By Charlie Drummond, soprano 2018/19

21 December 2018


What an incredible first few months we've had!  My colleague Benedict Kearns wrote an article about the first part of the year, but in this post, I want to tell you about our experience of working on Last Days – a fascinating combination of English song, French mèlodie and German Lied, interspersed with dialogue taken from poems, plays and letters from the World War I era – formed into a production devised by director Tim Albery, conducted by Opera North’s Head of Music David Cowan and supported by a band made up of members of the orchestra of Opera North. 

I must confess that when we were first presented with our intimidatingly large pack of repertoire for this project, I was a little surprised at the lack of operatic repertoire but, as soon as the rehearsal process started, it became clear that this project was so very much more than "just a few songs".

Our first day of rehearsals comprised a conversation with Tim and assistant director Rory Fazan, where we discussed what the project would entail and how we would proceed. We read through the dialogue scenes, and were allocated our sections to learn for the following day. The production would roughly alternate songs with spoken texts, where each piece of dialogue would describe the text of the following song (in the cases where the song’s lyrics were not in English) and would render surtitles unnecessary. The piece itself would be very site-specific; we would be working in the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, with a stage in thrust surrounded on three (and a half) sides by the audience. Of course, this meant there were a number of fairly unique challenges involved in producing such a show. Making the audience, and conductor David, feel like we didn’t have our backs turned on them for too many minutes at a time was challenge number one, but thanks to Tim’s meticulous rehearsal process, we were able to devise a staging that encompassed all sides of the circular room. The next challenge was that we were combining a huge number of extremely varied songs (by composers ranging from Mahler to Berg, from Satie to Poulenc, from Ives to Butterworth) with sections of dialogue, meaning the space we were utilising as our stage had to be flexible - and this it most certainly was. With what I can only describe as a ‘catwalk’ of wooden pallets running through the centre, and a ‘set’ of four wooden tables and twelve wooden chairs (I could actually write a whole other blog post devoted to tracking the movements of those chairs…) our stage was able to become a nightclub, a trench, four ambulances… and even Charing Cross Station! 

As I’ve mentioned Tim, Rory and David, it would be discourteous of me not to mention my colleagues at the National Opera Studio. As a group we have all bonded and become close friends, and without that bond and mutual respect and trust I don’t think the show would have been anywhere near as successful and moving as it turned out to be. Indeed, a number of people I spoke to afterwards noted how it showed that we really are a team, which is extremely lovely feedback to receive. Of course, the rehearsal process wasn’t all hard work - we certainly spent plenty of time exploring the many hostelries and restaurants in central Leeds, enjoyed parties hosted by the remarkably kind and generous David and Geraldine Cowan and also our very own Beth Moxon and her family (we even managed to fit in a - slightly premature- Secret Santa!) With the subject matter of the show being so emotionally heavy, it was wonderful to be able to relax and enjoy our time together in such a way.

That being said, by the time we had performed the show three times (twice in Leeds and once in an adapted London showing), then presented our core roles and rehearsed music for the next set of scenes (for English National Opera and Scottish Opera next term), we were all very ready to head home for Christmas!



Header Image: Charlie Drummond and Jake Muffett © NOS/Malcolm Johnson 2018