Audition Oracle – Mon 20 Feb 2017 @ 11:46
“The Juniper Tree” and why I must produce the opera
Guest Blog Post by Helen Astrid
When I was a little girl, I had a fascination with gardens: what grew in them, what lived in them, who visited it and what lurked beneath the rocks. Our garden in Kew, Surrey, appeared gigantic, with a bountiful peach tree at the end of the path by our dilapidated greenhouse with broken windows. An old slow-worm slept under a large stone which my sister and I often lifted up and we would scream with delight if we found it.
The memories are vivid, colourful and full of curiosity. Gardens are forever changing and evolving. They have a life of their own.
My voyage in the world of opera has been like our garden, a path of discovery; finding new and exciting projects to dig and disappear into.
Discovering an opera based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale “The Juniper Tree” which has never previously been seen or heard live in the UK, I wanted to bring it to life. It reminded me of my childhood when my Austrian mother would perch on a stool telling me bed-time stories from German folklore. In an adaptation by Arthur Yorinks, author of over 35 children’s books, Philip Glass and Robert Moran have composed a vigorous and compelling piece of theatre, worthy of a place in the opera repertory.
“The Juniper Tree” tells of a wicked stepmother who murders her stepson, fearing that he reminds her husband of his late wife. She then serves him up in a stew to his hungry, unsuspecting father. But the boy's sister buries her brother's bones under a juniper tree where their mother is buried, and the child's spirit returns as a singing bird who wreaks vengeance on the evil stepmother before being restored to life in the bosom of his family. All ends happily ever after.
As with a lot of fairy-tales, there’s a moral for us all; if you do wrong then you will be punished, do good and you will be rewarded. Well, isn’t that what parents are supposed to teach us?
I was intrigued to discover that no-one else in the UK has performed this fantastical gem. Without hesitation I quickly gathered together a top creative team who will do the opera the justice it truly deserves.
Since it’s premiere in the US thirty-two years ago (also the year it was composed), at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts, surprisingly “The Juniper Tree” hasn’t been given a chance around the globe. Our attempts at trying to fathom out why, have left us blank. The music is first class, the story is magical and it has great vocal writing for the singers. I hope you will agree these are the prime ingredients for a good opera?
With Philip Glass, who has just turned 80 years old, and still going strong, his music is more prominent than ever before. He has collaborated with Doris Lessing, Martin Scorsese, Ravi Shankar, David Bowie, Paul Simon and in the case of “The Juniper Tree”, composer Robert Moran.
The Helen Astrid Singing Academy, is thrilled to be introducing “The Juniper Tree” opera to UK audiences at the end of March. We were blown away by 100s of singers who applied from all over the world. Thanks to Audition Oracle, we were lucky to select a superb cast lead by the outstanding Mariya Krywaniuk as the evil step-mother and James Corrigan as her suffering husband. Rebecca Moon sings the wife.
Also singing is ten-year old Lia Tynan, who's already made her Royal Opera House debut and Angus Whitworth, head chorister at the Chapel Royal. Children from schools in the borough will take part alongside a community chorus. The director is Donna Stirrup (English National Opera/Glyndebourne Festival Opera) and Andrew Langley who conducts a Royal College of Music ensemble. Set and Costume Design is by Laura Jane Stanfield.
The project combines a cultural experience for everyone, a developmental and educational voyage for children, a socially inclusive participatory event for the community at large building long lasting support and promoting emotional and social well-being. It’s also an important and perfect chance for us to promote and enhance the understanding of American music in the UK.
So, why I have to produce this magical opera centered around a tree aren’t just because of our fruit-bearing peach tree or the scary bed-time stories. It’s about transformation; turning potential into reality.
Incidentally, The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, which we frequented often, are producing their own brand of gin made from juniper berries: Kew Organic Gin. A luxury that awaits me in the not too distant future!
“The Juniper Tree” will be performed on 30th & 31st March 2017 at 7.30pm at The Hammond Theatre, Hanworth Road, Hampton, TW12 3HD. Tickets available here!
BBC R4 6.00pm News will broadcast an excerpt during rehearsals.
· “Are Grimm Fairy tales too dark”, Stephen Evans, BBC.
· The Juniper Tree, press release January 2017, Angela Harrison Media Ltd.
· Helen Astrid is available for interview. Please contact her at: [email protected] or on +44 (0) 7710 245 904
· Helen Astrid’s TEDx talk ‘Tell me the Truth about Opera’ shares her passion and her dedication to opera
· Further details from Angela Harrison: [email protected] or +44 (0) 7714 956 953
Audition Oracle – Sun 12 Feb 2017 @ 12:58
This weeks guest blog post comes from soprano Nicola Wydenbach on the positive effect of singing when living with Parkinson's disease.
People with Parkinson's: The remarkable effect of singing
So, how does a soprano who has been spent a large part of her adult life pretending to be characters including Russian mothers, fisherman’s wives, football hooligans, and of course many different manifestations of drably dressed peasants, find herself now as a champion of singing for people with Parkinson’s? Here is my story.
It was whilst studying for my degree in History that I realised my true passion lay in music, and in particular singing. An undergraduate degree at Trinity and a Postgraduate at the Royal College of Music followed. After graduating, I started regularly freelancing in big choruses for companies such as English National Opera, Scottish Opera, Opera Holland Park, Aldeburgh and Bregenz Opera. Combined with this were numerous small roles, session work, consort work as well as professional solo oratorio work. I love my singing work and still do. 2016 certainly had some musical highlights, and one that has stuck with me was singing and recording Rossini’s opera Semiramide with Opera Rara.
However, as much as I have enjoyed preforming I have always been fascinated by the power of music. We all acknowledge the power of music to entertain, move and thrill us, but one question has driven me over the past decade or so - can its power be even more far reaching?
A friend mentioned in 2005 that she was going on a ‘Training for Education’ Course at Aldeburgh Music (sadly they no longer run this fantastic course). It was a revelation. We learnt how to run workshops, using music and song in a way that I had not seen or experienced before. I also learnt so much about myself as a performer and facilitator. I was hooked. At the course I met the artistic leader of Streetwise opera: http://streetwiseopera.org. This organisation is an award-winning charity that uses music to help people make positive changes in their lives. In particular they work with people who have experienced homelessness and other members of the community. I started freelancing with this charity soon after finishing the ‘Training for Education’ course. I still do now, having led workshops for over ten years. My experiences since have also enabled me to freelance as a workshop leader on projects for many of the leading arts organisations.
About seven years ago my father-in-law was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. 1 in 500 people are living with Parkinson's. This number rises to over 1 in 100 for the over 60's. Although we think of shaking as the main symptom of Parkinson's there are many different manifestations including problems with freezing, gait issues and the weakening of the voice. One day I was round at my in-law’s house when he was having his Speech Therapy sessions. I noticed that many of his exercises were comparable to how I warmed up as a singer. So I wondered if people with Parkinson’s (PWP) might benefit from singing. I Googled “Singing and Parkinson’s”.
Now, I would love to claim that I had fallen on an amazing discovery, but I quickly came to the realization that others had already figured out this connection - the idea that singing could take over from where speech therapy has left off. There also appeared to be some research, which found that the benefits of singing for PWP include an overall sense of wellbeing, communication, cognition and understanding, living in the world with others, but most importantly an improvement of physical ability. The mechanical processes of singing can help to support physical functions in people with Parkinson’s. These include muscular exercises to promote facial, throat and chest muscle mobility, and vocal clarity, strength and production; deep-breathing to encourage improved lung capacity; and postural exercises, encouraging improved stability on standing and regulating walking pace. Singing activities may generally help to counter the consequences of a diminishing mobility.
However, considering there are 1 in 500 people who have the condition, the reach of this work was little. There just were not enough groups. It also struck me that there was no cohesion to this work. Plus, as a musician, first and foremost, I wanted to make sure the standard of the music provision received by PWP was as high as it could be.
So I was determined to learn more. I won a scholarship form the Finzi Trust in 2014 to go and visit a pioneering organisation in this field called the Tremble Clefs. The Tremble Clefs were started in 1994. I was lucky enough to travel to California for two weeks of observation. There, I saw three Tremble Clefs groups in Laguna Wood, San Diego and Encinitas. I also met Karen Helsey, who had the brilliant idea to extend PWP’s speech therapy exercise through song.
I also visited speech therapists and other Parkinson’s singing groups in the UK. One of these was Pimlico Skylarks run by Professor Grenville Hancox as part of his Canterbury Cantata Trust. Grenville has now become a mentor and colleague for me, alongside his colleague Dr. Trish Vella Burrows, Deputy Director of the Sydney De Haan Research Centre, Christ Church University.
All these encounters and meetings provided me with a large amount of knowledge and experience of singing for PWP, and strengthened even more my belief that there needed to be some training or sharing for existing leaders or potential leaders.
I was then lucky enough to win an ongoing Aldeburgh residency, and have now been running training courses for musicians as potential leaders for the last two years. This January we had over 36 participants, with many returning from the previous year after having set up their own groups across the UK. We also had practitioners from Australia and Ireland.
I have now taken over Grenville’s Pimlico group and I also run another group in Chatham. I am also involved in a research project in Medway as well as setting up another Parkinson’s group in Kings College London. Most excitingly of all, Grenville and I are now in the process of launching a national umbrella organisation - Sing to Beat Parkinson’s.
Exciting times seem to be ahead, and there is momentum for every branch of Parkinson’s UK to have their own singing group for PWP.
Not bad for someone who has spent most of her life messing around in costumes!
Follow my journey at https://nicolawydenbach.wordpress.com
To read more about Nicola's work as a professional soprano, please visit www.nicolawydenbach.com
Audition Oracle – Mon 6 Feb 2017 @ 10:20
Guest post from soprano & writer Barbara Maria Rathbone
Photo: Andy Staples
‘Divarsity’ – The truth about singing as part of a portfolio career
I’ll ask you to cast your mind back to your first steps into your singing career, when you'd been led out of the conservatoire or post-grad course high on Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, stage hungry with visions of international travel and the established images of divas in fur-coats attended by highly attentive husbands, a manager and two small dogs. You knew it wasn't so, some teachers did all they could to disavow you of such notions and scare you off, say how much hard work is involved, how only a small percentage make it, that you may have been given all that training to be a teacher… but still you lived in a bubble of hope and came out of college unprepared for the real world of a singing career, with its atoms changing and splitting all the time.
It was considered embarrassing to discuss the possibility of not making a living entirely from your beautiful instrument – to support oneself by other means was not what we’d put all ‘that’ into. The truth is, and we always knew it, is that no matter how beautifully you sang and worked on stage, your teacher was right, only a very small percentage actually make a good living entirely from singing, and of those, a great many by chorus work or teaching. The reality of ‘so you are an opera singer, but what’s your job?’ comes home to roost very quickly. The truth is we are magnificently unprepared for the decades we might have of a singing life. Even more so, that those realities are often purely existential. I have had to think a lot of about this, because like so many others I drifted from what I loved doing. In a combination of confidence and health issues affecting my technique, inappropriate teaching and general disenchantment I began to ask what else I could do and on that journey found some extraordinary answers and solutions, and came back stronger.
The existential crisis will come – it waits for most of us, eventually; the other crises too. One of the biggest issues, apart from ill health, vocally and/or physically is mental health. We realise how hard we need to work in order to keep our balance, be accountable and stand up to every strain put on us… to develop, as one singer on Facebook put it, ’elephant skin’. One of the more difficult issues we will all face, guaranteed, is ageing. In a business that ever more puts heavier value on looks and youth, being ‘HD ready’, and opportunities seem only plentiful for the artist just out of a young artist programme, we need to prepare ourselves for the day when we get older and reach new decades. (I think there’s another blog in me on how to change attitudes about mature singers and making opportunities for them!). If it’s not age, as time goes on and we develop more vocally, we might need to change fach, or we might just find we are no longer loving what we are singing, or all too commonly that the work just suddenly dried up. Above all, the tender nature of our gift, with its vulnerabilities and foibles, means we won’t go that long before a wave of illness, a technical issue, or the vicissitudes of life itself causes some interruption and existential upset. If we want that singing part of ourselves to be front and centre we might have to learn to be able to step away from it all sorts of ways and identify with the voice in a more finite way. It’s not a bad thing, in fact it is a very good thing indeed because it gives us a zen-like distance, which creates a space for us to respect our gift, and develop a deeper, more intrinsic appreciation of what it is for us. Indeed, what it is is very personal and something we need to understand as soon as we can.
One thing I have discovered over the years is that, despite the lack of preparedness for the difficulties of maintaining a singing life and career, singers are uniquely equipped for diversity. We are the ultimate multi-skillers of the music world – we are (in the main!) gifted actors, linguists, story-tellers; we possess, seemingly organically, empathetic thinking, a gift for psychological insight, business-thinking, design skills, medical knowledge, and writing skills (that’s my bit!)
I’ve just noticed how many of my singing friends have exploited their other gifts, among them are singers who have:
- Started music/arts festivals
- Written plays
- Become conductors
- Designed houses
- Created user-friendly and exciting teaching programmes
- Written teaching books and other educational material
- Become business leaders and entrepreneurs
- Become life coaches and counsellors
I could go on! Above all they are wonderful, expressive singers with infinite creativity in performance. What does this say? It says that singing is an untapped resource. It says that what makes a singer is so often more than a beautiful voice and a deep desire to sing. It is a profound desire to communicate, it is a conduit to our dreams.
We need to use this resource, the conservatoires need to recognise it and ignite it early so we don’t lose singers from the profession, we need to think about the deep well of self-knowledge and self-awareness which is our greatest asset in life. Believe me it is, that alone can whip away any stormy passage. We need to enjoy singing more, released from the need to prove ourselves merely as voices. Practicalities might mean that doing something else as well, borne of the very same essence as that voice of ours, will be the most significant part of your singing life. The singing only benefits from this. The multi-skilled singer is the future. We saw the internet and now we own it, so who knows what is to come!
In my diversion from singing life, to which I have thankfully now returned, I wrote a novel. It tells some my journey in fictional form. in order to publish it I am crowdfunding with Unbound, a publisher for books that people want to read! If you'd like to support me think of it as pre-paying for the book with extra kudos, and go to:
I’ll leave you with the wise words of Emily Dickinson:
‘Dwell in possibility.’
Barbara Maria Rathbone was born in London to an Irish mother and an English father. Her love of singing and performance began when she debuted, aged two and a half, in 'Berry's', the local newsagent singing 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star'. She didn't know the tune was Mozart's then. She has since developed a deep love of Mozart's vocal music, especially the music composed for Aloysia Weber.
Barbara Maria went on to at Trinity College of Music, London where she studied with Morag Noble and John Wakefield, and since privately with Margaret Lobo, Dinah Harris, and Colin Baldy. She has taken part in a variety of masterclasses and worked with the likes of David Harper, Mark Shanahan, Robert Lloyd, David Lowe and Victor Morris. Her opera debut was as Barbarina in 'Le Nozze di Figaro', which is rather apt. She has since moved from core lyric repertory to lyric coloratura, and could be best described as koloratursoubrette. Barbara Maria has an abiding affection for German Lieder and art song, which very often are operas in miniature.
Barbara Maria's singing has taken her from cruise ships to the Barbican Centre, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, Arena di Verona, Chiswick House, the English Church in Rome, the Bergen Festival, Norway, and various recital halls. She has also written a novel, ‘The Conductor’s Wife’.
Audition Oracle – Wed 1 Feb 2017 @ 18:58
AUDITIONS: The good, the bad and the ugly!
Most professional singers will audition hundreds of times in their career. Those auditions can be anything from terrifying to side-splittingly funny via everything else imaginable in between.
Many moons ago I remember traveling into London from the sticks to audition for a show requiring a classical / legit MT soprano for a seaside town review. The trains were not playing ball that day and despite an early start, I ran into the Pineapple Studios with seconds to spare.
The reception staff (who can spot a non-dancing singer a mile off!) saw I was in a rush and directed me downstairs. Great. I ran down and was met with an equally flustered flustered girl brandishing a clipboard. The trains had caused mahem for all it seemed.
Clipboard Lady: Ah! Here for the Auditions?
Me: (Nods while catching breath and trying to make self vaguely presentable)
Clipboard Lady: Great, they are ready for you now.
The panel were lovely and asked what I would be singing. They looked a little surprised but I thought nothing of it and launched into a sickly sweet rendition of ‘Why do I love you’ from Showboat. The panel were smiling and super friendly but there was no doubt about it, they were clearly amused. VERY amused. Actually, they were doing everything possible to suppress a severe attack of the giggles – all the while being totally charming.
Panel Member 1: That was really lovely. So. What do you know about the project exactly?
Me: Not much beyond the advert in The Stage and the information posted out to me (this was before everything could be found on the internet!)
Panel Member 2: So, we are casting DUSTY in a musical about the life of Dusty Springfield!
Me: OH! I’m in the wrong room aren’t I?
Panel Member 1: Yes, I believe you want two doors down on the right!
CUE: Raucous laughter all around.
Certain auditions stick in your mind FOREVER. Visit us on facebook, send us an email ([email protected]) or tweet @auditionoracle with your memorable audition experiences!