‘Eva im Paradies’ : A report detailing my learning experience of my RCS role

study and performance of Eva in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

In Autumn 2018, I was approached by Ben Woodward, the director and founder of Fulham Opera about performing the role of Eva in a concert performance of the 3rd (final) Act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in December of the same year, as part of the company's chorus outreach and workshop activities. After discussion with the RCS they kindly offered to allow me to learn the whole role of Eva as a role study for academic credit in lieu of Winter Opera Scenes (which I would miss due to the performance). Having never done a role study before, during the first Approach to Critical Artistry project lecture, it immediately stuck me that this was a unique learning opportunity, not only for academic and artistic growth, but also for self reflection.  This role was a big challenge, both in terms of exploring my growing voice AND mental and physical stamina. Careful preparation would be required...

ABOUT THE OPERA

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Richard Wagner (Premiered at the Königliches Hof- und National-Theater, Munich, June 1868)

The plot: Nobleman Walter arrives in Nürnberg and falls in love at first sight with goldsmith’s daughter Eva and decides to compete to win her hand in marriage in a singing competition run by the local guild. He fails at his first attempt at entry to the guild but with help from master shoemaker Hans Sachs and his apprentice David, along with Eva and Eva’s maid Magdalena, Walter manages to re-enter the competition and defeats the other competitor, Beckmesser, and wins Eva’s hand.

PROJECT TIMELINE 

  • 24th-7th October                  Preparation

  • 8th Oct-7th Nov                    Lessons, coachings & role learning

  • 7th-30th Nov 2018               Core rehearsal period in London (& role memorisation)

  • 1st December 2018              Sitzprobe of in London with Fulham Opera

  • 2nd December 2018            Concert Performance of Meistersinger in London with Fulham Opera

  • 5th December 2018             College Assessment of my role study

PREPARATION

For my role study I have produced a full character study which explains where my character fits in the plot, the historical context of the opera and plot, Eva's story arc, possible characterisation,  and a lot more, however, my role study has already been assessed by RCS and thus its content does not form part of this assessment.

One of the first things I did when I was offered the role was to listen to great singers sing the role and watch famous productions, to give myself a thorough grounding in both the style of the piece and how it is normally produced.  Great interpreters of the role of Eva include:

 

Lotte Lehmann                                                                              Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Joan Sutherland                                                                                         Renée Fleming  

I also watched three full productions of the opera, which were all extremely different to one another:

Bayreuther Festspiele  (Deutsche Grammophon 1984) with MariAnne Häggander playing Eva

Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Euroarts 1995) with Eva Johansson playing Eva

Glyndebourne (Opus Arte 2012), with Anna Gabler playing Eva

 

I also watched the Royal Opera house’s online documentary about preparation for their production, which I found very insightful: 

Choosing a score edition to work from should always be a process of research and exploration. However, in this particular case I was asked by the conductor (for ease of rehearsal) to use an edition of his choice, the Breitkopf & Hartel edition, which is an urtext (from a facsimile of Wagner's original 1868 score). 

 

I have a very specific and practiced process for preparation of my scores for performance, to aid memorisation and provide a clear view of the text, notes, vocal colours, dynamics and on-stage acting instructions (although in this case as it was a concert performance there was no movement to record and thus this step is omitted). Due to having a specific learning disability (dyslexia affecting my processing speed), I make a lot of alterations and additions to my scores to remove distractions and make the score as clear as possible, with information colour coding, so that I can concentrate on what I need to when I need to.

  1. I start by using the Castel opera diction and coaching books. These diction, pronunciation and translation books for all the major operas were written by Nico Castel, who coached at the Metropolitan Opera for over 30 years. I write out on lined paper the text of my entire role with a translation (if the text is not in English) and any international phonetic alphabet pronunciation symbols I may need. The Castel is invaluable as often, when one is translating using a dictionary and come across antiquated words or expressions, the meaning is lost. For example, in Act 2 of Meistersinger, Eva uses the word ‘Hansen’. The dictionary and extensive online searching offered no relevant results, simply listing the word as a surname, but the Castel revealed that this is an obsolete renaissance German term for ‘trades-people’.

  2. Next, I identify my entire role in the score and highlight it in yellow, which was recommended to me according to my dyslexia testing report as the most effective highlighter colour for my specific needs. This allows me to quickly and easily pick out my line, especially in large ensembles and musical dialogue which has ‘quick fire’ exchanges. I find the yellow also sharpens my concentration, which correlates with research which shows it to be the best ‘safety’ colour as it is the most ‘noticed’ colour by the human eye (which is why school buses, high visibility clothing and hazard signs use it).

  3. I then, if there is one, remove the translation from under the text of the score with correction tape, thus leaving room for me to write in a word for word translation (the Castel) so I know what every individual word in my score means.

  4. Dynamics are marked in green

  5. Emotions and vocal colours are marked in red

  6. Vocal technical information is marked in pencil (for ease, as these tend to be the most changeable / require the most alterations over time) 

THE LEARNING PROCESS

For me, the process of learning the work begins with the text:

  • Speaking the lines of text

  • Speaking the text in rhythm

  • Intoning the text on one note

  • Singing the notes of the music (without the text) to a single vowel sound

  • Putting this all together

 

Below is recorded example of this process using my last line in the opera from the Act 3 finale to illustrate:

The next step was to take the score to my teacher for technical voice work. I sing the entire role to my teacher, phrase by phrase, to make adjustments such as vowel modifications, tessitural advice, recommendations for where to ‘place’ the voice in certain phrases, corrections to physicality and posture and other similar issues. My teacher will often then prescribe technical exercises such as scales or vowel exercises to improve these issues. I found that as we made our way through the opera I made fewer and fewer errors as I learnt from my mistakes, which quickened the process considerably. Despite being similar in length and level of difficulty, compared to Act !, Act 2 took almost half the time to work through.

After this I took the role to vocal coachings to check that every note of the music and words of text are correct. With the help of coaches I refine my interpretation and bring the role to life through finding drama and colour in the voice. For more about my ideas about learning music and vocal colour, see my Trinity Laban Colab Project Diary (especially Day 4) where I talk specifically about this topic in detail. This, I feel, is the stage when the role is really brought to life and you have to be transported from ‘page to stage’. It is also the stage I personally find most difficult as it requires an intense multitasking ability which I find difficult to begin with my processing speed dyslexia. Adding detail to a newly learnt set of notes and texts which are not necessarily fully embedded can be overstimulating. However, thankfully, once I have memorised the music and text fully and feel secure in them this becomes substantially easier and my skill at this undertaking rivals any other student.

 

At this stage the whole role needs to be 'sung in' to ‘embed’ it into the voice and improve my stamina. When I first start singing any song or aria, I tire more quickly as my voice dosn't have muscle memory (like an athlete) of the piece and it also sounds vocally less smooth. Once I had learnt each scene I aimed to sing it completely through once at least 5 days a week, which also increased my stamina as I learnt more of the role. I did this for the entire role for the two weeks leading up to the performance and it was very effective.

By this stage my score has undergone significant changes. Here is the same two pages of va's Act 3 aria 'O Sachs! Mein Freund!' before and after:

 

 

REHEARSALS

The core rehearsal period in London involved coachings on my individual music with the musical director and sessions with my fellow singers on ensembles. As detailed in my role study characterisation, the role of Eva is emotionally challenging, as she passes through almost the entire gamut of human emotion.  She also has a number of significant and sometimes fast-changing relationships in the opera. With the exception of her maid Magdalena, all of these relationships are with male characters and especially with such highly emotionally charged scenes, it is important that the working relationship with one’s fellow performers that these relationships and ‘played’ emotions are carefully thought out, choreographed and managed. Preparation and communication are key. In the age of #metoo, performers and production staff are much more aware of what can happen when this carefully balanced working relationship when playing a romantic role is upset. I find Lucas Meacham's article on this subject very useful for explaining this process.

SINGING THE ROLE

(Performance & Assessment)

The Sitzprobe was my first opportunity to sing any of my role with the orchestra and proved to be a very enjoyable experience and very different to all the previous coachings and rehearsals I had had on the work. In a much larger space and with a full symphony orchestra, I had to really use my technique to allow my voice to carry over the orchestra, a skill I had already learnt when singing on the stage at the RNCM . However, with my improved technique gained at the RCS I felt I was much more effectively able to employ this skill with more ease than I had previously. Below is the sextet from Act 3, recorded in the Sitzprobe:

The concert performance the next day was a careful balancing act between stamina and enthusiasm. I knew we had a rehearsal in the afternoon before the concert in which certain portions of the score would be sung through, but I was unsure how much of my individual role would be sung. I thus had to carefully manage my voice to make sure I definitely had enough voice for the evening performance, whilst giving enough voice for the conductor to work with me. I felt that on this occasion I probably should have ‘saved’ more and marked, as I ended up singing most of my role at least twice in rehearsal, however, my nerves/excitement, as well as the expectations of the musical director, made it hard to do so. Even employing good technique, the level of sub-glottal pressure required (even with a ‘loose throat’), the use of the intercostals and musculature of the ribs and the mental and physical concentration would leave any singer tired when performed out of context and several times. Especially with Wagner, like an athlete running a marathon, once you have ‘raced’, a second attempt is not always possible in a short time period. Singers treating themselves like athletes and training appropriately has become an important part of my strategy as a young performer. See this reading list of articles I have made on the specific subject of singers as athletes:

  • Journal articles:

Voice Care for Vocal Athletes in Training, THURMAN & LAWRENCE, The Choral Journal Vol 20(9) (MAY 1980), pp. 34-56

https://www.jstor.org/stable/23545666

 

Intensive opera training program effects: A psychological investigation, THOMSON & JAQUE & BALTZ, International Journal of Music Education, Vol 35(4) (NOV 2016) pp. 479-489

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0255761416667467

 

Objective Measurement of Vocal Fatigue in Classically Trained Singers: A Pilot Study of Vocal Dosimetry Data, CARROLL & NIX & HUNTER & TITZE & ABAZA, Otolaryngology Head Neck Surgery Vol 135(4) (OCT 2006), pp 595–602

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4782153/

 

  • Online articles (journalism, professional bodies & blogs):

The Royal Opera House: https://www.roh.org.uk/news/the-opera-olympics-why-classical-singers-are-like-athletes

BBC Arts: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5bhSgN8Db72tKnv6qwcKDdB/why-opera-singers-are-the-elite-athletes-of-the-concert-hall 

Opera Gene: http://operagene.com/new-blog/2016/8/4/why-singing-opera-could-be-an-olympic-event

USA today: https://ftw.usatoday.com/2017/12/opera-lyric-opera-chicago-die-walkure-brandon-jovanovich 

From my research, the major categories in which singers and athletes overlap are seen to be:

  • Physical fitness

  • Discipline

  • Practice / repetitive training & muscle memory

  • Injury prevention through application of technique

  • Continuous training

  • Performance psychology

I felt fit enough and had enough stamina, due to my preparation, general fitness and practice, that I felt entirely comfortable for the entire performance, but once ‘the curtain fell’ I was glad I didn’t have to sing another act! As a young singer, still learning, this role still feels like a herculean undertaking and being appropriately psychologically prepared, as an athlete would for a race, is very important. I knew from my coachings, lessons and rehearsals in college, and then proved through my performance in the Sitzprobe that I was capable of the role and I took this confidence forward into my performance. I am lucky not to suffer from performance anxiety, and when I am well prepared I feel only the frisson of excitement rather than anxiousness about the upcoming performance. These positive ‘nerves’, I find, can often be what takes a good performance and makes it great and I always feel I sing better in performance than I do in rehearsal, as that ‘buzz’ is almost impossible to recreate in a practice room.

Here is a rough-edit recording of Eva's material from the concert:

Psychologically ‘still on a high’ from my performance and having receive praise from my colleagues and the company, I felt very good going into my assessment in college and I felt it went well on the day. This was reflected in my college grade (A3) and my written feedback, which were very pleasing and satisfying. 

 

REFLECTION

I had never done a supervised official role study before coming to the RCS, although I had previously learnt several large roles both at my previous conservatoire (RNCM) and elsewhere.  I found the experience of having this supervised procedure invaluable as I had to clarify my process and really engage in a disciplined approach. In the past I have found learning roles in college for performance in college operas a ‘slow drip’ process. I had been spoon-fed my role over a long period of time in a very structured framework decided for me by the rehearsal timetable, working to deadlines (eg. ‘we’re working on P1-45 on Monday so I’d better learn that bit before then’) as opposed to viewing the work as a whole and not necessarily having to take ownership of learning the role as it happened as a result of attending all the coachings, lessons and rehearsals which were organised on my behalf.  This previous experience was very different to the ‘real’ world where you turn up to the first rehearsal with the company having already learnt the role independently, or risk being fired. Also, because this opera is on such a large scale I had to learn it with a much more disciplined/structured approach due to psychological and physical factors. Psychologically, I had to mentally prepare for the huge challenge, both vocally and in terms of my performance as an actor; the overarching emotional character journey needed to be carefully managed and thought out. Physically, this was by far the largest and most challenging opera role I had ever undertaken, both in terms of the fach of the role, time on stage and the forces of the orchestra and chorus. It was demanding and required me to build significant stamina. 

 

Once I had got into a rhythm of working in my new established pattern, all my other learning of music in college sped up and I found that everything had a better fluency, including other arias and roles –I learnt my opera cover role of Nella in Pucinni's Gianni Schicchi so fast it was commented on and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this at the speed I did before I had undertaken this process.

 

I also honestly believe learning this role has improved my voice and made me a better singer. In order to sing such a physically demanding role I could not afford to make technical mistakes (or risk tiring quickly) and I improved quickly through small trials and errors and their resolutions through working with coaches and my teacher.  I think my teacher working on my role with me has built our relationship (we have only been working together since September) and I feel that my increased confidence in her and I feel that I am progressing more quickly as a result of this confidence.

 

Overall this has been a thoroughly valuable and enjoyable experience which I feel has improved me as a performer and helped me to streamline and refine my learning process.

Published: 19th February 2019