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

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Every month from now until August, Paul Hopwood, a tenor in the Glyndebourne Chorus is going to write about his life on (and off) stage throughout Glyndebourne’s 75th Anniversary Festival.

Paul 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.

17 May 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 forty 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 d’amore 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 twelve 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.

24 May 2009

The week of the festival opening, and the weekly schedule runs to an impressive sixteen 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 3, 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 re-discover the glamour.

31 May 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 Le nozze di 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 characterization. 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 1 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.