In Conversation: Sarah Ampil

In Conversation: Sarah Ampil

On the highs and lows of learning to deal with criticism. 

Sarah Ampil
Sydney, Australia

In Conversation: Sarah Ampil

On the highs and lows of learning to deal with criticism. 

For the newly formed Apollo Opera Collective, you will be performing the role of Ginevra in Handel's Ariodante. Can you tell me a little about the role and what your preparation has looked like so far? 

Ginevra is the princess of Scotland and love interest of the protagonist, Ariodante. She and Ariodante have been given the King’s blessing to be wed however, Ginevra is also pursued by Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, who devises a scheme to sabotage the impending nuptials and take Ginevra - and the throne - for himself. Preparing the role has been a welcome challenge - I get a little sick of the “damsel in distress” trope that permeates many operatic works, so it’s been refreshing to explore how Ginevra shows strength, conviction and grace in the face of her condemnation. It’s also been fascinating to explore the opera through a 21st century lens, and to delve into how these characters and their circumstances might still resonate with modern audiences. It’s been a joy collaborating with this group of passionate artists who are looking to increase the visibility of opera in Sydney. After almost two months of dedicated music and staging calls (and countless hours of individual coaching and private practice) we’re looking forward to sharing our work with audiences when we open on 9 February.

When getting a new role ready, how do you balance learning the part musically while preparing the character? Do these two things work hand in hand or does one need to happen before the other can begin? 

Ideally, I believe that musical and dramatic preparation should be inextricable as one ought to inform the other. As a young singer still consolidating various aspects of my technique, I will usually start with a read-through of the score to determine which sections might need extra attention from a technical perspective. Often I will phonate through the notes on the page without words to make sure the line is secure before adding dramatic context, pacing and inflexion. I refer to the libretto like a script and draw out as much information on the character and their circumstances as possible, before exploring other resources to fully flesh out the role. Acting never came naturally to me so I try to be armed with as much context and information as possible before stepping into a staging call. As I add roles to my portfolio, I find the process shifting a little bit, as experience will dictate where I might need to dedicate more focus. While preparing Ginevra, I've also benefitted greatly from the guidance of various historically informed specialists, from consulting with our conductor and AOC Artistic Director Keiren Brandt-Sawdy, to cast workshops on declamatory Italian recitative. There’s something very raw about the emotions in Handel’s music that really come to life when properly executed in the baroque style.

In preparing your character for the stage, what work do you need to do outside of your musical studies to feel ready to portray the often complex operatic roles? 

Language and stagecraft have to be two of the most important weapons in an opera singer’s arsenal. I’ve always loved learning languages, and understanding the shape and pacing of a recitative or aria is essential to feel connected to the character’s motivations. Some of our cast members undertook stage combat training to ensure their characters read convincingly on stage in a particularly physical scene. Apart from these, I’m beginning to really appreciate the importance of time and resource management. Rehearsal schedules can be gruelling, particularly during production week, and rehearsals involve much more repetition than performances. While preparing for this role, I’ve started figuring out how to better pace myself through the rehearsal period to ensure that I don’t peak too early and can give it my all in front of a live audience. Everyone operates a little differently, so it’s important to offer developing artists these opportunities to figure out what works best for them in a safe environment before branching out into professional work.

I often speak with singers about the difference between performing in the context of an opera and on stage in recital - how does your preparation differ between the two and do you find that your operatic experience has influenced the way you perform in a concert setting? 

I certainly wish I’d started exploring the role-learning process much earlier, if only to sooner understand the importance of context in building a scene, especially on the recital platform. A seasoned recitalist, lieder duo or chamber ensemble can create the same detail or evoke similar emotions in the miniature by applying the same dedicated research process to an excerpt of an opera or song cycle. I love the collaborative aspect of putting together a fully-staged role, and have certainly tried to implement parts of this process in my preparation of recitals and concerts. If I am presenting a concert of assorted repertoire underscored by a certain theme, I may take some liberties with the drama or music to highlight particular elements that might not be as prominent in the source material - again, context is key. Some major differences for me are energy and focus in the space; it’s fairly common to find yourself immersed in an operatic role when you’ve got costumes and a little adrenaline in your system, but it’s so rewarding to be able to transport an audience out of the recital hall or parlour setting and into your mind’s eye without the mise-en-scène. The onus falls on the audience to participate more actively in the music, and often the shared experience is all the richer for it.

You have won a number of prestigious awards for your singing; how do you prepare to compete? Do you have a pre-stage process that you stick by, or does it change depending on the performance? 

For my own peace of mind, I try to treat competitions as the means to an end as opposed to the goal itself. Performing for a competition panel is a great simulation audition - a skill that all singers will need to polish and review throughout their careers. I try to treat these panels like any other job interview: I evaluate if the opportunities offered are appropriate for me at that point in my development, just as the panel try to determine if each singer is suitable for the available prizes. Eisteddfods and competitions offering cash prizes can be unpredictable beasts, because pitting singers against one another directly opposes the collaborative nature of the art form. They’re a great opportunity to try out new repertoire and practice managing performance anxiety, but any wins or prizes are just a bonus. I haven’t attempted an eisteddfod or public competition since my last major role debut, so I will have to wait and see if that experience has affected my preparation process. I can only imagine that the more immersed you become in the process (as with learning a role), the easier it is to conquer the self-talk and self-criticism that can burden developing artists. That said, I certainly think there is a place for competitions in the industry, because they also promote the profile of classical performance by showcasing some incredible feats of athleticism by young performers - I think it’s important that we redefine these processes as an opportunity to promote the art form, not just individual artists.

For developing singers hoping to pursue a freelance career, what non-musical skills do you think are imperative to develop early on? 

I think it’s very important to develop a healthy attitude to constructive criticism early on. While coaching sessions and rehearsals should be safe environments in which to try out new things, these are still vulnerable spaces for young performers and it can be difficult not to take things personally. This also means listening with a discerning ear and sticking to your convictions - many people will offer unwelcome opinions or ill-informed technical advice, and young singers need to know how to deal with these moments with grace under fire. 

Finally, the Apollo Opera Collective is an exciting newcomer to the Baroque music scene. Why is it so important to support organisations like AOC and other small companies, as a singer but also as an audience member?

Around the world, opera houses are faced with the challenges of creating vibrant and innovative productions to appeal to increasingly discerning audiences. Larger opera companies are often tentative to take risks with repertoire, especially with high production costs at stake. Grass-roots companies such as the Apollo Opera Collective cater to this gap in the Australian musical landscape by offering exciting, rarely-performed operas at a fraction of the cost to the audience member. These productions also showcase the work of young up-and-coming singers, conductors, directors and other creatives - the next generation of the industry. Well-established performing arts companies rely on organisations like the AOC for their longevity. Similarly, as a singer, opportunities with companies like AOC assist with promoting and preserving the art form, and help to dispel the notion of opera as inaccessible and irrelevant.

Apollo Opera Collective presents Handel’s Ariodante at Mary Immaculate Church in Sydney on Friday 9 February at 7.30pm and Saturday 10 February at 8pm. Photo by Rosa Doric.