Singer Rachel Hynes, who plays the Care giver shares her thoughts on the role
I have wanted to work for The Opera Group for many years now as I love the unique and interesting topics they choose to present operatically. Therefore I was delighted when John Fulljames approached me to audition for the role of Caregiver in Elena Langer’s new opera The Lion’s Face. The subject of Alzheimer’s is one very close to my heart as my dear mother-in-law suffered and ultimately died as a result of it. She had very early signs of the disease when I “came on the scene” as her son’s girlfriend and so I somehow feel I was robbed of having a true relationship with her. On the other hand, as I am coming to learn through my research, maybe this is what helped me to some extent when it came to caring for her as I only knew her as the woman she was now and not the person she was before….
Modern opera, over the years, is something I appear to be good at. I came to it early on whilst a chorister at Scottish Opera, through James Macmillan’s first opera Ines de Castro, Britten’s Peter Grimes and then soloistically in Param Vir’s Snatched by the Gods and Tippett’s The Knot Garden. Denise’s virtuoso first aria in the latter has come in handy over the years as a contemporary audition aria and got me my first job with another contemporary opera group Tête-à-Tête – David Bruce’s Push! I think what appeals to me about modern opera is the challenge musically, but also the gritty, artist-at-work creativity that often comes hand-in-hand with the subject matters. For example, Denise in The Knot Garden, was a tortured freedom fighter, home to her family for the first time, trying to re-adjust to civilian life after such horrific experiences.
The Lion’s Face is a double-edged sword because of my personal experience with this very contemporary disease. I am playing the role of the Caregiver and so was keen to talk to someone/ some people working as Carers. Whilst working in London on another job recently, I met with a research nurse at Kings College London, Megan Pritchard. It turns out that Megan herself had worked as a Carer in a Nursing Home before training as a nurse. I was keen to know whether as a Carer, she found it difficult to switch off her emotions, whilst working. This is a big fear for me as the emotion-memory of my personal experiences with Alzheimer ‘s is still raw and strong, and whilst this might be useful to draw on in performance, as my role is one of a professional rather than personal to the patient, I wondered whether it was pertinent. Megan was the one who informed me that the emotional ties are often with the family of the patient as they are the ones who tell you stories about the patient as he/she was before they became ill. When caring for and interacting with the patient, you only ever know them as they are now, with the disease! Also, when working as a carer in a nursing home, you are often running to a strict schedule, having to care for more than one patient at a time. For example, one might have to get several patients washed, dressed, and fed in a morning and so time to sit and chat with patients will be limited.
I have had to juggle learning the notes of The Lion’s Face with that of another modern (ish) opera , Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, a role I have just understudied for English National Opera. I have found this very difficult to do as Janacek’s and Langer’s styles of vocal writing are poles apart and so at times, I have had to prioritise. Now the Katya is finished I can devote my time to The Lion’s Face (well, apart from learning Elijah for a concert in a fortnight and a Martin Gaughan song-cycle and brushing up some arias for a Sponsorship concert!!!).
The immediate problem when learning operatic music that has just been written is that there are no recordings made for one to listen to to get a general feel for the music. My piano skills are ok, but not good enough to play this vocal score -argh! We have been supplied with an electronic reading of the score, which helps in some of the movements, but when there are a lot of different textures happening at once, the vocal line is not so clear. I found when learning Katya though, that slow steady groundwork speaking through rhythms even before leaning the notes, is very very beneficial! So it’s a slow and methodical practise for me at the moment -little and often! Ironically the movement that I battled over at first is almost there…..funny this modern opera!
I am hoping to meet up with some carers up here in Glasgow where I live, in the next few weeks….