My Opera Blog is part of a Criticism Now project from the Cultural Institute of Kings College London. I’m watching three different Faust operas rehearse at Covent Garden in a new enterprise at the Royal Opera House: A Faustian Pack. The operas will be put on simultaneously at the Royal Opera House in April. Gounod’s Faust, a 19th-century French opera in the grandest style, will play in the Main House while two newly commissioned operas on Faustian themes in contemporary British settings will play in the Linbury Theatre: The Crackle by Matthew Herbert and Through His Teeth by Luke Bedford with libretto by David Harrower.
How do you get to know a brand new opera? With a classic like Gounod’s Faust, the singers, conductor and director know the music already. For a new production, they have to learn and work on interpretation: the moves, the inter-actings. Here in the Jerwood Studios, the singers, conductor and accompanists are making and hearing the music of Through His Teeth for the first time.
This is Faust with a human devil, no supernatural about it, and I am at the first read-through. Luke Bedford is a young award-winning composer: this is only his second opera and he too is very keen to hear it.
Once you’ve finished a poem, you can read it aloud yourself, hear its presence and weight. A composer has to wait for singers, orchestras and other people. If I were Luke, I’d be thrilled – and nervous, too.
The score for a new opera is often late, later than the singers were promised or hoped. I sympathize, I always write right up to a deadline. If I were a composer I’d be finishing things off at the last minute; and then firing off second thoughts. But singers have to learn the music as it comes off the press and new music is often innovative, and difficult.
The conductor Sian Edwards perches on a stool behind her white formica table like an interviewer who wants to put candidates at their ease. She picks up a pencil and looks with a gentle alert smile at the two singers, soprano and mezzo soprano who are sitting on black plastic chairs in front of her.
A woman conductor is still a rare being.
“It’s a question of how you find your voice,” Sian told me. “How you make your own position in a traditional man’s role: a situation so clearly created over the centuries by men, for men.” She teaches at the Academy and does now have several coming women students. “It’s tremendously challenging for a woman in any leadership role.”
Traditionally, opera expresses men’s ideas of what happens to women- and what women feel about it. And the stories often turn on the destruction of women. I remember a pioneering French book on opera called Comment Tuer une Femme; in English, The Undoing of Women.
In Luke’s opera the female protagonist, A, is strong. “I survived,” she says dryly to one of those who did not. But at the end, it is an open question whether she will go on resisting the temptation that nearly destroyed her. It is a harrowing story and Sian has to help steer the singers through it.
All the two singers have are their scores, their bottles of water (no singer is ever without that), handbags under their chairs – and inside them their wonderful trained voices.
They could be feeling as vulnerable as interviewees. But this is partnership, the best there is: working on something together. All these people, the conductor, Peter the repetiteur on the piano who will conduct when Sian isn’t here, director and stage managers and above al the singers, are beginning a journey into as yet unheard music and drama. They have learned their parts. Now they have to understand their characters in context: to act, feel and sing their way into these new psyches.
Beside Sian, sitting at another formica table, is director Bijan Seibani. Last night I saw his A Taste of Honey at the National. Since directing that, he’s immersed himself in this. With opera, the crucial extra dimension is the music. The director has to work with the conductor, listen to the flow of emotion the composer has written as well as to the space, the gaze and gestures of the actors. ‘Directing’s like playing music, he’s said. “You must get the rhythm.’
“Sian will conduct the silences,” he says now. “I want to get used to what happens in the gaps.”
The opening is a very delicate interview and they need to find, or to work out, the flavour and dynamics. It’s like seeing morning grow clear, from black to grey half-light into day.
The dynamic Irish soprano Anna Devin is A, whose story it is: a woman fooled out of her money, her life, and for a while nearly out of her mind.
This is Faust without the supernatural. The evil is all human. But there’s lots of it: demonic sex, demonic fraud, demonic psychological abuse. Robert, whose singer isn’t here this morning, is a diabolically brilliant liar, professional charmer and psychopath.
The mezzo, Victoria Simmonds, with a lovely warm rich voice, sings several parts in relation to A, including A’s sister. She starts off here as a TV interviewer trying to get A’s story.
Sian lifts her baton, Peter the repetiteur plays, and the singers begin.
It’s hard to act when you are getting used to the notes. But everyone’s first question is this: is the interviewer just using A, to get a colourful story for TV, or is she invested in her emotionally, concerned and caring?
After a few read-throughs they get up, move away from the music stands and start to act.
The big Faust question – what is free will? – is set up right at the beginning. A. has agreed to the interview but many of “the others” – Robert’s other victims, some of whom he treated much worse – didn’t even answer the phone calls from the TV company. This means A. is a strong woman, she has chosen to do the interview. She also says that Robert “always gave her the choice”, whether to stay with him or not.
But she isn’t prepared for questions about sex.
“That’s private,” she says, at first.
The TV interviewer presses her. She isn’t quite Paxman but she’s not going to let her get away with that.
“You said you wanted to tell the truth,” she reminds A.
“Every time you do the opera,” Bijan says to Anna, “you’ve got to think, what was it about him that drew you? Yes there was fantastic sex – but what else?” Cue discussion of relationships everyone here has had, in which some mysterious element kept them in it against their better judgement.
This is not just gossip. This moment is building the trust and partnership from which the singing and acting will come, and will help Anna towards the “burrow deep inside myself moment.” She will have to use her own experience to sing and play A with conviction to make this character her own.
Gone are the days when opera singers just (just!) sang perfectly. “It used to be called ‘park and bark’,” Bijan told me.
Today, an opera singer’s long professional training includes acting. It has to. Their extraordinary voices express the while gamut of human experience: that’s what the art-form is for. But these days, for audiences used to close up sophisticated acting everywhere on theatre and screen, their bodies and faces have to match. So, as if singing perfectly weren’t hard enough, the interpretation of the music goes hand in hand with the acting. Every particle of sensibility and self must be at the service of both.
Yesterday, in a rehearsal for the Gounod Faust, I looked at the score of one of the assistant stage managers. The blizzard of yellow Post It notes all over bars of the music, said things like “Actors enter left”. The singers, as far as the stage managers are concerned, are actors.
They go on. A. does try to get to a truth and explain why she got and stayed hooked on Robert. She explore images of him, and the good memories at first.
“I’ve certainly never had a relationship like it,” she admits. “I felt as if I’d been waiting for him all my life.”
That’s the devil’s way in – that chink of vulnerability, which Tatiana has in Eugene Onegin. Maybe predators like Robert play on a mysterious and fatal predisposition to recognize an illusory familiarity. Maybe that’s what the devil is. The unspoken whisper. You’ve been waiting for me, haven’t you?