Oh the weeping and the wailing

The trouble with having a brilliant time at Blackheath Halls prancing about singing is that inevitably it comes to an end. The party helps make the break, and it was good to hear from orchestra members how much they enjoyed the process too, and either wanted to know what on earth we did to Macbeth (because seated with back to action) or admiring the way we faded into the darkness as assassins (which we didn’t know we were doing.) Also good to chat to everyone and say thank you properly for what has been the best opera yet, and the bar was high already. I am unreservedly proud to have been part of this production, thank you Nick, Chris and Rose (and everyone else) for making it such a joy.

Having lots for the chorus to sing really gave us the freedom to show what we are capable of – even the drunken spoofs at the party were in proper harmony this year, (if not absolutely the right key) usually I feel sorry for Rose’s neighbours.

Undertakers convention in Kiev

Undertakers convention in Kiev

Howsoever, very glad not to be donning black polo-neck, combat trousers, heavy boots and woolly hat today – all that stuff is on the washing line, it looks like we’ve just got back from an undertakers convention in Kiev.

I can’t settle to work today so I’ve made a vat of Gazpacho (too much to fit in the fridge, which is going to be a problem…) and started sifting through the nearly 3000 photographs from Lena Kern (official photographer this year) They are absolutely brilliant, and there are actually several of me this year, usually (apart from the year Tony Stewart did the photographs) there’s only  one or two. I will post my favourites later. The accounts can be put off for (yet) another day.

There is a groundswell of opinion amongst the chorus and some audience members that we ought to have recorded the performance. Nick, if you are reading this – maybe we could at least get the chorus back together and just do our numbers? Guaranteed 60 sales!

© Cherry Potts 2013

More Macbeth Reviews and more unsung heroes

The Independent have reviewed Macbeth as have Classical Source they both really liked it, and the chorus get special mention.

I would just like to mention another set of unsung heroes – the stage managers. Managing sixty amateur chorus members thirty children and all the principles, to say nothing of guns, knives, glasses, trays, beer cans, playing cards and cigarette packets, gold watches, lit lanterns and sixteen stakes (that’s sixteen, whoever it is who kept bringing on an extra one!!) is no mean feat. We take them for granted. That is quite an accolade. Thank you Richard, Sarah, Charli and Osnat.

© Cherry Potts 2013

Macbeth does Murder Sleep

Being part of an opera plays havoc with your sleep (and eating) patterns. I’m a bit of a homebody normally (although running a publishing venture has changed that a bit – schlepping about with a suitcase full of books to readings of an evening has meant my normal bedtime is now nearer midnight than it used to be) but during the opera run I find myself eating lunch at 4pm, supper at midnight (or later) go to bed still zinging with excitement, with the music roaring round my brain … not asleep before 2am … but come what may I’m awake again at 6am, which means not a lot of work gets done, because I need a bit of a lie down by 2pm which usually means I crash for a couple of hours. Of course today its a matinée so we are planning brunch for about 11, then there’s food at the after-party, so that’s sorted, but sleep … when will that happen?

Macbeth doth Murder sleep.

I’m not complaining: I’d rather sing than sleep, but there will definitely be a period of readjustment required, a diet of folk music (or anything really just not Opera) to calm me down, a gradual return to more normal meal times, support group meetings with fellow opera withdrawal sufferers … I suppose the words can come off the kitchen walls now. And the poster out of the window, oh dear!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

but that’s a different play.

© Cherry Potts 2013

Musical storytelling

Last night, before the performance Chris Rolls (director) reminded us that it is easy at a second performance to think, right I’ve done that now, and to slacken off a bit.

Don’t let it get comfortable, he said. Good advice.  We didn’t. However the advantage of having done a full performance with audience was that this time round, I was more aware of what I was experiencing, and of when to rack it up a bit more – for example, the Hell is Gaping chorus, after the death of Duncan, I have always found very moving and upsetting, in dress rehearsal I had quite a lump in my throat. This time I was angry – fists clenched, I’m going to tear the throat out of the B*st*rd who did this, kind of thing. The joy of live music – you can (literally in our case) get inside it and explore. One of the most satisfying moments for me in the whole opera is the silence at the end of that chorus, when sixty plus people have worked their way, a semitone at a time, up to the third Strike him Dead, – and there is room for us to realise what we are saying before going into more ‘appropriate’ outcry to God. The echo is subtle but wonderful.

Alix, Suzanne and I are billeted in the men’s dressing room because we only have a couple of minutes to change from assassins to courtiers and can’t leg it up the stairs and back in the time. I have to admit it’s rather refreshing – only two people fighting for the mirror (and it isn’t any of the three of us) – and we are all sitting around reading scores, discussing performances we’ve been to or taken part in, other choirs we sing with, and how much of everyone else’s parts we know.  We agreed that we could probably take over the witches scenes if we had to, and portions of Lady Macbeth – we can hear Miriam perfectly through two walls and a corridor – there was much laughter at the idea of a minimalist version with only bass and tenor voices, singing all the parts, but only for the bits we know – I don’t think there are any serious contenders, though we might have a go at the after-party!

Another cracking moment last night, which I  really relished was our assassins’ scene. Standing on the main stage looking down the vast length of the performance space to the orchestra the far end (all fourteen of us) and thinking, right, let’s fill that, as we sing Tremble Banquo, meet your fate, and hearing our voices bounce off the back wall – very satisfying – another of those excellent little silences to fully appreciate both the music and the storytelling. I grow to appreciate Mr Verdi’s skill more with every rendition, and respect Nick Jenkins’ skill in interpreting and controlling the musical  juggernaut that is Macbeth. I spend a lot of time thinking, wow, that’s clever, as another little nuance is revealed to me. Again, LIVE music: I bought a recording when Macbeth was first announced as this year’s opera  and wasn’t terribly impressed, I’ve played it constantly since and I’m still not impressed, and these are people you’d have heard of singing it; by comparison, almost any live performance lifts my spirits, engages me, and makes me really think about what’s happening musically. It’s not just about sitting in a big dark room with nothing to distract; no, the difference is that even the best recording is only stereo (for people with two ears, as Kenny Everett used to say) whereas live music is three-dimensional, you can mentally explore the shapes and turn them upside down and inside out if you want to; and no two performances will ever be the same.

So those of you coming to Macbeth on Friday and Sunday, be prepared for something unique.

© Cherry Potts 2013

Macbeth first night shakes the walls

I don’t know how I didn’t notice in rehearsal, but when we are waiting in the dressing room, we can not only hear the overture, we can feel it, the drums and brass rumble through the floor and the walls shake slightly. I can only assume that they’d been holding back a bit until now! Not quite bringing the house down, but darn close. After a moment’s concern over the age and fragility of the building I settled in to enjoy the sound and feel of ‘hell gaping.’

If you haven’t got tickets for the rest of the run, sorry, you are too late – we are sold out.

Nick Jenkins (Musical Director) had a huge grin on his face each time I checked for a cue, so I think he was happy. And Chris Rolls (Director) was very free with his hugs afterwards, so I think he was happy too. We certainly were: I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed an evening of performing so much, this is right up there with Eugene Onegin three years ago.

One of the (many, many) best things about the BHH Community Opera is getting to know professional opera singers, directors and musicians on a personal level, so it was great to see in the audience (and speak to later) the lovely Wendy Dawn Thompson (Orpheus in our production of Orpheus and Eurydice four years ago), and the delightful John Flinders, (a regular repetiteur for BHH choral productions, who is already looking forward to Elijah with Edward Gardner OBE at BHH next year.) We make new friends every year, and it speaks volumes for the quality of the organisation of Rose Ballantyne and the real feel of community and team work the process engenders that we regularly see former principals and directors in the audience of the latest production.

Special thanks to Jill for the VERY WELCOME beer in the bar afterwards!

Reading at Brixton BookJam: Opera first night nerves

First night nerves not about the Book Jam, but about the Opera which starts tonight (there are a very few tickets left – you’ll be sorry you missed it!)

CP at BookJam 5 copyright A AdamsI was a bit uneasy about yet another night out in a week of performances, but thought, what the hell, I’ll ask to go on early. Which I did. I really wanted to stay and listen to the rest of the stories, but really, really needed one early night. A shame, I love being read to, and there was some really interesting work going on. People talking to angels in telephone boxes, unwilling May Queens, and monsters swimming through concrete, just my sort of thing! I read Cloud Island, in a carefully edited version that kept it to the five minutes allocated (unlike other people, who shall not be named, who royally took the p).

CP at Bookjam1 copyright A AdamsI’m not really nervous, excited more. I keep thinking I ought to go and have a lie down before we have to go (reminds me of the party at the beginning of Gone with the Wind, with all the ladies lying about in their underwear) but I’m too keyed up for it to do much good, which might be why I’m blogging! It’s going to be sweltering in the dressing rooms, and we have full battle dress for the first few scenes then a two-and-a-half-minute quick change into evening wear – getting the boots off is the hardest bit. I bet you thought being in an opera would be glamorous, didn’t you? We are pouring sweat and trying to look like an elegant crowd of courtiers. I did find myself singing the right thing while struggling with a vital prop in the dress rehearsal on Sunday, and thought, Right, we’re ready then! Up until then if anything other than straightforward happened I would forget to sing. To think I considered not doing the Opera this year. As IF.

Spooky rehearsals

Chris Rolls (director) and Oliver Townsend (designer) have really gone for the supernatural and psychological in our production of Verdi’s Macbeth – lots of ghosts, spooks and blood.

masters of the earth2An Act III cameo role for 5 children as the Masters of the Earth warning Macbeth against MacDuff and setting im up with the Birnham Wood nonsense. this is followed by the legion of Banquo’s descendent kings flitting ominously across stage staring out at Macbeth (Quentin Hayes) in contempt, who collapses in horror.

king3  king 1king 5 king2

macbeth3macbeth 2

Our witches are looking suitably evil even before they get into their costumes and wigs (I think that might be a first for BHHCO, massed wigs, quite alarming coming across them spread all over the floor of the recital room).

witches4 witches 6 witches 2 witches 1

The interestingly ghostly effect in these photos is due to using a phone camera – in the low light it couldn’t cope with focusing. I quite like it!

© Cherry Potts ( Soldier, Assassin, Courtier, Refugee, Spear carrier etc, etc.) 2013

The Scottish Opera

BH_MACBETH_POSTER.inddThings are hotting up for the cast of Macbeth (Verdi), the latest production from Blackheath Halls Opera. We’ve met and heard all the principals, and we’re firmly off the book and managing to move and sing at the same time, though getting up from kneeling (to various kings – we get through a few) and singing at the same time remains a challenge.

This year we are being directed by the talented Mr Chris Rolls, who has a wonderfully psychological interpretation of the action, which is as much surreal as supernatural.

I was very hesitant about doing the Opera this year – too busy – whole process over-shadowed by A’s broken leg last year – couldn’t get to grips with the music on the rather muddy recording I’ve got – but actually it’s a riot, the combination of Chris and our lovely Music Director Nick Jenkins is extremely harmonious and as always I’m enjoying myself hugely. And though I says it myself, we are going to be AWESOME.

Actually, with this opera – when you have jolly little parlour tunes for the assassins  (that would be us tenors and the basses), as we wait for Banquo, relishing our moment in the limelight (or darkness if you are going to be pedantic) you need to get psychological. Jeremy Sams’ translation of the Italian, which doesn’t bear much relation to the original Shakespeare anyway, is so delightfully bonkers that I actually laughed out loud the first time we sang through the assassins’ scene.

Tremble Banquo for your time is nigh
first you see a flash of steel – then you die.

Tremble Banquo, (meet your fate)
Tremble Banquo, (meet your fate)
Safe in silence we will wait…

So we have to work quite hard to find the inner callousness that would make us, as the assassins, think it was amusing – without the audience thinking so too.

On the subject of translation, Shakespeare’s version is magnificently pagan, whereas the Italian has everyone, especially the chorus, calling on god at every possible moment. I’m  not objecting particularly, as it’s a vengeful god we seem to have in mind, and the chorus get to sing some pretty powerful things (yes, he will be branded, branded as Cain was the first man to strike his brother dead). I seem to recall recounting a friend’s analysis of Verdi’s Requiem that it was church music as high opera, Macbeth seems to do the opposite, and bring religion to the dramatic performance. Most importantly we get to sing some absolutely cracking tunes, which after some of the fidgety bitty line here, line there, stuff we get to do as a chorus a lot of the time, is VERY welcome.

So final rehearsal before the Sitzprobe tonight, drop off costumes on Sunday on way to Sitzprobe, busy week of rehearsals next week finishing with two dress rehearsals at the weekend, then performances  Tuesday 9th, Wednesday 10th, Friday 12th and Sunday 14th July.

Well what are you waiting for?  Go and buy a ticket, we are waiting (in silence, safely) … with our knives…

© Cherry Potts 2013

Requiem First Night!

Verdi Final Rehearsal - probably the Dies Irae by the looks on our faces! copyright Rose Ballantyne 2011

Well we’ve done the first performance, and we remembered when to sing quietly and went at it full throttle when it was required- at one point we were so loud I couldn’t hear what I was singing myself. From the depths of the choir you don’t get a clear picture of what the audience is hearing, but it sounded pretty good to me, and according to Leigh (O’Hara, our conductor and mentor) we are in the worst place for it sounding good, so it must actually have sounded stunning- possibly literally on the decibel front.

Wendy Dawn Thompson and Grant Doyle rehearsing Dido & Aeneas. Copyright Cherry Potts 2010

The soloists, Deborah Stoddart, Wendy Dawn Thompson, John Upperton and Timothy Dawkins, were all superb; Deborah’s voice just soared over the rest of us, and it must be really hard for soloists to compete with 200 enthusiastic amateurs giving it some welly.  Wendy, in a typically dramatic move, to match her dramatic voice, wore a flame red dress that stood out like an exclamation against the black everyone else was wearing.  That’s what I like about Wendy, she stands out: rather different from the rehearsal where after waving cheerfully at the choir, she stood with one hand in her jeans pocket and the other conducting herself, and John in his motorcycle leathers!
I was very glad that unlike the men in the choir I wasn’t required to wear a dinner jacket, it got very hot.
Talking to A this morning, we were reflecting on the difference in singing from a score rather than memory, as in the Operas, where we have to move at the same time and act, and that actually it’s just as challenging and exciting.

We were also talking about how a choir becomes a community, and how it was odd, despite the ‘scratch’ quality of Blackheath Halls Chorus (we come together only for specific events and its a slightly different group each time) that the community feel is still there. People you hardly know will come and confide their nerves, or ask for (or offer) help with bits that aren’t sticking to your brain. It also makes you feel very responsible, to Leigh for getting it right, for supporting other people in your section, for staying quiet and still when its part of the effect, and not turning the pages over too loudly! It’s a lot to think about.
Our three hour rehearsal in the afternoon was only the second time we had sung with all three choirs together, plus the orchestra, and it sounds very different from our smaller Blackheath forces, and even more so from our practice MP3 files from Choralia (a wonderful resource, may it long provide for people like me who have to hear the music to understand the score).  Many of the members of the Eltham Choral Society and JAGS choir have taken part in the operas so they were familiar faces, which helped break down the tribal divisions that might otherwise have intruded.  The buzz in the dressing room was extraordinary and when Leigh came up to warm us up, I think he was pleasantly surprised how much we could sing from memory.

How frustrating it is to think that this superb programme is under threat.

So – the latest on the cuts to funding at Blackheath Halls:
Unfortunately, Greenwich Council has now confirmed its decision to withdraw the entire annual grant of £71,352 as of 1 April 2011.

However, in response to the representations made to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the Halls has learned that the Cabinet has agreed to create a general budget of £42,000 to support the delivery of community based arts participatory projects across the borough.

Blackheath Halls hopes that it will be able to obtain some funding from this £42,000 allocation in order to continue the delivery of some of its community and education programme, although this will obviously be a much-reduced sum in comparison to the annual grant that has been provided to the Halls in the past.

In response to the Blackheath Halls’ petition, the Council’s Director of Culture and Community Services acknowledged that the end to their current funding agreement with the Halls “will impact on the service delivered by Blackheath Halls” and stressed that the Council was “keen to ensure that Blackheath Halls continues to play an active part in the cultural life of the borough”. Further discussion at a Council meeting on Wednesday 30 March 2011 at 7pm, which members of the public are welcome to attend.

How you can help

–      Come to  events and take part in workshops and programmes (including tonight and tomorrow for the final performances of Verdi Requiem… if there are any tickets left)

–      Become a regular donor

–      Attend the Council meeting on 30 March (please contact david.white@greenwich.gov.uk by noon on 30 March if you wish to speak at the meeting).

If you would like to support the Halls in any other way, such as through support-in-kind or volunteering, they would also be very happy to hear from you.  Find out more about Blackheath Halls.

Copyright Cherry Potts (and Rose Ballantyne for the info about Blackheath Halls and Greenwich Council) 2011

Requiem First Night Approaches

Poster for Verdi Requiem at Blackheath Halls

Poster for Verdi Requiem at Blackheath Halls

A friend of mine describes the Verdi Requiem as religion as high opera, and it certainly is full of drama and glorious tunes.

You can watch a video of some of us singing the Dies Irae in protest at threatened cuts to the funding of our beloved Blackheath Halls here, and I promise we will be acres better on the night (make that nights- Saturday, Sunday and Monday).

You may be familiar with this music, but if you’ve never heard it live, it’s worth it- extraordinary!

We had our first rehearsal with the entire choir (around 200 of us) plus the orchestra on Monday and as I was in the front row I was completely surrounded by sound, orchestra in front, choir behind.  It fair set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

I am a bit worried about how they will make room for the audience, with so many of us spilling off the stage but I am reliably informed that there will be one, and that tickets are selling fast.

News on the cuts so far is that Greenwich Council didn’t like the plans their officers had made and sent them away to rethink, so it is still up in the air.  Presumably they have to make a decision before the end of the month.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we won’t be singing the Requiem in response to news that the funding has been cut so disastrously that the wonderful education and outreach work the halls do is compromised.

Final rehearsal Verdi Requiem, all the choirs, orchestra and soloists copyright Rose Ballantyne

copyright Cherry Potts 2011