Our Rehearsal Room: Mandy Farmer

Our Rehearsal Room: Mandy Farmer

A view of rehearsal from the Production Manager of WAO's The Merry Widow.

Mandy Farmer
Perth, Australia

Our Rehearsal Room: Mandy Farmer

A view of rehearsal from the Production Manager of WAO's The Merry Widow.

We are now midway through the stage rehearsals for The Merry Widow at His Majesty’s Theatre - last night we had our final two piano dress rehearsals and next week we rehearse with the orchestra, culminating in the general rehearsal on Thursday and the opening night on Saturday. The Merry Widow cast is made up of 14 principals, 12 female chorus members, 16 male chorus members and 12 dancers, and had been in the works for almost a year! Last August, I saw the design presentation in Sydney and after seeing how big the sets were, I attempted to design a technical schedule which would accommodate these technical requirements and our backstage budget!

The dancers rehearsed for two weeks prior to principal rehearsals as did the chorus, who learnt their music under the tutelage of our Head of Music, Thomas Johnson. As this is a new production, the principals and chorus were measured last November and fitted in May for their costumes. Part of my job is to organise the fitting times and liaise with Opera Australia wardrobe staff who are making the costumes in their Sydney workshop. This is an Opera Conference production which means that it is owned by the four member opera companies (West Australian Opera, Opera Australia, Opera Queensland and State Opera of South Australia).

The principals had their first music call together in Perth on Monday June 19th and production rehearsals began the following day. In late April, I put together a rehearsal schedule in consultation with the director Graeme Murphy and assistant director Janet Vernon. This gives everyone a structure for the rehearsal period but changes to the schedule occur regularly! Once rehearsals begin, Stage Management look after the rehearsals and any rehearsal changes. The dancers have been rehearsing concurrently in the 2nd Floor Studio with Shane Placentino and join the production rehearsals in the 3rd floor studio when they are needed - there is always something happening!

The set was built in the Opera Australia workshop and was freighted across the Nullabor in 7 forty-foot containers. Opera Australia’s Head Mechanist has been in Perth for two weeks overseeing the build and the massive scene changes. Dave Parsons, Opera Australia’s Head Electrician has been supervising the lighting build, as well. We spent a week building the set in situ and a further four days rigging, focussing and plotting the lights in the theatre. Cast aren’t allowed on stage until the set is in place.

We have had two rehearsals on stage (the ‘piano techs’) and four piano dress rehearsals. The piano techs allow the cast to get used to the set under lights but without costume, make up, and wigs. That extra layer is added at the piano dress rehearsals. The Merry Widow has three acts and to allow for each act to be rehearsed as well as a full opera run, I scheduled four piano dress rehearsals. An additional layer will be added next week when the orchestral rehearsals commence. Conductor Vanessa Scammel will rehearse the orchestra on Monday at Perth Concert Hall (this call is known as the ‘orchestra reading’). While the orchestra is rehearsing,my team will be on stage with scenic artists touching up details on the set. There are 12 mechanists who move and build the sets: 7 lighting technicians (Head LX, Board Operator, floor LX and four follow spot operators), one Sound operator, three Stage Management, three wigs staff, one makeup artist and  8 wardrobe staff (dressers and maintenance).

My job as Production Manager is to oversee the entire process and to ensure that we are ready for the performances. The job is primarily one of logistics, scheduling and liaising with all the departments, including the orchestra and the theatre, as well as managing all stage management, wardrobe, backstage and technical tasks, all the while keeping within the production budget. It can be stressful - during production week, it involves very long hours - but it is mostly a lot of fun! I love opera so to spend my working life – over 30 years now - in the throes of it is a dream come true.

  West Australian Opera presents The Merry Widow at His Majesty's Theatre from July 15.