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The Lifestyle of an Opera Singer

Nicola Said as Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor, Fulham Opera)

I am an Opera Singer, and I love it. I consider myself extremely lucky to be following this career. It is wonderful to be on stage, it is a gift to be able to move an audience, to give them joy, to bring tears to their eyes, to inspire them in any way possible. There are not many other jobs in this life that allow for such honest, bare, raw communication; it is a gift to allow myself to be completely vulnerable in front of a theatre full of people I don’t know. Yes, it is glamourous and exciting, adrenaline is often my best friend. I get to wear crazy costumes, go to pre-drinks, after-parties, wear nice dresses, meet generous people from all over the world, and travel lots. One of the best parts is when after I’ve given my heart and soul into the performance, an audience member or two come to tell me after a performance how much my singing moved them, that’s when I feel I have really succeeded as a performer!

Yes, the lifestyle is wonderful, but it also requires a lot of discipline in every area of life, and while this is true for most professional opera singers, the lifestyle varies depending on each person and what affects/doesn’t affect them and their work productivity. I find that I require quite a strict regime in order to work at peak performance, particularly during production period (the period during which rehearsals for an opera are in full swing). The “strictness” of my lifestyle very much depends on what I have going on, whether it is a concert, an opera or an audition and more specifically what I am singing for each event –   whether the music consists of very high notes, whether it is high or low pressure, whether it is difficult, whether it is a piece I have performed several times, whether it is a piece I have only done a couple of times before or whether it is a completely new work.

One of the things I’m asked most is, are there any foods Opera singers stay away from, particularly on the day of a performance ?  – I can only speak for myself in this, as everyone is different. There is the saying “You are what you eat”, and I find that to be very true in my case. In general, I will always stay away from wheat and dairy (particularly in my own cooked meals) if it can be helped, especially when I have an important performance or audition coming up. I like to live a relatively healthy lifestyle consisting of mostly meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, although I have a sweet tooth and enjoy my dark chocolate! I also do Pilates weekly (which is similar to Yoga but focuses on the core strength). I must say that sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the financial aspect of living a healthy lifestyle. There are varying degrees of course, but at this stage of a career singers aren’t paid that much, or we have to resort to not being paid in order to get roles onto our CV, to build our reputation and to be heard, to do various “opportunities” as they like to be called. In truth they are opportunities, but don’t necessarily help towards actually paying one’s rent or food…But that’s a whole other ball game! The competition even for such roles is high, since supply vastly outweighs demand. The setback of having spent a long time training in institutions also puts many singers at a certain financial disadvantage to begin with.

My social life can sometimes be limited, particularly during times of performances and auditions. Unlike other musicians, an opera singer’s instrument is their body, therefore if I do not take care of my body, my instrument will suffer, and so too would my career. Compared to other singers I know, I am extremely strict about this. I avoid alcohol and generally stay away from areas where smoking is allowed, loud places like clubs and bars since one has to speak very loudly to be heard, and my voice is never happy the next day! I prefer meeting people in smaller settings, and focus on developing and keeping close friendships. Of course, once there are no auditions/performances around the corner I can let my hair down a little, but that doesn’t happen too often. Another reason social life can be limited is also because living in London is just expensive, and while there are indeed some free events going on, most mean that at some point you’re going to spend money one way or another (one doesn’t go to food festivals/markets to just stare at the food…). Being an opera singer is a very expensive career to follow. Costs range from singing lessons (£80-£100 per lesson, coachings (£30-70/hour), pianists (£30-35 per hour), applications for competitions and auditions (£20-£100), flights (generally these are only covered when doing an opera production or a gala event, not for competitions and auditions, for operas and for some young artist programmes), so that’s another £150-£300 per month depending on how frequently one applies for competitions/auditions. Then there are dresses (audition and concert dresses) … which I generally recycle as often as is possible.

Many say that luck counts for a lot in this business. When I first started, I used to believe one can make one’s own luck…after ten years of making my way, I am not so sure I believe that anymore. One can work extremely hard and do their utmost to create optimum chances for success (whatever success means to each individual person of course). Luck does play a big part in this career. There are others who have not been so lucky, and there are others who are far luckier, it is something we learn to accept, just like we must learn not to take things in our job so personally (to tell a singer not to take things personally is like telling a mother not to care if someone offends her own baby); we learn that there will always be someone better than you, someone prettier, someone braver, someone who was in the right place at the right time, someone who looks the part and is exactly what the director wants. For this reason, we must also learn to try to separate ourselves from something that for the most part is out of our control, particularly whether or not we are given a role, granted an audition, win a competition, and sometimes even, have a bad singing day when we are not feeling as well as we usually feel (we are human, we can get sick too). As already mentioned, our bodies are our instruments, there will be bad days and there will be good days. That is why we need to train so hard so that even on our bad days, we sing well.


I have been so blessed to be surrounded by people who support me, including my very dear family and close friends, and the Malta Airport Foundation whose Ambassador I am very proud to be. Opera singers learn to create a network bubble of people they can trust, to lean on for support and advice, and this is absolutely essential in making leaps of faith into this very crazy, but indeed wonderful world of Opera. To round off, when I had decided to follow a career in opera, one of my teachers had once told me: Only follow this path if you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else in life. It’s only now that I look back and understand just how full of truth that statement was.

Travels of a Maltese Soprano: Munich, Budapest, and Malta!

As I near the end of my studies at Guildhall, I reflect back on these past six months of my life, a little taster of the opera singer’s life as a travel machine!

Nicola Said at the ROH

​​I feel very fortunate that not only do I get to do what I love every day of my life, but I also get to travel the world and see the most beautiful sights, even if most times I don’t actually have the time to play the “tourist” as trips are often short. I love staying with Airbnb because it means I get to actually meet and sometimes spend time with locals and the way they live, what they love about living there etc. It’s an extremely enriching experience, and hotel rooms can be quite dead (and more expensive) so it’s a win win!

Nicola Said, Katarzyna Balejko, Josep Ramon-Olivé

The term started off with a bang, with a performance in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House of the Opera Makers’ Contemporary Operas in which I sang Echo (which I have already written about in a previous blog). Of course it is highly prestigious to have been invited to perform there and needless to say it was an exciting day, as you can tell from our faces (with two of my colleagues, Josep Ramon-Olive and Katarzyna Balejko).

Munich by Night – Marienplatz Cathedral

Two days later I was on a plane to Munich for an audition in January, it was snowing when I arrived!! The town centre of Munich by night is breath-taking – picturesque and beautiful, it still retains the charm of an old town. My trip there was an indispensable lesson in considering audition repertoire and management of it for auditions. It also made me realise that perhaps, a young artist programme was not necessarily the next step I wanted to take in my career, which led me to consider the option of going out into the big wide professional world,

Nicola Said and Johannes Kammler

at least to gain a bit of experience before committing to more years of studying within an institution! It was also nice to meet up with current young artists in the Munich YAP, including Johannes Kammler who was kind enough to show us a few popular hang-outs in the area.

Nicola Said & Milan Siljanov

Next stop (literally) was Budapest, which I travelled to on a long night train journey with my amazing colleague Milan Siljanov! Budapest is very beautiful and retains the charms of a central European city with a twist of Eastern European – the architecture, the language and the food! We performed our Contemporary Operas there, but this time, we were in a beautiful theatre which in my opinion, made the experience far more special, because one feels like they can sing outwards (as opposed to in a studio, where the audience is very up, close and personal…you can tell what is going on in their minds…sometimes what we are performing is rather shocking, so this is not always a good thing!) 

Liszt-Akademie in Budapest
Nicola in Budapest

Nicola Said and Bethan Langford

It was back to London after that, to continue rehearsals for Guildhall’s production of The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten which we were to perform at the end of February. I was to sing the role of Lucia, a very good role for my voice type. It was a good learning experience on understanding the music of Britten, and the psychological journey of this was very deep. Both director Martin Lloyd-Evans and conductor Dominic Wheeler guided us wisely and warmly through this journey (a very disturbing piece can be rather traumatic), and it was very well-received.

Nicola Said and Elizabeth Karani

Here are a few dressing room shots with my beautiful colleagues, Elizabeth Karani who played the role of Female Chorus, and Bethan Langford who sang Lucretia.

In March I travelled to Malta to premiere the soprano solo in “Via Crucis” by talented Maltese composer, Karl Fiorini, with the Socjeta Muzikali Peace. I really do enjoy the occasions when I get to work with my fellow Maltese in Malta, and it makes me so proud to see how the musical culture is growing, slowly, but surely.

Nicola Said, Karl Fiorini and Lino Chircop in Via Crucis

The Role of Rosaura

Nicola Said as Rosaura (Le Donne Curiose by Wolf-Ferrari, Guildhall Opera)

My year’s first opera at Guildhall last term was Le Donne Curiose by Wolf-Ferrari. It can be slightly daunting taking on a role in an opera which you never even heard of, however the opera was very well cast and I found the opera growing on me. It truly does have some beautiful moments.

 Although characters were drawn from typical stock characters, it was important that we found light and shade, and director Stephen Barlow was amazing with helping me on this journey of discovery as I worked hard to take on the direction I was being given. I thought my character to be far more naïve and sweet at first. Anger is often hard to portray, who wants to look like the bad guy to people?

Nicola Said as Rosaura, Elizabeth Karani as Eleonora, Bethan Langford as Beatrice and Katarzyna Balejko as Colombina (Le Donne Curiose by Wolf-Ferrari, Guildhall Opera) © Clive Barda

Manipulation is a harsh method of trying to extract truth out of someone else and getting them to do what we want them to do, and often as humans we do it without knowing. That is why it is essential that it comes from a place of truth. It is not until we reach deep into ourselves and reach for feelings we have felt before, that these feelings can be depicted on stage as true (rather than trying to mimic the actions without having any deeper place where they come from). If they come from a place of truth, then the honesty and vulnerability is interesting to an audience, because they can relate, because they are human. It was hard to see that Rosaura just wasn’t as nice as I wanted her to be!

Of course then there are the beautiful honest moments, which are particularly special because of the very fact that it shows the vulnerability. Conductor Mark Shanahan helped me to find that honest vulnerability in the voice, by reminding me that I do not need to put the emotion into the voice, but to allow the words to do the talking, something that we are constantly being taught on this course. Italian coach, Matteo Dalle Fratte, did a great job of making sure that every word we sang was very clear!

Nicola Said as Rosaura & Elgan Thomas as Florindo (Le Donne Curiose by Wolf-Ferrari, Guildhall School) © Clive Barda

It was a great learning experience and I got some wonderful reviews too, always a good thing! AND I got to work in period costume… I tell you, it’s not as simple as it looks, especially when you have to run around the stage, be dragged by Harlequin then jump on him while singing a top C, and in the end pull a balancing act to stand on a slippery table with pies flying around you, and praying that you don’t get pie on you because wardrobe would have one hell of a job to get it off! Ah…yes there were quite a few antics on-stage…pity if you missed it, it was indeed a funny show 😉 We had some good laughs! In the photo on the right, you can see my amazing Donne colleagues, Bethan Langford as my mum Beatrice, Katarzyna Balejko as our maid Colombina, and Elizabeth Karani as our posh friend Eleonora.

Nicola Said as Rosaura & Thomas Atkins as Florindo (Le Donne Curiose by Wolf-Ferrari, Guildhall School) © Clive Bard

Below were Rosaura’s Florindi, Elgan Thomas and Thomas Atkins, and below that, the curtain call (Photos are courtesy of Clive Barda).

Le Donne Curiose by Wolf-Ferrari, Guildhall School © Clive Barda

Travels of a Maltese Soprano: USA

Shigemi Matsumoto and Nicola Said

After three years, I finally returned to the big US of A! I never imagined that if I had to visit it would be for such a short time; a quick last minute trip which almost didn’t happen! I flew in for an audition to sing for legendary mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne who was very complimentary about my voice. The first time I sang for her was three years ago, just a month or so before leaving the US and thanks to the introduction made by my teacher in California, Shigemi Matsumoto.

Nicola Said with Shigemi Matsumoto and David Anglin

Here’s the thing, in LA, you have to drive. Aside from the fact that it is quicker, public transport is just…creepy. However, public transport I did take – it took my three hours to get to Downtown LA from Long Beach (it takes 40 minutes to an hour by car). I must say, having lived in London, the thought of public transport wasn’t daunting. I didn’t even have internet, and I made it….I won’t deny it, I was scared. Especially….it’s the US and you just never know who is carrying a gun, sorry to say!! And, when you’re not safely locked in your car…well…you just never know. And yes, it caused shock reaction when I relayed my travel story to my American friends. Let’s just say, it was my own little adventure.

Florentino Zarate, Nanzi Cruz Cortez and Nicola Said

Anyway I finally got to Union Station in Downtown LA and managed to meet Shigemi and her husband, the former Senior Executive Manager at CAMI, Marty Stark, together with opera coach at the Bob Cole Conservatory, Dr. David Anglin. I have great memories of performing my first three operatic roles at Bob Cole, the first being Olympia whose aria was one of the first I heard that made me fall in love with opera! Shigemi and Marty taught me so much about singing and the business of opera. Dr. Anglin awarded me my first Zerbinetta opera scenes, with the whole Prologue, and then the famous quartet. These people were some of the first to believe in me, and I will forever be grateful.

Christina Liem Jennings and Nicola Said

I also managed to meet a few old friends including the wonderful Frieda Caplan whose scholarship I received at CSULB and who kindly continued to support me in my last year there, and my amazing old roommate from Cal State Long Beach Christina Liem (photo to right) whom I had actually met for the first time back in Italy on the Opera Programme where I met Shigemi…it was fate!! Both Christina and Florentino Zarate were so so kind to me during my time in the US, and I think if it weren’t for them and a few other friends, I would not have survived (seriously…) It was amazing to catch up with them! Also, I could NOT help overdosing on Froyo from Yoghurtland and Cold Stone Ice-Cream (when I first arrived in the US I had Froyo every day…) It had to be done, for old time’s sake!

My Professional Debut as Zerbinetta

Nicola Said as Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos) with Opera Project/West Green House Opera

I suppose I couldn’t have been luckier in that my first professional engagement was as my beloved Zerbinetta, a role I had been dreaming of performing since being introduced to the music over six years ago at the Opera Institute of the Bob Cole Academy in Long Beach, California. Music Director Dr. David Anglin, and director Stephanie Vlahos, bestowed me the gift of singing Zerbinetta in the Prologue. So I rapidly worked with my teacher at the time, the wonderful Shigemi Matsumoto, to rise to the challenge. 


At the time, it was by far the most difficult music I had ever sung, and to be honest, I had not heard it before. I was still very much at the stage of exploring what my voice could do, and still in the process of truly discovering the fabulously diverse and beautiful world of opera. I had only sung German lieder (songs) thus far, so it took me a while to get around all those fast words in German which are written in the role. It was challenging but I fell in love with Zerbinetta immediately. She is such a deep character, a heroine in the way she chooses to live her life, and in my opinion, somewhat of a feminist. I loved her so much that I started learning her big 12 minute aria but had to put it aside for a while as it was just too difficult for me to sing within my capabilities at that time.


Zerbinetta is one of the four key characters in Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos- a rich Viennese patron has both commissioned a new opera and invited a light entertainment troupe with clowns led by Zerbinetta to perform on the same evening at his home but in the event he also unexpectedly orders fireworks to be let off outside at 9pm so the major domo orders both groups to perform together at the same time! Hence the comedy but the opera also explores profound themes about the nature of culture and entertainment, personal ambition, disappointment and of course there are love interests with Zerbinetta showing unexpected wisdom and sensitivity in her great aria and numerous interactions with the other characters.  


In my final year at Bob Cole, I was given the famous quartet which is the entertainment troupe’s first performance together before Zerbinetta’s big aria. This was huge fun…we performed it in cabaret style and I had to dance on stage (*shock*) which was a little bit unnerving the first time, but I got over the strangeness of it all and threw myself into it…
Then sure enough, in my first year at Guildhall, I was cast in the same scene, and then the quartet that comes after the aria on my second year Opera Course…. It was fate, Zerbinetta and I were bound to each other!


So when last March I auditioned for and was offered the full role, I was ecstatic! I was pretty much spoiled with a fantastic conductor and director in Jonathan Lyness and Richard Studer who are the kindest, nicest, most gentle human beings I can ever imagine working with. Both of them guided me through the process, providing encouragement and making sure that I could deliver my best sound while playing this cheeky showgirl with a heart of gold and a real understanding of life. The interpretation of the piece was very much as a comedy and so our Zerbinetta was a very light-hearted comedienne, which, considering the fact that I had just spent two months preparing and performing the part of a necrophiliac a couple of weeks before in a newly written piece, was a welcome shift to ‘normality’ (if any opera character can be called that!)


The cast was friendly and fun, the set gorgeous and the orchestra played beautifully. It was a really wonderful experience and I shall never forget my first Zerbinetta with the Opera Project at West Green House!

Zerbinetta and MAF Ambassador!

Hello and welcome to my new website! I have a few exciting things to announce, I have been cast in the role of Zerbinetta with Opera Project at West Green House Opera on August 1st and 2nd. If you are able to come and support me, it would be greatly appreciated! Tickets can be bought from the following website – http://westgreenhouseopera.co.uk/whats-on/ariadne-auf-naxos/

Certainly one of my most exciting projects to date, I have been invited to be the Brand Ambassador of the Malta Airport Foundation! They will be investing in Malta’s heritage and tourism, including environmental projects particularly in the South of Malta. Their first project, in collaboration with Din L-Art Helwa, will be the restoration of Torri Xutu in Wied iz-Zurrieq. Follow this space for updates on my new MAF Adventures discovering the hidden gems that Malta has to offer!
Check out this page for more information
– http://corporate.maltairport.com/en/corporate-social.htm

Travels of a Maltese Soprano: Italy

This September I visited Sanremo in order to do a masterclass with Italian soprano, Antonella Banaudi. Masterclasses are a very useful tool for singers, it is a means to discover various tricks of the trade from successful musicians. Different singers have different ways of passing on their knowledge and experiences, and I find that there is always something new that can be learned. A masterclass is a good place to learn by observing others, and if it is an intense masterclass and one spends enough time with the other singers, for making friends J Doing masterclasses in a different country helps me to observe the way other singers work in that country, and since singers often have to travel all over the world to sing, this is a very safe environment to learn how to adapt.

Antonella Banaudi has studied with the great tenors Carlo Bergonzi and Pavarotti. She is a kind and generous woman, and she teaches with passion and is inspiring. She shared stories of her encounters with Bergonzi and Pavarotti, and I felt so humbled by her openness and humility. The masterclasses took place in a small village near San Remo called Porto Maurizio, in Oratorio San Pietro, a beautiful little church overlooking the harbour. We constantly had passing tourists come in to see what was going on.

Nicola Said singing in the Antonella Banaudi Masterclass in Sanremo

Throughout the masterclasses, Antonella focused on a strong body and high placement, very much emphasising and supporting the work I have been doing with my teacher Yvonne Kenny. I find that the wonderful thing about masterclasses is that it really helps clarify and strengthen singing technique. Antonella’s Mediterranean directness made sure that I didn’t let my body get lazy, and after a very restful summer, I felt much stronger and physically confident to start on the second year Guildhall opera course!

Travels of a Maltese Soprano: Shanghai

Ok I know it was a few months ago, but I have been meaning to write about this trip since I left there! Last April, the Guildhall Opera Course sent us to China to perform the opera scenes we had just performed in London, in the Shanghai Grand Theatre. What a trip that was! I was singing the role of Ginevra (Ariodante) with her popular aria “Volate, amori”, and Adina’s first duet with Nemorino – I absolutely love singing Adina! We also had period costumes in this production, which made it extra fun.

Adina & Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore, Guildhall Opera)

It was a great experience in a number of ways – opera singers have to get used to the lifestyle of travelling to a country, and the next day, getting up early to rehearse – or sometimes with no rehearsal at all – go straight onto the stage! You can imagine just how scary this is, particularly if one has never worked with the conductor or director, and does not know the production, let alone if one had never performed the role before. So, this was certainly good practise! Baby steps, baby steps…

Ginevra, Ariodante and Il Re (Ariodante, Guildhall Opera)

Anyway, the group of us left London on a Wednesday, just the morning after finishing the Opera Scenes the night before. We arrived in Shanghai on the Thursday, had the evening off, and the next day we were on the stage rehearsing, with just a food break before our first performance. We had another performance on the Saturday, and a day off on the Sunday, and left on the Monday.  The Chinese crew was very welcoming, and we were treated very well. The stage hall was quite large and personally, I felt that it gave me such a sense of freedom in my performance, as opposed to singing in the small studio in Milton Court, where we had just performed the scenes. The Chinese audience loved it! We had a scene which was designed to scandalise, and were slightly worried that we might be kicked out of China because of it, but luckily they just found it all rather funny (as it should have been). There were a lot of children in the audience and to our delight, no one seemed bored!! They were lively and spoke during the performance, they laughed too. We thought that actually, it would be really nice if our traditional audiences were a bit more like that – it is honestly so rewarding when you know the audience is enjoying your performance – one feeds off the audiences reactions, it is a give and take, particularly in comedy. 

Lunch in Shanghai’s French Concession

On my day off I visited the French Concession district, which is where many of the Westerners choose to live and socialise. It was a fusion of western meets Chinese, but still with a feeling of being in a very foreign land.

Nicola in Tianzifang

I then visited Tianzifang, a very cool arts district, where you can explore and literally get lost in all the little streets (this is my favourite kind of “touristing” (yes I just made up a word…), because I feel one gets a better feel for a country’s culture 🙂 Having said that, everyone says that Shanghai is pretty westernized…perhaps one day I’ll get to explore a proper Chinese rural village!

My Journey through a Contemporary Opera

Nicola Said as Echo in Narkissus and the Reflections (Laurence Osborn & Ruth Willow Mariner) – Guildhall Opera Scenes © Matthew Ferguson

I have just completed my first year on the Guildhall Opera Course! 3 terms, 3 sets of opera scenes, 5 new scenes experience under my belt, a contemporary opera!
This term has been a breakthrough for me as it has been the first time I’ve done contemporary music, and I can tell you, it has been extremely challenging! In partnership with the Royal Opera House, Guildhall has set up a new MA in Opera Making course, and this year has been its first, with a gifted set of composers and librettists writing for the singers in my year. The course is the first in the world of its kind, and aims to recreate the idea of a composer writing for a specific voice (which is how it was done by past composers like Mozart). The feedback we received was very positive and the work was successful. As singers, it is very important for us to learn the different learning process involved; for example, whereas usually, when doing more traditional music, we are expected to have everything memorised by the time we get to staging rehearsals, this time we were allowed a bit of leniency, and it was perfectly acceptable to learn along the way. I sang the role of Echo in Laurence Osborne and Ruth Mariner’s Narkissus and The Reflektions. It has been the first time I have ever played such a… strange… character…a necrophiliac in fact! My aria consisted of giving a dead guy (Narkissus) a lap dance while singing high coloratura…As a band, we spoke of how he has ruined our lives, we magically bring him back to life calling on the powerful Artemis to do so, only to watch him fall in love with himself and commit suicide…all very dark really. I think saying that the audience was shocked was an understatement…there were at least five seconds when no one clapped because they didn’t know how to feel…… For a while, I’m not sure I did either, until I just let go and kept reminding myself that that’s not me singing up there, it’s Echo!

 

This year I was offered my first professional role of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, and have been rehearsing for that alongside this new opera, together with the Act 4 Figaro Finale; it was certainly a good lesson in learning how to balance two completely different productions simultaneously, as a professional singer has to often deal with studying more than one ongoing role.

 

I was very fortunate to have been selected as the solo soprano to record with the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Paul Carroll, Lascia ch’io pianga on their new CD, “The Castle of Mey”.  The music on the CD is absolutely stunning and I am so honoured to have a place on it! Since then I have performed with them at Marlborough House and I look forward to singing new works composed by Maestro Carroll himself sometime in the near future (more about that later)!

 

The Malta Airport Foundation has launched video following my recent appointment as the Foundation’s Ambassador… it was very fun to film, and we were blessed with some beautiful Maltese weather! Most of you will already have seen the video, but if you haven’t yet watched it, check it out on this website, or on my soprano facebook page www.facebook.com/NicolaSaidSoprano! The Foundation also recently organised a Magazine Interview in Style Magazine, so we had a few photoshoots at the Airport!  


Thanks for reading! That’s it for now, but check back soon for updates!!