On (and off) stage at Glyndebourne’s 75th Anniversary Festival…
Glyndebourne August 31 2009
The last week is here, and there is already a tangible party atmosphere in the building. In fact, there are three parties organised for the end of the week. I decide to prepare for the week’s demands by enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the seaside. After ice-creams and paddling, I begin the leisurely drive back to work only to be reminded by a call from the company office that the Sunday call is over an hour earlier than the usual weekday one. I am driving a small-engined hatchback, and around every corner there is another traffic jam, as it appears to be the weekend of the East Sussex tractor convention. I make it through the stage door just as the second call is going out to the orchestra, and make it into the wings in costume in time to catch my breath before we go on. The highly observant audience member may have noticed that one of the olive pickers had definitely worked up more of a sweat than his colleagues, but otherwise, I think I get away with it. However, after making such a rookie error as this, I can’t help feeling that it’s definitely time for a holiday.
It has taken until my fifth season at Glyndebourne for the conditions to be right for my son William to come and see ‘what Daddy does’. This has always been a scource of great puzzlement to him. He knows I sing ‘boring opera’- his mother is more into the trendy stuff – and has been rather confused by the various photos he has seen of Daddy sporting a variety of wigs. On Wednesday, however, factors combine for it to be the ideal opportunity to bring him in. Kitty Whately, chorus mezzo and mother of two-year-old Ivy, organises a lunchtime picnic in the park, and attendance is high. Ivy eats a gingerbread sheep that William has been hoarding for days, and this proves to be the main theme of his afternoon’s preoccupations. It is a Tristan afternoon, and Aoife – William now manages a pretty decent job of pronouncing her name – agrees to look after him for the brief while that the boys’chorus are actually doing some work. Beforehand, I show him the auditorium, the dressing rooms and company office. He takes it all in, but is pretty determined that the afternoon should be spent playing with toy engines in the courtyard. His priorities are already working out nicely. Vladimir Jurowski says hello to him. William fails to pronounce his name and returns to the engines. I am proud that he has inherited my ability to network too.
The week draws to a close. Thoughts turn to parties and goodbyes. Rusalka finishes on Thursday, and we are all sad to end a run of performances that we felt truly proud to be part of. We will miss the Czech cues – was Alistair Elliot really singing ‘salty donner’, and will anybody ever hear the Czech for ‘hocus pocus’ without sniggering? Rusalka provides us with its own leaving party. The Act Two mimed wedding festivities have become increasingly entertaining, especially for those learning the art of the chorus ‘freeze’. Many find enterprising colleagues ‘fingers tickling their ears at this point. A real party is laid on later by Tom Blunt – our chorus master – who is leaving the job at the end of the Festival. He will be genuinely missed. There are a fair few who won’t be coming on tour from the chorus too. Tony Cleverton, a partner in crime since my first season in 2003, has formulated the rather radical escape plan of emigrating to Canada. On the final Sunday evening, we mark his going with a surprise party. Tony marks his own departure with a bravura performance on the last Saturday night of L’Elisir . The entrance of the drunken soldiers at the end of the show can never have been more impressive, or more poignant. That Tony should bare his soul (and considerably more) in such a heartwarming farewell to the Glyndebourne stage can only be commended.
The final night itself is a Tristan evening. It is a little odd that the girls aren’t there, but the boys are at least finished by four o’clock, so the party starts early. Our final utterance for the 2009 Festival is “Cornwall, Heil!” It is an appropriate sentiment for those of us who will be setting off on Monday for a bank holiday trip down the A303.
Glyndebourne August 24 2009
Normally by the penultimate week, things are calming down. This is not the case this year. There is a show every night, The Yellow Sofa begins, and several of us are doing a concert on Saturday, after Tristan , at the sheltered housing block in the middle of Lewes. Quite enough to be worrying about, really, without the added drama of our leading lady, Ana Maria Martinez, falling in the pit on Friday night.
As history now relates, she escaped relatively unscathed, and was keen to carry on. Santiago, the cellist she landed on, was also fine, if rather shaken by the unexpected appearance of the prima donna in the cello section. The evening, however, is an acutely uncomfortable one. It takes a while for news of how she is to get through to us, and in the meantime, the most useful thing the chorus can do is keep well out of the way. At times like this, the subterranean chorus dressing rooms have a sort of bunker quality to them. And we are all extremely glad when the all-clear is sounded. Ana Maria is an inspirational presence on the Rusalka stage, and, in fact, the same can be said of her co- stars. One of whom, Natasha Jouhl, is temporarily promoted from Wood Nymph to title role, and finishes the night’s performance as Rusalka cover, doing a fantastic job.
It is a week for covers. On Tuesday, we discover that Torsten Kerl is unable to perform Tristan . As most tenors would be unable ever to perform Tristan , it must be quite a job finding a replacement. In fact, Ian Storey is available, and manages to learn the staging in an afternoon. Fortunately, Tristan is low on elaborate dance routines, and as far as it is possible to tell from offstage in the stalls cloakroom, he delivers a tremendous performance. As does baymate Mike Wallace and his colleagues in The Yellow Sofa . It would be dishonest to say that there was not some apprehension about the open dress on Monday morning. Our exposure to the piece had been limited to the concerns of those trying to learn it on time, and it sounded as if it might be quite hard work. In fact, the morning provides a great hour’s entertainment, and another example of how impressive a bunch the Glyndebourne Chorus can occasionally be. And so it is in a spirit of mutual self-congratulation and bonhomie that we all go for a pub lunch in the Sussex countryside. So the atmosphere even continues through the evening’s show nine of L’elisir .
Saturday night is another chance for some of us to strut our solo stuff, even if the venue of the Lewes sheltered housing block lacks the polish of the stage-lit Jerwood Studio. We enjoy ourselves immensely, however, and get to sing all the sort of repertoire that we would never dare perform at Glyndebourne. All sorts of extraordinary sub-plots to the summer are revealed by repertoire choice.‘Summertime, and the living is easy’. If only. Brindisi – the ubiquitous drinking song. And Ruben Lai – fellow chorus tenor and gourmet chef – singing ‘Dei miei bollenti spiriti’, with the closing cadenza on the words, ‘in cielo’. Delivered with an authentic Italian accent, I couldn’t help thinking of the unfortunate Ana Maria Martinez incident, and where she landed.
Glyndebourne August 17 2009
Three weeks to go until the end of the season, and we’re into shows alone. In fact, the boys are now doing a show every night until the end of the season. The dressing room is witnessing some tired looking faces, and it is fair to say that the usual happy atmosphere is becoming a little strained too. There are a plethora of holiday brochures on desks throughout the bays, and my bay-mate Mike Wallace is alternating frantic study of his Yellow Sofa score with the desperate perusal of magazines about Caribbean diving venues. The company’s strategy is to give the boys a rostered day away from Tristan to give us each a day off. Some cynics are wondering why we couldn’t ask for a day off L’Elisir instead, but it is reasonable to suppose that we will be more missed as comic Italian peasants than offstage sailors. Plus, it is the week of the L’Elisir DVD, and there are some comic peasant performances that need to be saved for posterity.
The DVD is recorded over two nights, giving the creative team some potential for editing, and the chorus some room for continuity errors. The second evening is going out live on Sky Arts. It becomes clear fairly soon that nobody in the dressing room subscribes to Sky Arts, not least because getting satellite television in Lewes requires a virtual Act of Parliament to circumscribe the planning issues. We decide that when the DVD comes out, we will buy one and have an evening of reminiscing. Which, of course, is a further incentive to those who want to be sure there is something to reminisce about.
The feed from the recording is put through to monitors throughout the building, and on the first night we realise the full implications of a large chorus opera in HD. For those who like to shrink out of the limelight, there is nowhere to hide. For those of a more self-assured character, the opportunities to star are legion, if occasionally not entirely appropriate. As the soldiers do their quick change in the first scene, a glance at the monitor reveals evidence of the sort of impressive gurning not seen on stage since it was a competitive sport at Butlins. I quietly assure myself that some judicious editing and a few calm words from the directorial team should sort things out. Before making my first soldiers’ entrance doing a passable impression of Dad’s Army.
Saturday is the day of the live feed, and I spend the afternoon at Eastbourne, watching the airshow with the still regularly mispronounced Aoife O’Sullivan. We have a great afternoon on the beach, scoffing fish and chips and watching the show. However, I forget to bring sun cream for my follicaly challenged pate, and so have to rely on knotting my hankie, and wearing it like a latter-day advert for the benefits of a bank holiday in Skegness. Not only do I look like an idiot, but I catch the sun fairly impressively too. I suspect I didn’t look quite so much like a Belisha beacon for the first DVD night.
Sometimes those continuity errors can be quite accidental.
Glyndebourne August 10 2009
The week starts with the Tristan final rehearsal, and, for most of us, it is our final rehearsal too. Apart from the Jerwood project – The Yellow Sofa – it’s just shows from now until the end of the Festival. No more morning commuting until October and the Tour. Time to mothball the coffee Thermos. Time to enjoy trips down from London on later, far busier trains, looking distinctly scruffy and uncomfortable surrounded by audience members already dressed in their finery. And time to re-institute the famous train parties organised by baritone and seasoned commuter Paul Sheehan – who is only involved in Tristan chorus this year, and so has been a sad absentee until now. He makes up for his absence with an opening salvo of a German themed party, complete with warm hot-dogs and lager. It is surely only a matter of time before he brings us all along pairs of lederhosen. Southern Rail and the other passengers must have missed him too.
The Tristan dress sees us settle for option six on the positioning of the off stage chorus. We start in the corridor of the stalls cloakroom, then gradually migrate up onto the stalls steps as our ship approaches Cornwall. Singing in the corridor presents some unique challenges. Our first utterance bears little tonal relation to the previous bars of music, so is fairly difficult anyway. We are reliant on watching Tom, who is conducting as far above his head as he possibly can. Technically, the shorter members of the chorus are supposed to be at the front. This presents an insurmountable challenge to the dignity of some of our more self-confident colleagues, so visibility is not good. The acoustic engineering of the Glyndebourne Opera House has not stretched to the stalls entrance corridor, so when we sing, we are met with a barrage of unintelligible sound. We leave our first off stage appearance largely unaware as to whether we have sung any of the right notes. Fortunately, the dress audience includes most of our female colleagues, so at the end of Act One, we are mollified by their collective professional courtesy.
At least the Fairy Queen chorus boys no longer have to worry about the daily retune from Purcell to Wagner. This week brings the last performances of Fairy Queen . The instrument cases in the back corridor are looking less exotic. The backstage signs to ‘Trap’ and ‘Stage’- together with their increasingly creative graffiti – will soon be coming down. And the bunny costumes are hung forlornly in the corridor. We hope they are due a decent dry-clean. This will also bring the end of the games of actor-spotting that we have been playing in the Courtyard Cafe.“Wasn’t he in Coronation Street?“That sort of thing. Verena Gunz, chorus mezzo, fellow commuter and possessor of the most talked about leather trousers in East Sussex, gets the wrong end of the stick.“Somebody told me that Egeus was in The Dominatrix Headmistress .“We think he played the Demon Headmaster, but much prefer Verena’s version. And wonder what Austrian children’s television must be like.
The week’s main concern, however, is auditioning. It is our annual chance to shine or fall flat on our face in front of the management. It has been such a busy summer that trying to polish a couple of audition pieces has often seemed bottom of the to-do list, but the dressing rooms have still been party to the discreet manoeuvrings of establishing each other’s repertoire. The key thing is to ensure that not every tenor is singing the same bit of Mozart that you are, especially if you at all suspect that they will make a better job of it. Once you have factored this into the equation, it is then worth establishing that your piece has not been sung by an international superstar on the Festival stage within the last couple of years. Singing Boheme when the panel spent a summer hearing Rolando Villazon sing it would not, for example, be a good idea. You are then quite possibly left with pieces that only make it into the appendix of Kobbe’s Opera Guide , and have to trust that the repetiteur is going to be kind to you. In the end, I realise that my knowledge of fringe Bulgarian opera isn’t up to the job, throw away my own set of calculations and sing a bit of Britten that was in the festival two years ago and a piece of Handel that a colleague is singing too. When my slot comes up, Duncan Williams, star repetiteur and occasional breaker of pianos in Wagner rehearsals, plays like Alfred Brendel, and so, once the nerves have died down, I am able to enjoy myself a little. Though not as much, I suspect, as Neil Williams, friend and tenor colleague, who came out of the audition room before me having just hurled all caution to the four winds by singing some Tosca . Rather well, it sounded like. At least with the auditions out of the way, we can bellow our Wagner choruses with absolute abandon.
Glyndebourne August 3 2009
Up until now, Tristan has been an opera that was being rehearsed elsewhere, while we just got on with learning the notes. Monday, however, brings the stage and orchestra, and so the offstage chorus are required to join the party. A brief foray last week saw us trying to sing our bit from the air-conditioning room under the stalls. This had its benefits. The air-conditioning room is very near our dressing-room. Surely August must be hot, so the thought of plying our trade in a nice cool space seemed highly attractive. And we could wear whatever we liked, though the wrapped-up ‘carol singer’ look was proving quite popular with our colleagues from warmer climes. None of these issues seem important to the powers that be, so for the sake of ‘balance’, at 10.30 on Monday morning we set off on a mystery tour of the building to explore other possibilities. The stalls cloakroom. The wings. The doors to the orchestra pit. Apparently, there is no possibility of phoning in our contribution from the bar. And my suggestion of singing our sailors’ chorus about the lower masts from below the stalls and our chorus about the upper masts from above is met with withering looks from senior colleagues. Our final efforts from the orchestra pit see us competing with the horn section. We have little chance, even though we are singing so loudly that a request for earplugs is deemed entirely sensible. We suspect this one will run and run.
The schedule is calming down, at least for those not involved in The Yellow Sofa . This is the 2009 Jerwood project, and as a new piece of work is apparently proving quite challenging. Colleagues are huddled into corners of the Courtyard Café poring over their scores and looking increasingly wild-eyed. Strange rumours emerge about the nature of the piece. It’s in Portugese? Passages from L’elisir make their way into the score? Martha Bredin is actually playing’The Sofa’? Surely all will be revealed. And it feels good enjoying the suspense rather than being part of one of the sressed huddles.
Stress relief is brought in the form of Tony Cleverton (chorus baritone)’s stag night. Details of what happened remain hazy. And are possibly best left that way. Embarrassed late night phone-calls are made to wives and girlfriends. There are some very dazed looking colleagues the next day. And some wives and girlfriends with raised eyebrows. Rusalka at least brings the relief of fantasy. Not since the night before have some of the ‘Jezebaba boys’ got closer to such voluptous costumes. At least we can immerse ourselves in concentrating on Jezebaba’s moves, and copying them. This does not prove to be easy. Not only has she been getting more and more creative in an attempt to catch us out, but she has broken her hand. Tricky. The party scene comes to our rescue. Slow motion acting while somebody else does all the work. Perfect.
Glyndebourne July 27 2009
The week begins with the L’elisir __ final dress, and the relief that the production should settle down into something like its permanent shape. Permanent that is, until the directing team leave after the second night, and the chorus scenes begin to evolve. At the pre-show notes session outside the gents’ chorus dressing room, Annabel Arden tries to inspire us into performance mode by telling us that she will be watching out for things to put into the ‘script’ for the videoed performances. There are some knowing glances shared between the old-stagers. This sort of encouragement could easily backfire. The prospect of having certain home-made production features preserved for posterity could prove an overwhelming temptation for some. There are a number of reasons why DVD recordings are always made over two nights.
In the event, the dress goes well, and all concerned seem pleased. A slightly unfortunate episode sees Nemorino’s army contract flourishingly signed with a very 21st century looking white Bic biro, but we doubt anybody will notice other than those on stage. Who do their level best to try and hide the obvious fact that we have noticed. There are a few shoulders twitching though. These are all issues that dress rehearsals are there to highlight. And by the first night, all eyes are on Adina anyway. Ekaterina Siurina is unwell, and we have an emergency replacement in Ainhoa Garmendia. She has only a day to prepare, and so is flying on adrenaline, talent and goodwill. She does a tremendous job. For the second performance too. The third performance is now effectively Ekaterina’s first night. So it is only by the fourth performance that we will feel the production needs the special fresh edge that only a bit of chorus improvisation can provide. I suspect that we will rise to the occasion.
Tristan music rehearsals continue. Tom Blunt (chorus master) asks whether he can swap his large transparent music stand for any of the black ones that we are all uncharacteristically requiring. Nobody is able to admit to him why this might be a bad idea. Along the back row, the stands are propping up a variety of different electronic devices keeping us up-to-date with the score in the second test. We have two Australian baritones in the chorus this year. These things are important. And three music sessions on Tristan have resulted in such stylistic experimentation that our reading is now bordering on the baroque. Many of us suspect that this is not an interpretation that will stand up to the vicissitudes of bellowing Wagner above the LPO playing at full throttle.
Saturday brings the welcome relief of a charity song concert arranged by Charles Kerry – senior chorus member and song afficionado. It is a genuine relief to do a bit of singing requiring the use of some vocal colours other than loud or louder. Vladimir Jurowski apparently also decides that a change is as good as a rest, and comes along to listen. I am quietly fairly glad that I am not the one who is singing the Rimsky-Korsakov song. And his’holiday from Wagner’is not entirely supported by Pamela Wilcock’s stunning rendition of one of Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder. It is good to have him support us, however. Sometimes, Glyndebourne can genuinely feel like working for a team. And so the singers in the concert dutifully head off for post-match drinks.
Glyndebourne July 20 2009
Monday, and there is much ironic asking of how everybody’s weekend was. The working week has actually ended 12 hours previously, and so the morning’s piano dress of L’elisir is a slightly weary affair. At least, after the enormous complications of our Rusalka costumes, the Italian peasant look can be achieved in five minutes, leaving enough time to squeeze in a bacon sandwich before we are called to stage. In fact, I am only dressed as an Italian peasant for the first chorus of the show. Moments later, I am undergoing a miraculous transformation into comedy fascist soldier. This is no easy feat. It seems that the Italian soldier of the 1940s took his leather goods seriously, so there is quite a lot of awkward trussing up to be done. With Maurizio in the pit seemingly as keen to get the rehearsal over and done with as we are, I only just manage to get changed in time for our cue. At which point the rehearsal is stopped to deal with some technical issues. The soldiers are left in the prompt-side wing holding bolt-action rifles, and getting bored. It is a truth universally acknowledged that boys with guns will be unable to last three minutes without playing with them, so we indulge in some fantasy sniping at our colleagues on stage. We’ve been working in close proximity to each other for weeks on end, often for 12-hour days, so we’re sure they wouldn’t mind. Few other jobs can provide this sort of stress relief.
In a strange episode of intertextuality, the first scene of L’elisir sees Adina reading a copy of Tristan and Isolde . This week also brings our first music rehearsals on Wagner’s take on this story. There is not an enormous amount for us to do, and it is offstage. Nonetheless, it is an enormous sing, and a three-hour music rehearsal is quite an undertaking. Half of the first tenor section are early music specialists, and have a videoed performance of Fairy Queen in the evening. They are looking nervous. Tom Blunt, our chorus-master, sensibly suggests that we take it easy if we feel we should. This is easier said than done when the score rarely asks for anything less subtle than a larynx-popping fortissimo, and when Tom is practising his Klemperer impression at the front of the Ebert Room. We auditioned five of his potential successors last week, and Tom is starting to show definite signs of being demob-happy.
The Wagner does not help the collective sense of weariness. By the weekend, three of the most experienced chorus boys are off sick. It calls for some urgent re-blocking. The Rusalka cauldron scene is unrecognisable. Faced with elaborate fake animals that they have never met before, chorus covers are left improvising Jezibaba’s list of potion ingredients for all they’re worth.‘Bile of cat’ appears to be going everywhere but in the pot, whilst ‘spit of snake’ is manifesting itself as a general hosing down of the front of the stage. The earlier L’elisir pre-dress is equally fraught. The ‘contract scene’ proves to be a particular highlight. As Nemorino and Belcore strive to outdo each other with glorious coluratura, a fellow facist sidles up to me and calmly mentions that he doesn’t have ‘that bit of paper’. I guess that he probably means the contract. I gesture into the olive groves, and stride purposefully off into the wings to try and find the blasted thing. Appearing 30 seconds later, out of breath from between the trees, I wonder what strange sub-plots any audience members might be imagining are going on. It’s definitely time for a real weekend.
Glyndebourne July 13 2009
Rusalka is now finally underway, and the beginning of the week brings the reviews. It is an established principle amongst all performers that reviews should be ignored at all times, and at all costs. They rarely reflect the production in which you feel you have been participating, and often seem to hint that the reviewer wasn’t there at all. The humble chorus member can hardly ever do the slightest thing to influence them. Reviews are generally best left unread. This is the only sensible strategy to adopt. Unless the reviews are good. In which case, they are gleefully pored over, pinned up on noticeboards and quoted endlessly in publicity.
The reviews for Rusalka are almost consistently wonderful. It is only a matter of time before clippings start appearing all over the place. The only obvious exception to the press consensus is an unfortunate review that describes the wood-nymphs as ‘plump wenches’. So Tuesday morning sees chorus wood-nymphs huddled in indignant committees, determined that we should all realise the injustice of such lazy journalism. The delicate semantic implications of the word ‘plump’ are debated at length. Mostly over tea and cake. The Courtyard Café is doing a particularly tasty line in coffee and walnut cake at the moment. I tuck into my second slice of the day and offer my sage opinions. Given that only last year the chorus were berated in an Onegin review for ‘not eating enough borscht’, I can’t help feeling that this ironic turn around is conclusive proof that reviews should always be ignored.
It is a week that requires comfort eating. We are beginning a run of nine working days on the trot, and the London commuters are beginning to show signs of stress. Until now, I have prided myself on the fact that I am the only one to not yet fall prey either to illness or the temptation to stay over a few nights in Lewes. However, I do now have a hotel room booked in Brighton for a couple of nights over the weekend. On a technicality, I consider that I can still lay claim to my position of champion commuter, as my hotel room booking is due to my late-evening attendances at a friend’s stag weekend. It is very kind of him to organise his festivities so close to Glyndebourne, but it does not improve my overall levels of fitness for work. The L’elisir sitzprobe seems uncharacteristically hard work on Saturday morning, and I cannot help but consider that this is not all down to Maurizio Benini’s demanding style of conducting; though that doesn’t help. Saturday also brings the last night of Falstaff . On a purely practical level, I decide to view the collective downing of a pint in the Act 3 finale as a warm up for the evening’s later activities.
My weekend’s extra-curricular activities can also be viewed in the light of preparation for L’elisir . For the chorus, a good deal of the opera is spent either during, or immediately following an enormously boozy wedding party. The week is filled with stage rehearsals for this show, and we are encouraged to inject as much life into it as possible. It takes us three days of increasingly crazed simulated party-going before we finally get a note about upstage right being a little ‘rave-like’ in our festivities. We must be losing our touch. Party scenes are generally the Glyndebourne Chorus’s speciality. The general consensus is that once the rehearsal period has calmed down, we will rediscover our motivation from somewhere.
Glyndebourne July 6 2009
The final rehearsals of Rusalka , and the ‘cauldron scene’, with its attendant simulated animal slaughter, is still being fine-tuned. Make-up and wardrobe are busy working out the best way to hide blood sachets in our’Jezibaba’costumes whilst keeping the resulting gore to a reasonable minimum so that our costumes can be turned around to be re-worn two hours later in Act Three. Early attempts are not entirely successful. We are given cling film wraps of blood that explode satisfyingly, but create absolute carnage. Outside the boys’dressing room there is a call for hot water and towels, and within seconds the corridor resembles the aftermath of a baby-boom in a Victorian labour ward. As if this wasn’t enough, the water nymphs are being covered in a proprietary pharmaceutical lubricant – in order to achieve that ‘straight out of the pond’ look – and, whilst busy trying to remove fake blood from our fake breasts, our dresser Lucy slips in a stray puddle of the stuff. As a precaution, she seeks a medical once-over. We wryly consider the conversation that must have taken place with the doctor.
L’elisir production calls continue. Fixture congestion in the schedule has meant that we are going to have to set the opera in an uncharacteristically short time. Fortunately, it is not an opera that hangs on delicate pyschological twists and turns.The key thing is that we listen to, believe, and react to the various unlikely plot developments. Time for some generic ‘village idiot’ chorus acting. And for the soldiers, the simple expedient of trying out different ways to look sculptural with a rifle. Spear carrying for the advanced. So on Friday, after a week of workshopping various different village idiot faces, I was glad to have the chance to work out some frustration on the football pitch in Lewes. The ‘Glyndiators’ are the ad-hoc chorus team managed by Aiofe O’Sullivan – often mis-pronounced chorus soprano, my love interest at the Prince’s party, and Alex Ferguson pretender. They are still basking in the glory of a 3-1 victory over Holland Park a couple of weekends ago, and Thomas Blunt – chorus master – is still nursing his injuries after playing in defence. Fortunately, the Friday night session was more of a gentle kick about than anything else. And a good chance to clear the mind between bouts of animal slaughter in the Thursday Rusalka dress and the weekend first performance.
When the first performance comes, it is all that we’ve hoped for. The principals are stunning, the production powerful, and we manage to carry off our cross-dressing evisceration scene without significant mishap. We are all very proud, and it is only frustrating that there is not more for the chorus to actually sing. The only obvious casualty I can see is the poor owl – Hedwig – that I have to abuse. He is a genuine work of art, lovingly crafted over days by the props department. I feel really quite guilty as I throw his bloodied corpse into Jezebaba’s cauldron. I suspect it is going to be some poor soul’s job to spend quite a while sorting him out with a packet of babywipes. And a friend who saw the dress rehearsal asks if I was the one with the duck. Insult to injury.
Glyndebourne June 29 2009
Rusalka piano dress week, and rarely, at least for the male chorus, has this stage in the rehearsal process been more appropriately named. The male ‘Jezibabas’ are bedecked in bright yellow tights, army boots and voluminous dresses. More distracting are the large fake chests that we are all sporting. The novelty of these has yet to wear off. In every corner of the backstage area, boys can be seen either idly adjusting themselves, or molesting each other. The girls are finding it great fun to talk to us from the neck down. And within hours we are complaining of sore backs.
Given that the only chorus music in Rusalka is short and generally performed off stage, the stage rehearsals prove to be busy, difficult and technical. Most notably, the first piano dress is the first opportunity most of us have had to see the flying water nymph chorus. It is an extraordinary sight. The girls are hoisted, then shuffled into position high up in the flytower rather like chess pieces. It all looks fantastically graceful. Especially before you’ve been told just how intimately uncomfortable the harnesses are. Elsewhere, there are all sorts of other technical difficulties to overcome. The now infamous ‘cauldron scene’ proves so tricky that it is going to require some remedial action in the Hector studio. It’s a tricky scene involving remembered Czech cues, complicated costumes, lifting a priceless Puerto Rican superstar soprano into a large cauldron, and removing prosthetic body parts from fake forest animals. None of us can remember learning any of these skills at music college. It will be enormously impressive. It isn’t yet. And we are collectively getting weary and accident-prone. Our exit with the cauldron is under a dark stage with a low ceiling, and following our first try, the boys’ dressing room resembles a casualty clearing station. Time off is at a premium at this stage of the season, but collective concussion is not a universally popular way of securing it.
The week is dominated by Rusalka , but after months of music calls, we also finally start production rehearsals on L’elisir . It is quite the antithesis of Rusalka . The set is going to be bathed in light, and the themes are unremittingly light-hearted. I briefly take a moment to consider the irony that I am dressed in elaborate drag in Rusalka , yet am required to play a brooding, menacing presence; whilst in L’elisir I am dressed as a Facist soldier, and am required to play it for laughs. It is a confusing week’s work. Friday comes, and I look for reassurance in the familiarity of Falstaff . But the Herne’s Oak scene has taken a bizarre twist as a sort of homage to the late Michael Jackson. I’m sure I can’t remember moonwalking zombies forming any part of the original choreography.
Glyndebourne June 22 2009
It’s the week of the Fairy Queen dress, and, finally, those of us who are not involved get to see what it is that has been hijacking every spare moment in the schedule and every square foot of available rehearsal space. The clues have been there. The bunny costumes in the male chorus dressing room. The over-sized Christmas tree that has been appearing and disappearing in the corner of the Jerwood Studio. And the signs on every backstage pass-door pointing to the ‘Trap’. Thomasin Trezise – chorus mezzo and winner of the ‘most energetic nymph’ prize in Rusalka calls – has struggled for weeks with her urge to graffiti the prefix’It’s a’to every ‘trap’ sign. I’m secretly quite disappointed she managed to stop herself.
The Falstaff chorus take their seats for the dress, with little idea of the sort of evening that a baroque masque might hold in store. But at the end, everybody has a broad smile on their face, and there is no doubt that we have all enjoyed a fantastic night at the theatre. And our chorus colleagues have done a great job. The bunny scene was a particular highlight. Rumours of fertility rituals were all true, it turns out. We crane over the circle ledge to try and work out which bunny is which. There is surely a great deal of mileage to be enjoyed in the Courtyard Café.
Sadly, there is little prospect of any vicarious celebration of our colleague’s triumph. The next day brings the 75th Anniversary concert. This is not to be attempted with any trace of a hangover. The sheer volume of the Otello extract alone would result in a headache. And the morning rehearsal brings further difficulties. We are seated in two rows behind the orchestra and can therefore hear little other than the brass in front. Our basses, I feel sure, are doing sterling work to my left. Sadly, all I can hear is myself and the third and fourth horn parts. Above us, the audio-visual team are choosing which slides to project on the backdrop. For most of the rehearsal, we are treated to a photo of the 2003 chorus in Idomeneo . I’m in there somewhere. The chosen shot has us all kneeling, pulling agonised expressions and clasping our hands to our ears. Very striking, certainly. Perhaps not entirely apposite.
In fact, the evening concert is truly glorious. We do our bit, and then enjoy masterclass after masterclass in how to perform. Then, togged up to the nines, with the girls all looking implausibly glamorous and the boys looking implausible, it seems a shame to let the night go unmarked. So after the concert most of us head out into the gardens for a picnic and to watch the fireworks. As the final scraps of mortar shrapnel fall around us, we agree it is a classic Glyndebourne evening. I get home at 1.30. The next morning’s Rusalka session is at 10.30. It might not be our best morning’s work.
Glyndebourne June 15 2009
Monday, and, after the excitement of Rhian ‘going on’ in Saturday’s Falstaff performance, it is back to the reality of rehearsals in the Hector studio. We do our best to recreate the set with the things to hand. Fenton’s Act Three Scythe is a broom covered in paper. The Act Three scene Two gramophone is a music stand. Five weeks into rehearsals, and the enthusiasm has waned too much to try and re-create the animatronic cat. Set design apart, our version of the show is looking pretty good.
Our one Italian coleague is now sufficiently confident of his own role to start coaching the rest of us on our pronunciation. The irony is not entirely lost on us. His language coaching so far has consisted of introducing us to the finer points of the art of Italian profanity. Still, this has not been without relevance. Some of the most awkward bits of text are Boito’s versions of Shakespeare’s insults.
Many of our cover rehearsals have been in the Hector Studio, which is always confidence-boosting, as it is bathroom-like in its generosity to singers. So we are quite nervous about the chorus music rehearsal that is scheduled there for Tuesday morning. We are rehearsing a section of Verdi’s Otello for the 75th anniversary concert. With Vladimir Jurowski. And Duncan Williams – Wagner specialist repetiteur.
This is not going to be subtle. And, when Tuesday morning comes, it is not. After two-and-a-half hours, Otello is in rather better shape. Which is more than can be said for the piano. Or the state of my eardrums. We all just hope that it will sound as impressive when we are in the theatre. The last time we sang Otello it was with twice as many people, and from the front of the stage, with the orchestra buried in the pit. As Vladimir points out, it will be best to remember that a Verdi piano is a colour, more than an instruction to sing quietly.
Tuesday also brings the first DVD recording day for Falstaff . It is in High Definition, which sends wigs and make-up into a flurry of activity. Some of the more image-conscious chorus members who have drawn the short straw and are wearing vests as costumes can be seen in the wings ‘pumping-up’. I tried a similar tactic by mounting a raid on the cake counter of the staff canteen. We are treated to the close-up shots on the backstage monitor feeds. Every twitch and blemish is rendered in glorious HD technicolour. Suddenly, those face-covering ghost costumes in Act Three seem like a very good idea. We suspect that most of the footage will be used from the second ‘take’ – on Friday night. And start imagining how we might introduce continuity errors.
The party improvisation in Rusalka is continuing to receive our attention. For the sake of realism, we take time in rehearsal to invent elaborate back-stories. The girls are invited to contribute first, whilst we work on some staging. When it is our turn, we are presented the with the fruits of their work. It is clearly some party.
The romantic twists and turns of the Prince’s party are so intricate that Donna, assistant director, considers writing the whole thing out in diagram form. And there are some suspicions, doubtless unfounded, that the various liasons may not be entirely based in fiction. Kitty Whately – chorus Mezzo and my one-time polonaising partner from Onegin – has a party planned for the weekend. I wonder if any of her guests will be ‘workshopping’.
The end of the week is dominated by cover cast business. Each of the two currently rehearsing casts has a full run for the management, then a 45 minute show on the stage. First is the Cesare cover show, which is a glorious and serene affair. Then our Falstaff show, which is slightly less serene, but nonetheless great fun. We have an hour of stage rehearsal time, which feels slightly frantic, though it is a joy to finally have a set that isn’t cobbled together with chairs and folding tables. The show starts with my character bellowing, at the top of his voice,“Falstaff! Sir John Falstaff”. I wonder if this principle could be applied to all opera as a sort of branding exercise. A tenor could come on and bellow,“Aida!“for example. Or,“The Electrification of the Soviet Union!“Perhaps not. The cover shows go well, and with cover rehearsals over for Falstaff , my schedule should get a little calmer. And on Friday lunchtime, when the schedule comes out, it is quite a spectacular affair. The names on the call list for the 75th anniversary concert read like a who’s who of opera. It should be quite a week.
Glyndebourne June 7 2009
To those of us not involved, the Fairy Queen rehearsals have so far meant little more than those paragraphs of black ink on the schedule that can be safely ignored. There have, rather oddly, been some unsubstantiated reports of strange fertility rites being performed in rehearsal. And the costumes in the boys’ chorus dressing room do look pretty intriguing. On a sunny Monday afternoon, however, the worlds of baroque and grand opera collide properly. The Falstaff company enjoy a grandstand view of the Fairy Queen __ company doing their dance rehearsal on the lawn. The desperate embarrassment on the faces of our more long- standing chorus colleagues is clearly obvious to everybody except the choreographer. Stephanie Bodsworth briefly attempts to go over the wire into the Falstaff camp – we will her on – but she is spotted and dragged back. Ed Lyon, one of the principal Fairy Queen tenors, trills,“Anybody want to Chaconne?“The response is unprintable. But then our break is over, and we head back from the gardens to the gloom of the Jerwood Studio for more Falstaff cover rehearsals. The Mediterranean heat has caused the catering bins to spill their exotic odours in through the windows. We probably deserve the discomfort.
The schedule is still pretty packed, but amongst performances, rehearsals for the 75th anniversary concert, L’elisir , and Falstaff covers, I find a free afternoon for a singing lesson. Not only are lessons obviously good for the voice, but I find them nourishing for the soul too. I sing some Handel, by way of damage limitation and as an antidote to all the grumpy shouting of Dr Caius. It is a busy season at Glyndebourne, but there is barely a legato line to sing all summer. It’s good sometimes just to enjoy singing for the sake of it.
The next morning I return to a Falstaff cover call. I am told (quite rightly) not to sing with so much line. The Glyndebourne ranks have never been a place for self-indulgence. However, as the week ends, and the Saturday night performance of Falstaff progresses, one of our number is able to step from the ranks. Adriana Kucerová – Nanetta – becomes gradually more and more indisposed, and by the end of the interval, an announcement is made about her voice-loss. Rhian Lewis – chorus soprano and Nanetta cover – sings the last act from the wings. She sings it beautifully, as she has in every cover rehearsal, and backstage is buzzing with appreciation. Every hour of rehearsals in studios and scout huts has been more than worth it. We’re all very proud.
Rusalka rehearsals continue apace, and yet more surprises are thrown up. On Friday, in an attempt to replicate the problems that might be introduced by our costumes, the boys are introduced to a feature of production rehearsals that until now has been the sole preserve of our female colleagues. The ‘rehearsal skirt’. Like ‘pin curls’ and ‘character shoes’, these are features of a professional stage career that have always been part of the mystique of the girls’ dressing room. Suddenly, here we are, trying on skirts that still bear the names of the girls we work with. And, they will be pleased to hear, most of them are far too small. As we shuffle through our choreography, I quietly offer up a prayer of thanks that the Fairy Queen __ cast is not around to see us.
Glyndebourne May 31 2009
Week two of the Festival, and on Bank Holiday Monday I try and get some much needed practice done whilst looking after my four-year-old son William.His initial reaction is encouraging -“I like it when you sing, Daddy’. Thirty seconds later and he trots back to offer his next, more honest assessment.“It was funny to begin with Daddy, but can you stop now?” It’s back to hunting for spare practice rooms at work.
Falstaff and Cesare are now in performance, but there are only three shows this week while the season gradually swings into action. Time for us to enjoy some afternoon breaks in the sun before the audiences arrive and the dress code renders our presence unlikely. Unfortunately the Glyndebourne weather gods seem determined to scupper such plans. The show afternoons see the audience picnicking in glorious sunshine. The other days see us huddling in the covered section of the Courtyard Café as the skies open.
At least the rainy days mean some respite from the onset of the hay fever season. The Sussex downs are a tricky place to work for those of us with allergies. I discuss this with my fellow Falstaff cover cast colleague Jeff Black. He informs me that a then undiagnosed and untreated allergy had once forced him to cancel an evening performance. As the Count in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden. And his replacement was Thomas Allen. I try to make my reaction look like that of an interested equal rather than a star-struck ingénue. I think I fail.
Falstaff cover rehearsals have moved on from the Ringmer Scout Hut, and with the basic jigsaw pieces of the show now mostly in place, it is time to start considering characterisation. I cover Dr Caius. The Richard Jones production depicts him as an Eton schoolmaster. Having spent three years in the late nineties researching this role, I feel I have something of an unfair advantage. Eight years of singing at college and at Glyndebourne, and I am finally qualified to pretend to be something I once actually was. I might even be able to dig out my own costume. Caius starts Act One with a hangover. I’ve carried out some research into these too.
Rusalka rehearsals are now in full swing. Our director – Melly – has clearly been warned that the chorus may not be as well informed as she has assumed. She takes a moment to explain the opera’s plot. There are looks of sudden understanding dawning around the room. She is learning. Although every time she asks for volunteers, I notice some of my most experienced and valued colleagues shrinking quietly into the background. It’s a tricky thing to master, managing the delicate ecosystem of the opera chorus. As we are asked to improvise a party scene, however, I feel that mastery is being accomplished. And we are still all excited about the way Rusalka is looking.
Saturday night, and my best friend and his fiancée come to see the show using tickets someone has given them as a wedding present. They don’t seem to mind me crashing their interval picnic. And, of course, it is a gloriously sunny afternoon.
Glyndebourne May 24 2009
The week of the Festival opening, and the weekly schedule runs to an impressive 16 pages of intricate logistical planning. Things are so frenetic, in fact, that the Falstaff cover cast find some of their rehearsals scheduled to take place in the Ringmer Scout Hut – transport laid on. Given that the show already features a troop of Brownies, we speculate that it might be part of some elaborate directorial scheme to aid the characterisation process. The choice of venue can only be good news, however. The Scout Hut is only two minutes’walk from the Ringmer Chippy.
The week starts with the Falstaff final dress. Mike Wallace (chorus baritone and professional kilt-wearer as Curio in Cesare ) and I have a last minute costume alteration in Act Three, as we have to bring on a pair of stage lights. Everybody else has come to the Herne’s Oak party in fancy dress. We have now come as handymen. Suddenly the choreographed ‘zombie moves’ seem a little irrelevant to our characters. We decide to go freestyle, and consider the possibilities. Measuring up parts of the set? Choreographed pencil chewing and whistling through teeth? We settle for some generic ‘tough guy’ acting and a lot of creative twanging of our braces. Fortunately there is plenty of impressive work going on from the principals that should ensure that our improvisations are largely ignored. And, having placed the spotlights on stage, we have a pretty good idea of how to keep out of their glare.
The dress goes well, and the audience seem to enjoy themselves. The final bars call for a collective drinking of a pint on stage, which gets one of the biggest reactions of the evening. The dress rehearsal audience is always the most empathetic.
This week also brings the first production rehearsals of Rusalka . We are invited initially to the model showing, and are delighted by the ‘company spirit’ that Melly Still – the director – seems keen to encourage. She has never worked on an opera before, so never with a chorus – we hope that four weeks of rehearsals with us don’t change her approach. Everybody is genuinely inspired by the project – the set looks great and the ideas sound exciting. Rae Smith – the designer – is in charge of showing the set model itself. In her enthusiasm, she seems to be using the little figurines to recreate the opera in puppet form. The chorus scenes take some dexterity. Perhaps that giant hand from the Cesare set will be making a cameo appearance in the final production.
First nights go well, and the Falstaff party is clearly a success, as bleary eyed colleagues arrive to work the next day. I give the party a miss – it’s a seven day week, and the late night commutes are beginning to catch up on me. This is unusual. I must be working too hard. As the week ends, I bump into an old colleague on the train. He has given up opera singing to take the crossover ‘popera’ route. I ask where he is off to, and he tells me he is going to sing on a yacht at the Monaco Grand Prix. Where am I going? The Ringmer Scout Hut. The commuting crowd decide to have a Champagne night after the next show. We need to rediscover the glamour.
Glyndebourne, May 17 2009
A week to go before the season starts, and it feels as if the winter break never happened. The Chorus have already been in rehearsal for six weeks. My desk in the dressing room is six inches deep in everything from packets of pink iced doughnuts to bottles of make-up remover (we opera singers can’t afford to cling to gender stereotypes). Music rehearsals in the Ebert Room have once again been concerned with the seemingly endless debate about how to pronounce the letter’r’. This year it is Italian ‘singing’r‘s’, and the Czech’r‘consonant that doesn’t feature on my computer keyboard but seems to involve all 40 members of the Chorus pulling an extraordinary look of profound concentration whilst gently showering the row in front.
It’s lucky we’ve all got to know each other.
What’s notably different? This year there are two choruses. The team singing Giulio Cesare and The Fairy Queen ; and the team singing Falstaff , L’elisir and Rusalka . The potential for teasing the Fairy Queen chorus is obvious, but only because I am in the Falstaff team, and there are more of us. There are also an enormous amount of new Chorus members. It is slightly unnerving to start to feel like an old lag, but with so many new faces, it is inevitable. In fact, I’ve become such a fixture that my picture’s even made it into the programme this year. Twice. In different wigs. Next to the caption proclaiming how the Jerwood programme will help us into international careers. I consider the oratorio concert I did in Newcastle in February, and wonder if that counts.
There are other changes this year, notably on the catering front. The staff-only Courtyard Café has undergone a transformation into’Gill’s café’. I’ve yet to introduce myself to Gill, but she seems to have done a good job. Clearly, she has also bought herself a pack of coloured chalk pens and gone a little crazy on the labelling. Barely a surface has escaped unscathed. Clear pots of strawberries are helpfully annotated ‘strawberries’. The bin demands ‘Feed me’ The coffee machine makes an unusual declaration in an artistic establishment by stating that it ‘doesn’t like to be dirty’. I wonder where this outbreak of legitimate graffiti could end. Will members of the OAE be emblazoned with vegetarian logos? Will I be chalk-branded a chocoholic?
A week before the season starts, and we are introduced to the audience’s side of the catering operation. This is the fabled ‘catering dress‘– a chance for the chefs and waiting staff to practice producing a meal in 90 minutes, and a chance for us all to let our hair down before the fun starts. Wallop has undergone an extraordinary transformation over the winter, and we are the willing guinea pigs. We are invited to admire the chandeliers and design features, but most of us are concentrating on admiring the collection of bottles we have brought to accompany the meal. Facebook photo submissions the next morning tell a sorry tale. I suspect that the official photographer hired to capture the new restaurant in action did well to make her appearance early in the evening.
It’s been a full week of final stage and orchestra rehearsals crammed in with the start of cover calls. The first seven-day week starts on Monday, as do the first 12 hour days. The season will be underway.
Over the weekend I sensibly invest in some fresh coffee and a Thermos flask. And some more doughnuts.