14 Sep 2014

Don Giovanni

From Standing Room Only, 12:36 pm on 14 September 2014

Don Giovanni pan
Left: soprano Emily Scott. Centre: image courtesy of NZOpera. Right: director Sara Brodie.

It’s a tough life being an opera singer these days. Especially when directors start getting ideas in their heads...

“They’ve been asked to sing upside down, they’ve been asked to sing lying down, or to dance at the time.”

So says Emily Scott, a young soprano and a Freemasons Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera. In its current production of Don Giovanni Emily gets asked to do more than most. Along with another singer, she spends an entire scene pole dancing on a narrow, three-metre high platform.

“When I got up there I said to myself ‘This is a lot higher than I thought it was going to be. And then on top of that you’re in high shoes”.

Thankfully, in this instance Emily doesn’t have to sing while she’s swinging around the pole; she clearly has more than enough to concentrate upon already. But it sometimes seems that while the range of operas being performed gets smaller and smaller, the weird and wonderful things singers get asked to do in them continue to grow. In this production, they snort cocaine, fight, get set on fire – mostly while singing beautifully, of course.

Don Giovanni’s director Sara Brodie says there are things she would not ask a singer to do, but only after first discussing with them what the production requires - because that discussion will often lead to bigger and better things.

“I had a singer once and I learned that she could tap dance and so we put that into her coloratura. And she could manage it and it was fantastic. The audience loved it, so why not?”

Sara lets her singers know right from the start exactly what she’s planning, and that is also the time when she invites them to share with her their knowledge of the opera or let her know any physical restrictions they might have. But despite this, every now and then, she does see a look of panic cross their faces…

“Yes, quite often, but always it’s a question of ‘let’s try it’. And you only know if you experiment and then you can go ‘whoops, that was a total failure, the note’s gone all floppy’”.

Emily says that if she had been asked to sing while pole dancing, it would be difficult but not impossible. And it might even be good for her voice.

“You’re using particular muscles that you associate with singing anyway. The only difficulties would be restrictions on your breathing. Depending on what sort of shape you’re bent into, while you’re also concentrating on not falling and hurting yourself!”

Sara says that if she’s done her work as a director correctly, then what she wants the singers to do should facilitate, not prevent, the production of a beautiful sound.

“To sing a Top C is not (just) a technical exercise. If that engages with the fact that her heart has just been torn out, then the note will be much more grounded because it is grounded emotionally as well.”

Emily says that at this stage in her career as a singer, there is no great physical challenge she would like to attempt while performing a difficult aria. Just singing well would be enough.

“Oh God, if I could do that I’d be very happy!”

Produced by Justin Gregory.