Friday, 13 December 2013

What we do as opera singers is judged.  That is, of course, only fair.  People are paying to hear us sing.  Critics rate us, auditions weed us out, we are hired or fired on the basis of our reputations.  What I am concerned with here, though, is the situation where we are being judged on aspects of our performance that are without our control.  It's slightly worrying that there are layers of the opera world which don't seem to realise that as performers in the modern world, we do NOT have total control over what we sing or how we sing it.

There may be a few performers at the peak of our art who have the luxury of choice when it comes to roles, but most of us need to pay the bills and eat and boring stuff like that, and so if a role comes along which is singable and which fits with the rest of what we have going on, mostly we are forced by circumstance to take it. This applies particularly to singers on permanent contract with a theatre - of course, some of the roles they sing are not a perfect fit for them as artists.  However, it was, in many cases, not a choice.  When you're Fest, you often simply sing what's there, provided it doesn't actually harm your voice.  Some roles will fit, others will be taken on unwillingly but as part of the contract.  If you're independent, of course, sometimes you'll take something just in order to eat etc etc, (I would say, maybe this is just me, but, well, it isn't).  And we are judged on our choice of roles.

Within that constraint, there are others.  We are often dressed in clothes which do nothing for our figures.  Ditto make-up.  That's simply the way the opera world works now.  What is less obvious, though, is that we are constrained to accept the concept of the director as regards our character.  This can occasionally be a path to artistic discovery - an angle we may not have thought of ourselves, an overview gathering several conceptual strands together - but it can also bunch us awkwardly into a performance in which we are not intellectually invested.  And we are judged on our acting, and how good we look in our costumes.

You'd think that our voices were at least our own to command.  Not entirely so.  Conductors can - and do - ask for particular effects.  And sometimes it's a question of conform to their demands or leave the production (see comments on needing to eat etc. above).  What critics may decry as lacking sufficient dramatic power may in fact be us trusting the conductor enough to accede to her demands to feel the role lyrically - and what agents may interpret as blindly thundering around may, on the contrary, be our attempt to keep up with the conductor's request to let all our resources loose at a particular moment.  Again.  We are judged on our musical interpretation.

This isn't necessarily personal; I am incensed by how various friends and colleagues of mine have been judged recently by people who really should have known better, on aspects of their performance over which they had little control.

So; a plea to critics of all guises:  we may not be the masters of our own performance in all aspects; if you could please be aware of this, we'd be hellishly grateful.  (Newspaper critics; have you, for example, considered your situation in parallel with ours?  You may have aimed for a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalism position, but all that was offered was the post of music critic...).

And agents, whom we as artists naturally bow to in the normal order of things, well, there remain those who know what a voice is about, and I am lucky to know and work with a few, but (oh I shouldn't post this), there are those who really haven't a bloody clue about the voice.  

In an ideal world, one in which our artistic choices were our own, I would uphold our duty to be judged on our performances alone.  In this not-so-ideal world we get to live in, however, I'd simply like to ask those who legitimately judge us to take various considerations in mind...


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