Rossini on the Road with WNO

In our latest blog, Welsh National Opera’s Nicholas John Dramaturg, Sophie Rashbrook, writes about the exciting upcoming season…

From the 19-22 November, Welsh National Opera will bring their Autumn season to audiences at the Birmingham Hippodrome, with new productions of the revolutionary Rossini operas Moses in Egypt and William Tell, and Bizet’s much-loved classic, Carmen.

My role as Dramaturg at WNO involves writing surtitles for all new productions, and giving free pre-performance talks in Cardiff and on tour. Touring is such a huge part of what we do, and it’s wonderful to be a part of the camaraderie that develops through our performances away from our Cardiff home at the Wales Millennium Centre. It is a truly awe-inspiring operation: our stage crew of 30, our fleet of 14 lorries and 3 drivers, join forces to mount three huge opera sets over the course of four evenings. It is a non-stop process from the moment we arrive at the Birmingham Hippodrome to the final get-out of the run, and I am always amazed when I arrive at the theatre, to find the set in place.

Before I went on tour with WNO, I had no idea just how self-sufficient we are. The time-lapse video from our Spring 2014 production of La Traviata gives an idea of the complexity of the operation. Consisting of snapshots taken every 6 seconds over a 36-hour period, it shows the assembling of a large set, as well as the installing of the lights, which we bring ourselves, and transportation of the heavier musical instruments. In addition to the enormous sets, a staggering amount of additional equipment has to travel with us. Hundreds of props and costumes are transported in numerous wardrobes on wheels, labelled according to each production. We even bring our own washing machines and ironing boards for the cleaning of costumes, as well as our own hair-dryers for the wigs, many of which are made of real human hair.

By the time I arrive, 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. 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.

 A scene from William Tell

A scene from William Tell

A tour from stage door will lead you past the sign-in forms and dressing room lists (where all the soloists and choristers can find their allotted dressing rooms for the evening), through winding corridors lined with our portable wardrobes. This season, as you make your way through these passages, you brush past the colourful, Chagall-inspired dresses for Moses in Egypt, to nineteenth-century corsets and shirts for Carmen, and silver body armour for the Austrian soldiers in William Tell.

Prior to my talks, I 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.

Moses in Egypt

Moses in Egypt

As for the chorus, during the daytime, they have music calls with chorus master Alexander Martin, which focus on learning repertoire for the forthcoming season. As they will be the focus of forthcoming production Chorus! there is a huge amount of music to learn, in five different languages. WNO Orchestra members tend to practice individually, although this season they have been taking part in our Youth and Community project, My Perfect World. Composed for full orchestra by Richard Barnard, this projectgives local school children the chance to perform on a real opera set, with music inspired by the Rossini productions this season.

Moses in Egypt

Moses in Egypt

As it gets nearer to show time, the atmosphere gets busier. The pit steadily fills with musicians, and the walls resound with the voices of principal singers and choristers doing vocal warm-ups. 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 computer, 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.

And the action doesn’t stop when the curtain comes down. After the performance, the crew work into the night, to get the next set on stage…

It is always a pleasure to come to the Birmingham Hippodrome, and I’d say it is worth coming to see these new productions just to find out how we will stage the parting of the Red Sea in Moses in Egypt, and the crucial moment with the apple in William Tell! We look forward to seeing you there.

Click here to find out more and book tickets for WNO.

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