Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A (long) personal overview of A Christmas Carol

I've mentioned A Christmas Carol here once or twice before, but not much, even though it's taken up a great deal of my life over the last three months. 
It’s a somewhat curious opera in that almost all the chorus have specific roles, big or small, on top of their chorus work, so that there’s a requirement for the chorus members to be good singers as well as the principals. James Adams, playing Scrooge, the lead, has no aria to speak of ˗ when he’s onstage by himself he mostly sings a kind of recitative; the only ‘song’ he has is right towards the end, and it lasts less than a minute. Otherwise he sings in duets, mostly, and briefly in a quartet. But even most of these sections are not big sings; for a great deal of the opera he’s on the sidelines looking on, and commenting, or emoting with his mouth closed. Which makes it a difficult role. 
His opening piece, which is shared with Fred and his wife, Bob Cratchit and the chorus, is a tongue-twisting thing. Even though its tempo is a slow 12/8, Scrooge often sings long runs of semiquavers within it.
The rest of the principals are also mostly involved in ensemble music of some kind or other. Ben Madden plays Cratchit, and appears only during three consecutive numbers early in the first half, with only a small amount to sing; then he vanishes until halfway through the second, when he’s part of the Cratchit family ensembles. Marley’s ghost, played by Alex Lee, only appears in one scene, where he’s involved in two ensemble pieces, and curiously, is the only person listed with an ‘aria’. And a jazz one, at that. Alex spends his time in the chorus in the second half. He and Nathaniel Otley were present at all the chorus rehearsals and learned most of the chorus music. 
Nathaniel is probably one of the busiest performers in the show, mainly because of what he’s been cast as. He starts off as one of the three drunks, so is involved in both the chorus work at the beginning as well as the drunks’ trio. Then he appears as the solo fiddler at the Fezziwigs’ party, and plays two dances (from memory). Finally, in Act Two, he becomes the Ghost of Christmas Present and spends the rest of the opera in that role (in a wonderful green cloak, with a huge Christmas wreath on his head). He has a great bass voice ˗ still young (he’s not yet twenty) ˗ and holds his own well with the two female ghosts. 
The first of these, Ingrid Fomison-Nurse as the Ghost of Christmas Past, has some very high lines, often with words that are difficult to get across easily. The same applies to the Ghost of Christmas Future, played by Lois Johnston. Much of her music is slow, though often over fast-moving orchestral stuff, and isn’t easy to communicate. Composers have to tread a fine line between setting words too fast or too slowly. Philip Norman, the composer of the opera, has chosen to go to both extremes at times, making it quite difficult for some of the cast. Both the ghost ladies do an admirable job, however.
Another singer who has to contend with a lot of words in a short space of time is Nicola Steel as the Charity Collector. Her music is lovely, but it moves swiftly, and Nicola does very well to get the words across in the short space of time they're allotted (!) Nicola introduces the children onto the stage, with their plaintive Alms for the poor number. The children later have a scene entirely to themselves, and it's organised chaos, with games of tag and such going on. In spite of that, in a moment, it seems, the kids can be all in back in place and marching together - and singing together, which is even more important!
Fred, played by Matariki Inwood, is initially part of the chorus, then transforms in the blink of an eye. In the process he suddenly acquires Mrs Fred ˗ played by Caroline Burchall. (Caroline stepped into the role late in the proceedings after another performer had to pull out.) Caroline began the rehearsals as one of the eight dancers, and still appears as a dancer in other scenes. Matariki has a great voice with great potential, but has no solo to speak of. However he particularly comes into his own in the second half at ‘Fred’s party’, when he spoofs Scrooge’s behaviour.
The other two drunks (besides Nathaniel) are Geoff Swift and Sarah Oliver. Geoff also plays Mr Fezziwig, and acquired a new ‘wife’ the night of the last dress rehearsal. Brenda Jones had  been playing her, but became very ill with the ‘flu, and hasn’t been able to perform since. Kathryn Constable took over the role, but couldn’t cover Brenda’s other ‘role’ as one of the quartet in the ‘poorly dressed townspeople’ piece because she was already singing in it! So, Sarah Oliver sings it. And all three still sing in the chorus numbers.
Lilian Gibbs plays Belle ˗ Scrooge’s young love ˗ and Keiran Kelly is young Scrooge. They have a lovely duet as well as being part of Fezziwigs’ party, and being involved in most of the chorus numbers. Many of the chorus sing more than the principals. The chorus tells the story, really, and have several chunks of big stuff. There are also two quintets, an octet and a nonet that the chorus cover. A great deal of good singing is required by the chorus, and they’ve come to the party with enthusiasm.
Young Jesse Hanan, who plays Scrooge as a boy, gets one of the few real solo pieces, a beautiful song about loneliness. It’s not long, but it’s very effective. Equally moving is Tiny Tim’s solo, a ‘thanksgiving’ for all the family’s blessings. This same song becomes his funeral dirge a few scenes later, and is even more moving at that point.
The Cratchit family is a delight. This is the only time Göeknil Meryem Biner (to give her her full
name as listed in the programme ˗ she’s Tom McGrath's wife) appears apart from the Finale. She leads the Cratchit family’s first ensemble number (sung without Bob, who arrives for the next ensemble), and her terrific family, who all have individual bits to sing, and are very busy at the same time with the preparation of the Christmas meal, are terrific. The children are sung by Madi Dow and Sarah Hubbard, two teenagers, along with four younger children: Samuel Kelly (as Peter Cratchit) and Massimo Pezzuto and Ayla Biner-McGrath as the unnamed pair of children. Tiny Tim (Joseph Kelly) completes the family, arriving with Bob for the second number. The music for this group is a delight, being amongst the best in the show.
There are two ‘waifs’ ˗ Sam Meikle, who looks well-fed enough, really (!) and Ozan Biner-McGrath, who happens to look skinny! Their brief cry of ‘Feed me’ is only just audible under a fairly noisy orchestral section as well as the singing of Nathaniel. However, they mostly have to look as though they’re at death’s door, and they do that well.
Finally there’s Grace Hill. She’s part of the children’s chorus (some thirty of them) but she also plays the fiddler in a couple of the early scenes, accompanying the carollers. Confusingly, there are two sets of carollers in our production. Not quite sure why, except that one group in the score is listed as a quartet and the other as a quintet. In fact both of them are quintets in this production for various reasons!
There’s a minimalist set: two windows and a door with a profile of 19th century London across the back reaching to about chest height. Everything else is achieved by lighting (which is very good, as far as I can see from the pit). I was a bit dubious about the lack of scenery at first, but my daughter, after seeing the show, said it looks very effective. Above the door is a clock, which at other times shows the sign, Scrooge and Marley, and also at least one of the ghost’s face ˗ Marley’s, I think, though I haven’t actually been able to see that as yet. I’m not even sure how this is done: it’s obviously some sort of electronic device, but I don’t know what. I’ll have to ask.
Scrooge’s bed is, for some reason, enormous. When it first appeared late in the rehearsals it looked as though it was going to take over the proceedings, but the director worked around it without too much concern. Other than that there’s little else in the way of furniture: a park bench for the drunks, a chaise longue at Fred’s party, and a table and some chairs for the Cratchits.
Christine Douglas has done a great job with the directing. The chorus was worked with extensively to bring out character and detail, so that things are kept alive and lively every time they’re on. They never just ‘stand and sing.’ And in other scenes, such as the two parties, and the Cratchit family meal preparation, there’s a heap of things going on. I’d like to be able to see it all, but unfortunately have only my memories of what I saw during rehearsal to go on. I don’t play during every piece in the show, so I can watch some of it, but there are great chunks that I never see now.
The costumes are wonderful. Considering that there were around eighty people to dress (including the dancers) Brenda Rendall has done an extraordinary job. There’s an authenticity about all the costumes; they fit, they’re colourful, and there’s a lot of detail. Both men and women have wonderful hats: not just top hats, but bowlers and even a pork pie for one of the men. The women have all manner of caps and bonnets. Plus cravats, shawls, aprons: you name it. What a job it must have been pulling all these items together. On top of this there’s a make-up artist who does most of the performers each night, and a hairdresser, who does most of the women’s hairstyles. So it’s a busy, busy production.
The music is played by four keyboardists, rather than an orchestra. We don’t each stick to any one group of instruments all the way through, but get to share things. Two of us play a triangle, for instance (a real one, not an electronic one), and most of us swap wind instruments and strings around. I don’t get to play piano, and I seem to have a lot of oboe, but I share the xylophone and celesta. At one point Sandra Christie is providing thunder while I’m adding in a rowdy wind sound. I’m fortunate that I have a keyboard that can be set up in advance so that it’s literally a press of the button to change a sound, but two of the others have a different model that requires the pressing of three buttons in sequence to get the next sound ˗ similar to what my own electronic piano at home requires. I think it’s probable that they could also have been set up in an easier way, but they’ve chosen to go this route, and it’s working. The third keyboardist, Moriah Osborne, has the same model as me, but she’s using it differently: turning one wheel to get the class of instrument and then another wheel to find the specific one she wants. Apparently she has time to do this. I only have to do it once, when I play one note on timpani (!). I find it a bit of a rush, personally. Ihlara McIndoe is the fourth instrumentalist. 
What of the music itself? It’s quite varied, from near-musical comedy to full-on operatic, and there are some quirky moments that could come from anywhere. A lot of it is very catchy, with syncopated rhythms, and much of it gets used at least more than once, so that the audience isn’t hit with an endless stream of new musical ideas to grasp. It certainly requires a lot of good singers; none of the small roles can easily be taken by people who aren’t up to the mark. We’ve been very fortunate in the cast we’ve got, I think. And our young conductor, Tim Carpenter, has all the energy required to keep the thing moving at a good pace.

Update: I only realised I'd missed out Shona Bennett's name when she made a comment on Facebook about this post. Shona is the choreographer for the show, and had already choreographed the dance pieces that were set in the score when we began production rehearsals. But then Christine George, the director, wanted the dancers included in other scenes, and Shona quietly slotted them in, gave them additional steps where necessary, trained chorus members - on the spot - how to dance in one or two scenes, and in general was an enormous asset to the production. This is apart from her being warm and friendly, full of smiles, and plainly having bundles of energy - and being shorter than I am. I only mention that because not everyone is....and she made the dancers' costumes. Does the woman sleep?
I should also add that Judy Bellingham took the chorus and small role music rehearsals with flair, enthusiasm (I'd come home absolutely whacked from playing for her rehearsals!), and in spite of claiming not to be a conductor, did an admirable job of pretending to be one. John Drummond also had a considerable part to play, early on. (He's the father of the young man, Jonathan, who conducted my own production, Grimhilda! back in 2012.) John took the original score and set it out so that it was playable by the four keyboardists. There are a couple of moments in my part that I wish he'd given to one of other keyboardists (and the same probably applies to the other players), but in general I enjoy what's been allotted to me.
Every time I add something here, you can see just how much additional work has gone into this show, work you're not aware of.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Procrastinating....

Philip Norman
Work on the neverending book, The Disenchanted Wizard, has sludged to a halt again, though we're only inches (yards, metres?) from the finish line. I've been so busy with working on Opera Otago's production of Philip Norman's A Christmas Carol, that my brain is struggling to think about the book. Rehearsals every evening, and afternoons on the weekend as well, plus keyboard rehearsals - three so far, and two more to come - plus practice at home for the bits I can't play properly, plus being at home alone because my wife is in the UK attending to an unwell sister, and I'm having to do all the housework and feed myself. (No biggie, really. I do both of these regularly anyway! Just thought I'd throw that in.)

A note comes up on Gmail notifications regularly, telling me not to procrastinate on the book. But procrastinating is what I'm doing. Of course there's time to work on it; I'm just using all the above as excuses, because even though we're close to the finish line, there are some difficulties I have to deal with, and I'm not a person who's enthusiastic about difficulties.

There's only one way to overcome difficulties in writing, and that's to write. Deb Vanesse says, in her book, What Every Author Should KnowI hate saying this, out of fear of jinxing myself, but I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, which is in part a writer’s term for procrastination, often connected to your fears of vulnerability and failure. Once you call those fears out for what they are, you can write your way through pretty much any stuck point, and the bigger problem may become forging ahead with a project when you should have stopped to assess whether it was heading in the best possible direction.

And in a similar vein, Steven Pressfield, in his book, The War of Art, writes: Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. We don't tell ourselves "I'm never going to write my symphony." Instead we say "I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow." [He uses the word 'resistance' to signify all those things that appear to stand in the way of our producing good creative work.]

So there you go. Having been told off by Gmail, by Vanesse and Pressfield, I'll go off and....walk the dog.

Update, later the same day: After going on about procrastinating on the book earlier today, I must have prodded myself into gear, and by late afternoon, I'd done the revision work that was needed. And of course it wasn't nearly as difficult as I'd thought it would be. So Progress!

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Fat amplification

In our church - like many churches, I suspect - we've had lots of changes in the music area over the nearly twenty-eight years we've been there. Originally there was just an organ, with occasional use made of a piano as well. Gradually the organ was superseded by piano, drums, guitar and various other instruments as the musicians came and went. The organist decided it was time to give up and went elsewhere - sadly - but it was increasingly obvious that not only was the time delay between the acoustic instruments and the organ a problem, but also the pitch aspect: it's hard to tune to an organ at the best of times, and quite honestly the other musicians weren't dead keen to do so. And it depended on whether the piano stayed in tune with the organ anyway. 

I played piano in the church for probably around twenty years (after having played it in our previous church for something like thirteen years). Eventually I was eased out in favour of keyboards. I wasn't impressed at the time, as the organist hadn't been in her day, but c'est la vie. So it goes. I think I'm reconciled now! 

With the increasing use of instruments that required amplifiers, we saw a whole range of amplifiers come and go over the years, until it seemed that the amplifiers swamped everything else in the church. (Some days they literally swamped everything, if things weren't going according to Hoyle.)

In our new building, the amplification is more under control than it used to be in the old church, or in the two buildings we used over a nineteen-year period until we built ourselves a new place. The amplifiers in the picture, which seem large enough, are nothing compared to the couple of huge ones we had in our last place. I was glad to see the back of them, as were the guys who used to have to put them in place each Sunday morning. 





As you can see, these are from the Fender family - they're officially called the Fender Bandmaster. They're probably fairly hefty to shift around, which is what solid roadies are for, but presumably they also give out a hefty sound. 

Ah, the good old days of acoustic instruments, when they only thing you had to worry about was tuning....

Overweight

Is there some new fad that requires books to be massive? I've been given two titles to review this week, both of them running to some 600 pages. The one I'm now halfway through could easily have told its story in half the space; there is a ton of surplus - interesting writing in its way, but not essential to the story, and only occasionally to the characters. One chapter I've just finished spends several pages on an inane conversation which quickly ceases to be funny because it becomes so laboured.

What are the editors thinking, I ask? Do they see large chunky books as the way to publish at present? I can tell you from experience that the weight of them is annoying (you can't take them in the bath, or read them in bed) and trying to keep them open even on a table is difficult. Because they're so tightly bound, they have to be forced back, with the possibility of breaking the spine.

Some of the best books I've read in the last few years have been around the 200 page, maybe 300 page mark. They don't waste time on inessentials, things that the author thinks are interesting but which annoy the reader. They get on with the story and are focused. 

Think of me...I've got another 900 pages still to go, and I'll have only finished two books...!

Somewhat quiet on this particular front

Things have been very quiet on here of late, for a number of reasons. We were away on holiday for a week, and the weekend before that, my daughter and her son moved out of our house - after eight years occupancy of the first floor. Sad to see them go, since my grandson has pretty much grown up here, but they're not far away, and we'll see them fairly regularly, I guess.

In the weeks before that, and again this week, I've been repetiteuring for Opera Otago's production of The Christmas Carol, an operatic version by New Zealand composer, Philip Norman. This has been full-on, with rehearsals every day of the week. I'm also going to be one of four keyboard players during the performances (the original orchestral score has been rearranged for the four of us), so that's another thing that's had to be worked on. Good for my brain and for the fingers, which need to keep working otherwise they stiffen up, but tiring nevertheless.

Just today the Production Manager was looking for a person to work on the sound for the show. I suggested the guy who did the sound for Grimhilda! back in 2012. He was very good, and very helpful. I'd like to say he'd be able to use a Behringer x32 to do the work, but I doubt if that's going to be likely. It'll be some old machine that's been around the theatre scene for a few years, I suspect. The Behringer is a super-modern digital affair and has all the bells and whistles. The photograph below probably doesn't do it justice:
So who was Behringer, you ask? (As I did myself.) His full name was Uli Behringer and he founded his audio equipment company in 1989. Not that long ago in historic terms, but probably centuries in audio terms. His original company has now become of the leaders in the field, marketing in a wide variety of countries. Here's another interesting bit of information (since I know you're keen to learn everything you can from this post). Behringer has perfect pitch; hence the 'ear' on his company's logo. 

There you go!