From the Rehearsal Room: week 1

Dear digital audience,

I am writing you from the rehearsal room of OperaUpClose’s Eugene Onegin, where I am working as Assistant Director. We have finished our first week of rehearsals: a week full of discoveries and inspiration. To provide you with a bit more context for what is to come, here is a short introduction to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in my own words:

The opera is based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin is a big deal in Russian literature as he inspired a number of literary heroes. The libretto largely follows Pushkin’s story: Onegin, a melancholic, bored dandy, charms the young quiet daydreamer, Tatyana. What happens next is a story of passionate love declarations, cool rejections, heated fights, status claimed and love lost. You can see and hear this all on the stage of the Arcola from the 22nd of November.

The story is originally set in 1820s Russia. But in this new translation by Robin Norton-Hale, we are transported to the London suburbs of the swinging sixties. This not only invites some exciting designs, but also opens up questions about the rise of feminism and the free spirits that started emerging at this time.

We started our rehearsals with a thorough look at the libretto: what is the story about, what are the intentions and what does this say about the characters, and ultimately how does this influence their relationships? It has been really interesting to let the libretto lead the work, and use the text to inform the characters and their environment. It always amazes me how much is given in the text that might be overlooked at first sight, and how this perfectly matches the intensity of Tchaikovsky’s music.

After this table work, we began singing scenes around the piano. I still can’t get used to the first moment I hear the performers sing. Their voices fill the room with sound; they are so delicate, yet so powerful. The rehearsal pianist and the singers bring the score to life, and you feel rude to interrupt with a direction.  

Two things stood out most to me this week: firstly, the immediate focus on physicality and movement. Director Lucy Bradley starts every rehearsal with a physical warm-up. As a theatre director I am used to doing this, but it is less usual in opera. I could see how it gave the performers a real sense of character and the space, which they were then able to incorporate when putting parts of the scene on its feet. For the last two days of rehearsal we worked with our Movement Director, Joe Wild. We embodied our own experiences of teenage parties: the excitement, the insecurities, the desire, the shame, and how uncomfortable our bodies felt. We looked at old images from house parties in the sixties, and imitated the movements of songs by The Beatles and other flower power classics. This provided us with a first step into the world of suburban house parties, and gives us our next challenge of putting these movements under Tchaikovsky’s music.

Secondly, we found a lot of humour in the opera! Despite the intensity of the music and the dramatic story, there are some beautifully painful interactions between the characters that are so recognisable, so human, that there is a real joy in the sympathy that you feel for them. We shared a lot of laughs over our own memories when discussing the relationship between the young Tatyana, Olga, Lensky and Onegin, and I’m sure this will resonate in the show.

Lunch break is over, more next week!

Annemiek van Elst
Assistant Director, Eugene Onegin

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