Preparing for an opera role doesn't usually involve circus tricks and pirouettes en pointe... but for Jennifer France, singing Esmeralda in our production of The Bartered Bride, the story is a little different. And with the battle wounds to prove it, this circus convert shares what it's taken to get the show on the road!
As I write this, I am sitting in my dressing room listening to the orchestra tune up. There is an excited bustling in the corridor, people are warming up and last minute notes are being given – it is the dress rehearsal of Daniel Slater’s fabulously fun and colourful production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.
Preparing for an opera role usually involves hours of vocal practice, coachings and word learning! In this production, I am playing Esmeralda, a balletic puppet in the circus that descends upon a small town in Czechoslovakia. The preparation for this show has been completely different to any other role I’ve done as there are many physical elements that I haven’t had to do before. For example, I was told early on that they wanted me to do some pointe work during the big circus scene. Fortunately, before I discovered the wonderful world of opera, I was lucky enough to go to a fantastic Performing Arts school called The Arts Educational School. It was there that I fell in love with all aspects of theatre – dance, drama, music and singing. I did a lot of dancing there so I do have a background in ballet, but I left 10 years ago and have been concentrating on opera ever since.
So I arrived for the first week of rehearsals and was sent to get fitted for some pointe shoes. Pointe work is very technically challenging and demanding on your feet, so I had been doing exercises to strengthen my feet and ankles for a while before we started... strange as I am usually doing exercises to get my voice ready for a role, not my feet! The first day of rehearsals was daunting. I walked into a room filled with professional circus performers and I felt like such a novice. Fortunately, we have the most amazing, generous and PATIENT choreographer, Tim Claydon, and the circus performers were so welcoming and put me at ease immediately. We rehearsed mainly in the evenings so we were alone to train and put together the best circus scene we could. Each time this show has been revived there has been a different set of circus performers with different skills. I am still in awe of the tricks and skills of the circus and I have even been taught a few new skills of my own! I knew I would be dancing, but I didn’t know I would be standing on somebodies shoulders! From the beginning the rest of the circus and Tim have helped and supported me (literally in many cases!), and it has been an eye opening experience to rehearse and train with them. Their work ethic is incredible- we would rehearse for hours at a time doing really intense and physically demanding skills.
It’s a great work out being in the circus and I certainly have not had to go to the gym to keep fit on this contract! In fact, the most challenging thing about this role is the stamina. I am doing ballet, standing on shoulders and running around for 8 minutes, and then have to go straight into dialogue and a duet! Yes I am singing in this show as well! It has been exhausting but incredibly rewarding. Every day brought a new a challenge and the sense of achievement when it goes right is worth it. The first day I did a pirouette en pointe was a huge personal goal, one that I can't believe I have achieved in 6 weeks!
What I have learnt the most from the circus performers - real team effort. We really have to support and trust each other, as we have packed as many tricky elements in as possible and there is little room for error. I feel like I have been welcomed into our little circus family and it has been a true pleasure to work and get to know them all. I guess you could say I am hooked on circus – and I have a few battle wounds to show for it as well! My CV will now proudly read: Jennifer France – Soprano and Circus convert!
By Jennifer France
Jennifer France will return to Opera North in 2015 to sing the role of Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi.
The Bartered Bride 2014. Photo credit: Robert Workman
The Bartered Bride in rehearsal. Photo credit: Jonny Walton