Behind Closed Doors

Interesting blog from the Guardian’s David Jays today, about the differences between theatre and dance rehearsal rooms:

David Jays: What really goes on in the rehearsal room?

I tweeted the Guardian’s Online Arts Editor, Andy Dickson, about it, and at his request left a comment, which got a bit lengthy; here it is in full:

Thanks for the excellent blog David. In terms of this topic, an opera rehearsal room would have far more in common with the spoken-theatre example than with dance i.e. far more of a tendency to be closed than open.

While I understand the current trend towards openness, deconstruction and revelation of the creative process as a marketing tool (another prevalent example is backstage cameras at broadcasts of concerts and operas), as a performer who is also still an enthusiastic theatre-goer I’m wary of it for two reasons. Firstly, that the whole point of the creative process is to present something to an audience, and our consideration is the audience’s point of view – the “magic of theatre” depends to a significant extent on a point-of-view illusion. Dr Watson is always far less impressed by Holmes’ deductions once he’s explained them, and when I was younger I always wanted to have magic tricks explained to me; now, I’d rather buy into the suspension of disbelief, since that’s where the magic lies. Secondly, performers by their nature will instinctively perform to any audience, and observing an experiment changes its outcome – so backstage cameras, observers in rehearsal rooms etc might think they’re getting the naked truth, but what they’re actually getting is just another type of performance.

(Having said that, Marcus’ point about training young performers, directors etc is a valid one, and fellow-professionals will know how to minimise their disruptiveness as a rehearsal room presence.)

In opera, as in theatre, the presence of the audience is a vital element, and, while the entire rehearsal process must at least implicitly acknowledge that the ultimate goal is to present the end product to an audience, the timing of the addition of that audience is crucial. As a diner in a restaurant, you wouldn’t want to taste the food before it was cooked; and furthermore, in order to taste it, you’d need to take it out of the oven too early, which could well ultimately ruin the end product. What audiences don’t always realise is that 95% of what goes on behind the scenes is very, very dull indeed – and necessarily so in order to ensure that what takes place on stage is as interesting as possible for the audience. That’s why the professionals get paid, and the audiences pay.

Why the atmosphere in dance studios should be so different I couldn’t reliably say, although by implication it might be that the creative process of dance is less audience-dependent; e.g. I guess dancers wouldn’t delay the next move because of audience laughter, applause etc. But I’m speculating.

UPDATE: David Jays was kind enough to take the time to reply to my comments, so here’s his response, with some further observations from me.

David Jays: Paul, thanks so much for adding the perspective from opera. In a way, I’m surprised: from what I’ve seen, opera rehearsals seem closer to dance, in that the score sets stricter parameters than a written text. Also, simply because of the scale of opera production, there always seem to be plenty of people in the room. Do you find that observers make any difference when you’re digging into the dark heart of Scarpia or Don Alfonso?

You make a nice point about the dangers of focusing on the process rather than the end result. But I’ve only ever found that it enhances my appreciation of a production – realising just how many choices have been explored, and how much thought and time has gone into every one of those choices, is both illuminating and humbling. You’re right, I wouldn’t want to taste a half-cooked meal, any more than I’d want to sit through a half-baked production. However, it’s fascinating to watch a skilled chef in action. It may be routine to the chef, just as much of the rehearsal process is dull to stage practitioners. But to those of us in the audience, it’s pretty thrilling to watch the routine evolve into something remarkable.

Thanks for the response David. You’re absolutely right of course in your point about the parameters set by an operatic score, and a major part of the struggle for operatic performers is to find within those parameters the same freedom and truthfulness that you’d expect from spoken-word performers. The failure to find that truth – or, infinitely worse, the lack of courage even to try – is the root cause of a lot of what comes across as “bad acting” in opera.

You’re also right in that opera rehearsal rooms are often heavily-populated. I remember being at the opening talk of a very high-profile production. There must have been over a hundred people in the room, and I found myself standing next to the company’s Head of Music, who turned to me and admitted, “I don’t know who half these people are!”. To me the key factor in rehearsal is the energy level in the room – more people, especially those less than fully committed to the rehearsal process at that moment, generally tend to lower that energy level. (Experienced directors are usually excellent at telling their performers to clear off the moment they’re not needed any longer that day.) It’s not contradictory to the fact that an audience will be present at the performances, since audiences are for the most part extremely committed – they have after all gone to the trouble of paying for tickets and invested an evening of their lives – and almost always serve to boost the energy levels of a performance, assuming they are treated well by the cast – and the front of house staff too, which is a crucial factor often overlooked.

Observers will always make a difference – be it positive or negative – in rehearsal. I’ll take your two examples separately. Don Alfonso is one of the most theatrical of characters in the baritone repertoire, and is very much the conduit between audience and stage in Cosi, so in many ways the earlier a fully-committed and responsive audience is present, the better. The challenges of Scarpia are mostly about meeting the emotional/dramatic demands of the role at the same time as the vocal ones, so there would typically need to be a lot more closed rehearsal time, to allow that trial-and-error process to take place without the danger of premature judgement. You need to be free to drive too fast round the corner and spin off in practice, so that you know where the limit is, and drive just within it during the race.

Finally, I take on board exactly what you’re saying about the fascination to an experienced theatre-goer of seeing the process as well as the end result (as long as the observer is happy to risk enjoying the end product less for having seen the workings). What I’m not at all convinced of is the idea, sometimes tempting to marketing departments, that this is a good way of attracting new audiences. What first drew me to opera as an artform was being bowled over by the scale of a full production in performance. Over time this led me to curiosity about the process of its development and construction, and to look further into that. But my feeling is that we should ultimately live or die by the end product, and not lack confidence in its power to speak for itself; if it doesn’t, then we on the professional side of the proscenium have failed to do our jobs properly.


About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at:
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