It’s a busy time for all of us on The Portrait at the moment. Much of the hard work and preparation is over and we’re now in the throes of stage and orchestra rehearsals in the run-up to opening night next week.  It’s always rather exciting (and sometimes tense as well!) when a new production (and in this case a UK première) finally hits the stage and the cast and production team can finally see how all the component parts fit together.

My role in The Portrait has been as assistant conductor to Rossen Gergov who will be conducting the performances of this production (and who also conducted this piece in a different production in Bregenz last year). In the first instance, this involved coaching some of the singers. Once production rehearsals began, I was the link between conductor and company. I have also been taking notes during rehearsals (corrections for the singers), keeping a check on word-changes (especially important in a new translation and also for the surtitles) and conducting rehearsals when Rossen is needed elsewhere, for example while he is rehearsing the orchestra.  I am also the understudy conductor.

Now that we are in the theatre, I am listening for any potential balance issues between the stage and the orchestra from an audience’s perspective, being the conductor’s ears in the auditorium, as it were. From the conductor’s position in the orchestra pit it is very difficult to gauge whether the orchestra is too loud, as the sound of the singers’ voices tends to sail over his head! Some conductors like to come out into the auditorium and have a listen themselves – when this happens the assistant conductor has to take the reins (or baton!). We always strive to make sure that the singers, and their words, can be heard clearly by the audience, but at the same time, try and find ways for the instrumentalists to play the music without constantly saying “You’re playing too loud – play softer!!” Orchestral players never like to hear this, so it’s quite a challenge to find ways of adjusting the balance to everybody’s satisfaction. This is particularly important with a piece we have not done before. 

Whenever we are not rehearsing with the principal cast, there is a whole understudy (or “cover”) team to look after. My music department colleagues and I make sure they are musically prepared as soon as possible (it is a fairly common occurrence for a cover to sing from the side of the stage in these final rehearsals if a singer from the main cast is either vocally tired or ill) and then the assistant director ensures that they know the “moves” (known as blocking), so that if any member of the cast were to fall ill for a performance the understudy knows exactly what’s what and can step in. And at Opera North, understudies do go on – it is virtually unknown to “fly in” a new artist especially when we have such talented singers at our disposal, particularly from our chorus, several of whom are understudies in The Portrait!

I always enjoy working on new or unfamiliar works, although I wouldn’t want to give up working on the classic standard operatic repertoire. I’ve worked on quite a few new operas, both with Opera North and in my time at ENO, and it’s important to try and bring these works to as wide a public as possible – after all, even the classics were new once! 

David Pountney’s new production is very much in keeping with the spirit of Gogol’s original story: grotesque characters parade in vivid costumes on a set that bursts with colour, visual perspectives are tested and singers arrive in all manner of fashions! The music is dramatic and immediate too – there are many interesting orchestral colours, by turn sparse and cold, then warm and lyrical. And Paul Nilon’s central performance as the penniless artist who gets rich quick and is consumed by avarice and conceit is a real tour de force. Hardly any of Weinberg’s music is known in this country, but if the reaction of those who attended the recent Discover Weinberg day in the Howard Assembly Room is anything to go by, it should make quite an impact.  Here’s hoping…

The Portrait opens on Wednesday 2nd February 2011 – more info