Sunday, 25 May 2014

Diva! Sarah-Ann Cromwell spells it out

Brutal competition, monastic lifestyles, getting nekkid on stage - Opera's not what it used to be...
Sarah-Ann tearing it up at MAC last month    
There's been an interesting ruckus this past week. Critics focused on the size of an Irish singer making her Glyndebourne debut; singers hit back, hard. The central issue is that a singer is a singer, first and last, and appearances are secondary. A further issue is old-school sexism. 

But then again, Opera is also all about the show. It's hard to buy the idea of a willowy Rhine Maiden, or a dashing athletic Siegfried hero, when the person singing tops 20 stone. 

I talked with Sarah-Ann Cromwell this week. She was furious at the critics. Cromwell is building twin careers: Opera... and comedy cabaret. She tried comedy out at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival to rave reviews, following up with a sellout at MAC in Birmingham, which was a total hoot. And by all accounts she played a stormer at Birmingham Pride 2014. 

They ARE going to get you naked.

No make-up, no red satin dress, no gladioli    
Sarah-Ann: It's disappointing. It's happened in dance and theatre, and in Opera, it's coming. They are going to get you naked; it is going to happen. I've lost count of how many operas get the men naked... and the men are now ripped. 
Sounds like you have to train.
Well, yes. Being a professional opera singer is hard work. It's a complete life-change. Everything you take for granted as a normal citizen: going out on Friday night and having noisy fun, having a drink with your friends, staying up all night talking, having a coffee in the morning, even cake-breaks... what you eat – curries, fast food – all that stuff goes out the window. 
Olympic training, then?
It's similar. I have a lot of respect for athletes, because our bodies are our instruments. There's a lot of research now. You have to be fit to be an opera singer. If you look at pop, our best pop divas – Beyonce, Pink – they have phenomenal physiques. To sing high-octane stuff for a three-hour concert, you have to look after yourself. If you don't you will lose your voice, you will lose your career. 
No drinking?
It's the fastest way to become a bass, drink is. People who smoke a lot and drink a lot get a husky, sexy voice. Great if you're not a singer; if you are a singer, it's instant goodbye. Alcohol affects your voice, strips it of all the moisture. You need to avoid dehydration, and caffeine - which makes me speak too fast. 
Alcohol – or at least the image of being a hard-drinking rebel - is all part of rock singing, of course
Yeah. Look at Robbie Williams. Compare him when he was young to now: his voice was phenomenal, he had this range – Angels, Let Me Entertain You – he could fly. Those are hard songs to sing. But the rock lifestyle, taking stuff to keep you going, all that – it corrodes your voice. Now, his voice is a lot lower. 
Does the physical work you have to do to fill a room un-amplified, all the core exercises, all the breathing: does that change the body? 
I would say that pop uses the body more. Go see Wicked. The woman who sings Elphaba - she's ripped. She has a six pack. She has to be. While in Opera, we can be a bit more fleshy. 

The size issue

But I've noticed a trend, at least in the US. I watch the New York Metropolitan Opera live relays. It's probably the biggest and flashiest set of production values in Opera anywhere. Cameras really close up on the action. Now, their US and European soloists, male and female, are getting, cuter, thinner and trimmer; their teeth are perfect and gleaming white... But the Met also gets in brilliant singers from Russia for some roles. And those singers are a lot bigger.
I've noticed this. The aesthetic side of things in live opera is exactly the same as everywhere else. 
So it helps to get cute?
It's quite upsetting. The competition for roles is obscene. Less so for men. Women? There are thousands of us. Coming back to aesthetics, it's quite disappointing, in British opera at least, when you're watching someone singing: she's perfectly good, as good as anybody else, but she's thin, she's got nice boobs, she's got a beautiful face. And you sit there thinking 'I could train and train and train and train, and just not have the right face'.
Are we talking about a sector where people try, for years and years, after having put in the study and training, and then... give up?
I've noticed singers – it's happening on my Facebook - who are quitting. 
But if you give up, you lose all the fitness and you don't train, it's over. While pop singers at least can relaunch their careers at any time, providing they can find their audience.
It's a bit easier than in Opera. Pop is much more used to using social media. That's what they use. 
You're doing this too, though, with your comedy show. Lots of tweeting, Facebook work, blogging and a website...
Well, I'm doing that now. The show itself was a complete accident. I cacked myself.... I went to Edinburgh as a last attempt to get noticed by the operatic world. I just wasn't getting through auditions. The bottom end of the funding collapsed...
...hitting all the smaller companies where you could have got a foot on the ladder?
Yes. I'd been going at this for about seven years. And performing oratorio professionally for about ten. The plan used to be: do your training, go into oratorio – Vivaldi's Gloria and such, sung mainly in churches – from there you step into a chorus. Them maybe you get a solo line in a chorus. Then maybe you get to cover – understudy – and finally a solo part. It was clearly defined.
But things changed, in a short space of time. Suddenly, it didn't matter how much oratorio you'd done. Choruses wanted to know how much opera had you done. Instead they put on training programmes, for which you had to pay, so you could get into a chorus.Then the funding cuts happened. That hit the choruses. The number of Operas reduced, while well-trained European singers arrived looking for work. 
And at the same time, places like the New York Met, Covent Garden and others are putting their products into cinemas and arts centres at a fraction of the price of UK touring opera companies. How do they compete?
Well, there are ways to get people into local home-grown opera. But that's another story. So now I can't even get an audition. All the experienced people are looking for work – and there's less of it – and they crowd everyone else out. Fine for the companies: they end up with a phenomenal chorus and phenomenal singers.

A way forward... timing is everything 

So I thought I could sit and moan, or get on Facebook to say how shit it all is. That happens a lot. Or I could acknowledge that we could do things in a different way. There's never just one path; there are always several. I know audiences for Opera are dwindling. I also know that celebrities put bums on seats. So how do I create something, to make someone else pay attention? To make them think that I'm worth booking because I might bring an audience with me?. And that is how the whole Diva! thing started. 
You did this as a marketing exercise?
To make people take notice of me, yes. In 2013 I went to the Edinburgh Fringe; I paid for it with a Kickstarter campaign. I got seen on my second night by a 23 year-old, right in the audience I wanted to attract. She described me as a comedian. Not a singer. I was shocked. Sat in a corner and tried to process it. 
But you are a funny person.
From the Kickstarter pages 
Thank you! But stand-up's already massive now, and it's not my field. I spoke to Lady Rizo, who was at Edinburgh at the same time. She's huge: comedy, burlesque, singing – world famous. She is phenomenal. She explained that what I was doing was not stand-up, but it was comedy. It's all in the timing. It's the long drawn-out joke, the way you get to the pay-off. 
Which fits with opera, because it's full of big drawn-out set-ups for the next killer song. 
There you go! Spoken comedy recitative! Once Lady Rizo demystified it, I got past all that comedian and stand-up, heckling stuff. That's not what Diva's about. And I thought about other comedians – Mark Thomas – who do the long drawn-out story. And that is a way to bring Opera to people who wouldn't otherwise touch it. 
And, in character in your Diva show, you have a license to dominate the audience. If someone has a pop at a Diva, you as a Diva can totally nuke them – if you chose to do that as part of the show.
Ooooh, I hadn't thought about that.... 
Where is the show going to go now?
I don't know yet. I'm nervous as hell, I've got all the online stuff to do, which is wearing. But then I do the show, and I LOVE it. Birmingham Pride this weekend is the next stop. 
That's a great fit, because Opera is rammed full of tragedy and emotion and OTT larger than life stuff. If it's like your Cannon Hill show, you're going to sashay on with a sprayed on red satin dress all glammed up, and steam into a top drawer sentimental emotional aria – you'll go down a storm. 
Thank you! You can come again! 
Sarah-Ann's Diva pages
Diva blog - a great instructive read in itself 

The Glyndebourne fracas: blistering response from singer Alice Coote.

See more music posts on Radio To Go


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