behind the scenes of a dress rehearsal at Opera Australia

Attending a dress rehearsal for a production by Opera Australia, I sense that the audience has all the expectancy and impatience of children on Christmas Eve, getting a sneak peek at the entertainment to come and to be the first amongst their friends to spill the beans.

The orchestra is attired in mufti, the soft clicks of camera lenses punctuate the music, and the production team sit at desks in the auditorium the privacy of their concentration exposed by the electronic glow of their computer screens. The music staff are at hand, with scores unfurled, and it’s not too hard to spot non-performing members of the company in the audience, sans wigs, costumes and make-up.

To find out more about what goes on during a ‘Dress’, I spoke with Tama Matheson, the brilliant young director of ‘The Love of the Nightingale’. “It’s an exciting time because I finally see the whole thing come to life. All the work we have done comes together at this point. In music theatre there can be as many as 2 weeks of general rehearsals, but we have just one ‘general’ at which to accomplish the fine tuning”.

He talks me through the various temporary workstations installed in the opera theatre. At the front are the music staff – the assistant conductor (who may take over a later cast), the chorus master who has trained the chorus in the music they need to learn, the repetiteur or vocal coach who has worked with the singers in the learning the text and roles they have to play; there is also the language coach, who has trained the singers in keeping the vocal sound true whilst maintaining the integrity of the language which is being sung.

In the theatre the CCTV needs to be right on cue with the movements of the conductor. This is coordinated from a small desk near the front, atop which sits an innocuous looking metal box and TV monitor. The surtitles are checked to ensure that they correspond exactly with the text that is being sung.

Half way back in the opera theatre, a swathe of seats have been removed. They are replaced by three long tables around which swirl metres of cable, and on which are a variety of  consoles, and multicoloured screens and computer keyboards. This is the domain of the production team who don their headsets and tap away at their keyboards, monitoring every minute detail of what is happening on stage. The lighting designer must be satisfied that all moves are lit as planned; costumes cannot get in the way;  stage direction, timing and technical gadgetry must operate without a flaw.

This production is Matheson’s brainchild. The only inheritance that Sydney has gained from the Perth premiere is the set of nesting platforms which roll out in different levels to take us to the various settings of the tale. To this, Matheson has added are dramatic projections on a backdrop that frame the action, giving it context. Add to that the costumes and wigs that have to withstand their own special ordeals in the performance. “At a ‘general'”, says Matheson, “we don’t stop unless we absolutely have to. We also rehearse what would happen if we did have to stop”.

In Matheson’s exquisitely conceived vision the influence of Greek classicism is evident, with unexpected touches of humour and a revelationary connection with contemporary issues towards the end of the opera. Matheson is Resident Director of the 4MBS Classic Players in Brisbane and Artistic Director of the Brisbane Shakespeare Festival. His numerous credits for OA include Lucia di Lammermoor, Les pêcheurs de perles, The Makropulos Secret, Manon Lescaut, Peter Grimes and Partenope.Internationally, he has worked at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and the D’Oyly Carte in London, St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. He has worked on stage as well as on television in Australia and the UK.

Matheson’s heritage is rich in music and drama, with his father, John Matheson a conductor and his mother, Maggie Findlay, an opera singer. Brother Tahu is an assistant conductor at OA, who worked as repetiteur on this production, affording the brothers an opportunity to work together – an opportunity which Tama Matheson described as an “absolute privilege”.

“The Love of the Nightingale” is at the Opera Theatre until November 1st. There are 4 performances only.

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