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  • Writer's pictureHolly Mathieson

Doctor Dolittle and the Art of Accompanying

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

(First published in Opera Stage, November 2016)

In all honesty, I don’t feel at all qualified to write about anything from the perspective of the conductor with any authority, other than how it feels to be taking baby steps at the beginning of a long journey. Ask me again when I’m 80. But the area in which I have enjoyed most of my professional experiences (and I use the word “enjoy” in its fullest sense), is the opera pit. I started as a chorus mistress in New Zealand (everyone laughs when I call myself that, for some reason!), then had the opportunity to assist some really phenomenal and seasoned opera conductors in productions and concert excerpts, while I built up my own repertoire of MD experience in the pit. It is, in the grand scheme of things, a mere drop in the career-ocean, but enough to begin to see (or hear, or feel) patterns emerging. And an old, hairy childhood friend can offer an interesting perspective on one such phenomenon.

It is one of the strangest literary creatures of my childhood memory-bank, and one which lends itself quite conveniently to metaphorical modelling: The Pushmi Pullyu in Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle. It has a head at both ends of its body, reserved for the separate purposes of speaking and eating, and is a descendent of unicorns.

It is quite kind and courteous; shy and rare, but quite biddable. Due to its bizarre physiognomy, one observes, it can neither lead nor be lead. Or, conversely, it is capable of performing both tasks simultaneously. What is interesting to me now as an adult and, in particular, reflecting on it as a conductor, is the position one finds oneself in on the other side of a transaction with a Pushmi-Pullyu. If the hairy beast neither leads nor can be led, then one finds oneself in the position of performing both functions in their absence. Similarly, if the Pushmi-Pullyu is both leading and needs to be led, one orients oneself on the other side of both, again. It is a fantastic conceptual model for the relationship between singers and conductors, as both situations are to our advantage, when it comes to accompanying.

In all orchestral accompanying, instrumental and vocal, I’ve found that there is a tangible – indeed, physical – difference to be felt (and perhaps heard) when working with experienced singers. It is measured both in the ease of accompanying, and the pleasure of doing so. Perhaps a highly sensitive audience member would say there is also an audible benefit. It is to do with the difference I experience between singers who wait for me to drive the tempo for them, and those who can confidently hold the reins themselves. One would assume that being the megalomaniacal characters we are, we conductors would prefer the former – to be able to control the singer and bark like a rabid dog when he or she doesn’t follow us. Equally, one could assume that singers, with every stereotype of their own, would far rather we follow their every whim in obeisant submission. In my experience, the happiest situation arises for both singer and conductor when the relationship more resembles the Pushmi-Pullyu, sharing the load of leading and following, according to the particular twists and turns of the journey to be made.

There are moments, for instance, when I feel far more secure, and will therefore be far clearer for the orchestra to follow, if I simply watch the singer’s shoulders and breathe with them – this process, I’ve found, is best achieved if I almost glaze over and tap into their energy quite unconsciously. The moment I start to analyse, or superimpose a measure of counting, the connection is lost. It requires, however, strong and consistent leadership from the singer. At other times, there is simply no way the orchestra can cushion the voice, if the singer cannot let themselves be carried over the barline, or into the cadence, by the conductor. In the most interesting case, there are times, after a high fermata for example, in which it feels as though the singer must begin the process of resolution – by a change in timbre, volume, or vibrato - and then, somewhere down the portamento, the reins change hands as the conductor leads the voice to its destination. The shift happens deftly and smoothly, in the space of a tiny fraction of a second. There is no time to calculate it or second guess your instinct. My Achilles heel is that I sometimes get so anxious about arriving too late to support you, that I jump into the saddle too early, and curtail the beauty of the descent. I’m working on it…

It is easy enough to state the ideal case, in which this process is working beautifully, and both parties feel the ease of it. What is far harder to clarify is the reason why it might not be working with someone. It is usually because I am not able to read the singer’s tempo (or they cannot follow mine, I suppose), and I’ve come to realise that this has absolutely nothing to with what I am hearing. Tempo, as with all else, comes not from the sound, but from the body. If the voice is disconnected from the heart-rate, from the impulse to dance, from the feeling of movement and, of course, from the process of breathing, it is very difficult to read and anticipate (and, therefore, to accompany). There are many reasons why such a disconnection might occur: insecurities in technique, insufficient knowledge of the piece, and temporal indecisiveness on the part of the singer are but the obvious ones. But I would encourage all developing singers to let themselves become aware in those moments, to not pull away when you feel the disconnect, but rather to commit to the line. The singer’s confidence to hold the reins at these moments is, in my experience, the surest and most immediate way to re-establish the wheels in the tracks, so to speak.

The most pleasurable accompanying experiences I have had so far have been with soloists (vocal and instrumental) with such natural breathing patterns and bodily movements, that they have been able to invent tempo, phrase, and rubato on the spot, and yet are as easy to follow as if we’d been performing the piece together for years. In one case, a performance at Opera Holland Park, the tenor and I had not had a single rehearsal together, yet it was as easy as if I were accompanying myself singing. Every shift in tempo, or release from a fermata was signalled throughout his body; when he needed me to move it was the most innate and primal body movement and change in timbre that communicated it to me. And, like the other end of the Pushmi-Pullyu, at the moments when he needed me to take the reins, his eyes would find their way to the pit, letting me know it was my turn. It was a masterclass in the relationship between singer and conductor – not only in his demonstration of what a singer can contribute, but also in how a conductor should be able to judge when to lead and when to be led.

So, my suggestion - and I am aware I speak entirely for myself here, and would love to hear other more experienced perspectives – is that the singer can always lead far more than they realise. And it is not about maintaining a strict tempo, being headstrong or maintaining eye contact with the conductor. It is about the clarity of your knowledge of the piece, the dynamism of your breath, the rhythmic impulse in your body as you release from a fermata, the energy of your legs as you shift gear into another tempo. In fact, we can often gauge far more from watching you as if you were a conductor or a dancer, than by listening to you. Your best lesson might be to witness the work of a world-class concertmaster or timpanist. Their contribution to the conducting of a piece cannot be underestimated. They do not pull the piece away from the conductor, but rather it is as if they are sharing the same internal pulse, and their breathing becomes regulated. In here, of course, are also manifold lessons that are as valuable to us as conductors as they are to singers – watch, breathe, intuit, connect.

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