April 23rd, 2012 by Michael Millward

Michael Millward was a guest today of Culture Vulture at the sitzprobe for Opera North’s production of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical Carousel.

A sitzprobe is the first time that the cast and orchestra perform a new production together, held in a rehearsal room without costumes or props.

Here Mr. Millward recounts what was his first visit back stage at a major theatre.

My entrance into the Leeds Grand theatre was by the back stage door, or to give it its Sunday name the artist’s entrance. Far from being a back door this is a major thoroughfare, two receptionists and a milling of people that means the best place to stand is to one side. There is a constant stream of people, all the world is here; men in suits, women who could be off to the gym and a group of moms discussing rehearsal schedules for their enthusiastic offspring.

The Culture Vulture party are taken to a meeting room for lunch and discussions with members of the production team.

Tim Burke the Chorus Master, who looks the spitting image of the head of the drama department at my secondary school, explains that musical theatre is not something that Opera North does that often, but that adapting to the different style has not been that arduous as Carousel is probably one of the more operatic of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musicals, not just because of the nature of the music and lyrics, but because of the emotion that is involved in the performance, something that is likely to make grown men shed the odd tear.

You may never have seen Carousel, but it must be almost impossible not to have heard at least one of the songs from this classic of the golden age of Broadway musicals. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ now most often associated with football stadiums is one of the highlights of Carousel.

I asked Tim if the version in the musical would be familiar to football fans. Yes and no. When the song is first sung it is very much part of the drama and will not feel like the anthem people are familiar with, but later in the show the song is reprised in a different context that will sound more familiar.

It is time to move to the Howard Assembly Rooms a versatile space with a circular gallery. Our party sits on one side of the gallery alongside the team from BBC Radio Three, the principal singers are opposite us and the chorus occupy the end with his deep tiered seating area. Below us in the main area are more than 40 musicians who make up the Orchestra of Opera North.

In pre-performance mode the activities of the individual players give no indication of the beautiful melodies that they will soon be creating in unison.

The harpist is adjusting the cushion on her chair that will give her the extra height to play this goliath of an instrument that towers over the orchestra like the spire of a medieval cathedral. Percussionists are examining the score and arranging sticks in military like precision, and the brass section are blowing saliva from the mass of pipes as they assemble their instruments.

Calling the throng of individuals together the Musical Director taps his lectern with his batn and calls, ‘let’s start with the Carousel Waltz!’

The opening bars that seem almost eerie, but it is not long before our party and the chorus are swaying in time to this melody.

But it just isn’t quite right, a couple of comments from the musical director lead to the slightest of change from the strings. I did not understand what he meant, but the string players did. All I know is that somehow that minor tweak lifted the energy in the melody even higher.

Then we are straight in to June is busting out all over, a cheery number that describes the joy of summer and the coming together of the community for a clam bake.

It all sounds perfect to me, but our musical director has identified a slight imperfection in the emphasis of one phrase. A word to the gentlemen of the chorus, a reprise of the offending sequence and now I know what perfection really sounds like.

Far too quickly my glimpse through the keyhole of the back stage door is brought to a close. I have seen just a small part of what it takes to create the magic that is revealed when the curtain goes up. The hard work and attention to detail that only people with a real talent and passion can demand of themselves and others makes me wonder why it is so difficult to the same attitudes in non artistic businesses, but then again as I re-emerge on to a rain sodden Briggate.

Perhaps, businesses need to think about how we can create the same magic in our everyday jobs as those performers will create for their audience when the curtain goes up!

I for one will be in my seat

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