Our Director of Artist Development, David Sulkin OBE, shares an insight into how he has adapted and developed the stagecraft and movement offer at NOS over the past year and discusses the incredible work being carried out by his team with our Young Artists.

The skills needed to be a leading opera singer are multitudinous. Something akin to extreme juggling and downhill skiing undertaken at the same time. The singer needs to be musical, with an outstanding technique, intellectually sharp as a knife, physically responsive; relaxed and at ease even when a role demands exertion and nervous tension, plus an ability to use every aspect of life experience, condensing those experiences into the skills employed by great actors.

There is no doubt that the long periods of quarantine for the Young Artists of the National Opera Studio have been tough. We stress the importance of working as part of an ensemble, of collaborating and working together. In normal times there is a rich mix of duets, quartets and ensemble singing which has not been possible for us via Zoom. So vocal coaching has focussed mainly, on the individual, on arias, even if several people are tuning into one coaching and observing each other.

Stagecraft is similar. We have covered most of the bases that we would when we are able to create together live.

Physical work online has been a mix of body awareness and flexibility to enable character analysis to be explored using concrete evidence, asking what the character ‘wants’. We have been linking physical work, led by Sarah Fahie, to that of our Stanislavsky specialist, Sebastian Harcombe who leads character analysis. Madam Butterfly wants Pinkerton to return to her. She fears that he may not come. Herman in Queen of Spades wants to know the secret of the cards. He fears rejection and madness. These are the building blocks for character building that young singers commonly do while learning a role and preparing for rehearsals.

Fitting alongside this is the work of Kate Maravan, our Meisner expert who teachers a technique often employed in film-acting to achieve ‘in the moment’ action and reaction. Kate’s advice – via David Mamet - to our young artists is ‘invent nothing, deny nothing’ with the objective of being totally truthful in character. 

All this work happens very successfully online. Of course as soon as we have had time to reflect, we know we would rather have been working together live, but work has not ground to a halt. Far from it.

One of the silver-linings of the quarantine cloud has been more intense exploration of performing on screen. We expect, in future, that all initial auditions will be carried out remotely either sung live via Zoom or recorded. This has been common practice for a long time in theatre, where ‘self-taping’ is de rigueur for UK-based actors hoping for a career in Hollywood and visa versa.

As many of us who have been watching opera online for a year will be able to testify, it is now even more vital for singers to be able to act for the small screen as well as for the world’s largest opera houses.

At the 2017 V&A exhibition, Opera : Passion, Power and Politics, the video of Katarina Dalayman from the Richard Jones ROH production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk [2004] showed us how the impact and vitality of opera really up close can be. Equally Diana Damrau’s thrilling and razor sharp Queen of the Night is outstanding on the small screen. It is these standards, both online and live, that we expect of the Studio’s young artists.