Long-suffering followers of England’s Test cricket team on their Ashes tours may currently seem slightly less bleary-eyed than usual at this time of year. If so, they can thank the underwhelming efforts of the England players, who managed to keep the first Test in Brisbane going for only just over three days, giving their fans back home an extra couple of nights’ sleep, at the expense of a humiliating defeat. At least they’ve had plenty of practice at coping with that.
Speaking of practice, to describe England’s preparations for this most challenging of series as minimal would be an outrageous understatement. Going back a few decades, a tour of Australia would have involved multiple highly competitive fixtures against the best state sides – mere “warm-up” knockabouts they were not – and further games in between the Tests, giving England’s full squad an extensive opportunity to acclimatise and hone their techniques to Australian conditions, in the knowledge that the opposition would be busting a gut for a chance to get one over the visiting Poms.
This time round, England only allowed time to throw together a couple of informal practice matches against themselves. When all but a few overs of those were unplayable due to rain, they were reportedly reduced to walking briskly around the streets of Brisbane in an attempt to get some sort of physical conditioning at least. When Rory Burns allowed the very first ball of the series to flatten his stumps as he stumbled around wondering what day it was, cause and effect were rarely so clearly made incarnate. “Always keep an eye on the Six P’s: Plenty of Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance”, as one of the elders of my church choir reminded me on the day I left for music college.
Another reason behind England’s proverbial P-PP was the omission of their two all-time leading wicket takers, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, in bowling conditions which would surely have suited them. That was down to having to “manage the workload”, the assessment being made that two players well into their thirties would not be up to handling the physical demands of two high-intensity matches in quick succession: the second Test in Adelaide starts on Thursday morning. Traditionally in cricket, Test matches would have a full week plus a few days in between, not to mention rest days during the course of the matches themselves. “Managing the workload” and “squad rotation” are not terms that cricketers from the past would have recognised, nor needed to.
What this all boils down to in the end, of course, is money. Televised cricket, an Ashes tour in particular, is big business, and the temptation to squeeze the goose that lays the golden eggs is seemingly irresistible.
But squeeze a goose too hard, and the supply of eggs will dry up permanently. The fundamental point of Test cricket is that it is the hard-fought, virtuosically executed pinnacle of the sport. Watching England thrash about abjectly last week, virtuosity was not a quality which came to mind. It would be interesting to know how BT Sport, having paid through the nose for the coverage, felt about the resultant viewing figures – I can’t imagine anyone but the most masochistic of England fans stayed up beyond the lunch intervals.
Modern sport being big business means that a lot of investment has been made into keeping athletes, if not in peak condition, at least able to get out on the field two or three times a week. As sports budgets have exploded, classical music has faced the opposite trend, and consequently the study of musicians’ physiology has fallen a long way behind that of their sporting counterparts. “Managing the workload”, when it comes to opera singers, is usually an afterthought, assuming it happens at all.
As theatres and concert halls have opened back up after the first waves of Covid, and all involved in the business have licked their financial wounds, recovery time is one of the aspects which has often suffered drastic cutbacks. Over the summer, rehearsal schedules were condensed and extra shows were packed into performance periods, in order to counteract the impact of audience restrictions.
Inevitably, this leads to heavy demands on cast members. Singing is an inherently physical task, and as with any athletic pursuit, and even given impeccable vocal technique, there will be a degree of inflammation post-activity. That’s entirely normal, and best dealt with via nature’s greatest cure: rest.
Traditionally, one could expect “big” operas in particular to have at least three rest days in between performances. It’s interesting to note how that tallies with the conclusions of cutting-edge sports science for football, for example. Data suggests that a team which has three rest days between matches roughly has a 30% better chance of victory when playing opposition who have only had two days off. In particular, the middle day of the three gives coaches a chance to work with the team in training: by and large, the post-match day will be recuperation, and pre-match spent on physical preparation – a “warm-down” and “warm-up” day. With only two days’ rest, there’s no time for anything else.
A similar rule of thumb applies with opera, especially when considering long, physically taxing roles. Two days off between shows leaves no room for error or correction, no learning process. With an experienced cast of role veterans, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. In a situation where many singers are performing their roles for the first time, it leaves little room for trial and error, no chance to fix things if they go off the rails slightly – and as with so many other burdens at present, that hits younger singers harder than anyone else.
When that recovery time is squeezed even further to one day off, the conveyer belt is in danger of becoming a meat grinder, especially coming straight off the back of a gruellingly condensed rehearsal period. For Longborough’s Die Walküre back in June, stage rehearsals were reduced to five days over the course of a week, and an extra two shows squeezed into the already tight schedule, leaving us with seven performances in fourteen days. Taking that into consideration, the results were miraculous; at the same time, there’s no question that paying audiences were short-changed relative to the standard they would have been entitled to expect under normal conditions. Everyone involved signed up to this, for no extra payment, out of commitment to getting live theatre back up and running. We all knew what was at stake, and these were not normal conditions.
And in fairness to Longborough, they sold every single available seat for every single performance, and could have done so many times over. And the same was true of my subsequent employers at Opera Holland Park, where a similarly packed schedule was in place. (While Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz is far shorter than anything of Wagner’s, it still imposes a hefty workload on its lead soprano and tenor.) So there was no doubt at all that we were responding to a keen demand, and there was a palpable sense of support amongst those live audiences, a shared commitment to getting the opera industry back on its feet, whatever it took.
More concerning in the long run is the hint that, having pushed schedules and workloads to the limits and beyond, the punishingly extreme becomes the new normal. There are signs of that squeeze in the rest times for performers becoming standard; theatres are now back to full capacity, and yet schedules are still being packed. When those performances are to sold-out houses, you can see a point, in the financial short term at least. But cramming in a physically reckless number of shows, only to sell a third of the available tickets, makes no sense for anyone. There needs to be some joined-up thinking, from the first planning to the final curtain.
That’s not just for the physical and mental wellbeing of cast and crew. At the end of the day, as with Test cricket, the goal of opera is that it has to be the absolute pinnacle, the best it can be every single time it’s performed, or it risks missing the point altogether. It’s fine dining, not fast food. If it continually falls short, it runs the risk of having the same effect on its audience as yet another England batting collapse. Now more than ever, opera needs to keep its eye on those Six P’s.
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
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