In Conversation With Jennifer Sterling

From Couch to Chorus: an interview with Opera North’s Jennifer Sterling

Jennifer Sterling is Choral Delivery Artist in the Education Department of Opera North. Prior to the brave new world of coronavirus, her role would include working on the ‘In Harmony’ project at Opera North, where children in local schools learn an instrument and are part of a choir; doing workshops across the north of England, teaching children and developing their interest in opera and classical music; and working with choirs in Opera North’s ‘Sing ON’ scheme, which is for groups of over-55s. Jennifer is also the musical director of Otley and Ilkley Choral Societies and has worked with a variety of choirs across the UK. Like many, her work has undergone a transformation over the past months!

Charles Eager spoke to Jennifer about one of her new digital projects with Opera North, ‘From Couch to Chorus’.

Jennifer, tell us about the ‘From Couch to Chorus’ project.

JS: ‘From Couch to Chorus’ began with our ‘Sing ON’ group. We had been meeting on Zoom throughout ‘lockdown’, with c. 100–150 people meeting each week to sing together on Zoom. We said, ‘Why don’t we invite a few extra people? Many have been doing online rehearsals, and they’ll miss them over the Summer break.’ Now we’ve got over 2,000 involved! It is wonderful to think that we have all of these people coming and singing opera together.

Sing ON. Photograph by Justin Slee.

We have sessions every week. The sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses rehearse separately. They are learning three opera choruses. This way gives us more time than in ‘real life’ to concentrate on one voice part and look at elements of singing technique, breathing, etc.

The most people we’ve had in a session was 540. It’s fantastic. We’ve had people from Australia, Singapore, and Germany. One woman had said that she is disabled and struggles to access things like this. She was really happy about what we were doing and her feedback has given us new ideas for increasing accessibility in future projects. In terms of geography, it takes away restrictions; there are many people you can access in a different way. 

The groups are singing the ‘Habanera’ Chorus from Carmen, the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves (‘Va pensiero’) from Verdi’s Nabucco, and a Chorus from The Bartered Bride. Why these three choruses? Are there any particular challenges? Are they easier? More fun?

JS: I chose them, firstly, because they’re wonderful pieces. Then there are certain things you have to look out for when selecting music for such a wide range of abilities, and other things you need to check if you’re teaching those singers on Zoom! The individual harmony parts need to be interesting and memorable, the music should flow rather than having small interjections, and it needs to split into the right number of parts for your choir. Then there’s the range: if it is far too high—as it can be for opera choruses—it makes life difficult.

The pieces we’re doing have many challenges in them; they’re not easy pieces. But we felt that they had the right structure; they flow and have a good feel.

You welcome all stripes of singers, from beginners to advanced, which is wonderful. Does that mix throw up any challenges, pleasures, and even advantages? 

JS: Yes. On the first day, before our first rehearsal, I ran a poll which asked: ‘What is your experience? Do you read music? Do you sing in a choir or have you ever sung in any choirs?’ I would say that the majority of people were in the middle of every poll. But we had people at both extremes as well. Over the four sessions, there were probably about fifteen people who ticked the box which said they had ‘never sung before, not even in the shower’ and probably about the same number of people who said they were professional singers. Everybody else was in between. This is a huge range, and it was a challenge for me to think about how that was going to work. 

Has Zoom made it easier than it would normally be?

JS: In some ways. I think that Zoom gives the opportunity to do different things. It doesn’t ‘replace’ choirs; I think people concentrate on that a lot. They focus on this idea that ‘it will never be the same as “real life”‘. Of course it won’t! But the things that we are doing, you can’t do all of them in ‘real life’. Once you hone in on what’s good about it, you can experience it as something which is different, and still enjoy it—not see it as a ‘replacement’, but as something which can benefit your choir in a different way. 

I wonder whether Zoom rehearsals will become a fashionable thing in the post-coronavirus world.

JS: I don’t know; I think that they may become, as I say, an addition. But people would miss coming together too much: the feeling of singing in a choir is unique. Zoom workshops are more similar to an individual lesson. You can learn a lot from that setting, but it’s not the same as breathing with a choir and creating that sound in person together. 

How are the non-music-readers getting on? 

JS: I think fine! I can’t hear how they’re getting on. Instead I tend to watch how they’re doing. I try to see how confident they look and see if their mouths are in the right shape or if they’re standing with the correct posture. You can ‘read’ whether somebody is doing all right or not. I think there will be many people singing along, watching, and starting to work out how music works, even if they didn’t read music before. In the first session, people have said, ‘I’ve never sung in my life before and I’m loving this!’. I think it doesn’t matter whether they’ve not been able to read music. It’s about making a development and making an improvement. The end goal is going to be very different for people of different levels.

The ‘From Couch to Chorus’ project culminates on 12 August. Could you give us a picture of what that will look like?

JS: At the end of the four weeks, we’ll all come together for a culmination session (12 August). We are having two sessions in the morning, simply because we were a bit worried about how many people we could fit on Zoom! In our culmination session they’re still singing separately. It’s impossible to sing online at the same time on Zoom because of the internet delay. It’s absolute chaos!

There will be members of the Opera North Chorus present to answer questions, they’ll give tips, and we will sing through our pieces with the recordings which have been made by the Chorus of Opera North.

This project is supported by the Emerald Foundation. Can you tell us about them? 

JS: The Emerald Foundation supports our education programme at Opera North. Their founder is a big opera fan and he’s been a generous benefactor to the company for many years. I’ve personally worked with them: we’ve done a workplace choir, which was a lot of fun, and we’ve sung with them at their Christmas party.

This project is about four weeks in length. Is there a future for the ‘From Couch to Chorus’ project?

JS: We’ve been ready to try something new for a while, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people have been asking if this might happen again, and I think we’ll look into whether that’s possible. Perhaps in the near future it will be in the same kind of setting that it is now. Then, perhaps in the more long-term future, it might use a combination of digital and in-person sessions, or final performance. There are various ways of doing it, so I think that we’ll definitely be looking at how that might happen in the future.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

JS: Just this: people see virtual choirs, and they block it all into the same idea. Everybody is thinking currently of the different ways in which singing can happen online, and this is one of those. I believe that we can concentrate on the positives rather than the negatives. When people start to think like that, it becomes much more enjoyable, and new doors open for us to think about. I hope that the people who have taken part would agree: it’s still great; it’s just a different thing!

I’m sure Leeds Living’s readers will agree. Thank you, Jennifer!

www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/from-couch-to-chorus

Charles Eager would like to thank Chiara Gandini for her transcription of this interview – and so would a grateful Leeds Living. Thank you, Chiara.

Photographs provided by Opera North.

Leeds Living