After a season involving much waltzing and champagne with Grahame Murphy’s production The Merry Widow, West Australian Opera is about to open its next show, Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Matthew Barclay with musical direction by Maestro Brad Cohen. I’m one of 32 in the chorus for Lucia, with the experience levels ranging from debut to 10-plus years in the chorus. For those curious as to what goes into mounting such an iconic production, I hope to give insight into the inner workings from the perspective of a chorus member.
For the first step in the process, we started our music calls with chorus master Thomas Johnson. Depending on how large the part is the time frame can vary quite considerably. While this isn’t a hugely chorus-focused opera, we do provide a lot of necessary commentary. Therefore, the focus of many of the rehearsals was working on achieving the right mood and colour to suit the drama that’s happened, and to set up for what is to come. Whilst some of the music is wonderful to sing, other sections aren’t as inspiring when rehearsed out of context. These one-word interjections which are almost humorous in the rehearsal room transform when on the stage. It’s a little bit like a relay race and getting the baton passed to you, except instead of passed it’s thrown at you and you have to catch it for a second before throwing it back with the same energy. If there’s a lapse in energy or change in mood it’s extremely obvious, and with 32 people to coordinate, it calls for a lot of precision.
We were so fortunate for this production to have the brilliant language coach Nicole Dorigo over from the eastern states. Again, it’s another level of precision necessary when that many people are singing the same part. You only need a couple of excessive s’s, or the wrong vowel, for a phrase to sound messy, so Nicole's expertise was really invaluable.
For me, the most interesting part of the process is to watch a scene develop from rehearsal room to stage. The mad scene in Lucia is arguably one of the most iconic moments in the operatic repertoire, and watching its evolution throughout the season has been fascinating. Witnessing the incredible Emma Pearson as Lucia descend into madness and grief has been captivating. Even in our first rehearsal of this scene in a bright rehearsal room, with casual clothes and simply a piano as accompaniment, it struck me just how powerful and overwhelming opera can be in its purest form. The extra elements that are added only enhance this and I’m so excited for the audience to see what we’ve been witnessing through rehearsals. One of the greatest perks of working in the chorus has been being able to hear these opera singers up close. Like many singers, I spend many hours listening to opera on youtube, so being able to hear voices like these up close is a real gift.
The first day on set is always interesting, made more so by the beautiful yet at times overwhelming outfits. The costumes in this production are so lavish that at times they can become treacherous. With an abundance of fabric now on stage that wasn’t there in rehearsals, we spend the first few run-throughs getting used to the added challenges of manoeuvring the set. You definitely feel a strong sense of camaraderie amongst the chorus, especially for the first few calls, as you try and maintain a heightened awareness of obstacles at all times!
After the first few dress rehearsals, we were fortunate to be joined by the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra for a sitzprobe. Being able to hear the final element in the production after working on it for over a month is incredibly satisfying. The highlight for me would be listening to the connection and interaction in the duet between Emma and the principle flautist, Andrew Nicholson, during the mad scene. There’s such an intensity felt on stage hearing a full orchestra reduce to one player and I’m sure the audience will find it breathtaking as well.
Following this, there are only two more orchestral dress rehearsals before we open to the public. The production we are undertaking first premiered with Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role, who helped make it an iconic moment for opera in Australia. To be able to see video footage of Sutherland descending the very same staircase we use, surrounded by the costumes we wear, makes this production feel almost transcendental. I hope if you’re in Perth you’ll come and see the show, and see for yourself just how powerfully this music is sung by incredible Australian artists. If you do, I’ll be the woman on the balcony.
West Australian Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor opens on October 26 at His Majesty's Theatre. More information and tickets available here.