It’s not Christmas without a Messiah

Messiah-titlepageI had two major concerts to finish off the year. The first, with A Capella Singers, was Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This was my first choral performance of it, having only previously sung the ‘Echo’ aria (Ah, My Saviour). The solos were shared around the choir members, and I was given the soprano/bass duet ‘Lord Thy Mercy’, the Angel’s recitative ‘Be Not Afraid’ and the echo in the Echo aria.

We sang it in English which, while easy on the audience and those choir members who have difficulty learning anything in another language, means that the vowels and consonants do not always fall comfortably. A perfect example was in the duet where I had to sing the word Free sustained on an F whereas in the German it would have been the much more open Frei. Breathing for long phrases was sometimes more challenging due to the words (and meaning) falling differently. However it is all a good learning experience. And of course it’s Bach, where you can’t relax your concentration for a second or you slip on a musical banana skin. I was reasonably happy with my performance after putting in a fair bit of effort. I find recitatives difficult and often feel I spend twice as long on a 20 bar recit as I do for a 5 page aria!

The second concert was one I had been looking forward to for ages as I hadn’t sung a Messiah for quite a few years. This was quite a special one. Organised by Dr White (conductor of our St Mary’s choir) the soloists were bass Jonathan Lemalu, soprano Rebecca Ryan, mezzo Sandra Martinovic (also Jonathan’s wife) and local tenor Clive Thompson. The choir was handpicked from local choirs and combined with members of Dunedin’s Cantores choir. The chamber orchestra consisted of members of Southern Symphonia led by Sydney Manowitz and Gregory Peyroux and Raymond shared the conducting duties.

The Basilica was packed, the soloists were great and the ringing of the third-last Amen around the dome was electrifying. We had two moments in the choruses where we were a whisker from coming unstuck  (no, not in All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray) but we pulled it together. My teacher who was the soprano soloist deserves extra kudos for performing magnificently 7 weeks after giving birth – by caeserean no less.

So now there is a lull (I’m still on holiday, neener neener). Lessons aren’t resuming till March. Choir rehearsals don’t start till the beginning of February. This year I plan to start working on repertoire for my LTCL (Recital). I’m also getting to sing for the first time in concert the Flower Duet from Lakme. I have decided that my New Year’s Resolutions – yes, yes I know I’m 10 days late – are musical ones:

1. Work on my coloratura – specifically the ‘runny bits’. I seem to veer between lead-footed thumping and laughing hyena.

2. Learn to place the sound forward while maintaining that yawny space thing (apologies for being overly technical).

Only 2 resolutions but I’m thinking they might be enough!

Take that, little man in my head!

It’s a fortnight after the Senior Vocal Competitions and I am still basking in the reflected glow of my cups and trophies. Oh dear, that’s bragging isn’t? And we Kiwis aren’t meant to do that are we? Well convention can just go sulk in a corner. I worked damn hard and I deserve to have my wee moment in the sun, right? Right?? So those of you who don’t agree with me can go and read this Wikipedia entry and the rest of you two remaining readers can settle back with your libation of choice and join me in my cup-reflected glow. Because I’m a sharer.

So here are some highlights/moments. Friday night I had 3 classes – Operatic Aria, French Art Song and Oratorio. There had been one or two people pull out and the adjudicator discombobulated everyone by starting about 5 minutes early. I have a thing about being late and when it says in the competition rules ‘Competitors must be ready to start 15 minutes prior to their class’ I take that to mean I must be ready an hour before. Other people like to rock up at a bee’s whisker before the 15 minute deadline. Which is fine if  the classes are running according to the published times. Not quite so if things are ahead of schedule. There was a fair bit of frantic rushing to find people until everyone got the hang of things and started to turn up in time.

Operatic Aria goes well and the money note pings out so I am feeling good. I go to hand in my scores for French Art Song and Oratorio and have A Moment. One of those uh-oh-where-is-the-oratorio-copy-I-am-supposed-to-be-holding-when-I-sing moments. Realise I haven’t made a copy. OK, I’ll just take the original score and hand in my singing folder photocopy. Great, no problem. Oh wait, problem. The score is small. So small that it’s hard to read without my reading glasses. No matter, I know this pretty well I can deal with it. Heart rate returns to near normal. Nip back to the waiting area and ask where we are, someone says you’re on next. The bell dings, and I sail confidently onto the platform, Oratorio score in hand. I announce my piece and while helpfully providing a translation of the Latin, notice that my accompanist has gone back to her front row seat and is scrambling frantically through her folders of music. Poor Jo, I think, she’s picked up the wrong music. And then a voice intones from the back “This is the French Art Song class”.

Excellent. I’ll just fall into this big hole I am praying will open up underneath me. Only it doesn’t. “Right then” I say, “I’ll just go off and come back on again shall I?” Risk a quick glance at the adjudicator, she is smiling sympathetically, phew! Exit stage left not quite with indecent haste, drop the wretched Oratorio score, take a deep breath and sail back on to sympathetic applause. “I will now sing a French Art Song” . Much smiling from the audience. Think – I’ve stuffed this up before I even start so might as well enjoy it. And I did and so fortunately did the adjudicator.

Oratorio was interesting. I used the small score and only had one oopsy, where I looked down to where I thought I was to find that I was looking in the wrong place. It’s funny how your brain gets a memory of where things are on the page and then when that page size changes….

Saturday was British Art Song in splendid solitude in the morning, then a flurry in the afternoon – Lieder, Duet, Comic/Light Operatic and finally the Senior Scholarship. This was the one I really wanted, having fallen short in the past two years. And thanks to the combined efforts of my wonderful teacher, my lovely accompanist, my excellent voice therapist and some damn hard work from me, the little man who lives in my head remained almost entirely silent and I came off the platform happy. Yes, you read that right, I was happy! Here’s my happy face….


My singing teacher is about to have another baby so there will be a period of no lessons, but I have plans to do my LTCL (Recital) in the next year or two so I will carry on working on new rep. Oh and I’m going to be part of a very special performance of Handel’s Messiah in December, featuring my wonderful teacher Rebecca Ryan and Jonathan Lemalu. 

Three steps to the right and sing.

I promised in an earlier post that I would write about my experience of my first solo role in an opera. That makes it sound as if I have sung in lots of other operas as a chorus member but I haven’t, in fact only one which was Canterbury Opera’s production of La Boheme where I had the pleasure of seeing barihunk Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Marcello. And incidentally where I first met mezzo Sarah Court who I then ended up working with many years later in Hansel & Gretel.

For Hansel & Gretel I was asked to sing the dual roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. The director  and conductor was Ravil Atlas, Mother/Witch – Amanda Winfield, Hansel – Sarah Court, Gretel – Rebecca Ryan and Father – Ian Reeves. Ian has had many years of experience as a musical theatre performer and all the rest have sung professionally. And then there was me. No acting experience. Limited solo performance experience. Can you say nervous??!!

Firstly, I was afraid that I would embarrass myself by sounding like the wind in the willows when I sang compared with all those voices around me capable of filling a large concert hall, but worse still that I would embarrass my teacher who was singing the role of Gretel. What if all the others pulled her aside after the first rehearsal and demanded to know why she had asked me to sing?

As it turns out, that was the more minor of my worries. As musical friends who have known me for a few years will know, when I sing a solo I have a tendancy to stand there like a stuffed duck, afraid to move or make the slightest gesture. So first rehearsal and Ravil paints for me a whole back-story for the Sandman character. And then proceeds to give me instructions on where to move at which beat in the music. And until then I also had no idea how many different ways you can say “I am!” (my opening spoken line). Oh and did I mention that all this moving and emoting had to be done while wearing a voluminous floor length cloak? I was so busy muttering “raise up on toes, four steps to right, stop and pretend to throw sleep-dust” that any thought of a) proper singing technique and b) coming in at the right time went right out the window.

But here’s the lovely thing about this first-time experience: no-one rolled their eyes and muttered “Bloody amateur!”, instead I received nothing but help and warm encouragement from people who had far more things to think about than some nervous, neurotic amateur with two small arias to sing.

And so by the second performance I was able to surprise (and judging by his expression, delight) Ravil by adding a little ad hoc bit of acting to my role. So to Ravil, Amanda, Sarah and Rebecca – a huge thank you for making my first solo experience one to remember for all the right reasons.

Seriously entertained

Last night I sang at a Christmas dinner function. I was scheduled in between the main and dessert. Perfect timing really – the guests have had enough wine to be slightly merry and expansively forgiving of any minor slip-ups, but not so much food they’re going to sleep and you have to studiously ignore the man at the second table with his head resting on his side plate, snoring in the key of E.

Actually it wasn’t really me they wanted. Originally the organiser rang my teacher Rebecca Ryan, but she was unable to do it, so she recommended me. With any luck no-one told the dinner guests that they were getting second choice and a very distant second at that. Like three miles astern. When I was discussing the details with the organiser he said that they wanted a ‘serious’ singer. This tends to be a non-singer’s term for ‘person who sings very loudly, with a lot of vibrato and in a foreign language and therefore must be rather good’.
It’s always interesting choosing repertoire for performances. You may have just put the finishing touches on a technically-challenging 20th century aria with more accidentals and time signature changes than should ever be crammed into 5 pages, but it’s most likely going to fall flat with a bunch of Rotarian’s at their Christmas party looking to be entertained. Oh they’ll politely applaud and look impressed but will they enjoy it? Probably not. So serious, but enjoyable was required.
I started with the short but very sweet Quilter song ‘Music, when soft voices die’, just to give them a dose of ‘serious’. This seemed to be appreciated i.e. thank heavens you’re singing in English and it’s short and tuneful. And then I combined ‘serious’ with ‘entertainment’ and let rip with Flanders and Swanns’ ‘A Word on my Ear’.  If you’ll forgive my lack of modesty, I had them at ‘Hello, I am the great operatic diva Dame Edith Huntington-Smythe-Jones-Smythe’ and it was all smiles, laughs and applause from there. A girl could really get used to that. I’ve sung this several times now and I’m at the point where I can relax and really get into the acting side of things and not sing it through strictly adhering to the time/bar lines/rests etc. Of course the accompanist is very much an intergral part of not just the music, but the acting in this one and mine was with me every step of the way.
So that’s the last pre-Christmas performance and with three weeks holiday starting from Friday next week, plenty of time to start getting my teeth into new repertoire. ‘King David’ here I come….