Life on the road with WNO

Posted on Wed, 2014-04-09 10:53 by Opera Explorer

For the last month, I have been intermittently on the road with WNO, touring to Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Southampton, Plymouth and Llandudno. I have been giving my pre-performance talks for La traviata, Manon Lescaut, and Boulevard Solitude. This is my second year in this role, and it's a great privilege to see how the company operates away from our Cardiff home turf of the Wales Millennium Centre. There's a great spirit of camaraderie that develops with the distance from home, everyone pulling together for the performance, and the shared experience of spending time in these towns and cities. In order to mount three main scale productions for a total of five performances in each venue, a staggering amount of equipment has to travel with us. The huge WNO lorries don't just transport the sets to each of the touring venues: hundreds of props and costumes are also transported in numerous wardrobes on wheels, labelled according to each production. This means at any one time on tour, we are using up to fifteen trailers from our fleet of WNO lorries, which gives an idea of the amount of cargo an opera company requires!

A tour from stage door at any of the theatres we perform in will lead you past the sign-in forms and dressing room lists (where all the soloists and choristers are allotted their dressing rooms for the evening), through winding corridors lined with our portable wardrobes. As you make your way through these passages, you will brush past familiar-looking costumes, ranging from Manon Lescaut's black silk dressing gown, to the sharp black suits of the Boulevard Solitude chorus and forty corsets dangling from hangers, ready for La traviata. Prior to my talks, I usually make my way to Company Office, where Ian Douglas and Cathy Cole, the Company Management team with a whopping 63 years of WNO service between them can be found. On tour especially, their office really is the heart of the company. Usually entrenched in front of their laptops firing off both emails and entertaining anecdotes with great gusto, they somehow find the time to welcome all the singers and respond to unexpected events, liaising with the front-of-house staff in each venue, whilst also organising transport and accommodation for solo artists, and the complex logistics of forthcoming international tours.

By the time I arrive, the heroic crew and technicians will have assembled the entire set from scratch over two days (an incredible feat whose complexity is shown in the time-lapse video above, consisting of snapshots taken every 6 seconds over a 36-hour period), and the assistant or staff director from each production will be in the auditorium, working with the electrics team to ensure that every cue of the original lighting design is replicated on tour. From mid-afternoon onwards, the Stage Management team will being making 'test announcements' over the tannoy, to check that sound levels are a) audible backstage, and b) not so loud as to spill into the auditorium mid-performance! They also ensure the props are all in the right place, pre-set backstage for the evening’s performance.

In addition to supervising the artists' attire for the shows, the costume department also work throughout the day to ensure that the evening's garments are freshly washed and ironed for every performance. The company transports its own ironing boards, washing machines (also on wheels for ease of transportation in and out of venues), washing powder and industrial-sized steaming irons in order to prepare the clothes for each performance - La traviata being a particularly 'shirty' opera, with forty nineteenth-century style suits to be pressed and laundered. Sian Price, WNO's head of costume, told me that they have to be especially careful when washing the yellowed bed sheets from Act Three of La traviata: in order to maintain their disease-ridden look, it's important to ensure that they aren't washed so effectively as to lose their grimy colour. Meanwhile, the wigs department will be washing, brushing and styling the wigs (nearly always made of real human hair), and the company even brings its own hair dryers for this purposes. It amazes me just how self-sufficient the whole operation is!

As for the chorus, during the daytime, they have music calls with chorus master Stephen Harris to continue working on forthcoming repertoire. Music rehearsals for our summer production of Schoenberg's fiendish Moses und Aron have, not surprisingly, been the main focus for months. The orchestra members tend to practice individually. When walking back to my hotel room in various cities on tour, I have been fleetingly serenaded by familiar instrumental passages emanating from the walls... And I'm almost certain this isn't an indication of my touring state of mind. Lothar Koenigs, WNO's Music Director and conductor of Manon Lescaut and Boulevard Solitude spends his days studying the summer season's scores in depth, before turning his mind to the evening's opera.

Sometimes we have to adapt to theatres that are not built for such large casts - Llandudno is one example of this. I deliver my talks in a room with a partition down the middle, behind which the chorus, orchestra, costume department and stage management are all quietly emerging from their improvised offices, as they get ready for the performance. It certainly makes me choose my words carefully when I'm discussing the music and productions, knowing that there are two audiences – one visible, and one hidden, who can hear me!

As it gets nearer to show time, the atmosphere gets busier. The pit steadily fills with musicians, the walls resound with the voices of principal singers and choristers doing vocal warm-ups, while on La traviata nights, perhaps if one listens very carefully, one can hear the delicate brush-strokes of twenty sets of moustaches and sideburns being glued on. The count-down calls from Stage Management on the PA system alert everyone to their impending entrances, and it's at the five minute call (which actually happens ten minutes before curtain up) that I often make the trip to the auditorium, or sometimes to the surtitling box, for the performance. I often have the surreal experience of bumping into the chorus, in full nineteenth-century garb, as they switch off their phones or iPads, and make their way en masse to the stage.

After the performance, there is nothing else to do but to bring this complex routine to its logical conclusion - by heading to the pub of course! And so it will continue, for our final week, in Bristol...

Sophie Rashbrook