A chorus of approval

David Benedict finds out what makes Glyndebourne's choristers so different
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Opera choruses have a bad name. The prevailing image of a bevy of belligerent and intransigent failed soloists lurking around the world's great lyric stages leads some to view them as one of opera's necessary evils. Generally speaking, this is nonsense. Nearly all the great opera houses are filled with groups of fine singers on permanent contracts, many of whom took one look at the vagaries and vicissitudes of a soloist's life and opted for the security of an altogether safer chorus career. Nevertheless, the insulting stereotype persists. One house, however, has done more than any other to banish it and that's Glyndebourne.

Its list of former choristers reads like a Who's Who of British opera. Were it not for the music staff's sharp ears and careful guidance, who knows what would have become of fresh music college talent such as Josephine Barstow, Thomas Allen, John Tomlinson, Jill Gomez, Steven Page or Alan Opie, all of whom are now major international artists. Like Jane Glover before him, conductor Ivor Bolton began his career as chorus master there in the mid-Eighties and his choristers included the formidable younger generation of stars including Alison Hagley, Robert Poulton, Christopher Ventris, Gerald Finley, Louise Winter and Linda Kitchen. Older opera-goers may even have spotted the young Janet Baker in the ranks.

This year, 70 singers have formed the chorus for the six-opera season that opens tomorrow with Puccini's Manon Lescaut and closes on 24 August with the final performance of Handel's Theodora. After a two-week break, half of them will tour until December with Rossini's Le Comte Ory, Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and Janacek's The Makropulos Case. Most choruses are made up of singers aged somewhere between 24 and 60, but here the median age is around 26 and therein lies the difference. This house is not looking for career choristers. In stark contradiction to most other houses who cast "name" understudies, virtually all the roles at Glyndebourne are "covered" by the choristers. They may not go there as nobodies and come back stars, but the house prides itself on the training and attention it gives to the annual influx of hand-picked young talent. Like many, Christopher Ventris, now a distinguished soloist singing in Britten's Owen Wingrave, joined as a chorister while still at music college. He made his debut there in 1987 and then returned to the Royal Academy. The following year he was back, singing a small role in Janacek's Katya Kabanova on the tour and understudying Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. "It's one of the few places where, as an understudy, you can actually go on. They train you up and you are so well prepared. They had enough confidence in me after three or four good weeks of work that I went on as Tom in three performances and Tom is quite a sing."

Steven Page gave up a career in intellectual property law to train as a singer and after a year at the National Opera Studio, joined the chorus in 1983. Fourteen years later, he too is back, singing in Owen Wingrave. He points out that with less than a week to go before the opening of Manon Lescaut, one of the understudies has nearly four more weeks of rehearsals ahead of him. "In the other major companies, after the first night, you are almost finished with rehearsals. You're expected to watch, have limited time with the assistant and that's it." In addition to being in readiness to go on, the understudies perform a showing for the management. "You put on a scene from each opera you've prepared for the management, entire scenes, usually on set. It's a great opportunity."

There's around a 30 per cent turnover each year and the chorus master Christopher Moulds, and Sarah Playfair, director of artistic administration, scour the music colleges for fresh talent. "We're always on the lookout for potential soloists," she says. "That may take a few years. Heavier voices develop later but when we're casting the season we always ask the question, can we do this from the chorus?"

Moulds, together with the Italian coach Maria Cleva, is taking the first chorus rehearsal for the revival of The Marriage of Figaro. "It's like a Hoover being switched on!" he cries. Conductor Sir Charles Mackerras has been through the score making precise markings with details of musical and dramatic emphasis. "There's too much air in the sound. Focus it." Moulds cleans up the choral entry, shaping the sound to stop the singers winding up into the phrase. In a short space of time, he achieves real results thanks to his exacting ear for the minutiae of pronunciation and vocal production plus a generous dose of encouragement and high-spirited banter.

In the break, the singers sit out in the courtyard cafe, soaking up the sun. One of them never trained at music college. Having developed his voice as an actor in musicals, he has sung in the Glyndebourne chorus for several years, auditioning, like all of them, each time. "We're not all fresh-faced eagerbeavers being groomed for stardom," he says, but he too points to the possibilities that Glyndebourne provides. "They're there if you're willing to take them. You make of it what you want." Others point to the unusual depth of the language coaching, the intensity of the musical preparation and the supportive "melting pot" atmosphere in which to learn.

Most British students spend their summer vacations earning money in dead- end jobs. These ones get paid a basic pounds 260 a week (plus touring allowances) to work in gloriously verdant surroundings, developing musical and dramatic skills, learning and preparing roles and furthering their nascent careers by working with music staff and singers they may only ever have heard on disc. It's worth it for the contacts alone. Their days are filled with music sessions, costume fittings, stage calls and rehearsals and many join the genuine "family atmosphere" of a summer festival by living locally for the season. The rest leap aboard the London train at the end of the day to resume their real lives. If you succumb to the intoxicating atmosphere and let everything drop, when the season ends, there's a danger you'll have nothing to return to but, if Steven Page's recollections of the end of his first summer are anything to go by, it's a risk worth taking.

"We had 15 consecutive shows at the end of the season and a friend of mine had a tent two minutes away so I stayed when his fiancee wasn't around. We got up, came in and showered at Glyndebourne, had breakfast in the courtyard with french bread and bacon. We'd do a bit of work in the morning, have a spot of lunch, then down to the beach in the afternoon. There was a buoy anchored about 200 yards out. We'd swim there and back, do a little bit of sunbathing, back for the show - working with people like Carol Vaness, Philip Langridge and Jerry Hadley - off to the bar afterwards, back to the tent and then start again the following day. It was idyllic."

On the downside, Ivor Bolton concedes that too much choral singing can be dangerous. "It's probably unhealthy over a long period of time, particularly for a baritone having to sing the bass line in a chorus. There's also the business of it being an ensemble activity. You're more involved in listening and blending and fitting in. A soloist is going to have a voice that is different from those around him or her. You have to put down your vocal individuality and your own musical thoughts about how the piece goes."

Bryn Terfel would agree. He recently told Radio 3 listeners that he'd once added his voice to a chorus for a recording session, having never sung in a choir before. By the end he was hoarse and advised soloists not to do it but then he didn't have Glyndebourne watching over him, honing his talent. After all, it didn't do Janet Baker any harm.

Anyone wishing to help sponsor the Glyndebourne chorus should contact the Appeals Office 01273 812321. Booking: 01273 813813