Archive for the ‘ Opera ’ Category

Why won’t the sheep cross that land?

Sometimes people should stop and ask themselves “is this really a good idea?”  If they did, I would have been spared my worst theatrical memory, which is still vivid nearly fifteen years later.  By far the worst thing I have ever witnessed on the stage was The Roswell Incident, in a touring production by Music Theatre Wales.  I was studying A Level Theatre Studies at the time, and we had to immerse ourselves in as much theatre as possible, so we would dutifully travel to the nearest towns and cities which were blessed with theatres, and saw many wonderful productions, including Blood Brothers and a Georges Feydeau farce, which made me laugh until I cried.  The Roswell Incident just left me numb, partly because what we did not know until we arrived was that this was a chamber opera (we really hadn’t done our research, for all we knew really was the title and the venue).  The main thought that passed repeatedly through our heads as we watched it unfold was ‘why?’  Why did anyone decide this was a good idea?  Why didn’t anyone stop them?  And why are we watching this?  To be fair, the year was 1997, the 50th anniversary of the famous potential alien crash landing, but that really was no excuse.

The opera opened with lots of flashing lights and exciting sci-fi-type noises in a sequence designed to evoke the flight, and more importantly the crash landing, of an alien vessel.  After this visceral, exciting and engaging beginning, we met our first character, a farmer, and we were treated to an aria (I think that would be the right term) from him.  Even now, I have flashbacks to this moment, as he maintained a straight face as he asked “why won’t the sheep cross that land?”  A fair question, but opera of course tends to stretch most questions and statements out for a very long time indeed.  Sometimes this can be beautiful, but in this case it was almost funny, but not in a good way.  I remember distinctly that “sheep”, on at least one occasion during this song/aria/section of recitative/whatever, lasted for more syllables than it should be allowed to.  “Shee-hee-hee-hee-heep” a relatively accurate rendering of it.  And the word “land” was set on a very low note indeed, right at the bottom of the singer’s range.  Basses can sound glorious, but there is something extraordinarily comical about a man hitting the lowest notes in his register (hitting the highest notes, on the other hand, is often painful rather than funny).  Perhaps time has been unkind, exaggerating these features which struck me on first (and, thank goodness, last) hearing, but there was worse to come.

The alien or aliens (it wasn’t entirely clear) was or were portrayed by four children in platinum blond(e) wigs.  At one point in the proceedings, these four little cherubs sang a song about…  well, about something.  Possibly about being a lovely peace-loving alien or aliens, travelling through space and spreading alien happiness.  I don’t recall.  What I do recall is that the choreography largely involved tipping their heads to one side, straightening them and then tipping them to the other side.  The reason I remember this is because one alien (or one aspect of the alien’s mind) had a loose wig, so that when its head tilted one way, the wig would flop off, then would land neatly back on the child’s head a few bars later, only to come loose again.  Over and over again.  I doubt anyone in the audience would have noticed if the rest of the cast ran around naked at the back of the stage, as the flip-flopping wig had a hypnotic power which held our attention in a truly powerful way.  Which would explain why I can’t remember what the alien or aliens was or were singing about.

To make matters worse, to illustrate the crash of the ship and the terribly sad death of its crew of one or four, the children climbed into body bags.  Except one of them couldn’t get the body bag open, so we were treated to the sight of a poor child struggling with a sheet of black plastic, desperately trying to create an opening to crawl into.  I want to be able to say that he or she just gave up and threw the unopened body bag over their body, but I think that is just wishful thinking.  By this point, anything could have happened and I really wouldn’t have been surprised.

After the wigs and body bags section, the opera went on to examine other perspectives on the incident, including the yearly Roswell UFO Festival and other ways in which the event has made an impact on society.  It may have had some interesting points to make, but by this point it had lost me.  I truly could not believe what I was seeing and hearing.  Now, so many years later, I sometimes have to get the programme out to reassure myself that the whole thing was not a fever dream.  A truly surreal experience, I can’t imagine I will ever see anything like it again.

Acting like a duck

You keep paddling like the clappers,
Just keep paddling with your flappers,
While seeming to be dreaming and calm.
Just beneath the surface
You may struggle to get by.
But nothing can deter you
If you hold your head up high.

So sing a mother and son pair of ducks in Honk! as the ugly duckling learns to swim.  The image of a duck or swan gliding serenely across the water while its legs are working nineteen to the dozen beneath the surface is particularly apt for theatre.  No matter how polished a performance the audience may experience, you can guarantee that backstage is complete chaos, involving many people whose existence would surprise the paying punters in the audience.  Actors may be dashing about at breakneck speed, changing costumes and locating props.  Crew members all in black will be changing microphones, getting sets into position, acting as crowd control, clearing the stage of hazards, grappling with velcro, safety pins and gaffa tape.  There’ll be a deputy stage manager constantly whispering into his or her headpiece to communicate with cast, crew, lighting people, sound people and more.  Miles of electrical cable coil like snakes around the building, clothing rails are hidden in the strangest places, the sewing machine is very rarely turned off and at any given point, several people will be in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

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Singing Librarian flashbacks: Disasters

This week, I have given much thought to those times when theatre just goes horribly wrong.  When the set decides to cave in, the follow spot overloads the electrical system, the pyrotechnics explode three scenes too soon, or everyone forgets what they’re supposed to do.  It happens to everyone involved in theatre at any level sooner or later, as I have been reading.  In Great Operatic Disasters, one discovers terrible disasters that have overtaken performances in venues as prestigious as La Scala and Covent Garden, while the ever popular Art of Coarse Acting describes the ways in which amateurs and others essentially bring such disasters down on their own heads.  The schadenfreude-seeker in me is now anxious to get hold of a new compendium of real disasters called Stop the Show!, and of course there are many further examples to be gleaned from the biographies of our great stage stars.

Of course, over the years, I’ve encountered a few of these wonderful moments, though nothing to top the more outrageous events recounted in these books.  Continue reading

Singing Librarian flashback: Dido and Aeneas – costume dramas

I think it’s about time for another flashback.  Another long one, I’m afraid.  Summer 2003, The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury.  Dido and Aeneas, performed in a double bill with The Ephesian Matron.

There are many things I could tell you about this production, but the thing that sticks most clearly in my mind is costume, and I know I shall never forget the June evening when we had our first fully-costumed run-through of the show.  Nor will anyone else present.  It was one of those evenings. Continue reading

Singing Librarian flashback: Tosca tantrums

Readers beware.  This is not a happy tale of backstage life, but rather a cautionary tale that I remember every time I am tempted to have a prima donna moment or act like a divo.

Summer 2001.  The Gulbenkian TheatreTosca.  This was one of the summer operas for the University of Kent with a combined professional and amateur cast, where I sang in the chorus.  In this one, I also had a significant ‘silent role’ as a soldier, but perhaps more on that another time.  As part of the project’s mission was to take a fresh look at each opera (always performed in English), the action was moved from occupied Italy during the Napoleonic era to occupied France during the early 1940s, which mostly made very good sense.  One notable change that is significant to this flashback is that the shepherd boy who sings a little ditty to open act three became instead a lost young woman in a holding camp, one of many about to take the train journeys we know so well from that period.

As act three opened, it was snowing on stage.  Continue reading

Singing Librarian flashback: Die Fledermaus

I recently added a page to the blog on my on stage exploits, and thought I’d use occasional posts to peel back the curtains and give you a peek at backstage life as I’ve experienced it during some of these productions.   Sometimes the things the audience doesn’t see can be just as interesting as the things they do see.  So let’s begin…

Summer 2002.  The Gulbenkian Theatre.  Die Fledermaus, with a cast consisting of a mixture of professionals and local singers.  I won’t explain the plot, as it would take far too long to go into the multitudinous twists and turns, but it’s a silly tale of multiple mistaken identities, most of them deliberate.  We set it in the swinging sixties in New York City, which meant that the pivotal party had guests ranging from Andy Warhol to a guitar-toting hippie (me).  I present to you three scenes from the University of Kent Summer Opera production of Die Fledermaus. Continue reading

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