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Being an actor – in opera

Published by: Douglas McFarlane on 13th Feb 2009 | View all blogs by Douglas McFarlane

Being an actor – in opera

By Gráinne Gillis

It actually came about by chance that I auditioned for the Royal Opera House.  One Friday afternoon, I got a call from the assistant chorus manager, Ruth Mulholland, asking me if I would be interested in attending an audition for an obscure (to me) opera called Die tote Stadt.  Funnily enough, just that week I had decided to take a year out from acting and focus on singing, which was always my first love – so my initial reaction was “Why not?”

Having read Music at University College Cork, and subsequently done a Diploma in Opera Performance at Birkbeck College, I was somewhat acquainted with the medium.  When I first came to London, I spent my last £20 one month to go and see one of the most amazing theatrical productions of my life, which was Der Rosenkavalier, starring the “dream team” of Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Christine Schaefer – it was worth a month of beans on toast afterwards!  And I also occasionally had coaching sessions with one of the repetiteurs there as well, so it was not a complete novelty to go through that hallowed stage door.  Nonetheless, the day of the audition, the longer I was there, the more I knew I wanted the job.

You see, the Royal Opera House isn’t just an opera house.  In the days of Garrick, it was one of two great theatres in London, the other being Drury Lane.  Actors like Garrick and Charles Macklin would perform in both the rival houses, sometimes even on the same night; and in fact, the original house was funded by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, commissioned by John Rich, which was a satire on opera seria. (Coincidentally a production of The Beggar’s Opera was playing recently at the ROH, with a further production retitled The Convicts’ Opera being performed in March at the newly opened Rose Theatre in Kingston).  The glorious history of British theatre was one of the reasons that, as an Irish actress, I wanted to train and work in the UK, and so I hoped that I might have the opportunity to appear on the great stage, which I had so often read about in the biographies of great actors and singers.

The audition itself was quite simple for this particular production – it basically consisted of walking across the room like nuns in a procession.  This became relevant to us later, as odd a request as it seemed at the time. We were told by Chris, one of the assistant directors, that it was not so much about acting skills per se, but the ability to work as an ensemble, and also to fit the costumes, as this production had been previously performed in Salzburg and Vienna.  The audition process in total took twenty minutes, and culminated, X-Factor style, with those who had been chosen being lined up and told on the spot.  Suffice to say, I was one of the lucky few, and totally delighted with the whole process – not the agonizing wait that one is accustomed to enduring as an actor, but a decision made on the spot.

A month later, on the 29th December, the company of actors, in total 20 male and 8 female, met in Opera Rehearsal Room 2 (ORR2) to rehearse.  Not knowing what to expect, I decided just to observe as much as I could on that first morning.  The boys were up first, to rehearse what in the opera is known as “Vision 2”.  Die tote Stadt (or The Dead City), to explain, tells the story of Paul, who cannot come to terms with the death of his wife Marie.  He is visited by an actress called Marietta, who is similar to his wife, and through various visions, he comes to believe that it is his wife. To give away the ending would be unfair – it is showing till February 17th.  It is also the first fully-staged production of this opera in the UK – another good reason for coming to see it. Korngold (the composer) is best known for having revolutionized film music, and there are cinematic flourishes a-plenty in this opera, in addition to heavy influences from the Richards, Wagner and Strauss.  It is a sublime piece, both musically and visually, and hopefully not the last time it will be seen in the UK. 

 Going back to Vision 2: this consists primarily of the character Marietta transforming herself and being held aloft by the company of actors.  One of the actresses, Holly Walters, stood in for Nadja Michael, who was yet to arrive for rehearsals.  Not knowing that some of the actors had already worked several times at the ROH, I was completely blown away at how quickly they picked up what had to be done, and how already, within an half hour, this scene was taking shape, under the watchful eye of Adrien Mastrosimone (choreographer) and Karin Voykowitsch  (the assistant director to Willy Decker, the great German opera director).  What was clear was that, although the ensemble playing was important, so too was the fine detail – which was confirmed for me later when I had the opportunity to watch this scene from the auditorium.  It seems to me just from this one experience, that being a director of opera must be a little like being a great artist who paints moving pictures on a huge moving canvas.  There is very little theatre anymore that does that, even musical theatre; and the sumptuousness of opera lies in the daring of these grand concepts.

That first morning, we also rehearsed a scene, which for us as a company is one of only two scenes when we are on stage together.  It has caused great hilarity, as the male actors are transformed from handsome young rakes in top hats and tails into – nuns.  And not any old nuns, but nuns in white habits (so likely novices).  For some reason, there is a proliferation of Irish accents backstage just before going on (I can’t think why), and then we push a huge white cross which is on its side, with the wonderful British mezzo-soprano Kathleen Wilkinson, singing while lying on her side on the cross, while we look reverentially (or as reverential as a bawdy company of actors can ever hope to be!) on.  

That first day also, I was asked to stand in for one of the singers in another scene.  Eager to acquiesce, I agreed to do it – little did I know that I was to be held aloft, on another, smaller wooden cross, on the set which was on a rake – and I have a dread of heights! It is no exaggeration to say that even going up a ladder can cause my knees to buckle!!  It was at that point in time that I realized the superhuman creatures that great soloists are – not only do they have to sing, and act, but they also have to have stamina to cope with the demands that opera productions require to make a great spectacle for the audience.  Later on, in rehearsals, when I watched Nadja Michael cope with what is a huge “sing” and all the stage business that she performs incredibly, I felt totally humbled – there is a huge difference in being an actor in a show and remembering lines and moves, and being an opera singer, who has all that, and more, to deal with.  In the end, I took a deep breath, and quite enjoyed the experience of being on the cross – which, even for a lapsed Catholic, was quite a strange sensation….

They are like great athletes, these singers; and yet, despite their huge talent(s), it seems like they are generally very sweet and humble and just willing to do what it takes to get on with the job in hand.  In fact, I would say that is an attitude that generally pervades the Royal Opera House, and one feels like a small yet important cog in the wheel of a greater enterprise.  In fact, when occasionally something or someone didn’t work in rehearsals, it did stick out quite conspicuously – as opposed to straight theatre, where to keep it interesting, one is always trying to develop ideas and try new things.  That is not to say that I think that opera is a static art form – but there have to be certain things set in place to highlight the spectacle and sheer grandeur of it.  And despite our fleeting walk across the stage, the nuns have garnered rather a lot of mentions in the reviews of the production that I have seen – which shows there are no small parts in opera….

As a place to work, the Royal Opera House is second to none.  It is a  sprawling labyrinth of a building, filled with people who are hugely enthusiastic about what they do, enormously friendly, and surprisingly egalitarian.  You are likely to sit next to someone like Carlos Acosta (Principal with The Royal Ballet) or Ingo Metzmacher (Conductor of Die tote Stadt) in the canteen, and not bat an eyelid (well, I maybe fluttered my eyelashes a little….) It also seems the ROH is very loyal to those it employs on a freelance basis – some of the actors have been there 20-30 years, as have the extra chorus.  What is striking as well is that the actors and singers tend to be skilled in more than one area: among our company of actors alone, there are several dancers, acrobats, models, singers, musical theatre performers, some writers – and that is just a very generalized overview of the talents that I am aware of.  Speaking to some of the permanent staff, their starting point in working there seems to have been a passion for either music or dance or both, and in fact, the house seems to actively encourage the development of talent, with signs in their practice rooms inviting their staff to use them unless they have been booked in advance. 

As an actor, it is an ideal job – the contracts are relatively short, unless one accepts several operas in advance, which is always an individual choice; and the conditions, both artistically and financially are fantastically rewarding.  It has been an immense honour and privilege to be part of a world-class company; and I can honestly say (with no disrespect to any previous work in the straight theatre) that it has been the most fun I have had professionally in a long while.  As an actor, this has been an experience to relish and recommend; and though it has been my first experience of working in this way, I am hopeful that it will not be my last.


1 Comment

  • Douglas McFarlane
    by Douglas McFarlane 9 years ago
    As ever, a little googling and the answer is provided....
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