Guest Blog: Performance as Vocal Virtuosity

Tuesday, 09th February 2021

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2019’s cyberpunk fashion-opera ROBE is out Friday 12th February on Métier Records. This is the second blog in a guest series to mark the release. This time, Clara Kanter describes her experience as a singer in the UU Studios production. 



To introduce the post, here are three of curator and ROBE director Gemma A. Williams’ featured favourites from 2019.



Clara Kanter, ROBE performer: A Reflection. 


I sang ‘Rowan (The Mapmaker)’ in ROBE at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2019. It was the first time I had performed at the festival and I was excited to be involved, as the festival has a reputation for staging works that are really unusual and innovative. 


I first met composer Alastair White after seeing a show at RADA with music composed by Catherine Kontz, for which Rosie Middleton (who also performed in ROBE) and I had both recorded some vocals. We had a long chat, and he subsequently asked me if I’d be interested in singing in his new opera, ROBE. 


Al’s music is complicated, so it took a long time to learn my part, and occasionally I requested small changes if part of a phrase was unsuitable for my voice. The libretto was very poetic and full of rich imagery, but I must admit I found the storyline tricky, as it involved time travel and multi-layered realities. In the end I had to make myself a diagram to get my head around it! But I loved the twin challenges of the complex music and narrative, and would feel a real sense of achievement when I had mastered a tricky phrase or plot-point. 


It was great to begin music rehearsals with the instrumentalists and other singers, and to piece together the different voices and sections of the score. We spent a lot of time finessing things like complex cross-rhythms and deliberate tonal clashes, as well as discussing our characters and their relation to each other. 


Once we had finished our music calls we began to work on the staging, and we were introduced to our wonderful dancers. We were so impressed by their grace and strength, and the powerful shapes they created with their bodies.


At this time Rosie, Sarah and I went to have our dresses fitted with Gemma A. Williams and the fashion designer Michael Stewart, who had made incredible tight-fitting long dresses with sculptural padding. Their neutral colours and protrusions reminded me of a lunar landscape, and were perfect for our other-worldly characters. 


The performance day came. With our hair and makeup done, and in our costumes, we waited quietly backstage for the earlier show in the festival to finish. Then it was our turn. I was glad that we’d had time in the theatre earlier to fix things like sight-lines and the lighting of our scores. These preparations meant that we could now relax and enjoy sharing this wonderful opera with our audience.


Following on, in January 2020 we spent a week recording ROBE. I had not worked with any of the other ROBE performers since the Tete-a-Tete festival, so it was lovely to be reunited in the studio, and really satisfying to be able to record a piece into which we had all put so much time and thought. 


Now, as the recording is about to be released, the world is very different. It is February 2021, and the pandemic has been raging for over a year. As musicians we have had to find new ways to create and connect with our audiences. Al and I were fortunate to be able to collaborate again on a new project for Compass Presents’ online series, ‘Oracles in Sepia.’ 


In November 2020 we premiered our film-cantata, The Drowning Shore. Scored for a ‘mezzo-soprano in a screen,’ and performed in Scots and Yiddish, the piece is based on themes of borders, realities, and our personal family histories. To devise this work after many months without performing felt like finding dew in a desert. While our normal lives remained suspended, it was a joy to be working together again, and to share a common creative purpose once more. 


ROBE comes out on Friday 12th February 2021.