The stage rehearsals are here. After 6 weeks in the rehearsal studio, 12 months of planning, preparation and meetings, and 3 years since the first performance of this Cycle, we’re in the State Theatre in Melbourne, ready to throw everything we’ve done in the rehearsal rooms onto the stage.
The stage rehearsals bring their own special kind of magic that isn’t possible in the confines of the rehearsal room. Suddenly, after weeks of being figuratively (if not literally) staring up the noses of the singers, the directing team is perched at the production desk about half-way back in the stalls and we’re able to see the full height, width, and depth of the set and its surrounds. The stage sessions are (almost) always my favourite part of the production; there are many worse places to be in the world than nestled in the red velvet comfort of the State Theatre. For me, there’s nothing quite as exciting as sitting bleary-eyed late at night in an otherwise empty theatre, and staring at the set as the all-important, yet subtle, nuances of lighting are achieved.
Now our hard work in the rehearsal room can be transferred to the full glory of the stage, which means, in part, ceding control over to the tireless Magicians of the Theatre: Stage Management. While Stage Management is always present in rehearsals, forever taking notes, tweaking schedules, poised with a prop or costume piece 20 seconds before we realise we need it, now they are in their element. On each show is a Stage Manager who is in overall control of the stage, a Deputy Stage Manager who calls the lighting, revolve, and fly cues from the prompt copy score (also known in some theatres as the ‘Show Bible’ – probably a more fitting description of the omniscience of the SM crew) and Assistant Stage Mangers who provide support in each wing, ensuring each performer enters in the right spot at the right time with the right things.
Each opera is given stage time, broken down into Stage-Piano rehearsals (the ‘director’s rehearsals’, used by us for spacing, practising scene changes and fixing lighting) and the Stage-Orchestra rehearsals (which are the domain of Maestro and the music staff, bringing the full company of musicians together). We’re currently in the midst of the Stage-Piano calls.
Seated at the production desk are representatives of the technical departments that make the show run – the lighting desk houses the designer and the programmer, whose computers operate the lights, making full use of the lighting rig above the stage, the additional lights rigged along the rail of the orchestra pit and below the dress circle, and follow spots (or ‘domes’) operated by specialist crew from above. Next to the directors’ desk (with its superfluity of scores, notes, bits of paper and, of course, cups of coffee!) is the Technical Desk, where the technical and production staff oversee all the non-performer elements of the show. During each stage-piano, an endless flurry of questions comes from our side of the desk to theirs – ‘Can the curtain mechanics be quieter than that?’ ‘Is it possible to have the flames any higher?’ ‘Is the revolve dead on centre?’ - all part of the vital elements of a modern production.
Throughout the Stage-Piano rehearsals, we stop every now and then to correct things on the stage. Particular bits of blocking that worked well in the smaller dimensions of the rehearsal room now look awkward, or are not framed quite as well as we thought now that we can see it in the proper space. Tama and I run up and down the various levels of the theatre to make sure that sight-lines are clear, checking to ensure that the little additions and changes that have been made to the stage shapes don’t cut any of the audience out of the action. On the production desk is a microphone that’s hooked up the front- and back-of-house sound systems – the God Mic. It’s from here that Neil will sometimes call a halt to rehearsals as we make adjustments to the set or to positions on stage. The Music Staff are kind enough to allow us some time to make these corrections – they know that once the orchestra arrives it will be their turn to run the show and we’ll be relegated to taking silent notes from the desk.
With the arrival of Stefan Vinke (playing the not-insignificant role of Siegfried) we’re scrambling to rehearse him into his scenes in the moments before each entry on the stage. He has a spectacular memory and usually a once-through in a rehearsal space on the side of the stage is enough to remind him of the context and emotional temperature of our staging for each scene before he goes on. A veteran of several Ring Cycles, it is incredible to see him searching through the various productions he’s done before he lands on the memory file for this production. A quick talk-through, a moment to remind him of the props and dangers in the scene we’re about to do (“make sure you’re clear of the revolve for this section because it will start to spin really fast…”) and then he’s on stage and performing like he’s spent the last month in rehearsal. I suppose an incredible memory must be an important pre-requisite if you’re to jet around the world from production to production. Such is the life of the itinerant heldentenor.
Neil will leave the production by the time we get to the Stage-Orchestra rehearsals, so we’re making the most of his time with us to get his final thoughts on bits of staging. It’s not unusual for a director to leave midway through a revival, although Ring Cycles are such a big undertaking that it’s useful to have Neil around to clarify things. He’ll return for the last couple of performances, but from here on it’s up to us to make sure that everything we’ve set so far makes it through the rest of the stage rehearsals.
The stage rehearsal stage is also the time when tempers are most likely to fray, as the weight of the past 2 months starts to catch up with everyone in the pressure-cooker environment of these last few rehearsals. We have to be careful to let piano rehearsals run as much as possible to let the performers get into the swing of each scene – these are such big roles, not just musically, but also emotionally. With characters that have to live through such enormous swings of sentiment, we have to ensure that we allow the performers an opportunity to practice the pacing of that aspect of their performance. In this sense, emotional stamina is as important as vocal. This is also our opportunity to test whether what has been created in rehearsals translates successfully to the stage. These rehearsals are our last chance to correct and to nuance our work before the focus shifts to the marriage between orchestral sound and staging – we have to get it right.