Chorus gearing up for Handa Opera on the Harbour
For Opera Australia’s acting chorus master, Anthony Hunt, the Melbourne Spring/Sydney Summer season has been a flurry of activity, with several operas being rehearsed simultaneously, sometimes in both cities. As OA chorus master Michael Black is on sabbatical until next month, Hunt has been ‘maintaining’ operas since August last year, tackling his first ‘own’ opera in the lead-up to Turandot opening night in Sydney. His biggest summer project is the exciting upcoming Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) production of La Traviata.
Because the full-time chorus will be in Melbourne doing Turandot while HOSH is performed in Sydney, OA has had to recruit a full extra chorus for the production. Finding the right people was not difficult at all, Hunt says: “We audition twice a year, so we have a data base of singers we can approach for extra chorus. We use extra chorus all the time.”
The HOSH chorus will be bigger than OA’s usual La Traviata chorus, and they will be amplified. “It’s a very exciting project, just amazing. It’s going to be fantastic.”
While Hunt usually rehearses the chorus to be flexible, to ensure that they are comfortable with whatever the conductor might ask them to do, this will not be necessary with HOSH, since he will be working closely with conductor Brian Castles-Onion as they rehearse La Traviata.
Turandot, one of the biggest chorus operas in the repertoire, is his other big summer project. “We’re doing it with 68 singers – an additional 30 extra chorus in Sydney – and we’ll use 30 different extra choristers when we go to Melbourne.” Hunt started rehearsals with OA’s permanent chorus and Sydney extra choristers last year. When the full-time chorus went to Melbourne in November, he rehearsed the 30 Melbourne extra chorus members there. They won’t be performing the piece until this April. “It’s a little complicated, but it’s really the only way to do it, as flying the Sydney extra chorus – 30 people – to Melbourne and accommodating them there, would be a logistical nightmare.”
But logistics really are the least of Turandot’s challenges. “Simply getting through all the music and memorising it is a lot of work,” Hunt says. The chorus is off-stage for only about 20 minutes each evening – they’re a major character in the opera and they sing “pretty much all the time”.
Besides being long, Puccini’s score is difficult. “It’s not completely tonal – it’s not out there, but it’s not always clear what Puccini is doing.” The score is filled with dynamic contrasts: “In a split second you’re expected to go from as loud as you can be, to an amazingly soft sound.” And every bar of music has its special character and colour. “Singing Turandot is not easy, but it’s sublime music, just beautiful.”
Staging brings its own challenges. “While the director has definite ideas of where people have to be on stage, choristers have to be able to see the conductor at all times – when they don’t, things very quickly go wrong. So we have monitors, and you have the chorus master doing a bit of conducting from the wings, even occasionally clicking the beat, which would never be heard from the theatre."
Turandot has a 20-member children’s chorus, which was rehearsed by former OA assistant chorus master Francis Greep. “The type of voice you look for in a child depends on the piece,” Hunt says. “In La bohème for example, we needed a shouty, brassy sound associated with street urchins, while for A Midsummer Night’s Dream we were looking for a traditional, treble, King’s College sound. In Turandot we required something in between.”
When auditioning for the children’s chorus, Hunt usually looks for younger children, “because when boys get close to 13, their voices begin to break – it could be another year, or it could be next week”. Another incentive for selecting younger children is that directors tend to want child choristers who look like little kids. “You’re of course also looking for kids who are bright and energetic and who bring something to the stage.”
Hunt loves working with children. “Kids always rise to the challenge, which is why I set the bar high. But you do have limited rehearsal time and you have to learn and commit to memory a lot of music.”
While children respond well to an energetic approach, during rehearsals it’s important for the chorus master to step back. “The conductor might not give them too much help; might not cue them; might not even look at them. If I’m helping them all the time, when they’re on their own, it’s all going to fall over. So I deliberately put my head down and ignore them. They have to be able to do everything, no matter what I’m doing.”
Child choristers, who have contracts and get paid, and who are accompanied by chaperones to ensure their safety, are treated like professionals, and they generally act like professionals. “They love it.”
Hunt, who started his music career as a pianist and worked as repetiteur and young artist for State Opera of South Australia before spending time at London’s Royal Academy of Music, says that, having meandered into the opera world, there was a point at which he thought, “Well, I really ought to know more about what I do.”
So he and his soprano wife, Jessica Dean, a HOSH La Traviata extra chorus member, went to London, auditioned at the RAM and both got in. Having worked with conductors like Trevor Pinnock and Sir Colin Davis and directors like John Copley, he returned to Australia far more confident in his ability to coach singers.
Does it help to be married to a singer? He smiles. “I guess so. You quickly recognise the insecurities that all singers seem to share.”
At OA, the time spent acting for Michael Black has been a steep learning curve. “I now know how many hours a day Michael spends answering emails!”
Hunt will be preparing the chorus for HOSH until the stage rehearsals, when Black will be back. “At that point I’ll go off and rehearse the children’s chorus for Turandot in Melbourne. It’s going to be a very busy year!”
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata will be playing at Mrs Macquarie's Point in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney from 24 March to 15 April. Click here for more information and tickets.