#22 Like Killing Facebook

I’ve been writing this What is Opera? blog for A Faustian Pack  at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. As part of  Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London, I’ve watched Gounod’s Faust and two modern operas on Faustian themes – Luke Bedford’s brilliant and unsettling Through His Teeth, Matthew Herbert’s sonically weird and wonderful The Crackle -  from first rehearsal to first night.  I thought I’d finished but can’t resist this last bit of audience reaction, which sums up the disorientating effect of Matthew Herbert’s project: approaching the story of Mephistopheles in relation to Faust – and to all of us – through his unique style of sound electronics.

I wrote this opera blog from January to April 2014 as Resident Writer at Covent Garden Opera House, watching three operas on Faustian themes from first rehearsal to first performance. I’m afraid it runs backwards here. If you want to read from the beginning, go down to #1 and scroll upwards.

 I: “There’s a really strange noise coming from the downstage left speaker.”

N: “Yeah – it’s coming from the downstage right one too.”

R: “I think that might be deliberate.”

 I: “It’s deliberate?”

 R: “Yeah, that’s part of the sound.”

 I: “It sounds like someone is killing Facebook.”

#21 Glamour Moment: First Night of Gounod’s Faust

Something about selling your soul for short-term pleasure must be a box-office draw. The Faust story goes back to the beginnings of opera in Covent Garden. The first Theatre Royal (1732) was built with money made from a pantomime Dr Faustus so opera here owes its origins to the Faust theme, and Gounod’s Faust is one of the most popular operas in history.

 For two months this spring, as part of the ‘Criticism Now’ project at the Cultural Institute project at Kings College London, I’ve been watching rehearsals at the Royal Opera House for their Faust Pack Gounod’s Faust plus two new chamber operas on Faustian themes. This is the first time they’ve integrated a main stage production with their lovely studio space which does smaller, new, post 1950 opera. The new operas found disturbing Faustian echoes in contemporary scenarios: cutting-edge electronics and a conman specializing in sexual magnetism.

      It’s been an extraordinary experience. I was made more and more aware of the opportunities for Mephistopheles everywhere in modern life, but I’ve also been fascinated by watching gifted directors, conductors and singers crafting together their own vision of an ancient story, clarifying the Faust in all of us.

First night of Gounod’s Faust,  A packed house, very different from the auditorium dark and empty, when I watched the set going up with a hundred technicians all over it.
To limit the coughing that bedevils every silence, programme sellers are handing out free throat pastilles to the smartly dressed audience finding their seats.

I’m behind two opera buffs comparing star sopranos like runners in the Grand National.
The soprano tonight, Sonya Yoncheva, is singing Marguerite for the first time, and first time on this stage.

I thought she was fantastic when I first met her two months ago backstage in Rehearsal Room One. I’ve learned that singers don’t normally sing out in rehearsal. The work there is crafting the moves, perfecting the acting to fit each bar of music. So I’ve heard Sonya’s full voice only intermittently but I know it’s gorgeous. These guys are in for a surprise.

I didn’t know this opera two months ago. As the curtain rises, we see Bryn Terfel in flowing wig and 19th century cape, rather than his faded T shirt saying Detroit Rock.

He walks slowly up the iron ladder towards the organ loft which on this set houses God who will eventually confound him.

I remember him at the first rehearsal on that ladder, asking the director, “How far up do I dare go?”

I realized then that all of them, singers and director, are working all the time while carrying the intimately-known music inside their heads, to uncover the heart and point of the drama more and more deeply.

The cheval glass, in which Mephistopheles shows Faust his rejuvenated self, is filthy. I remember mentioning this, hesitantly, to Greg Eldridge the assistant director after the first stage rehearsal - in a post-mortem rehearsal. (Called “Notes”, I now know). I said it could do with a wash.

“It’s supposed to be dirty,” Greg said. “Faust is an old guy, a bachelor. Everything round him is smeared and gone to pot.”

Now, the staging makes me think, does Faust’s smeary sense of self reflect his compromised soul?

A contrast with Marguerite, when she is being tempted innocently by the devil’s jewels.

“It can’t be wrong to open the casket,” she says.

All the “openings” she does, laying herself open to the devil  - opening the casket, the window,  opening herself to love - are inadvertent compared to those of Faust.

She too looks in a mirror but this one’s as spring-sparkling as the Jewel Song itself – and Sonya sings it dazzlingly.

All that power, warmth and golden voice sat quiet within her in the canteen, or sitting around in rehearsal checking her mobile phone.

The men clapping in front of me look at each other.
“Good, isn’t she?” one says as if a horse he bet on is running strong.

Now for the Quartet, when the three main singers first engage with each other musically. The fourth time I’ve watched Faust, Mephistopheles, Marguerite and her nosy neighbor Marthe sing it.

Marthe comes out of her house with a saucepan, dabbles enviously in the jewels, then flirts with Mephistopheles. Bryn Terfel, in a captain’s uniform, just like the one we’ve seen on Marguerite’s brother Valentin, distracts Marthe so Faust can begin seducing Marguerite.

They go into Marthe’s house and the blind goes down. Terfel comes out buttoning his flies.

When I looked at Greg’s score for this scene I saw opposite the music the stage direction was ”buckling his belt”.

“It wasn’t that,” I said. “It was his flies.”

Greg smiled. “Some things you don’t put in the Notes.”

Mephistopheles and Marthe are written to be an ugly mirror, of Faust’s seduction of Marguerite which will also end in male abandoning female. The Quartet contains the whole story arc of Faust and Marguerite, as the devil sees it. At the first rehearsal there were problems about what to do with the saucepan and how Mephistopheles gets away from Marthe, afterwards.

Now the moves are clear, and bring out the mirroring (more mirror stuff) between each couple: which Gounod has written into the music, giving each voice a different emotional as well as musical agenda.

I realize what an extraordinary thing it is, to direct an opera with intelligent singers.
Scene after scene, details I’ve watched long hours spent on in Rehearsal Room One,  follow each other, more and more clearly .They drive home to me one of opera’s great strengths: that it can vault over the connections of realism.

Yes, stage manager and directors have to think about how to get someone off stage and on, holding a a sword or string of pearls. But the music cuts effortlessly, as in cinema, from the fore-play of a love duet to Marguerite pregnant and abandoned, and to her brother’s death in his attempt to avenge the dishonour.

I’ve watched Bruno Ravello the director making tiny adjustments to gestures Bryn Terfel does. Now here are two more mirrorings. The devil has turned Faust into a shambling junkie: when he gives him his fix, he sings a mocking serenade above him, right in his face, stabbing his chest with his finder to mark the chords.
Tonight, ending this cruel serenade, Terfel swipes his staff over Faust’s prone body. It is a new gesture. Since the Dress Rehearsal. Bruno and Bryn must have refined it: the devil is making a clear sweep of Faust, sealing his power.
And in the following scene in the church. he seals his power over the pregnant body of Marguerite, who enters in a pink shawl. He lifts the shawl off her and tosses it away, then presses down on her swollen belly, causing pain you can hear in agonized chords in the music.
Again, new gestures, different from the Dress Rehearsal.
It’s much clearer now, how the devil is playing with his victims.

Afterwards, I go up to staff drinks celebrating the first night and pass the open door of Bryn’s dressing room.

He’s having his make-up taken off. No flowing wig.

Behind me, the corridor is full of Bulgarians arriving to congratulate Sonya.
“A new star is born,” says Bryn, delighted. “They’re all here, Deutsche Gramophon, opera houses – all queuing up for her.”

“You’ve changed some stuff,” I say. “It’s different with Faust, and Marguerite when you have them on the floor.”

He smiles. Of course, it’s obvious: a show gets honed with each performance, it’s not set in stone.

“I’m on the whole time,” he says as make-up is wiped from his right cheek. “People say it’s creepy when I’m in the dress on Walpurgis Night, but I think it’s creepiest when I’m in ordinary uniform, like Valentin. That’s creepy”.

I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe it’s the same point that the contemporary Faust operas in the Linbury are making: that the devil is at his worst not dressed up but when he’s in our own clothes, wearing the familiar face of everyday.

For Faust and all of us, that’s when Mephistopheles is most dangerous.

That’s the joy of opera – it makes you see and understand new things each time you see one.

#20 The Devil’s Technology: Dress Rehearsal & First Night of The Crackle

For two months at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden I’ve been  watching rehearsals of their Faust Pack: Gounod’s Faust and two modern operas on Faustian themes: Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth and Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle. Now it’s all coming together and I’ve just found out, rather late in the day, that this Faust theme goes right back to the roots of the place.

  The original Theatre Royal Covent Garden, where the Opera House stands, was built by John Rich in 1732 from money he first made from his hit pantomime Dr Faustus (1723).  He added on money from The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and five years later built the Theatre Royal. So the operas sung here more or less continually ever since owe their performance to, precisely, the Faust story.

I can’t make the First Night of The Crackle,  I’m booked for a poetry reading, but the Dress Rehearsal is crackling with several different kinds of energy.

The kids of the Youth Opera know the opera so well they seem unfazed by the complex technical aspects, now in full swing: dervish machine, film visuals, the works. But the children are filling the stage with their own natural energy, enough to compete with any amount of hi tech dazzle.

Maybe the Faust harlequin panto of 1723 was as hi tech then as this is now:  at the end, Faust got eaten by a dragon. Tonight, instructions for downloading the app called Chirp which turns image into sound, are given out at the entrance.

The dress rehearsal audience bewilderedly download it, look round at each other, get out their phones when the kids start waving their mobiles and receiving the devil’s app. Suddenly a glitter exchange explodes – a crackle, in fact, a ping pong of spark and sound -  between audience and stage,

That’s when I realize how potent Matthew Herbert’s message is

The opening the devil finds in George is his vanity and life-disappointment. But the opening he finds into the kids is worse – it is exactly the chink he found in Adam and Eve. We are all of us vulnerable to evil through our curiosity, desire for knowledge, and hunger for the new invention.
And it’s infectious – it can spread in an instant, and catch fire from stage to audience. All those kids waving Chirp around – they, with their life-enhancing enthusiasm, are exactly what the devil is after.

As with Prometheus, human beings have always been drawn to new inventions, however diabolical. New technology will always be the biggest draw and will always – like fire – have its destructive as well as creative side.

That’s what’s so clever about the devil, and about Mathew Herbert’s portrayal of him. He exploits what’s good and creative about us.


Two days later: I’m about to go on stage to read in Cheltenham Poetry Festival and Sam Meech, video supremo, reports that The Crackle’s  Opening Night is being brilliantly received.

The atmosphere’s very informal, everyone has their phones out, sending and receiving images and text via Chirp. The audience get on their mobiles the same text poor old George - brilliantly acted as well as sung by baritone Andrew Dickinson, I’ve marvelled at the way he has gradually crafted his doomed nerdish hopeless character through the weeks  of rehearsal – and the audience like the kids are now opening themselves to the new Mephistophelean art.

They are creating their own narrative on top with random pics from their phones and comments on the show. Throughout the performance, this other spontaneous, free association level of dialogue and exchange is going on.

The parent of one of the children – sung meltingly by Stephanie Marshall, the lyrical heart of the piece  – cottons on to how dangerous this is. She phones George desperately in the midst of his show – during which the fun new technology will kill the kids one by one.

But she hasn’t a chance against the infectious addictive fun of pure newness.

Amazing performance. I don’t know how Tim Murray the conductor holds it all, crackle technology, sound, light and children, together, but he does.

Long live Faust and the dragon.

Long live John Rich and his Faustian pack on which repose the Royal  Opera House architecture and history, all this music, light, technology, adventure and sound.

#19 First Night: Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth

This performing life is so different from a writer’s life, alone with words, coffee and your own thoughts.
Poets work in private. Doing public readings is fun, you give what you have worked on to other people in new ways and get to know the poems better each time, see new colours in them – but you are doing it on your own.

While I can see how everyone working on Through His Teeth, stage manager, conductor, musicians, director, production team as well as the singers, has been on a journey together into the piece, into their experience and understanding of it. They are all experts in their particular job, but they are putting their separate skills together, creating something all as one.

Through His Teeth has been a particularly unnerving journey. Partly because it is based on a true story, though its scenes, events and dialogue are all imaginary.

The more I see of it, the more I admire the imaginative mill of David Harrower and Luke Bedford and what they did with the real life story.Newspaper cuttings from it were up on the rehearsal room walls, but each of the three singers, with the director, were gradually creating a character from within the opera itself, independent of the real life basis.

David Harrower’s language is bare and the events, the little quick scenes, perfectly crafted. They leave exactly the right amount of space for Luke’s musical textures, from a heart-rending cello solo to whispery whiskery percussion, a drum beat throb building to the arrest of Robert, and harsh intense brass, to explore the emotional tension.

I bring a friend to the first night. Front of house now, not the bowels of the opera house. It is full: this space that looked to me like a complicated car wreck a week ago looks beautiful, alert, excited, packed.

Clapping for Sian Edwards the conductor. She picks up her baton. Sam Meech is ready at his desk of electronics.

Please God let it go well, let the sliding screens slide properly.

And yes, the quick-sliding flow of one scene into the next, both musically and visually, works brilliantly, getting exactly the progressive way the sinister Robert, the human Mephistopheles, gains ascendancy over his victim, so brilliantly sung by Anna Devin.

I remember sitting by Anna at the first lunch break of rehearsals. She had learned her part over Christmas but I now see that for an opera singer, learning the part, by yourself (the kind of work a writer can relate to, the private hard work no one else sees) is just the beginning of the journey.

What I have watched, these last two months, is how that private work is built on, to create the acting, the performance, the character.

I am delighted to watch its effect on my friend, and others afterwards, seeing it for the first time.

At first Anna is sane – sad, with something missing in her life, but sane. But progressively she buys sexual-emotional bliss with the demonic Robert, the bliss of total attachment, at the cost of her sanity: which you could also put in nineteenth-century terms, and say it is at the cost of her soul.

We see this most, when he brings her flowers he has picked up from the road: laid where a child was knocked down and killed.

She stares, then gives a little laugh, says lightly, “You’re sick,” and accepts his proposal of marriage..

The real Anna, the soprano, acts and sings it brilliantly. The character she has create is clearly so far gone, she can’t find in herself the right way to react to this appalling offering.

Another element that comes across is the infection of mental illness: how Robert’s pretence of working for MI5, of being targeted and under surveillance, generates or transmits itself to her as real deep-rooted paranoia.

Which leaves a permanent scar. We come to the final scene, the scene at which Bijan the director said at one rehearsal: “I can’t do this scene, it freaks me out.” And then, joking, “Let’s just leave it!”

Now the sliding screens roll right back, exposing the whole of the beautiful wood- slat stage, almost Chinese, which Becs Andrews has created. Now completely bare except for Vicky Simmons as the interviewer in a blonde wig, and Anna.

The truth at last.

What would he say to you, if he saw you now?

He’d say he thought about me every moment of his sentence. That that kept him sane.

Would you believe him?

Anna hesitates.

Sam’s cameras are on her face, and I can see what he meant about using film at moments, to amplify a dramatic ill second. We see every muscle tense – and her terrified thoughts moving behind them like fish in water.

I truly hope not.

What if I call a cab now, would you come and see me with him? Would you?

That’s how it ends, with a terrifying question. Would you? would you give in to temptation, sign that contract with the devil again, now you know the cost?
A question and a bare bare stage.

Fantastic. Vicky Suimmonds’s wonderful rich voice – the voice of moral questioning as interviewer, moral break up as Robert’s unknown other victim, and moral sanity as the sister – is asking a question that goes unanswered.

And Anna Devin’s face: unanswering, shamed, still addicted, still longing, still half-trying to do what her made her do: keep hiding.

It leaves us all feeling we have seen a really wonderful new opera being born.

#18 Dress Rehearsal: Gounod’s Faust

The auditorium feels quite different full. The public can come to dress rehearsals. Wonderful for them – and essential for the singers to have the buzz, feedback, the echo chamber in front.

The dark quiet now is the rustling stillness of a forest when the tiger wakes.

This is what all the months of hard work have been for. The dative – the giving - of doing anything on stage but especially singing, is immense. Ex-pressing comes from ex-primere, “to press out”, as in wine from grapes. You are bringing something out something deep in yourself and offering it to somebody else.

In these two months of rehearsals, I’ve seen singers working on the moves and the interactions deciding, as one put it to me, “how much to give them.”  They all have the Voice inside, but the resonance has to be perfect, supported, held. And when you are working out where to run, how to exit without bumping into a pillar, you don’t want to waste it.
Sometimes  I’ve joined in the small clapping at a rehearsal after a wonderful aria: where the public will clap – so the conductor has to wait.
“And if there’s no applause?” one person waspishly said after one particularly poignant aria.

Everyone laughed.  Because, of course, there will be.

The beauty of all that voice and song has been taken for granted, these last months. Now, at last in the Dress Rehearsal, here are the people whom it is for.

I find a seat in front of banks of  – cameras! Some set up on tripods.
It is like a firing squad. The Press have arrived. Reviewers will come on the First Night but this phalanx of photographers are the advance guard. They represent publicity, the world  – and they are ruthless.

The firing squad line right above me are clicking noisily away all through. Valentine dies – I know how hard it is for him to watch the conductor from floor level – and click click click go the lenses above me In front of me there are a lot of quieter photographers, checking through on their digitals to see if they have the right pic before moving on.

Now, on stage, the whole chorus, unaccompanied, are asking God to pardon Valentin’s sins as he breathes his last and his sister goes mad.


Maurizio the conductor throws a word over his shoulder, trying to shut them up while holding the tension of 60 voices singing a capella as soft as they can.

It is a magical sound but the photographers go on with their irregular loud clicks to the end of the Act. It is as if they cannot actually hear what they are doing, they are so intent on the visual.

When the curtain is briefly down and house lights go up a moment the photographer in front of me, the quiet one, looks up at them and wags his finger.

“Who are they?” I ask. “It’s outrageous.”
He ticks them off on his fingers.
One’s from a Welsh paper. “He’s here for Bryn.”
They should know better, he says.
“I have a quiet camera. They are totally insensitive.”
“Where are you from?”
“The Times.”
Always discreet.

I’d never thought before of how this works. Yet another new world revealed to me through opera: of press photographers at a million Dress Rehearsals.

The curtain goes up on a backdrop showing an opera house, red and gold: the place of art, of transformations.

We could be looking into a mirror, with Faust and Satan in front of us.
This is the realm of the devil which opposes the dark serenity of a Romanesque church.

“Where are we?” asks Faust.
“Dans mon empire,” sings Mephistopheles. And in a twinkling, he transforms it to a remote heath peopled by demons and witches. Up from below come the beautiful actresses painted and statued up, playing the courtesans of antiquity.

I remember sitting in Rehearsal Room one with the actresses, saying they ar going to be costumed as these queens of legend. They shimmer and glitter voluptuously. Faust is entranced.    he has forgotten Marguerite,

The devil’s empire, apparently, is not a galaxy of press photographers but the place where you make a choice – to prefer the legendary, the illusory, the courtesans of antiquity to the suffering , the real.

And when we do finally see the real, Marguerite, she seems like a vision. She had her baby while the grotesque cruel ballet of corruption was playing. Now she is going to kill it.

Three or four demon-ballerinas race over to her, all jagged legs and arms, and stuff it into its tiny coffin. I remember coming on that small black casket with a doll in it, backstage. All the elements: props, light, costumes, orchestra, dancers, the movements Bruno has written endless Notes on: Everything is coming together.

#17 Dizzying Publicity versus Alone with Your Voice

I’m writing this opera blog for A Faustian Pack at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden as part of Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London. I’ve been watching rehearsals of Gounod’s Faust plus two modern operas on Faustian themes Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth and Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle. The operas are all opening this weekend: one First Night tonight, another Friday, the third on Saturday. I am watching everything coming together in a week of adrenalin over-kill for all staff, technical, production, stage hands, directors, conductors, musicians, singers. Best of luck to them all…. 

Trying to reckon up the vast numbers of people behind the three Faust operas this spring – opera house administration, directors, web people, publicity, booking, usher as well as everyone in and around the stages – I keep thinking of opera’s ancestor, Greek tragedy in ancient Athens.

How the city stopped for the nine days of the Festival of Dionysus, where these  great costumed music dramas played.

How, it is said, people who couldn’t afford the entrance fee got subsidized.

(Would our current government… oh, never mind.)

So many people are involved in putting each one on: you multiply in the thousands to whom coming to watch these tragedies, these operas, will really matter.

“The Athenians are a strange people”. Herodotus reported the Persians saying. “They get together in the middle of their city and tell each other lies.”
But too bad for the Persians: opera, like Athenian tragedy, is a public voicing, and sometimes a fiction (a make-up, fantastical, yes maybe a lying) which tells a truth profoundly important for its community.

As I race not to be late for Gounod’s  Faust Dress Rehearsal, I think of the singers at this moment.
They are getting dressed, getting be-wigged and made up, swords put in place, cloaks and daggers settled, noses powdered, all by experts.

But above all they are practising and warming up the flexibility and resonance of the instrument on which their own expertise depends, the all-important larynx.

And the vocal chords. Up the scale and down, in different vowel positions so all of them are exercised. This is the narrowest part of the human anatomy, and has to be sustained by life, by the breath.

The huge publicness and publicity of opera is counterweighted by the slender vase of what lies inside an individual throat – and beyond that, each sensibility.

Every perfected note is a kind of vocal image for the specialness of feeling which everyone has inside them. That’s why we relate to them emotionally. The voice that comes out of that larynx stands for us.

So much complexity. So much false hair – and make-up, with all that implies – and so many framed, stylized, bejewelling conventions and technologies.

But all three Faustian composers are (were, in Gounod’s case) trying to get across a truth -  about evil now: and its ways in to human beings.

How we let the devil in. How we let evil destroy us but sometimes (after all, it was Greek tragedy which crafted the Western concept of a hero that opera took over) we stand up to it, and survive.

#16 The Hundreds of People Invisible All Round the Singers

After two months, there are suddenly (or it seems sudden) three Faust Dress Rehearsals within 36 hours. Before I go into the first, I try to reckon up the numbers of people involved.
They make my head spin.


For Faust on the Main Stage, I think I heard it was fifty stage hands and fifty electricians.
There are people storing things backstage, checking the speakers are working, giving cues for whoever is on stage. People checking that Mephistopheles’ dagger is sewn/ velcro’d safe inside the lining of his coat (and won’t fall out) until needed; that the wheels run smoothly on the ladder he puts in place to get Faust into Marguerite’s bedroom. That the pistol is loaded with blanks and the sword hilts won’t fall off.
Plus costumiers, boot-makers,jewel-makers, wig-fitters, prop managers. Each side of the stage has a sub stage manager, if that’s the right term. Production managers, props managers, sword-fight trainers, make-up team. And the whole complex lighting team,
That’s before you start on the performers. The way the dancers take over that space is astonishing. The actors (including Mephistopheles’ pet demons) and professional acrobats I met right at the start, being blocked in with the singers.

Musicians: sixty in the chorus and below them sixty more in the orchestra with sound technicians.

All these people surround those I have been following for two months: stage managers, producers, director and assistant director; conductor and his assistants – the people keeping track of Music Notes and playing accompaniment. And 6 soloists. The ones whose feelings and voices speak for us.

The ones who sometimes seem so lonely on the stage.


Down on the Linbury Stage, Through His Teeth has only three soloists, though the wonderfully rich-voiced Victoria Simmonds the mezzo, plays several characters: the interviewer, the sister, and a further, far-gone, undiscovered victim of Robert, still in her deluded state.

In the dressing room is a colour-coded rack of clothes which they all, especially Vicky, have to do quick changes into, between scenes. So there must be people keeping track of the clothes, holding the right jacket and wig ready. And the hairdresser, wig and make-up team.

And here is Becs Andrews the designer, responsible for every single seen thing on stage (except the electronics) and director Bijan Sheibani, All of them have been working since Christmas to a fantastic pitch of rising intensity.

For the stage, there is the lighting guy Paul Knott whom I wish I’d talked to more. The stage hands are especially crucial for wheeling on and off at scene change the black sliding screens.
Perforated screens. P for the Paranoia which Robert induces.
Too many people to get to know over only two months. Ian the brilliant stage manager, and the production team. People I know by sight now but haven’t talked to properly. All of them vital.

In the orchestra pit, musicians from the Chroma ensemble, Sian Edwards the conductor and her assistants ,who have stood in for her when she was conducting somewhere else, and played piano in rehearsal for the singers.

And, usually, the composer, Luke Bedford: he has just yesterday – hurray, congratulations – had a baby – called Rudy.

I have never met the librettist, playwright David Harrower who lives in Edinburgh. I wish I had because the script is brilliant.

Plus there’s all the new technology, the video and live stage cameras master-minded by Sam.

That’s maybe a hundred people who have worked to get soprano Anna Devin on stage in a white blouse and neat pencil skirt sliding deeper (and so convincingly) over the edge and out of touch with her own instincts, because of a ruthlessly controlling man. I wish Cosmopolitan, and all magazines who give love advice to women, would come and review it


For The Crackle, in the same set, same production crew, same stage manager and technical crew, same designer responsible for every physical thing on stage, but different musicians and a whole rainbow of sound specialists, from Sam Meech to Matthew Herbert himself, composer, librettist and director; Barnaby the foley artist, guys in charge of playing the recording: Bryn Terfel’s voice for the devil and a wonderland of crackly strange sounds.
The two soloists: tenor Andrew Dickinson has perfected the demo-autistic music teacher George. Stephanie Marshall is a wonderful warm-voiced presence, centre of the piece’s warmth and lyricism. After one rehearsal, she talked to me about telling her own kids about the piece.
Are they going to come and see it?
“Well, the children all die. They’re a bit young for that.”
There is the Youth Opera: 48 high maintenance kids, plus their week-in week-out directors, both musical and acting, their infrastructure and minders.
And finally, the conductor, Tim Murray. Tim’s been working double time, for months all day Saturdays with the children as well as week in, week out, with the singers; plus with the foley artist; the electronics and video guys.
Part of the point of The Crackle is that sound triggers visuals. But conducting with a running tape must be fantastically hard.

And in the end, it is all going to come down to the tip of Tim’s baton. One small visual cue gives the signal for the overriding thing – live sound.

This is pulling-everything-together week – all the many different pieces and people. So that finally, the conductor, Maurizio Benini, Sian Edwards and Tim, can raise a baton and give a beat.

#15 The Lies that Tell a Truth

Sam Meech, video artist for The Crackle and Through His Teeth

I’m writing this opera blog for A Faustian Pack at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, as part of Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London, I’m watching rehearsals of Gounod’s Faust and two modern operas on Faustian themes: Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth and Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle. This is the week of highest adrenalin, dress rehearsals, tech rehearsals, intense pressure on everybody, upstairs and downstairs –

- including Sam Meech the video artist. In one of his latest Tweets, Sam reported hearing the composer of The Crackle, Matthew Herbert, asking for a can of worms.

Sam has a head that can cope with the can-of-worms brand of techological complexity which The Crackle is luxuriantly pioneering. He has worked with dance and music, all kinds of things, but never before with opera.
“I’d never even seen an opera,” he says. “Now I’m working on two at once, The Crackle and Through His Teeth.”
“And – do you like it?”
“I see that though in one sense opera’s very stylized, on the other it’s about completely natural emotions. It’s a stylized way at getting at authentic feeling.”
“That’s a brilliant way of putting it.”

In another part of the building, I’ve just been watching Bruno Ravella, director of Gounod’s Faust – which on one level you (or someone) might call a lumbering sentimentalizing tip-up truck of a piece and on another, one of the most popular operas ever written – working for hours with one singer to hone the right gesture, sigh and gaze for one piece of stage business, one bar of music.

“It’s got to be true,” Bruno said – and I immediately thought of Seamus Heaney, dearly loved and woundingly missed poetry chieftain, talking about writing “truth”.

In a poem, it doesn’t matter if what you are saying is not historically true.

Any sort of art can be a way of lying to tell the truth. What you have to be true to, Heaney insisted, is yourself: and your imagination. If you fake it, it won’t work.

And in an opera, even if the plot is completely over the top, if it’s good there’ll be an honesty there, a hard emotional truth, and you have got to find it.

Sam is following his own associations, on what his new extraordinary video and sonic software, his own art and imagination can do for opera today.

“My job is to do something that helps the story in an interesting way. Putting a screen on an opera stage is a big responsibility. The film I make has often got be background texture, there but ignored. If it stands out all the time, it’s too much.”
He pulls out one or two wires on his black work-bench.
“Opera’s about singing. You don’t want the wallpaper to shout at you.”

“Will the cameras in Through His Teeth be on the singers, projecting their faces onto the back, the whole time?”

I think of the extra strain on these wonderful singers. What else they have to think of, while acting, doing the agreed moves, and singing this difficult music.

“Yes and no. We have park scenes, outside scenes, street scenes and bomb footage too.”

I think back to the first rehearsal of Through HisTeeth. Just two singers sitting on plastic chairs with the score.

“When you use cameras in theatre,” whispers Sam, “you’re not making it into cinema.”

We’re whispering because the Irish baritone Owen Gilhooly – who is singing Robert the villain horribly convincingly,I’ll never be able to look at him without seeing him as the machiavellian Robert – is ordering the soprano to get a mass of money out of her sister.

“You’re using film to amplify gestures and events,” murmurs Sam. “If I have a camera on an actor’s face and make it a hundred times bigger, it highlights moments. Not all the time: then it would really be like cinema. What you do, is change the scale of what the audience is seeing.”

On his smartphone, Sam shows me the Wikipedia entry on Gesamtkunstwerk; meaning “total artwork” or “all-embracing art”.

I peer at the lit screen in the dark. The German philosopher Karl Trahndorff coined this word in 1827 but composer Carl Maria von Weber first dreamed of something like it in 1814, when he praised an opera called Undine, with music by E.T.A Hoffman.

Undine, von Weber said, was an “artwork complete in itself, in which partial contributions of collaborating arts blend together and disappear: “and, in disappearing, somehow form a new world.”

I love that “new world” idea.

So did Wagner, writing about it in his essays – and putting it into practice in his operas. He wanted to blend poetry and music to make drama “that would express our innermost being.”

Rather like what Sam said in another way: a highly stylized way at getting at authentic feeling.
Like the opera voice itself, which is the heart, the point of the whole thing,the vehicle for the opera’s emotion and truth.

Each of these singers I have been getting to know a little through rehearsals- they may look like ordinary human beings but they carry within them this dangerous and marvelous thing, something they have to protect, feed, nurture, exercise, train, and think about all the time.

They protect their voice in rehearsals. “It’s a question of how much to give to them, each time.” one told me. Each note must be perfected – and an image for the specialness each person has inside themselves.

It must be like owning a leopard or a racehorse: something terribly valuable, acquired a great expense, terribly beautiful and vulnerable – and incredibly powerful.

#14 Wigs, Orchestra and Costume

I’m writing my opera blog for A Faustian Pack at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, as part of Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London. I’m watching rehearsals of Gounod’s Faust and two modern operas on Faustian themes: Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth and Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle. This is the week of highest adrenalin levels, dress rehearsals and intense pressure on everybody, upstairs and downstairs, back-stage and front.

At the General Rehearsal for Faust, the first with chorus and orchestra, I am right by the orchestra. Forty strings at least, more than twelve woodwind, plus brass percussion and two harps, who are positioned right underneath the stage.

It’s like a cave. For Joseph Calleja to hear them while singing Faust’s tender love-duet with Marguerite, there have to be speakers back-stage for him to hear the orchestra, especially those beguiling symbolic harps.

An orchestra pit, I realize, is yet another hieroglyph of opera technology, full of black-wrapped electricity: snaky cables, mikes and adaptors.

There is now a 60- strong chorus, as well as the dancers and actors, as a physical setting for the central drama. The whole idea of the complete work of art, the publicness of opera, is coming together on a huge scale.

And I’m seeing scenes I haven’t seen rehearsed before.
While Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, is in her house discovering to his horror that the pure sister he left behind is is a fallen woman, pregnant, abandoned by her lover, Bryn Terfel as Satan is teasingly waving the tackle for a heroin fix above Faust’s head.

Joseph Calleja flops around gasping for it on the raised plinth which held the jewels they tempted Marguerite with, and which will hold the coffin of the dead baby later.
Finally, trembling and jerking brilliantly, Calleja injects himself and lies back like Aslan on his sacrificial stone while Bryn Terfel sings a mocking love serenade – to him, banging his finger into Calleja’s chest to mark the chords.

Satan is gaining a horrible ascendancy. David McVicar’s production really hammers home the cruelty under the skin of 1870s society, its elegant top hats, flounces and bustles.

The ballet, which Satan reveals to Faust on Walpurgis Night, is a travesty of innocence corrupted. The dancers, all white net and twinkling shoes like any conventional Les Sylphides. But when they come to front of stage you see their green frosted demon-lipstick, as they begin to turn ballet’s language of grace inside out, into the language of lascivious nightclub sexuality – that looks all wrong in the virginal swan lakey outfits.

The solo ballerina is pregnant, humiliated, gasping, and in pain. The devil is turning the screws on Faust.

Terfel is now in a flowing chestnut wig. The Opera House’s wig-making department is vital. “He’s an opera singier, he must be used to wigs,” I heard someone say backstage last night during a discussion about whether the villain in Through His Teeth should wear one or not.

Something about opera: all that falseness – and underneath, an emotional truth.

For Walpurgis Night, Bryn Terfel is also wearing a black jet-and-sequin dress, plus black fan, long black gloves and an appalling décolletage. He is enormous and grotesque. With goatee and cane he sits fixing his devil eyes on Faust as his dance parody of innocence and corruption goes frighteningly on.

The pangs of the pregnant ballerina, pathetically clinging to the language of classical ballet, to that tulle vision of innocence she cannot sustain, stand in for the real birth pangs of Marguerite, whom we see clutching her baby at the end of the scene

For this rehearsal the soloists are costumed to their eyeballs but the chorus still in mufti; mostly jeans. I rather like the mix, but Bruno Ravello the director afterwards says, No no, wrong colours. Visually, it’s all got to cohere.

The director is the conduit – and the juggler, perhaps – for the mixing and balance of different elements, the music, the concept, the visuals.

I find him afterwards, going through his “Notes” with Alexia the Greek soprano.

He wrote them during the run-through, his assistant Directors typed them up in the lunch-break, and as I watch they get emailed to him on his white cell phone,

“Notes” are everything in opera rehearsals. Like shards for archaeologists, they are the currency with which some big picture gets constructed.

The Youth Opera children in The Crackle clearly know them well: Music Notes, Blocking Notes, Prop Notes.

Opera in the round means so much for the singers to concentrate on and remember at every second. And it’s got to look natural. The music comes first, but then it’s the acting.

Alexia is Greek but most of their discussion is in Italian with bits of French thrown in. I sit beside the assistant director and look at his score, the post it notes and highlighting, the pencilled sketches blocking in every turn and twirl of every character.

“Opera directors need six languages,” he says, “to talk to the singers. Italian obviously, French and Spanish. German and Russian are useful too.”
He’s been at the job five years himself.
“I’m OK with Italian. Need to work at the French. Bruno is great.”

It is very intense, this work. All the public trappings are stripped away, Alexia is slim and vivid, dark blue jeans and jumper, no more white long dress, no props, not even a dead baby – and no singing. This is all about the elemnts around the score, the face, her hands, her being – and her feeling.

In this bare, tall, backstage rehearsal room,they go through Bruno’s emailed Notes. Something that is huge, utterly public and very complicated, I realize, all comes down to this in the end: how to represent – and recreate – a single woman’s agony in an empty space.

#13 The Art that Absorbs New Arts into Itself

A corner of a “wagon”: which slides the whole set on stage and off.

I’m writing my opera blog for A Faustian Pack at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. As part of Criticism Now, a Cultural Institute project at Kings College London, I’m watching rehearsals of Gounod’s Faust and two modern operas on Faustian themes, Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth and Matthew Herbert’s The Crackle.

Everything is hotting up in the Opera House. Rehearsal Room One is a tall bare emptiness, bright-lit by huge windows. The Faust set, home for everyone for two weeks, has disappeared.

I look around the tall echoey room and think again about the mantra I learned from a paperback I carried with me for the twenty years while writing my thesis – and then the books – on Greek tragedy: Peter Brooke’s The Empty Space.

A stage is “just a space with some doors”.
A place which is always – and so quickly – some other place.

I adventure back stage, get lost again and am rescued by a large technician. His father was a technician here before him.
“I’ll find Faust for you,” he says, he says, and brings me through the back where I recognize parts of the set, and the black-tile-painted floor

The whole thing moves together.
“How on earth do you shift it all – the whole lot, floor and all?”
“It’s on what we call a wagon. We do it slowly, manually, but controlled by a computer – there are 44 positions this wagon can be at in its journey to the stage. The grey floor sinks – here – and the wagon moves onto the stage from behind.”

I get lost through a few wings and come out on the stage, the vast red velvet auditorium with its gold-leaf caryatids and empty seats before me, and a few million furiously busy stage hands moving loggias, churches and prison bars around me.

Nowhere is safe,.beside me or above. A theatre is a dangerous place, No wonder Ngaio Marsh set a lot of her murders in theatres. .

I perch upstage on the left for a while but someone need to put a bicycle there and I escape through the auditorium and down lifts to the Linbury in the basement.

Things are hotting up here too: the director and singers of Through His Teeth are now working on the stage.

The set, which looked like black spaghetti only a few days ago, is now in place, and in the orchestra pit, Sian Edwards is conducting an accordion, harp, violin, cello and bass, a clarinet, trumpet, and various whiskery-sounding percussion instruments.

They are players from the chamber ensemble Chroma and specialize in contemporary music.. The rhythms, as well as the quartertones, need a lot of concentration. Till now, the singers have rehearsed with piano. With the orchestra, Luke Bedford’s real textures come out: light, intense, shimmery, sometimes creepy.
Luke has written quartertones for the instruments, but not the singers. So the sound – it reminds me a of Bartok’s 6th Quartet but lighter, thinner, more shot slik – is sliding around the characters, just as the black perforated screens slide across from one scene to the next.

I see now – we get both a sonic and a visual image for the paranoia which the villain, Robert, a human psychopathic Mephistopheles, creates in his victim’s mind.
He tells her he’s working for MI5, she and he are in danger, she must go here and do that without question, stay out on a park bench, stay in the flat ten days without him and without food, get him thousands of pounds, break with her family.

It is all about power, about changing the way his victim perceives reality; getting her into a world of quartertones, sliding scales, sliding screens and surveillance. You can see through these screens yet they are very black. They imprison, they cut people off.

Meanwhile a screen at the back of the stage is taking these themes of slippery fluidity and rigid surveillance to a new level with live camera collage.

These live film projections are the dream-child of video artist Sam Meech. Sam does videography, live projection, interactive design. I met first him at an early Through His Teeth rehearsal and then again at the get-in when he was setting up video and stage cameras on a complicated electronic workbench for The Crackle.

He works with video software called Isadora, a real-time interactive media system designed by Mark Coniglio for Troika Ranch which gets dancers moving across the stage to trigger media events like sounds and video.

I watch the singers move around the set and the film behind magnify their faces as they sing. Extraordinary what contemporary opera has morphed into – what opera can take on board. It is not a heritage art, a museum thing: opera has always been in the vanguard, trying to represent human experience always fully, and more fully, by blending cutting-edge technology with the traditional skills of character and music.

The Greek word techne meant ‘art’ as well as ‘skill’, and the original Greek tragic stage-front, the skene, was the site of the first experiments in painting perspective. When opera was invented, in Renaissance Florence, it was imagined as a re-creation of tragedy, and its stage-fronts then were complex structures of painterly perspective and illusion.

Then there’s the whole history of stage lighting led by Wagner and his lighting genius, my hero Adolphe Appia. who wrote a sentence which has reverberated round my head for 20 years, “The light that matters n the stage is light that casts a shadow.”.

Next day, on the same Linbury set but without the sliding screens, I sit watching a rehearsal for The Crackle and hear Bryn Terfel’s recorded voice singing Matthew Herbert’s invisible – totally electronic-sonic – version of Mephistopheles.

It feels creepy because I know Bryn is also singing another devil in the flesh right now: there is a rehearsal for Gounod going on, now that set has settled in on the main stage .

Opera, I think – watching Matthew Herbert in the dark and the extraordinary electronic magic of his production – goes on absorbing and using multiplicities and technologies as they evolve.

Yet at the centre opera preserves the essence of what it has always been: human voices in their most perfect form, expressing the most inward of experiences: feelings, relationships, soul and spirit. Eaxactly what Mephistopheles, in all his shapes, sizes and avatars, tries to destroy.