By the time this last article is published, the Dress Rehearsals will be as good as done and The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2016 will be preparing for its official opening nights.
Contrary to the usual perception, this is often a time of deceleration rather than a sprint to the finish line – for the directing team, we’ve done all we can technically and dramatically and for us it’s a case of watching the first performance in the theatre just like every other member of the audience. Gone is our ability to stop and shape a movement, to ask for a nuance in a reaction, to try and just nudge the action a little more towards stage-left. Now, we take our (rightful) place amidst the sea of other opera fans to watch the performers breathe a full life into the world that we’ve spent the last three months making together.
The last few weeks of stage-orchestra rehearsals have allowed the singers to combine their movements on the stage with the need to fully sing out, and the final dress rehearsal for each show is an opportunity for that combination of drama and music to be practised in front of a living, breathing audience. By the time we get to the first performance, each performer will have been on stage several times – this process is designed to get everyone so used to the performing conditions that opening night won’t feel like the first time…although there’s something special about an opening night that means nerves will be out in force.
This is one of the trickiest times for the directing staff – we sit in the auditorium and watch the rehearsals and take notes. Often, this means making a note of every time someone is slightly out of position or made a dramatic choice that didn’t quite work, or if we saw a way that a scene could be improved. We will then go away and distill these pages of notes into the three or four most important details (“please can you stay downstage until after they finish their aria”) or concepts (“remember that this first scene is all about trying to impress her”). Unlike plays, which regularly have notes calls where actors and directors can discuss the rehearsal, most opera companies give singers time off after stage calls to rest. This means that any notes must be given in the hours prior to the next performance. From a Rheingold rehearsal on Monday, then, we may have to keep our notes until Friday morning when they’re next on stage – then we’ll see the singers in dressing rooms before they perform and pass on our observations. Once the shows start for real, this pre-performance ritual of doing the dressing room rounds to check in and give notes will continue with the assistant director who ‘maintains’ the show once it’s opened.
The stage rehearsals have also seen the introduction of that most important audience-communication device: the surtitles. Projected above the stage, these provide a rough translation of what is being said by the characters playing below. Of course in wordy operas like these, literal word-for-word translations would be impossible to achieve – the audience has only a moment to shift their gaze up to the screen above the stage to read what’s going on before switching their focus back to the stage action. There are many schools of thought about surtitle translation – some think that the text projected should be literally what the performers are saying, others think that a more poetic paraphrase makes it easier to understand what’s going on. I have written before about how uncomfortable I am when surtitles are deliberately mistranslated in order to hide the fact that the director has decided to depart from the original words and impose their own concept on a piece, making a nonsense of the text that is actually being spoken. How many directors would dare to have a character an English-language piece say ‘here I am in my car’ when they arrive riding a bicycle? Yet, to their discredit, some inexperienced or clumsy directors will stick to their interpretations despite being contradicted by the words being uttered on the stage.
The arrival of the orchestra also means the introduction of full costume, wigs, and make-up, and many of our notes from the production desk reflect thoughts on these elements. While in rehearsal we have had important items (Siegfried can’t be rehearsed without his sword and his horn, after all!), it’s only once we get to this part of the process that we see performers in their full kit of costume with all their hats, shoes and coats and with all the wigs and prosthetics that are required to transform them into their characters. As always, there is some tinkering around the edges, especially for performers who are new to the production, and often these conversations revolve around wigs. These hair pieces often look very different up close to the way they read in the vast space of the stage, and there are adjustments made to several wigs as we progress through these rehearsals. Luckily, with a generous amount of stage time, we are able to see every costume iteration several times and so we have the luxury of being able to try out a couple of options – and seeing them in their proper context – before having to make a final decision.
This is also the time in the rehearsal process for the directing team to start working in earnest with covers (also known as ‘understudies’). In this Ring Cycle, every character has a cover, which means that in the event of illness or emergency there will be someone who has been rehearsed into the role and could go on to allow the performance to occur. It is our job to rehearse the covers for the shows so that they know the staging requirements and the interactions required of them should they be called on to perform in someone else’s place. In effect, this means that we will be rehearsing each opera twice – once for the principal cast and once for the covers. It’s during these rehearsals (held whenever there is a spare moment between stage rehearsals) that we will determine whether the covers would be capable of performing the entire role if required, or if they would be better suited to singing from the side of the stage with an assistant director ‘walking’ the role. Several of these covers are also performing other roles in other operas in the Cycle, and so there is an enormous amount for them to learn. We’re scrambling to fit in all the rehearsals before we get to the opening night of each opera, but with some clever planning (and a couple of 3-session days for the directing staff) we can squeeze it all in.
The cover calls represent their own challenges in terms of directing. As is to be expected, every performer will have a slightly different idea of intention or motivation behind their character. What makes sense for one Brunnhilde, for example, may be at odds with another Brunnhuilde’s view of the character. For covers, who are being rehearsed in order to ‘fit in’ with the other principals in a performance, there is a fine line between allowing an appropriate amount of personal freedom in interpretation and ensuring that that freedom doesn’t adversely impact the other singers who have rehearsed the scene a certain way. Covers rarely meet the other principals they will be performing with unless they have to go on, which means that it is our job to guide them through the actions and reactions that the other performers will expect to see them have on stage. In a scene with only two characters, for example, there can be a certain amount of freedom for a cover to put their own stamp on the role, so long as they are in the right place at the right time for certain key moments. In large ensemble scenes, however, or in scenes with very specific lighting, the best option can be to be a little more insistent on certain blocking. It is up to each director, of course, how they navigate this problem. My own experience has been that being clear about when something is set in stone and must be adhered to, and when there is an opportunity for a bit of ‘play’ is the best way to allow covers to feel that they have been given a structural foundation for each scene while not feeling railroaded into giving someone else’s interpretation of a role.
Ring Cycles are an important part of the operatic repertoire. Not just because they are massive in size and scale, although they are. Not just because they are a costly spectacle which showcases some of the greatest music ever written, although they do. But because the emotional power of this series of operas is unlike anything else. The sense of connection to the characters across four days’ journey with them is immense, and there are unique vibrations to be felt in the air as 100 instruments all play at once, or as 60 voices cry out into the theatre, or as singers who have been on stage for nearly five hours seem to suddenly take it up a notch and sing higher and louder and stronger than before. This is true experiential theatre. Theatre which stays with you long after the final curtain. No wonder some people become hooked and travel around the world to experience these overwhelming sensations again and again.
One of the great privileges of working as a director in this field is that I get to bear witness to the births of characters over weeks of rehearsal, of experimentation, of trial-and-error. In this sense, I too am an addict. It has been my enormous pleasure to work alongside literally hundreds of people across all departments and all facets of the theatre on this project, and I am very grateful to have been able to make my debut at Opera Australia working on this Ring Cycle with some of the finest interpreters of these roles to be found anywhere in the world.
As I stagger towards the finish line of my time on the production, I’m reminded of one thing: if we trust the work we’ve done over the past 12 weeks, everything will be fine. If we start to fiddle unnecessarily or shower performers with notes or suggestions for improvements, we’ll start to undo that good work. Now we put our trust in the actors. Hojotoho!
A personal note:
There are many influences behind people’s decisions to follow their passions, and I’d like to acknowledge one of mine. While I was at university (studying performing arts & law, and not sure which I wanted to pursue), I worked as an usher at the Arts Centre Melbourne - there is such a beautiful symmetry in being able to make my Opera Australia debut in the theatre that I worked at for so many years! Along with being paid to see hundreds of shows of all different genres, I met a lot of wonderful, inspiring, creative people who were also working front-of-house and who collectively influenced me to make the theatre my home. In particular, a man named Bruce Wapshott was hugely important in guiding me towards understanding the vital importance of the Arts in society and encouraging me to find my own voice to add to the chorale of theatre-makers and story-tellers. Not having been home for six years, I was so excited to share my adventures with him and to thank him for all his help at the formative stages of my career. Sadly, he passed away the month before I arrived in Melbourne. He was an enormous influence on me and dozens of others and I’d like to thank him now in print in a way I wasn’t able to do in life.
‘We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams’