#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.

CLICK CLICK CLICK

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.