On (and off) stage at Glyndebourne’s 2010 Festival…
Week 15: Life in the Festival Circus
It’s finally the last week of a busy season, and the damp Spring rehearsals of Billy Budd now seem an age away. Whilst most are beginning to pack their suitcases, however, the Jerwood Project team start the week with a final rehearsal and a first night. The production details are never a complete surprise to Chorus colleagues who have been party to the rehearsal gossip for weeks, but those of us who troop into the open final rehearsal of Renard and Mavra are nonetheless impressed by an extraordinary recreation of a circus in the Jerwood studio. A big top; straw covered ring; mustachioed trapeze artiste – possibly the only thing missing is the faint pong of performing pachyderm. It is an all-singing, all-dancing Russian circus spectacular. The tricky Stravinsky score goes quite well too. All very impressive from all concerned, and another tribute to the talent the chorus has to offer.
While the Jerwood team are busy cramming in their short run, the rest of us have only the last few evening shows left. Don Giovanni finishes first – although it will be making quite a few comeback appearances in the autumn. For those of us just singing offstage, a few weeks off will be fairly welcome. It is not, perhaps, entirely controversial to admit that there is little satisfaction to be had in singing 12 bars of music in the stairwell leading from the stalls cloakroom. And, looking around, it is clear that colleagues have tried their best to minimise the impact that this show has had on an otherwise quiet evening. Admittedly, the all-black dress code was already achieved with less attention to detail than we have come to expect from the world-class Glyndebourne wardrobe department. Trousers are held up by safety pins, and we suffer the indignity of the name labels reading -‘DONG – Hopwood’. However, perhaps because they are taking this personally, some are not only stretching the interpretation of ‘all-black’, but stretching the costumes as well – fitting their wardrobe blacks over the top of t-shirt and jeans. Changing is achieved in the corridor between the stalls cloakroom and the dressing room. Indeed, by the last performance, our attention to detail has lapsed to the degree that one colleague’s small child is brought in and checked into the cloakroom for the few minutes that we are required to perform. There is a fully committed performance of one of the repertoire’s great operas going on somewhere in the building. As offstage chorus, we largely allow it to pass unnoticed. This is a show that is about getting out before the traffic starts.
The season ends, however, with The Rake’s Progress . This represents the polar opposite in terms of chorus involvement, and is a show that we shall all miss. Such a detailed production has not been without its difficulties. At the beginning of the week, I come on to the second half of the brothel scene to notice a large piece of glossy tape backing that has migrated onto stage – presumably stuck to somebody’s foot. Ever resourceful, I scoop it up unobtrusively, and then spend the first verse of Tom’s aria trying to figure out what to do with it. The only reasonable option seems to be to stick it down the back of my trousers. Such technical shows as these can often cause uncomfortable moments, but this proves to be a particularly awkward choice. Perhaps it will be a relief to get this show behind me, I muse.
The last Rake is a bitter sweet occasion. This will be the last Glyndebourne appearance for some colleagues, and they shall be greatly missed. But we all set about having a fantastic time, and relish every moment of a show that is a classic, and that has enabled us to provide a vintage chorus performance. Normally, last shows are an opportunity for a few gentle improvisational touches. This show naturally provides all the excitement and edginess that we could ever think of inventing ourselves. So we are able to wait for the crew’s last night party to let off steam. In the Jerwood studio, it is back to the Jerwood Project set. The circus backdrop is arranged. Still high from three hours of Stravinsky, it is up to us to provide the all-singing all-dancing spectacular. Nobody disappoints, and there is even a touch of the Russian about it.
Week 14: Fifteen-minute operas and injuries galore
One week to go, and the Monday morning corridors are virtually empty. The Rake cover cast need to prepare for the afternoon’s cover show, and the casts of Renard and Mavra – the Jerwood Project – are nearing the end of their marathon rehearsal period. End of season injuries are abundant. David Shaw, the fox in Renard , is looking most un-foxlike on crutches. Duncan Rock may have ‘rocked Glyndebourne’, but it appears to have temporarily crocked him, and even our ‘web-mistress’- Nina, is hobbling around on crutches. The Rake cover cast will, at least, be finished by the evening, as there is only the cover show to negotiate. Sadly for any of us looking for a simple run of edited highlights from the show, Bruno, our director, has decided that it is a good idea to try and tell the entire plot in 45 minutes. Stage management have a morning to construct an appropriate staging, complete with various lighting changes and tabs that come up and down with more regularity than the current stock market. We spend the morning desperately trying to commit numerous cuts to memory. An early Nick Shadow arioso is a casualty.“You recall an uncle sir?“Cut.“Well, he is dead”. We begin to speculate as to why any opera should take more than 15 minutes. La Boheme – “Che gelida manina” Cut. “e spirata!”. The end. La Traviata -“Libiamo” The end, and we all go to the pub. However, even given his propensity to wield the knife, Bruno actually manages to extend Sellem’s role, so that I have to learn the epilogue. Normally, Sellem is already half way up the M23 at this point. At least, as I frantically learn the notes, it manages to inject a certain last minute nervous energy into my preparations for the afternoon show. Which, even though it takes me a while to work out how I make my exit stage left, goes well, and I enjoy enormously.
The week ends with a recorded performance of the Rake . It is also being beamed live to audiences across the country, which provides a glorious opportunity for choristers to achieve notoriety in more traditional fashion. With a show as tightly directed as this one, there is little opportunity for serious improvisational flourishes, so we are left contemplating the possibilities of the licence left to us by the make-up department. Rarely can eyebrow pencils have been put to more impressive use. Surely David Hockney himself would have been proud of some of our creations. The last week looms, and, with the exception of the casts of Renard and Mavra – still waiting their first night – rarely can a group of colleagues have been so ready to embark upon some rest and recreation. By way of a prelude, we are treated to the wardrobe department’s ‘Narnia’ party. We thought our Rake make-up was creative. It takes a member of wardrobe dressed as – a wardrobe, to put us all to shame. Post-modern irony in a fancy dress costume. Now that’s impressive. If a little complicated for this stage in the season. Bring on the last night revelries…
Week 13: Auctioning off Paul’s sanity
The end of the festival is fast approaching, and the cleaners celebrate by deciding to start the week with a’deep clean’ of the gents’ chorus dressing room. We are told to clear our desks, which proves quite a challenge for some. Coffee machines, weeks’ worth of unfinished crosswords, Lego frogs (there was a reason – honestly), all need to make way for the cleaners’ great assault. Some of us question their timing. The make-up demands of The Rake’s Progress are coating every available surface in a lightly adhesive sheen of oily white base coat, whilst the nightly blizzard that engulfs most of Act two of Don Giovanni then ensures that small flakes of white plastic are stuck to it. There is little chance that the dressing room will stay clean for long. We admire their hard work though, especially at a time when, for most of the chorus, things have finally quietened down, and there are only show calls left in the weekly schedule. Indeed, for a couple of the girls, their attendance is limited merely to the offstage echo in Hänsel and Gretel . At four notes a show, those who have used their considerable time off to work out how each note translates to a percentage of their weekly wage, find themselves rewarded with some impressive figures. Meanwhile, finally blessed with a week’s schedule uncluttered by other rehearsal activity, the Rake’s Progress cover cast use every spare moment available to make sure that our version of the show is as close to the main cast’s as possible.
Normally, it is part of the fun of any cover rehearsal to try and recreate the props and set of the show using whatever is available to hand. I still, in fact, congratulate myself on managing to recreate the Falstaff ‘cat’ using a roll of sellotape, a marker pen and the morning’s copy of the Metro. However, with The Rake’s Progress , it would be a brave man who reckoned he could do anything to recreate the scenery and props of David Hockney RA. It might just be possible to get away with Baba the Turk’s coffee pot, but by the time you are wrestling with the difficulties of a stuffed auk and a machine that makes bread out of stone, you have probably moved out of the realm of elementary papier-mache. This unusual dilemma leaves the cover cast with the rare treat of being entrusted with some of the original props. I am able, in my role as stunt Sellem, to ascend the genuine auctioneer’s podium, read the lots from the genuine clipboard, and close the deal with the genuine gavel. Unfortunately, perhaps because they are at home congratulating themselves on their time off, we are not able to rehearse with our genuine chorus colleagues. Always a source for comedy in cover rehearsals, this is not a problem when Tom Rakewell is left talking to himself in the madhouse scene, but does leave the auctioneer with a few difficulties. With nobody to display the lots and nobody to buy them, every one of my utterances is given added poignancy.“Look at this! What is it?“Goodness only knows. It isn’t there. By verse three of the aria, I am left entirely befuddled as to whether I am selling a stuffed auk, a block of copal, or what remains of my sanity down the river.
Friday brings the cover run of the opera for management. We feel pretty ready. Pete, our cover Tom, is battling a cold, but still produces some beautiful noises. Natalia, our Anne Trulove, does a tremendous job of an aria widely considered to be one of the repertoire’s trickiest, and the remainder of the cast – all (apart from Natalia) past or present choristers – do themselves proud. Bruno, our director, has been working hard on discovering my ‘inner camp’.
Given that I started the season doing my very best to look butch duetting Verdi next to a six-and-a-half foot Italian stuntman, I have some ground to make up. Ever ready to please, as I enter for the auctioneer’s scene, I work myself up into a near frenzy of effete posturing and arm-waving, and, within seconds, knock the genuine Hockney prop gavel to the floor beneath the genuine Hockney prop podium. I cannot properly attest as to whether I maintain my ‘inner camp’ as I scrabble around trying to retrieve it, but certainly believe that there is an added frisson to my then selling the non- existent auk to the non-existent bidder. By the time Baba – an excellent Rosie Aldridge – finally makes her appearance, I am more than happy to make my next move – ducking to hide under the auctioneer’s desk. Sadly, as I do so, I manage to connect with the last remaining prop to which I’ve been entrusted. As I duck down, I catch sight of the Hockney clipboard spiralling gracefully through the air towards the Head of Music. Staying hidden, at this moment, seems much the best option.
Week 12: Going beyond the pale
August begins, and the all-white make-up required in act three of The Rake’s Progress is having to get thicker and thicker as our tans get deeper. It is not long before virtually every flat surface backstage is covered in white hand prints, and by the middle of the week, the corridor between the chorus dressing rooms and the stage looks as if it has been subject to a full forensic investigation by the Sussex constabulary’s fingerprint team. Getting the stuff off our skin requires a major cleansing operation. We are finding the make-up everywhere; often in crevices we didn’t even know we had. There always seems to be a slight residue left, so that we wonder if an eventual build-up of residual white ‘base’ will eventually leave us sufficiently monochrome that we might not to have to bother applying the stuff at all by the last few nights of the show. Already some colleagues are looking really quite spectral. For those in the male chorus who have to dress in all black for the off-stage chorus in Don Giovanni , we speculate that the problem might soon become quite acute. One solution to our increasing facial luminescence might be turning to the black ‘base’ that we also have in our make-up boxes, though apparently the Al Jolson look is not particularly well received in modern theatrical circles.
Another feature of the conflicting requirements of Rake rehearsals and Don Giovanni performances has been the dilemma of what to do with the acres of spare time between morning rehearsals ending at 1.30 and off-stage performance calls beginning at 9pm. This has been a particular problem for the London commuters, for whom an afternoon at home is not quite worth the four hour investment there and back. In one bored moment, Jonas – a tenor colleague – and I work out that it would be possible to make a quick trip across the Channel, invest in some duty free, email a photograph to company office of the pair of us holding up a daily copy of Le Monde , and still make it back in time to sign in. Perhaps sensibly, this plan remains at the aspirational phase, and instead I use the time on Tuesday to have a singing lesson. These are always tricky things to fit in to a summer schedule where we often only know the full extent of our weekly commitments the Friday before. However, I still view lessons not only as an essential part of my professional development, but also as an essential tool in remaining confident and relatively sane. This week, there is also the small issue of preparing for the annual chorus audition.
There are sensible precautions to take when it comes to these auditions. There are the obvious – avoid being hungover, don’t sing anything that they have heard an international superstar sing within the last two months and make sure at least one of the pieces is so well known to you that you could sing it whilst concentrating on what comfort food you will be enjoying half-an-hour later. The less obvious precautions include not choosing anything that 12 of your chorus colleagues are also singing, and never choosing anything in a difficult language that is the mother tongue of a member of the audition panel. So it is that, on Friday morning, after a long week culminating in the final dress rehearsal of Rake and a celebratory nightcap, I find myself singing a relatively unfamiliar Russian aria to a panel including Vladimir Jurowski.
There is a skill to audition singing. I’ve never been entirely convinced that it is the same skill required to perform well in opera, but it is a skill, nonetheless. This year, my first aria requires me to somehow transmit the complicated message that I am the Roman emperor Titus, whose marriage proposal has just been spurned, but who still sees the positive in having a subject who is prepared to speak the loyal truth to him, whilst commenting that if only all his subjects were so minded, his imperial duties would not be so onerous. This is quite an ask. The piece lasts three minutes, and I am performing in a large rehearsal room where the only thing interrupting the concrete expanse between me and the panel is the vast and gaudily multi-coloured Hänsel and Gretel supermarket set. The second piece – the Russian one – at least requires less complex emotions. I merely have to transmit a poet’s passionate expressions of love. In front of me are ranged three of the senior management team holding clipboards and looking sceptical. Vladimir manages a smile that perhaps partly confirms my suspicions that I may be sounding like a Russian poet with a speech impediment. Perhaps, I muse, auditions are a convincing test of true acting ability, after all. Later, whilst clutching onto the remains of my post-audition celebratory burger, I bump into David Pickard – General Dorector – as I wander out of the gents at East Croydon station. At least, if all else fails, I can rely upon my undoubted networking skills to make up for any weaknesses in audition technique.
The week ends with a flurry of activity for the company’s understudy casts. In Rake , both Lucas Jakobski and Peter Gijsbertsen (Dutch Pete to his friends and colleagues) have to sing in from the wings as Nick Shadow and Tom Rakewell respectively. On Saturday, the Hänsel and Gretel cover cast perform their showing. Sophie from stage management calls me quickly into the wings just before they start. There, resting quietly under a carefully sited’trip hazard’sign, is the Glyndebourne bat – Igor. The show itself is enormously entertaining and slick. Particularly notable is Stephen Rooke – the impressively magical witch. Oddly, I am told, nobody could remember seeing the bat and Stephen together at the same time.
Week 11: Raking the consequences
Tuesday, and after a day off, the sprint finish towards the first night of Rake begins. I have six entries in my schedule for the day – a wig fitting, a Rake production call, a coaching on the cover of Sellem, a wardrobe fitting, another Rake production call, and finally’8pm – The Fox and Hounds’. Keeping a sense of perspective is an important part of any busy week. The Rake’s Progress has moved onto the stage, and, for this week at least, it has taken over. The set may be relatively uncomplicated, but there are a surprising number of technical issues to resolve. Every scene change requires a flurry of backstage activity, and the production is sufficiently detailed and fast moving that a single thing out of place can have all sorts of unfortunate knock-on consequences. Making a quick exit through a cupboard door and finding a light in your way, for example, can lead not only to an ungainly collision but also a highly visible one.
The fun really begins, however, on Thursday. This is the day of the piano dress. At 10 o’clock, after a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich, we are properly introduced to our wigs, costumes and make-up for the first time. It is, in fact, a testament to the wardrobe and wig departments that we are able to fit tailored costumes that have already been adapted to fit choristers all across the world from Milan to Sydney. There are so many name-tapes on some of the clothes that they can be separated into different geological time-layers. The trademark Hockney ‘hatchings’ still look pretty fresh, though. So far, so good. Then, given the complications of wigs and costumes and the time constraints of our half-hour dressing slot, the make-up department take the controversial decision to leave us largely to our own devices. Whilst a working knowledge of stage make-up should, no doubt, be part of any working opera singer’s skills-set, for most of us in the boys’ chorus dressing room, it is not a skill that has received much of our attention. The result, at least in the boys’ dressing room, is certainly a fair reflection of our talents. The instruction to ‘apply stubble with pencil’ results in something resembling an outbreak of the pox. Whilst this is possibly authentic in the opera’s eighteenth century setting, it is a little distracting. Even more surprising is that some of us have managed to make the white ‘base’ look decidedly green. John Cox and certain members of the girls’ chorus look on with barely disguised disdain. We suspect that the make-up department might take a slightly more ‘hands-on’ approach next time. At least most of the cosmetic disasters are largely overshadowed by the astonishing costumes. It has been a little while since a chorus show has carried the sort of ‘wow-factor’ that has us all gasping at each other in the corridors. Perhaps, though, the ‘roaring boys’ of Act 1 are being less gasped at than the ‘whores’.
Sanity is, at least partly, restored by the annual charity song concert organised by Glyndebourne chorus stalwart Charles Kerry. Every year a few of us promise ourselves faithfully that we will learn his esoteric music choices by heart, and every year we nearly all fail. Top of the class goes to John Mackenzie, who manages to learn his. I am left singing one of my four choices out of a copy with such small print that I struggle to try and emote the words whilst tracing the text with a discreet finger. I do better with a Vaughan Williams song for tenor and oboe that has a familiar text. Anyway, I suspect that most attention is focused on the oboist. She is doing a fantastic job of a fiendish piece, but I wonder if the colour she is going is entirely healthy. Nonetheless, it is a rare and enjoyable opportunity to sing song repertoire that always falls to the bottom of the priorities list when a singer is constantly learning operas or preparing audition pieces. And Charles shows us all how to do it, as he accompanies himself singing a Mussorgsky song in Russian. At least it’s with a copy.
The calm of a song concert in aid of ‘The Sisters of Charity’ does not last long, however. The week ends with stage and orchestra rehearsals of The Rake’s Progress , and we are flung straight back into the more dubious surroundings of Stravinsky’s whorehouse. Nor, with a score like this, is there a lot of room for charity.
Week 10: Wagnerian octopuses
There are moments in the working week of any Glyndebourne chorister when it is important to stand back and smile wryly at the absurdity of the job. For one mezzo colleague, Monday morning begins with a world-renowned conductor giving her a short masterclass on how to squeal when a famous Wagnerian character tenor does his very best impression of an octopus inches from her face. The week is already showing promise. And when Wednesday brings the first of the week’s fittings for three wigs – one apparently made of string, one with a gravity-defying red pigtail, and one (this is actually for a moonlighting appearance in the ROH’s production of Don Pasquale ) that resembles an over-sized tip of asparagus, I am left in little doubt as to the eccentricity of my chosen career.
The week’s highlight, however, is anything but absurd, and reminds us all that the chorus is full of remarkable talent. On Tuesday, Mike Wallace gets the call that all cover principals both dread and hope for fervently. He is required to step in for an indisposed Gerald Finley. If you are going to go on, it doesn’t get much more exciting than going on as the title role in a sold-out new production on a night that is being filmed for a DVD. I think about asking Mike to write a ‘guest blogger’ slot explaining just what went through his mind as the overture began to draw to a close and he made his entrance dangling from Donna Anna’s window. When he tells me exactly what he was thinking, however, I suspect it may not be suitable for a family readership. At least I know Mike to be such a consummate professional that such monosyllabic expressions of fear would never read on his face. As it is a DVD night, we enjoy the advantage of having the full HD feed piped through to the dressing room television screens. After getting around the initial shock of seeing a clean-shaven Mike – his beard had to be sacrificed to the production – we are all a willing audience to his flawless and impressive performance. The only real give-away that he is an understudy from the chorus comes with the reception from his colleagues at the curtain call. Mrs Mike Wallace – aka soprano colleague Rachel Taylor – looks particularly relieved. Sadly, however, we all suspect that the eventual DVD release is most likely to feature Gerald Finley in the title role, as he is back three days later for the second day of filming. Mike is demoted back to the stalls cloakroom to join the rest of us as ‘voices from Hell’. His appearance as Don Giovanni may make it onto his CV. I suspect that his nightly infernal performance with his colleagues will not.
The week’s end brings the last performance of Macbeth . It is time for the return of the absurd. As the long interval finishes, and Act Three begins, a motley crowd of us wait to make our balletic entrance into the dance of the witches wearing a variety of skin tight costumes that would look camp in a Hammer House horror film. By the prompt desk the senior chorister stands by, arms folded, making sure that we are all behaving ourselves. It would, no doubt, be possible to see the no-nonsense expression on his face, were he not wearing a large rubber werewolf mask. Perhaps it is the resulting restricted vision that means he can not see just how unfeasibly physically endowed some of the lycra-clad male choristers appear to have become. Mostly, however, the show passes without incident. And we will be sad to see it go. To be paid to lie down at the beginning of Act Four and listen to Jonghoon Lee’s rendition of Macduff’s aria is no great hardship. And I have got quite used to wearing a kilt. All that fresh air around the legs is highly welcome during a hot summer.
Sunday is a rare, and welcome, day off. I use the opportunity to see my son William in Birmingham. Others use the opportunity to schedule in a hangover. Fortunately for them, on Saturday night the Pug and Whistle is more than happy to oblige, and the Glyndebourne gardens apparently lose none of their recreational appeal even once the sun has set.
Week 9: From Whorehouse to Madhouse
Rake’s Progress rehearsals are now in full swing. Monday morning fails to start gently, though at least we begin with the street scene, rather than with the more energetic business of the whorehouse. I am required to make the first chorus entrance in the street scene. It is an enormous 10 second cameo, consisting of an entrance from the ‘tradesman’s entrance’(rarely has such an obvious vein of comedy been so clearly available for my colleagues to mine), and an exit stage right. I have never received so many notes in a chorus rehearsal session. John Cox is a man who knows what he wants. Our next entrance is with a variety of objects destined for Tom Rakewell’s house. The first object is a ‘dodecahedron’ carried by Mike Wallace. The second is a covered parrot’s cage carried by Pete Ferris. He christens it the ‘polygon’. The comedy is coming thick and fast, and it is not even the first tea break of the week. Many of us suspect that the we will hear Pete’s gag again before the week is out. Meanwhile we continue the scene, meeting Elena Manistina – Baba the Turk – for the first time in the rehearsal process. With our first choral entry -‘Baba the Turk is here’, we can at last console ourselves with the fact that her visa problems have been resolved, and she is, actually, here. The scene was already shaping up to be quite eccentric enough.
The week also brings my first coaching on the Sellem cover. Jonathan Hinden coaches me with the sort of knowledge and inspired patience that is only available to a man who first professionally worked on this piece 30 years ago. I have been looking forward to this cover, not least because the man I am covering – Graham Clark – is something of a role model. He started life as a teacher, and didn’t even start singing until his mid-30. Consequently, our CVs only diverge at the point where he went on to have a stellar international career. I feel sure that this discrepancy will soon be resolved. The coaching itself is a glorious piece of time management. Nobody could seriously consider having to listen to Sellem for a solid hour, so Jonty wisely decides to spend some of the time on anecdote, before launching us both, once again, into learning the fiendish rhythmical man-traps of the bidding scene. Not for the first time, I consider how much easier this scene would be if a chorister simply stepped to the front, produced a gold American Express and brought the whole business to an early conclusion.
Così has reached its conclusion. There is much flag-waving from the choristers involved. And nearing its conclusion, is the run of Macbeth . This is a show I shall miss greatly. Even the backstage calls are a rich source of entertainment. In each show, stage management dub different sections of the staging by different short-hand titles, and in a complicated show such as Macbeth , they are an essential part of the system of backstage tannoy calls. Richard Jones’ shows always sport the best terminology. My favourite in this show is the call for’Castle Mayhem’. The one part of the show I will not miss, is the section known as’Procession of the Kings’. Six of us are required to don a kilt, red t-shirt, crown and hockey mask, and simply walk across the stage in time to the music. Rarely have I been so apprehensive about a piece of stage business. Throughout rehearsals, we were to be found toppling across the stage, undone by tempo changes, or tripped by the tartan carpet underfoot. Sometimes, the easiset things can be the most treacherous. Who would believe, for example, that there was even more fun to be had with the shed doors – this time as a result of an energetic Macbeth pulling open a door rather too efficiently? Our chorus colleague – the ill-fated tenor whose job it is to kick the door down – is again faced with a door already off its hinges. His tactic this time is to gently remove the door, and spend a while carefully perching it against the neighbouring wall, thus erecting a fairly neat ad-hoc lean-to, should anybody need temporary respite from the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Once again, we are so mesmerised by this extraordinary display of improvised home-improvement, that it takes real concentration to remember that we are soldiers of Malcolm’s army hell-bent on revenge. Not all of us muster the concentration required.
The week ends as it has begun, with The Rake’s Progress . And he has got to the madhouse. Sadly, in such a well-established staging as this, there is no room for improvisation. Some of us feel we would have quite a lot of useful material.
Week 8: Settling into Stravinsky
Monday brings a welcome day off for the entire chorus. I celebrate by visiting my son William in Birmingham, where he is spending a little time at the NHS’s pleasure. His refreshing five-year-old take on the world provides a welcome dose of alternative reality after a busy stretch of work, though the time spent on the M40 leaves me less than refreshed for the week ahead. Fortunately, Aoife comes with me to provide some company. Unfortunately, she is learning some awkward Stravinsky, and uses the opportunity to practise it as we trundle through Oxfordshire. I had better get used to it. Stravinsky is going to be a significant feature of the festival from now on. Stage rehearsals for The Rake’s Progress start this week, those involved in the Jerwood Project are starting on the one-act operas Renard and Mavra , and I need to get going on properly learning the cover of Sellem. This will take some studied concentration. None of the usual techniques for learning smaller roles can be applied to Stravinsky’s awkward rhythmical structures. Listening to the CD will not be enough. It is not a role that can easily be learned by singing it in the shower (a useful technique for some, if the nightly yodelling in the boys’ chorus dressing-room showers is to be taken seriously). And, unlike Aoife, I can’t learn it on the M40, as I fear it may compromise my driving. My first task on Tuesday morning is to arrange for a bit of coaching.
The working week begins with Stravinsky, as we are finally introduced to the David Hockney design of Rake’s Progress . After the monumental structure of Billy Budd , a diminutive set from the old house might be expected to be somewhat underwhelming. But this is a set that is so renowned to seasoned opera goers that it has almost gathered the status of a global brand. And it is an odd sensation to be rehearsing on a set that has amassed more air miles than Air Force One. Everywhere are labels giving instructions to stage crews from opera houses around the world. Clearly, different sections have been ‘touched up’ over the years, so that we wonder if any of the original set actually remains. And surely, somewhere, is the odd giveaway ‘DH’ monogram that might raise the status of a piece of canvas from mere stage flat to masterpiece. Our task, as ‘roaring boys’ and ‘whores’, is to live up to this iconic piece of staging. Happily, John Cox is a director who knows exactly what he wants, and we have enough time in the schedule for the rest of us to catch up with him. It is, in fact, an enormous pleasure to be working with such a benevolent director on a show that is so detailed and choreographed. Working on the bright primary-coloured set provides a welcome blast of daylight for those of us whose other job throughout August will be hiding in the shadows of the Don Giovanni finale.
While we learn to adapt to John Cox’s working methods, it is his job to examine ours. It must be strange for a visiting director to be one of the few people in a rehearsal studio who is not, at least yet, aware of the intricate and occasionally fragile internal dynamics of the chorus. John Cox seems to catch on with a well-practised eye. For some of our more recent colleagues it is a new and discomforting experience to be scrutinised in early rehearsals by a director who is looking for the right person to perform a specific piece of stage ‘business’. Some, more world-weary colleagues recognise this technique early on, and attempt at all costs to avoid eye-contact in the realistic expectation of being asked to do something that will undoubtedly be difficult or uncomfortable. Perhaps, then, it is not entirely controversial to find, early in the first rehearsal, that one of our Jerwood Young Artists has been selected to be victim of a mock crucifixion in the whore house scene. Later in the week, I am picked as Tom Rakewell’s self-important chief lackey. Perhaps, I muse, John Cox’s eye isn’t so perceptive after all.
The Stravinsky marathon has begun. Don Giovanni and Macbeth continue. Our Friday night call-time for the off-stage singing in Don Giovanni is at 8.30pm, some seven hours after the end of the morning’s Rake’s Progress rehearsal. I should probably be spending the time learning Sellem. Instead, I invest in some fishing tackle, and head for the coast. Our days off have been fairly infrequent, and it is quite possible to overdose on Stravinsky. Especially when I realise that I have left my Rake’s Progress CD in the car stereo.
Week 7: A clean break
The week begins with an ending. It is the last Billy Budd show. We have been working on this opera since the end of March, and we will be sad to see the HMS Indomitable set sail for the last time. In three months we feel that we have become quite expert at swabbing the decks. In fact, at the beginning of every show, I had relied on a paint stain (helpfully resembling a small seagull deposit) on the set floor to provide me with my target area, and I now notice that it has been entirely rubbed away by my incessant swabbing. I feel my work is done. As if to encourage an all-round sense of closure, the England team chose this same day to end their World Cup campaign. I am informed of this by a passing baritone, who climbs the rigging just in front of me moments before we all sing ‘Starry Vere’. I am impressed at his intelligence gathering during this busy show. We had tried to see if we could get the match shown on one of the ‘conductor-cam’ monitors, but for some reason this wasn’t given official approval. Perhaps, in retrospect, this was a good thing for the morale of all on stage. My son later tells me that England would have won if he had been playing. I admire his confidence, but as he is five, blessed with his father’s hand-eye co-ordination and plays wheelchair football at school, I suspect he might be overstating the issue. At least, I muse during the long interval, I still have my team in the chorus sweep stake. By the end of the show, Mexico have lost too. At times like this, the company pub – the Pug and Whistle – is an important feature of the job. And, strangely enough, at the end of the run of an entirely male opera, it is a busy night at the bar.
The week also marks the end of our Macbeth cover rehearsals. At the end of a 10-day stretch, and after an energetic three-hour rehearsal with Vladimir on the chorus music in Rake , we take to the main stage for our 45 minute cover show. My first contribution is in the Act One finale. After taking it easy, my fellow covers, most of whom have successful soloist careers in this sort of repertoire (and who haven’t been singing Stravinsky for three hours), suddenly show just what they are truly capable of. I am trapped in a small and alarmingly resonant wooden cabin with some of them. My second appearance is to trot onto the stage and sing the Italian phrase meaning roughly,‘Where am I?‘I imbue the sentence with a sort of dazed realism. Later in the evening, I am back in the chorus for the same opera. My main task is to ensure that I don’t sing Malcolm’s part by mistake. I am grateful once again that, in early staging rehearsals for Macbeth , my seasoned chorister’s instincts were to head for the back of the stage and near to the exits during the large finales. They don’t teach you that sort of key skill in music college. Sometimes, experience is all.
As Budd and Macbeth covers are ending, Don Giovanni starts. For the dress rehearsal, most of the off-stage chorus manage to see the bulk of the show from the auditorium, which, given the show’s extraordinary pyrotechnics, seems the safest place to be. A card from the movement director is pinned next to the Boys’Chorus dressing-room door. It congratulates the chorus on their colourful contribution. Those of us just involved in the off-stage singing assume that this is not aimed at us. We are required to dress entirely in black, and make our static contribution from a darkened stairwell. Sometimes, a colourful contribution is exactly what isn’t required. This has been the year for incongruous notes on dressing-room doors. An earlier message had been left on the girls’ door congratulating them on their contribution to the DVD filming of the all-male Billy Budd . Almost as much attention, in fact, as an audience member who had sat on the bus in front of me on the Billy Budd first night, and asked an adjacent, rather glamorous, female audience member if she had been in the cast. I had admired his tenacity, and tried to take into account the fact that we had all been told to grow our hair for that show. No such considerations of personal appearance will be needed for our contribution to Giovanni . On Sunday’s eagerly-anticipated first night, we turn up, dress in black, hide in the shadows, sing 12 bars in unison, then leave. Even our black clothes are provided by the ever-impressive wardrobe department. I am re-united with the blacks that I wore for the off-stage singing on Tristan und Isolde . I had worried that my cake-eating habit was getting a little out of control this year, but gratifyingly, they are still held up by the same judiciously placed 2009-vintage safety pin, and no further alteration is required. All that deck swabbing has clearly paid off.
Week 6: Cover star
A busy week. The boys in Billy Budd, Così and _Giovanni have given up on any chance of a day off for the foreseeable future, and are encamping in the dressing room. Assorted spare clothes, toiletry bags and coffee machines are beginning to appear on people’s desks. There are no kitchen sinks in evidence just yet, but some of us are a little taken aback when one epicurean colleague uses his bay to hang a piece of pancetta.
This is also the week when we start (and finish) working in earnest on the Macbeth covers. Even now that we are able to assemble the complete cast, there are, however, strange anomalies when it comes to running large sections of a chorus opera with no sign of a chorus. Duncan’s triumphal arrival is rather understated. Macbeth’s motivation is always going to be slightly cloudy when he is unable to see any witches. And we wisely choose to cut the Act Three ballet. Even so, it is in the nature of these rehearsals that we have to reflect the real production as much as possible, so those of us who are choristers find ourselves filling in what gaps we can. So it is that, if anybody had chosen to visit the Ebert Room on Monday morning, they would have seen me dancing a waltz with an invisible partner, whilst commenting, in song, upon somebody else’s apparent madness. I also have to play the part of supportive chorister to Riccardo Massi, catching him when he falls, and then embracing him as he sings his big, grief-stricken aria. For once, I am extremely glad that he marks in every rehearsal. Full hearing is an important part of an opera singer’s skill-set. Having done this, I quickly sprint stage right, and reappear as Malcolm. I feel sure my versatility will be noticed. Grief-stricken refugee to tub-thumping nemesis in 30 seconds. And I’m not even tempted to drop Riccardo. I am his cover, after all, and there are those who would. He’s a lovely fellow, though.
Elsewhere, Don Giovanni rehearsals are reaching their culmination. The ‘Act Two off-stage chorus’ finally appear on the schedule, and the task of finding the best definition of ‘off-stage’ begins. Those of us who have been around for a while are no strangers to this dilemma. It seems that a designated performance area ‘off-stage’ is about the only thing that the Glyndebourne architects didn’t think of. Perhaps understandably. In Tristan rehearsals, we ranged as far as the air-conditioning room and the upstairs lighting gantry. In Don Giovanni , however, we are the voices from Hell, so either of these options would seem to present philosophical dilemmas. Our first attempt at finding somewhere more subterranean is in the prompt side wing. The correctly infernal temperature is provided by asking us to stand next to the fierce cross-lighting. There is an immediate flurry of shadow puppetry. Voices from Hell can hardly be expected to avoid temptation. We can’t be heard. And we are moved to the steps leading from the stalls cloakroom. This proves to be our final position. Don Giovanni is going to be a spectacular and enormously technical show. Sadly for most of the male chorus, our part will be restricted to singing 12 bars of unison music, whilst crammed into a dark stairwell. Not every show is about the chorus.
The Rake’s Progress , however, is likely to feature us quite significantly. Music rehearsals for this opera have been happening sporadically for over a month, and we now feel that we are on the home straight. Even the fiendishly difficult auction scene is starting to come together. The last remaining hurdle is the bidding section. No amount of Jeremy’s cunning rehearsal techniques can disguise just how difficult it is to remember a long series of unconnected numbers shouted out on awkward off-beats. I’ve often struggled to remember my own car’s registration plate. Thankfully, we are assured that next week we will meet John Cox, and we will be allocated individual (and therefore considerably fewer) numbers to remember. Lobbying begins immediately for Aoife O’Sullivan to be given the bid ‘thirty-three’. The world of opera is a cosmopolitan one, but there is still room for enjoying the diversity of the chorus’s accents.
My week finishes when the Macbeth covers perform a run for management. I think it goes all right. It is difficult to tell. With my left ear inches away from his glorious full-throated spin to tenor, Riccardo sings out in his aria for the first time, and I have to tune the subsequent duet to my tinnitus. My tenor colleague Peter Ferris has this job with Yonghoon in the main cast. I now understand the slightly haunted look that he has been sporting recently. The 12 bars of Mozart we have planned for the next morning start to seem very appealing.
Week 5: Putting the ‘fun’ in malfunction
The Festival is now in full swing, as Billy Budd , Cosi and now Macbeth are fully underway. Jeremy Bines, our chorus master, reminds us that we should not rest on our laurels, and that our success in the complicated Macbeth production rests on the ability to rely on our ‘profiterole vision’. His Freudian error reveals a similar set of priorities to my own. It is the stage in the season when it is important to keep everyone’s sugar levels as high as possible. Perhaps with this in mind, and in a characteristically generous gesture, Jeremy rewards us all with a haggis to celebrate Macbeth’s opening night. The half hour dressing time is then spent explaining to some of our continental colleagues just what a culinary delight they have in store. We should, at least, all be fortified for the week to come.
The first night of Macbeth is on the 13th of the month, but happily the mood of the gods of theatre seems playful rather than vindictive. So it is that we have to deal with just a relatively few technical mishaps. A couple of magnetic axes lose their polarity. The motorised ghostly box that Macbeth imagines to contain Banquo’s head loses its way. And a door in the cellar where the chorus men perform the assassins’ scene loses its ability to open. Fortunately, we are able to take a shortcut around the front of the stage, although this does require us to trample through the imaginary fourth wall. The rest of the scene hinges on the door being able to open, but two of our most strongly determined colleagues steel themselves to exercise some brute force, and the situation is saved. The set will require some repair though. The rest of the show goes well, and without mishap. It is intriguing to imagine what this show must look like from the auditorium. We hope it looks fairly serene. Behind the curtain, it is keeping us all fit. With all the running around that is required, there is little risk of any haggis consumption spoiling the lines of our neatly fitted lycra skeleton costumes.
Elsewhere, cover rehearsals are underway, and the cover casts of Cosi and Billy Budd get their chance to perform extracts on stage. All perform well, and it is a first chance for many of us to see how Billy Budd looks from the stalls. It’s quite impressive. It’s also a real chance for virtually every baritone in the chorus to have a chance at a cover, if they’re not performing a small role already. Those who have just arrived from college must think that the business of starting an operatic career is fairly straightforward. And the girls must be fairly disappointed that there are no apparent plans to stage Suor Angelica in the near future. Meanwhile, I am getting my chance covering Malcolm in Macbeth . Usefully, all of Malcolm’s scenes are shared with Macduff, who is covered by Ricardo Massi – Malcolm in the main cast. He is able to tell me exactly what he does, and looks on at my efforts with a kindly and paternal air. In the Act Four duet, I am required to appear and spur him into vengeance by questioning his manly patriotism. This will require some suspension of disbelief. Riccardo is at least six inches taller than me, and I suspect gets the most out of his gym membership. He is also intent on lulling me into a false sense of security by never singing out in rehearsals. I decide to enjoy this while I can. When it comes to our cover show, I suspect I will have a job on my hands. A few weeks ago, he stepped in at Covent Garden to sing Radames in Aida .
The week finishes with Budd , then the second performance of Macbeth . After the week’s earlier technical difficulties, when the Budd performance is prefaced by an announcement that Jacques Imbralio has suffered a neck injury that may impair some of his movement, we are just glad that this cannot be put down to an onstage mishap. The hanging scene has, mercifully, always gone according to plan. The Macbeth show also goes without a hitch. Until the final scene. As we arrive onstage, we are usually faced with a closed door to Macbeth’s hut, and the dilemma of how to take on the ‘Hellhound’ himself. Unfortunately, the door seems to have disappeared, and we act the scene looking straight at Andrej Dobber performing his very best ‘I’m not really here’ acting. A colleague whose job it then is to kick the door down, runs over to the open door frame and, in a moment of inspired improvisation, simply offers an insouciant thumb over his shoulder -‘I think he might be in the bathroom lads’. Most of the mens’ chorus are rendered insensible for the remainder of the show. In the world of opera, it seems, when one door closes, another invariably opens.
Week 4: The joys of World Cup cuisine and ‘Macdeath’
The World Cup is underway, and the corridor outside the boys’ dressing room echoes to the perpetual sound of vuvuzelas. A boys’ chorus sweepstake has been arranged, with a’surprise celebrity draw’. Sir Mark Elder, no less, has been persuaded to perform the role, despite a self-confessed indifference to the beautiful game. He soon warms to the task, and is appropriately alert to the significance of those chorus members who are allocated Spain and Brazil, and those getting Honduras and North Korea. Before long, he is drawing countries out of the hat with a panache that should surely get him a guest slot on the Saturday night National Lottery programme. Equally enthusiastically, and in the spirit of the internationalism that the World Cup has generated, the Courtyard Café is providing dishes appropriate to the day’s key matches. The tournament kicks off with a South African curry. Mexico proves a fairly straightforward proposition to the chef. We’re looking forward to France, and a foray into haute cuisine. However, some of us await with interest what he has in store for North Korea.
This week is notable for the DVD filming of Billy Budd . Those of us who have already endured the scrutiny of an HD filming hope fervently that we will be relegated to the background. Others seem more intent to occupy new, as yet uncolonised areas of the stage – usually, it seems, near the middle. Under the extra lighting, and given the June temperatures, it is at least fortunate that Captain Vere’s final aria refers to the ‘far away summer of 1797’, as it would be difficult to otherwise explain just how much perspiration is in evidence on the footage. Fortunately for some of us, we are given some welcome refreshment offstage, as we are just warming up for a semi-chorus rendition of’blow her away’, when a sudden escape of carbon dioxide from a nearby dry ice canister threatens to do just that. We console ourselves by imagining that on DVD it may sound like a passing whale choosing that moment to surface and vent its blowhole. Certainly there would be no other evidence that anything had gone wrong. All faces on stage remain, of course, remarkably composed. Sometimes being in an offstage chorus can be quite an advantage.
Macbeth has made it to the final dress rehearsal, and it goes very well indeed. I have been trying to explain the plot of Macbeth to my five-year-old son with little success. He has settled on calling it ‘Macdeath’, and seems to be at a loss as to why Malcolm and Macduff wouldn’t let Macdeath off at the end with just a stern talking to. I decide that it is the complicated moral dilemmas of the story that have confused him, rather than worrying just yet about my own paternal guidance. Any tragic hero needs some admirable qualities, I suppose, and our Macbeth is very admirable indeed. The entire cast are, in fact, glorious. When even the chap singing Malcolm has sung a major Verdi role at Covent Garden, you know you are looking at a luxury cast. And we think that we have raised our game too. However, the dress rehearsal’s prize for most significant small contribution goes to the audience member who hiccoughed in the rest just before the moving Scottish Refugees’ chorus. I have never seen a conductor ‘corpse’ before. It has been a week for ‘noises off’. Though those vuvuzelas are getting quite annoying.
Week 3: Over-sized Tetris and Tartan Jumble Sales
Week three, and I install a dinner jacket in my rapidly cluttering dressing-room desk. Picnic season is underway, and the force field between the Courtyard Cafe and the gardens can only be breached by donning a black tie. I enjoy two fantastic picnics at the beginning of the week, first with my friend Alice and her family, then with the Wessex Glyndebourne Association – followers of the blog and keen supporters of young talent. As I, at least, obviously consider myself as falling into the latter category, I accept their hospitality with pleasure. Even so, the subjects of the blog and Aoife – 2009 winner of their award for a young singer – do seem to come up a lot in the conversation.
I have to leave both picnics early, as we are called for the ‘half’, and pass back through the door that separates the garden from the Courtyard Cafe. There is always something a little disorienting about leaving a black-tie picnic for the earthiness of the boys’ dressing room. The two worlds could not be further apart. However, even if you are stuck backstage for the entire interval, it is always possible to tell that the audience have been enjoying their long picnics, as the quality of the audience reception is always more excitable after the 90-minute break. As we gather at the beginning of the second half of Billy Budd , we ‘pre-set’ on the decks of the Indomitable, waiting for the audience to arrive and the mist to gather. This week, the wait is particularly long, and the subsequent applause for the LPO is particularly effusive, so it’s possible to draw our own conclusions. If our start had been any more delayed, the next lines sung by ‘main deck’ – “board ‘em in the mist”, might become something of a motto. In fact, we are glad of an enthusiastic reception, and at least the mist gathers according to plan. This hasn’t always been the case. Despite Michael Grandage’s early assertions in rehearsal that the perfect mist effect had been established by the design team, it might be fair to say that there has needed to be a little fine-tuning. On one stage rehearsal, the fog machine was so loud in the wings that it prompted John-Mark Ainsley (Captain Vere) to ask if somebody was busy taking a shower. By now, however, a large piece of ducting resembling the vast trunk of a robotic elephant delivers just the right amount of mist to look effective, whilst still allowing us to see Mark Elder for the numerous tricky entries in the battle scene. Billy Budd seems to be going fairly smoothly.
This is also the week of stage rehearsals for Macbeth . And in an apparent challenge to the superstitions surrounding this work (can it be true that the first night is on the 13th?), the production requires the sort of split-second scene and costume changes that would terrify any risk assessor. The piano dress is the first indication for many of just what we are up against. Not only is scenery moving around backstage like a game of over-sized Tetris, but the number of costume changes involves so much tartan that backstage soon begins to resemble a rummage sale at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill. Other costume highlights include topless tenors – how difficult it is to sing well when constantly trying to breathe in – and skeleton costumes that perversely seem to be anything other than slimming. If this wasn’t enough humiliation for one day, I soon discover that I lack any adequate understanding of how to operate a kilt. Either girls are considerably more adept than we boys at hiding their underwear whilst wearing skirts, or I have always been more of a gentleman than I realised when it came to looking the other way. I convince myself that the former is true, and, as next week’s final dress rehearsal looms, decide that it’s worth finding a little more room in my dressing-room desk. Some sensible pants are going to prove essential.
Week 2: The pros and cons of on-stage headgear
It’s only the second week, and it already seems as if the festival has hit cruising speed. The final dress rehearsals go well, although Così has been hit hard by a start-of-term virus that seems to have struck all of the opera’s principals at one time or another. Barbara Senator suffers the most unfortunate timing with her immune system, and has to mime the Così dress whilst Susie Boyd sings Dorabella from the wings – a system that works remarkably well, once you overcome the initial aural disorientation. Susie does a fantastic job, but is only when she says hello to me in the Courtyard Cafe that I remember we worked together in the summer of 2004. I’d failed to recognise her because the glamorous world of opera has transformed her into a blonde. In the eternal search for recognition, I might consider trying the same trick, except that I’m not sure I have enough hair left to play with. A fact that seems to have passed the wig department by. After a fitting early in the rehearsal period, I am told not to cut my hair for the duration of Billy Budd . I try to take this instruction in a spirit of flattery rather than one of irony. Now that I know that I spend the entire Budd production wearing different hats, I am none the wiser as to the purpose of the wig department’s request.
Perhaps they know that most singers will always do their absolute level best to take a hat off during a performance. And they have a point. Only anybody who has tried singing opera in a felt hat can properly appreciate how difficult it is. The aural sensation is roughly akin to serenading a duvet at close range. A glance around the Billy Budd set as we ready ourselves for Act Two proves the point. Seniority is all when it comes to the art of making sartorial compromises without incurring naval-style discipline from Running Wardrobe. John Mark Ainsley can rarely be seen without his hat in his hand. Elsewhere, the enormous felt hats of the chorus quarter-deck officers are adjusted in a variety of ways to try and minimise the acoustic damage they might cause. I settle for perching mine over my left ear so that I have at least some chance of hearing what is going on through my right. However, all chances of this are lost when I am joined by an onstage drummer from the LPO. There are the times when a conscientious chorus singer has to temporarily sacrifice all artistry and vocal health for the greater cause of collective volume and the visual effect of some large headgear.
At least the costumes for Billy Budd have stopped smelling of burning hair. In virtually every production I have known at Glyndebourne where I have been fitted for a stunningly made piece of period costume, it has then been somebody’s job to make it look as dirty and scruffy as possible. This is the process of ‘breaking down’. And it was the singed smell and suspicious warmth of the officers’ costumes on the day of the Budd piano dress that alerted us to the fact that they had been attacked by a member of wardrobe staff with a blowtorch. I quietly wonder if this is the sort of job that brings heartbreak or a sort of twisted joy to members of a wardrobe department that work so hard at their jobs.
There must certainly have been something a little unusual going on in the wardrobe department when it came to designing our costumes for Macbeth . Preperations for this opera are now well underway, and we have all been fitted for the zombie, werewolf and skeleton costumes that I recognise from my colleagues’ Facebook pages from 2006. There seems to be an enormous amount to prepare in not an enormous amount of time. Barely a moment goes past in a Macbeth rehearsal without a colleague speculatively asking me if I know what I am doing because I have done it before. I haven’t, and, sadly, I am not in the minority. Concentration is at a premium, and those attempting to rely upon their inner werewolves might be slightly missing the point. The production is vintage Richard Jones. It will be spectacular, and, I am sure, enormously enjoyable. Once we’ve all figured out which finger to twiddle when, and how not to trip over the set with a plastic skeleton mask on. Perhaps, given the fact that the rest of the skeleton costume consists of a tightly-fitting lycra body suit, this will be one occasion when we will all be glad of some disguising headgear.
Week 1: Rehearsals
The puddings in the Nether Wallop restaurant are getting more ambitious. The unsightly rabbit (and football)-proof fences are being removed from the gardens. The sun has finally decided to make an appearance. There is a palpable sense of excitement in the corridors. The 2010 Festival is clearly about to start.
Only three and a half months have elapsed between the end of the tour and the beginning of our festival rehearsals, but, as ever, it feels as if a lot has changed. The most obvious novelty is the testosterone-rich environment that is Billy Budd ; though having spent some of the off-season teaching in an all-boys school, when the Budd chorus first convene, I feel that there is not an enormous adjustment to be made. Budd is not an opera for those with a well developed feminine side. It is, apparently, opera as a competitive sport for baritones. And when we first see the set and are encouraged to ‘explore the rigging’, it is not long before colleagues are impressing each other with displays of physical prowess. Doubtless the Lewes gym membership list will soon be on the rise. It looks, too, as if I may be on my own in the queue for cakes this year, or at least until the girls arrive, which they finally do, three weeks later, to a huge sigh of relief from those of us who are beginning to to seriously miss the balancing effect of a few more X chromosomes.
The weeks between March and the Festival are spent with the usual gathering sense of urgency. Rehearsals on Budd begin with the understanding that we all have characters to research, explore and develop, and end with the understanding that our key tasks are to sing the right notes in the right places and not stand in front of the lights. However, all of the mens’ chorus can certainly agree that, by the end of staging rehearsals, we are all experts in scrubbing the decks. Some of us, at least, enjoy quick promotions for Act two, and find ourselves in officers’ uniforms. Deck hand to officer in an hour. Impressive. Several of our colleagues have even more significant promotions, in the form of small step-out roles. Every one of them is delivered with admirable skill and confidence. We’ll all be back in the ranks again soon though. It’s Macbeth next, and promotion ends badly in that opera.
Now that we are in the last week before performances start, and the sales of picnic hampers enjoy their annual seasonal surge, the girls are busy too, as we are in music rehearsals for Rake’s Progress , production rehearsals for Macbeth , and Cosi will open on the second night of the Festival. But it is difficult to escape the all-pervading influence of the HMS Indomitable. It sails in for the final dress rehearsal on Tuesday, and everything seems to go smoothly, even though we are still doing last-minute music rehearsals of the mutiny scene while the principals are singing the middle of Act Two. Only in the world of opera can the smooth running of an operation be partly down to the regular repetition of a mutiny. Sadly for the girls, their first outing on the Glyndebourne stage this year will be flying the flag for the notoriously unreconstructed sexual politics of Cosi fan Tutte . At least they will get their revenge when they lead Macbeth to his downfall in the witches’ chorus. But in the meantime, it is all about the boys, and Billy Budd in particular. And the first night company party is after Billy Budd . A ceilidh, planned for a night when there are hardly any women in the building. Some of us wonder if this character preparation for being stuck at sea may have gone just that little bit too far.