IPH and the Manchester Opera Company

I joined the Manchester Opera Company in 1972 and continued until I moved south to Surrey in 1974. I was involved front and back stage with three main productions.

I was a bass voice, one of the men’s chorus, and became the regular friend of the company's stage manager, a young university medical lab technician about my age dedicated to the hobby.


On stage

The musical director decided, in consultation with the company, to perform Macbeth (Verdi) in Italian; this was a big thing for a company that, like many based on a (nevertheless dedicated) chorus, usually performed English versions. We proceeded to learn correct Italian pronunciation as well as the lyrics and the music of our parts.

Men in the chorus in Macbeth are (as is almost universal in traditional opera) soldiers, courtiers and peasants. A small group of us (those better at singing and acting and/or more regular in attendance at rehearsal) also had the vital role in Act I of messengers, in the number “Pro, Macbetto! il tuo signore sir t’elesse di Caudore”, “Hail, Macbeth, your lord [the king] has created you thane of Cawdor”) when just after the first encounter with witches Macbeth starts to think everything they predict will happen, beginning the terrible path to regicide.

In late Act I and Act II, chorus are mostly courtiers first reacting after the discover of King Duncan dead, calling the wrath of heaven down on the perpetrator, then fellow-revellers after the coronation, at the banquet the Macbeth couple throw to celebrate. I, however, was one of two sentries on guard duty at the revelry; I stood on duty right through the banquet (in the Act II finale). The director gave me a very special job to do. I was the only individual on stage who, when Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, cannot see the empty chair. The two great chairs were placed downstage, three-quarters back to the audience, and Macbeth saw the apparition in one of them. It is a long scene where the music changes as Macbeth goes into terror at the sight. Now, all the other characters on stage could see that there was nothing there, and knew Macbeth was hallucinating.

You have to picture me in my soldier character, in his chain mail uniform, sheild on arm, spear in hand at the ready, standing right at the front edge of the stage above the orchestra pit, a little to one side of the back of the chair but (importantly) with my back to it, looking out into the audience, my feet just half a metre from the bassoonist’s ear, initially impassive (though joining in all the bass chorus parts, for the sound!). As Macbeth starts to rave about this hideous apparition in the chair just behind me, all the other people at the banquet including the sentry at the other end of the table behind the other big chair, can see that there is nothing there. In the answering part they say so. But before they do,

So, my sentry has no way of knowing this apparition is not really there. As the director mentioned to me, he may be a soldier who is supposed to be fearless; but this is a 12th century man of little education. He is superstitious and (not knowing any different) he will be absolutely terrified! I had a wonderful chance to steal the entire scene for a moment from the eponymous principal role! My straight-out-front-to-audience face gradually registered disquiet, then terror. Buster Keaton was mentioned. The director said I stole the scene (but he was delighted really). We used to do shows all wekk and we had a great time. I still have the long black socks we got for the slightly abstract style mediaeval uniforms, 35 year later.

Macbeth is a bad king, a cruel ruler, and hated. In Act IV the desolation wrought on the country is shown. We were peasants during the elegiac scene “Patria opressa!” sung by the chorus of refugees, when we are given heart by Macduff, the tenor, in “O figli, o figli miei!”. In our production (1973) that role was sung by Robin Leggate, who soon began a rise to the top of the operatic singing profession. ("He joined the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1976 and was company principal from then until 2001" his biography says.) So we were among very talented people in Manchester, though I won't attempt to list any other now famous people with whom I worked in those shows, except Peter Broadbent who was one of two musical directors who worked with the company more or less alternately, sharing duties. And no, not the Wolverhampton Wanderers footballer; the conductor he who is one of Britainís leading choral conductors, in particular of the Joyful Company of Singers.

Back stage

This was my first show with Manchester Opera COmpany. However, we would all gather in The Grey Parrot, a pub near the municipal evening class building where we rehearsed, and I soon found myself with the company chairman, the directors stage and musical (I tend to gravitate to the people who matter in such places apparently) and the young stage manager. They were talking about the biggest scene with the witches.

There are a lot of appearances by the witches in Macbeth. In Act I they appear to Macbeth and tell him he is about to get a promotion. But in Act III there are no male chorus scenes at all but the women’s chorus are all witches and there is an extended encounter at what is practically a witches’ sabbath with ballet music marked Witches’ Revelry.

The director wanted an iconic appearance to accompany this section. Shakespeare refers to Hecate, a sort of goddess of witchcraft, and as it ended up I undertook the task of making a huge effigy, a female figure that would appear at the rear of proceedings as a central point for some adoring and cavorting, as it were; you have to hear Verdi’s music for this entire scene which is quite striking, not to mention that the women are instructed to cackle the entire libretto rather than sing it whenever they are the witches.

Well, I made a torso with a dangling bust (based on two large balloons, grape shaped but a foot (31cm) long, and a belly based on a circular washing up bowl, plus arms being of heavy plastic coated garden fencing wire made into coils (shaped like a helical spring) 4 or 5 inches (10 to 12 cm) diameter and 4 feet (1.3m) long when extended. These were inserted into sleeves in a long loose robe made of thin black stuff. The whole thing was to be mounted on a 12 foot (3.7m) pole, with a head on the top. Everything was double life size. I originally painted the bosom and belly bright flesh pink; after all it was to appear in the shadows. It appeared at band rehearsal in the opera theatre in the final weekend before show week. Unfortunately the effect on the entire assembled company was huge laughter. The director came to me and said that horror, not hilarity, was the effect he wanted. I had to paint it black, which was done.

For Macbeth I also manufactured great numbers of slightly larger than life mediaeval pewter drinking vessels. The entire stage design, set and costumes, was mostly black and everything had to fit that. For pewter, I would paint everything in black (matt) emulsion, then pick out all the highlights in silver paint. One coat over black was enough. All the contours of the objects stood out, giving a chunky look. I also made some huge table centres suggesting great bowls on pedestals, piled high with fruit, all in black and silver.

Eugene Onegin

On stage

Having mastered Italian, the company debated whether to attempt Tchaikowsky in Russian. Knowing enough Russian to read (aloud or for sense) and write with a dictionary and make light conversation (though until 1997 i never went to Russia), I would not have minded had they decided to grasp the nettle and go ahead. I think the Musical Director's wife knew Russian and was all for it. However the less than highbrow women's chorus put their stilettoed feet down and said No!

Again, the chorus in this opera are peasants here and courtiers there. The former in Acts I and II set in the country where Tatiana is the daughter in the big house and there is music and dancing. In Act I, the labourers, sounding exhausted, sing ‘My legs ache and can no longer run now the day is done...” For Act II, some of us had to learn the mazurka. I love the music of that party. In Act III, in St Petersburg, the dance is a very formal polonaise and the music, to me, much less memorable.

Back stage

I only remember one thing: making huge versions of chinese lanterns for the Act II party, held out of doors on a summer evening. I used large balloons as bases and on them I laid wet foolscap airmail paper, then more layers with wallpapaer paste. When dried, balloons deflated and removed, you have a very light translucent papier maché shell.

The Force of Destiny

On stage

As usual, we men were soldiers, and peasants. We were also monks at the monastery where the heroine hides, and with the abbot sang the chant-like music Verdi wrote for them. I remember also in complete contrast the bouncing party music of the soldiers and whores, the camp followers, partying after another battle in the perennial wars (between Italy and Spain I think) that are the background of that story: “When the sound of pipes and tabours echoes loud with happy laughter, joy today; but what comes after? Pleasure is the soldier’s delight.” I have written that here in 2007 all of 33 years after doing the show without looking the lyric up...

The other scene I remember is the one with Preziosilla the fortune-teller, when the chorus sing about how good the polenta is. (It was the first time I had heard of polenta, in those days.)

Back stage

For La forza del destino I remember my friend asking me to make an object that was the biggest thing I fabricated for the company. I lived in an upstairs bed-sitting room, not in my own large bungalow with garage and garden and woodwork shop such as I have here. And I used to get about town on a bicycle, though I did learn to drive while in Manchester and bought a very old car shortly before I left, in which I think I moved house down to Surrey in 1974. Therefore my capacity to fabricate things was constrained a little by these circumstances.

However, the stages used by the company were quite big. For the first two productions the theatre used was that at UMIST. So the theatre there was quite big, but not dedicated to opera, of course. You cannot parade a 12 foot high effigy of Hecate around without hitting something in the flies on every university or college stage (or all those in town halls and so on).

However, for the next production the company went to a venue dedicated to the art, at the RNCM, which had just opened (not the college, the new purpose built opera theatre). This was very exciting but a challenge. How do you create the scene in the abbey — the church at the monastery, anyway — with very little budget and crew?

Well, using our usual minimalist approach, it was decided to use the heavy hanging curtains right across the stage suggesting columns, which in many gothic cathedrals are shaped like clusters of smaller cylinders. And somewhere just off-centre near the back would hang a rose window.

I was to make the rose window.

I began with my heavy duty plastic coated garden fencing wire. I built a frame 6 feet (2 metres approx) diameter containing a number of “rose petal” panes (look in any cathedral rose window for a real example) to create a simplified rose design appropriate to a private church of a poor monastery. The window frame was built up as usual for me then using newspaper and wallpaper paste. When finished, it could be the stonework. The glass was just sheets of my foolscap airmail paper wallpaper-pasted across the gaps onto the frames at the edges. The entire thing, when finished, was suspended high up on the stage, and back-lit by a spotlight positioned to hit only it.

It gave perfectly the impression of sunlight streaming through the window of a gothic cathedral, compared to which everything else inside was in relative gloom.

That completes this memoir of my time with the Manchester Opera Company. During those years I was first a mathematics teacher, then unemployed and (for three weeks) a properties hand with English National Opera, then a programmer of the first relatively small business computer systems, a job I did for one year. My evenings with the opera company were my main contact with people outside the workplace because I didn't really mix with colleague outside work in either of those jobs. Staging operas what what I did, to get me out of my bedsit, in my two years there.