Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On perfectionism and performance

So, you might have noticed if you've been paying attention that it's been really quite a long time since I last posted here.

Why is that?

It's because I've really liked the things I've written previously. I've been proud of them. I've felt like they've said what I needed to say; shared something important about why I perform the things I perform in the way I perform them.

And I've felt like anything I write next might not live up to that expectation.

Whose expectation is it?

Well, it's my expectation, isn't it. It's one of the oldest cliches in the book - you are your own worst critic.

Everyone who writes about performance writes about perfectionism eventually. About the ways in which it holds you back. Waiting for a perfect blog post to be writable, waiting until you are good enough to perform that aria, holding back when you sing because you are scared of the ugly sounds you might make if you go for it... all of these things stop art from happening. 

And we all know that. It's not a new thing to say.

When you are rehearsing or practising, you are seeking after a perfection that will never exist. You are always working to make things better. And you can always see the steps you would take to make things better than they are now; better, perhaps, than you are capable of.

If you don't have that drive, you never get to be good enough to do this stuff at all. You never learn to write well enough that you can actually express what you mean. You never learn to sing well enough that people actually want to listen. You don't improve. You stagnate.

And in the other direction? There's stagnating mire in that direction too, is the trouble. You get bogged down in the performance that might be, the platonic blog post, and you end up not saying or singing anything at all. 

Which is not a new thought. Other people have said it. Perhaps they've said it better.

But it's still a thought worth saying.

We've got just over a week to go until show week. Things are messy. It's not right yet. We haven't practiced enough. There are problems we haven't solved yet.

And that's ok. And you know what, telling you is ok too. We often pretend that what you get - a performance - sort of appears, fully formed, on show night. We don't talk about the week before, when nothing is working and there's too much to do to fit into the time left and you fear that this time, this time is going to be the time when it isn't all right on the night.

I sang in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the National Theatre when I was fourteen. I remember a bit of staging that didn't work until two nights after opening night. There was a picnic blanket that was supposed to get unfurled, to music, as part of a scene change. (While dancing some Ceighleigh steps, and singing an arrangement of a folk song that finished on a top C, just incidentally). And it didn't work, and it didn't work. We called that scene change 'the Crannock Roll', because the new scene was set in Crannock Bay, and we were supposed to unroll the picnic blanket. And I remember it getting referred to as 'the Crannock Flop' on press night. Because that was what the blanket did. It didn't unroll. It flopped. And everyone was very unhappy about this. It looked clumsy, and awkward, and everybody worried about it.

And then, two nights after opening night, someone figured out a way of doing it that just worked, and we ran with it, and nobody ever worried about the Crannock Flop again.

Except that's not true, is it? Because I still remember it to this day, more than ten years later, not being able to unroll that picnic blanket in a graceful enough fashion.

And! And of course the punchline is that when I finally saw the show, some number of months later with an alternative cast - that scene change was over in approximately five seconds, and there's no way,  no way, that that picnic blanket could have caused the show to flop. No way.

The details matter. Was it a better show with a graceful unfurling of the picnic blanket than with a saggy awkward flopping unroll? Surely. Yes.

The details don't matter at all. Will the unfurling of that picnic blanket be anyone's abiding memory of that show, except, perhaps, mine? Surely. No.

So - this is where we're up to, at the moment. The picnic blanket is flopping. There's stuff we haven't got together yet - and some of it is bigger than a five second scene change - and it's alright to tell you that. Because on show night, this is the things, either we'll have figured it out, or it won't matter.

Performance is about imperfection.

Everyone who performs knows that.

Everyone who performs finds it hard to believe that.

The moment when your voice cracks with emotion, and someone in the audience tears up at the rawness of it.

The moment when you gesture in anger, and the button flies off your costume in a way you could not have choreographed in a million years if you'd been trying.

The moment where you realise, gods damn it all, the picnic blanket doesn't matter. Surely, now, more than ten years down the line, we can all acknowledge that the picnic blanket doesn't matter, right?

You don't control a performance. You certainly don't control an audience reaction.

It's messy, and it's terrifying - and it's worthwhile.

So come and see the results! Less than a week to go. Buy your tickets here:

And by 'the results', I mean: come see the next step in the process. Come see the flaws, and the failures, and the magic that turns them into theatre.

We're not the National Theatre. We can be honest with you. It might be messy. The picnic blanket may flop. And that's ok.

Friday, June 15, 2012


Today, the Guardian published this piece about conductor Jose Antonio Abreu and his network of community choirs, orchestras and music groups, known as El Sistema.

The success of an enterprise like this is hugely inspirational to me, and I would love to see Better Strangers touch the lives of women in Britain in this exact same way - creating a network of mentors, safe spaces and hope across the country.

Music is such a powerful thing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How to enjoy opera on a budget

I am privileged enough to have been born into a family that could afford to take me to the opera. Not often, but we could usually manage once or twice a year. Most people can't do that. Certainly, I'll hiss with poorly concealed envy at anyone who can afford to get a seat at the Royal Opera House on any kind of regular basis. This branch of the arts is not popular at least partly because no-one can afford to see it in the first place.

However, interesting things are happening to the world of opera at the moment. Let's have a look at ways you can enjoy it on stage or screen, without breaking the bank. I'm afraid this post is only relevant to the UK, but it would be well worth you checking around for similar options near you if you're not local.

Live Broadcasts

Isn't web streaming brilliant? We can use it to explore new music, learn how to make things, and, of course, watch concerts live from miles away. This summer, The Guardian is streaming six performances live from Glyndebourne, with its video of The Cunning Little Vixen remaining online until June 22nd. At the end of last month, a giant screen was erected in Trafalgar Square to show the Royal Opera House's production of La Boheme (further screenings are planned right up until mid-July). Local cinemas in the UK hold regular screenings recorded from the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan and many others. It's not quite the real thing, but this writer reckons opera is best enjoyed in performance.

Fringe Stagings

If you know where to look, there is a vibrant and exciting operatic fringe in the UK. Smaller theatres often play host to small-scale, inventive productions of works both well-known and not often heard. Following the success of Opera Up Close at the 2011 Olivier Awards, the opera fringe is better exposed and populated than ever before. Tickets can be on the pricey side, but still a fraction of what you'd pay to get into a large opera house. And some of them will even let you take your pint into the show.

Listings of all sorts of classical music events can be found at

Music School Productions

Most music schools will put at least one major opera each year, and these are a fantastic opportunity to take in a show and get a glimpse of the talent of the future whilst you're at it. Many conservatoires and music schools have fully equipped theatres on the premises, so they'll not hold back on the spectacle unless they have to. And music schools, like most higher or further education establishments, have clubs and societies, so it's worth keeping abreast of any less official groups who put on performances. Our friends at En Travesti have been one such group.

Amateur Productions

The quality of an amateur performance can be pretty variable, but amateur shows can be great for getting a feel of the atmosphere, the story and the music attached to an opera. Again, it can also be a good way to scope out emerging talent. If nothing else, you can guarantee that the cast will be having a jolly good time.


Even the larger companies will put on public shows, special offers, competitions, or give space to new writers and emerging talent. It's a question of keeping your ear to the ground so that you know when they come up. Facebook, Twitter and RSS feeds are great for hearing about this sort of thing as soon as it's announced – otherwise, local radio stations may well also put out announcements about them. It's also well worth joining mailing lists for theatres, companies and opera houses you'd like to go to, as you might find you can get early-bird tickets that way.

It's definitely worth saving up to go to the Grand Opera at least once in your life. But in an age of lightning technological advances, real-time networking and, yes, austerity, getting a flavour of the wonderful world of opera isn't as hard or as expensive as you might think.

Got any more suggestions? Comment and let us know!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pearl-clutching and contemporary arts criticism

A month ago, Jessie and I took our seats in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House for Exposure: Opera, a set of "snapshots" from new operas in various stages of completion. Also with us was my mother, who knows her repertory opera rather well - and who, incidentally, is largely responsible for my career ambitions as they currently stand.

As anyone would expect, the output was hugely variable. Jessie and I were particularly taken with Luke Jones' cabaret-jazz influenced A Fetus In America; my mother, with an excerpt from Raymond Yiu's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, made all the more exciting by the influence it drew from Chinese music and literature; and all of us loved the stunning vocal harmonies of Marc Teitler's Sea Shanty, the heady portrait of a famously unsettled writer in Elfyn Jones' The Trial of Jean Rhys, and the unsettling dual narrative of Jamie Man's Kenny and Taiye.

None of these works was perfect. Indeed, we're not even certain any of them are anywhere near completion, or whether they will ever make it to the stage, though we certainly hope so. But, since Better Strangers still holds the ambition of commissioning its own new works, we found the evening inspiring and hopeful, and left full of ideas for the years to come.

Which is why I am slightly alarmed by the media's reception of Judith Weir's Miss Fortune, which premiered at the Royal Opera House's main auditorium last week.

Judith Weir is dear to both of our hearts. Her art songs have challenged us both over the years, and we look to her as a prolific and current example of a female composer. We've been chattering excitedly about going to see Miss Fortune in the coming weeks since that evening at the Linbury Studio, and I know that I desperately wanted it to succeed. Not just because of Judith Weir, but because of the soaring optimism we felt as we left Exposure: Opera. Because of that reinforcement of what we'd known all along - that opera isn't dead, or even sleeping.

We haven't seen the production yet (though we'll certainly talk about it on here as soon as we do), so I'm prepared to allow for the possibility that Weir has work to do on the music and libretto yet. The Guardian's review contains some excellent constructive criticism from someone who has even seen the score. The work was also unfavourably received by critics at Bregenz last year. The opera itself is what it is.

It is not, however, is wholly representative of all new composition, which is where The Telegraph's review tries to place it. It is not conclusive proof that all non-repertory opera is worthless.

"Opera is the only artistic arena in which good money is regularly thrown after bad."
During the editing process for this post, I showed it to my dad, who said "This is reminiscent of some of the crap that was thrown at Pinter when he first started out." A quick check of Wikipedia shows that he is referring to inital critical responses to The Birthday Party, now one of Pinter's best known works.

Indulge me in following the reviewer's vision of an acceptable artistic process, using his same example of Harvey Weinstein's films. Yes, films use data gathered in focus groups to anticipate what their target audience might want to see. How infallible is this policy? How much "good money" went into Scream 4, for example? Or the (admittedly impeccably polished) turd that was Nine? The Brothers Grimm? Yes, Weinstein has some excellent titles to his name. He also has some awful ones, which he made because he thought they'd sell. I don't know how often we, the artistic community, have to repeat this, but commercial viability and artistic excellence are not the same thing. Michael Bay is living proof of this. Half of the popular music Top 40 is proof of this.

Furthermore, what would a focus group in the opera world look like? Who decides what an acceptable audience sample would be? Would it be the same middle-aged rich white people, bored executives and  music students that normally fill the Opera House's auditorium? Would it be geared towards audience development? Would the result be derided as populist, and therefore inferior, as so often happens with new operas and theatrical works? (Spoilers: almost certainly, and I bet Igor Toronyi-Lalic would be first in line with the rotten tomatoes.)

Modern art is about risk. It's not going to be to everyone's tastes. Not all of it will stand the test of time. We can't predict how popular it will be either in its intended setting or in the future. To go back to films, who would have thought back in the 80s that Withnail & I or The Wicker Man would be considered cult classics today? No-one, which is why no money was thrown at them. Wagner's Tannhäuser and Beethoven's Fidelio both flopped at early showings, and these are now considered repertory works. Great art is often divisive. I honestly can't believe I am saying this, here, now, because to me this is all so blindingly obvious as to be cliché.