We’ve just finished our first week of production rehearsals for From the House of the Dead by Czech composer Janacek.

The first rehearsal week is always unlike any of the subsequent weeks – a cross between starting a new school and starting a new book. In fact, I always buy a new notebook when I start a new show – I love the way the crisp blank pages stretch ahead full of unknown potential.

At the heart of our first week was the chorus.  From the House of the Dead involves only the male chorus who all play prisoners. Because the Opera North chorus will be busy with stage rehearsals for Fidelio and Carmen over the coming weeks, we had to jump in at the deep end with lots of our chorus rehearsals in our first week.  But it was a fantastic way to make the big shapes which this opera needs. It’s quickly become clear what works in our space and with a cast of our size and now that we have a clear structure we can work on the detail of characterisation.

One of the many wonderful things about Opera North is the care taken to cast singers who are not just brilliant vocally but also strong all round performers and appropriate for the characters that they play. This is so important to making opera of the highest quality. Now the rehearsal process is starting we are beginning to work out what happens when this cast perform House of the Dead – our production would end up very differently if we were making it with a different cast. And getting the right cast sometimes means accepting that they are performing in other opera houses around the world and only have limited availability for rehearsals.  The schedule is very complicated!  We realised a few weeks ago that there is only one possible day in the next four weeks when we will have all the singers needed for a couple of scenes in the same place at the same time.

The first week is also the first chance you have to really test some of your ideas for the production. The composer, Janacek calls for an eagle to be healed during the course of the opera and then released into freedom at the end. We’ve known for many months that we couldn’t tour a live eagle and so have come up with another way of staging this aspect of the opera. We’ve pitched our idea in various meetings and model showings but it’s not until you’ve really tried something out in the rehearsal room that you know if it’s really going to work. We first tried it on Thursday afternoon and breathed a sigh of relief… …I’ll be really interested to see what audiences make of it.

The start of the rehearsal process is also a chance for everyone to equip themselves with background material to inform the performances. There’s of course a danger that you can get sucked into the detail of background material rather than responding to the score – but I find it really helpful to establish a strong imaginative hinterland for a piece – in order to create a truthful, though of course fictional, world.  This week we watched Alix Lambert’s brilliant documentary on Russian prisons Mark of Cain which you can see here.  We are starting Week Two with a session with two psychologists from Wakefield Prison and then on Tuesday we are meeting Anton Shelupanov, a Russian prison expert from the Young Foundation.

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