From the Rehearsal Room: week 2

Dear digital audience,

It is our second week and we have moved to our permanent rehearsal room in The Arcola Theatre. We are all very excited about this because now we can mark up the floor and bring in rehearsal props (basically the floor is covered in colourful taped lines that symbolise the measurements of the stage, and we have started gathering bamboo sticks and paper cups that stand in for most of the props we are going to use later on). But secretly we are also very grateful that we can leave our coffee, tea and chocolates in the room. 

Since we are working with a double cast and many talented singers, some are still working on other shows in between rehearsals. Although a challenge to schedule according to so many different diaries, it is interesting to have more and more performers coming in throughout the process. New voices and energies in the room bring new dynamics: some work more physically, whereas others focus on inner movement, lifting each other’s performance qualities. It also made our lunch breaks even more entertaining, where we share stories ranging from ‘funny things our kids said this morning’ to ‘the hardships of the freelance artist life’.

This week three main characters joined our rehearsals, which expanded the world of the opera and tied some story lines together. Our character Tanya now has her sister Olga, mother Larina, and family friend Evie in the room. Before she played an ambitious young writer that fell in love with the charming Onegin; now she is also a younger sister and second born daughter. It’s like a birthday party where friends from school, colleagues from work and your family come together, and you have to balance all your different behaviors towards them… I’m hoping I’m not the only one who has experienced this uncomfortable situation of balancing all the roles you play in your daily life.

But there are more reasons for why we see Tatyana changing. In hindsight the opera should have been called Tatyana instead of Eugene Onegin, as she goes through the biggest emotional change. Onegin sticks to his playboy character traits until the bitter end. Changing the setting into 1960’s suburban London compliments this powerful female story. Seven years pass between the second and third act, meaning we move from 1960 to 1968, a time lapse where women gained a lot more ground. From the introduction of the contraceptive pill, to the legalisation of abortion in the UK, sexual freedom was on the rise. And so was feminism, with more women attending university and staying employed after marriage. I am sure you will not only see this revolution in the costume design, but also in the behavior of Tatyana.

We are having a little revolution of our own as well. Our creative team exists predominantly of women. I have not often been in a rehearsal room where women were the majority, which doesn’t reflect so well on the performing arts world, but it is one of the great advantages of working with OperaUpClose. I don’t want to make any presumptions or generalisations about how working with a female team enhances focus, makes things run more smoothly and effectively, and how this will positively affect our performance of Eugene Onegin… so I guess you’ll just have to come and see it for yourself.

On this slightly political note, we’re moving on to the second half of our rehearsal day as everyone is returning from lunch and I still have to finish my sandwich.

Annemiek van Elst
Assistant Director, Eugene Onegin

For more information and tickets, please click here

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

Click here for more information about the production & tickets


Valentina headshot.jpg

Director, Valentina Ceschi
OperaUpClose directing credits: Ulla's Odyssey (Kings Place), Dido & Aeneas (King's Head Theatre), Elixir of Love (King's Head Theatre), Manifest Destiny (King's Head Theatre), Associate Director La Bohème (Cock Tavern Theatre, Soho Theatre, King's Head Theatre).

How did you get into opera?
I stumbled into it a bit. After graduating from the Jaques Lecoq School, in Paris, I set up a company with Thomas Eccleshare with whom I co-wrote directed and performed all the shows. As our work developed we became more and more inspired by European auteur- directors and performance artists. We were at a festival in Italy at the same time as Emma Dante. I was a huge fan of her work and found out that she was directing Carmen at la Scala and did everything in my power to get in and work as her rehearsal assistant there. Growing up I was taken to many (and I mean very many!) musicals and being half Italian opera has always been in my blood. But it was only when I was in Milan, spending my days listening and watching the singers, studying their faces and bodies, their emotions, their processes in the rehearsal room where you are really close, that I truly fell in love. 

The production was considered controversial and caused a bit of a stir on opening night. It was exciting to be a part of this, and I realised how opera - especially at an institution such as la Scala - could be shaken up a bit, and that stories needed to be told by fresher, younger voices. 

What is your favourite part of the job?
The moment when something shifts and suddenly you see something in the story or the piece that excites you that you'd not noticed before, and together with your MD or the cast you all get goose bumps, it's like having a vision and you think "ah, yes, that's why we have to tell this story now! And it all makes sense! " 

I also love working with young people, they don't have any baggage from training, they inspire me and they make me laugh. I would love to work more with young people. 

Valentina working on  Ulla's Odyssey  with musical director Alex Beetschen and puppeteer Matt Hutchinson

Valentina working on Ulla's Odyssey with musical director Alex Beetschen and puppeteer Matt Hutchinson

What's your least favourite part of the job?
I don't know. Often once the show is up and running you feel left out. The cast, MD, musicians and stage manager still get to hang out every night and do the show, but you're no longer essential, no longer in the gang. It feels quite lonely then.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage (theatre or opera) in 2015 and why? 
I just saw some Kabuki whilst on holiday in Japan and puppet artist Basil Twists's Dogugaeishi at the Mime Festival in London, both Japanese art forms, both breath-taking. I also love the new programme at the Almeida. 

What are your dreams for the future/ what's next?
Making design-led opera. I don't know how yet, but I'm working on it.

Tell us a bit about Ulla's Odyssey?
It is a charming action packed adventure for anyone of any age who has ever felt determined to prove themselves against the odds and who will brave huge waves, winds and sea monsters in order to achieve their dream. 

Your strangest / funniest experience whilst working on a production? 
Once I was touring a show with my company Dancing Brick and we were on stage up in Stockton, halfway through our show when we suddenly realised we had skipped ahead 3 or four scenes without even noticing! The scenes all took place in real time, so it was easy to feel our way back and we were so tuned to each other we recovered without the audience noticing! The show however was packed full of subtle but complex sound design and lighting cues so when I happened to glance up at the tech box I could see our stage manager pulling her hair out and mouthing all sorts of obscenities! The fact that the audience were none the wiser makes me worry about the structural integrity of the piece. 

What do you think is an essential quality in the work you direct? 
I'm a stickler for visual clarity and I strive for efficient storytelling. If what I'm seeing - whether it's slapstick or a romantic scene - doesn't tell as much if not more of a story than what I'm hearing then it's not working for me.