Monday, 9 June 2008

Back to real life. Damn

Well, it’s over. Around 10.10pm on Saturday we chorused the final words of Peter Grimes, and nine months of slog, stress and singing was finished.

Those final words are ‘terrible and deep’, and in the last stages of rehearsals there were quite a few of us worried that our Grimes would be more terrible than deep. I was too jittery to post up any blogs here through May. Each week we’d stuttered through another scene with results rather like this:

Tim: Right, four before 46, one-two-three-four-one... (plays piano with left hand, conducts with right)
Chorus: Er... mm... ter... gri... Pe... er... mmmes... (shift in awkward silence)
Nan: Noooohhh! Stoppp! Look, we’ve got threee weeeks left, and you still don’t know it. Goohhh awayyy and learrrn it! And where's Mario/Hamish/Abby/Jenny/Hamish/Ryan/Rob/Dan?
Chorus: Er.. in Cardiff/at work/at work/in a recital/in a lecture/at work/in a seminar...
Tim: Four before 46, one-two-three-four-one (falsetto) Peee-tahhh Graimmmmmes...
(repeat ad nauseam)

The Bank Holiday Monday rehearsal on 25 May had been a profoundly depressing experience, enough to make you sail out till you lost sight of the Moot Hall and then sink your boat. It consisted of a few episodes of adequacy strung together by vast expanses of mumbling uncertainty. The slightest change to a stage direction – how about coming on from the left for this bit, not the right – would throw us into the sort of distressed confusion of a Saga coach trip stopping to find the toilets closed for cleaning.

The Sitzprobe on Monday 2 June, our first run-through with the orchestra, was all rather bitty. Understandable, given that it was only the second time we’d been in the same room as Mario, our Grimes. But then as Mario is a surgeon, being in the same room as him is not necessarily a condition to aspire to. It was then just 72 hours before public performance. If the opera had indeed been one on the slab for one of Mario’s operations, you suspect the anaesthetist would have been a given a subtle signal to save everyone needless stress and effort and ‘accidentally’ overdo the propofol. In my drunk scene I actually did have some anaesthetic of my own, in the off-licence plastic bag with two cans of Polish beer in it.

The first glimmer of hope – that we might just get away with it after all – came in the dress rehearsal on Thursday. This was down to two reasons (apart from most of us knowing most of our parts by this time, no doubt due to frantic last-minute exam-style cramming). First, the orchestra kept plugging away regardless when one of came in a bar too late or forgot a line, so we had to grope our way back without the noohh-stoppp business; second, Britten thoughtfully does that opera trick of giving one instrument your vocal line, so you can home in on the oboe or viola or whatever it is and just follow that line.

It was still ropey in most places, but it was getting there. Rather like those station announcements for a severely delayed rail service: ‘the train now approaching platform 6...’, goes the computer-generated voice, omitting to tell you that while it is technically approaching the platform, it’s still in Plymouth. I went out with Tim and Hamish for a few beers afterwards, and while we weren’t exactly brimming with confidence, we weren’t too scared to rush off home early to pore over the scores.

And so to Friday 6 June, the opening night. Traffic problems, a hot sunny day, and the belief that it was a 7.30pm not 7pm start, had kept a few people away. When the orchestra tuned up and we trooped on stage to the court scene, it looked only half-full. But that got up to over three-quarters by the time Act I started. And once that chopped-up sea shanty got cranking up to start the piece, with that immediate Brittenesque touch from bar 2 (the almost obsessive repetition of little melodic phrases, the morphing of rhythmic cells, conjunct lines that keep switching through modes or keys) the little miracle got going. There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t my off-licence plastic bag.

Read Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music if you haven’t already. It’s excellent: the story of how music briefly brings peace and transcendence to the awfully messy personal life of a quartet violinist. The central character, Michael Holmes (a northerner whose dad was a butcher, like me), discusses the effect music has on him in profound ways, but when it comes to what happens in a performance, he’s stuck. From the moment his quartet plays the first bar to the end, he blanks out; he’s immersed in the music, and has no recollection after what he was doing or thinking.

Well, it’s bit like that. I can remember everything about Friday evening up to when the court scene started; but between there and five past ten, nothing. Away with the musical fairies. As out of it as one of Mario’s patients, being filleted on the slab. I think that’s good. Mind you, I do remember the episode in a certain fisherman’s mad scene where he missed out two pages, to the consternation of conductor, tuba player, and backstage chorus. Fortunately Dan was on the money and worked out where we’d jumped to, and got us back in. Did anybody else have a memory lapse on the night? Perhaps, I can’t remember.

Then it was finished, we went to the pub, I drank with some friends who had very supportively come along (thanks Tim, Jen, Mark). One of them was a rather uncompromising friend, hereafter UF, who wasn’t all that encouraging. The orchestra was very good, UF thought, but there was a litany of quibbles, from inaudible passages here to unclear diction there to inauthentically tied cravats everywhere. I went home rather subdued and spent most of Saturday morning knackered and brooding. Much of what UF said was correct, but a bit unfair, I thought. This is not Covent Garden: our total costume budget was a hundred quid, as much as the ROH would spend on a single cravat. Anyway, I spent the afternoon practising and trying to address some of the points he’d raised about me, and feeling rather down about it all.

But Saturday night put pretty much everything right. Nan was looking happier than she had for about a month: reaction had been good from the college, which was very welcome since they had been very wary about putting in such big chunks of resources to support an opera. And there was a curious feeling among all the cast that tonight we’d nail it. Curious because the second night of Magic Flute and Carmen weren’t quite as electric as the first; less adrenaline maybe, a notable drop in voltage. Yet here we bucked the trend. Perhaps it was the feeling that the Friday ‘first night’ had felt more like a dress rehearsal, and Saturday was the true first night.

There were still a few slips, the usual collection of entries a bar early or late. But we got over them. In the court scene, we nearly got two bars ahead at one point, and I could see panic-stricken Tim miming ‘WATCH ME!!!!!!!’ at us, before cueing in the vast tenor chorus (ie me, Jonny and Will) in a gigantically exaggerated gesture that could have been seen on Google Earth.

And, well, it just felt great. The applause at the end had been OK on Friday; tonight it was huge, and that feeling as we all came on to do our slightly self-conscious bows was something very very special indeed. As I discuss at length in post-performance binges, it’s something money can’t buy. (Which is just as well, given the amount of unpaid leave some of us have taken...)

Big cheers, big applause. Big success. Everyone played their part literally and metaphorically. Nan’s usual talent for bringing in favours paid handsomely - Stewart C for example, who does the lighting for what’s effectively beer money. (Evidently we couldn’t even hire the equipment for three times what we slip him to come and do it all for us. Everyone mentioned about how much difference the lighting makes, giving the whole thing a really professional image.) Masumi, who did stage stuff and brought in her baby to one dress rehearsal, to much cooing from the female members of the cast. Roz, who helped out shifting stuff and supplied some invaluable vocals in the offstage chorus. Jo, who started as Nan’s hairdresser and ended up doing all the wigs and makeup. No doubt lots of other people too, who I’ve forgotten or neglected; apologies.

It was fabulous, one of the great nights of my life. Yes, it was a flawed student production, and if we had another night, we’d really nail it. But it was something very special. There’s a climax in Mario’s mad scene where he does two phrases starting on a high A and swoops down a seventh ('Come on! Land me!') and then, forced up to an A, 'Turn the skies back and begin again'. I was sobbing; it moved me in ways I can’t begin to express in, er, you know, what’s the word, er, words.

I went off to the post-match celebrations, swigging all that wine Nan had so generously provided for us and enjoying the free buffet provided by the Hobgoblin. I talked bollocks to Nathalie and Roz, and later on total bollocks to Ross and Casey. Like the performance it’s just one big happy blur. I cycled home through bustling, but traffic-free, streets at around three in the morning. On one particularly deserted stretch I contrived to fall off, sustaining nothing more dramatic than a bruise and a graze, but otherwise got out unscathed. It seemed a metaphor for the opera: minor problems here and there, but basically we got away with it. I thanked my lucky stars when I got home though. Let this be a lesson to anyone thinking of cycling home after a few drinks. If you leave for home at a sensible time, say half eleven, the streets will be busy and you might come to grief with a vehicle. So stay drinking until at least 3am, when the streets are empty. Phew.

Thanks especially to Nan and Tim for their unswerving mix of encouragement and backside-kicking. Thanks to Mario, Abby and Hamish for carrying off big parts so well. Thanks everyone. You were all stars.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m knackered. I’ve had enough of this opera thing, it was great while it lasted, but I want nothing whatever to do with any more opera ever again. I’ve got too many other things in my life to worry about.


And that’s final.



Wonder what Nan has in mind for next year?