My Rehearsal Room: Vanessa Scammell

My Rehearsal Room: Vanessa Scammell

A day in the life of the conductor leading Opera Australia's The Merry Widow. 

Vanessa Scammell
Melbourne, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Vanessa Scammell

A day in the life of the conductor leading Opera Australia's The Merry Widow. 

In July of this year, I started work on a new production of The Merry Widow, commissioned by the Opera Conference and slated to perform at all the major opera countries in Australia. Working with the talented Graeme Murphy as Director, his Associate Janet Vernon and Assistant Shane Placentino, we put together a sparkling new operetta that kicked off in Perth for the West Australian Opera. With much love, the show has evolved, the new libretto has been prodded and poked, the glorious score has been tailored, dance steps have been created, sets miraculously appeared and finally this new production of The Merry Widow was born.

Having just spent a month rehearsing a new cast at The Opera Centre in Sydney for Opera Australia’s Melbourne season of The Merry Widow, I am about to fly down to Melbourne for the next stages of production. This is always an extremely busy and highly focused time, so when asked to contribute a look into my rehearsal process, I figured there is no better way to let the reader know how my days are spent than to follow me from rehearsal to rehearsal. Hang on to your hats!


6.30am – Up and at it early, I walk across to my gym in the city from my accommodation. I find that the walk and the workout clear my mind and energise me for what is going to be a massive three call day.

7.30am – Coffee in Degraves Lane – a must.

9.30am – I arrive at the St. Kilda Town Hall for my first Orchestral Readings with Orchestra Victoria (OV). We have two calls to get through the entire show so being prepared and running to schedule is paramount. I always arrive early to chat with Orchestral Management and check the layout of the orchestra (this, of course, has been planned in advance and replicates how the orchestra is placed in the pit at the Arts Centre Melbourne). I also like to connect with the musicians who arrive early. I have worked extensively with OV so there are a lot of familiar faces and, inevitably, there will be questions asked about certain sections of the music. Answering them ahead of the first orchestral reading always feels like a head start.

10.30am – The orchestra tunes and the first orchestral reading begins.

11.30am – During the break, the concertmaster, Roger Jonsson and I go through some of the violin solos that we will be rehearsing in the next hour. These solos are closely connected to the role of Hanna, who is the ‘merry widow’ and played by the very talented Danielle de Niese. I sing and conduct through some of the passages so he is able to shape the music and can understand the breathing within the phrases. There is also a lot of choreography involved in this production so I give Roger a heads up on the shape of some of the dance pieces and where rubato is required.

11.45am – Back to the rehearsal and we make it through Act 1 and start Act 2… we are on schedule! 

12.00pm – I have a quick phone meeting about a sound balance/Sitzprobe call onstage in the theatre for this Friday. The reason we have forgone the traditional Sitzprobe is because we are using microphones for this Melbourne production and therefore the sound balance and checking can be done at the same time as putting the orchestra and singers together. I was also informed a few days ago that we may need to record some sections of the show for a commercial that is being filmed, so I will need to decide on when and how we fit that into the already tight schedule. Someone has kindly run and picked me up some lunch, which is great as it is now time to start again!

2.00pm – Our second orchestral reading begins.

3.30pm – I spend a bit of time chatting to the principal percussionist in the break as we need to make some additions to certain numbers to achieve a rustic, Hungarian, Gypsy sound. This is not notated so it is great to see what possibilities we may employ.

3.45-5.00pm – We get through the rest of the score, I repeat a few of the more difficult sections and I say goodbye to the orchestra until Friday.

5.00pm – I get a lift with one of the cellists in the orchestra and head to the theatre at the Arts Centre Melbourne. 

5.30pm – I arrive at the theatre, sign in and find the conductors suite where I quickly unpack. The piano technical rehearsal starts at 6pm. This will be a slow-moving night as it is all about rehearsing the technical aspects of the show with the cast and crew for the first time. I find Stephen Walter, the repetiteur, in the pit. I love the last stages of rehearsing with the piano in the huge and empty pit. It is always such a pleasure to sit and have time to take in the stage and set and surroundings. Some of the crew come in to adjust my podium and stand and I chat to lighting about my ‘special’ light (the light that is on me so the orchestra and cast can see me). We get through Acts 1 and 3 and the cast gets an idea of their space on stage. Stairs and exit points always feel so new after having been in a rehearsal room for weeks on end.   

9.00pm – The day has ended! I have a quick chat to publicity who plan to take some shots of me tomorrow during the rehearsal for this article! I quickly chat to Orchestral Management again regarding the set-up of the pit and I confirm with Tony Cray (Head of Sound) about microphone placement.

9.30pm – Home. I quickly look at the schedule for tomorrow and go over my plan of attack for rehearsals for the next few days. I take a deep breath and collapse on the couch in my accommodation… only 6 sleeps until opening night!

Opera Australia presents The Merry Widow at Arts Centre Melbourne from November 15. Tickets and further information available here