rachel nicholls 20185244It’s now nearly 2 years since I began my journey from sickbed to Strauss, or more specifically Salome (with a couple of detours via Elektra). For anyone who doesn’t know, Salome is the sort of role where there are certain “expectations”. I’m singing it for the first time this year and I am very, very excited about it for all sorts of reasons. The story is incredible, the music is divine, the challenge is enormous. It’s really hard to sing, there is a lot of lively discussion about which fach it falls into – is it for a lighter voice singing up? A heavier voice singing down? A low voice singing high? And looming over the whole (mainly joyous) preparation process, is a quote from Strauss himself, namely that he wanted his Salome to have the voice of Isolde, but in the body of a sixteen year old girl. The opera opens with the line “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute nacht!” and the norm is that Salome gets her kit off in return for a snog with the severed head of John the Baptist. No pressure then!

I’ve got my kit off on stage before. I’ve been a topless Tatyana at Scottish Opera, as well as doing the traditional breasts-out bit in The Knot Garden. I’ve got down to my underwear doing a sex scene with Alan Opie in For You (he managed to get away with only removing his shoes). Most outrageously, on arriving to do a late jump-in in Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel in Montepulciano, I was met by the director who greeted me effusively with “Hello Rachel, now we will go to ze sex shop!”, where he proceeded to watch me parade around in a variety of ever increasingly pervy outfits until he was satisfied that what he wanted for ze concept was me in a pair of white PVC hot pants, 4 inch perspex mules and nothing else. However all of this was an increasingly alarming number of years ago when I was jung und schön. I’m very much afraid that I’m now just und. I don’t have a problem with nudity on stage at all… as long as it’s justified by the piece and by the production, but I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive about the prospect of baring all in my mid-forties.

It’s not just women who feel the pressure – a baritone friend of mine who was double cast in a shirtless role with a notable barihunk tells me that he’d spent weeks psyching himself up to go on stage topless for the first time. The director took one look at him and said “We will find you a shirt”. Ouch!

Performers are all to some extent exhibitionists. Every time we go out onto the stage we are putting ourselves in front of a judgmental and critical public. In fact the whole process from our singing teacher’s studio, through the coachings, the rehearsal room, and stage rehearsals until we finally get to the performances is an exercise in us singing our hearts out and acting our socks off, and getting feedback on our best efforts. It takes a huge amount of mental and emotional strength to withstand being criticised every day, and those of us who choose to do this for a living have to fundamentally get a bit of a kick out of showing off. Even so, you have to be very brave to stand up in front of an audience. The higher profile the gig, and the more of a reputation you have, the greater the pressure. And we aren’t just judged on the quality of our voices, our ability to communicate and our musicianship. Clothed or unclothed, we are judged on how we look too.

Between my skinny late twenties and my recent illness and subsequent weight loss, owing to a busy lifestyle, my love of all things food and drink related, and a genuine belief that I sang better at about 2 stone heavier than I “should be”, I was a British size 14-16 who worked out. While my GP used to tut gently about my BMI, at 5’5″, I didn’t (quite) qualify as obese. Nevertheless, I stood in costume fittings being humiliated by various designers and wardrobe staff, listening to them discussing my bingo wings and spare tyre and how they needed to be disguised. Every time I revived an existing production and the (more famous) person who’d done it before was thinner than me, there were mutterings about re-making costumes and expense. It felt horrible. Worse still, my optimistic belief that it was only the costume fascists who cared was shattered when I overheard some audience members at Leicester Square tube complaining about how big my hips looked in my Die Meistersinger and saying that they felt my appearance undermined the plausibility of the story. I mean let’s just consider the story of Die Meistersinger for a moment- dad offers his daughter as a prize in a singing competition, and the man who’s been in love with her for years loses on purpose for the good of Holy German Art. Obviously how big my bum looked was crucial to the suspension or not of disbelief.

I felt militant about this. It made me very angry. I gave the people on the tube platform a piece of my mind and told them only to make personal remarks when they were further away from the performance venue. I fought my battles for flattering costumes where possible and tried not to obsess about how I looked. After all, it was my voice that mattered, right?

Melanie Lodge of the wonderful Audition Oracle has recently masterminded a new singing competition where it really will be people’s voices that matter. Her By Voice Alone initiative is designed to remove unconscious bias from a panel of judges. In the first round, contestants (for whom there is no age limit) will sing to a panel made up of representatives nominated by the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and The Grange Festival in a blind audition, with no names, CVs or headshots. The 30 voices considered the best, will be put forward to sing the the competition jury. The final round will be for 5-8 singers, and will be judged on a combination of their voices and stage ability. Melanie’s hope is to encourage more diversity within the industry, and I wish her every success with it.

Personally, when I’m watching an opera, I don’t need the characters on stage to conform to supermodel proportions. I’m captivated by the story, the music, the concept and the characters. How those characters are packaged up is the least interesting bit. I certainly hope that as an industry we can move on from the infamous Little Black Dress scandal at Covent Garden in the early naughties, and #Dumpygate at Glyndebourne. I would absolutely love more diversity in the opera industry. Opera is about life, (and often death). Its themes are moving and relevant to everyone and it would be great if everyone could be represented..with the proviso that everyone involved needs to be able to do the music justice – I draw the line at casting non-singers in the interests of equal opportunities.

Something that often gets left out of the diversity debate is age. The age at which singers’ voices are in their prime doesn’t necessarily coincide with when the singers are at their peak-castability. A combination of “aesthetic considerations” and economics (young, less-experienced singers are cheaper) means a lot of singers, particularly women, in their 40s struggle to find work, even though they’re singing better than ever. This is sad, and I hope that it will change.

So why then, am I getting my own knickers in such a twist and subjecting myself to a rigorous 5-days-a-week regime of running, personal training and dance lessons in the lead up to Salome rehearsals? Well, half of the answer is pragmatism. I know how I would like the industry to look, but I also know how it would like me to look. I know just how hard it is to sustain a performing career, particularly as a woman over 40. I may have to some extent dodged the ageing ingenue bullet by singing repertoire you can’t really touch until middle-age, but I still feel the pressure. Although I feel that we should be accepted in all our wonderful diverse shapes and sizes, I know it will hurt if there are sniggers from the auditorium (or in the press) after the opening line of the opera. Although it seems on that score, I can’t win. I don’t read reviews (you can read about why here), but I’m reliably informed that many of the crits of my first Elektra commented on my size- this time that it’s surprising that I’m thin. Sigh.

In a highly competitive environment, it helps to have a USP. I can’t control how the industry perceives middle-aged women, but I can make choices which make me more employable. And the other element to my fitness crusade is that it’s going to give me more choices about what I do on the stage. I will be in a position to have a go at whatever the choreographer wants to challenge me with. Knowing I’ve worked hard to achieve the strongest, most flexible body I can have is empowering, and gives me confidence at a time when I think I’ll definitely need it. If I feel confident, and am not using mental space and emotional energy feeling insecure, it is going to make my characterisation of a sixteen year old girl who’s only ever been told she’s beautiful more convincing.

So, am I betraying my diversity principles by doing sit-ups and yoga in my hotel room and going running in the snow? I think I would have to say yes, if body-image was my primary reason for doing it. But I’m also prepared to admit that in order to do this job, lots of us need things to help prop us up. I used to find huge release from the pressure of my performing life from a few glasses of wine and comfort food. Following doctor’s orders, those things are no longer a good idea, so now, I find headspace, solace and feel-good endorphins from my runner’s high instead.

My drama teacher at college told me that the first step to taking on a character starts with self-awareness. I know that if I had the most beautiful voice in the world, the rest of the package would matter less- the audience would be transported and it wouldn’t matter what I looked like. Similarly, if I looked like a supermodel, there would be more of a chance for the eye to deceive the ear, and my singing ability would matter less. If I were the truly uninhibited, brave performer I wish I was, I’d be able to convince an audience that I’m a sixteen year old princess at the age of 60, stark naked, and weighing 30 stone.

But I’m not Pavarotti, I’m not a supermodel, I’m not Judi Dench, and fundamentally, I’m not brave enough to strip without my emotional support system of toning my arms and glutes. So, in the same way that I work on my voice to make the most of what nature’s given me, and continually work on my process and stage skills to improve my characterisation and acting, I’ll carry on with my mission to keep strong, fit and healthy, and in a position to do the dance of the seven veils without getting out of breath, and hopefully without eliciting guffaws from the dress circle. By the time I’m 60, let’s hope for more enlightened times… or maybe by then Herodias will be a better option!