This week's opening of the
While the orchestra and singers have enjoyed elite musical educations en route to becoming internationally accomplished musicians, for others in the production the road to the
While outreach and education projects are commonplace in artistic institutions, this was slightly different. There has been no pre-production publicity and "there is no concession on quality," says Rattle. "This is a Royal Opera production and the same standards of excellence apply to the new members of the cast as to the professionals. But without telling the audience the backgrounds of the people on stage, I think that somehow they will sense that this is something a little different and these people do bring a different dramatic experience. The French revolution was about the real world impinging on another world that had become too isolated. There are obvious resonances. One of the most difficult things in opera is for people to suspend disbelief. What better way of putting the French revolution on stage than to bring in people who bring a whole new energy - sometimes not necessarily the most convenient energy - to the stage?"
The process of putting together the community ensemble began in January. It was a collaborative effort involving the charities Streetwise Opera, which uses music as a platform to help homeless people, the
"My late father once said to me that it's OK to be down on your luck, but so long as you are not out you can always find a handhold to pull yourself up," said Braithwaite. "When I became homeless I went to
Michael B says that during his prison sentence he needed to find something he "loved and could commit to". As part of a day-release catering course, he was assigned to a job in the bar of Rada. "When I was there, some of the students and staff said to me that I was an actor, but that I just didn't realise it. Before prison, I had no experience of acting at all. But if I'm honest, I did use acting in my crimes. It was almost as if I was playing a character because I couldn't do it myself. In prison it was the same. You constantly have to adapt your character to different people and to different energies and situations. Say something wrong and things can escalate quickly."
After his release, he made contact with Synergy theatre who directed him in the Royal Opera project. He also started to audition for drama schools.
I've been following the progress of the community ensemble since the first of their weekly rehearsals together in February. The early warm-up exercises could have come straight from middle-management bonding sessions: sit with someone you don't know; do a yawn from the whole of your body; pretend you're trapped in a bubble. Rehearsing the stage movements resulted in much bumping into one another and general incompetence, the kind of scenes familiar to anyone who saw early episodes of
A month or so later, the camaraderie had grown almost palpably. Theatrical groans greeted the announcement that a tube strike would mean an early finish and therefore no tea break, while the phrase "You are a revolting mob" was still getting big laughs. The focus of the sessions was sharper, too. The group was told that, as the crowd, they were witnesses to, and participants in, the end of an era. Much of the instruction was about maintaining concentration in long scenes. "It is not just those at the front communicating with people in the stalls," the group was told. "The people at the back will be in communication with the circle and above. You will all be seen at all times. You cannot relax." Hitting marks on the right note had become much more important, while requests for silence from the production staff had a slightly testier edge.
Royal Opera Chorus member
There was indeed a new atmosphere in the vast rehearsal room when they began to work with the chorus and principals. Members of Carsen's production team prowled the floor offering instructions. The space felt slightly less safe than it had been when they were on their own; asking a simple question took slightly more courage.
"You can make the rehearsal room as safe and supportive an experience as possible," said assistant director
The test of that came with the full dress rehearsal before a packed house. There was clearly raised tension as I walked with the ensemble through the darkened wings, listening to the hubbub of the audience just a few feet away on the other side of the curtain. Yet, from my vantage point, it all seemed to go as planned. The swaying and circling looked good, they parted on cue, and, most importantly, entered and exited on time and in character.
"I came here as a child because my uncle was a tailor in the wardrobe department," said Braithwaite. "So I can't believe I've now performed on the stage of the
"It was very humbling to be in front of so many people," said Michael B. "Because of the life I have lived I have been in some very tense situations, and I wasn't actually nervous. It was a feeling of excitement and maybe that's why I have taken to this."
When the project ends,
Streetwise and Synergy theatre hope the experience will create new possibilities for the participants in all aspects of their lives. They already have their first success story. Last weekend, Michael B was at Rada for a final audition. "I signed up for the Royal Opera project because I thought it would give me experience of how a theatre actually works," he explains. "But I never dreamed it would work out like this. My audition went well. A year ago, I was in prison and had never acted in my life. In September, I will start to study at the
Dialogues des Carmelites is at the
Swaying and circling . . . the
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