Our poor blog has been neglected too long. Some of the reasons include the choosing of next year's Studio, the world premiere, the planning process for next season, and the rehearsing of our last two operas...at least we don't have to ask where the time went! There's much to catch up on and reasons to reflect, but let me start with the project that's been taking up most of our collective time: Benjamin Britten's masterful Billy Budd.
There's a lot to say about Britten and why HGO has chosen to focus on his work in coming seasons, but right now our company is in thrall to this piece. It's enormous. But opera's big, right? How is this one even bigger? A checklist...
1. A huge, complex orchestra that whispers and roars, rattles and sings. This band has "quadruple winds", which is hip conductor-speak for four of each kind of wind instrument. At least that many of each brass instrument, too. Seven timpani players. Huge drums onstage. An ocean of strings. And, just for icing on the cake, a live explosion backstage. Clearly, I'm betraying my own penchant for headbanging noise in the way I list things here, but nothing beats the sound of an orchestra like this in full cry except the sound of the same orchestra playing on the edge of silence. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING beats the energy of so many musicians concentrating, breathing, and hearing together.
2. A similarly huge group of singers onstage. The cast list is long, but it's the chorus that makes the show - there are around one hundred men and boys aboard the Indomitable. And it's an all-male night, which makes for some of the most thrilling choruses imaginable - but, as with the orchestra, the most breathtaking moments come when that mass of men prays together in a murmur.
3. A set that rotates, opens up to several levels and closes again, can support forty men, is a boat, a road, a hill, a slope, and the jaws of hell.
4. A story that is about, variously (and this is a partial list), the depth of human connection, the human propensity to worship and destroy what is best in themselves, the allegory of sacrifice, thwarted love, the impossibility of justice, the acceptance of the mixed suffering and joy in existence. Fledermaus it ain't.
A piece of this breadth, depth, and height will challenge and stretch an entire company. Yes, every piece of music is worth doing well, and it's difficult to do even "simple" music well - ask any musician about the Bach inventions or the Mozart sonatas, pieces that we study as teenagers, and no one will call them easy. But when all those people I listed above (performers, but also crew members who are dealing with that set, stage managers, all the backstage people who must dress and wig and assist that huge cast, those who must plan their travel and accomodation, those who must see to their compensation and care) are working to full capacity, a magical thing begins to happen in a company. No one can do their job halfway, no one can "phone it in". Everyone is tired but focused. The halls begin to contain passionate conversation about what is right and wrong in the production. Everyone begins to own the process and the hoped-for triumph.
And the day after the dress rehearsal? You should have heard our orchestra playing La Boheme. A popular opera, a great one, and by no means easy. But - transformed, after climbing the mountain of Britten's masterpiece.
We're a company transformed. This is our moment, the one we've been waiting for these long weeks.