In this month’s artist interview, Juliette Furio has Rhian Saunders discussing all things opera, “popera,” as well as the innovative singer’s connection with her audience…
On Sept 4, I caught up with operatic singer Rhian Saunders.
Armed with coffee and bagels, we sat back in our plush faux-leather armchairs and let the conversation meander through the soul-lifting love the emerging singer has for classical music and her aspirations for the direction she would like to take with contemporary music.
JLF: What is it about your musical style that has you hooked?
RS: There’s something that I relate to, with classical music. I feel calm, I feel excited, relaxed – all these different emotions at once. I was a very shy adolescent, very shy. I couldn’t order food, even at a fast food place. Music really brought my out of my shell and I feel it is doing that even more so now. I started when I was about 12, singing more commercial “popera.” Often it’s an operatic song with a beat behind it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (and just sounds trashy and embarrassing). I would actually like to get into some composition myself and bring something that is fresh and isn’t ruining classical music. I would like people who are into the genre to like it, to approve, but it’s not totally necessary…if it’s a gateway for people – especially young people – to liking classical music, because I know a lot do! They just don’t know how to go about it. Opera can be difficult for young people to relate to because it is set a long time ago; sometimes they wear crazy-stupid costumes, or the stories are all crazy and convoluted and it’s not what you can see or relate to everyday.
JLF: It’s not exactly the paradigm of the day.
RS: Exactly, but that’s also part of the charm. Pure opera can be a little old school but some of the themes they speak about are always going to be true; adultery, love, war, jealousy…all these things are going to reoccur in time. I would like to find a way to make it something interesting to young people. I want to find a way of keeping it elegant but also for it to have a point. I understand a lot about classical music, and pop music as well, but to meld them together successfully I think it would be necessary to have someone who composes contemporary music. I’m open to working with any type of musician. Music is my passion, not just operatic music.
JLF: Have there been disappointments or unexpected developments in your career as an operatic singer?
RS: There are always going to be disappointments – as well as good times. In doing competitions, you’re not always going to win. That makes it harder if it’s big prize money that’s going towards your study. There have also been disappointments with people who hear you sing and promise so many things, but then disappear! People are only interested in the moment. You have to keep working by yourself. You can’t just wait around for an agent or record company – for that “dream” record deal. Most of the time, those deals are (begins to whisper so as not to disturb our coffee drinking neighbours) shit anyway… If you’re not top of the list, then you really don’t get much. So, it’s about working for you.
JLF: Something I am very curious to know – you’ve already mentioned the fact that you feel all these emotions when you listen to music – can you list the emotions that go through you when you are on stage?
RS: OK, well I won’t lie. Sometimes you are performing and you’re thinking, “Ooooh my god, what’s the next word!” Most of the time for me, it comes a split second before I open my mouth! It’s part of practice; it becomes part of your body. It’s like a muscle memory and a…memory-memory! (Giggles) Anyway, that’s something that has to happen – you’re only human. For a true performance, you have to let go of that anxiety and fully commit to the emotion behind the song. As for other emotions, it’s passion really. A really big swell in the chest of just how much you are into this.
JLF: Is there a particular singer who has really inspired you?
RS: Yes, not someone I knew in the beginning though – a Russian woman called Anna Retrevko. When most people think of opera singers they picture larger built women; she brought a glamorous view of women to opera. She is a great singer and gorgeous. She is a very clever musician and a clever actress. She was not afraid to use what she has, just because a lot of people would think, “Oh that person is good looking, how dare they use that!” But we are in the stage; this is the business! You have to use your talents, what else are you going to get seen for? And she worked really hard so I don’t think anyone can take that away from her.
JLF: Do you have a particular audience?
RS: If you do too many competitions you try to perform for the adjudicators too much. You end up focusing on precision and lose the actual creation of beauty. Back to the question, the public is my audience. It’s really open to anyone. Once every two months I perform at a nursing home and that brings its own rewards. For one, I get to perform, and two, see them sing along with songs from when they were young, or that were war songs. When you see them sing along, it makes you feel that you are doing something worthwhile and that is good.
JLF: Is there a memorable moment – for good or terrible – that you have had with your public?
RS: Every singer, every performer has to go through a moment where they forget something or fall over on stage. It has happened a few times – I remember in The Fairy Queen me and my other fairy friend went to exit opposite ways and our wings got caught, as we were walking away we sprang back together because we were coiled! That was hard to work into the plot, oops! You have to just keep going, obviously, but you can’t exactly pretend like it was meant to happen! It’s funny, really.
JLF: In terms of your creative process, you have alluded to the fact that you “update,” could you explain how that works itself into the performance?
RS: So this music that I sing has been composed a long long long time ago and many many many singers have sung it! You have the recitative, which generally tells you what is going on in a story, “I’m going to go over here and meet him and we are going to fall in love,” and the aria is when they talk about how they feel about the situation. So the rest is the hard facts and the aria is the emotion – they just repeat how much they love the person, or how much they hate the person or whatever the case is! Sometimes even in that one aria you repeat the same music twice, or even the same words. So, you need to find a way to make it different the second time but you also need to distinguish it as your song, coming from a place maybe not where you wrote it, but where you draw from experience to make it not just another singer’s. The audience can always tell when it’s not genuine and when you don’t relate, people get disinterested. You’re disconnected – I think they immediately disconnect from you as well, it’s natural instinct for an audience. Sometimes you get the case of music that you can put your own trills or your own ornamentation into, which is fun.
JLF: It sounds like you put quite a lot of faith in your audience.
RS: Yeah! They are the people who decide! It’s not me; it’s not my singing teacher. It’s the audience that it’s there for. Yes, it’s for you. Yes, it can be for people who know what you are doing and truly appreciate it. But there has to be – and not just for money – but a connection with the people. That’s an argument for Mozart, because he wrote for the people, not just the elite. He wrote operas that were not just about religious or political things, but also about gossip. He made it fun! The Magic Flute is not really based in a real world and crazy things happen in it! You have to have that.
JLF: Is there anything that you want people to know about you as a musician?
RS: I would like people to give classical music more of a chance. It can be really fun and not filled with all the stereotypes that are already there. It’s a developing art form as well and not just stuck in the “olden days.” And me, as an artist, I’d like to follow that up. That’s still something I’m working on, more as I become a “real” person. You know what I mean, more knowledge and experience. You come to understand things differently.
This year, Rhian has received a scholarship to travel to the UK from the BBM Youth Support Inc. for career based education and exploration. This will be a big step in Rhian’s developing career. Rhian has also taken a separate trip to Armenia during October to perform some concerts singing Armenian music, including works by the famous Komitas and celebrating the 75th Birthday of renowned composer T. Mansouryan.
And don’t forget to check out Juliette’s own blog also…