It's not a situation I expected to find myself in, stepping into the rehearsal room, walking past the singers towards the conductor's stand, and hoping that everything I studied in conducting 101 will come flooding back... Though conducting has always been an interest of mine, I'm much more at home on the other side of the podium. That however, is the nature of Operantics' work. Our young company is full of people stepping up to take on roles they haven't yet had the opportunity to explore, at every level; whether its first-time choristers, opera students taking on their first major role, or a design graduate building their first opera set.
As with so many musical endeavors, this particular project was born at the pub, when a tenor put down his beer and said "I wish someone would put on St Matthew". A few days, a few phone calls and a few coffees later, a plan was in the works. All we would need was fourteen soloists, a double choir, a double orchestra, a venue, a conductor, a publicity manager, an organ, someone to play it, a producer, scores, a schedule that everyone can commit to... It quickly became clear that this would be a much bigger undertaking than we had assumed. All of us would have to take on a little more work than expected, and for myself, that meant signing up to run our chorus rehearsals.
With only two orchestral rehearsals, time is at a premium. My job as chorusmaster is to make sure the chorus is as well prepared as possible, so that our time with Luke (our conductor) and the orchestra can be used for polishing, detailing, and making this a really nuanced performance. This can mean anything from note-bashing some of Bach's more fiendish harmonic twists, to rehearsing the same chorale at three different tempi, with four different interpretations of what exactly a "pause" entails, so the chorus is prepared for whatever comes. The scope of these rehearsals is incredibly broad. Our chorus is made up of singers with a huge range of experience. Some choristers are training as classical singers at the Conservatorium, some are dedicated hobbyists singing their third or fourth St Matthew, and others are singing Bach for the very first time, so each rehearsal is a mixture of detailed work, part learning, and a certain amount of "tips & tricks" on vocal technique. Keeping a balance in rehearsal can be difficult, even more so considering the mammoth size of the St Matthew Passion. With so much to cover, my biggest challenge is knowing when to move on, rather than letting myself get carried away in all of the exciting detail this work has to offer!
This kind of production really is a sink or swim affair for everyone involved. Both the creative team and performers are diving head first into a huge undertaking, with little to no room for error, given the timeframe we have. Every minute of rehearsal counts, and I have been blown away by the focus and hard work of our choristers. Many are coming to rehearsal straight from full time work, and the rest from full time study, so it can be a big ask to tack on an extra few hours of late-night rehearsal, particularly on a work as demanding as St Matthew. Where a standard choral mass will have five numbers, the St Matthew Passion has twenty five chorus numbers in part two alone. Granted, some of these numbers are no longer than nine bars, but those nine bars can pack a lot of complexity with an eight-voice, split choir making stretto, fugal-style entries, and moving quickly through multiple keys! Making sense of these parts can be a challenge, and no sooner have you gotten your head around what Bach's doing in a particular number, than it's over and you have to move on to something completely different! That being said, the payoff for all that work is wonderful. Unlike many other oratorios, the choir takes on a series of characters throughout the performance – they are Christ's disciples, they are the council of High Priests, they are the angry mob demanding Christ's blood; the music is as varied as it is dramatic, and the sound of the chorus going full pelt in eight parts for Sind Blitze, sind Donner is really something to behold.
This production certainly is a work of passion for us – almost everyone involved in this performance is a volunteer, giving up their time and effort to support the work of our charity partner, Sydney Care, and to create something beautiful. When we talk about the Passion of Christ, though, the word "passion" doesn't have the same meaning we understand today. Here, it literally means suffering. The connection makes sense – how many of us have suffered for a passionate love? Suffered for our art, even? Bach's setting of the St Matthew Passion truly evokes that suffering. As many times as the story of Christ's death has been put to music, from Handel's Messiah to Jesus Christ Superstar, I struggle to think of any setting that compares to the St Matthew Passion on an emotional level. The soprano aria, Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben, moves audiences to tears, and no sooner has its last note sounded, than you have a wrathful chorus demanding that Christ be crucified. Judas' betrayal and regret, Peter's fear, and indeed Christ's own humanity are so poignantly expressed, it is impossible not to be moved, regardless of what you believe.
As it's been said before, "Not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Bach".
Operantics present St Matthew Passion at St Stephen's Uniting Church in Sydney on April 7 and 8.