Musings on m
y life as a busy opera singer, voice teacher, photographer and mom - not necessarily in that order! I consider myself immensely fortunate to have carved out a way of doing all of these things which mean so much to me - it may sometimes get a little crazy, but it's always worth it. Welcome to the madhouse!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oh dear...

Nul points for me on the blogging front this month, I think. Student juries and recitals, a delicious string of Messiah performances, Christmas preparations and a feast of food and family (groovy alliteration, huh?!) have kept me good and busy. It's been an unexpectedly joyful season this year, which was a lovely boost - good music and good people do a lot to restore one's faith in humanity, and I had ample supplies of both this month.

Looking forward to adventures in January with a family trip to the UK, and a new production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro starting rehearsals in February, giving us much to be excited about - hopefully this time I'll have enough energy at the end of the day to write about it!

In the meantime, the happiest New Year to readers: 2010 has seen things start to look up again after such difficult times for so many in 2009 - keeping fingers crossed that 2011 continues the trend!

Friday, November 5, 2010

An entirely photographic post: Strobist HoCoConservancy project

As mentioned in yesterday's post, I was one of the lucky 15 invited to join David Hobby on an "advocacy journalism" shoot (definitely a case of being online on the right day at the right time and thus responding before he closed the opportunity!!). The landscape and architectural subject matter is very different from the kind of thing I usually shoot, but I really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to stretch my legs and, of course, work with Mr Strobist himself, David Hobby, the genius behind www.strobist.com.

Other than the fact that I have little experience with this type of photography - most of what I do involves people in relatively controlled environments rather than buildings or fields and at the whim of nature's light! - the most intimidating part of the day was that we had to turn over our unedited files to David. The protocol was for us to shoot - jpg, no less (I always shoot raw if only as a CYA measure!) - mark the ones we liked best on our card as the "first cull" and then give him those to upload and edit. Eeek! If I ever do something like this again, I will definitely take a laptop or netbook - I found it very difficult to judge the shots on the camera LCD and, indeed, on review at home there are some really good pictures that got missed (or lesser ones from a series of shots were selected instead). But, given that I usually torture my files in post - even ones which are decent straight out of camera - boy that felt like being photographically nude!! Still, it was an excellent exercise in producing something under a bit of pressure; it's not such a bad thing to demand of oneself. Also, it did prompt me to explore my in-camera processing - the 7d's jpgs are actually pretty good!

In any case, yesterday, on a bright but decidedly chilly autumn day, we were instructed to turn up at the historical property for which we were taking the pictures, for their future publicity needs. We'd been encouraged to arrive as early as we wanted before the official 10am meeting where we would receive our assigned shooting responsibilities, so we could take advantage of the sweet morning light; I gather quite a few people were there before sunrise. I got there around 8am and had grossly miscalculated on the weather; it was indeed in the 50s by about 11am, but it was below freezing until the sun came up (duh on my part - should've thought of that!) - thank goodness I never clear out my car very well, since I had a pair of fleecy gloves and hat in the back... and I needed them!

The beautiful historic barn is one of the major features on the property:

Note the frost....

A little later in the day

The barn is just gorgeous inside - it's ~17th century, although it was moved from its original location when they built a major roadway.

David's reaction to this shot is typical of both what a great teacher he is, and his amazing eye: he immediately went to this picture among my set because of the cool light from one doorway on the haybale contrasting the warm light from the other door on the walls (which I hadn't even noticed - they were both from available, natural light so I hadn't clocked the temp variance from the sunny and non-sunny sides of the building - the doors on either side were open)

The beams of the barn have peg/hole construction

And lastly, some of the items in the barn. This is actually shot with off-camera flash, just to the right, bounced up towards the ceiling and against the wall. The wood produced a very golden tone, so I switched my WB to tungsten to get a more daylight look - I think it worked quite well!

Since there was still some time before we received our "assignments", I wandered around some more. The goat on the roof just cracked me up!

The background here is the frost-covered fields

At 10am, David and Allison, the conservancy's Development Director, briefed us and gave us our assignments

One of my assigned areas was woodlands, so I decided to start with that one before the sun got too much higher, and because I also thought it was going to be the most challenging one for me, with my lack of landscape experience. So, armed with my Tamron 17-50 and a polarizer, I yomped down into the forested area.

I took a lot of reeeaally bad shots before I came up with any I liked - between the harsh sun and the bare trees, it was tricky (we've had very little colour here this year - we went from green to barren without much in between, and even the trees that have changed have done so patchily instead of prettily!). Deeper into the woods, though, the light improved if only because it was blocked by other trees.

Then I stumbled over this abandoned machinery. I have no idea why I got fixated on it, but it did at least give me an "anchor" for a shot. Had to add a tickle of fill flash to the wheel though - the dappled sunlight just missed it, no matter where I stood or how I exposed!

Next up was the farmhouse itself, up on a hill overlooking the property

I was also assigned one of the outbuildings. I'm not sure if I could have done more with this with different lenses - a superwide, perhaps? A fisheye? - but it was ssooo bright outside and there was a lot of building debris just out of shot to camera left which I had to try and minimize - tricky. Not sure this is brilliant, but at least it's clean, and I do quite like the high-contrast conversions on these sunlight shots (although why do I keep thinking of the opening of "The Wizard of Oz"?! It looks like Dorothy's house!!)

All in all, it was a GREAT day and despite tired feet and being chilled to the bone, I'd do something like it again in a heartbeat. It wasn't a "workshop" as such, but a chance to shoot, learn and contribute to the community with some terrific folks.

Gallery here for a few more shots of mine, and blogpost here about the project with some of the extraordinary shots captured by my colleagues.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What a week!

The worlds collide. Again.

Sunday, we opened the Poe recital. It went extremely well for a first outing, I'm happy to say: a momentary glitch as the page-turner grabbed 3 pages at once resulting in the usual flurry and slapping of paper that accompanies such things, but otherwise it went pretty smoothly. The Poe-settings were well received, and we can also now say that we have taken Erlkoenig and nailed it to the wall! Actually, if I'm honest, that was probably one of the most enjoyable pieces of the afternoon for me - I've wanted to sing it for many years but never had the right occasion or quuiiitte the courage to ask a pianist to learn it for me, so I'm thrilled to have done it at last! Similarly, it was a real pleasure to finish the program with Sondheim's A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd - while it is a memorizing nightmare ("Wait - was that verse vicar or friar? Is this the one about beadle or rear admiral?!"), it is an absolute delight to perform; it was rewarding that the audience seemed to have as much fun with it as we did! Special kudos, too, to my wonderful husband for being able to both play it AND sing Sweeney Todd without dropping a beat or syllable - the man's musical versatility is beyond compare!

As soon as that was over, I immediately switched hats and got ready for Tuesday's photoshoot, an opportunity to meet and work with David Hobby, the genius behind www.strobist.com. I'm delighted to say he's even wittier and more brilliant "in real life" than he is on his blog and, while the shooting requirements were definitely outside my comfortzone (one of the reasons I wanted to do the event, to stretch myself!), it was day well spent crawling around the woods and frost-covered fields taking pictures. I can't imagine a better way to have spent my birthday! Look for a full post about it soon, but in the meantime, a small teaser...:

And now, tomorrow, back to singing: we're performing a shortened version of the concert - just the actual Poe settings rather than the "Poe and Friends" of the full program - for a lunchtime event, details here.

There's certainly never a dull moment this week!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Countdown to Halloween II

Radio interview with WBJC's Dyana Neal here

Countdown to Halloween I

Preview of "Telltale Hearts and Twilight Fancies" from The Baltimore Sun here

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nothing like mixing it up

Today: home maintenance as my husband (bless him!) deals with gutters and reapplies the roof-elastomeric glop which (in theory at least) keeps our roof water repellent, kids alternating between playing outside and watching "Glee" upstairs, and I'm working on promotional materials, dates and repertoire for the Poe recital; after the Roof Glopping, we'll squeeze in a quick rehearsal.

I think this is what counts for a "normal suburban Sunday" in this household.... (?!?!?!?!)

The Poe recital seems to be gathering momentum. We enjoyed our radio interview (recorded last Monday, an edited version to be aired the week before Halloween and the full version to be available here soon) and are gratified that folks seem interested in the concept -we've been excited about it since we started planning it, but it's nice to know we're not alone in finding it an intriguing idea!

As we head into the home stretch before the first performances, we find we're falling in love with this music more each time we work on it, which is also wonderfully satisfying (and not always the case!). In particular, the Balfe pair of Poe settings have really grown on us. Initially - at least on the page - they seemed rather musically insubstantial but with each runthrough we've found ourselves becoming more and more attached to them: they're charming. On the page, they look like they should sound like one of Arthur Sullivan's lesser compositions; in reality, they have a naive, Bellini-esque charm which we're finding irresistable. I hope audiences enjoy them as much as we are!

Further information about the Halloween performance here (and there are a couple of other bookings in the works too, details TBA)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Busy week

In between rehearsals this week, I also was busy with a couple of photoshoots, including a 40s-style session with a friend. We had a blast!

More Poe-recital ruminations coming soon, but in the meantime, a touch of Old Hollywood in the 21st century..........

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Interests and distractions: a Blogroll

True confession: I finally started following Twitter. I made an account a while back but didn't quite catch on to how it worked, and it's only now that I've been making a point of checking it regularly. (You can find me @MezzoMG if you're interested in following.)

After two weeks of active participation, while I can see how it could be a potential time drain - especially since so many of the accounts I follow are linked out to articles, news stories and blogs - it has also drawn my attention to some really interesting things I might have missed otherwise. So with that in mind, in no particular order, a blogroll of some sites which have recently caught my interest:

  • A Hit, a Very Palpable Hit (@vlavla).
    I found this linked off an article about the Hamlet, John Simm, but the blog itself is a wonderful account of what we all go through as performers as we put together a significant show. Excellent stuff.

  • I Value the Arts (@ivaluethearts)
    Widely circulated through social media at its launch a few days ago. Even though I'm not currently in the UK, I most assuredly support the venture, and encourage everybody to check them out! I'd love to see a similar campaign here in the US.

  • Skydiving for Pearls
    I had the pleasure of working with Abigail during the summer, and can only say that however interesting this lovely lady sounds in her blog, she's even more so in person.

  • Intermezzo (@inter_mezzo)
    Anybody in Operaland has probably heard of the recent furore between Intermezzo and The Royal Opera House over the use of promotional pictures on blogs and social media sites (in the end resolved without prejudice, happily), but check out their website for more than just the updates on that.

  • Cindy Sadler of "The Next 100 pounds" has started a second blog of more general writings called (appropriately enough!) "Ramble Away"

  • Sharon Blance Image Workshop (@imageworkshop)
    For the photographers among us, a blog with some wonderful lighting tips and behind-the-scenes videos to enjoy from Sharon Blance, a Canadian based in New Zealand.

  • The Retronaut (@theretronaut)
    Photos, articles, and recreations about everything from days gone by. Some astonishing film and photographic footage from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a wonderful site to explore again and again.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Discovering new music

Let's face it - there's a point in a musician's life (ok, in THIS musician's life) where you start to think you're pretty well-versed in repertoire. You've studied, listened and learned. You've been around the business a while and are a self-confessed repertoire-holic (even as a teenager I used to dig through volumes of song and choral rep just because it interested me). And when you're married to a musical polymath as I am, that tends to put even more repertoire in your path so, once you're familiar with most of what's regularly presented, know what's available as a recording, or know what you (or friends and colleagues) have actually performed, you shouldn''t expect too many surprises, right??


It's a particular delight when a previously unheard-of composer comes to light. Deodat de Severac, in this case. Mr Musical Polymath had heard of his piano works in passing, but was entirely UNfamiliar with his output of delicious songs, including at least one setting of an Edgar Allan Poe text (translated by Mallarme), which fits beautifully into the program for the forthcoming Halloween recital we are preparing which is based on the life and works of EAP.

Thanks to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, the discoveries haven't stopped there: they have an entire digital archive of Poe musical settings, which yielded some more "unsung heroes". We're particularly intrigued by the songs of the American Edward Royce, a composer about whom neither of us know anything at all and so far we have discovered little (anybody who knows of or about him, please do let us know!). What I can say is that this is genuinely good music that seems to have sunk without trace - how does that happen?!

Recitals are always fun to prepare and present, but becoming acquainted with entire bodies of work that I didn't even know existed is a real joy; I love that process of discovery, and am thrilled to be able to champion some unfamiliar works!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The road of good intentions

I had such high hopes for regular blogging while I was away. I figured I'd have enough spare time on my hands that I could write a little more than I do at home, and really consider some thoughts that have banging around my head for a while now.

Well, to say that the gig was intense is an understatement. Absolutely wonderful, inspiring, stimulating, challenging (in all senses of the word) and happy, but more all-encompassing than anything I've done in many years. Most days I was simply too tired to write by the time I finished rehearsals, and with few breaks in the performance schedule (in Operaland, when things usually slow down a bit if only because there are often days between performances) I just never had the energy.

It would be impossible to overstate what a phenomenal experience the 6 weeks were, in all ways. The cast was one of the most collegial with which it has ever been my pleasure to work; given that we were all housed on campus (some of us sharing apartments) and thus spent a great deal of time together that in itself is nothing short of amazing. In addition, I've never known a cast who worked through the (normal and inevitable) frustrations of rehearsals with such respect and dignity - even on "bad days", people were able to leave it behind in the rehearsal room and spend a perfectly friendly and comfortable evening with their colleagues "senza rancor", returning to rehearsals the next day fresh, positive, and ready to tackle any challenges with enthusiasm. Talk about amicable professionalism!

The production process itself was different for most of us, with our operatic expectations, since this was staged more as a musical. I'm still processing my (very positive) thoughts about this and haven't yet figured out how to explain the impact it's had on what I feel I can bring to future productions. The main thing I can say at this point is that while opera and MT do have common ground, they are NOT one and the same, and it was interesting to watch us all growing and adapting as we fused expectations on both sides of the theatrical divide.

Biggest challenge I faced throughout the very active production was a foot injury - two weeks into rehearsals, I turned my ankle while out walking. The mild sprain healed surprisingly quickly (thankfully, since I've had problems with this ankle for years due to multiple sprains), but I must have been compensating for it badly and in doing so ruptured the plantar fascia ligament on the base of my foot, causing excruciating pain with every step. Sport tape, painkillers and some (ridiculously expensive, but effective) shoe inserts improved matters enough that I could mask the injury while onstage, but it was a distraction I could have done without.

And now, back home again. Plenty of work to do on a forthcoming recital (hopefully to become a series of recitals) and the start of the semester with its necessary preparations coming up fast. But sometimes you have an experience which doesn't necessarily change you as such, but which allows you to view everything that comes after it through a different lens, exploring new and different options, and expanding your perceptions and understanding in ways that you'd never considered before. This was one of those gigs, and I'm profoundly grateful to have had such a wonderful opportunity, and one which came at the perfect time. A friend of mine is fond of quoting Hamlet whenever something perfect seems to emerge at just the right moment:

there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be
if it be not now, yet it will come:
readiness is all

I can only agree.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A "mere" 98 degrees

Which, after yesterday's 103-in-the-shade (no joke), felt positively balmy.

Mishmash, in bullet points:
  • Long but beautiful drive north - armed with some great audio (how wonderfully easy it is with mp3 players!), I took the long way around both to avoid traffic and to enjoy a more scenic route, which I most certainly did - clinging to the interstates or the main routes with their endless vistas of strip malls and fast food it's easy to forget how beautiful the US landscape can be, and the semi-rural route I travelled was definitely the right choice. Settled in, got the internet up and running, and now getting down to business...

  • Costume fitting: Neither purely in period, nor purely not, but a wonderful pan-national-pan-period-couture style that immediately adds ideas for character. It's great to have seen the costumes so early on, too (I don't start staging until tomorrow) because it means I can factor that in as we start to rehearse.

  • I finally tracked down a bicycle today - I've wanted one for ages, but the terrain here is ideal for cycling, and it made sense to take the plunge. Finances dictated compromises - my goodness but bikes have changed in design and price since I bought my last one while at Cambridge! - but I think this will do just fine for my limited needs. Can't wait to pick it up tomorrow when the temperatures may even dip enough to make it possible to go for a ride. Looking forward to riding the local trails with the camera and getting better acquainted with the area. When it isn't 100 degrees....

  • Since our schedule is mornings and afternoons but I'm too tired to do much at the end of the day, I'm using my evenings to continue our retrograde jaunt through the BBC's Life on Mars (I brought the disks with me). While it has nothing at all to do with the show I'm working on, I do find watching these great performances beyond inspiring, and it makes me think about how I can do my own job better. I still find it amazing that we didn't connect with this series on first viewing, but am delighted to be gobbling it up now we've thrown ourselves into the Gene Genieverse with abandon. I have to confess that - despite the extraordinary performance of John Simm and the harder-edged writing - so far I still have a sneaking preference for Ashes to Ashes, but perhaps it's not even really fair to compare them: despite the overlap of characters, they're entirely different shows, in many ways. Both are sheer genius and a wonderful watching experience, that's for certain. In addition to the exceptional strength of these characters within a really inventive large plot arc - and quite strong individual stories within each episode - several years of living in Manchester makes the turn of phrase, plot points, and character details particularly resonant and entirely familiar; it's rather a Proustian experience, really.
Back in my own universe: on to first staging tomorrow - we're off and running!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The usual hodgepodge

  • 11 musical numbers and 12 dialogues to finish memorizing before rehearsals start on July 6th.
  • Two photo shoots to complete.
  • School's out.
  • Heatwave.

All washed down with a healthy dose of "Gene-Genie-isms", since our continued march through the British TV we've managed to miss in the last 5 years includes currently catching up with Ashes to Ashes (aside: it's slightly dangerous to let my husband watch this program in the large quantities we're currently enjoying it, since his dry sense of humour and Manchester upbringing mean that he lapses into his own brand of Huntspeak all too easily. The plus side to this is that I haven't stopped laughing in about 4 days, so I'm not really complaining...).

Next up: doing every scrap of laundry I can find so I leave the troops with clean clothes. And packing.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Past, Present and Future

or, perhaps, "La Jeune Fille aux iPod Violet"

I'm enjoying a couple of days off before the likely maelstrom which will be June begins next week, and this idea dropped into my head for a photo challenge with the theme, "Yesterday or Tomorrow".

I couldn't resist....

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Well hello there

Firstly, given the sight that greeted me this afternoon (picture) I think it's fair to say that my roses really liked spending February buried in 6ft of snow, and I suppose the current wet and warm (but not too warm) conditions must be agreeing with them too!

They've put on a spectacular show in the last couple of days, and it's pretty exciting to see what I had envisioned when I planted them three years ago! They stretch up the entire length of fence on the west side of the house, and there's another swathe of them at the back as well. I'm amazed! I'd never thought of myself as a "real" gardener before I started The Great Rose Project in 2007 so it's even more satisfying.

In the meantime, starting the countdown towards the next gig - and I can't deny I'm looking forward to the role, and the many surrounding events which will be going on around me concurrently: in addition to operatic performances, this festival will offer a lot of interesting art exhibits, theatre, dance, chamber music, recitals and film to explore while I'm there, which sounds like absolute heaven to me - I can't wait!

Of course, my extended absence will undoubtedly cause logistical complications at home, but we'll work it out somehow; I anticipate spending a lot of the next month mapping out schedules to try and keep ahead of how things will work while I'm gone..... I'm not sure if it gets easier or more complicated as our daughter gets older. She needs less "hands on" care than she did when she was little, but she has more of her own events and activities which require transport and planning! Swings in roundabouts, I guess.

At least with school/college schedules a little lighter as we move into the summer sessions, we'll be able to enjoy some family time and a slightly slower pace for the weeks until I leave. We all need it after a busy spring, I think.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Split personality

Well, I think as a working mom I'm always a bit of a split personality, but the past couple of weeks have taken it to new heights.

The recital two weeks ago went far better than I could have hoped: I had set myself some particular goals and challenges, and I think that I achieved what I'd set out to do, which was very satisfying. Not to say that it was a "perfect" performance (what's one of those?!), but that I had given myself specific goals, and even in the heat of performance was able to follow through with what I had planned. I can't ask for more from myself, really, so even if had it been meaningful to nobody except myself, I'd have been thrilled! But it got better: I'd initially thought that these things were more significant as technical explorations for myself and would be too subtle to really have much impact, but apparently not - the audience responded quite strongly, even if they didn't know why something had particularly affected them. This is a wonderful outcome - I'm thrilled that my experiments in expanding my expressive palette went beyond my own "process"; it's very exciting to have some new tools in the kit and I can't wait til the next string of performances so I can try and take it even further. As an added bonus, the concert attracted the largest audience this (newish) concert series has had to date, so The Powers That Be were happy at a practical as well as artistic level.

As soon as that was done, I switched hats and started shooting photos. Lots, and lots, and LOTS of photos. I agreed to do headshots for the acting class at the college where I teach; I did this last year as part of some of my first attempts at formal portraits (when I had a lot of time on my hands due to the unexpected company cancellations), and the teacher approached me to do it again this year. Except that this year there are TWENTY students to fit into a few short sessions! That's a lot of headshots..... So far I've done sessions with 14 of them; the remainder will be after Easter. In the middle of all that, I also took rehearsal shots for my friends at the Concert Opera.... culminating in a grand total of 2700 frames shot in 9 days . That's a lot of processing! (For those who don't know, when you shoot "raw" digital files, as a I do, the resulting files are really only a digital negative, not the finished image, and you have to digitally "process" them before they look like much. It's worth it for the greater artistic control and higher image quality than the camera's automated process-to-jpg functions can provide, but it's a lot more work!!)

And now, it seems it's time to switch hats again and ease back into my role as Domestic Diva. I have a cold, and our daughter just got sent home from school with a stomach bug, so looks like we'll all be digging in at home this weekend, just trying to get better. I think a quiet weekend might be a good thing all round!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spreadin' the radio love....

For anybody else who, like me, is a BBC radio junkie, I can heartily recommend this little utility, Radio Downloader.

Simple and easy to use, you select the programs you'd like to hear, "subscribe", and the software goes and fetches them for you automatically as soon as they're available at the BBC radio website. I find this more appealing than live-streaming since I can match up the broadcast time with my own time-zone wherever I am, which is particularly nice when listening to news broadcasts (I can enjoy "Today" over my morning coffee again!)

Highly recommended.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Catching up with some reading

I recently picked up some books I've been promising myself to read for years, one of which is Patsy Rodenburg's extraordinary The Actor Speaks.

While much of Rodenburg's book is the building blocks of actually making and manipulating sounds, there is a LOT (and I mean lot) of the philosophy of acting and LIFE mixed in. Best of all, coming from the British tradition of theatrical training (of which I'm very proud to be a part myself - not a day goes by when I don't thank the RNCM in one way or another for what they gave me) voice and body technique is not skipped in favour of emotive expression, but the why's and wherefore of how one turns that physical technique
into text and, ultimately, heightened emotion are explored ... which is precisely the journey we take as singers.

One of the best books I've read in years - I can't believe I waited this long to buy it. I can see it's going to become a constant companion, since so much of it easily "crosses the floor" to be entirely relevant to the operatic process (both physically and theatrically).

Highly recommended.

Monday, February 15, 2010

When did I get swamped?

I'm not quite sure how it went from the carefully planned work curve I mapped out for this month to zOMG, but it has.

So, this is just a short update. I suspect part of the sudden feeling of 0-60 comes from losing a lot of "normal" daily life to the weather (I believe we're now up to about 80" of snow for the season, and it's just started dumping it AGAIN), and also to the wonderful 4-day-trip to Vancouver to take up a friend's invitation to see the dress rehearsal of the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. The trip itself was wonderful, even if travelling in-between snowstorms was more than a tad complicated! But we managed to make it both out and back, so one mustn't complain.

In the meantime, back to memorizing a LOT of music for a lrecital I'm doing next month. Watch this space for more news!

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Inspiration is a funny thing. I've written several times about taking it where you find it - however unlikely the source - and, in general, I've been lucky in that way. I've always felt motivated to go above and beyond just because something, somewhere, made me think about how I could go further and how I could use that thing which inspired me in my own artistic efforts; a kind of "paying it forward". Whether it was a new interpretation of a poem or character, a director's vision, an exciting "catches fire" performance, some kind of extraordinary musicmaking, a colleague's commitment, or just the music itself, there's always been something out there to feed my artistic imagination and keep me coming back refreshed and motivated for more.

Hardly surprisingly, last year was too destructive to leave much room for being inspired. Sure, a flicker here and there, but I guess the comparative lack of performing opportunities and my own gloomy state of mind made me immune to the good stuff and I didn't have too many of those magic moments where I thought, "Yup. THAT'S why I perform! Bring. It. On.".

I'm thrilled to say that a holiday period spent watching some really excellent film and TV productions and letting myself rediscover being an ordinary "fan" has acted as a kind of a reboot. Combined with preparations for a couple of concert performances coming up where I'll have the chance to tackle music I've had on the back-burner for many years, I've had a good reminder of my passion for performing, which is a wonderful way to start the new year.

It's exciting to be preparing this music in particular, some of it not attempted since I was a student. The really exciting part is getting to revisit it now that I am technically developed enough to finally put the ideas I had about it into some kind of practice! By "technique" I don't only mean vocal, although that is of course a huge part of it - phrases which were once almost insurmountable now simply need focused practice to get them physically into the voice, and greater vocal experience and security means I know exactly how to approach the nuts-and-bolts to make them work consistently (well, I think I do - I guess the proof of that will be in the performance!). But dramatic/expressive technique, too (which, while absolutely based on emotion, also has a technical component to ensuring that the emotions we wish to convey travel to the audience. We have to "express" it rather than "feel" it, and that can often be a surprisingly technical process!). Once upon a time, I used to sacrifice the vocal technique for the dramatic impetus - sheer force of will and emotional intensity meant that I got away with it as far as most people were concerned, but I knew there were technical holes in the fabric, so the pendulum swung the other way as I let technique dominate. The drama was always there but (if I'm honest) it was sometimes taking a more "paint by numbers" approach as my mental bytage was focused on larynxes, soft palates, and breathing mechanisms. At last I feel ready to try for "and" rather than "either/or" with this music.

It's always a balancing act between the icy technical mind and a fired-up musico-dramatic passion, and it's exciting to revisit this long-shelved music to try and fuse them the way I always imagined they NEED to be fused.

Bring it on!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ponderings on "North and South"

No, not the Hollywood film, but the BBC adaptation of Mrs Gaskell's socially conscientious, almost-penny-dreadful, almost-epic novel of the same name set against the Dark Satanic Mills of 19th century "Milton" (Manchester) in "Darkshire" (Lancashire) which we caught up with over the last few days. How on earth we missed this one when it was first released in 2004 I'll never know, but better late than never!

Firstly, this is without a doubt one of the best period dramatizations I've ever seen. Period. It has the usual beautiful and historically-accurate production values one has come to expect from the BBC's lavish television adaptations of classic works, but seems to go even one step further with a sumptuous score that out-Finzi's the man himself, and cinematography that takes your breath away. Eat your heart out, Hollywood.

Enough of Mrs Gaskell's own dialogue is left intact that you are inexorably drawn into her world where change and tradition were still coexisting rather uncomfortably, and the class struggle and tension between a rural past and an industrial future are clearly defined. Even the artistic licence taken with the final scene is bearable - it's true to the spirit of the book if not to the letter and is performed with such tenderness and elegance that, despite knowing that no respectable unmarried Victorian lady would have let herself be passionately kissed in broad daylight in public, you can even forgive them having made the change from drawing room to railway platform. It's all wrong but all right.

The performances are quite simply magnificent. There's no denying that Richard Armitage is easy on the eyes, but his brooding Mr Thornton goes beyond good looks and screen charisma: even as he glares from beneath what were memorably described by my husband as his "starched eyebrows" (!), subtleties in the performance let us see from the beginning that this is a good and honest man at heart, a man whose world is turned upside down not only by the turmoil of a workers' strike, but by the outspoken, headstrong, not-really-a-snob Margaret Hale who shows him that maybe there is more to life than trouble at't'mill. Daniela Denby-Ashe's luminous Margaret perfectly captures the essence of Gaskell's heroine, and she draws us into her world of genteel poverty even as she tries to see outside her sheltered upbringing, learning along the way that honourable intentions may not always manifest quite as expected. Not to be forgotten are Sinead Cusack as the stern, black-clad matriarch at the head of the Thornton household, Jo Joyner as the truly-awful, capricious and silly Fanny, and Brendan Coyle as Higgins, the union activist who genuinely cares about people regardless of their station in life.

Above and beyond simply enjoying the series, the craft behind this particular production struck me. As an actress, it was fun to see the technical skill that these wonderful performers brought to their roles, particularly when re-watching certain scenes after I knew "what happened next". Initially, I just enjoyed watching the story unfold, but on second-viewing it was an education to see the details that had been so carefullly painted into the performances, subtleties of body language, tiny moves and interactions, meaningful looks filled with ambiguities that, once the plot was known, were clear-as-day expressions of the characters' thoughts. Thornton's attempts not to look at Margaret, but staying at her door just a second or two too long for comfort (masterful timing throughout, in fact - kudos to the director as well!). Margaret's harsh words to a servant belied by a comforting touch to her arm. Mrs Thornton's gentle maternal empathy as she covers her son, fallen asleep over the accounts, with her shawl. Higgins' subtle mixture of deference and resentment as he refuses Margaret's coin after he has helped her away from a gang of rough youths. Tiny little touches all of which add up to characters who feel real, and which offer us little moments of genuine emotional connection. Unlike Dickens's casts of eccentrics and all-good-or-all-bad "Everymen", these people seemed to be real flesh and blood.

It also seemed that the cinematography and lighting played a huge role in the characters' developments on this one - now that I'm thinking about light as a photographer, I find myself noticing it all the time in films and videos (not sure if this is a blessing or a curse!) In addition to the obvious (and very beautiful!) use of light and shade to distinguish between Margaret's glorified memories of her idyllic childhood home and the dark gloom of Milton, the lighting was used to help visually mark the emotional journey of the characters, it seemed. Of particular note was how dramatically the lighting changed Mr Thornton from seeming-brute (underlit and brooding as light from overhead cast shadows into the eyes) to "misunderstood hero" (lots of side and Rembrandt lighting, with only one side of his face clearly available for us to "read") to "honest man in love" when suddenly his face was bathed in softer, more even light that finally allowed us to see his eyes (and, finally, a smile!).

Well-performed drama such as this is always a treat - in its own right, of course, but I find it also reminds me to look to fill my own performances with this kind of skill and detail. As a singer we don't have the luxury of self-pacing (the musical rhythm does it for us) and in a 2000 seat theater the subtleties a filmed actor can explore wouldn't play to the house, but that is no reason not to remember and use details while creating a character - the scale may be different, but the principles are the same and it can be the difference between a good performance and a great one.

North and South was, without a doubt, a great one.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

And the year turns....

I've thought long and hard about what to write at the turn of this particular New Year, following one of the hardest years in a long time. Just about everybody I know has kicked gloomy, broody, unpredictable and unkind 2009 out the door with considerable relish, and is passing on hopes for a better 2010.

While I heartily agree, I hesitate to repeat the same message yet again so I'll just take this opportunity to wish everybody a VERY Happy New Year with renewed commitment to face whatever challenges come our way. And leave you with a slideshow of images from 2009 ... a reminder to myself that perhaps it wasn't all bad.