Clubbers: Jamie and Carolyn Balfour, Robert and Fiona Boyle,
Tom and Sarah Floyd, Christopher and Frances Kemball
2017 – 2018: The time it took to become Club Figaro 2019. My blog is about being part of Club Figaro 2019, and if some of the things I say seem obvious to you it’s because I love going to the opera but know very little about it.
Our involvement began last year because a group of us wanted to find out how The Grange Festival creates its amazing season from scratch – how a glimmer of an idea turns into a polished performance. We became Club Figaro after Robert worked out a programme of events with Michael and Rachel, and eight of us clubbed together to support Figaro for the 2019 season.
It’s an experiment – we’re going to be the first lot of clubbers to have fun learning what goes on behind the scenes, but, even more intriguing, to become part of the production by watching it unfold and getting to know the people making it happen. In other words we’re going to step into the glorious world of opera and learn a lot more about Mozart’s great masterpiece while helping the Grange Festival capitalize on its intellectual assets. The icing on the cake is that we’re also going to be to be invited to all Founders Events taking place in 2019.
Of course, none of us know how it’ll all work out – whether we’re asking too much from the Grange Festival and if it’s worth it for us. What would be an enormous help is to get your input as Club Figaro 2019 unfolds, so that we can work out what’s best for Grange Festival Clubs 2020 and beyond. Please give us all the feedback you can!
October 2018: The Inaugural Dinner.
We drive up the long drive at Wintershill Hall to have dinner with Jamie and Carolyn. It’s too dark to see the park as we’re arriving at 7.15 pm to meet the rest of Club Figaro, as well as Mark and Sophie Baring and the team at Grange Festival. Scott can’t make it, but everyone else can: Michael Chance, Michael Moody and Rachel Pearson all arrive straight from a meeting. I can never get over how small the core of the Grange Festival actually is!
The idea is for Michael Chance to fill us in on the background – why he chose to put on Figaro, how he chose the orchestra, conductor, director, singers etc. Michael is a world-famous counter-tenor and music has been his life. His passion and depth of knowledge pours out of him as he stands in front of the fire place explaining how the history behind Figaro will make it come alive to an audience. He does all this in a very amusing way – and that’s before we even sit down to dinner!
Sarah and I look at each other across the drawing room, both stunned by the minute detail the creative team is going into to get Figaro off the ground. In fact, I’m astonished it’s got as far as it has as there’s such a lot to consider, a key point being how the audience will empathise with the characters. Michael chooses singers not only for their exceptional singing but also for their stage presence. In his search for the Countess he was looking for someone younger and more vulnerable than is typical which meant finding a singer who had this quality. This is one of the reasons why I can’t wait to see Simona Mihai in this role.
Figaro was first performed in 1786 and Michael wanted an orchestra to reflect the music of that time. This meant finding an orchestra that played with period instruments and had the right stylistic approach – The Academy of Ancient Music exactly fitted the bill. Laughter, bonhomie and yet more questions followed over dinner and we all left far later than intended, buoyed up by an extraordinary evening.
October/November 2018: The Auditions
We’re at the first Club Figaro event where we see The Grange Festival in action. Auditions take place over three days at a London theatre that’s functional rather than glamorous, so I assume relatively inexpensive to hire.
Auditions for Grange Festival 2020 operas are taking place when I get there, so I wait with the singers auditioning for the Figaro chorus. Most of them know each other and complain about the trains as they’ve travelled here from all over the country. Michael tells me later that he’s had over 400 applicants and out of these he’s chosen to hear 120 to fill 24 places – and I had naively thought he would try and find singers reasonably local to The Grange!
The aria is over so I go into the auditorium to meet my husband Robert along with Michael and Scott who are sitting together in the stalls. The other people there include Daniel Slater who is the director of Belshazzar which is playing at The Grange Festival in 2020. He’s looking for major roles and singers have flown in from all over the world to audition. We’re looking for the chorus, as all the major roles for Figaro have already been cast.
Most of the singers seem to know Michael and the pianist, and there’s a bit of a chat when they come in. Michael asks ‘What have you brought?’ They casually suggest one or two arias that might be suitable, then give their music to the talented lady at the piano – she seems to play anything that’s thrown at her. I’m astounded by the ease in which the opera singers perform as I can’t think of anything more daunting – the lights are full on in the auditorium for notetaking, and the singers perform in front of the stage with a spotlight trained on them.
There’s a break after a few auditions and the experts put their heads together to discuss the candidates – reaching a verdict doesn’t take long! It was interesting to learn that some voices that sounded good to me weren’t mature enough, and that a base singer in his twenties might have to wait at least another ten years before he was given good parts. On the other hand he could go on getting top roles until his mid-sixties.
The chorus demands stage presence and animation. There was another obvious key element I hadn’t thought of which is that the voices must blend well together, and there’s a specific blend for Figaro that they’re after – think of it like coffee, more Columbian Roast than Nescafe Gold. As Daniel said, ‘it’s a brutal process’, and the auditions really brought home to me how very very tough it is to be an opera singer.