(Disclaimer: Some names been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. No animals were harmed during the making of this opera. My ribs are still sore though.)
Mid-February, post-Monteverdi Vespers tour and gearing up to fly to Australia, I couldn’t believe it when an enormous envelope containing my Belshazzar score landed on the door mat. Already! Naturally, like the diligent person that I am, I carefully flung it onto the sofa for a later date. It was soon gently pointed out that we needed to learn 57 minutes’ worth of completely new Handel in fewer weeks than there were choruses. Fast forward a few months of feverishly stealing every tube, train, plane journey and spare moment to learn the music, to a church in Stockwell, our ‘office’ for the next three weeks.
The rehearsal period was so exciting; every day we would trot along to the church hall and be asked by the dynamic duo (Director Daniel Slater and Movement Director Tim Claydon) to do something stranger than the day before. ‘Make like you’re in a bath swooshing the water when you’re singing this one’, ‘balance on poor Jeremy and Ryan and writhe about while they stagger across stage’, ‘lick Charlotte’ etc. And every morning brought the promise of the news that OJ (our repetiteur and harpsichordist) might have become a father.
There is nothing like a daily improvised orgy scene to break down any barriers pretty quickly, and in no time at all the entire cast and crew had become like old friends. Naturally, a WhatsApp group was set up, which would become a constant source of shared silliness between the whole company over the coming weeks and it soon felt as though these people were my new extended other family. There came the arrival of OJ’s little baby girl! Joyous. And so too, it seemed, our show. I finally felt almost sure of when I was a soldier (aggressive face), Jew (sad face), Babylonian (crazed face), or narrator (playful face), and where on stage I was supposed to be when. Sort of. I had watched and listened in wonder as our incredible soloists put together their bits and bobs, and gawped open mouthed at the mind- bending antics of the three acrobats; I had even established that Euphrates was not a person. We had an unexpectedly successful piano run through from beginning to end, and somehow that had all happened in a mere few weeks.
At last then to (hushed tone please) The Grange. I had a real Pemberley moment upon rounding the bend in the road and encountering the awesome sight of the stately home and grounds in all their splendour for the first time (quickly to be brought almost back down to earth on meeting with the portaloos). We had an intense week of rehearsals on the stage which passed in a cake-fuelled blur of manic costume changes, rain and hysteria. The arrival of our wonderful orchestra lifted proceedings to new heights and marked the final countdown to the end of what had been an all-consuming, intense, and enormously fun journey.
An absolutely knock-out double rainbow which met the horizon at each end came out at sunset during the first night, providing us with a fittingly biblical sign that the rains had ended; we would not be washed away, but would instead be able to play frisbee on the croquet lawn and have picnics aplenty during the intervals (minding of course any stray audience members and their classic cars).
The dress and the first few shows have now passed without a single glitch. Not one. I’m sure Cinderella felt it added a special dimension to her character when she went on as a revelling Babylonian with her Hebrew scarf still on her head. Just as Rumpelstiltskin had definitely intended to be a Babylonian during a rehearsal of a Hebrew scene, declaring out loud that he had now become a stage animal. And Zebedee certainly knew what he was doing when he realised, as we were removing our soldier costumes on stage to become Babylonians, that he was not wearing anything underneath. The revolving stage has been a wonderfully idiosyncratic rogue, playfully testing our powers of invention. What a fabulous moment when it spun at such a speed that various Hebrews were flung off into the wings. How artful it was to stop mid-turn during one act 2, encouraging the chorus to awkwardly shuffle offstage in a deeply serious Hebrew huddle and for the remaining scenes to be quickly improvised and reworked. It was surely the Wardrobe’s intention for us to use our scarfs like the professionals we are to hide our Hebrew mirth at such times. It’s moments like that which keep each show fresh and alive for each audience. Exciting! Whatever next?!
Sigh, how I will miss this marvellous adventure and its participants when it’s all done.
Katy Hill, soprano