Friday, October 30, 2009


Yesterday I bought an album on iTunes. It was a special occasion because I'd just bought one of those iTunes gift cards for myself with the first 'spare' money I've had in a few weeks. The idea was that I would purchase a few different recordings of the songs I'm singing at a recital at the end of November.

My search led me to Akiki Nakijima, an operatic soprano whom I had never heard of. Having listened to a few samples of the album, "La Pastorella," I decided to buy the whole thing.

You know when you get a new album and you kind of listen to the start of every track, flicking through to see if anything grabs you?

Oh God.

"Romanze Ich Schleiche Bang Und Still Herum." By Franz Schubert. Track 7.

It is so beautiful that I am having a very hard time believing that I've never heard it before. It is incredible. I can't find it on YouTube and I can't find a translation on Google. But I can't stop listening to it. Nakajima's voice is like a crystal bird. It's so clear, it soars, it's light, it flies. It's beautiful. There's something so delicately sad about this song, so wistful.

The arrangement of clarinet and piano for the opening is wonderful. The clarinet is played expertly by Peter Schmidl. It is so beautifully negotiated that it sounds like another voice, perhaps the voice of the soprano's lost love. It echos her and weaves around her, complimenting her but never over-powering her.

I love songs like this. Songs that are so wistful that you can just get completely lost in the feeling without understanding why.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Ghosts of Versailles at the Wexford Opera Festival

On the 18th October I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to see a full, public dress rehearsal of "The Ghosts of Versailles" at the Wexford Opera Festival. The opera was attended by its composer, John Corigliano and its librettist, William M. Hoffman.

The action in the opera is rich and extremely unusual. The story weaves artfully between the afterlife and the fictional world of an opera ("the opera within an opera"). In the afterlife, we meet Marie-Antoinette, her husband Louis XVI and their court. Marie-Antoinette laments her death and does not seem to accept what happened to her. She re-enacts her beheading and is tormented by the cruelty and injustice of what happened to her. The other ghosts are much more at ease with their lifeless situations, although they are bored without the distractions they were used to in life.

That is why they jump at the chance when another ghost, Beaumarchais, the author of the three Figaro plays suggests an opera. He is in love with Marie-Antoinette and can't bear to see her so unhappy. He plans to stage a play in which she is saved from the guillotine by Figaro. In saving her in the play, Beaumarchais tells everyone that he will save her in real life and rewrite history.

The problems begin when the characters of the play stop bending to Beaumarchais' will and developing a will of their own. In an attempt to reign in his unruly characters and convince them that they must save Marie-Antoinette, Beaumarchais himself enters the world of the play.

Once this barrier is broken, all of the ghosts find that they can enter the colourful imaginary world.

Being seated four rows from the front, I was afforded an excellent view of the actors, the sets and the costumes. The costumes particularly struck me as something to write home about and I'm sure every time I've spoken of "The Ghosts of Versailles," I have raved about them. To begin with, they more than anything separated the afterlife from the world of the play, although the style of both was firmly rooted in the 18th Century. A palette of grey, black and white was used in the wardrobe of the ghosts, as well as in their makeup. It was startling how haunting they all looked in their pallor. The only colour used was red, and sparingly. The eye of the spectator was drawn to the red glittering areas, which signified how the characters met their end. There were glittering stab wounds, shimmering head injuries and gun shot wounds and red neck pieces, symbolizing decapitation. Notably, Marie-Antoinette does not wear any red for most of the opera.

The costumes in the world of the play, however are bursting with jewel-bright colours, shining fabrics and stunningly made dresses. When we enter the house of the Turkish Ambassador, we are provided with a feast for the eyes when Samira, a Turkish singer seranades us. Everyone from the core cast to the dancers are clad in rich and sumptuous colours and patterns. It is, without a doubt the best wardrobe I have ever seen on stage.

At times the music is what you might expect from an opera written in the 1990s, and yet there were more than a few pleasant musical surprises. In the beginning the music is discordant and eerie, almost unpredictable. It frames the mood of the afterlife flawlessly, as the ghosts sound like they are crying out. Some beautiful motifs are carried out through the play, such as Marie Antoinette's "Once there was a golden bird" motif, which forms the basis of her powerful and chilling aria "They are always with me".

"Once there was a golden bird,
In a garden of silver trees,
From the courtyard could be heard,
The laughter of women at their ease."

To contrast with this, the music in the world of the play is altogether much more melodic and what one might term 'traditional' for opera. Many of the themes from the actual opera "The Marriage of Figaro" are explored and visited during the action of the play and there is, of course, much more laughter and up-tempo music.

This contrast further serves to immaculately separate the two worlds in "The Ghosts of Versailles." Between the lamenting, eerie notes of the afterlife and the jovial and tuneful music of the play's world, the viewer always knows exactly where he or she is.

As for the acting and quality of the singing in the Wexford Opera Festival/St Louis production - I've never seen anything like it in Cork, that's for sure. While the whole cast and chorus were flawless, there were a few who shone even brighter. Maria Kanyova delivered a chilling and heart-breaking performance as Marie-Antoinette. Christoper Feigum, who played the character of Figaro, was quite a powerful and charismatic presence on the stage. He is completely perfect for the role of Figaro in this play. Other notable performances included Laura Vlasak Nolen as Samira, the Turkish singer, and Dominic Armstrong as Count Almaviva.

This production opened on the 21st October and will wrap on the 30th October 2009.


Friday, October 23, 2009


My friend Emma recently pointed out to me that as singers, we are so vulnerable to any change in our bodies. I remarked that absolutely every singer has at least one thing that causes them trouble. For me it's my sinuses and throat. For someone else it might be athsma or tension or old muscle injuries. Every one has one thing.

I think this breeds some paranoia. If we know that the tiniest thing going wrong can ruin us, we start to worry about it until we have to be talked down.

Right now I'm convinced I have laryngitis. Just because I feel like I've had a lump in my throat for about two weeks. "Laryngitis?!" I hear you cry. "Isn't that a SLIGHT over-reaction?"

WELL NO. I'm just a leetle bit worried that my throat is doing anything out of the ordinary four weeks before my deluge of rehearsals, concerts and auditions begin. You expect me not to freak out?! Well then you need to send me some singing and ear-nose-throat specialists STAT because that is the only thing that will calm me down.

As it stands I'm drinking buckets of the above "Yogi Throat Comfort Tea." Today I had to replenish my stock and buy two new boxes. I'm sipping it as I type. I'm convinced that if I drink enough of it, the mysterious larynx lump will go away and I'll be able to reach that C6 with ease and grace. A girl can dream.

Today I mentally started writing letters to anyone who might be able to figure out what this weird feeling is.

If it were laryngitis, it would hurt right?

Gah! It's so frustrating! I'm not hoarse and my singing's not impaired but I haven't practiced any of my songs since Wednesday because I'm PARANOID that maybe I've inflicted some terrible irreversible injury on myself, of developed vocal nodules/nodes. Nooooo! A singer's worst nightmare! Let's not even go there!

Right, I'm going to make another cup of throat comfort and go to bed with my programme from the Wexford Opera Festival. Hopefully when I wake up I'll be a bit more rational. Or maybe I'll actually start writing those letters.

Goodnight. xxx

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Singing is my life. It's always been my life. I can remember being 4 years old and standing on a stool to sing 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' for my grandparents. Every car journey, regardless of distance was spent singing along to cassettes in the back seat with my older sister. There is nothing that I have ever wanted to do more than perform.

When I was in third class, aged 9 years old, I stood up and volunteered for the first time to sing 'Land of the Silver Birch' publicly. (In front of my whole class) I will never forget the feeling that came straight afterwards. That infinitesimal stretch of silence between finishing a song and the applause that follows. It's heart wrenching and terrifying. You wonder why you just did that and if everyone now thinks you're an idiot and if they're going to laugh at your or just stay silent and stare in horror. Thankfully neither of those happened to me at the tender age of nine. In fact, that was the beginning of my school music career. That was when the teachers realised I could sing, and that was the year that I auditioned for the school choir.

For the next three years I relished every second that was spend singing, listening to music, learning about music... My only weak point was practicing my instruments, which I will undoubtedly delve into at another time. On reflection, the fascinating thing was that my family never really knew I felt like this, or that I had "a voice." That changed, I think, when I was in sixth class. I was 12 years old and the teachers put me singing something at the Christmas concert/mass. I think I sang 'Once In Royal David's City.' Afterwards, parents of other children came up to congratulate me and once I managed to reach my mother, she said "You never told us you could sing!" She was a music teacher and my mother so I took that as meaning "OH MY GOD YOU WERE AMAZING. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU. YOU ARE THE BEST SINGER IN THE WORLD!!!"

And so I carried that with me into secondary school. Incidentally, I attended the school where my mother was the music teacher. This meant that I happily spent half of my secondary academic years in the music room singing in choirs, playing the 'cello and learning about Vivaldi and Jazz. The school knew me as a singer, because I didn't just restrict my musical activity to the music room, and because I was the music teacher's daughter and that comes with a legacy of its own.

I decided to study Music at university. Actually, I don't remember ever deciding to study music... I always just knew I was going there. That was almost a complete disaster, except that I found my singing teacher. I started to train my voice and appreciate singing classical music and opera as well as popular music and musical theatre.

I've since graduated. And I'm still studying my instrument, my voice with aspirations of being on stage, on TV, in a recording studio, on the radio and far, far more.

Starting to learn to sing properly is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating. It poses many more questions than it answers and every day your voice changes. It's a journey with puzzles and rewards along the way. I'm going to start properly blogging about singing here as often as possible.

It would be fantastic to hear from other singers and music lovers in the comments.