If you look into the window of Masala Zone in Floral Street Covent Garden you see large Indian puppets suspended from the ceiling. Stirred by the air conditioning, all kohl eyelashes and curly moustaches, they swing gently in metallic robes, gold, glitter-green and blue: dancers and kings, demons and goddesses, and camel-puppets whose gaze is fixed on the other side of the desert.
This sunny March morning, I’m at the back boundary of the Royal Opera House. The Italian restaurant at the corner is titled, in faded flowery letters, La Ballerina. Floral Street is the borderland of the exotic, the luxurious and faraway, skilled in suspending everything from ritzy costumes to disbelief.
But next to Masala Zone is the door to the Royal Ballet School, gateway to one of the most demanding and disciplined arts in the world. And opposite is the Artists’ Entrance to the Opera House itself. These glass doors are less flamboyant. Opera is “works” in Latin. It’s a plural word and as I enter, I think it perhaps evokes the many demanding skills, from electricians to conductors, that go into making a performance on an opera house stage.
I’m here to pick up something wonderful: a pass to wherever, backstage.
I’m going to be Writer in Residence to the Royal Opera for two months, , attached to a new project, two years in the planning.
The Opera House has two performing spaces, the big traditional Main House which seats 2,256 people and the Linbury Studio Theatre, opened in 1999, which seats fewer than 400 and is dedicated to more intimate, contemporary work. This spring, the Opera House is rehearsing three operas at the same time on the theme of Faust. The Main House will rehearse Gounod’s Faust, an opera I have never seen: but I do know it is grand opera in the grandest style. Just what Floral Street ordered: lots of glitter, luxury, exotic demons and a good gazes at the faraway. It will open April 4th but meanwhile the Opera House has also commissioned two new small operas for the Linbury Theatre, written by two very different contemporary composers, Luke Bedford and Matthew Herbert whose operas open April 5th and 8th .
Commissioned to write operas on the theme of Faust, Luke and Matthew have have come up with two utterly different, original and exciting contemporary takes on the ancient legend and I will be going in to these rehearsals first.
Luke’s opera Through His Teeth begins with a television interview after a high-profile fraud trial. Matthew’s opera The Crackle begins in a school classroom and features Chirp: an iPhone/Android app which turns pictures on your mobile phone into sounds. IN an initial interview, a production assistant has already taken a photo of me on her phone and turned it into something that sounds like a sparrow on Speed.
I’m going to watch their rehearsals and talk to singers, conductors, composers, directors, designers. I’ll be tweeting from rehearsals, and here I’ll describe watching the work develop. I want to find out about the many activities of the Royal Opera House and interview as many people involved in creating opera as I can: designers, directors, conductors, composers, singers, lighting engineers, stage managers and stage hands whose hard work goes into making opera. I want to ask what opera is, why we need it in the twenty-first century and how we, the public, can respond to it. We all share our opinions, criticism and enjoyment of new films and TV programmes: why not about opera, too?