A tower of song

Terry Edwards, the Royal Opera's chorus-master, is a hard man to miss - but this 6ft 9in giant is an expert on blending in. He tells Michael Church how he handles the chorus-line

Singers and conductors come and go, but there's one piquant moment during the Royal Opera curtain call that is always reassuringly the same: a beaming, black-tied giant suddenly materialises in the middle of the chorus - like Gulliver among the Lilliputians - and makes them look like children. And they virtually are his children. As chorus-master, Terry Edwards wields absolute power over them, morning, noon, and night. But the realm he controls spreads further: when you go to see The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King this Christmas, the ethereal voices you'll hear at key points in the drama will be another group singing at his command. This man is a byword in musical circles, but the media spotlight never falls on him. Knowing that he is stepping down next year, and sensing that he may be a man of surprises, I corner him during a break at Covent Garden.

My hunch proves right. The avuncular manner and rich, comfortable voice may be what one expects, but the height is unnerving. I may be 6ft, but I too feel like child, as his 6ft 9in loom genially over me. Born in London 64 years ago, Edwards was blessed with just two talents, for singing and sport. "I was advised at 21 by my singing teacher that I would never make it as a singer, so I went into teaching it instead. I also played cricket and football, and was in the British basketball team for the 1964 Olympics." (Well, obviously: like the Manchester Giants, he had the advantage of being able to look down into the basket.) But they weren't that good, he adds, getting knocked out in the preliminaries, not glittering in Tokyo.

"Meanwhile, I realised that although I wasn't soloist material, there was another avenue open to me - as a freelance chorus singer." At that time in the Sixties there were many choirs, all going strong, including Roger Norrington's Monteverdi Choir, so Edwards quit teaching to sing full-time. "But something in my personality doesn't let me just sit and be one of a mass - maybe my height also has something to do with it - so I worked through into management." He first ran a crack choir that existed to explore new repertory, commissioning pieces from such bright lights as Alexander Goehr, Elizabeth Lutyens and Harrison Birtwistle. Then, he became manager of an a cappella group called Swingle Two, the English reincarnation of the French Swingles who had found fame as a low-rent prototype for the King's Singers. What was the difference, I ask, between the French and English Swingles? "We weren't as good as they were! But they still exist, they still make a living, though not in this country, and their members still come to see me when they pass through."

In 1973, Edwards formed his own company, London Voices. This may not be a name people recognise, but they'll be more familiar with the company than they realise, as Edwards explains: "We've made 200 records, including all of Tony Pappano's opera recordings - La Bohème, La rondine, Trittico - and we often appear on recital records by artists who need a chorus - Renée Fleming, Tom Hampson, Angela Gheorghiu. Look at their CDs carefully, and you'll find us." And look at the film credits, too. "I've done all the Harry Potter films with John Williams, and also the Star Wars films with him. We've just recorded the Ligeti Requiem with the Berlin Phil, but usually we're to be found where a fuss is not made over who the choir is.We just do the job." It isn't even a choir as such, he says: it's just put together each time from London's pool of freelance singers. "Technically, I'm the only person in it. I was up for hire, until I came here."

He came as guest chorus-master, then discovered that the permanent job was vacant, and got it. As morale was low after a round of redundancies in 1992, he was able to cash in on the upswing: he set about building a chorus with a vibrant mix of timbres and an equally striking mix of shapes and sizes. His job is primarily musical: shadowing his singers in rehearsal and conveying the conductor's instructions. "But I do keep an eye on the movement. If I judge that the director is trying to do something against the spirit of the music, then I have to represent the chorus. If the conductor says, 'I want three of you here and the rest of you 30 yards away', I'll try to stop that, because we'll hear too much of some people and too little of others. Or if it's being made difficult for them to move and sing, I'll get involved."

Within the chorus his job is more complex. "You have to be part-policeman, part-musician, part-doctor, part-psychologist - because your people go through all sorts of problems." Including vocal ones? "No, when they have those, they hide them from me." He's reluctant to talk about how he deals with someone who isn't singing well, as this is a thorny issue. "Before I arrived chorus members had a triennial test - they had to sing an aria to Bernard Haitink. They hated it, and so did he. I've said the chorus-master should have the right to hear people sing every couple of years, but the suggestion hasn't gone down well, because anything that increases their chance of losing their jobs is seen as a bad thing."

Has he ever sacked anyone from the full-time chorus? "The only time it's ever happened is when the chorus came to me and said, 'please, please do it'. The person just wasn't up to it. But I had to use a complicated procedure, and it took more than a year to get it done. It was such a horrible experience for us all that I tore the procedure up and threw it in the bin. I told them: 'From now on, if you just turn up every day and try your best, that's enough for me.'" On the other hand, he cleared out a lot of the "extra chorus' that he'd inherited. Some of them were actually builders by trade, who'd found a nice little earner on the side. And when the big closure came in 1997, he took the chance - as I learn elsewhere, since he won't breathe a word against any singer, past or present - to lose those in the full-time choir he deemed to have fallen below par.

Their six-days-a-week job represents a demanding life, despite the £30,000 salary and six weeks' annual leave. Chorus morale at Covent Garden is currently good - in contrast to English National Opera, where, after the recent strife, it's terrible - but Edwards' singers speak with frustration about what they call "captive time", meaning those parts of the day when they are not on duty but haven't time to go home.

And unlike most of their colleagues abroad - who sing one work for three solid weeks - they must deploy multiple language skills and a protean physical adaptability. For Robert Wilson's Aida they had to learn balletic gestures drawn from bas-reliefs (apparently, one American chorus flatly refused to do that when the piece toured in the States). In Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, opening next Monday, they face a completely new challenge: they will have to belt out the tunes like pop singers, rather than sing as they have been trained to do. Will they manage to transform themselves into the requisite Broadway chorus? "They're already doing so in rehearsal. They're going to be very slick."

For Christof Loy's tenebrous Lucia di Lammermoor tonight, they will have to represent a mass orgy. Edwards is full of praise: "Some of them questioned why the scene was necessary - as, indeed, did I - but they got on with it in an entirely professional manner. They didn't even get to choose their partners - man and wife, boyfriend and boyfriend, whatever. They just took the person they were given, and went for it."

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