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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Watching from the wings

Friday, June 5th., Victoria Grove, Chelsea.

"The Meistersingers", Covent Garden. From a side box on the top tier I could see all the furtive activities which in an opera performance are hidden from the bulk of the audience. Screened by his wooden hood, the prompter's head appears just above the level of the stage; he follows the score untiringly with his left hand while beating time, giving cues, gesticulating with his right hand; he is never for a moment at rest; he seems to know instinctively when an actor will be at fault, and his low clear voice is heard exactly at the second when its help is imperative, and not till then. Compared to the prompter the conductor seems almost insignificant. In the wings a couple of chorus masters, with book in hand, direct and inspire the sheep-like masses of men and women who cluster round the principals. Several other men, one in a straw hat, move mysteriously to and fro in the wings. A fireman and a footman stand guard over the curtain ropes. Right at the back of the stage dim shadows with lamps pass and repass. high up, even higher than the top tier, are men in their shirt sleeves moving amid a multitude of ropes, winches, and blocks ...

Consider the order and discipline which is necessary to the harmonious interworking of all theses different forces for an hour and a half at a time. A slight forgetfulness on the part of any one of them might bring the performance to a standstill, and cover the entire organisation with disgrace. When once the first chord of the "vorspiel" has been sounded, the boats are burned as it were, and all depends on courage and presence of mind. In an opera like "The Meistersinger" systematization must indeed be carried to extremes. Now and then even the audience gets a hint of this; as witness the first and second bells for the raising of the curtain, each struck firmly and decisively at a particular bar of the score; with what marvellous obedient promptitude the immense stretch of canvas vanished into the ceiling on the stroke of the second bell!

At the end of an act, while the 'principal' principals are taking their calls, all sorts of people crowd into the wings to watch their demeanour; even the principals of the second rank (Corsi, Gilibert, de Bars etc.) press forward with childish curiosity to watch the de Reszkes, Plancon, Eames, Bispham etc. receive the adoration of the audience. This is surely a significant manifestation of what may be called the "operatic temperament".

Édouard de Reszke, originally Edward, (1853 – 1917) was a Polish bass from Warsaw. Born with an impressive natural voice and equipped with compelling histrionic skills, he became one of the most illustrious opera singers active in Europe and America during the late-Victorian era.
Jean de Reszke (1850 – 1925), was a Polish tenor renowned internationally for the high quality of his singing and the elegance of his bearing, he became the biggest male opera star of the late 19th century.
Pol Henri Plançon (1851 – 1914) was a distinguished French operatic bass . He was one of the most acclaimed singers active during the 1880s, 1890s and early 20th century.
Emma Eames (1865 - 1952) was an American soprano renowned for the beauty of her voice. She sang major lyric and lyric-dramatic roles in opera and had an important career in New York, London and Paris during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century.
David Scull Bispham (1857 – 1921) was the first American–born operatic baritone to win an international reputation.

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