Monday, 13 October 2014

This was really meant to be the other way up.  Starting from the inception of this not-totally-sane venture and following it through, in a scientific and disinterested way, to its culmination.  However, heck, firstly it was me, and secondly it was me actually in the middle of all of this, never mind writing about it, and the possibility of commenting on what I was far, far too busy experiencing just went right out of the window.

So what am I actually talking about?  Well, an opportunity came up to learn a role in a Brecht/Weill piece on a terribly short timescale.  And the chance was a little random in the first place as my agency had recommended me on the basis of the wrong opera!  I'd sung Mrs Peachum in the Britten version of John Gay's "The Beggars' Opera" when at music college.  Great stuff, but musically absolutely nothing to do with the Brecht/Weill version of the same piece, which uses the same situation and characters, but utterly different music and dialogue.  (Not that the latter would have helped anyway, because the version in question was in German.)

I'd been very excited when I first got the call from the theatre.  It's a great theatre, very near me, and I'd been wanting to sing for them for ages.  When it became clear that they thought I'd done this particular role, however, I explained that I hadn't, and directed them back to the agency.  I said how disappointed I was, and that I could probably learn the role in an emergency.  Upon talking to the lady at the agency, she said in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't let someone loose on such a role at such short notice unless they'd performed it on the German stage previously, and that they'd recommended other performers, and, well, that was that.  I sighed and carried on.

However, ten days ago I got a slightly panicked call from the theatre again; evidently the other performers couldn't do that particular date or something.  Long story short - they begged me to do the role.  The message landed in my voicemail at 10 p.m.; I spent an anguished evening asking friends and colleagues for advice (I am very lucky indeed to have such a great network of contacts willing to help!).

It was a very finely-balanced decision; definitely not without the bounds of possibility, but requiring unstinted focus until the performance and a huge amount of trust in myself as a performer and as a German-speaker.  Needless to say, I didn't get a huge amount of sleep that night, but at some point in the morning, as the dawn was starting to break, I just thought, BUGGER IT, I'm doing it.  

The bloke had said he'd ring me at 9 a.m.  When he did, I said I was actually standing at the stage door of the theatre and maybe we could discuss it in person.  Within minutes we had an agreement and copies of the score and libretto and a DVD of the performance were in my bag as I headed back home.

At which point the fun started!  Naturally, the entire process was a gut-churning mixture of adrenalin-fuelled excitement and soul-destroying dread, involving the detachment of much of my brain from functioning life for the duration.  Contact with friends and family was severely curtailed (sorry, everyone!).  Food and exercise had to be plotted in as necessary; I would have forgotten them for the most part, but was conscious that they were necessary to the higher functioning of the organism as a whole, and they therefore had to be allowed a certain percentage of brain function.

A few "highlights" of the intervening days:

-  the realisation that despite having looked over the score and thought, oh that's OK, the rest of the cast being actors meant that the whole shebang would have to be sung an octave lower than my normal tessitura.  *gulp*

-  waking to the incessant noise of the words I was trying to drum into my head.  Failing to fall asleep because of the same.  Repeat unto insanity.

-  realising with cold horror quite how much stage business there was to get my head around, quite apart from words and music.

Oh yes, it was . . . interesting.  I enlisted friends and colleagues, scribbled upon reams of paper and doodled upon scrolls of wallpaper which I then draped around my flat (see photo above for one of these in its growth stages!).  This really is when you realise how lucky you are to have people who support you, calm you, slap you gently back into reality, feed you, encourage you and remind you to actually breathe.  Thank you, everyone!!

Anyway, yesterday evening was the performance.  I'd had a run-through on a rehearsal stage the previous afternoon, with a couple of my colleagues who were nice enough to give up their time.  Their generosity of spirit reassured me hugely; this was mainly an acting role, and in true Brechtian spirit, the production involved a nod to the fact that the audience knew that we were in fact actors playing these roles, rather than actually "being" the characters.  Far too complicated right now to explain coherently what I mean, but in practice, I was reassured that if absolutely necessary (i.e. totally drying or venturing into completely the wrong scene), my fellow actors were free to feed me lines, and I to ask or to shout out that I couldn't hear the bloody prompter and that they weren't paying me enough to jump in etc...

The colleagues I met were superb.  Much reassured on the acting front, I was still pretty nervous about the one classic ballad I had to sing.  Doesn't matter how many arias etc one has memorised and sung on stage, the fact remains that when you transfer anything learned on to the stage, there is normally a bit of a memory blip whilst doing so. Well, there is with me, any rate.  I was a bit worried; this is a classic Weill ballad, the audience might well know it far better than me, and the logistics (pretty much darkness apart from a follow-spot, huge movements of stage machinery behind me) meant that any prompts would probably be inaudible and any words scribbed on fingers unseen.

Suddenly, there was nothing more to be done.  I was out on stage.  And BUGGER ME IT WAS FUN!!!  Feathers flew everywhere (I really, really hate having feathers up my nose, but in such a role it was permissible to fish them out again, and with something like five changes of feather jacket, a few here and there were probably unavoidable).  Most of the words came out in the right order (I rather think a further post is demanding to be written concerning acting on stage IN GERMAN - but it's going to have to wait; it would make this post interminable).  The ballad somehow got sung.  I managed to spit out the important verbal cues, and to be roughly where I was expected to be at certain moments.  I might have trodden on a couple of extras, but they forgave me (happily, I'd worked with one of them before, and she must have given me a good report - thanks, Alice :-) ).

When push came to shove, I even got the bloody ballad right.  Not the best singing I've ever done in my life, but the words came out, and I meant them, and - for me at least - they were not overshadowed by a whorehouse in all its glory being rolled out and used to the max behind me...

I ended the evening sweating and triumphant and happy; I am a couple of new friends up from these colleagues, and have gained a world of experience from being allowed onto the stage as an actress (there is an amazing freedom of timing, of improvisation, of expression, to be found.  As an opera singer, my constraints are usually slightly different).

So, still floating on a tide of adrenaline, and happy as a sandlark, and yes (this usually freaks anyone who isn't in The Business out), all that work was just for the one performance.  Still you never know; anyone need a Frau Peachum in the Brecht/Weill "Die Dreigroschenoper"?  Correct pronunciation of "Brecht'scher Verfremdungseffekt" guaranteed ;-)

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