The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 25, 2008


A master teacher shapes performances by local singers

"This is going to be a totally gentle experience, like two friends tossing around ideas together. I am a pussycat. I don't want you to go away feeling wrecked. I want you to enjoy this and go away with something you can keep." So began last Saturday's master classes in Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) performance, conducted by Britain's Roberta Morrell. A talented and astute performer and director, Morrell did describe the tone and atmosphere of these classes, but belied the intensity and the amount of progress that local singers achieved in just 45 minutes apiece under her tutelage.

The day began with Kaori Emery of Wakefield, a graceful soprano possessed of a warm and powerful voice, who sang Elsie's aria, "'Tis done, I am a bride," from Yeomen of the Guard. Morrell enumerated all of "the essentials, the basic wherewithal" that Emery brought to the piece, and then declared, "Now we'll begin to build the whole package."

Building the whole package

G&S pieces usually open with several bars of introductory music. "Use this music," Morrell said, "to link the character to the scene that has gone before this one." In this case, Elsie, a street entertainer, has been blindfolded, "roughed about," and forced to marry a man she knows nothing about except that he has been sentenced to death and will be executed within a half hour of the wedding. To help Emery show this, Morrell removed her own fuzzy gray scarf and blindfolded Emery with it, moved her into position, and tore off the scarf. The effect of this introductory business was to create a completely different character for the song. Instead of the graceful and wistful delivery of her first attempt, Emery achieved an off-balance resentment as she sang:

"'Tis done! I am a bride! Oh, little ring,

That bearest in thy circlet all the gladness

That lovers hope for, and that poets sing,

What bringest thou to me but gold and sadness?"

Morrell developed this interpretation by asking Emery to speak the lines "as if they were poetry, to get the words to do what you want them to." Immediately as Emery spoke the lyrics, different emphases appeared and she found ways to clarify them through phrasing.

Pins that peg the washing

"Never shortchange the little words," said Morrell, urging Emery to think about the importance of a conjunction like "and" or "but." "The little words are the pins that peg the washing on the line." She advised Emery, "Always work by speaking it first." Other "pins" included recognizing that "when you have a repetition, it's always for emphasis. So make each [repeat] different. For the final lines of the recitative section,

"A bridegroom all unknown, save in this wise,

Today he dies! Today, alas, he dies!"

Morrell suggested that Emery use a portamento on the word "alas," "to take you to the final 'he dies.'" A portamento is most familiar to Americans as a slide from one note to another, like the famous downward slide to the bass note in Jerome Kern's "Old Man River" on the line, "Git a little drunk and you lands in jaaaaaaail." In opera technique, the singer usually sings all the notes up or down instead of sliding through them. It's an "ornament," intended to demonstrate a singer's agility and to use the music to emphasize an important lyric. Here, it careens the audience into the concept that the young man in question is about to die.

The class continued in this way by taking apart the aria and building it back together piece by piece. Emery gamely sang, spoke, moved, and repeated sections again and again. Morrell noted, "Have you noticed that when you add the acting and phrasing to the song, your tempo has picked up naturally? This is now becoming a real character." At the end of the session, Emery had transformed herself from a willowy and tranquil recital singer into a "so young, but so cynical," sweet but tough street performer robbed even of knowing her new husband. She could sting women with:

"O weary wives who widowhood would win,

Rejoice, rejoice, that ye have time

To weary in."

Morrell asked her, "Now, how do you feel?" Excited and motivated, Emery replied, "I feel a lot less stupid when I do it with the acting. Now I feel like it still needs more. It feels like it's halfway there." It was more than halfway there; it was obvious that Emery would go into performance unafraid to present a character who was real and credible.

The piratical maid-of-all-work
Roberta Morrell directs Gilbert and Sullivan productions around the world. (Photo by Mike Quayle)

Cindy and Bill Jones of Wrentham met several years ago when he was playing Nanki-Poo and she was playing Yum-Yum in The Mikado. Shortly after that production, they married and they retain an affection for G&S material to this day. Cindy, a strong alto with plenty of Broadway belt in her voice, took her master class on Saturday on a song from The Pirates of Penzance called, "When Frederick was a Little Lad." In this piece, Ruth, former nursemaid to young Frederick, confesses tearfully to the audience that because she is "hard of hearing," she mistakenly apprenticed him not to a seafaring pilot, as his father had wished, but to a pirate. To protect him, she, too, joins the pirate band, and becomes a "piratical maid-of-all-work." Ruth is a broad comic part like the rustics in Shakespeare, and it was Morrell's task to get Cindy Jones to expand her interpretation of Ruth, adding melodrama and fun. Otherwise, Morrell said, "[Since] this is not one of Sullivan's great arias, it can be the most horrendously boring song. It's all about the story."

Prose this time instead of poetry

"Ruth is one of the blokes," said Morrell. "You can fill the intro music with emotion and you can make noise. Who says you can't?" When Jones used the introduction to sob wildly in shame for her mistake, she immediately became a larger and earthier character. Although she repeated her advice always to speak the words first, this time Morrell advised Jones not to say it as poetry. "Say it as prose. Then sing it the way you would say it." This allowed Jones the time to "color the words" with gestures and phrasing appropriate to Ruth's masculine style. "Gestures," Morrell said, "are there only to reinforce what you are singing, to make your character real. They need to be planned as carefully as any other stage business. They need to mean something." She coached Jones through a series of possible gestures to make Ruth rougher and less feminine, and places to pause and add action in the song to bring out the character. As Emery had, Jones repeated phrases and stage business over and over.

As the session wound down, Morrell said, "Now you're getting it. You're taking on a totally different life form."

"Is that good?" asked an obviously fatigued but galvanized Jones. Morrell and the several onlookers burst into laughter.

"Of course that's good!" replied the master teacher.

Parting advice

Morrell fed off the enthusiasm and dedication of her students, displaying passion for her subject. "It always angers me," she said, "that everyone expects amateur productions to be sub-standard. Why should amateurs be forced to work at the bottom end? If they are shown what's open, what's possible to them, they can and should work at a higher level. We have to make these characters real, believable and earthy people. How else are we going to make Gilbert and Sullivan live through another century?"

2008 The Carlisle Mosquito