Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ah yes, that time again.  Covering (being an understudy for) an operatic role.  Some people seem quite happy to make a living (an admittedly decent living) from doing this at a higher level,  but I reckon they must be far further along the Zen path of selflessness than I am; I find it very challenging indeed to take a back seat when my entire body is yearning to leap up there on stage and perform. 

I took this on because for lack of a delicate way to put it there is bugger-all going on in the German opera scene at the moment. My agents all report dead space as regards possible vacancies for my voice type, and all the positive thinking and virtuoso singing in the practice room isn't going to change that in the slightest.  So when I was offered a cover for this role, I thought, well better that than simply wandering along the Rhine throwing stones at the ducks.  And, it is (I'm a dreadful thrower, always have been; it would upset me to actually hit a duck by accident!).  Plus, I had a bit of a dead time before a role in a Tchaikovsky opera (Eugene Onegin), and I thought, well why not?

As always, the circumstances differ from the light in which they were first presented.  I had understood that the woman singing our role would be away for a month during the first rehearsals.  Nope.   (Although I did get to sing the first stage rehearsal, therefore getting to create the character's mood from the start...). This means a lot more sitting around (I have embarked for reasons unkown even unto myself upon the embroidery of a golden dragon on long-napped black velvet.  Well, you have to do something in the bits where you are not involved!) than I had anticipated, and I find it hard to bite down the frustration at being so near the creative action yet utterly separate.    And that after having slaved over a hot piano to make sure I was totally au fait with the role.

Still.  Such frustrations are more than made up for when the director (a Big Cheese here in Germany) comes over to thank you, after a day in which you have not sung a note but have embroidered quite a lot of complicated dragon and bitten your tongue a few times, for simply bowling up.  He absolutely didn't have to do that, so I was gratified that he did.  (Directors on your way to Big Cheese status, please take note!).  Somehow this validated the whole thing as what I protested it was: a learning experience.

Because somehow, looked at in the right light, it really is.  I mean, you get to forgo wearing suspiciously sweaty rehearsal dress.  You can arrive at rehearsal three minutes before the start without panicking, and that's even taking into account the lift which invariably wanders up to the second floor or whatever before descending to the infernal depths of the rehearsal stage.  You can look meaningfully at your score, as if you were actually following the action therein, whilst simultaneously stabbing your left index finger rather painfully during a session of free-skating embroidery.  Not least, you really can learn an awful lot from the sidelines.  

I would love to direct at some point in the future.  So being in front of the action is a heaven-sent opportunity to see how things actually work.  This particular director comes from straight theatre, therefore his working practices differ from those of many directors whose only passion is opera.  Again, fascinating.  And last but not least, it feels wonderful to be the one sitting at the back knowing the words backwards, when your counterpart on stage is looking around going, oh bugger was that meant to be my line?  (This invariably happens at some point during the first stage rehearsals; somehow when the body gets involved, the mind often decides to tootle off elsewhere for a while, hence the music you thought you'd got memorised COLD disappearing completely as soon as you have to negotiate a chair, a raked stage, another singer...).

It is really a more delicate balance than those on the outside can usefully imagine.  I am heading into the rest of rehearsals buoyed by directorial interest (feeding the ego; always necessary for a performer) yet cognisant of the debilitating effect of putting my ego deliberately aside.

I shall take courage from another understudy.  We lost the singer in the title role of this opera a week before musical rehearsals began, due to illness.  This is, to put it mildly, an opera which is seldom performed.  Ergo a lot of stress during rehearsals and the end result that we HAVE a singer in the title role but that he won't be here until next week.  

So in order to at least craft something together, the director has drafted in an actor who knows the play to stand in for the lead role and at least act, react and provide a sounding-board for the other singers.

I bearded the bloke after rehearsals today.  Great, sez I, that you propose at a certain point in the action to drag this table over and then  leap nimbly upon into to deliver your final trumpeted thoughts.  Could be the singer coming after might not share your views.

He looked me in the eye and smiled fit to kill:  "Ah, but I'll be long gone  by then..."

I intend to enjoy the whole of the rest of the process!!

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