Painting pictures

roseRecently I was very privileged to be part of a music-making weekend centred on Jonathan Lemalu, a Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised internationally-known bass-baritone. And now I’ve run out of hyphens.

On the Friday night he took two Masterclasses, one for children and the other for adults. Jonathan’s focus for the classes was on conveying the story in the song. It was delightful watching him work with the children. He is a tall, solid man which in itself could have been intimidating for the kids, but his personality and sense of humour won them (and us, the observers) over. At one stage he was sitting on the floor pretending to be a small boy in need of distraction by lollies. One young girl sang Summertime and after her initial run-through he whipped off his jacket, bundled it up and gave it to her to hold as the ‘baby’ she was singing to. It was wonderful to see her song morph from just pretty notes to something evocative and meaningful. Not to mention that when she concentrated on painting the picture for us, her voice just flowed out and soared.

The two songs I had prepared (when I say prepared, they are definitely still works in progress for my exam later this year) were ‘La Rose’ by Fauré and ‘Hello? O Margaret it’s you!’ from Menotti’s The Telephone. Again Jonathan focused on painting the picture for the audience, and in order to do that he asked me to envision in minute detail what I was seeing. At one point, he gave me a water bottle to hold – it being the closest object to hand) – and pretend it was a rose and I was stroking the petals. Somewhat awks as the young ones say …hang on a minute, I’m young aren’t I? I am in my head anyway. He also focused me on the accompaniment at certain points, which I hadn’t done before, as helping me paint the picture. So the little rising phrases just before and with each of the opening lines prompts for statements I could make about the beauty of the rose. OK maybe you had to be there to get that.

Surprisingly, given that I generally give a good imitation of a dead stick in terms of movement when I perform, he noted that I was swaying with the music a bit at times.Note I’m not talking about tree-in-a-storm* level of swaying, just a subtle motion. As he said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for this song, which is intensely focused on pointing out the beauty of the rose and telling the story of how it came into being, he felt that stillness would focus the audience on the words and create a sense of desire to know more. Also, and vitally important, it allowed me to have my body completely centred and breathing supported. Lo and behold when I stopped moving my voice immediately gained intensity and ease.

We spent most of my allotted time on La Rose, so I just sang through the Menotti with Jonathan noting there would be plenty to work on in relation to painting the picture, starting with the first two ‘Hello’s. A shame there wasn’t time to delve into it.

On the Saturday night Jonathan did a wonderful concert in the Basilica, at which our combined St Mary’s and Cantores choirs also performed. Amongst other things we sang Gorecki’s Totus Tuus which was very moving for both us and the audience. The following morning he joined us for a full sung Mass complete with string players. I was granted the Kyrie from the Schubert Mass and I think I acquitted myself well. It felt good anyway! I love singing in the Basilica, as it has a beautiful acoustic.

This morning I was privileged to sing Malotte’s Lord’s Prayer at the ANZAC dawn service at the Invercargill cenotaph. There was a good attendance despite the cold and wind. Looking at the brass band, I was glad I didn’t have to  use my fingers to play an instrument. Apart from a random substitution of words – ‘as we forgive our debtors’ randomly became ‘as we forgive each other’, so at least not entirely unrelated! – I felt surprisingly relaxed. It was strange to hear my voice come out of the speakers but in an odd way that gave me some confidence. We won’t mention the couple of shots of Rescue Remedy beforehand. (Does anyone else use that for performances? I only use it on ‘big’ occasions as I don’t want to be reliant on it.)

And now there’s a lot of work ahead of me as I get all my exam repertoire under my belt.


*Hyphens are like computer game lives – if you wait long enough, they fill up again.

It’s over now…..part deux


Dress1Be careful what you wish for

Before we’d had our costume fittings, we’d seen photos of some of the outfits for the Masquerade scene. They were amazing and diverse – lavish ball gowns, chinese coolies, pirates and hussars. And a monkey. I was determined I was not going to be that monkey. Oh no, I wanted a ball dress. The lavisher, more be-jewelled the better. I wanted to be gorgeous dammit!  And I was granted my wish – a golden gown with not just hoops and a bustle, but panniers as well. I took up a lot of space. Put it this way, my turning circle was quite large. I dripped pearls. Glittered with gold braid and bows. Ooh and I had a glittery golden mask too. Look at me, look at me!!

And then during the choreographing of the scene, the Director placed me on the very top step of the Masquerade stairs. I started to think that maybe being able to see my feet and the floor around my feet might have been A Good Thing. The first dress rehearsal arrived and we got to the point where we start going up the stairs.The boys go first and then the girls go up, threading their way between the boys. Up I went praying that my feet would find each stair, mentally apologising to those I banged into with the panniers. Did I mention that at this point it’s only the girls singing, at the low end of their register for us sopranos? I got to the top and while desperately trying to 1) stay upright, 2) figure out a way to move my foot off the train of the dress of the person in front of me, 3) sing, 4) dance and 5) smile, immediately started plotting how to sneak into the Monkey’s dressing-room and steal her costume. Imagine if I tripped and fell at the top of those stairs, it would be like a row of dominos tipping over. Oh the ignominy! Alternatively I could, as Miss P wickedly suggested, open my arms wide and take as many down with me as possible. It did get easier over time, but I never lost the little quiver of fear at each descent.

I’m stuck on you

Another theatre box moment. Whenever we – I and the two managers, and sometimes Raoul – were in the box, we were watching a performance or performance rehearsal. (Ed. Really? I’d never have guessed). M Firmin would stand behind me. M. Andre and I always had a moment where I turn to him and mouth something like ‘Lovely!’ at which he nods smilingly in agreement. Oscars all round. This particular time, as I turned back to look at the stage I felt a tug on the back of my head. I gently tilted my head forwards and a horrifying realisation dawned on me – my wig was stuck on M Firmin’s waistcoat button! What if he doesn’t realise and turns to leave, taking my wig with him? Or worse – what if the wig doesn’t come off and he drags me backwards off the chair? What to do? What to do? I gave another gentle tug on the button and heard a stifled snigger* and then his hand slowly inserts itself between us and attempts to unhook the button. Meanwhile Andre, unaware of the unfolding drama I’M A SOPRANO, OF COURSE IT’S A DRAMA is wondering why Firmin is laughing at Christine’s rendition of ‘Think of Me’. Fortunately we are untangled and I don’t have to default to Plan B**

* yes Michael it was a snigger                                                                                               ** gently draw the box curtain forward to screen us and then rip the bl**dy button off.

Monkey Business

The monkey atop a music box ‘in persian robes, playing the cymbals’ always sat at the beginning of the night next to the area where we were mic’d up. Each night, one of the sound guys would dress Monkey as a different character. It started benignly enough with Monkey holding a half-eaten banana. There followed Bagpipes and Kilt Monkey, Pirate Monkey, Copacabana Monkey and other drolleries. One night, Monkey’s on-stage failure to clap the cymbals, was explained the next evening by the arrival of several baby monkeys. Every night we looked forward to Monkey’s next incarnation. On the final night, Monkey’s appearance in a mini Phantom ensemble complete with mask may have brought a small tear to my eye, but I will neither confirm nor deny this.

Here endeth Part Deux. Part Trois to come – Greedy, Shenanigans in the Wings and other assorted (a)musings. *

* When? When I feel like it, that’s when.


It’s over now, the music of the night


The Phantom of the Opera season is over and I am suffering from post-show tristesse. All this free time to fill! *studiously ignores accumulated housework* Here is a random assortment of musings and highlights from my experience with this amazing show and the terrific bunch of people who went on the journey with me.

Legs together, legs together!

It seems that I have trouble keeping my legs together. Ahem. During non-dress rehearsals of the Masquerade Ball sequence, ‘Legs together Christine!’ was uttered on numerous occasions by the Director. One performance night in the middle of Masquerade, it suddenly dawned on me that nobody actually sees my legs (not counting my Ladder of Doom assistants – see further down for LoD explanation). I was always totally covered in outrageously hooped and bustled floor-length dresses. Still, as the MD explained, it does give you the right deportment.

Who is the real Christine?

The main female protagonist in Phantom is Christine. Our ‘Christine’ joined the cast late-ish in the rehearsal schedule. At our first meeting I cheerily said ‘Hi I’m Christine” which was met with a look of surprise and consternation from the poor girl until a second later it dawned on her that it was my actual name and not me trying to take over her role. It also initially led to confusion in rehearsals until the Director took to calling me Ensemble Christine.

The Ladder of Doom

I was given the minor role of Mme Firmin which required me to trail around after the Managers – one of whom was M. Firmin – and therefore ascend and descend several times from a fake theatre box that sat at the side of the stage. In order to get into the box, we were required to ascend a squeaky aluminium ladder who’s top step hooked over the floor of the box to hold it firm. The feet of the ladder were attached to a box with wheels underneath and DO NOT STEP written on it. Very important instruction that one. If you ignored it, you were likely to find yourself hurtling backwards at a rate of knots as the bottom of the ladder suddenly hurtled forwards on its wheels resulting in the top step unhoooking from the box. We had 2 near misses before we became accustomed to starting our ascent on the second step. The other aspect of this ladder was specifically my issue as a female. Ornate hooped and bustled floor-length dresses were never designed for ladder-ascending. Therefore, the two crew members who held each side of the ladder firm for us every night  were treated to the sight of me hoicking my voluminous skirts up around my armpits so that I could safely move from step to step. Full credit to them, they never once laughed at my backside and in fact did all they could to help my ascent (probably from a sense of self-preservation).

A Bruise called Stephen

One night during dress-rehearsal week, we were back in our ordinary clothes, waiting backstage while some of the principals worked on a scene. All of a sudden I hear the Director saying “Ensemble Christine! Mme Firmin! Why aren’t you in the box?” I ran to the box, uttering several unprintable words, and threw myself up the ladder so fast that I nearly knee-capped myself on the top rung. I limped over to my usual chair trying not to whimper and pretending I’d always been there while my box-mates whispered “You’ve never been here during this scene!” All was eventually sorted out and the bruise that developed on my knee the following day was so spectacular that I felt it needed a name, and what name more appropriate than the Director’s?


There is a scene known as ‘Don Juan Triumphant’, which involves a table and benches, numerous pieces of fake food and the cast members carousing around and about, wine goblets in hand. At the end of the scene I was tasked with putting my goblet down at one end of the table so that the Phantom could pick it up in the next scene and to move a particular platter of fake fruit close to the same end so that Christine could pluck the one unattached apple out of it. One night, as I moved the platter to its usual place I felt it tip sideways. Someone had unexpectedly placed another piece of fake food in that same spot. As I righted it, the unattached apple rolled off the platter, onto the table and then dropped onto the floor and proceeded to roll downstage. Cue me madly scrambling after the apple. Apples are not round. They don’t roll predictably in one direction. So I performed a sort of half bent over, drunken zigzag as I desperately tried to retrieve it. Did I mention I was wearing a dress with a rather low-cut bodice? Hopefully the audience thought it was just part of the entertainment.

Right that’s enough for one sitting. Part Deux to come.*

*When? When I feel like it, that’s when.

The year that was. Because I forgot to write about it in the year that was.

Hildegard_von_BingenIt’s been a while – yes alright 10 months! – since my last post. I’m not even going to apologise. Really, what could I say – the dog ate my blog posts?

I’ve done lots of singing, mostly of the church/sacred variety, both in groups and solo. I won’t bore you with all the details but will pick out a selection of highlights.

10th Century plainchant

The most interesting item I sang was O Ignis Spiritus by Hildegard von Bingen, a very interesting and gifted 10th century abbess. I was initially asked to sing all 10 stanzas myself, but after having a look at it, I realised it was going to be no easy task to learn (I already had a good load for that concert) and so the concert organiser suggested we rope in another of the soloists to share the burden. Some time on from that, I realised that that if we added in yet another voice we could do 3 stanzas each and then sing the final one together. That way there would be different voice timbres to create a little variety. And y’all thought I was just being lazy didn’t you? Shame on you!

Some Caccini. Or was it?

The solo item I sang in that same concert was the ‘Caccini’ Ave Maria. I wrote Caccini in the written equivalent of those air quotes you make with your fingers – think Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies and his “sophisticated heat beam which we called a “laser.” “.. ..and where was I?……oh right, so it really wasn’t written by Caccini at all, as anyone with any knowledge of his music could have instantly told you on hearing it, but was erroneously attributed to him. Which is rather ironic given his history. In essence it’s quite trite, but it’s full of those typical Baroque falling fifths which makes the audience feel a bit soppy when they hear them without knowing why (unless they know about these things in which case they will roll their eyes while feeling soppy). It’s an easy sing with a nice soaring bit that makes you sound amazing. Which is rather useful if, like me, you aren’t actually amazing.

Headlights and Eyebrows

Two concerts in December gave me something of a breakthrough in terms of sound production. Many years ago I was singing in a choir where the conductor talked about needing to ‘turn on your headlights’ meaning keep your cheekbones up. And you thought it meant something else entirely didn’t you, you naughty people! Oh…that was just me? Ahem. Moving right along. I had forgotten about headlights until a singing friend – Hi Michelle! – reminded me about it, and also added in keeping the eyebrows up, the two together creating changes in the palate and facial musculature which allow the sound to brighten as well come out more easily in higher registers. In the first concert I had to sing the Benedictus duet in Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio which near the end has a lovely soaring line up to a top C. I nailed it, headlights beaming. The second concert I sang Handel’s ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ and my fellow singers said they could hear an immediate brightening in the sound when I turned my headlights on.

The year ended with another rendition of the New Zealand National anthem at a rodeo, this time in Te Anau. Unlike a number of the cowboys, I didn’t require the ministrations of the St John’s medics afterwards.

Right you can have a bit of breather now while I start on the next post – stop the snickering, it won’t take a year this time!