Wednesday 23 October 2013

Being a bloke - An encounter with Helen Sherman

Helen Sherman as Aurelio in L'Assedio di Calais, English Touring Opera, Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Helen Sherman as Aurelio
in L'Assedio di Calais, English Touring Opera,
Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman is currently appearing as Nero in English Touring Opera's production of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea. James Conway's production re-sets the piece in Stalinist Russia with Sherman's Nero as dictator. This is her second major role with English Touring Opera, as Sherman sang Aurelio in ETO's spring 2013 production of Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais. We met up, in the middle of rehearsals, to talk about what its like to play a bad-boy like Nero on stage.

Our conversation in fact started with Sherman's previous role with ETO, Aurelio. The role was something of a mile-stone, not only did she garner good reviews but it was her first major bel-canto role. Singing it as a man she found that as well as the role's tessitura suiting her voice being masculine in her body language helped to make her feel grounded. When I talked to her about preparing for roles, Sherman echoed Beryl Reed in that finding the right shoes is imperative to start building the character.

Having succeed with Aurelio in L'Assedio di Calais she admits that the challenge is going to be to get she same physicality in her performance whilst wearing a frock and heels. She will be returning to the role of Rosina in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Sivigla next year at Longborough, and she is keen to apply what she learned even though she will be wearing a corset.

Helen Sherman - photo credit Benjamin Harte

Having a mezzo-soprano voice means that singing male roles comes with the territory, especially if you have the sort of physique which looks good on-stage in trousers. Sherman candidly admits that in the modern opera world, how you look matters.  Sherman grew up on a farm in Australia, and there it didn't matter what sex you were, you simply got on and did the work. This means that she has that experience and the role-models of her brother, father and uncle to rely on when singing male roles.  But Sherman admits that nowadays you are usually expected to look the part, gone are the days when a woman could get away with wearing a tunic and tights when pretending to be a man.

Sherman trained initially Sydney Conservatorium of Music where she completed a Bachelor of Music and Post Graduate Diploma in opera. Following her success in the 2007 Australian Singing Competition she was awarded a scholarship to take up studies at the Royal Northern College of Music where she was the first student to receive the International Artists Diploma in opera. In 2011 she represented Australia at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and in 2012 /13, Helen was awarded Australian Music Association prizes at the Royal Overseas League Music competition in London.

Sherman sang Sesto in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito when she was a student and she does not feel that she quite got the part right, so she is looking forward to singing the role again next year with Classical Opera. Whilst the role is not strictly bel canto, she finds that the way you use the voice with different weights and colours applies to Mozart just as much as Donizetti and Rossini. In fact, the lessons learned form singing bel canto roles are something which Sherman has applied often, she found it very helpful in her programme for the Wigmore Hall Song prize (which she gained third prize in August 2013).

Mezzo-soprano roles tend to cover the widest range, when it comes to vocal requirements stretching from the real contralto roles to high, zwischen-fach roles, so a singer has to be flexible. Sherman feels that her upper range is not dissimilar to a soprano's; she does have a top C, but a significant difference is that she would not want to hang around above the stave. Another important point is how soft you can sing in the higher roles, particularly how much sustained singing there is. What you need to try and avoid is to sound as if you are singing at the end of your tether. With many baroque and early 19th century music, the roles were written for specific singers, with particular voices. Sherman talks about singing Lisetta in Haydn's Mondo della Luna, a role which had a very narrow range and must have been written for a very specific singer. The challenge for any modern performer is to find a way into the role.

As far as male roles, so far has sung Niklausse, Orlofsky, and Sesto in addition to those that she has sung for ETO. Singing Nero at the moment, she found that she had to work hard at bedding the role into her voice. The role is a high mezzo-soprano one, sometimes Sherman sings above Paula Sides (who plays Poppea) and Sherman describes it as being a Dorabella type. But the range isn't the main issue. Nero is such a nasty character and the vocal part goes over the passagio such a lot that she found it important to use a gentle onset in the voice, so that she wasn't yelling all the time. With such a nasty role, there is a tendency to use a more violent vocal production and the challenge for Sherman was not to allow the violence to seep too much into the technique.

James Conway's production of Coronation of Poppea uses a cut version of the score, concentrating on the principals and removing much of the extra comic business. This means that Sherman and Sides are on-stage rather more, and there are moments such as act two where Sherman has to move from the nasty scene with Seneca to a love duet with Poppea. But having sung the role in this version, she is now keen to experience it in a fuller edition.

I have Sherman in action in both Donizetti and Monteverdi and look forward to hearing hear again soon. You know that the sort of vividness that she brought to Aurelio in Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais will make her a Rosina to be reckoned with at Longborough next year, even wearing heels and a corset.

As well as appearing in ETO's Coronation of Poppea, Helen Sherman is covering the title role in Handel's Agrippina, as well as singing in ETO's concert of vespers music by Handel which is being performed as part of the tour. English Touring Opera are on tour until 21 November, further details from the ETO website.

She also appears as Sesto in Classical Opera's performance of Mozart's Il Clemenza di Tito at the Cadogan Hall on 13 March 2014, further information from Cadogan Hall website. And she is appearing as Rosina in Longborough Festival Opera's production of Il Barbiere di Sivigla in July 2014, see the LFO website for details.

Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month