Birmingham Opera – my Othello diary

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Some people run away and join the circus. Others drop out for a year-long ‘gap’ or a sabbatical. But many more of us have to fit in our dreams around our daily grind when an apposite opportunity presents itself.

And so it was that 18 months ago, I signed up to sing in an opera, put on by the controversial and ground-breaking Birmingham Opera Company. This quite amazing arts organisation (now facing cuts) not only opens up the doors of a musical artform that is traditionally the preserve of the rich, but opens it with wide, welcoming, inclusive arms to anyone prepared to put in the hard work and commitment to learn, sing and act their part.

For part of the rehearsal run-up, until it became insane and took over my life, I kept a diary. Yesterday I remembered I had written some of it up and thought it might add to the commentary and memories being collected on Twitter via the #tellyothello hashtag.

So the diary is below – feel free to skip ahead and read it. Or here is a bit more background…

When Birmingham Opera Company held open auditions at venues around the city, it felt a little like a ringmaster asking you to join the circus – a little scary but don’t worry, there would be training. Plus, they made it a lot of fun.

But there was no getting away from the fact that within three months, 150 or so amateur singers, plus another 100 or so amateur actors and dancers, would be appearing in a full-scale opera headed by an internationally renowned director, Graham Vick.

What a risky business. It could so easily have gone very, very wrong.

Thankfully, though, their – and our –contemporary production of Verdi’s Othello surpassed all expectations. It won national acclaim, five-star reviews, a spot on The Culture Show and was recognised in the classical oscars, the RPS Awards, as one of the top three shows of 2009.

In addition, it was filmed by the BBC, alongside a documentary on Graham Vick and featuring rehearsal footage and behind-the-scenes preparation. Filming must have been a particular challenge because the professional cast, performers and audience all shared the same seatless, carpeted space.

Anyway… finally, later today, Saturday 19 February 2011, our performance is getting an airing on the tellybox: the documentary is at 3.25pm; the opera at 4.25 until 7.30pm (it’s an epic), on BBC2.

That will be the finished performance.

But here is the view from the sopranos, one month into rehearsals.

24 October 2009

'Does that make sense?'

For the last three weeks, choirmaster Jon Laird (pictured above) has been note-bashing Birmingham Opera Company’s version of Othello with 150 amateur singers recruited from the streets of Birmingham. It’s a big deal apparently. This is the first UK production to feature a black Othello, more than 30 years after Paul Robeson broke the race barrier in the film version and Hollywood stopped blacking up its actors for the role.

It’s also my first-ever opera and I’ve sited myself in the highest singing section of the chorus: the Soprano Ones. Which may turn out to be a mistake: I have a low speaking voice but a high thin singing voice. I’ve also sung in a university gospel choir in Birmingham too – which was 99% white – but the callout for members of the public to join such a ‘high art form’ as the opera was intriguing.

So far we’ve rehearsed once a week in a girl guide’s hall and in the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre but today we finally see the actual performance space. Typically of the Birmingham Opera Company, we’re in an old industrial warehouse, a rubber plant and chemical factory to be precise – it’s filthy but absolutely vast and the acoustics are incredible (and forgiving). Here is it:

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Today is also our first chance to meet the director, Graham Vick (in the red jumper above). He opens with a bit of background on Verdi’s opera – how Verdi was forced out of his 18-year retirement to write a modern opera at the age of 78.

‘Race has always been the elephant in the room,’ says Vick. ‘It is difficult to explore these issues with an audience of rich, white Italians.’ But now with both a black Othello (Ronald Samm) AND a black Iago (Keel Watson), and us, a chorus recruited from one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK, Vick hopes to get stuck right in to the race issue.

Indeed we are a very representative chorus – we are both old (pensioners) and young (there’s a 30-strong children’s chorus). We are black, white, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, able-bodied, unable to stand or walk easily. Some of us are even ginger. 😉

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But still we are universally shocked – there are gasps – when Vick reveals some of the details of his radical production: a carpeted Mosque-style set where the audience leaves their shoes at the door, and (he thinks he will go with this one) suicide bombers brandishing grenades or strapped with sticks of dynamite beneath their coats.

‘Othello’s opening line is about drowning the Moslems and leaving them to rot at the bottom of the sea,’ says Vick. He seems to relish in being provocative. I’m imagining mass panic.

Then Othello and Desdemona sing their love duet, and we are enraptured, the suicide bombers temporarily forgotten in the beauty and strength of the two lead voices.

27 October 2009

Eviva Othello Eviva!

There are up to eight chorus parts running simultaneously in Verdi’s score. Jon is running us through a particulary difficult, multi-layered section. It only lasts a minute but the sopranos must scream ‘Away! Away! Stop them! They’re desperate! A rescue! A rescue! A rescue!’ while very precisely fitting between tenors, basses and altos shouting similar things all at different times. Not easy as most of us don’t read music and have learnt our individual parts only from a CD recording.

‘Ladies, can I have less chickens exploding and more melody on “they’re desperate” please.’

‘Hold it in, puddle on the floor, hold it in, puddle on the floor!’ – now he is referring us to use our peeing muscles in order to attain a more precise note. At this point we have been moulded into super-compliant robots carrying out every whim of our musical overlord.

Jon says, ‘Something tells me we are never going to sing this right in performance.’

31 October 2009

As we’re an ‘acting’ singing chorus, every week Ron and Jen the choreographers attempt to loosen up our stiff singers joints with some movement warm-ups. This is on top of taking our shoes on and off all the time – the carpeted performance space is a shoe-free zone.

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Last week the warm-up involved a tongue-flicking hakka face-off and spelling out our name with out hips. This week, it’s a Hallowe’en-inspired section of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in which we must dance like staring zombies for the BBC cameras that are here to film for The Culture Show. A rumour goes round that it’ll be posted up on the company’s YouTube channel, where the awfulness will no doubt go viral.

Our other big task is to learn to walk at different speeds among each other, shake hands, hug vigorously and say ‘HI!’ like Italians, ie, effusively. Negotiating crowds of people will be vital – 300 of us will be in the space with 450 members of the audience and will have to negotiate around them – sometimes at a running pace in order to reach our cue.

Musicwise, Jon concentrates on ironing out the Brummie twang that occasionally creeps into lines like ‘Victorious!’ and ‘Oh save us’. Apparently it’s not ‘Oh save uz’, it’s ‘Save ahhs’. Or as John says, ‘Save arse, save arse, save arse.’

7 November 2009

The vocal warm-ups are entertaining. There’s nothing quite like seeing 150 people stick out their tongue and spell their names with it in mid-air. Or singing scales to a tongue twister –‘To begin to toboggan first buy a toboggan but don’t buy too big a toboggan. Too big a toboggan is not a toboggan to buy to begin to toboggan.’

Today Jon orders the basses to sing like ‘aggressive ducks’ to help them enunciate and get the sound he after. The rest of us are told to sound less like Daleks and to to do a bit of letter substitution for a softer sound. ‘When you hear a T in Italian opera, use a d, so there is less air on it,’ says Graham Vick, who is starting to join in our singing rehearsals and give us production instructions.

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At this point I gave up on typing up my notes – it’s on my to do list (the one that will never get done). Rehearsals were stepped up to three or four times a week, with 8-10 hours spent in the factory space at weekends. Life began to revolve around the opera. My partner was in the tenors so it also bled into homelife too, with singing warmups taking place in the car on the way to the ‘theatre’. The excitement was building and we began to see what the actors had been working on, as well as seeing anyone from breakdancers to Morris Men to ‘suicide bombers’ wandering the green room and performance space.

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The orchestra were installed on their gantry…

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…and we were introduced to our new conductor, Stephen Barlow, who would conduct us by means of televisions placed around the factory space. Here he is:

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Tickets were released and quickly sold out. We had the sense that this was a BIG production, the biggest yet for BOC. When Graham or Jon said jump, we jumped; despite the tiredness. The component parts were glimpsed and the costumes fitted and hung on name-tagged hangers. Just like a proper show, I remember thinking. It was when I saw the wardrobe rails and sign-in sheets that it became real for me.

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But it was only at the dress rehearsal that we finally saw what BOC had created.

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And it was good. Very good. So, even if you’re not an opera fan normally, please watch it on BBC2, or iPlayer, or set the video, or catch the repear next Saturday, or see it on the Big Screen in Birmingham’s Victoria Square.

And think of us lucky people who got to take part in the experience of being in a major opera. We’ll be breaking open the bubbly on this Saturday afternoon for our TV premiere, singing along no doubt and trying to spot ourselves on the telly.

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IN OTHER OPERA NEWS… since then I signed up for another BOC opera: Stravinsky’s The Wedding, which took place in 2010 – more on that here in My big fat fake wedding.

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