|Act II, La boheme|
Benjamin Rasheed as Papignol, with the Children's Chorus
Photo by Jeff Busby
With only days until the Opening Night of Opera Australia's La bohème, guest blogger Caroline Baum makes a final visit to the rehearsal studio in Melbourne.
A change of city brings the final elements together. While the set is being assembled in the State Theatre, Maestro Badea puts Orchestra Victoria through its paces. They rehearse at their HQ, a former army communications command centre on the edge of Albert Park while, outside, the stands from the Grand Prix are being dismantled.
The maestro’s energy, both musically and verbally, keeps them on their toes.
To the French horns: ‘In Puccini’s day, the quality of the instruments was terrible, today it’s much better so you don’t need to play so strong.’
‘Be more of a diva!’ he urges the harpist in her solo chords in Act I.
When it comes to Act II he warns ‘All you will have time to do is turn the pages’ before urging them to ‘put a lot more condiment in your spaghetti sauce! I want sparkle like fireworks and character. Anytime you have a chance to play legato, don’t.’
And for Musetta’s entrance ‘She’s a cabaret singer, not a valkyrie, so keep it light.'
After a short break he joins an evening rehearsal for the children’s chorus in Act II. Gale may not be a parent, but she seems to know exactly how to talk to children without patronising them. She makes no pretence that this is a game.
‘You know why you tripped there?’ she asks one boy. ‘Because stage running is not like real running. You are not on the oval now,’ she says, firmly.
The kids adjust their steps. Most are between nine and twelve years old and several have appeared on stage before in choirs or in other productions, but their focus and responsiveness are still impressive.
Julian loves his prop bundle on the end of a stick.
‘How awesome would it be to keep the props,’ he says wistfully.
Stage manager Ben explains that an added challenge in the very complex transition into Act II is the revolve, which they have not encountered yet.
‘It will be like stepping on and off a giant CD,’ he tells them.
‘Whoa!’ they whisper, hardly able to contain their excitement.
Gale shields them from the darker elements of the production that they would not understand. Her version of Parpignol is bound to create controversy, but they only see him as having a cart full of irresistible toys and are not interested in the small packages he weighs up for their mothers.
When the adult chorus joins the kids the next morning and hears them sing for the first time, the professionals erupt in spontaneous applause, a compliment that goes down well.
Gale's attention to detail extends even to non-singing extras. She gives one man a truly sinister backstory and role, even though all he has to do is sit on a balcony and observe the scene. To her, he is Goebbels and by the time she’s finished telling the actor why, she has made him feel like the most important person in the room.
Time is the biggest pressure now: once the production moves into the State Theatre, Gale is in charge for only two more rehearsals. Protocol dictates that beyond that point, she can no longer stop the show. She can give notes to the singers afterwards, but that’s all. She has to let go. It must be the hardest thing, like allowing your baby to walk unassisted.
The process has not been without its tensions and setbacks, which continue right up to the final days: Ji-Min is struck down with food poisoning and misses a couple of dress rehearsals which gives David Corcoran, who is singing the last four performances in Melbourne a really valuable preparation opportunity. But the revolve operates – forgive the pun – like clockwork.