On (and off) stage at the 75th Anniversary Festival - August

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The final instalment – Paul Hopwood talks about life on (and off) stage at Glyndebourne’s 75th Anniversary Festival.

Paul is a tenor in the Glyndebourne Chorus, he started his professional life as an English and drama teacher, then left a job at Eton College to spend a year on a postgraduate scholarship at the Guildhall. He joined Glyndebourne the following summer, and has been working here on and off for the last six years, combining it with his freelance work.

3 August 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 ten-thirty 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 cafe 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 stressed 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 voluptuous 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.

10 August 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 re-tune 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.

17 August 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 The 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 mis- pronounced 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 follicly 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.

24 August 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 to ever 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 d’amore .

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.

31 August 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 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 E. Sussex tractor convention. I make it through 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 source 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 2 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 4 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.