figaro's opening aria in The Barber of Seville, or the Gilbert and Sullivan classic Modern Major General.  La Cenerentola is chock-full of patter – sections where you have to rattle off a series of tongue-twisting Italian words at a million miles a minute.

Learning the patter was a big task for my brain, as well as my teeth, tongue, and lips.  There was no way around it but to spend hours speaking the words to myself, over and over, getting gradually faster until it became automatic.  Even when I knew the words well, I often found myself stumbling over the syllables.  There was just so much coordination involved!  Everything had to keep clicking forward like a well-oiled machine.  If I let my mind stall just a millisecond too long, or involved my jaw too much in the articulation, I was done for.  The words flew by and I was left behind.

Just keep going, just keep going...

All of this meant that I most definitely got used to looking like a crazy person.  I needed to get the text into my muscle memory.  And so I would spend every spare moment speaking the patter to myself, wrapping my tongue around the syllables and familiarising my lips with their unique shape and order.  To anyone who has seen me wandering around talking to myself in Italian over the last couple of months, please accept my apology.  I'm not crazy, I swear.  I'm just an opera singer.

The last couple of months leading up to my arrival in Portugal, I've had my share of ups and downs.  At times it's been a struggle to fit my role study between travel and rehearsal schedules for other gigs.  And with my recent health problems, there were times I was worried I wouldn't be able to move onstage at all!  But just like a fairytale, everything has come together in the end.  I've found time to practise and prepare everything, and also managed to get some good lessons and coachings on the role.  And thanks to a combination of medication, physiotherapy, and one very sexy-looking knee support, I'm now able to move naturally and without pain.  So here I am, at the ball and ready to dance.  I can’t wait to get started!

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