As you may know, I am a Royal Opera House Student Ambassador. I went into this role knowing a fair bit about ballet but being a little inexperienced with respect to opera. I’m not completely oblivious – I’ve seen a handful of operas in the past and have sung in a chorus for oratorios and various concerts – but ask me to name some arias and I’d probably stop after three or four. I therefore viewed the ambassadorship as a way to enhance my knowledge of opera and share a journey with other ‘newbies’, which excited me to no end.
So it was a great thrill to hear from Simon (the guy in charge of us) that we had been invited to observe Royal Opera Live (or #ROLive in twitter-speak): a full day going behind the scenes as the Royal Opera prepare new productions, current repertoire and future concepts. Here’s the intro video all about #ROLive:
Leaving Bath at the ungodly hour of 6:35am, I arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door around 9:20am – just in time for Ed Watson to brush past me on his way (I presume) to warm up for morning class. I was a little ballet-starstruck, but not as much as when we sat down for our morning briefing and Dame Monica Mason was on the table next to us being interviewed – talk about a living legend! But the day was to be about opera so I peeled my eyes away and concentrated on the complicated schedule, which had been precisely incremented down to the second.
First up for us was a model showing of a new production of Rossini’s take on the Lady of the Lake: Donna del Lago. When I read this on the schedule I was a little confused – why is a model so important and why should it take an hour to see it? It turns out a model showing is an entire minature recreation of a full set along with costume designs, concept ideas and even small figurines. This is a chance for a director (and their creative team) to explain to the influential and important people of the Royal Opera House their vision before it gets put into production.
I don’t think I had ever truly considered the amount of thought that goes into an opera (or ballet) production. The director, John Fulljames, began explaining the idea that the Scottish landscape is an emotional, visceral place that changes people. They make use of embodiments of Rossini and Sir Walter Scott (with their whisky-drinking liberal friends!) reminiscing the tale to emphasise this emotion, and their distorted opinions warp the costume and design of the ensuing scenes. Seeing all the thought that had gone into just this one production made me start to realise the effort that a single new production takes – and this was before any sets or costumes had been made! The fact that the Royal Opera House can put on a handful of new productions every season is truly staggering.
Next up we sneaked into the side Stalls Circle to watch the piano rehearsal of The Minotaur – a new opera from Birtwistle that has been slightly reshaped since its 2008 premiére. Unlike most Opera I have seen, there was a rawness to this work; the music reflected the harsh reality the Minotaur inhabited. This was echoed in a stark set, blood-baying chorus and terrifying minotaur head. Later we would catch a glimpse of the Sitzprobe (literally ‘seated rehearsal’) where the singers would be accompanied by a full (86-piece) orchestra for the first time and we would hear the depth and complexity that the piano was unable to convey in this rehearsal. Here’s the trailer for The Minotaur:
Heading for lunch, we called into the ROH staff canteen (eating amongst Royal Ballet School dancers and Ed Watson!) before making our way back up to the Clore for the Royal Opera Chorus’ rehearsal of Va Pensiero: the rousing chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Launching straight into a full run-through I immediately got goosebumps as the chorus lamented and then roused themselves as a vocal challenge to their oppressors. It was only once they had finished and their chorus master, Renato Balsadonna, started pinpointing corrections that I realised the depth with which they worked on this piece. This small syllable could be more melancholic, that note could be more defiant. Much like a ballet dancer aims to tell a story and portray a character with every step they make, so too does a singer with every note they sing. Truly fascinating, especially the ability of Balsadonna to pinpoint the smallest of corrections, much like an accomplished Ballet Master or Mistress correcting a corps de ballet. Here’s a clip of the Met chorus singing Va Pensiero:
Following on from the chorus rehearsal we were treated to something entirely different, and a bit more like what I’m used to – physical training. The Jette Parker Young Artists are young singers at the Royal Opera House who get a rounded education to make them into world class Opera stars. Not only are they tutored in vocal issues, but also in all elements of stagecraft including, we found out, fighting. In their scenario they fought with a razor blade landing multiple blows and eventually a fatal one. This was an element of their performances I had not thought about, much as the sword fighting training shown on Royal Ballet Live for Romeo & Juliet. Once again, it was astonishing to see just how much effort goes into this world – and the fact they could do all this fighting whilst singing!
With a quick break we had a wander around the ballet studios to see if there were any rehearsals going on. It was surprisingly quiet, but we did get a glance at Cojocaru/Kobborg and Nuñez/Soares warming up before having a good look inside the MacMillan studio (including a picture of me at the barre to appear soon!).
Following on was an interview with Politician-turned-Broadcaster, and passionate Opera-goer, Michael Portillo. I found myself completely agreeing with his words, applicable to both opera and ballet. One particular comment resonated – that to enjoy opera (and also, I believe, ballet) you simply have to open yourself up to the experience. If you open up and let the story transport you to its world then the magic can truly happen: you find yourself laughing and crying, in joy and grief, and are suddenly part of the story yourself. That is the true beauty of opera, ballet, and the performing arts.
Moving from the emotion to the technical, Dušica Bijelić (a Jette Parker Young Artist) had a vocal class for an aria in Eugene Onegin (for which she would be covering Tatiana in the upcoming production). I never realised singing could be so technical! Her corrections seemed for the tiniest things: a slight unwanted delay between syllables, a “t” sound rather than a “dd” sound. To think that she covered only a 3 minute aria in a 20 minute session – the whole opera is over three hours long! It is this attention to detail, however, that makes the Royal Opera (and the Jette Parker Young Artists) world class.
And all of a sudden our day was over. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the evening performance of La Bohème but I’ll certainly be going to see it next week when it’s beamed across the world on live cinema relay. It was truly a fantastic day and, more than anything, it was a privilege to see hundreds of dedicated and talented people work together to create magnificent works of art. (It also cemented my dream of one day working for the Royal Opera House in some way or another!) I’ll certainly be checking out the cinema relay of Donna del Lago after the great model showing and I’ve already booked tickets for Die Zauberflöte (one of my favourite operas) and Eugene Onegin later in the season. I know my passion still lies firmly with ballet but today has taught me there is a whole world of opera for me to explore too – and I can’t wait to get started!
Did you catch #ROLive? What did you think? Have you seen an opera recently? Let me know in the comments section below!
Until next time, keep on dancing!