Monday, January 28, 2008

So, tell us a little bit about yourself...

(The following questions and answers were originally posted for another forum, but they provide a structure I like, so I'm using them here to anchor my answers.)

1. Why do you like opera? Why did you pick this genre?

Actually, it sort of chose me. In childhood I was always interested in performing, and pursued singing in music theatre and popular music since adolescence. In my early teens I could do a perfect Barbara Streisand imitation, a phase I fortunately outgrew. While singing pop/rock covers with a band in my late teens (from Heart and Pat Benatar to Carole Pope and Grace Jones) I was starting to lose my voice, and a band member gently recommended that I might want to see a singing teacher. Good thing too, because I was pre-nodal and could have damaged my voice completely through misuse. I started lessons, somehow gradually drifted into more and more classical repertoire, and discovered a whole new realm of vocal arts.

Initially, classical singing (by which I am referering to a vocal technique which encompasses genres from the middle-ages to the present – I’ll leave the stylistic era definitions and arguments to the historians and musicologists) was one of those “oops, how did I get here and whose idea was this anyway?” experiences for me. But I came to feel a deep rapport with this realm of artistic expression. Opera is the consummate art form. It communicates the profound eternal truths of human experience in a remarkably visceral way, with a richness of language and abiding musical expression that often transcends the more popular vocal and theatrical idioms of contemporary culture.

2. What is the most difficult thing to learn when trying this genre of music?

I think the most difficult thing for contemporary musicians is to learn to respect their own artistry. As students and young professionals we can be overwhelmed by the rigours of training in musicality and style, in technique, and for singers also languages and theatre arts. We often allow our own creative wills to be subsumed by the axioms and strictures we are taught, as well as by the aesthetics of our teachers and mentors. This fosters a culture of restraint, where the artist is afraid to experiment, to play with choices, to be "wrong", resulting in an artistic confinement of expression which permeates much of the work being produced, and hence a proliferation of homogeneity which is quite frankly rather boring.

It is, unfortunately, possible to over-teach, to train the individuality out of an instrumentalist or a singer, both technically and artistically. As teachers and mentors, we need to be careful not to allow our own convictions to be enforced so unequivocally as to overwhelm and suppress individuality, but encourage the quirky and interesting qualities of the performers we train. And as emerging artists we need to take all we have been taught and filter that through our own experiences, our own emotional and physical creative impulses, and ultimately to reclaim ownership of our instrument, our skills and our artistry, and take the creative risks to produce truly thrilling experiences we can share with an audience.

3. What is your favourite thing about singing this kind of music?

There is a remarkable euphoria that comes from using your body as your instrument in this way. Particularly when singing in an operatic style, the breath and the open-throatedness are extremely honest and revealing of your vulnerabilities, and can evoke sweeping emotions, passions and deep cathartic experiences, all of which are heightened by being shared when you are truly connecting with the audience or interacting with others on the stage.

4. What is your favourite memory/experience performing or learning?

The most exciting things for me occur in rehearsal when we allow ourselves to play and explore, inventing and discovering different ways to say or sing or do something, reducing a musical or gestural expression to the kernel of its essence or embellishing it to the point of absurdity, and then distilling a clear and powerful authentic communication from that process.

And, in the greater sense, I believe that art is more than entertainment: it has a true contemporary relevance. Art can change the world - both through communication of socially relevant eternal themes and through artistic efforts and endeavours on behalf of worthy causes.

5. What do you think about the opera industry, worldwide or local? Is it a strong community? Can you comment on its growth since you started studying it?

We need to provide the much-needed opportunity for emerging artists to hone and develop their performance craft in the most time-honored and effective way: by doing it regularly! We also need a strong networking system for artists and more widely accessible support for professional development, including master classes given by renowned industry professionals with international careers. And we need to foster a sense of social relevance and engagement in the artists themselves, to build an ongoing commitment of artists to social responsibility through artistic means.

There is an unfortunate shortage of opportunities in the apprenticeship programs attached to the larger opera companies in Canada, as compared to those in the U.S. and abroad. These are a vital transitional phase in the developing career of an opera singer, providing on-the-job training, performance experience, and immersion in an atmosphere that prepares one for a performance career. Often application or selection criteria for these programs are narrow or very conservative, and many exceptional and gifted performers fall through the cracks. Many similar programs require the already cash-strapped (student loan bearing) artists to pay for the privilege of performing.

6. What would you like to see happen within the opera community?

I would like to see a greater cross-pollination of ideas among the various art forms. Particularly in the performance arts there seems to be a rather narrow adherence to conventional sub-genre definitions and stylistic performance codes. Musicological insight absolutely should inform current performance practises of these forms, but when applied too strictly the current interpretations of this knowledge often confine the range of expressions available to performers to virtually archival reproductions instead of contemporary and relevant communications. Some of the most exciting creative work is being done by collaborative partnerships between the conventional opera producers and cutting edge artists from other media, such as film and visual arts, who bring modern sensibilities to the genre while respecting the historical idiom.

Grass roots projects developed by artists for other artists and general audiences, (such as, for example, collaborative hybrid performances integrated with storytelling), bridge the language barriers and promote contemporary understanding of the classical art forms for audiences unfamiliar with the opera genre as well as for the die-hard enthusiasts, offering artistically and financially accessible opportunities for cultural enrichment, and encouraging audience members to interact with the artists in a warm atmosphere conducive to getting to know the performers as members of the community. Therein lies a tremendous opportunity for growth in all the strata of opera and theatre production, as well as the development of future audiences.