06 February, 2011

Behind the scenes with Oxford's leading student opera.

[Originally published - purged of all colourful interpolations - in Cherwell, on 4 February 2011. The NCOS's performance of The Barber of Seville happened on the evenings of 4-5 February, and was very impressive indeed.]

Given the complicated pageantry associated with opera - the lavish costumes and elaborate sets and shining orchestral accompaniments to soloists of outrageous talent and personality - the diva-ness of it all - the circumstances of the New Chamber Opera Studio’s rehearsal last Thursday seem positively spartan by comparison.

Arrival at 21.00 to the Old Bursary at New College: The room is small and square, the stone walls very thick, and the floorboards heavily scarred. A stamped-tin chandelier hangs from the middle of the ceiling, missing half of its electric candles.

My assignment is to uncover, in a pith-helmeted sort of way, something of the opera scene at Oxford, through the medium of the NCOS’s upcoming production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Sheldonian Theatre. That I know nothing about opera ostensibly mitigates the glaring advertorial potential here, or at least that’s the idea.

The room is dominated by a concert grand piano, which is eight feet long (I looked it up on Steinway.com) and consumes half of one wall. Straight-backed chairs surround the rest of the room, and in these are installed (seated or in one case lying supine) five members of the NCOS’s cast for Barber.

The other two members, Rosina (Esther Brazil) and Dr Bartolo (Sam Glatman), are standing in the middle of the room and arguing about their servants.

(Brief Barber synopsis: Bartolo is Rosina’s guardian and putative fiancĂ©. Count Almaviva (Nick Pritchard) hopes to woo Rosina for himself, and enlists the help of village barber, Figaro (Dominic Bowe). Confusion and hilarity ensue, abetted by the fiendish professor Don Basilio (Tom Bennet) and various low-level interveners (Julia Sitkovetsky and Matthew Silverman).)

But so there is a problem with the argument about the servants.

‘[Rosina,] this constant sort of angry business does not help at all,’ says the NCOS’s founder and director, Professor Michael Burden, who is sitting in one of the chairs opposite the piano. ‘At the very least, if you were always that angry, [Bartolo] would never want to marry you.’

Pith-helmeted discovery number one: Dialogue (vernacular: recitativo) is really important in opera. The bits of sung conversation that link together the main vocal performances do most of the plot work, so they need to be believable. Two-thirds of this evening’s rehearsal is spent on the operatic equivalent of running lines, on which Tom elaborates later when the cast has retired to the King’s Arms.

‘The classic criticism of opera is that the singers can’t act. What you end up with, it’s called ‘park and bark’’. Meaning the soloists deliver an indifferent narrative whilst parked at the front of stage, ready to bark their solos at the audience.

This emphasis on opera as music and theatre turns out to be telling of both the NCOS’s unusually high calibre and the ambitions of its youthful cast, which leads to pith-helmeted discoveries two and three.

To begin with the former: Opera at Oxford, like the OB at New College, is a comparatively small world. The NCOS is actually the student-wing of the New Chamber Opera, founded in 1990 by the aforementioned Professor Burden and his colleague, Gary Cooper. It mounts just two student productions per year, to which are added various efforts from the Oxford Opera Society, St Peter’s College Opera and the Oxford Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

Unofficially, the NCOS is the pre-eminent student company, staging the most ambitious and demanding productions. While there are of dozens of choral singers around Oxford who might try for parts (N.B. the reason this clause is even possible has to do with Oxford’s long history of choral music, anchored by choral singing in chapels, and funded by various choral scholarships, which scholarships, again unofficially, are administered not unlike American college football recruitment programmes), Jonathon Swinard, the NCOS’s conductor for Barber, says there are maybe ten to fifteen students who could conceivably cast into the seven roles. ‘We didn’t really have auditions’, he says. ‘For a production like this, you have to head-hunt.’

Indeed, the role of Rosina is so challenging that the NCOS had to reach all the way to the Royal Academy of Music, in London, where Esther currently studies. (Trivia titbit re Esther: Her first big performance was in 2003, when she sang the U.S. national anthem at the Rugby World Cup, in Sydney, Australia.) Esther graduated from Oxford in 2008, but was recalled for a turn in Barber because no current student had the necessary voice.

So that’s pith-helmeted discovery number two about opera at Oxford. Pith-helmeted discovery number three involves the student talent in the NCOS…

…which is just off-the-charts incongruous when you compare the depth and resonance and timbre and sometimes near heart-clutching purity of voice with the otherwise entirely ordinary and even exceedingly youthful stature of the NCOS’s lead singers (all of whom, except for Esther, are Oxford undergrads).

It turns out that, anatomy-wise, the human voice doesn’t fully develop until the mid-twenties, which is when the really serious opera training can begin. This means that (a) most of these singers are a half-decade away from really getting down to business re training, and (b) a career in opera is a long-term investment indeed.

But so back to rehearsals, which on Sunday afternoon move into the New College chapel, where the eight member chorus and twenty-six member orchestra (students every one) are finally joined with the seven lead singers. (As you can imagine, having to rehearse everyone separately - the orchestra, the chorus, and the lead singers - is just a scheduling nightmare.) This is the first time the entire production is rehearsed together, just six days before opening night.

Which brings us to pith-helmeted discovery number four, although it’s more a confirmation of what you can probably deduce from everything that’s been said heretofore, which is that opera is expensive and not just in terms of time. Even the NCOS’s rent-free student ensemble has a hard time breaking even, largely due to the high cost of venue (the Sheldonian is so expensive the group can’t even rehearse there until the morning of opening night). And the fixed-costs are enormous (but, again, largely comped): The NCOS makes use of two concert grand pianos, plus a harpsichord (fun fact: Oxford has it’s own harpsichord manufacturer, Robert Goble & Sons, sixty years and counting), plus rehearses in the New College chapel, and even uses the NCO’s pro-calibre music stands, which have lights powered by individual battery-packs attached to the bottom of the stand and are expensive-looking indeed...

And here we slam right into the word count for this exposition, which is something else you probably saw coming. Suffice it to say, there is some intensely interesting stuff happening w/r/t opera at Oxford, even if you are intensely amateur in your appreciation of same. The notes for this article filled half a Mead notebook, but there are limits to what even interested parties can ask of each other.