July 26, 2014

A backstage guide to the opera chorus

Chorus scene from Bellini's "La Sonnambula"
As debate continues over the reports of Metropolitan Opera chorus members being paid salaries of $200,000, let's take a moment to meet some characteristic members of any opera chorus anywhere, shall we? Let's do! (DISCLAIMER: folks who sing in an opera chorus are good folks and true, easily worth any salary within budgetary limits. I've been one many times and I love them.)

  • The Habitual Shusher. She takes it upon herself to maintain quiet and decorum in the wings, hissing "SHHHHH" so loudly at conversing colleagues that she's actually more audible than they are.
  • The Rebel. He will talk, laugh and vocalize ("mi-mi-mi-mi-miiiiiii") offstage, oblivious to whether the audience or performers onstage can hear him. He appears to be unaware of the existence of The Shusher.
  • The Veteran. She's in her 22nd season of second-alto work and has seen it all. She spends time offstage working quietly on a never-ending needlepoint project. Nothing ever disturbs her calm, smiling presence, and nothing impresses her. She's done this so long that she takes it all in stride: crises, catastrophes, brilliant debuts, or celebrity guest-stars? They all take second place to her needlework.
  • The Rookie. He is most likely a college undergraduate and this is the first time he was ever paid for singing. Talk about stars in one's eyes - yessiree! His face shines perpetually with the wonder of it all: the music, the makeup sessions, the wig pinned to his head, ALL of it. He stands in the wings, listening to every note of the scenes he's not in, while the rest of the chorus resumes their card games or laptop correspondences. He's committing it all to memory and when he gets home, he'll go to Youtube and listen to fourteen different recordings of the big aria in this show.
  • The "Pro". It is very important to him that all his colleagues, not to mention the crew, the stage director, and even the ushers (should he find himself interacting with them) understand his lengthy professional experience. He'll regale everyone with unwanted and pointless stories about how this opera was staged with such brilliance and innovation when he was in that production in Des Moines... or Sarasota... or Aspen... or wherever. If a famous diva's name is mentioned, he'll brightly ask "Oh, how is Renee doing these days? I haven't seen her since the L.A. Streetcar - that's such a good role for her." He won't mention that he was in the audience for that one...
  • The Understudy. She just completed her Master's degree in vocal performance at this school or that and she is here as a Young Artist in the company's apprentice program. Though exhausted from two months of daily performances of a children's opera at elementary schools, she has not yet reached the "burnout stage", career-wise. With memories of her performances as Adina, Rosina and Norina from her college days still fresh in her memory, she goes about her business being as helpful and punctual and collegial as possible, not to mention being a literal fountain of positive energy. Especially when the conductor and/or Artistic Director are within earshot. She will be taking her lumps in the next few years as reality sets in, but tonight she is the first soprano of a chorus master's dreams.
  • The Busy One. Eschewing card games, small talk or flirting, he spends every spare minute hunkered down at his laptop. It would appear that the ideal time to work on furthering his career is during performances, rather than, say, ...well, any other time. Emails are returned, resumes drafted, edited or updated as needed, and there is endless tweaking of his website. He combs the World Wide Web for audition notices. By golly, he'll probably get a text from Chicago Lyric before Act IV at this rate! Oh, and please don't disrupt him with chatter or idle questions or party plans. He gets a little stand-offish. Busy, you know. Important stuff.
  • The Class Clown. Oh no. Protect us from him, opera gods. His endless impressions and banter and routines cause everyone to duck into the nearest toilet stall or stairwell. To his credit, he knows better than to approach The Busy One. Oh no - that wouldn't be wise. (Note: can only be male; I have yet to encounter a female of this species.)
  • The Doofus. It's always dicey when one of his scenes begins, as you never know if he'll make his entrance on time. He gets distracted, yakking about beer-making with the Wig Master back in the make-up room. Or maybe listening to one of the janitors telling about an article he read about holistic cancer cures. Whatever. At the last dress rehearsal he incurred the crew's wrath for being five seconds late for the ball scene, bursting onstage in hectic confusion just in time to sing. He's too gregarious by half, this one - needs to learn to focus or he might not be asked back next season.
  • The Invisible Man/Woman. He or she always remembers his/her blocking. He/she has the music memorized by the date requested. He/she has arrived 15 minutes early for every music rehearsal and has never once missed her posted call time for a dress rehearsal or performance. He/she doesn't complain when tech rehearsals run long or the maestro asks for the finale to be gone through yet again. He/she leaves his/her personal problems at the door, but listens sympathetically when others bring theirs to him/her. He/she watches the conductor at all times, especially those whose tempi tend to vary from night to night; consequently, he/she is never the one dragging behind the beat. He/she invests the same high level of energy on the eighth performance as on the first. The chorus master relies on him/her with utmost confidence, and every production is a little better for his/her presence in it.
Every opera chorus has its share of Invisible Men and Invisible Women; they are invaluable components of the opera world. They deserve their share of the applause.

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