Week 9: The show must go on
The last week of the tour arrives, and the promised cold snap is in full swing. Heavy snow is falling – even in SW17. Met Office and Police advice is to avoid all but essential travel. Record low temperatures are being recorded across the country. We are staying in a small cottage outside Stoke in the Peak District. And the heating in my car is still on the blink. What could possibly go wrong? Knowing the importance of my contribution to the fifteen bars of offstage singing in Don Giovanni , I realise the Tuesday trip is essential, and make extra provisions. As well as the standard four pairs of socks, pants and t-shirts, I include a waterproof, a pair of boots and – remembering back to my cub scout training – come prepared with two tins of baked beans with sausages and a couple of Fray Bentos pies. With all this in the boot, I head up the M6 with complete confidence. And into a blizzard.
Don Giovanni goes as smoothly as ever. But while the chorus sing about dragging our protagonist into the fiery depths, the outside temperatures are plummeting and deep snow has settled on the roads. The drive back to our cottage feels like a Scandinavian rally stage. When we finally arrive – relieved – at our little cottage nestled in its Pennine vale, we sensibly decide to park at the top of the icy hill next door. Gravity should get us into work tomorrow. At least we have an open fire waiting for us. If anybody was prepared enough to pack matches…
For the rest of the week, each morning brings a nervous look through the window. Will we be able to make it to work, or is it time to stick a Fray Bentos pie in the oven? Wednesday starts early with the first of two planned education workshops. In fact, as several schools are closed due to the bad weather, it proves to be the last workshop of the tour. Only one school takes part, and the team of adults from the school, theatre and Glyndebourne Education department almost outnumbers the students. Fortunately, not only are the students fantastically imaginative and responsive, but we adults are also able to touch base with our inner children. The morning has been spent on a Pennine hillside, sledging on bin bags.
As the week continues and the road conditions worsen, our audiences diminish. Poppea opens with a short dialogue between Virtue and Fortune arguing over who is sitting in the other’s seat. In Thursday’s performance, I doubt that I am the only one wondering if the veracity of this exchange is at all affected by the hundreds of empty seats that either of them could choose from instead. Friday’s Cenerentola schools’ matinee is particularly badly affected. The majority of local schools are still closed. In these circumstances, it is the responsibility of the conscientious performer to inject as much energy and freshness into the performance as possible. Naturally, we rise to the challenge. Most of our input even remains within the boundaries of the original directions. Some re-invention, however, is never a bad thing.
The week draws to a close. The pile of wood in our cottage has disappeared. The warm-up room reverberates to the sound of Christmas carol rehearsals. Back at home, the radiators aren’t working, and it proved quite difficult to talk Aoife through basic boiler maintenance whilst standing in a snowdrift on a hillside in rural Staffordshire. It is time to go home. Friday night, we all go for a team curry. Saturday will see most of us drifting home at some point in the performance – after the interval for the girls; after the offstage demons’ chorus for the boys. Next time we meet, a chorus of twenty-eight will have swelled at least four-fold. Next year, it is Meistersinger . For now, I think it is probably high time to get the heating fixed.
Week 8: A Siberian cold snap and an infamous gin factory
Plymouth. A four-hour journey down the M5 in a small hatchback. And the heating in my car is now only working if I manage to average seventy miles an hour. I pray for no traffic-jams on the M5, as there is a Siberian cold snap forecast.
The week begins, as every week on this tour has begun, with a balance call for Don Giovanni . After the mammoth drive, the twenty seconds required to sing our fifteen off-stage bars of music is inevitably something of an anti-climax. And the off-stage boys now have nearly six hours to kill. A problem now arises. Plymouth is a city where the main evening attraction is a world-class cocktail bar. Glyndebourne Touring Opera runs a strict no-alcohol policy in ‘safety sensitive areas’ such as the stage. The dilemma seems intractable. Fortunately, the problem is solved when it turns out to be entirely possible to fill six hours with extensive debate about whether an offstage corner is ‘safety sensitive’ and just how long it takes the human body to process a Lounge Martini. We arrive at ten o’clock in perfect condition for our diabolical chorus.
Wednesday brings Cenerentola , and another education workshop. The venue is’TR2‘– a superb rehearsal and workshop facility down in the dockyard area. Having been there last year, I decide that I will walk, and, seeing a sign for the’South Coast Path’, decide to take the scenic route. Twenty minutes later, I find myself entirely lost, and walking around the less-than-fragrant precincts of a large smoked fish factory. It is only by following the delivery lorries out on to the main road that I manage to find myself back on track, arriving at the workshop flushed, a little sweaty, and smelling faintly of kippers. I have to sing the part of Ramiro, the handsome prince. It is clearly time for a few fertile childhood imaginations to come to the rescue.
This time we also have the added input of a cohort of teacher trainees. Thinking back to the horrors of my own PGCE, I can’t help feeling a small amount of pity for the slightly wild-eyed bravado they display. As Thomasin and I are directed in the duet scene, however, it is the alarming bravado of the students that is more notable. I am to sing a passage of fiendish coloratura lying flat on my back, and have to use a variety of different voices ranging from a cockney accent to a voice sounding ‘like the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. As I desperately try to remember all that I have been asked to do whilst still attempting to look as if I have fallen instantly in love with Cenerentola, I suspect that I am starting to look a little wild-eyed myself. Oddly, I don’t remember any of these difficulties arising with Sir Peter Hall when we first rehearsed this opera back in 2005. The child catcher voice works surprisingly well though. Perhaps he missed a few tricks.
Plymouth week always goes quickly, and before we know it, the weekend arrives. Before we go, however, there is a checklist that has to be completed. The fish and chip shop needs to be extensively patronised. Financial austerity has to be briefly hurled to the winds, so that the chateaubriand steak at the Tanners brasserie can be sampled. And we have to visit the Plymouth Gin cocktail bar. By half-past eleven on Saturday night, the checklist is complete. And when the cocktail waitress starts inventing new cocktails for me, I suspect that it is time to leave Plymouth whilst the going is good. I have to drive up to Derbyshire first thing in the morning to be ready for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah . The last tenor aria is titled’Then shall the Righteous shine forth’, and I am wondering how I will be able to perform this with any credibility. There is also the small matter of nursing my small hatchback back up the M5. I still haven’t got the heating sorted out, and those Siberian winds are starting to take hold.
Week 7: A broken foam machine and the mass purchasing of afro wigs
Norwich. The winter sets in, the week begins with a long foggy drive, and the heating in my car is on the blink. I finally arrive in time to sing the off-stage chorus at about half-past ten. As we drag Giovanni down to his fiery doom, the prospect sounds quite appealing. And, by the time we arrive at Spixworth cottages – the accommodation choice of most of the chorus – it is time to embrace the delights of a week in the country, and start burning everything we can in the cottage fireplaces. Hopefully there will be some furniture left by Saturday.
Wednesday brings Cenerentola and another education workshop. The Norwich High School for Girls generously provide accommodation in their school hall. Unlike last year, when I had already wandered past hockey matches, changing facilities and chemistry laboratories before I found the front door and was solemnly presented with a security pass, this time I know the way. The workshop goes well, though when it comes to the students directing the duet, I wonder if the chosen setting could have been less site-specific than ‘two sixth-formers in a school hall’. I leave early, as always, in time for the balance call. Given my unconvincing efforts to look like a sixth-former, this is probably for the best. Dom asks me to explain to the students what a balance call is.‘A chance to figure out how not to trip up backstage,‘I glibly respond. In fact, the balance call turns out to be a revelation. We are faced with continuing difficulties of ensemble in the cellar scene. Those of us on stage can’t hear the orchestra, and looking at Enrice’s baton gives a better idea of an aspirational beat than a clear indication of the reasonable compromise that has actually been reached. Various suggestions are put forward. Frustrations begin to become evident. Colleagues start to exaggerate their own interpretations of tempo in misguided attempts to sort things out. Finally, an orchestral player makes a radical suggestion. A hushed silence descends on the theatre as everybody contemplates an extraordinary moment of apparent common sense. Is it my imagination, or is it possible to see tumble weed drift across the stalls? The suggestion is followed. We all agree to stick religiously to the downbeat and everything comes together. In the pit, Enrice looks utterly bemused.
As the week continues, anticipation grows ahead of a’70s party that is planned for Friday night. As almost all of us are staying in the same place, it would be a shame to let this fact go un-marked. The night before – Thursday – is a Poppea night, and so should go fairly peacefully. However, there are two barrels of imported Harveys in the cottages, and a poker night is planned, so perhaps plans for a quiet one ahead of the party are a little optimistic. And Poppea itself provides a few surprises. Our first chorus entrance is from the stalls. In a moment of admirable conscientiousness, the usher on stage left decides to take umbrage with the fact that there appear to be about fifteen late-comers forcing their way into the auditorium. Fortunately, years of having to make our way in the notoriously impenetrable career of opera has made us all stubborn enough to brush the poor lady aside. We make our entrance in time. Later, however, the Valetti’s entrance with trays of bath foam is less successful. The foam machine, after weeks of vacillating, coughs, provides a brief, meagre offering, then finally decides to give up. Two choristers gamely make their entrance with just about enough foam to do the washing up, but certainly not enough to cover Drusilla’s modesty in the ensuing bath scene. The rest of us wait in the stage right wing, wondering just what the’plan B’might entail. Perhaps to the disappointment of a couple of our less gallant male colleagues, plan B requires Drusilla to sit on the edge of the bath with a towel wrapped around her. Poppea may be peppered with murder, suicide and bedroom romps, but it is still, after all, a family show.
Friday comes. A few red eyes attest to the fact that Thursday night was not as quiet as it could have been. The’70s party looms, however, and the Norwich fancy dress shop can rarely have had such a run on Afro wigs. For those of us spending most of the evening sticking cocktail sticks into cheese and pineapple, the off-stage chorus provides little more than a distraction from the main event. Abba is on the stereo, and not since the heyday of Terry and June can so many Snowballs have been consumed. Which is appropriate, as the weather is getting colder still. And Plymouth is next week with the infamous Plymouth Gin Factory cocktail bar…
Week 6: The concrete cows and timeshare churches of Milton Keynes
In my fourth year touring to this venue, I finally discover the concrete cows, but still fail to comprehend the impenetrable system of rail fares out of London Euston. The week starts, as every tour week starts, with a balance call for Don Giovanni . Leo McFall is in the conductor’s seat tonight, and is admirably thorough with our nineteen offstage bars. For the commuters who have travelled from Lewes and London for this brief cameo, it is certainly reassuring that the conductor is paying attention to our contribution. However, for those of us who have the misfortune to sing tenor, we wonder how we can honestly accede to his request for more volume on a bottom B-flat. This is a note I usually need a fairly robust hangover to achieve. Sadly, the company alcohol policy means that I will not be able to use the five hours between balance call and performance taking the necessary steps. Instead, we decide to see what can be found in the optimistically entitled’Cultural quarter’.
Two hours later, we feel we have done justice to the Milton Keynes cultural quarter. And it’s back to the crossword. In the meantime, I have reminded myself just how bad I am at ten pin bowling, investigated the best local deal on steak and chips and finally resorted to the arcade. I feel three of us make a pretty decent account of ourselves on the arcade dancing game. It’s been a while since the chorus have been involved in a dancing show, but I convince myself that I have lost none of the old magic. Until I am shown the mobile phone footage of my efforts. Time to sing those nineteen bars and flee the scene. I need a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow brings twelve hours of Rossini.
Wednesday begins early, when I sing a Rossini aria in an audition for another opera company. It is audition season, and I have been specifically asked to bring some Rossini to this one. In a moment of hubris, I choose a typically florid and stratospheric number from Il Turco in Italia . Two weeks preparation has brought it to the point where I can sing it without visibly breaking into a trembling sweat, but not yet to the point where I have eliminated the look of astonishment from my face when I get to the end without hurting myself and having sung all the notes in the right place. Perhaps because it is still early, and I am still running on caffeine, I manage to sing the notes on the page, end with a surprisingly high note, and try to contort the look of frantic relief into something that might be appropriate for the character in question. I thank the pianist, and head back to the foyer outside, where I meet ex-colleague and fellow Falstaff understudy Rhian Lewis. It’s good to see a friendly face, and one that looks remarkably unruffled. She’s brought some Mozart.
Next, it’s the Cenerentola education workshop. This is held in Milton Keynes’s city church. It is an extraordinary building that has, apparently, been built to incorporate a sort of religious time-share between various different Christian denominations. It seems that the Baptists have had quite a say, as the altar stands in front of what looks like a granite jacuzzi for the faithful. When it comes to the students directing the duet scene, I am glad that none of them imagine setting it by the poolside. The water’s pretty chilly, and I can only guess as to their costume recommendations. Their direction is still pretty eccentric, however. La Cenerentola set in a forest shared by ‘tree people’ and Cockneys? Sir Peter Hall clearly missed a trick.
By the time the evening’s show starts, I feel I have heard enough Rossini ornamentation to last any man a lifetime. And when Thursday comes, rarely can any chorister have welcomed a performance of Poppea as much as I do. Thankfully, the show passes quietly, and without incident. Until the bubble machine breaks again. Drusilla’s bath is filled with gradually diminishing trays of bubbles until Mike Wallace and I arrive at the back of the line of attending ‘Valetti’, pretty much pouring a load of cold soapy water into the mix. Whilst, obviously, sympathising with poor Drusilla’s impending difficulties, I can’t help feeling glad that the education workshops are not on Poppea . The church’s plunge pool would, undoubtedly, have proved too much of a temptation for our Year 11 directors.
For the commuters, the week ends fairly quietly. Those who have chosen to stay in Milton Keynes choose to try and seek entertainment beyond the simple confines of the cultural quarter. Some colleagues, it seems, manage to sample a wider range of culture than others. There’s more to Milton Keynes, apparently, than just shopping and bowling. Next week, the commuting will be over. It’s Norwich week. The Theatre Royal. Two thirds of the chorus in the Spixworth holiday cottages. And the Belgian Monk. I suspect that those bottom B-flats will be presenting few issues for the tenor section.
Week 5: Apocalyptic aliens and French maid costumes
Woking week. The billboard above the Peacock theatre proudly displays the three touring operas, followed by next week’s production – Don’t Stop Believin’ . Various theories are put forward as to what meanings can be understood from this piece of signage. Unfortunately, it was noticed too late to make an appearance on the chorus tour t-shirt.
Woking’s most famous resident was H.G. Wells – a man who fantasied about aliens blowing up his home town. Everywhere, he is celebrated. It also happens to be only a matter of three miles away from my own home town. The Don Giovanni balance call is at 4.45, and the offstage boys are not required again until after 10. There are five hours to fill. Surely, by ten, some of our colleagues are likely to have lost their balance. In a rare moment of wisdom, I decide that I have been presented with an excellent opportunity to go and see my family. When the offstage moment finally comes, the boys arrive with coats on, bags on their shoulders and rail tickets already clutched in their hands. Clearly, they feel that the delights of Woking have been fully sampled.
Wednesday is when, at least for me, the tour gets interesting. A Cenerentola night, it is also the day of the education workshop. The sixty-odd students arrive at the H.G. Wells centre (presided over by a celebratory statue of one of those apocalyptic aliens) full of good ideas about the story of Cinderella. It is our job to help them to understand quite what an extraordinary translation such a story can undergo at the hands of Italian censors who seemed determined not to encourage nineteenth century foot-fetishists, and of a composer who cannot let a single bar go by without filling it with semiquavers. Magic pumpkins and glass slippers don’t get a single look in. At least, by now, Thomasin and I have got the hang of the duet, and look forward to that part of the workshop where the students direct our singing of it. This time, they have me running in and hiding behind the piano. How many times have any of us entered a rehearsal space and considered this as a course of action, I ponder. These workshops, however, are always genuinely uplifting, and I feel sure that we learn almost as much as the students do by the end of the three hours. The evening’s show goes well too. Tom Blunt – our erstwhile chorus master – is in the pit, and is an assured presence. We are particularly grateful for this in a show where the backstage scene changes are a masterclass in space management, and we make all our entrances squeezing breathlessly through the crevices left between bits of set. Our offstage chorus before the Act 1 finale is particularly apposite. We encourage Cenerentola to“Come in – there is no antechamber!“No Kidding. In fact, there is barely room enough to breathe, and I am not the only one testing the acoustic properties of the armpit under which I seem to have become wedged.
Poppea also suffers some complications when it comes to cramming Nero’s curtained palace into the New Victoria Theatre. Quick change areas are crammed into corridors, and there is little room for modesty. As yet another female chorister wanders through the boys’ quick change area, concerns are raised by one of our more demure colleagues. However, when she points out that she is dressed in a French maid’s costume and that we should really be enjoying the attention, the complaint is quickly dropped. History doesn’t yet relate whether Manuela Bisceglie – our Drusilla – manages to maintain a similar sense of humour after the entire chorus have to walk through her quick change area just before the finale. Thirty of us tiptoeing through carrying chairs, averting our eyes and apologising profusely might wear anybody’s patience eventually. Doubtless, however, we all look appropriately serene when we take our seats for the final duet. In fact, serenity has been achieved all evening – at least from the audience’s point of view. The stage management and crew have done a sterling job of wheeling around tons of red velvet all evening. And Alex Baker, who has to step in from the chorus for an indisposed Duncan Rock, does a great job too.
The end of the week comes, and brings the delivery of the tour t- shirts. Next week, Milton Keynes. And Don’t Stop Believin’ .
Week 4: Covering up
It is our last week at Glyndebourne for 2010. When the chorus come back, some of us will have moved to pastures new, there will be an awful lot of Wagner to sing, and, we suspect, there will be so many assorted Guilds-members and apprentices that company office may have to resort to hiring portakabins for dressing rooms. In the meantime, we have six shows left, and some loose ends to tie.
First, there are the three cover shows to get out of the way. Always a great opportunity to see just how talented one’s colleagues really are, these shows also represent miniature triumphs over adversity. Each is an attempt to stage a version of an opera in a fifth of the time, with fewer props, sets and personnel. It is, therefore, with a sympathetic understanding of the budgetary constraints of our age, that the audience for the Don Giovanni cover show waits with baited breath to see just how the dead Commendatore is going to leave the stage when there are no actors in evidence to carry him. We needn’t have worried. After lying still for a decent period, and whilst the plangent tones of a Mozart duet range above him, he quietly, almost un-noticeably, starts to roll towards the edge of the set before suffering an earlier-than-usual resurrection, deciding to simply make a bolt for it. It is fair to say that the Commendatore’s later arrival at the banquet now presents less of a surprise. At Wednesday’s Cenerentola cover show, Don Magnifico’s wig is also left stranded mid-stage. I am not alone in feeling disappointed when it doesn’t make a similar break for the wings.
The cover casts do a fantastic job. They are ready. The shows are all well into production, and are ready. The chorus have been singing Don Giovanni since April. We are ready. It’s surely time to get on the road. The week ends as each production finishes its final Glyndebourne show, then is loaded into the back of a truck. The only significant last minute hiccough is with Poppea , when a critical piece of stage machinery decides to malfunction. As the ‘Valetti chorus’ line up ready for the quick scene change where we tip trays of foam into Drusilla’s bath, the Bubble machine coughs, splutters, then appears to go on strike. Poppea is a family show, and, with Drusilla already waiting to get into the bath whilst not wearing a great deal, this could end badly. Stephen Cowin, senior stage manager, is called to the scene of the impending disaster, and mentions something about a’plan B’. Suggestions, both helpful and less-than-helpful, are put forward. Several of us reckon we have ways of making bubbles in the bath, but they are hardly appropriate for this juncture. Finally, and moments before we are due to go on- stage, Sava – the hapless stage manager who has been left cradling the recalcitrant machine – manages to coax it back into some sort of life. We are able to carry on our trays with their hard-won, if apologetic consignments of foam, and can only just glimpse the look of panic in Manuela Bisceglie/Drusilla’s eyes through the gloom of the scene change. The scene is over. Soon the opera is over. And, a day later, our final Glyndebourne performance of 2010 is over. A trip to the Pug and Whistle is called for. They have run out of Harveys. It is time to pack up our desks, hand in our security passes and head for the horizon. Woking next week.
Week 3: Bubble bath sculptures and the unpredictability of school workshops
There are now only a couple of Poppea rehearsals to finish before the three productions are fully ‘in rep’. For the chorus, there are few real complications. We have to get used to changing from the everyday clothes that we have worn to Glyndebourne, into our costumes – everyday clothes that might be worn to come to Glyndebourne. We are entrusted with mopping up real water in the bath scene. And the ‘Valetti chorus’ are given trays of real bubbles to fill up Drusilla’s bubble bath. I am particularly happy with this last development, as I spent some time in the festival production of 2008 perfecting my skills in the art of ‘bubble sculpting’. It is important in this job to get all the artistic satisfaction one can.
Still, the rehearsals go well, and by the first performance, as we gather in the stalls cloakroom for our first entrance, we feel that everything should go smoothly. However, as we trot, love-struck, though the stalls, a last minute change to the position of the steps leading up to the stage means that it is clear Fortune has not smiled on us. Rachel Wallace and I are left inelegantly shuffling the steps around to a more scale-able position while Helen-Jane – playing Amor – is left looking increasingly concerned as to whether we are ever going to turn up and put her in the ubiquitous red velvet cloak. As we finally arrive, I assure her -‘You can’t hurry Love, you just have to wait’. I think she finds it funny. Given that I have been telling similar jokes for some weeks now, perhaps she is just taking pity. The punning possibilities in this opera are pretty glorious though, especially when I discover in a later scene that music is not, in fact, the food of Love. Shakespeare would have been astonished to find out that Love enjoys nothing less than Nutella and bananas. We live in a less poetic age.
With rehearsals all but over, the performances come thick and fast. Tuesday brings two – La Cenerentola and a Don Giovanni schools’ matinee. These are always popular occasions. It is astonishing what raw energy a theatre full of school children can bring to a performance. Every gesture gets bigger, and every gag is played for more laughs, even though Don Giovanni is perhaps not usually known for its comic potential. At the end of the show, the ovation is high- pitched enough that it wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a boy- band concert. Operatic egos always emerge well salved after schools’ matinees.
It is a busy week for the education department. It is also the first Cenerentola workshop. Thomasin Trezise and I are the two choristers providing the singing content. At 9.30 on Thursday morning, we attempt to rehearse the duet from Cenerentola, with all of its attendant coloratura and vocal altitude. All things considered, it goes pretty well, and, as the fifty-odd primary school children arrive, we allow ourselves a moment of self-congratulation. Later, after a two-hour frenzy of juvenile enthusiasm, the children direct us in the same scene, and it is time to sing the duet again. As we come to an agreed cut, it becomes clear that our rehearsal could have been more thorough. Both singers and accompanist have separate ideas as to what comes next. The moment of indecision seems to stretch for an age. Into the hiatus, I attempt a rather pale exploratory Rossini-esque twiddle, whilst Thomasin sidles, almost imperceptibly, to the piano. Dom, our pianist and normally indomitable workshop leader, tries a bar of waltz time. If it was possible to play a bar of piano music with a question mark at the end, Dom has just achieved it. Thomasin sidles back, attempting not to break the loving eye-contact that we have dramatically established. And we’re back on track. The workshop ends with a question and answer session. The first question is -“Do opera singers ever go wrong?”. The workshop may have gone well, but it is clear that the participants still have some learning to do.
At least I can rely upon my six-year-old son, William, for a less wide-eyed approach to what I do.“You’re my favourite singer,“he confides.“That’s a nice thing to say, isn’t it?”
“Yes William,” I concur.
“That’s why I said it,“he reassures me.“To be nice.”
Time to book those rail tickets for the rest of the tour.
Week 2: Tour begins (sort of)
The tour has begun. Though, perhaps confusingly for anybody outside the Glyndebourne bubble, this does not mean that we have actually gone anywhere yet. The first performances, however, are underway. Cenerentola passes in a frenzy of Italianate flourish. Don Giovanni seems to go well too, though half of us barely notice, as we are only involved in the twelve offstage bars at the end. In fact, after the final Giovanni dress, it turns out that nobody noticed our twelve bars either. We are, therefore, reluctantly summoned to the balance call before the Saturday first night to fix the audibility problem, and, several hours before we were expecting to have arrived at work, rarely can the voices dragging Giovanni down to Hell have been quite so heartfelt.
Despite the fact that we are not actually doing a great deal on this tour, by Saturday at the end of this week, we will have managed to notch up twelve working days on the trot. Poppea is now taking up most of our time; it was pushed onto the back burner whilst the other operas were prepared, and now its first night approaches fast. Where the major difficulties of Cenerentola – at least for the boys – involved problems of multi-tasking, Poppea presents a different set of issues – mostly concerned with finding any fulfilling tasks to do at all. Our duties are essentially restricted to carrying around a huge velvet curtain, and looking doe-eyed and love-struck every time we find ourselves attending to the character of Amor. Plotting our characters’ personal journeys is not high on the list of dramatic priorities. In fact, separated as we are from the opera’s dramatic development, the key priorities are maintaining focus and picking out our calls to stage from a tannoy that seems to be producing an indecipherable barrage of recitative accompanied by instruments few of us even recognize. Faced with such issues and an apparent vacuum of dramatic purpose, it is fair to say that we find ourselves seeking other ways of validating our existence. Chatty colleagues catch up on recent gossip. Competitive types invent any number of back-stage sporting activities. Our senior chorister seeks solace in attempting to maintain a disciplined order. All are destined to find only limited comfort. Perhaps, therefore, it is to try and dispel the gradually pervasive sense of ennui that the production team finally decide to ask us to sing one small part of the score. Ever willing to oblige, Tuesday sees a marginally malcontent male chorus moping to the front of Seneca’s library and attempting to sing a three part renaissance lament usually sung by solo early music specialists.‘Don’t die, Seneca!‘we implore. For some reason, he decides to take his own life anyway. Perhaps he understands our subtext.
The end of the week brings the Poppea stage and orchestra calls. A glance into the pit does not, however, reveal the sort of orchestra that any of us are used to. I recognize an old college colleague down there. Last time we met, we were collaborating on Britten’s songs for tenor and Guitar at a concert in the Venezuelan embassy. He now seems to be sporting a sort of seventeenth century ukulele, and I am going to spend the day mopping up bathwater on the public stage. The variation of a career in music never ceases to amaze. Ukuleles aside, though, once they have finished the inevitably tortuous process of tuning their historically accurate instruments, the band sound highly impressive. It is also, as always, gratifying to hear so many chorus colleagues, past and present, doing equally impressively in the solo roles. As the opera comes to an end in the penultimate rehearsal, we are able to briefly enjoy their triumph close up, before they smother us with the red velvet that we’ve been obligingly carrying around all evening. In case any of us missed the metaphorical connotations, we rehearse that bit twice more, before stage management take pity, and send us back down to our card games.
Next week, everything will be ‘in rep’, and underway. It may well be that we don’t have an enormous amount to sing on this tour, but it is, nonetheless, surprisingly busy. Before we finally hit the road, we have quite a few essential things to fit in. The tour t-shirt needs designing. The mystery of why exactly there is a pantomime camel in the running wardrobe needs to be solved. And I need to learn the rules of poker.
Week 1: Elastic and Napoleonic Posturing
The Festival season may be long over, but from the sound of leather on willow in the corridor outside the Gents’Chorus dressing room, it’s clear that the cricket season still has a way to run. In the last week of rehearsals before the first performances begin, there is plenty of evidence that some of us have a fair amount of time on our hands. Notice boards, once resident to pages of production notes, have been taken over by caption competitions and grinning pictures of colleagues in various comedy costumes. Corridor cricket competitions are stretching into five-day test matches. As the hours and days wear on, snatches of blues songs can be heard from the dark recesses of the back-stage area. Whilst we’re all involved in all three touring productions, it’s perhaps fair to say that neither Don Giovanni or Poppea are going to make enormous demands upon our collective talents.
Fortunately, Cenerentola is considerably busier. And, whilst our first three weeks of rehearsal have been mainly concerned with perfecting the Rossini crescendo and trying not to trip over each other in early staging calls, the final week of preparation introduces us to the full extent of what it means to strap yourself into a courtier’s costume from the early nineteenth century and still try and move in a way that doesn’t resemble a robot from the twenty-first. The boys’ costumes are masterpieces of engineering in elastic. Putting them on requires some strength, a degree of guile, and the sort of flexibility that most of us haven’t required since we gave up doing forward rolls in primary school P.E. lessons. In an unguarded moment backstage, one colleague slips over in his costume, the potential energy stored in the elastic is released in a catastrophic instant, and he is left standing in very un-nineteenth century boxer shorts while small parts of his costume ricochet around the corridor. Dress rehearsals prove awkward, and, in fact, our first choral entry is only achieved by about four of us – the rest are left struggling with coats hats, masks, and relying on the standard line of defence in these situations -“Sorry – we didn’t hear the call”. If this wasn’t enough, I am developing backache from constantly attempting to adopt a calf-revealing posture borrowed from countless viewings of Napoleonic-era historic television dramas that I used to rely on at the end of term in my previous incarnation as an English teacher. Below us, at least the maestro seems keen not to watch us suffer for too long. The pit has become a cockpit – pilot Enrique applying the jet afterburners at every available opportunity. The perennial compromise of the operatic performer – attempting to act and watch the conductor at the same time – is going to be a difficult compromise to achieve in this production. So, in the last finale of the final dress rehearsal, we find ourselves trying to look as if we are impressed with Cenerentola’s radical ideas for a society based on the triumph of goodness; attempting to kneel down without splitting our breeches; and peering frantically, though furtively, across the expanse of the stage in front of us so that we can interpret Enrique’s application of the accelerator pedal.
Back in the courtyard, the continuing card game suddenly seems less dull, and more of a relief. When Enrique comes over and asks us if we are playing poker, it falls to one of us to admit that the title of the game we are actually playing requires an understanding of the English vernacular to interpret. The Glyndebourne Chorus has always been able to fill its time unexpectedly. Next week, it is the penultimate week of rehearsals on Poppea .