Interview with Professor Paul Barker
Professor and Course Leader of MA Music Theatre
Royal Central School of Speech & Drama
Paul Barker is a composer, pianist, director and author. He has worked extensively with singers as composer, MD and coach in opera, musicals and concerts across many genres and styles. He was Artistic Director of Modern Music Theatre Troupe (UK), and Optemus (Mexico), co-founder and first Chair of Opera and Music Theatre Forum. He has worked at RCSSD since 2005 where he is Professor of Music Theatre and course leader of MA Music Theatre.
保羅·巴克是一位作曲家、鋼琴家、導演和作家。作為作曲家的他與眾多歌手合作，在各種類型和唱法的歌劇、音樂劇和演唱會裡擔任音樂總監和指導。他還是英國現代音樂劇場劇團（Modern Music Theatre Troupe）及墨西哥歐特姆斯劇團（Optemus）的藝術總監，第一屆歌劇音樂劇場論壇（Opera and Music Theatre Forum）的聯合創始人及主席。從2005年起巴克教授在皇家中央戲劇與演講學院授課，並擔任音樂劇場課程的教授及碩士課程主任。
ART.ZIP: When and how did you start doing music theatre?
PB: I started singing and playing piano when I was 8 years old. I was born in Cambridge and I sang in a college choir there as a boy. My choirmaster gave piano lessons and I said to him I wanted piano lessons. My piano teacher was very unusual, after a while he said to me, ‘you are a bit bored with some of this music, shall we write our own?’ So he wrote me a piece of music then and there which I still have. So for me composing was very natural thing, it was just what I did from then on. I was lucky enough to have a piano teacher to inspire me to do that.
Later I went to Guildhall School of Music as a composer pianist, and then I went to Durham University for electronic music. My earliest work was for a contemporary dance company but I soon found myself interested in theatre as a whole. I became very excited about how drama and music were the same thing, different aspects of the same set of disciplines. So all my life I have worked in music and theatre professionally, as a composer, pianist, composer and conductor and lately as director too. I have discovered being a composer and a director for me is very much an expression of the same process. So now I run the MA Music Theatre here and I work as a composer with about 17 operas and music theatre works that have been performed all over the world. I have had the chance to write a few orchestral works, but music and theatre is where I do most of my work. Whenever I am commissioned to write a concert work for piano or string quartet, I prefer to write for concert theatre. Where the performers need to embody their performance theatrically, not depending upon sight reading. My theatre goes into my music world, just as my music goes into my theatre world. That’s how I think of music and theatre. They are the same.
之後我到了倫敦市政廳音樂學校（Guildhall School of Music）學習鋼琴作曲，再後來到了杜倫大學（Durham University）學習電子音樂。我最早期的作品是給一個當代舞蹈團寫的，但很快我就發現自己更喜歡作為整體來看待戲劇。我很激動地發現音樂和戲劇在本質上是一樣的，只是同樣規律的不同方面。所以我一生都在音樂和戲劇領域工作，無論是以作曲家、鋼琴家、指揮還是導演的身份。我發現作為作曲和導演都有著同樣的表達過程，因此在這裡教音樂劇場碩士課程的同時我還為十七個在各國表演的歌劇和音樂劇場作曲。我還曾為一些管弦樂團作曲，但音樂劇場是我做的最多的。對比為鋼琴或者弦樂四重奏譜曲，我更傾向為音樂會劇場（concert theatre）寫曲。表演者需要通過戲劇的形式來體現他們的表演，而不是依靠視覺閱讀的方式。我的戲劇世界走進音樂世界就如我的音樂世界邁入我的戲劇世界一樣，對我來說音樂和戲劇都是一樣的。
ART.ZIP: Do you have collaboration with the professions of the industry?
PB: At RCSSD we have directors, musical directors, designers, choreographers, and singers, others coming to work with us all the way through the year. Many of them may be professionals I have worked with outside the school, others are new to me. The reason why we get professionals to work with us is that is how the students learn what is required outside. Last year one of my students was chosen to be a lead in ‘The Commitments’, the musical which is at the West End now. So we constantly try to find ways to make the profession see the good standards our students can have. Many of our students go direct from the course directly into good work in the profession like this. But I have to say it is a hard and very competitive industry. A thick skin and determination are sometimes as important as ability.
PB: 在我們學校全年都會有和導演、音樂總監、設計師、編舞、歌手，還有其他專業人士合作的機會。當中有許多都曾經在學校以外和我合作過，但也有很多沒合作過的。我們與業內人士合作的原因是為了讓學生們知道業內需要的是什麼、標準是什麼。去年我的一個學生被選上成為《承諾（The Commitments）》的主演，這部音樂劇現在正在西區上演。我們都會竭盡全力讓業內人士看到我們的學生都具有很高的水準。我們這裡很多學生畢業以後都直接入行，但我不得不說這是一個競爭非常激烈的行業，一點都不容易。有時候厚臉皮、堅韌的意志和能力一樣重要。
ART.ZIP: How do you recruit your students? What kind of students are you looking for?
PB: Very good question. It’s really important. Firstly, at undergraduate level, the student can come straight from school, obviously, but at postgraduate level when I teach them, they usually come from a university course. Usually applicants finish a degree, often in theatre or music or dance, but sometimes it’s not a degree like that at all. We get quite a few people from theology or from law or other apparently unrelated subjects. Typically their parents said ‘go and get a proper degree’, but afterwards they say ‘I’ve got my degree, it’s boring, and I want to do something I love, now.’ So then they audition here. They probably spent all their time at university in student performances, so they know how to be on the stage, they know how to act and dance, play instruments, compose, choreograph and even produce shows. They see this one-year course of MA Music Theatre as their chance to see if they can make it to the profession.
ART.ZIP: So they don’t need a relevant degree?
PB: They must have experience. The relevant degree is not so important; it’s experience in performance that really matters. I think experience comes in different ways. In the first year I was here, there was a girl in our audition, she never had a singing lesson in her life, and she couldn’t read music at all. But she has been singing in a gospel choir from the age of three, so she knew all about singing. Because she sang in front of big crowds all the time, and she had a voice of massive size, it was an enormous voice. She could act, because her instincts were learned through regular performance. Her first job was in a musical at the National Theatre. It’s extraordinary and it confirmed to me that to do a music theatre degree you don’t need to read music, you need experience more. Perhaps music should be more about listening than reading, too? Certainly acting is about listening. Anyway, we have many students perhaps from music conservatoires alongside those who cannot read, and they learn from each other the benefits of both. So what our intensive year offers is an experience as deep and as intense as we can make it, backed up by self-analysis and intensive guidance into intellectual, emotional and physical skills. Fitness is crucial. We also help out students to survive beyond the year with us, to be adaptable and to sustain a career throughout a life.
ART.ZIP: Do most of your students go to the industry after their graduation?
PB: Most of them. At the end of the year, by September, I would expect over half of them have an agent. The others may find agents later on and there are always those that won’t get agents but still get professional work. Our course is unique in the emphasis it gives to composing, writing, choreographing and playing instruments as well as singing, acting and dancing. That kind of adaptability sustains a career. A small number will decide that they are not going to do perform, they may do something connected to it, perhaps teaching, perhaps working on television in production, a lot of them work as directors, set up their own companies. Several alumni are now working as comedians, song-writers and composers. I won’t say those we take on that they would all end up professional performers, but I would say the majority do. It is also important to realise that people change their profession too; theatre is very unfair, for instance it is greedy for young people and men. There is little doubt it becomes harder as you get older, and tougher always for women.
ART.ZIP: How many students do you recruit every year? Do you have any students from China? What suggestions would you give to those who would like to apply for your course?
PB: We have about 20 students a year on my course. Currently we have one Chinese student from Shanghai, and we have had one or two most years I have been here. The really crucial thing for foreign students is that can they stand on stage, act in English and be understood by the audience. That may be a barrier. If someone has a wonderful voice but can’t be understood, there’s little we can do in one year. I lived and taught theatre for some years in Mexico and it was the same there, that we sent people away if their accent was too Brazilian, or they came from countries like Uruguay, which has a very different Spanish. If they could not be understood in Mexico, we couldn’t take them on. Pronunciation of the language is crucial: if it isn’t clear, the audience aren’t going to follow it. English is not an easy language to pronounce. As a composer and musician, that annoys me, so I did something about it I will discuss later.
ART.ZIP: Apart from language, what other things would you say it’s quite different between western student and Asian students?
PB: Maria Huesca teaches singing on my course as a physical discipline and we believe that to sing you need to be in part an athlete. So dealing with muscle tension, dealing with pain may be an important part of singing. There was a very muscular tall student, who played rugby and football. Maria said to this man, ‘what we are going to do may be a little painful’. He said, ‘I don’t mind, I’ll be alright.’ Within five minutes, he was on the floor groaning in pain. Next was a Chinese girl I remember well, called Candy Ma, looking quite tiny and not obviously muscular. After 20 minutes, Maria went up to her and asked, ‘is it hurting?’ Candy nodded, still smiling but not showing the pain. So from this I understand many Asian students have great resilience: an ability to deal with such challenges which is more profound than the western idea of strength. There are many forms of strength which range from how to resist movement to how to bend. Knowing what sort of physical development to pursue affects what kind of performer you are and what skills you can master.
Now regarding thought-processes and emotional development, it’s something very different indeed. Yixuan Liu is my current student from China. She has had to challenge her understanding and use of facial expressions. At first, her face did not change much in class. There was perhaps a resistance to demonstrating her feelings that was cultural. But on an acting course control over your facial expression is crucial. And the change in a few months that I see in people like her dealing with, in this learning process, can be very challenging and very profound.
So what must the Chinese student show to get in this course? Number one, they must have experience in performing; number two, they must be able to stand in front of people, speaking or singing English and be understood. Those who also play any instruments, can compose or can choreograph would be particularly welcome. In our course audition we have 12 people in each time. They are all in front of each other for three hours. They do everything in front of each other with the singing teacher, the dance teacher, another director as well as me. And we give them a small version of what our course is like. In those three hours, they experience the course, a miniature part of it. So hopefully they understand better what the course is after the audition. So I recommended people to come to do the audition, because there isn’t an easy way to explain what we do. In some schools, you just stand in front of a few people, you perform and you leave, but we don’t do that. We have a very different approach exploring how to work together.
PB: 瑪利亞·修斯卡（Maria Huesca）在我的課上進行歌唱練習來作為身體訓練的一部分，我們相信歌要唱得好，你在某種程度上就得像運動員一樣，因為處理肌肉緊張和疼痛是歌唱的一個重要部分。曾經有位非常高大健碩的學生，他是玩橄欖球和踢足球的，瑪利亞跟他說，接下來我們進行的訓練可能會有點痛。他說，我沒問題的，來吧。五分鐘之後，他已經疼得躺在地上發出痛苦的呻吟。下一位接受訓練的是一位中國女孩，我記得特別清楚，她看起來很瘦小，一點都不強壯。過了二十分鐘，瑪利亞上前問她，疼嗎？她點點頭，還是笑眯眯的，看起來一點都不覺得疼。從這以後我明白很多亞洲學生具有極大的韌性，一種處理挑戰的能力，他們身體裡潛在的力量遠比西方概念裡的“強壯”要深遠得多。力量有很多種形式，包括如何抵抗外力還有如何屈伸。懂得如何運用身體來獲得某種效果直接影響了你是哪一類型的表演者，還有決定了你可以掌握哪一種表演技巧。
ART.ZIP: Do you have any interesting projects recently?
PB: In June we have an unusual project combining music theatre with conceptual street art. It is called ‘The Tights Ball’ and is a collaboration between MAMT, Platform 7 and two artists, Anna Kompaniets and Lenka Horakova. We have collected old tights from colleagues and the public, in the street. Along with them we have collected many stories. Some of those stories will be performed with music and theatre in the streets of Camden on June 21 & 22. The giant ball of recycled tights that the artists have made will be in the performance which will have a Camden rubbish truck as a functioning part of the set. Our approach to music theatre crosses into other genres, which is typical in Europe.
On a more traditional level, our production of ‘The Beggars’ Opera’, which we premiered earlier this year, has been invited to the Zhongguancun International Musical Festival in Beijing. ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ dates from 1728 and is often talked of as the first musical ever; our version has original music by myself and others in the cast. Also invited is a work of mine called ‘El Gallo’. It was commissioned by a Mexico-based theatre company, Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes who have performed it well over one hundred times across the US, Latin America and Europe. It is for six actors and two string quartets but it has no text, no words in any language. The syllables that are sung are all nonsense and invented by me. But not to confuse the audience, but rather to allow the music, theatre and dance to lead the audience through the story, whatever language they speak, without translation, subtitles or programme synopsis. Audiences everywhere seem to like this and as a composer and musician, I sometimes like to see language kept in its place!
PB: 六月份我們有一個挺好玩的項目，那是結合音樂劇場和概念街頭藝術的項目，叫做“絲襪球（The Tights Ball）”項目。這個項目是我們音樂劇場課程和七號站臺（Platform 7）藝術組織，還有兩位藝術家安娜·康姆潘尼爾茲（Anna Kompaniets）和蘭卡·霍拉科娃（Lenka Horakova）一起合作的。我們在街頭向路人回收舊絲襪和收集他們的故事。彙集來的那些有意思的故事將會在今年6月21日和22日被搬到卡姆頓（Camden）的街頭用音樂和劇場的形式表演出來。兩位藝術家會把回收來的絲襪做成一個巨大的球，這個球也會和卡姆頓的垃圾車一起作為道具出現在表演中。這種音樂劇場和其他類型的藝術形式合作的項目在歐洲十分普遍。
至於傳統的劇場作品，我們製作的《乞丐的歌劇（The Beggars’ Opera）》在今年年初首映，現在已被邀請到北京中關村國際音樂節進行演出。這部1728年的作品被認為是最早的音樂劇；而且我們自己製作的版本有原創的音樂部分。還有一部默劇叫做《El Gallo》也被邀請演出，這是一部由墨西哥戲劇公司委託創作的作品。居民劇團（Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes）已經在美國、拉丁美洲和歐洲巡演了不下一百遍了。這個劇只有六個演員，兩個弦樂四重奏樂隊，沒有任何台詞和文本。歌曲中的音節都是由我寫的，沒有任何具體含義。但我並不是為了迷惑觀眾，而是希望讓音樂、劇場和舞蹈本身來讓故事，娓娓道來。表演期間沒有任何的翻譯、字幕或者節目介紹。無論哪個國家的觀眾都對這部默劇十分著迷，作為作曲家和音樂家，有時候我真的覺得音樂勝比萬語千言。