Samantha Crawford blog - Glyndebourne Tour 2014

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British Australian Samantha Crawford studied on the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Opera Course as a Baroness de Turckheim Scholar and recipient of an Australian Music Foundation Young Musician Award. She is a Britten-Pears Young Artist, and was awarded the J:opera Gesangswettbewerb Sonderpreis Theater Kiel. She has appeared at several festivals including Aldeburgh, Edinburgh International, Garsington Opera and Vienna’s Schlosstheater Schönbrunn.

This is her first season at Glyndebourne, where she is covering the role of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw and a member of the chorus in La traviata .

For extra updates from and photos between Samantha’s blog entries, why not follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Glyndebourne blog 6 – Dancing in Dublin & fond farewells

What. A. Whirlwind. The past few weeks touring have seemed to gallop by with ever-increasing speed. With the final curtain down on La finta giardiniera and The Turn of the Screw in Plymouth, I bade a sad farewell to understudying Miss. Jessel, and prepare as the final performance of La traviata draws near. Those in the cast who have previously trodden our touring path have been kind enough to share their pearls of wisdom and ensure that each town has had its merits highlighted to me. I have been treated to sun soaked views, Christmas markets and windswept walks along the harbour hills.

One of the great things about working with an international cast is embracing native holidays and experiences with them. We each play our part in making people feel at home when away from friends and family during special celebrations. By happy historical coincidence our Plymouth performances took place either side of Thanksgiving Day. So after a delicious home cooked company meal, we wound our way down to the Mayflower Steps to raise our voices with American Zach Borichevsky (who sings Alfredo) in an enthusiastic rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ With the notes still ringing in my ears, it will take a lot to top my first experience of Thanksgiving…It certainly helped set the tone for our much anticipated trip to the green grassy shores of Ireland!

Raise a glass! Numero uno Thanksgiving in full swing

Dancers. How do they prepare for a night in the opera? There is some overlap in our preparation for a performance, but the main difference is that as we predominately express though our voice (pitch, tone, rhythm, words, phrasing, dynamics etc.) the dancers cultivate expression through their bodies. In very practical terms it means they need somewhere large enough to warm up from top to toe – harder than you may think in these chilly autumnal months. In Dublin, the very spacious Bord Gáis Energy Theatre offered ample room for singers and dancers alike to stretch and flex before the curtain rose each night. With some backstage areas being slightly more cosy at other venues, I asked the ladies how they come up with creative alternatives for warming up long limbs. Apparently, backstage corridors and stairwells top the list…

Left to right; Soledad De La Hoz, Mandy Dassa (actress), Aurelie Poles, Claire Burrell and Rachel Maybank ready to predict your future…

Special flesh coloured foot protectors are also worn to help grip the stage when dancing as sometimes unavoidable (party drink) spillages occur, and everything is done to ensure safety for the dancers. These useful little inventions also stop skin burn from numerous barefoot gypsy twirls too. They also have to adapt their choreography slightly to any restrictions they may encounter when a stage is smaller. With all their joie de vire and fortune telling, they certainly add to the party atmosphere at Flora’s home!

A highlight of this tour has been our first ever performances in the heart of Dublin at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. They gave us a very warm welcome, three sold out shows in four days and standing ovations every night. It was such a rewarding experience. The city itself also offered a wealth of history, music, restaurants and architectural beauty that were enjoyed by all.

Chorus Master Jeremy Bines conducts the final two performances in Stoke-on-Trent at the beautifully decorated Regent Theatre, and then it is time to say addio to Verdi’s Parisian world. There has been a huge amount of talent and hard work poured into making the past few months a success. Watching others give of their best night after night raises the spirits of all to do the same. I am delighted to have been part of touring these operas. Until the next time…

Addio ai miei amici. Smiling with just some of the faces I will miss from la traviata. Left to right: Benjamin Cahn (Marchese), Joshua Owen Mills (Gastone) & Timothy Dickinson (Doctorre).

Glyndebourne blog 5 – Cathedrals, Courtesans, Cottages and Castles

As the title suggests, touring with la traviata and The Turn of the Screw covers a ranges of experiences. So far the planned cast, courtesan or conductor changes have all had smooth transitions too. Between Woking, Canterbury, Norwich and Milton Keynes I have visited two stunning cathedrals (one with a wedding in full swing), gazed upon a castle during an Autumnal sunset and enjoyed a log fire for a few days in a country cottage. Such are the pleasures of life on the road.

Country views from our cottage near Norwich

Speaking of roads, planning your travel on tour is a crucial part of avoiding timing problems. Many company members travel to the city on the day of a performance, even with all usual traffic and train schedules checked by the company office, you cannot foresee accidents and delays. Fortunately for us, the curtain has always risen to a full cast and company. No one has made the nerve-racking dash from their car pulling on costume and wig as they hear the orchestra just reaching their entrance music. Believe me, I have heard of occasions when it has happened!

Although most of the drama has been contained on stage, there have been a few moments for the memory bank happening backstage. This week a fellow lady of the chorus was trapped in a dressing room toilet ten minutes before the start of the la traviata, so I handed her costume to her over the bathroom wall to keep getting ready. As the lock refused to budge a technician was called in, had to completely remove the stubborn lock, and with one minute to spare she emerged fully dressed, and speedily made her way to the stage. Literally without missing a beat.

Good food and drink are at the heart of many group outings

The ‘live’ element of opera keeps us on our toes when changing venue every week. Whilst talking with some of the technical crew working on The Turn of the Screw I learned of the Tetris-like precision required to build and operate the set in theaters of various sizes. Below shows just how many fly ropes are used to manually operate the pieces of set ‘flying in’ from above the stage. Each one requires careful balancing with weights to ensue a smooth journey in front of the audience. The teams of people working hard behind the scenes play a huge part in making the tour a success.

Fly ropes marked clearly with the opera and piece of set it operates. No one wants a mismatched old tree being lowered into Violetta’s deathbed scene!

Glyndebourne blog 4 – The personal touch

A widely accepted truth is that first impressions count. As performing artists, Stage Door is normally that first impression.Yes, striking architecture, history and exquisite décor can all help distinguish the different theatres, but my abiding memories of each new venue I perform in is that of the atmosphere created by those who run it. I feel fairly confident in saying it will be hard to beat the enthusiasm and warmth given by the ladies who work at the Stage Door at Glyndebourne. Gemma, Lucy, Claire and Katriona, have all been great examples of why the personal touch makes the difference. It may seem obvious, but the nature of touring is that a lot of time is spent away from home and those dearest to you. A friendly welcome that makes you feel like you are a part of a team can take the experience from fairly lonesome to a happy collaboration.

Whilst touring, the Stage Door staff you talk to each day can change your outlook in stressful situations as they are often full of useful local information. For example, they can receive your good luck cards or flowers whilst moving from city to city, arrange meeting friends and family after a performance, give recommendations on tasty eateries, dry cleaning, post offices, pubs etc. These exchanges go unseen by the public eye, but are not to be underestimated in their importance in connecting us to a ‘normal’ rhythm of life.

The members of the chorus and cast also play a large part in how well you adjust to life on the road. I feel fortunate to have colleagues blessed with equal skill sets. In this case, that balance has been between delicious home-baked cakes with optional circuits training, courtesy of our personal fitness motivator, tenor David Webb. The team building will certainly continue on tour with some shared travel, meals, accommodation, birthdays, Christmas parties, dressing rooms… you get the picture. For the moments that you can feel cut off from friends, they are also an abundance of occasions to make new friendships or deepen long standing ones.

The last performance at Glyndebourne took place on Saturday 26th October, which means all sets, costumes, instruments and people are are now ‘on the road,’ until 10th December. (Fancy full fascinating facts?Here’s the tour by numbers.) Time to explore and see what each new town and theatre bring to our operas. Catch us while you can! First stop, Woking.

Glyndebourne blog 3 – The Turn of the Stage

Turn of the Screw , or Turn of the Stage? The clever set design turns simultaneously in opposite directions creating seamless transitions between the scenes of the opera, winding tightly until the emotional climax of the The Turn of the Screw ‘s final fraught moments. Having been watching the main cast rehearsing Britten’s opera on stage all week it’s given the cover cast the chance to see how lighting, set, costume, and orchestra come together for this production. Miranda Keys plays Miss Jessel, and I am covering the role.

We rehearse separately from the main cast in the Jerwood Studio at Glyndebourne. These are run by Fiona Dunn (Assistant Director) and Christopher Stark (Assistant Conductor) to go over what is being created by the main cast. Part of this process includes us practicing crossing between the moving sections of the set without stumbling. Easier said than done, especially as Miss Jessel makes some entrances in the dark. Quite a few giggles ensued as we tried to gracefully traverse the revolve, with varying levels of success.

This is not the only time balancing skills are required whilst singing. Miss Jessel and Quint also climb onto a giant fallen tree spread across the back of the stage, and Rebecca Leggett (covering Flora) and I, have been trying to fit both of us on a moving single bed without either of us toppling onto the floor. It’s certainly cosy!

Seat hopping. Not generally encouraged for audience members, but extremely useful for covers and music staff (during rehearsals). Different seats in the theatre auditorium draw my eyes and ears to varied parts of the story. After rehearsing for several weeks with piano accompaniment, I spend time during these orchestral rehearsals working out which instruments are less audible than when rehearsing with the piano. Part of the support given by the music staff is to help identify when volume and diction should be altered once rehearsals move into the theatre. This set is cube like in structure, and creates a lot of reverberation when we sing, making it harder to hear what the ensemble sounds like.

After talking to Miranda about how long the’I-drowned-and-crawled-out-of-a-lake-look,‘takes to perfect, it is worth considering I may need longer than my la traviata make-up takes… There are no half measures when covering your arms and legs in ‘mud, grime and slime.’ But she certainly looks the part! Opening night is just around the corner, and I cannot wait to hear the mixed conclusions drawn by the audience. Is Miss Jessel a danger? A ghost? Imagined? A’horrible, terrible woman?‘We’ll see.

Glyndebourne blog 2 –Inspiration and Perspiration

It is almost opening night for La traviata , and time has flown. Now that I have successfully negotiated the party scenes without spilling my champagne, dropping my cigarette, tripping in my heels or having a wardrobe malfunction with my slinky dress for Act 2, I feel confident for the curtain to go up on Verdi’s masterpiece. Making the busy nightlife appear effortless requires practice and precision as cast, chorus, waiters, dancers and actors all move across, but never collide on stage.

A trick to keep thoroughly rehearsed interactions fresh is making sure I only respond to what is being said (sung) as if it were the first time I heard them. Simple, but effective. It is a delicate balance to strike between feeling under or over rehearsed for a performance, but important to find a way of supporting the action on stage without detracting from the main story. If I feel lost in a busy crowd scene, I give my character a simple objective, like topping up a drink, or meeting a friend to focus my movements. Thus helping avoid two dreaded states of stage existence, frozen rooted to the spot, or meandering purposelessly. Most members of the chorus were in the festival production of this new Traviata, so my helpful colleagues have been quick to include me during these scenes.

In these last few orchestral rehearsals, I take opportunities to slip into the auditorium when not required on stage and watch Alfredo and Violetta’s relationship unfold. Observing our conductor, David Afkham, work in detail with the orchestra to colour the music allows me to reflect on the opera as a whole. The lighting, set design and orchestral playing really helps inform me about the overall tone of a piece I am working on. You immerse yourself in a rehearsal room, but often do not get to see much of the opera you are performing in. I find listening and absorbing so helpful after a lot of action. Are their moments of previously unseen joy, bitterness, or even peace? What can be learnt from that shape of phrase, or choice of words? Repetition of text? Lots to think about…

The Turn of the Screw will be a completely different process, where watching stage rehearsals will play a larger part of me covering the role of Miss Jessel. A double revolving set and giant tree are to be tackled in the coming weeks, but more on that next time. First, let’s launch this 2014 tour with the (on stage) pop of champagne cork and heart wrenching love story!

Glyndebourne blog 1 – A (Green) Room with a view

Unexpected glorious sunshine has filled every break during my first few weeks working at Glyndebourne, which has been a whirlwind of costume fittings, music learning, three wig fittings, orientation of the theatre and, of course, learning names and around 100 new faces! I have joined the company for the first time for this year’s tour to cover the role of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, and as a member of the chorus in La traviata. Both productions have been shown previously during the main festival so I hope to give a little insight to the experience of taking the shows on the road.

There are so many considerations thought through to maintain the highest production values whilst moving from theatre to theatre each week. Will the set need adjusting if the stage is a different size? Will we need longer entrance cues to make it on stage if dressing rooms are situated further away? What will the acoustic sound like, and which adjustments to volume should be made? And many more. We are visiting Woking, Canterbury, Norwich, Plymouth, Milton Keynes and Stoke on Trent. La traviata is also touring to Dublin for the first time this year, and with several chorus members from Ireland, I’m looking forward to seeing a new city with some locals. I find it often adds an extra dimension…

Working on these two operas means I play the ghost of a tormented governess, and then switch to a fabulously chic Parisian A – Lister, but it’s all in a day’s work for opera singers. As a young female singer, a wonderful part of my job is that I can be cast in a mix of roles with a freedom not as easily facilitated in straight theatre or television. Anything from a Baroque Goddess, water sprite, fox, tormented peasant, chicken, Elizabethan Queen, or even young lady (!) can fit the brief. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of embracing my different worlds, La traviata is hedonistic and outwardly frivolous, Turn of the Screw lonely and oppressive. But those ideas always are open to change once I understand the director’s vision for a production. However after intensive rehearsals, the dragonflies’ buzzing around the lake add to peaceful atmosphere in the gardens that staff enjoy during breaks, or wifi access in the café – whichever you prefer.

Wigs. If your hair is the right colour, length and style to be used for a production, should you wear one? It is not quite as simple as that. With a festival production there is a large team working to help everyone look the part. However, when on tour that team is made up of less people trying to prepare over 30 people’s hair styles, and means a bit of timing wizardry is required. The reality is that it is usually quicker to pre dress (style) wigs and pin them on, rather than scheduling a slot for each cast member’s own hair in the hours before the show. It also means hair changes during the performance can be sped up, as another pre dressed wig can be swapped over in a matter of minutes if required. These ladies are very fast! I actually have long blonde curly hair, but have been given three alternative looks for the operas. Think my favourite is the middle photo.

As the tour consists of three operas (the other being La finta giardiniera), the theatre feels distinctly calmer compared with the festival producing six operas in the summer. Whilst practicing in the Old Green Room and serenading the meandering sheep, I wonder how the views will change from my various warm-up rooms over the coming months…watch this space!

As the rehearsals progress I will post a few extra updates and photos between the blog entries, which you can find here on Facebook and Twitter.