The phantom in question this week being the ship, not a chandelier-dropping masked man. We’re a few rehearsals into The Flying Dutchman project, and I can safely say that I have no ambition to be a member of an opera chorus. I do love opera in general, but singing it presents quite a number of challenges different to traditional choral works.
Now it may be that I’m just not a big fan of Wagner. Having acquired a transcript of my university degree I discovered that I took a Wagner course. This was news to me. I have no recollection of it and I can honestly say I know very little about Wagner. So apologies to whoever taught me, but I fear I may have snoozed through your lectures. I have sat through a couple of Wagner operas before – we performed Lohengrin a couple of years ago, which I enjoyed more than I thought, considering I was not best impressed at performing in a concert that started at 4pm and included a dinner break. I have also seen Valkyrie, courtesy of a friend with a minor Wagner obsession. The well known sections were spectacular. The first act had me wriggling in my seat.
I won’t have that problem in Dutchman, as the women aren’t in the first act. The women have considerably less music to learn than the men, which at the moment feels like good news for us as we’re having trouble with what we’ve got. On Wednesday we spent over an hour rehearsing what turned out to be 3 minutes of music. It’s a painful process.
We begin Act II in a spinning scene, with the leading female mooning over a portrait of the Dutchman. As one of the other sopranos commented, we seem to have spent a lot of time recently sitting around sighing over men (Lerner and Loewe’s Waitin’ for my Dearie springs to mind). It doesn’t improve in Act III where we hang around offering food and drink while the men point out we’re talking to ghosts. It does make you wonder what some composers thought about women (yes I know these were written a while ago but still). I think that if I’m required to portray a character on stage, I’d like a less drippy one please.
Now the notes themselves aren’t difficult. It’s the notes, plus the language plus the tempo that’s the trouble. This week’s German issue was resolved by an agreement to make a Muttley-type sound in the middle of a word (a reference I suspect was completely lost on the poor girl trying to get us to pronounce it correctly). Text is always drummed into us as being important (otherwise you might as well sing everything to la), but of course opera has much more of a story. There are corners that will trip you up – what sounds like perfectly reasonable pronounciation to you may in fact have changed the entire meaning of the phrase. And yes, there are usually surtitles, but the point is to make sense of the text. We also have our fingers crossed that the speeds are not going to get much faster. We are assured not. Although this is being conducted by Andris Nelsons, who is not noted for slacking with a baton.
Now as much as sectional rehearsals on small amounts of music are tiresome, the one thing I do look forward to is concert week. Not all the rehearsals. But the chance to hear all the music together. Rehearsing the female chorus part of an opera for several weeks is not much fun. Add in the rest of the chorus, the soloists, the orchestra and a conductor known for his Wagner and it should be something special. My Wagner-obsessed friend is coming to the concert. I really hope he enjoys this particular phantom of the opera.
The CBSO is performing The Flying Dutchman on Saturday 16 March in Symphony Hall, with James Rutherford as the Dutchman and Andris Nelsons conducting.