I am in a really bad mood when we arrive at the Halls, seriously grumpy, even another review isn’t enough to cheer me up. But by the time I’ve got into my costume for act I, been re-introduced to the man who taught me maths when I was 12, and helped wrap a dozen bottles of wine as thank-you’s for various of the team, I’m back in the Onegin groove. We spend some time getting the dressing room windows just right so that we get enough air without letting in the torrential rain to spoil the Act III ball gowns, which are hanging under the open windows. Everyone is taking pictures of each other in costume, and eating chocolates. Nick comes up for a final warm up and to get the rhythm of one of the choruses just right. There seem to be fewer children this afternoon, we wonder whether, as it’s the first weekend of the school holidays (that’s why its raining!), some of them have been hauled off on holiday. Fortunately the garland carriers are in attendance.
Our first chorus, sung in the corridor and on the stairs, is accompanied by leaking roof and rumbles of thunder. Our basket of cobs is even heavier than usual, and I can barely carry it. Harriet Williams is still struck with laryngitis and her voice has dropped an octave, I hope she’s not doing herself permanent damage singing with it in that state.
Act I is punctuated by thunder and we are beginning to wonder just how wet we are going to get juggling chairs and umbrellas in midge alley waiting for our entrance for act II. Astonishingly the rain stops in time and we don’t get wet at all.
The lemonade has run out! We are reduced to water for the party. Our entrances are all pretty fine, no hesitations, and we all act our socks off. Damian later tells me that a friend of his in the audience commented on me and A ‘giving it large’. I think that’s a compliment? he also commented I have spelt his name wrong consistently. Oops. (Rest assured, Mr Thantrey, I will go back and correct it… ) The rain is just starting again as we race up the alley to the back stairs. I’ve been bitten by those midges again, just below my mouth, and my lip is swelling up. I know they must serve some crucial ecological purpose… um… feeding swallows? But do they have to bite me?
Suzanne and I manage to wriggle our way to near the front for our Act III entrance which means I get a glass of ‘champagne’ for the first time, but in order to stay in character, I give it to her. Those Gremin’s, they are seriously mean with the alcohol, I won’t be going to another of their parties. We get all our cues right and sound really good, and as its the last show, and we don’t have to sing again, I for one, allow Andrew Greenan’s Gremin to affect me and have to wipe away a tear.
And then it’s over.
So now I can’t spoil it for anyone, those Harry Fehr Duel innovations:
I loved Onegin’s ‘second’ being the doll he had given Tatiana, left abandoned on the verandah. It worked perfectly, a non-speaking part given an additional twist by enabling Onegin to reuse his insult to Tatiana to further infuriate Lensky, at the same time as indicating that he either doesn’t believe they will fight, still thinking the whole thing is ludicrous; or that he wants to depersonalise the process- maybe he even believes he can laugh Lensky out of it- he is, after all, a lousy judge of character.
Lensky’s death. My goodness, there was a lot of discussion about this in the chorus and with friends in the audience. If Harry wanted this production talked about, he certainly succeeded. What with the unobservant who thought Onegin had shot Lensky in the back (really, even Onegin isn’t as amoral as that), and the people who didn’t understand how it squared with Onegin’s Act III I killed the only friend I ever valued, I found myself engaged in vigorous argument on several occasions. My take (until I talked to Nick Sharratt about it) was that Onegin feels he pushed Lensky into it, and was therefore just as culpable as if he fired the shot himself, and might actually feel even worse as a result. Fell into the trap there, of thinking its all about Onegin. Nick, however, who says he never understood Lensky until singing it, gave me Lensky’s perspective.
Nick Sharratt and Harry Fehr have developed a whole back story for Lensky: Drunken abusive father, cowed mother; sees the Larin household as the family he longs to be part of, and he has invested all his energy and belief in them. He is trying to embed himself in their lives, hence his engagement to Olga, whom he doesn’t believe really loves him (because no one could really love him, could they?) This fits perfectly with the here in your house aria, which for my money is one of the loveliest bits in the opera (mind you there are lots). Nick also says that Lensky is in search of perfection and doomed never to find it (I loved what I thought was perfection) which is why he is so demanding and turns on Olga so quickly – she has confirmed his worst fears, everyone is just as bad as his father really, and his fragile new life is falling apart around him; this is genuine despair, not just ‘foolish jealousy’.
When it comes to the duel, Lensky can’t bring himself to fire on Onegin, and while he feels he has nothing to live for, letting Onegin kill him is just too passive- so he is left with nowhere else to go, and shoots himself.
All this is divulged during the post production party, hosted by the wonderful Rose Ballantyne, without whom the Blackheath Operas would not happen. We spend a lot of time at the party talking about how the chorus, although made up of anyone who wants to come along, without so much as an audition, turns into a community so fast. One new singing colleague this year says how welcoming she found everyone. We talk about how the voice groups form tribes, and you get to know each other surprisingly well, considering how little time there is for anything other than in-character banter. And how you talk to people week in week out without ever asking their name, carried away with enthusiasm for the project. It doesn’t matter who they are, they’re one of us; which leads on to how the production team know everyone’s name, in a positively supernatural way. Several people say wistfully how it’s a long time to next year, and we discuss other projects people are involved in and invitations are extended, email addresses and Facebook details exchanged.
And, of course, discussion turns to next year, and what we might perform. I mention casually to Damian and Kate that I think Aida would be fun, and there’s a painful pause and they both look terribly disappointed; “There’s nothing for me, in that”, Damian says, “and Kate will have to wait a few years to do that Soprano role.”
I don’t think I could have a clearer indication of how much our principals enjoy working with Blackheath Halls. I mean, Kate’s going to be a world famous star any minute now, and she’s worried we won’t do something with a suitable role for her! Well don’t worry, either of you, I don’t have that sort of influence, I just throw ideas into the pot at the party and stand back. We might want something less ambitious anyway, especially as we don’t know whether there will be any funding.
It isn’t cheap, putting on an opera, even if the cast do pay a subscription and provide props and costumes, and the ratio of cast to audience is about 1:4 which isn’t great for maximising box office. But I think about when I was eight, and started showing an interest in music. My Dad took me to the Southbank to 3 separate things in quick succession: Der Rosencavalier (which I found confusing and loud and unattractive, and put me off opera for about 20 years) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau doing leider (which I loathed, and still don’t enjoy) and the Brandenburg concertos which I loved. However, if I had been given the opportunity to be involved in a community opera, I think my relationship to music would have been entirely different; I might have been singing in opera choruses for years, and retained my ability to read music, instead of (or hopefully as well as) being in a punk band (yes, I really was. Briefly!). All those children who have been involved in this project: introduced to the adult world of performance, the excitement of story telling on stage through music, and the confidence that singing gives you; lucky, lucky things.
So we need to make sure there is funding: all you chorus members with high-powered jobs, ask your company if they’ll sponsor; anyone with any bright ideas for fundraising talk to Rose or Helma; and buy a copy of the BOOK! it’s our Opera, let’s not lose it.
Oh, by the way, production team, if you’re reading; in the spirit of of course there will be funding, let’s be really ambitious; A and I were running a little fantasy about commissioning Sir Peter Maxwell Davis to write us something based on the peasants revolt… after all there’s lots of source material, we’re right there on Blackheath, John Ball school are involved, and nick even looks a bit like Richard II … I’m up for the libretto…!
Or as it will be slap on the start of the Olympics (Cultural Olympiad funding??), and the equestrian events are up the road, something about horses… Troy maybe? And if Max is unavailable what about John Barber? Just throwing ideas into the pot!
This isn’t the last post on Onegin, I will do some photo galleries later, of all the pictures I haven’t used to illustrate what I’m talking about. Please don’t download them- if you would like copies ask, and for a contribution to the funding for next year, you can have a CD. And don’t forget you can buy fantastic photos of the dress rehearsal from Tony Stewart.
copyright Cherry Potts 2011