The last two decades have seen a rise in theories and methodologies that seek to theorise creative practice and argue that the artists’ outputs and their practice generate new knowledge (Sullivan 2009).
My methodology is informed by Smith and Dean’s model of ‘the iterative cyclic web of practice-led research and research-led practice’ (Smith and Dean 2009).
Life History Interviews
The published literature surrounding the mid-career transitions of dramatic female voices is often contained in the popular opera press. These interviews are PR for singers and the performances they are engaged in, therefore they are unlikely to go into detail about the technical or psychological difficulties these singers overcame during their mid-career transition. The life history method has been selected as the detailed interview schedule and process of ‘negotiation and collaboration’ (Frisch, 1990) engaged in by the interviewer and interviewee ‘reduces the chance of the interviewee giving a purely sanitised version of events’ (Jackson & Russell, 2010, p. 6) already on the public record.
It is acknowledged in life history interviewing that the selection of interviewees and the research agenda of the interviewer will shape the material collected. As a female researcher studying the career transitions of female singers, I am taking a feminist and intersectional approach to my questions and research sample. As a female opera singer with a dramatic voice my ‘identity and the context of both researchers and participants [is] central to the research process' (Ryan Flood and Gill 2010 p 4-5).
Staged Song Cycles
While mounting one's own Ring Cycle to try out the role of Brünnhilde is impossible, staging song cycles offers the singer opportunities to try out their stage skills and develop their psychological resilience in performance situations. A DIY version of staging one's own Ring Cycle if you like!
The staged song cycles in the experiment have also been chosen to explore the themes I am hoping to uncover in my engagement in life history interviews: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben and Frances-Hoad's One Life Stand, explore themes of grief, a woman's place, ageing, beauty longing and loss. Thus offering me a deeper engagement with these themes and developing more understanding and empathy with my life history questions and subjects.
I have engaged a mid-career female pianist and two mid-career female dancers to work with me on this. I believe that by working with these women on this project I will be able to develop even more insights as to the value and visibility of female performers in middle age and mid-career.
“I, Isolde” is a creative piece and accompanying exegesis, that will explore the themes that arise from the life history interviews using staged German song cycles, woven together by scripted drama, to embody the singers’ pathways and pitfalls through the singing voice. The title "I, Isolde" alludes to Brünnhilde's vocal counterpart, the stolen princess Isolde from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. It is an attempt to recognise the very human endeavours which make possible the portrayal of the half-goddess Valkyrie Brünnhilde.
In using the research from the life history interviews and staged song cycles to create a staged work, my piece acknowledges ‘research is a fundamental part of arts such as theatre and the performance arts’ (Kershaw & Nicholson, 2011). While creative practitioners have long understood this to be the case, it is a relatively new concept in academic circles, however, ‘it is increasingly recognised that creative practice can be a form of research in itself’ (Sullivan, 2009, p. 50).
While arguably the performance of the work “I, Isolde” could also be ‘a valid research output in itself by embodying and communicating the knowledge produced in its creation’ (Biggs 2009, p.67) this idea has not yet gained traction in postgraduate research as ‘practice-only postgraduate research can disable practice-led research by confusing practice with praxical knowledge’ (Smith & Dean, 2009, p. 7; quoting Barbara Bolt). Consequently, the accompanying exegesis will detail the processes engaged in creating and performing the piece as ‘creative works cannot be expected to speak for themselves’ (Candy & Edmonds, 2018, p. 65). This discursive textual analysis will explain the position, demonstrate critical reflection and will provide evidence of the ‘systematic development of an idea’ (Hill, 2015) which is a necessary criterion for performative creative works to be understood as research.
While it would be possible to document much of the findings of the life history interviews in purely discursive text, this additional method recognises that singers, in carrying their instrument within themselves, ‘are inseparable’ (Chapman, 2016, p. 162). As a researcher who is also a skilled opera singer, I understand that singers often use their voices or metaphors from opera to explain concepts, difficulties, and successes. “I, Isolde”, by using classical song repertoire and operatic voice in performance, will more effectively ‘communicate non-verbal aspects of their experiences to their audiences ’(Kara, 2015, p. 154) and may give my work a ‘broader reach’ and ‘more profound impact’ than purely discursive text.