Retrospective: my first Opera

In December 2016 Father Christmas gave me singing lessons as a present. After a few months at the local conservatoire, I found out that, next door to it, Blackheath Halls staged an annual Community Opera. Partly daunted, mostly enthusiastic, I joined in, wrote a post after every rehearsal and absolutely loved it.

Three years on, with singing still a growing and enriching part of my life, it is nice to go back and re-organise the collection of those posts into this restrospective.

Sun 21 May 14:00-17:30 – 1st rehearsal

Der Freischütz, from now on “The Magic Bullets”, is an early XIX century German opera, a trailblazer of Romanticism composed by Carl Maria Von Weber.

It’s cute folk-tale with black magic in lederhosen, a juxtaposition of Max and Agathe’s youthful love against the spine-chilling darkness of diabolical Samiel and his eery forest.

Weber’s music made this the “A L I E N” of Opera-goers, his powerful and disturbing movements a source of inspiration for the later Wagner.

This first rehearsal started with an hour of choreographer-directed play-acting fun to get to know each other and meet the children’s chorus, who will be rehearsing mostly separately until the later stages.

The clear winners of “act like a monkey, a pirate or an elephant, etc…” were the kids…Hopefully by the end the adults will have learned a trick or two.

The second and third hours, after a brief interval, were a cold plunge into the Chorus parts of the first act of the Magic Bullets. I just tried to stay afloat, partly just about managing to hang onto the more experienced, partly hopelessly falling behind.

Daunting as this is now starting to feel, it is thankfully offset by the friendly, supportive “community atmosphere” and by the exceptional and inspiring professionalism of the Directors.

…It can only get better! Next 3-hour rehearsal Wed night. Note to self: study!

Screenshot 2020-06-06 at 09.35.50

Wed 24 May 19:00-22:00 – 2nd rehearsal

Max is shooting blanks and that’s a problem.

He is due to marry Agathe, the head forester’s daughter, and take over the job from his future father-in-law… but it is all conditional on being a good shot.

And he’s *not* on top form.

In such a vulnerable state, it won’t take long for him to be persuaded into a black-magic-powered solution…

…This is the jist of the first act of “The magic bullets”.

Singing-wise, the chorus goes from monumental victory songs to mocking teasers to eerie warnings.

I turn up 10′ late, dripping with sweat after 🚲 in a rush from work and a superman-style switch from lycra to jeans.

Just as I stop running with my legs, I start racing with my mouth through the fast-paced high notes of the intro.

I look around…What a bunch of ugly mugs! The majority is just like me: mostly middle-aged oversized urban dwellers squeezed in a summer-hot rehearsal room after a long day at work.

And then I let myself go an get on with the music and, eyes shut, I soak in the power of the choral performance. It’s early days but it already sounds impressive, for all sorts of good reasons.

Thank goodness we humans are endowed with the powers of metaphor, allowing us to abstract ourselves away from demanding lives and less-than-perfect bodies into an imaginary world of sheer beauty…

…Have a beautiful evening!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sun 28th May 11:15-13:15 – 3rd rehearsal

Boozy night last night, but morning 🚲 breakfast with Phil and Johnny got me ready for today’s singing session, dedicated to the Jaëger chorus (the hunters, that is).

If you want to get a feel for it, hum the tune of Snow White’s seven dwarves off to work in the forest: same jolly spirit.

I am finally starting to get a bit more comfortable with the whole thing… I have my little slot in the tenor section, one of eight (of whom, to my ignorant surprise, three are women) and we all get busy listening to the director and reading attentively our scores… Some of us definitely trying to look like they understand it a lot more than they really do, though I am feeling more relaxed and less and less like a cheat.

The biggest tension diffuser, however, was the email I received last night: ha-haaa! …The MUSIC FILES! Basically, care of modern tech, every singer gets a copy of their part in an MP3 recording delivered via dropbox. I can now shove 🎧 on my head and learn the Opera while hoovering the stairs!

I actually did this and I am happy report that, in la-la-land 🎶, time doing chores passes more jollily and seemingly faster.

…Try it out and have a jolly evening!

Screenshot 2020-06-06 at 09.38.31

Wed 31 May 19:00-21:30 – 4th rehearsal

In opera, as you know, you sing with the diaphragm.

Try this:
– quick breath in, then sing a high(ish) pitch sound: …aaaah 🎶 !
….You should be able to tell that the sound came from the area around your neck.

Now try this:
– breathe slowly all the way down your tummy, the kind of breath that shows off your beer belly; then open your mouth and, as you deflate your tummy, try to sing the same aaaah 🎶…!
If you’ve done this right you you will have noticed the difference. It’s a bit like comparing a recorder sound vs a bagpipe sound.

No bagpipes at tonight’s rehearsal. We spent half of it improving on parts learned so far, and the other half beginning to learn the finale…We’ll soon be ready to start the acting bit.

…But remember, when you practice the tummy-singing, the sound has to come out of the mouth!!! Goodnight!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sunday 4th Jun, 10:30-13:30 – 5th rehearsal

It was hard. We got on with it because that’s what you ought to do.

But the only “magic bullets” I could think of were those of the Armed Response Units last night in London Bridge. And this is the “song” that kept playing in my head:

Eight minutes’ all it took for retaliation
To mete out justice following the Absurd
The swift and surgical obliteration
Like vermin was the prize you most deserved

Eight minutes’ all it took for seven angels
To join the crowds of martyrs unaware
So full of life – the silent Southwark bells
Above – their only guilt the when and where

RIP

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Mon 5th Jun 19:00-22:00 – 6th rehearsal

From now on I am Hans the blacksmith.

My wife Rosalynd is a herbalist and we’ve adopted Winnie, a naive young lady. Patricia, a single mother of 5(!) whose husband died in the 30-year war, lives in the cottage opposite us and we take care of her. Our children have left the house in search of fortune.

Ollie the Director says that each of the 70+ chorus members needs to have a story and a family/friends unit, and the units need to interact in character to form the idea of the play’s community – first and foremost in our head – so that we can project it onto the audience convincingly.

Tonight was the first “stage rehearsal” where we are starting to act out the music we have learnt so far.

The “extreme mingling” we have been forced into means that my fellow tenors (already a small group) have disappeared in other corners of the room… which means I need to belt my tune with a Soprano in front and a couple of Altos around me, all following their own score.

This is quite similar to rubbing your tummy in a circle with one hand while you are beating your chest with the other.

As if this was not enough of a challenge, tonight the rehearsal clashed with … my 20:30-21:00 weekly singing(!) lesson at the Conservatoire next door… but luckily this almost coincided with the break.

So, batman-style, Hans had to switch to Gabriele, run out then up the stairs, deliver don Ottavio’s aria (“il mio tesoro intanto”, from Mozart’s don Giovanni) playing that tummy like a trombone (it’s a rather demanding piece), sweating, trying this and that bit again, sweating, saying goodbye, running back and switching personality back to the German XIX century blacksmith for the last hour’s work.

Well… it does not get any more exciting than that in Blackheath!

PS – f*@% the terrorists!!!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sun 11th Jun 10:30-13:30 – 7th rehearsal

A chorus is like a layered cake.

First it needs a solid base and this is provided by the usefully named basses. Der Freischütz has two bass scores: bass 1 and bass 2. 1 is a baritonal low, 2 is sub-woofer zone – there’s a guy sitting right next to me today who makes the floor vibrate.

Then you pile on the warm, higher range sound of the tenors. Again, 1 and 2. For 1, the recommendation is to wear tighter pants. Tenors are typically men, though there aren’t that many in relation to basses. In this range you may find the lower-pitched women (we have three in our sub-group).

The next layer is the soft icing of the Altos – again 1 and 2. It’s delicious but needs to be firm enough to hold the splendid decorations of the sopranos, the ones that make water bubbles dance and crystal glasses explode.

Substitute the spongy delight of a cake with a sound equivalent…You get it wrong and it’s obviously manky. You get it right any it’s simply sublime.

Today was the last music-only rehearsal. We are somewhere between manky and sublime, but we’ll get there soon: the raw material is good and spirits are high.

If politicians took pastry classes or joined a chorus we’d be so much better off…

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Wed 14th Jun 19:00-22:00 – 8th rehearsal

The Cèilidh. Or, rather, the Schuhplattler. A sweaty affair.

Greasy summer night at the dance halls…Folk dance time!

Tonight my mono-functional man-brain got a truly punishing workout.

It was not just a question of adding a bit of acting to the singing… we were supposed to learn our jolly dance moves whilst sticking to our score, surrounded by different types of voices. Most struggled, I failed dismally.

I shall now take the scientific approach, break it all down and practice on my own in the gimp’s room (the family does not need to see this) and within a week or so I will be the singing Nureyev.

Tonight I did do something right though. In fact, two things: got changed into shorts and flipflops before heading to the rehearsal; managed to fit chippy dinner during the interval.

A greasy night indeed.

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sat 17th Jun 10:30-17:30 – 9th rehearsal

Operas cost a small fortune.

It’s the sheer number of people involved and the time required to prepare.

My back-of-the envelope calculation says that the adult chorus alone has invested, so far, 1800+ man-hours (and we are only half-way through). Treble that for orchestra, youth chorus and star cast and you get a sense of the scale.

It’s not just about money. In fact, at Blackheath Halls, the main currency is …L O V E!

Love of music, of community, of charitable purpose.

Love of spending 7 hours of your weekend in a hot musty smelly room pretending to be a forager.

Love of prancing around doing what you are told, totally oblivious as to how silly you look.

But the clear winners of this Love Fest are the music and stage directors, Jedi Masters of Patience and Motivators Supreme.

The word “shit” – as in: “that was shit” – does not seem to figure in their vocabulary.

They have swapped it for “great”, “fantastic”, “well done”.

And they really seem to mean it.

At first I thought they were just good liars (…what’s the point of whipping a bunch of volunteers into the black hole of self-doubt?).

But then a friend suggested that – the consummate professionals they are – they know what is reasonable to expect at each stage of rehearsal: “crap” on day 1 is the first, necessary step to “perfect” two months later.

Building on every possible positive, they slowly construct something much bigger than the people, the playing and the singing: a masterpiece of Love.

You are GRRRRREAT! …Yes, I mean YOU!!!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

21st Jun 19:00-22:00 – 10th rehearsal

***SWEAT***

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Mon&Tue 26-27 Jun – 11th & 12th rehearsal

…Kids!!!

From the order of learning the music to the chaos of acting it out to the mayhem of …children invasion!

Imagine 60 billiard balls on a pool table (adults) and someone pouring a big jar of marbles in (kids).

Two nights of copy-paste rehearsal with two different children choirs (alternate nights for final performance), learning how to move through the stage doing our bit while they do their bit: confused.com.

As all the pieces of the puzzle are being put together I realise more and more the necessity of a “leap of faith”: if everyone learns and – most importantly – remembers on what they need to do all will be ok on the night.

My character, Hans the blacksmith, will even be performing a “throw a child in the air” stunt while singing “VICTORIOUS”!

Opera: vocal gym, mental gym, gym gym.

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sun 2 Jul 11:00-16:00 – 13th rehearsal

Night before. Rome, circa 2am.

Over the last few days Ali hit two major milestones: 18 and A-level exams out of the way!!!

Ergo: “let’s get trolleyed!”

My university room-mate friend Antonio’s wedding in the Eternal City provided the perfect backdrop for FREE, UNLIMITED access to excellent wine and ghastly spirits.

All was merry until fully realising the implications of the 6am flight back to Albion. Too late. Stumbled to bed @2:40, groaned out of it @4:40.

The things you do not to miss rehearsals… #13 was – predictably – a bit of a daze. But not dead yet.

Bottoms-up for a great weekend, more rock’n’roll than opera!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Tue 4 Jul 19:00-22:00 – 14th rehearsal

Oh hum. Family life is trumping Opera.

Ali’s School Leavers’ ceremony (followed by the “strictly no parents” ball) took precedence over most of tonight’s rehearsal.

A sweet-and-sour moment, a rite of passage into adulthood.

So beautiful to see young people brimming with potential taking off, so sad to see your child so ready to go.

“Jerusalem” was the chosen ‘send-off song’, a school tradition: a solemn anthem, joyfully performed by a sea of emotionally charged late-teenagers.

It’s easy to drift into a smile, eyes closed, in the knowledge that these kids will make the world a better place for us all…

…WE NEED YOU TO!!!

(And God bless America!)

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sunday 9th July – 15th rehearsal – 10:30-16:30

…We finally meet the orchestra!

This is a “listening post”, so turn the volume up: I somehow managed to video this in my pocket but – despite 95% being black – it gives a good idea of where we’re at.

It’s the “Jägerchor” scene almost coming together.

Mon 10 Jul 19:00-22:00 – 16th rehearsal

The wait. That’s what it looks like. Performers know what I am talking about.

We are at the final stage and the stage is finally ready for next week’s performances.

This week’s gruelling schedule is 5 out 7 days of evening and w/e action. I’ll have to flip-flop my way through it.

The real skill is to time the bicycle ride from work so that I have more than 5′ to change, wash and boldly go.

The main problem is that, after puffing my way up Greenwich hill in 28C degree evening sunshine, the little inside heater stays turned on for @least 30′, resulting in a fountain of sweat for the first part of the rehearsal.

The clever solution I worked out tonight is a chilled beer @ the interval: the Blackheath Halls’ bar offers a glorious cold Ale which is just the ticket.

I would even have had a chance to consume it at a relaxed pace had it not been for the Monday night singing lesson @ the Conservatoire next door (working on a great Aria this week… “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s “l’Elisir d’Amore”) which squeezed my window of opportunity down to 5′.

Ah, and dinner. Who needs dinner anyway? Thankfully Guardian Angel saved yummy breaded chicken breasts for hungry Hans.

Long day, hot day, great day.

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Wed 12th Jul 18:00-21:30 – 17th rehearsal

Backstage banter.

First full costume rehearsal with orchestra and final stage. You need a big leap of faith to trust that all will be well next week.

In the meantime, backstage props from some other show make the wait more fun.

One has to be serious without taking oneself too seriously.

#almostthere

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Sun 16th 13:00-18:30 – 19th rehearsal

…LAST rehearsal!

Full dress like yesterday, stage clothes getting dirtier and sweatier – fermenting to perfection for our hunter-gatherer performance.

Tue, Wed, Fri and Sun.

The culmination of two months’ work. We are ready as we can be.

Part of being ready – you learn – is *not* not to make mistakes… but about being relaxed enough that, when you stumble, you recover quickly in a seamless way either because someone comes to the rescue or because you blag your way out of it.

Good tactic. Even off stage, in the theatre of life.

The picture shows the performing area, with seating in a “U” shape and the orchestra in an elevated position at the back.

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Tue 18th Jul @ 19:00 – Live Performance #1

Christmas 1986.

The final year high-school show was the last time I graced the stage with my artful presence.

My English-worded, Italian-pronounced rendering of “…we don’t need noo …edukeayshon…” – wearing dark tracksuit and fluorescent rings on my head, arms and legs under UV lighting – was as original and rebellious it could get in a Military School.

30.5 years later, Blackheath Halls is my Tardis and I am abuzz with excitement.

Despite the cocky outward confidence, the heart is beating faster and brain-freeze does not take long to set in …couple of major timing and stage action mistakes in the first 10′, but both carried out with pre-planned aplomb (I kept the ‘DUH!’ scream inside and hopefully the couple of spectators lasered into my character will have just thought: “that was kinda weird”).

Plenty of dressing room banter in the pauses.

The guy who was supposed to leave a pair of scissors on the stage for the main character to stab herself with… forgot them in his pocket.

To my great relief, that won the wooden spoon award for the night and must have forced some pretty serious quick-thinking by the performers of the dramatic “wounding scene”. Rock-Paper-Scissors and WTF spring to mind 👹.

Anyway, we did it and the audience loved it. One down… see what we manage to screw-up tomorrow.

…I NEED A 🍺!!!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Wed Jul 19th @ 19:00 – 2nd Live Performance

…Remember “Groundhog Day”?

Surely it was a metaphor for the life of a cast in a theatre production!

Everyday is the same but everyday is different.

If you time it right, repeating yesterday’s joke in the backroom is hilarious.

On stage, you look forward to the opportunity of fixing all the little things that went wrong in the previous performance, only to find out that it’s like a spider’s web: you pull one side and the other comes apart.

To hell with mistakes. During the show, you merge more and more with the ~60-strong chorus community – many plays within a play where the connections, like roots, grow deeper and more true as we all turn into villagers, hunters and foragers.

The theatrical multiverse reminds you of the fallacy of trying to control the complex environment we live in, where randomness constantly fiddles with a myriad interdependencies.

It’s like woods and trees. Individual accidents are not only inevitable, they are the catalyst of change. The shit that happens at wood level requires you to think wood, not tree.

Repeat to self: “more wood, less tree”.

2 down, 2 to go!

Imago de Gabriele Albarosa.

Fri 21st Jul @ 19:00 – 3rd and penultimate live performance

Amman. Bucuresti. Aosta. Torino.

Italians come to Opera like 🐝 🐝 to 🍯.

Tonite is family nite. The Albarosas have flocked from 3 different countries onto Blackheath to hear the ancestral call of Bel Canto.

<<Opera was born in Italy at the end of the 16th century. A group of Florentine musicians and intellectuals, la camerata fiorentina, were fascinated by Ancient Greece and opposed to the excesses of Renaissance polyphonic music. They wanted to revive what was thought to be the simplicity of ancient tragedy. The first opera still performed today was La favola d’Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus), composed by Monteverdi in 1607, 400 years ago>> (from opera-europe.org).

Der Freischütz is a folk-almost-tragedy-with-happy-ending. It’s community as family and family as love with a bit of devil lurking around.

It’s a cathartic journey from the dire consequences of a big error of judgment to the triumph of hope and justice.

These are the first footsteps of Romanticism, big, bold and coarse. A proper European cultural snapshot: the sunshine may be at the end of the tunnel but the path is painful, twisted and uphill.

The light is out there. Let’s go get it.

Screenshot 2020-06-06 at 09.54.48

Sun 23rd @14:30 – 4th and final live performance

The end. The Apocalypse. And here are the Four of the Apocalypse who changed my life in the last couple of months:

1. Rose Ballantyne (http://watercitymusic.com/rose-ballantyne/)

2. Nick Jenkins (http://www.glyndebourne.com/…/glyndebourne-appoints-new-ch…/)

3. Ollie Platt (http://oliverplatt.co.uk/about/)

4. Jim Manganello (http://fratellanzatheater.org/whoweare/)

👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

It’s been an honour and a privilege.

Sun 23rd @14:30 – 4th and final live performance

The end. The Apocalypse. And here are the Four of the Apocalypse who changed my life in the last couple of months:

1. Rose Ballantyne (http://watercitymusic.com/rose-ballantyne/)

2. Nick Jenkins (http://www.glyndebourne.com/…/glyndebourne-appoints-new-ch…/)

3. Ollie Platt (http://oliverplatt.co.uk/about/)

4. Jim Manganello (http://fratellanzatheater.org/whoweare/)

👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

It’s been an honour and a privilege.

Screenshot 2020-06-06 at 09.56.16

THE END
the end

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: