Orchestral Manoeuvres


One of the delights of being involved in the community opera at Blackheath Halls is working with the Blackheath Halls Community Orchestra. We don’t get to hear what they are up to until the sitz probe, when we run through the entire opera and work out the corners. This is one of my favourite sessions, because we rarely hear the whole work. Then we get two stage & orchestra rehearsals and a couple of dress rehearsals (two of everything because of the split between the schools we are working with) to get used to what the music sounds like full on, before the first night.

Sitz Probe

Sitz Probe

And very necessary it is too, when we’ve been working with a piano accompaniment up until then. Jeremy, our assistant musical director plays a cut down version of the orchestral score magnificently, and it doesn’t always seem possible that he has enough fingers.

I wonder how much attention the audience pay to the orchestra, there is so much going on in an opera, although they are at least visible in our production.

I know I listen differently as a performer to how I would as an audience member – ear tuned to the instrument that will play the note I need a bar and a half before I have to sing it, that sort of thing; making it hard to take in the whole, but two things really struck me last night during the first performance of Idomeneo.

One was how very full and brassy the sound is considering how little brass there is playing – Mozart makes fantastic use of horns, but that’s about it.

The other was during a brief interlude when the tenors & basses are up with the orchestra for our ‘off stage’ chorus of drowning mariners during the storm. We all creep on and lurk at the side and wait for our cue. This gives us an unusual ‘conductor’s eye view’ of the orchestra. I can’t imagine the concentration and eye for detail it takes to conduct an opera, with orchestra soloists and chorus to pay attention to – I couldn’t even begin to make sense of the full score. Nick Jenkins, I salute you! Anyway while waiting for the music to cue us in,  I noticed these waves of movement going through; not the documentary film cliché of the bows all moving at the same time (although of course they do), but for example, a point at which all the violins put down their bows as one, and plucked the strings instead. It was an incredibly elegant little movement, which delighted me – and then I had to get on with singing and had no thought for anything but coming in correctly on the tricky bit…

 

Singing in a veil


sisters2A new experience, singing whilst dressed as a nun. Apparently the costumes are borrowed from a production of Sister Act, and fit where they touch – A’s ‘cutty sark’ needs letting down about a foot so we don’t see her stripey socks until we are meant to. (I like the strategically placed light, it gives me a halo!)

The thing is, the veil makes it difficult to use your peripheral vision to sneak a look at Nick or the monitor for the beat. (It is also seriously HOT.)

The wimples have holes cut in to give our ears a bit of clearance,  and although I thought I could hear fine, I was complaining that hardly anyone was singing at one point – I now realise that the veil funnels your hearing so what’s in front of you is fine and you can hear yourself awfully well (not always a good thing!) but the rest is decidedly muffled. It was very trying getting notes from Harry and Jack against the orchestra running through something, I had no idea what was going on!

sister alexis

Sister Alix

It’s a bit scary how well a wimple suits almost everyone in the tenors and basses. Especially when they pull THAT face.

sister antonia

Sister Antonia

What a difference a floor makes


First stage rehearsal for The Adventures of Count Ory last night, and although there’s still some work to do on the seating, the stage is pretty much set up. Fantastic ‘stone slab’ flooring that will double as the town square and the castle. Bent-wood chairs have replaced the heavy cushioned metal ones that the audience get, which makes them easier to lug about (not that I do, but I sympathise with fellow cast members who are). The cafe tables are smaller, and have proper crockery, and it suddenly feels so much more real, but also profoundly confusing.

There are two points in a production where it becomes one step forward two back. It’s not just me, the principals are making meaningless noises at intervals. Fortunately I am not rattled by this. Eight operas in, I know these are just hiccups.

The first occurs when we go into production and have to start moving and singing at the same time. The second is now, when we get on the stage, because we are also working with the real amount of space, particularly around the entrances. This might seem insignificant, but we spent some time working out exactly how far we can come on stage as a body, without blocking audience view – this is a highly complex bit of choreography! How tall are the performers? Where is it safe to stand? No, we can’t see Nick’s beat if we have the door shut, so yes, we will miss the cue…

I’m still having to practice crossing myself correctly. (apparently I’d adopted Greek Orthodox and we’re going for Roman Catholic. Who knew there was a difference??  It’s something I’ve never done in my life before and being left-handed, using my right hand feels pretty odd anyway.

And then: How many chairs? Are you sure? Who’s moved my chair? Who’s supposed to have the other end of this bench? Where are the cigars? Shouldn’t there be more bottles? Ok, I know this is a cue coming up, but what am I meant to sing?!

Sunday: Writing With Your Ears


My first ever writing workshop went extremely well.  The idea was to cross artistic boundaries and get people to sit in with an orchestra (the Blackheath Community Orchestra in this instance), and write whatever the music moved them to write.  There was a whole load of explanation about hearing and sound and NLP which I might ditch the next time I run it; because it was so exciting writing to live music, that I’m not sure I need to embellish it.

Enthusiastic and engaged participants, fabulous music from the orchestra ( Leigh told me he’d planned the most dramatic piece from the Tchaikovsky for when we were sitting in with them; thanks Leigh) and a fun time had by all.  (Thanks also to the Orchestra for letting us intrude, and particularly those who came and talked to the writers about playing music  in the tea break.)

I think I probably talked too much, and I can see ways to improve it now I have independant evidence for how effective writing to live music is (there was a tiny question in my mind: is it just me that pulls voices and characters and scenarios out of bits of music?  I always want to write when I’m at concerts, but it seems a bit rude).

There was concrete written outcome for participants including a fully-formed miniature Victorian melodrama from someone who claimed to have written only shopping lists before. I want to read those shopping lists, they are probably in haiku.

Some feedback from participants:

I like the link between writing and other creative arts (Participant)

Fantastic experience of being with the orchestra… Ideas for mixing up senses (John)

Very very informative – the time passed so quickly. I never realised before how music could have such an impact on writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it and would like to do more. (Helen)

I enjoyed the music, feeling at ease with what was happening and what was expected.  I’m glad I came, gentle but stimulating afternoon (Norma)

A new angle, an interesting experience (Jennifer)

So I think I’ll be running this again.

I am also running an all weekend feast for the senses writing workshop A Garden Full of Metaphor at Sussex Prairies,  Henfield in July.

© Cherry Potts 2012