ⓒSandra Then/ Theater Basel

Every time the phone rings with news of a new, exciting opera contract it presages a heady day of euphoria, pride, relief and usually the optimistic paying off of my credit card in full. When we’re booked for a job we are vindicated as artists. Someone loves us. In these turbulent times of Arts’ cuts and austerity, the promised financial reward can mean the difference between identifying as an Artist, and identifying as a more-or-less full-time Temp.

Friends of mine have often joked that the day you’re booked is fabulous, and so is the day you get paid (often months and MONTHS after the last performance if the last two years’ track record is anything to go by), but everything in between is torture. I sympathise but cannot concur. Ultimately I act and sing because I am a massive show-off who likes acting and singing. For me, there are two days that are even better in the life-cycle of an opera contract- the first day of rehearsals when the director explains the concept of his or her vision of the piece, usually accompanied by the designer with amazing drawings of what supermodels would look like in the costumes, and a sexy model of the set, and the Sitzprobe where I meet the orchestra for the first time. I get genuinely very excited about these. In both cases, there is so much potential for creativity. So many artistic people to meet and bounce ideas off.

Of course, the ultimate collaborative creative process is a new production of an opera. These are less common than you might think though. New productions are incredibly expensive and they’re a risk for the Opera House. More often than not, us singers are slotting into a production which has already been done, where other singers have collaborated with the Artistic Team and have had 6-8 weeks of character-work, discussion of concepts and have come up with a blocking which is instinctive and comfortable for them. Coming into this, sometimes in a different Opera House, can feel like trying to fit a square peg (me) into a round hole (the gap left by the more-famous singer who did it last time).

Often, the director isn’t even there. We rehearse with a revival director. Sometimes we are lucky and it’s someone who worked on the piece when it was first conceived, but sometimes we get someone who has only had a chance to read the director’s notes and watch the DVD a few times before being left in charge of a bunch of unruly and recalcitrant opera singers, none of whom has any idea of the important themes the director wanted to bring out, and all of whom complain vociferously about whatever the original cast did in each scene. The revival director must then tread a very careful line between keeping the new cast happy enough so that the prima donna does not announce “I go airporrrrt!” on day 3, and retaining enough of the original director’s vision so that the production will still hang together cohesively and be close enough to the original that they won’t get fired when he or she swans in for the General, ready to take all of the credit at the Premiere-which-is-not-a-premiere.

So, often, the process can be a little bit bumpy. We get frustrated because we are doing someone else’s moves, wearing a costume designed to suit someone else and our little creative flames are dimmed as we feel we don’t have any input. We have to stick to the blocking devised by someone else for someone else because if we don’t we will be standing in the dark (the lighting design suddenly becomes the most important diva in the room as soon as we’re into technical rehearsals).

We’re trying to be replacement panes of glass through which the audience can look into the innermost depths of the piece, but who contribute no personality of our own. We are, after all, being artificially separated from the drama by an extra degree. I’m not Rachel playing Isolde, I’m Rachel trying to play Nina playing Isolde (actually I’ll stop there – I would definitely settle for Rachel playing Nina any day… if only I could sing like her too…).


ⓒEdoardo Piva/Teatro Regio di Torino

Add to that double-casting and we have yet another layer to factor in. Rachel plays Ricarda playing Nina playing Isolde? It gets very complicated. But in a way that’s reassuring because all of these interpreters do contribute something of their own and every interpretation which I do, watch or listen to informs my own understanding of the character- which means my own characterisation becomes much more faceted and three-dimensional. Which will be very useful next time I do a new production.

Of course it’s not just characterisation “baggage” we pick up along the way- I’ve now sung Isolde under the batons of eight different conductors with ten different orchestras. Musically I now have the huge luxury of “favourite” bits of interpretation from each of these experiences which I hope I will take into future performances. Sometimes I see myself as a tumbleweed, or a snowball, adding layers and layers onto myself as I career chaotically down a slope.

Sometimes though, even when it is  a revival, the creative process can be something of a dream-come-true and this is what I’ve had at Theater Basel in Elektra which opened last night. I have been gearing up to this production for the last year. Elektra is a rite of passage for Dramatic Sopranos. It’s huge. It’s epic. The orchestra barely fits in the pit. The music’s really, really hard and you need to sing athletically as well as with a huge amount of stamina, but it’s a different race-plan to Wagner. Tristan is a marathon. Think of Elektra as the 1500 metres –  a race in which you have to run as fast as you can for the entire time. I was beyond excited at singing for Erik Nielsen who I think is one of the very best conductors I’ve ever worked with, and the process kicked off with a week of music calls. To have this time to spend on working out what we wanted to do with the music was the most enormous luxury and I fear has spoilt me for all future jobs.



ⓒSandra Then/Theater Basel

In Basel we also had the luxury of a six-week production rehearsal period for a revival. This is really generous, particularly considering the piece is only 90 minutes long (admittedly the most intense 90 minutes I’ve ever experienced). Our Original Director, David Bösch was there on day one and his first sentence and the concept-talk was enough to reassure us that we would be collaborating in the process wholeheartedly. He said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Once I’d seen the designs by Patrick Bannwart, Maria Wolgast and the costumes by Meentje Nielsen I was completely wooed. When David told me he was a horror-film nut and gave me “homework” of watching “The Woman”, “Eden Lake” and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. He had to go somewhere else as his Tote Stadt was premiering in another theatre so we got to work with Barbora Horáková-Joly our (amazing) Revival Director. She didn’t seem ever to be compromising either our creativity or the production concept. She explained the overall blocking shape the production took in each scene and then let us develop the characters and relationships ourselves. If something didn’t work we scrapped it and started again from scratch. When someone had a brilliant (or slightly sick and twisted) idea, we found a way to slot it in to the production.

When David came back two weeks later, the show looked very different. He loved it. He took our new ideas and ran with them with his own unique spin. He came up with some even sicker and twisteder ideas. Together with Meentje, he decided that our characters needed less “theatrical” costumes and wigs because of the way we were playing. The design was adjusted accordingly. Ursula (Klytamnestra) and I got to go on with our own hair (roots and all) and Pauliina (Chrysothemis) got to perform in her rehearsal costume instead of the pretty dress she’d been given originally. The lighting design was adjusted and brightened so all the little extra details we had worked in would be visible at the back of the theatre. We were happy.

In terms of artistic creativity, this decision from the Director and the Costume Designer was an enormous act of trust. By letting us be more natural, they were willing to take the risk that what we were doing on stage was going to stand by itself without the extra heightened image that the more formal costumes and wigs were providing. For me, it made becoming the character a far more organic process  – by physically working in an intense way for weeks, I didn’t need to play “dressing up”. The physical manifestation of Elektra was all about how I used my body, not what I was dressed in and as a result, when I went on stage last night for the Premiere, I was more comfortable in Elektra’s skin and in my costume than ever before and I felt there was no barrier between me and her. At no point did I give a thought to being someone else playing Elektra.

Trust, time and open-mindedness from everyone involved in this production were the key ingredients to making it such a very satisfying artistic process. Thank you Theater Basel for collecting together a cast and team of very creative people and letting them have the time to get to know and trust each other to develop something organic and cohesive together. This is how I want to work. This is what it should be like!


Elektra runs until 23rd April at Theater Basel.