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

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Month three – 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.

6 July 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 3. 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 psychological 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 rehearsal 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.

13 July 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 un-read. 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 Cafe 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.

20 July 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 1940’s 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.

27 July 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 twenty-first 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 aficionado. 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 a 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.