Opera Australia is Australia’s national opera company, with residence at the Sydney Opera House and the Arts Centre in Melbourne. It is the backbone of the opera industry in Australia with over 600 opera performances a year, which range from two full mainstage seasons in Sydney and Melbourne to concerts and free outdoor performances. Right in the middle of this tour de force of the Australian stage is Anthony Hunt, a Sydney-based chorus master who is heavily involved in the 2012 Opera Australia Sydney season, and the chorus, which is the backbone of the performing company.
I spoke to Anthony about the role of the chorus members and his own role as a chorus master.
Anthony is warm and wonderfully self-effacing, explaining with a laugh that he “sort of fell into” a life of opera as a pianist.
“I ended up accompanying a lot of singers,” he tells me, “and started working in South Australia with opera singers on the professional side of things.
“On the other side,” he continues, “is that I started singing in Children’s Chorus at ten years old, which was the first introduction to opera in my life.”
Later, Anthony would work with that same chorus as a chorus master, thus coming, he jokes, full circle.
It makes a difference in your life to do something you have a real passion for, and Anthony has one for Opera Australia, which he calls “an amazing company who produce world-class work.”
As chorus master, Anthony oversees the Opera Australia chorus of singers, helping them learn their parts for upcoming works, conducting offstage, and guiding the chorus through the musical worlds of each production.
I asked Anthony to take me through the rehearsal process for a show, talking about the two Sydney productions currently running, Puccini’s Turandot, which requires a lot of chorus work, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which is less chorus-intensive.
The first stage of rehearsal is the musical call. “This is where we learn the music,” Anthony says, “and make sure the German or Italian or whichever language we need is in good shape, which is my job as well, though we have language coaches to help.” These are followed by production calls, where the chorus meets with the director for the first time, and he says, “we start to work on what you’d call the blocking, figuring out where everything is supposed to be on stage and where we’ll stand or enter and exit.”
In The Magic Flute, which comes pre-choreographed from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, this was a fairly easy task. “The chorus appears as a traditional chorus block,” Anthony explains, “And they walk onstage, sing, and walk off again.”
“And then with Turandot,” he continues, “Which is choreographed by Graeme Murphy, an amazing Australian choreographer, the choreography utilises chorus members. It has a lot of movement – not necessarily dance as they’re not trained dancers first, but the chorus is onstage for the entirety of the first act… and there’s this beautiful piece called the Moon Chorus, and there’s beautiful ripple effect with the chorus that’s taken a lot of effort.”
By the end of the production calls, the chorus should know what they’re doing and where and when, though Anthony admits with a laugh that it’s not always the case, which is the nature of the business, but there are still a few more steps to iron things out.
The next step in the rehearsal process is the stage call, where the movement and music is put together as the chorus moves into the theatre.
“This is when we figure out what will work and what won’t,” Anthony says, “especially with the props and sets and costumes,” and by the time wigs and props have been tamed they reach the piano dress.
The piano dress stage has the chorus in the theatre, backed by piano, for a “very technical” rehearsal – where costume quick changes are worked out, entrances and exits are further refined, and any various bugs are ironed out.
The last step before the final dress rehearsal are staged orchestrals, and Anthony explains this is as when the whole orchestra is added in, and the chorus work combines with the work of the conductor. By now the staging is complete and the chorus has refined their cues.
All in all it takes, Anthony says, about four to five weeks. “And it’s important to remember that they’re doing this while performing in other operas during the week and rehearsing for the shows that will come after, they’re usually working on four or five shows at once in different stages of development… a lot of vocal stamina is involved. You have to have great vocal technique as there could be 30 – 40 hours of singing per week.”
I asked Anthony where newcomers to opera might find a good place to begin in the 2012 Sydney season – with Turandot or The Magic Flute or perhaps the upcoming Marriage of Figaro? He laughs, and tells me what a hard question it is to answer.
“If you have kids,” he says, “Then take them with you to The Magic Flute. Turandot is a classic opera with famous tunes that I would recommend.”
He pauses, then, and adds, “Do you know what I’d say? I’d say one should try and come to one or two, or two or three things, because you might be surprised by the difference between composers and eras. We range at the moment from the 1700s to the turn of the century, and they’re all so different – so you’re better off experiencing more than one thing so you can really experience the world of opera.”
It’s a strong answer from someone who really cares about the music and theatricality of the world, and it’s sound advice, too. This year, go see an opera or two, marvel at the dedicated, hardworking chorus, and find out what it is YOU might like.