- UBC Opera: Behind the Scenes with Mezzo-soprano Taryn Plater
UBC Opera: Behind the Scenes with Mezzo-soprano Taryn Plater
Streaming live on Feb 6 + 7 and available on demand until Feb 15, the UBC School of Music presents Jonathan Dove’s chamber opera Mansfield Park streaming live from the Chan Centre stage. We caught up with mezzo-soprano Taryn Plater to find out a bit more about her experience playing the role of Fanny Price and the challenges that UBC Opera has successfully overcome to present this work in the era of strict COVID safety protocols.
Chan Centre: Hello Taryn! Can you tell us about yourself? What drew you to pursue studies in opera?
TP: My journey to opera was a winding path. I was studying engineering at UBC and taking singing lessons for fun when my teacher, who had graduated from UBC Opera, offered to get me into the chorus for La Traviata. The show was not even finished when I decided to apply to the opera program. My goal was to learn more about music, sing in the opera choruses, and ultimately pursue a career in arts management. I never dreamed that I would sing actual roles on the Chan Centre stage, much less that I would feel like I had the choice of pursuing a performance career.
CC: Tell us a little bit about your character Fanny Price and how she fits into Jane Austen’s story Mansfield Park. What has it been like for you taking on this role?
TP: As I understand it, Fanny Price is Jane Austen’s most controversial heroine. She is the poor relation who has been taken in by her wealthier family, so she grows up at the Mansfield Park estate, but never truly belongs. She doesn’t have the same charm or confidence as an Elizabeth Bennet, but this is mostly due to her circumstance. Flirtation, indiscretion, even acting in a play against her uncle’s wishes are luxuries that Fanny literally cannot afford. When you look at it that way, you start questioning why we so often prefer the heroines that have these really privileged personality traits. Once I looked at her more closely, I actually really admired Fanny. She’s deceptively strong. But this type of character can prove challenging to portray on an opera stage. Weeks of rehearsal spent sitting off to one side of the stage while the other characters interact – it does take a bit of a mental toll! But at the same time, I am so grateful that this opera has allowed all of us at UBC Opera to come together to make music at a time when that is unusual. The fact that the piece is so social in subject matter with a true ensemble cast has been really perfect – if a bit challenging for COVID-era staging.
CC: This opera was written quite recently, in 2011. Can you talk a bit about Jonathan Dove’s score for this chamber opera and what audiences can expect? What do you enjoy about singing this role?
TP: My parents always want to know if they need to do any homework before seeing one of my operas. If the music is somehow inaccessible, they like to listen in advance to become familiar with it and enjoy the show more fully. For Mansfield Park, I told them they did not need to do any of that. Jonathan Dove’s score is so melodic and fun. It’s enjoyable from the first time you hear it to the hundredth time (trust me, I know), and it has some really moving moments. And it’s in English!
That doesn’t mean the music is a breeze to learn – we had only three weeks of rehearsal and working the music and staging together has been a challenge for everyone. Thankfully, I’ve found this role to be very kindly written. It’s not too high or low, and Fanny sings just enough to keep my voice warm (I am on stage almost the entire show) without getting fatigued. I think what I have enjoyed most about the score is it was actually written for piano. It’s been almost a year since I have been able to sing with an orchestra, but with a score that sounds this good on two grand pianos in a beautiful hall, I forget about what’s missing.
CC: Usually UBC Opera performs for live audiences, but this year has been done instead by live stream. How has this changed things both for artists and for your audiences?
TP: To start with, there is a much lower barrier to entry. Having it streamed live online means you can watch it from anywhere, and it is far less expensive than in-person tickets. There is definitely a lot to miss about live theatre, but digital programming has its own appeal in its low-commitment format.
UBC Opera has offered live streams in the past, but the technological leap between that single shot from the back of the theatre to the much more advanced setup we have this year is incredible. For the fall opera, that high production value meant I could be even more critical of my performance than I usually am (in a good way). With a mask covering most of the expression on our faces, we have to be more aware of what our eyes and bodies are doing. For me, that means being more energized on stage and staring at the conductor less!
CC: Having this opera take place during the COVID 19 pandemic has no doubt been a feat for all of the artists involved. Can you talk about some of the challenges you and the other artists have faced, and how you have overcome them?
TP: The biggest challenge has been singing in masks. While the sound quality is not changed, I have battled a lot of technical issues. I instinctually avoid opening my mouth very far when wearing a mask, because otherwise the mask falls off my nose. It does get easier the more you practice, but I don’t think anyone will miss this particular challenge. We also have to maintain and 3-metre distance at all times which requires extreme self-awareness. That one rule complicates so many things we take for granted in theatre. Showing character interaction with touch or physical proximity, the use of props, and dancing are all far more difficult to pull off. We do still have the ball scene in Act II, but it was certainly more difficult to stage than dances normally are.
I think we were able to overcome so many complications in such a short time simply because there was no other option. We all understood the circumstances and accepted that this would not be an ordinary rehearsal process. It has not been easy, but I certainly feel accomplished and lucky to have had this very unique experience.
UBC Opera’s Mansfield Park, presented by the UBC School of Music, streams live from the Chan Centre stage Feb 6+7 and is available on demand until Feb 15