Joan Rodgers and Helen Charlston
City Music Foundation: Wise Words9:40, 31st October 2018
CMF patron Joan Rodgers will be one of a number of mentors imparting the benefits of her wisdom and experience to 25-year-old mezzo soprano Helen Charlston as she joins five other emerging soloists and ensembles as a 2018 CMF Artist. Lucy Thraves joined in the discussion as the two singers met for the first time.
Lucy Thraves: Joan, do you see parallels between Helen’s career and yours when you were starting out?
Joan Rodgers: Things have changed so much since I was 25. I had a big slice of luck in that I was singing Pamina at the Royal Northern College of Music, and the music critic Michael Kennedy gave me an absolutely rave review. People at the Aix-en-Provence Festival saw this and they asked me to take over there. So that was such a big leap. I would rather not have had the exposure, looking back. It was a double-edged sword because it did give me a profile, but it was really tough as well, because I don’t think technically or in terms of maturity I was really ready for it.
LT: What would have helped?
JR: Another five years! Helen is doing a lot of Baroque music at the moment but wants to develop her voice. So much of this development will have to happen ‘on the pitch’. It’s all very well when practising, but when you’re treading the boards and you’ve got that adrenaline surging through you, then it builds something inside you. You can study a part for years, but it’s only when get up there and do it that you will develop a musculature – not just physical, but spiritual and mental – which will give you platform to go on and do, say, Strauss. Ideally, that development would be organic, but that can be difficult to do. In some ways I think you have to have more self-determination now than ever.
Helen Charlston: You can’t necessarily control how a career develops, but it’s good to get a sense of the signposts that lie ahead. Is there any way of ensuring longevity in what you’re doing? How do you make sure things don’t fall apart because you haven’t put certain key elements in place. Obviously building a vocal technique is really important, but what about other dimensions your career – developing as a performer?
JR: Technique is obviously immensely important – without that foundation nothing will happen. But it’s also so much about your mental approach and performance psychology. This is becoming more of a thing for singers. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Opera singers can’t really act,’ and I thought, ‘You’re joking!’ Opera has some of the most fantastic singing-actors in the business nowadays. And directors won’t let you get away with just standing and singing – especially in Europe. You have to be a real physical presence. One bit of advice: when a director tries to get you to do something absolutely ridiculous physically, then you should try to do it, and show them how impossible it is. Don’t just say, ‘I can’t do that’. It usually works. Be willing – a good tip!
LT: Is that something you have experience of, Helen? Being pushed out of your comfort zone by directors?
HC: Only a little bit. I’ve done some opera, and I’m looking to develop that more. I’ve been involved in fringe opera in the UK – last summer I performed at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival, which was really enjoyable. It’s something I’d like to do more: it’s amazing to have that extra dimension to singing, something that instrumentalists don’t have in the same way. You can throw yourself into a role, not just vocally, but in every aspect.
JR: It’s really fantastic that there are so many small opera companies and fringe festivals these days, because they do encourage different sorts of audiences to experience opera. It’s a great place to get noticed. In my day there was much less of that: there was Glyndebourne, and Garsington was just beginning; but there really wasn’t much at all outside of the big companies. Now there are so many – it’s brilliant!
HC: It’s a vital way of developing as a performer because you learn by doing. If you get as much experience of performing as you can, then you’re only going to be in a stronger position.
JR: Absolutely, that’s a big change. I think I’d rather have started by singing Pamina at Tête à Tête rather than in Aix. CMF will nurture you and give you lots of great advice to help with that, which is so important. We were talking about the financial side of things earlier too: no one gets taught about keeping your receipts when you’re at college and, especially as a freelancer, you need to be able to get the hang of those things pretty quickly. And then there’s the questions of agents: Helen explained how she’s getting her own projects together, and I think that’s the better way to do it than just finding yourself an agent to help you. If you show an agent that you’ve got something to offer, that will spur them on to help you. We were much more ‘fed’; we waited for the next job to come in from our agents, and it was rare for somebody to be really entrepreneurial as a singer.
HC: I like the idea of being able to have some things in my career that are my own.
JR: It gives you a sense of your own worth, that you aren’t just a cipher. You call the shots a bit more.
LT: The arrival of social media and the exposure that it gives young artists, good and bad, is fact of life today. How important is Facebook and Twitter in building a career?
JR: It’s not something I do, but I do see the value of it. The retweets you get from bigger organisations…
HC: It’s about being part of a really outward-facing community. By tying yourself in with other accounts, you kind of validate yourself, but also show that you’re part of this musical community.
JR: I wonder if you still get people at the stage door asking for your autograph? Because in a way Twitter has taken over from fan clubs. Really big mega-stars tweet every day…
HC: And that’s why CMF is so helpful: because they realise the importance of building a profile and will ensure that your online presence is a good as it can be. It’s something that takes time, and it also takes expertise. I don’t know necessarily how to do all of those things, so I need people to help.
JR: It really is a tough profession. As singers, we carry our instruments round with us. My agent always said he felt really sorry for singers because we are the most vulnerable among all musicians. Illness is always a threat – you can never be sure, especially in the winter, if you’re going to be well!
LT: You spoke earlier Joan about the stamina and the physicality needed to sustain those huge roles. I suppose physical fitness is a vital. What advice can you give in this respect?
JR: I can’t stress this enough – and I don’t think any of us did enough of it – but learn a role way in advance, to get it into your bones and your muscles. The nice thing about opera is that you get lots of time. But it’s not just knowing about the notes; you have to develop a muscle memory, otherwise you just get so tired. Learning things well in advance helps. And [to Helen] do you do yoga?
HC: I do, yes.
JR: I’ve always done yoga, and I do think it’s a really good basis for singing because it doesn’t compromise the breathing or stomach muscles: you get that lovely intake of breath through the nose. I know you can’t inhale in the same way when you’re singing, but there’s that feeling of getting a breath that really goes deep. It’s very meditative and calming.
LT: And what about the mental resilience that singing requires?
HC: That’s a really big thing. Joan and I were just talking about that in relation to competitions, and not getting through to the final rounds. You may be really good, but it’s just not your day – and that’s just the reality of what singing is. You have to be resilient.
JR: I’ve used self-hypnosis. Visualisation can be really helpful, because performing can be so scary. I don’t believe people when they say they never get nervous. One of the things I’d do was to focus on, say, a stained-glass window if we were performing in a chapel. This became the thing that would bring me focus when I needed it. In the performance I’d look at it, and the message to focus would have gone in. I call it ‘beneficial brainwashing’. If you go around before saying ‘I can’t do this’, that’s the thing that will come a bite you in the back the moment when you don’t need it.
LT: If you could offer Helen some advice in a nutshell for a fulfilling career, Joan, what would it be?
JR: I would say focus, courage, self-belief and passion.
HC: That’s a good list.
JR: Well we’ve been through some repertoire, just to get an idea of Helen’s range. I said I can think of some of the Tchaikovsky songs that she could do really well on. I did my degree in Russian so I can help her with Russian songs.
HC: That’s very useful!
JR: I think Russian repertoire would really suit you: Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky songs, Prokofiev too – there’s a lot there.
HC: It’s an area of repertoire that I’ve always really liked. Something about it just speaks so openly.
JR: They say Russian is next to Italian in terms of clarity. It’s full of beautiful vowels and quickly dispatched consonants that make it all flow.
HC: It’s really exciting for me to have something so focused to work towards; to learn songs from an area of repertoire that I haven’t done before, and to have someone so immersed and experience in the style and language like Joan to coach me through it.
JR: We’ll keep in touch and book some sessions in…
Joan Rodgers will be joined by fellow CMF patrons, pianist Roger Vignoles and actor Simon Callow for an evening entitled Notes and Letters, featuring the writings and music of Tchaikovsky. It will take place in the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London on November 16th 2018. The programme will also feature Tchaikovsky’s string sextet Souvenir de Florence performed by an ensemble of City Music Foundation Artists.
Tickets for this fundraiser are £95, including drinks and canapés served in the Roman Amphitheatre. The evening commences at 6.30pm, with music from 7pm.