Eight months with the Chicago Lyric
Chorus Master Michael Black brings home fresh perspectives
Opera Australia (OA) Chorus Master Michael Black returned to Sydney after eight months with the Chicago Lyric at 8.30am on a Tuesday morning. By 10am he was at the day’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata rehearsal. And that night he was backstage for a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage ofFigaro.
“It was a 12-hour day straight off the plane,” he laughs. “When I walked into Company Office and they gave me the list of people off for the night and said, ‘Welcome back’, it was as if I’d walked straight back into my old life, with the difference that someone had put a chip of wonderful memories into my head.”
Black describes his American stint as “the most wonderful experience”, and says that he has returned to Opera Australia with new enthusiasm and new ideas.
Originally he was offered a permanent position with the Lyric, after an audition (“the most nerve-racking experience of my life”) in which he was given an hour to take the chorus through two pieces of music, then interviewed, then asked to take the chorus through sections of The Magic Flute, Verdi’s Macbeth and Carmen. “I just did what I always do,” he says. “I figured if that was not good enough, I was not good enough.”
|Assistant Chrous Master|
He was offered the position over five other candidates, which was hugely gratifying, but family considerations (Black shrank from the prospect of being separated from his 16-year-old son, and his partner would have been unable to work in the US) led to his turning the offer down. When the Lyric’s second choice was unable to extricate himself from professional commitments for a year, Black managed to arrange to go over for eight months, leaving the OA chorus in the capable hands of assistant chorus master Anthony Hunt. It was a move that enabled him to bring many fresh insights to his role at OA.
The Lyric has the same budget as OA, yet do eight operas a year where OA does 15. Black says: “Because they do half the number of productions with the same amount of money, they can afford to rehearse one or two operas at a time, where we sometimes do five in a week.” This means that where the OA chorus does eight or nine chorus calls for a standard opera; the Lyric’s does as many as it requires. It also has a month of music rehearsals before the season starts.
Financial backing is what enables the company to operate in this way, and at the Lyric Black was expected to help with fund-raising, which proved an eye-opener. “I was amazed at how well geared they are for raising funds. Every week there’d be a donor function, a guild meeting, a wine auction, an “operathon”, or an opera ball for which the chorus would be asked to do something. They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in this way. They operate in a different environment of course, since Americans –not only the wealthy ones – are used to giving to philanthropy.”
The US is hardly a socialist country, and yet, Black found American union rules regulating chorus calls stricter than those that govern Australian labour. “You can’t just ask a chorus member to dance; if learning dancing steps takes more than one rehearsal, choristers are entitled to overtime payment. Whereas here you just say, ‘Dance’.”
Musically, the most interesting challenge of his time with the Lyric was trying to encourage the chorus to produce a warmer and more rounded sound. “Their sound tends to be open and bright, and quite different from the more ‘beautiful’ European sound that I’ve been trying to cultivate at OA.”
Black rehearsed the Lyric chorus in six operas, including his first Boris Godunov. “Russian is not my best language, but it was fun,” he says. The final performance of the production, with Sir Colin Davis conducting, was a highlight. “The chorus were fantastic; it was just wonderful.”
|Director Francesca Zambello|
A Showboat production with director Francesca Zambello proved challenging but ultimately rewarding: “There was an African-American chorus and a white chorus, each with its own accent. Getting that right was very difficult. But in the end the African-American chorus produced an amazing sound. I’ll never forget their enthusiasm and dancing ability.”
Black quickly learned that the Lyric’s choristers expected feedback. “They like to be told that they’re doing a good job and I realised that I had to be more verbal in affirmation and praise. They do fewer operas of course – if you waxed lyrical after every performance here, the chorus would tell you to stop!”
Socially, he found his colleagues an “amazingly friendly bunch” who’d forever be inviting him to dinner at their homes and for drinks at pubs. The chorus even organised a surprise birthday party for him a month after his arrival. “I’ve sort of thought of Americans as gushy without substance. But I found them exactly the opposite: gushy with a lot of substance.”
The single most important artistic lesson that the experience taught him is that he “will be expecting a lot more from the chorus!” “They’re very quick and very good, and they can be even better,” Black says, with a laugh.