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

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

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.

7 June 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.

15 June 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 3 Scythe is a broom covered in paper. The Act 2 scene 2 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 colleague 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.

22 June 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 cafe.

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.

29 June 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 fly tower 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.