Over the past few days I’ve been rehearsing my and Brazilian composer Marcos Lucas’ new opera Stefan and Lotte in Paradise. It’s an extraordinary experience to see characters you’ve previously only imagined step off the page, and come to life as singing beings. The cast are amazing: Jeremy Huw Williams as Stefan Zweig, Zoe Milton-Brown as Lotte Zweig, and Richard Strivens as their friend Ernst Feder. It’s the transformation into fleshy, physical, embodied beings through them which is most extraordinary. It’s still possible in contemporary classical music to imagine it as somehow disembodied: even the language we use reflects this – we say “at bar 24 the violin comes in, the flute does this” and so on. We don’t say, “at bar 24, Freda plays this, and then John plays that”. With singers, you can never forget that it is a whole physically embodied person who is bringing the music into existence. The fact that it is very definitely living and breathing bodies who are achieving all this means that through the rehearsal process I am learning new things every day about the requirements and expectations of the opera world. Here are some of them, in no particular order:
1) Singers require props early. Of course they do – but why didn’t I think of that? If I’m asking them to pick up a camera, they – and their bodies – need to know how heavy it is, how easily it can be moved around and so on.
2) “Because it sounds good” is not an aequate answer to the question “Why do we sing this here?”. Everything has to serve the characterisation.
3) The delay of even 0.1 seconds on a flat screen TV attached to a video relaying the conductor’s beat is too long. You need a conventional TV.
4) The feat of memory demanded by opera from the singers is prodigious – not only are they required to remember words, but the music, precise performing instructions (where exactly does that change of tempo arrive?) and where they stand and what they do. Hats off to them.
5) Not only that, but they also know as much about Zweig and his story as I do. Quite how they managed to do all that background reading at the same time as learning the parts I don’t know.
6) They need a rehearsal pianist. Of course they do. What an idiot I was to think we could get away with the MD doing both. The prodigiously talented Gavin Wayte can do both, but it more than doubles the rehearsal time required. It was a false economy to think otherwise. Luckily I was able to call on the services of the amazing Richard Casey who literally picked it up 30 minutes before the 3rd rehearsal and played it note perfect.
7) All the resources of the conventional theatre are required. – stage manager – Assistant Director – Designer – props manager – costume maker etc. We haven’t got these, so as producer/composer, I’m a bit of a busy boy. I’m eternally grateful to Director Mark Babych for tolerating these absences, and doing so much on such limited resources.
All these requirements point to the fact that opera always was one of the most complex art forms, and it’s probably that which attracts composers to it. I knew when we had the chance to produce the opera that I was moving into the unknown. But I also knew that unless I threw myself into producing it, it wouldn’t get done at all. And here we are, with the opera sounding great (if I say so myself) and carrying real emotional weight. We have a great concept, a great cast, strong performances, brilliant characterisation, and incredible commitment to all involved. Now all we have to do is transform these elements into a digital performance experience….watch this space.