Yesterday (Monday 7 January) saw the Royal Opera House, London, opening up to cameras for the whole day providing backstage coverage from 10.30am to 7.30pm. It wasn't quite fly on the wall stuff, and we perhaps did see a little too much of presenter Kirsty Wark, but then backstage in a theatre needs quite a lot of interpreting for the average listener. Covent Garden had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to present a decent selection of events, varied in type and content, to give the real feel of how an opera house functions. So we had an early rehearsal for the new Eugene Onegin, a chorus rehearsal, the presentation of the set design for the new La Donna del Lago, the stage rehearsal with piano for The Minotaur, stizprobe, music rehearsals and much else besides. Finally we saw Sir Mark Elder preparing for the La Boheme that night.
The live streaming was done on the Royal Opera House website, the Space (the Arts Council's on demand digital download site) and the Guardian. For me, the streaming did not always work and I had to re-set my connection; probably more a reflection of my poor internet link than anything else but perhaps an indication of the events popularity.
One of the things which would have become apparent to the casual viewer during the day, was quite how uneventful rehearsals are. Stage rehearsals in particular involve a lot of stopping and starting and long pauses where people go into huddles. In the morning we were allowed to 'eaves drop' on a rehearsal for Eugene Onegin with Simon Keenlyside (Onegin) and Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatyana) and director Kaspar Holten, whose first Royal Opera production it will be. (It is also his first time staging the opera).
The rehearsal took place in one of the large rehearsal rooms, with a bit of the set. But what most people would have noticed is that the singers barely sang at all, simply mumbled and hummed, as they went over and over a small point in the staging. An example of the sort of underpinning that underlays any production. It helped that Kaspar Holten is, like Antonio Pappano, is a natural charmer on TV, very fluent in his explanations. Perhaps the most captivating image was that of Simon Keenlyside, perched on the scenery waiting for Holten to finish talking to Stoyanova.
Language was an interesting point here. Keenlyside admitted that he did not speak Russian, so had had to work hard on the text. Holten generally spoke German when he talked to Stoyanova, switching fluently and effortlessly between the languages. Welcome to modern opera direction.
A very different sort of rehearsal took place later, on stage. This was a the full stage rehearsal, but with piano, of The Minotaur. The streaming of this started later than advertised with archive footage (admittedly very interesting) acting as filler. I suspect that some of this was because the role of the Minotaur was being taken at the rehearsal by the cover, Alan Ewing, rather than Sir John Tomlinson, who was injured (its a very physical role). Inevitably it sounded a bit strange, with Sir Harrison Birtwistle's score being played just by a piano. But again, what people will have noticed was the stop start nature of proceedings.
The basic camera view-point was from the auditorium and Wark watched the rehearsal with Stefanie Cliffe whose explanations about what was going on, and why, were a real insight into how such a complex production is put together. Wark also interviewed Christine Rice and Johann Reuter who both appear in the piece, it was interesting that Rice noted that returning to the piece after a gap (5 years, I think) was effectively like starting anew. I missed the afternoon's sitzprobe of The Minotaur which I think would have been equally interesting, especially as Sir John Tomlinson was due to be present for this one.
The set presentation for La Donna de Lago was a very real event. The designs for a new production are presented to the technical, marketing, development and other departments. We saw director James Fulljames, designer Dick Bird and costume designer Yannis Thavoris (all making the Royal Opera debuts), discussing the concept behind the opera and displaying the set and costume designs for act 1, with Fulljames
talking through the dramatic action.
There was a lot of concept there. The piece starts in the 19th century with the Celtic Society in Edinburgh, and the role of Elena is the embodiment of the highland landscape. You wonder how much of the complex intellectual layering will tell in performance, but it was fascinating to hear the director and designers discussing their concept. And it gave real insight into the sort of processes which go on before and whilst an opera is being developed.
There were other things during the day which, inevitably I missed. There was the chorus rehearsing Va pensiero for the new production of Nabucco, the sitzprobe for The Minotaur, more work on Eugene Onegin and we saw the childrens chorus warming up before the evening's production of La Boheme.
Almost as fascinating were the interstitial bits. Wark moving around back stage pointing out the various different sets ready for the different productions (the Royal Opera generally has around 6 productions on the go). She interviewed the head stagehand about the way the sets were transferred on and off the stage and he explained how with La Boheme (which pre-dates the re-building of the stage machinery), they use a mixture of striking the sets manually and the new machinery. There was also some archive footage of such events, which I found entirely fascinating.
The day finished with an interview with Sir Mark Elder, who was conducting La Boheme that evening. This included him wandering around back-stage having last minute chats to the singers. It wasn't riveting theatre, but it was curiously illuminating for those of us who usually sit in the auditorium.
There were moments when Wark seemed to be only just in control of the interviews, but then again given the sheer amount of time she was having to act as continuity anchor for, and the amount of material she had to cover, the result was a good job. I think that good balance was struck, explaining things but not assuming that we were all complete idiots.
I have to confess that beforehand, I had had my doubts about the event. But it was completely absorbing and fascinating. If other things had not dragged me away, I could quite easily have watched for the whole day.
The content is currently still on the Royal Opera House website and on the Space, for those who want to explore.