It is the last day before Opera Holland Park takes its annual Christmas and New Year break, and the 2020 OHP Young Artists are learning what not to do in auditions. This is the final session in a week of intensive online stagecraft workshops with the director Rodula Gaitanou (Un ballo in maschera 2019, La traviata 2018 and The Queen of Spades 2016) and the pianist Stuart Wild, OHP’s regular accompanist and a highly respected vocal coach on the staff of the Royal College of Music. Today the singers are auditioning for each other, acting as young hopefuls and as members of the audition panel.

Before the pandemic brought live performance to a halt, soprano Lucy Anderson, mezzo soprano Charlotte Badham, tenor Jack Roberts and baritone Rory Musgrave had been due to play the four leading roles in the 2020 OHP Young Artists performances of Eugene Onegin. They were joined in the stagecraft week by baritone Jacob Phillips, who is currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music. As Jack points out, “the last nine months have provided a space for reflection.” His singing lessons have continued through lockdowns 1 and 2. He has worked on repertoire and on his vocal technique but “I haven’t worked with directors or music directors. Having this opportunity to delve into a character, a methodology of how to go further, is proving to be really valuable.”

All five singers are at the beginning of their careers, a period in which auditions with national and international companies, and their early experience as artists with those companies, will prove critical to their later development. Rory has a head start in international terms but music is a profession in which the process of learning never ends. The workshops devised by Gaitanou focus on one aria of the singers’ choosing and one section of Italian recitative, identifying and building a character through rigorous research, improvisation and experimentation, knitting together the voice, the body and the imagination.

“It’s all about generosity and opening your channels”, says Gaitanou. “There is a point when the material becomes entirely yours. Having an expressive face comes with a responsibility. When you have ideas, we can see them. When you don’t, we can all tell.” Day One begins with improvisation, exploring the immediate and wider historical context of an aria, bringing ideas to the table and discussing them. “You can ask and not challenge,” Gaitanou says, “It’s a fine line. You are part of a team. It’s not just the director who has power.”

With characters from Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana to Mozart’s Count and Cherubino, Stravinsky’s Tom Rakewell and Bellini’s Riccardo, the virtual room is full of people bursting with love, fury, desire, regret and loss. These are big emotions to express in music. The day ends with an interesting homework task: to block – which is to say, direct – one’s own aria, choosing costume and props from whatever is available at home. “It was amazing”, said Jacob, “talking about individual characters, the context of the opera, the historical context, all the energy and ideas.”

Gaitanou encourages her artists to consider what their characters might be like were they at large in the present day. There’s a particular challenge in portraying a villain, she warns. “When performers criticize the character, what we see on stage is that critique, you don’t present the character, you present your opinion of the character. Don’t be afraid to befriend them, making them yours. The more you support them the more you can show the full spectrum of them to the audience.”

In a period when more and more auditions are self-taped and presented online with pre-recorded accompaniment, a singer must be twice as punctilious about their preparation and presentation. Whether they are singing in Russian, English or Italian, the language must be crisp and the character clear. Especially when viewed on a small screen. The daily recordings of clips are analysed in detail. Bel canto arias such as ‘Ah! per sempre io ti perdei’, Rory’s choice from I Puritani, are particularly exposing. “You can always take time,” says Wild, “People think they’re taking too much time but take more!”

By midweek, Jack is buzzing. “In today’s session we focussed on reworking the characters in our arias in a more unconventional way. What happens if you portray a much older and more bitter Tom Rakewell or a mentally ill Tatyana? What I found so interesting about the process was how differently the texts came across when the characters were altered”, he says.

“It sounds obvious but the degree to which the pieces felt different was a real eye-opener, demonstrating that there are so many layers and different interpretations to a text. One of Rodula’s main points was that we should always think outside the box about possibilities for our characters. Similarly to yesterday, I found the exercise of developing a staging such a useful exercise in preparing my aria, even if for an audition or recital where I wouldn’t actually perform the staging itself I would still benefit from the context.”

With Italian recitative selections drawn from La clemenza di Tito, Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, the singers are encouraged to speak their lines, walk their lines, make their own translations of them and deliver them in English. If there is one great change in operatic performance practice over the last 30 years it is the speed at which recitative is delivered. It’s no longer enough to sound beautiful. You have to sound as though it is your mother tongue, and spit the words out at an authentically Italian presto.

The self-stagings and collective stagings are gradually refined. “If you’re seated, it means we focus on the upper body”, says Gaitanou, “So you have only half of the expressive tools to play with, and you have to be able to convey your character through just half of yourself.” The business of letter writing in Tatyana’s aria is analysed. Gaitanou encourages Lucy to play with different ways of handling the same actions, different attitudes to pen and paper. It’s a thrillingly detailed process and one that is seldom, if ever, made public. After five days, Lucy, Charlotte, Jack, Jacob and Rory have new tools in their toolkits and new ideas about their audition pieces. As Gaitanou says, “I like it when singers come with ideas. They can challenge my own, and the best idea wins.”

Article by Anna Picard