|The children's chorus at Cafe Momus in La boheme 2011|
|Members of the women's chorus in Act II|
When Gale Edwards’ runaway-success production of Puccini’s La bohème opens at the Sydney Opera House on New Year’s Eve, audiences will be treated to fabulous singing. They’ll also be bowled over by the production’s many striking tableaux. To create these seemingly spontaneous scenes, Edwards encourages each chorister to take on an individual role.
As long-time chorister Tom Hamilton, who has worked with Edwards in Bohème, Salome and Sweeney Todd, says: “Gale likes you create a character with a journey; you may work out a family for yourself, a reason why you’re in the story, and what happens to you after the end of the opera. In doing so you become someone who always reacts in line with who he or she is.”
Edwards begins her chorus briefings by talking about the world she’s creating, showing film clips, playing music and offering cultural references in support of that vision. In Bohème, for example, she evokes Berlin between the wars. “She showed us a few film clips from Weimar Berlin and talked about the ways in which society was crumbling,” Hamilton says. “This informed especially Act II, where people meet in a frenzy of hedonism at a club where Nazis enter at the end of the evening.”
Once the big picture has been established, Edwards encourages choristers to add layers. “When the Nazis come in, she’d say, ‘What do you think about them? Do you hate them? Like them? Want to be one of them? Make a choice, and then show it on your face.’ Because there’s nothing worse than an unintended blank face on stage.”
Hamilton’s Act II character is Santa Claus, who mans the bar. “The scene takes a dig at Christmas in Weimar Berlin – Santa is a drunk surrounded by nudity and prostitution and fascism.” In creating the character, Hamilton made him a drug addict who staggers in to work, drinks the bar dry and possibly spits in customers’ food. “You could just walk from point A to point B, then sit down and think of your shopping list. Or you could spend your time on stage lurching and belching and inhabiting the person you’ve created,” he says.
|The men's chorus in Act III|
Besides their own input, choristers also use Edwards’ suggestions to add meaning to scenes. Hamilton says: “For example, in Act II there’s a pile of chairs at the centre of the stage, and I’d be walking past it and Gale would say, ‘Go and sit on the chair at the bottom of the pile, then stagger off and do your work at the bar.’” This simple gesture focuses the audience’s attention on the pile. “And you ask yourself, ‘Is it a pile of chairs? A pile of books? The burned books? Bodies after the Nazi Holocaust?’”
Thus, a rich, multi-layered tableau is created. “The magic of what Gale creates is that her pictures are so full of detail. That’s why people come back to see her productions a second and third time: there’s so much going on, so much else to see.”
Principals say that a fully in-character chorus inspires them to greater heights. The reverse is also true. “Every time a different principal walks on stage, it’s a different show. We bounce off them and if a principal is not interested in interacting, it’s up to us to carry the torch.”
Among choristers, many of whom have known each other for years, on stage there are no friendships, only characters. “Once you pass the sign that says ‘Silence please’, you leave one world and enter another. An energy is unleashed. A light comes on.”
La bohème is showing at Sydney Opera House on New Year's Eve and continues its season from 5 January to 23 March 2013.