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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!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Renewals

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.