You can almost gauge the company's health by the state of its chorus - and over recent years that has been far from good, as a succession of short-stay chorus masters has sapped both standards and morale. Yet a quick check-up on the chorus's contribution to Covent Garden's two current offerings - Andrei Serban's nine-year-old production of Puccini's Turandot, and Harry Kupfer's 1989 Netherlands Opera staging of Berlioz's 'dramatic legend', La Damnation de Faust (opening here on Monday) - suggests that things may be on the mend.
Both are huge choral pieces, and both productions share a common look, with towering, semi-circular, multi-tiered sets: a Chinese pagoda for Turandot; a rococo theatre for Faust. But there the resemblance ends: where Kupfer, in Faust, hurls his chorus into the action, putting them through a whirlwind succession of quick- changes - from peasants and prelates to students and soldiers, from sylphs and sprites to demons and damned souls - Serban, in Turandot, restricts his chorus to singing from the sidelines, relying instead upon a corps of silent extras to represent the seething multitudes of Imperial Peking.
Rumour has it that, back in 1984, when the production was new, Serban - fresh from working with the younger, and more youthful, opera companies in Cardiff and Leeds - took one look at Covent Garden's geriatric group of groaners and decided they would be better heard than seen. Hence the pagoda, whence they could sing out in untroubled immobility.
It's a story to which Terry Edwards, the Royal Opera's latest chorus director, lends little credence. Serban's static approach was, he suspects, dictated more by budgetary constraints than age concern - although he admits that, when Covent Garden pruned its chorus back from 72 to 60 members just before his own arrival early last year, 'there was one old chap of 74 who really didn't want to go] But it's not that they're too old - it's that they're too expensive. It's much cheaper to employ an extra or a ballet dancer than to use a chorus actor. Also, I'm sure, Serban knew that the chorus has a lot to sing in the piece, so why not let them stick to their music? It was a very sensible decision.' And one that echoes Edwards' own policy since taking on the chorus - 'which is to make them sing. That's their job, after all] When I arrived, I found they were constantly being pulled out of music calls (rehearsals) to do costume fittings or acting calls.' And, as he says, they have quite enough to do without that.
This season's schedule, for example, includes 19 operas in five foreign languages - Italian, German, French, Russian and Czech - not to mention a burst of Swedenborgian devil-speak in the final 'Pandoemonium' of Faust. 'It's crazy,' says Edwards. 'When the ballet company's away, they can be doing up to six performances a week of two or three operas, with another two in rehearsal during the day.' No wonder they feel under-appreciated when some conductors can't even be bothered to wave a stick at them until opening night.
Before Edwards arrived, no one had even thought of getting fans installed in their stuffy, over-heated rehearsal room. 'They've gone through something like 11 chorus masters in 17 years,' he exclaims in disbelief. 'Can you imagine? And most of them were repetiteurs (vocal coaches) who weren't really interested in doing the job but just saw it as a stepping-stone to becoming an opera conductor - which it isn't'
Unlike them, Edwards is not only a dedicated choral director - conductor to both the London Sinfonietta Voices and Chorus as well as chorus master at large for countless concert and recording projects, from Kiri Te Kanawa's My Fair Lady to Pavarotti's Otello - he's also a singer himself, best known as the booming bass of the pioneering 'extended vocal techniques' ensemble, Electric Phoenix. He is no stranger to Covent Garden either, having first sung in the extra chorus there for the legendary Solti/Hall Moses und Aron in 1965. 'So I understand them, I think as they do.'
Even so, his arrival was greeted with suspicion. 'At our first rehearsal, I remember, they sang well and I told them so. And they all looked at me as if to say, 'You shit] We know what you're up to]' But then a few of them came up to me afterwards and said, 'No one's ever thanked us before]' It's just a question of appreciating them.'
His good intentions are hampered, however, by some bizarre house agreements, not least a union ruling that prevents him, as director, from actually hearing his own chorus sing - individually, at any rate. He is even barred from listening in when his choristers audition for the smaller solo parts. 'So it's a job for life at the moment,' says Edwards. 'They just go on to 65.'
His one area for manoeuvre is within the 'extra chorus' - the pool of regular freelance singers drafted in to supplement the 60 staffers in the larger operas (there are 30 in Turandot, 27 in Faust). By re-auditioning the entire list, Edwards has succeeded in introducing some fresh young blood into that tired old line-up. The result balances what he diplomatically terms the lifers' 'experience' with the newcomers' 'energy'. He has also added a positive bias towards women's voices. For while the permanent chorus is roughly divided between the sexes, the custom was always to use the extra chorus to weight the big operas in favour of men - 'by up to 20 or 30 more. And I couldn't ever understand why: it makes such a heavy sound. I like more women than men - I like to listen to the tune]'
He also tends towards a smaller chorus altogether, preferring to rely on vocal quality rather than sheer weight of numbers. For next season's new Meistersinger he'll use a chorus of 98 rather than the traditional 110. 'But I'm sure it will be big enough, because of the singers we have.' This leaner, slimmer sound is music to the ears of the accountants, creating savings on both costumes and rehearsal time. 'This year each chorus member is earning up to pounds 10,000 less, because there's no overtime. It's not so good for them, of course, but it's good for the company. I hope to keep it that way.'
Whatever the truth about that Turandot, Edwards hopes the word is out that his new- look, younger chorus is now both able and willing to both sing and act. Kupfer is certainly taking advantage of them in Faust. 'There are nine quick-changes for the male chorus alone,' Edwards notes. 'Normally they only change once or twice a show.' How willing they are, though, is debatable: the women are said to be unhappy about having to wear 'falsies' on the outside of their costumes, while one disgruntled male chorister was overheard complaining that doing Faust was 'like performing in poor pantomime'. Edwards isn't worried about courting a little controversy. 'It's a really wacky production. I have a feeling that Berlioz-lovers are going to hate it, but that Berlioz himself might well have loved it.'
So before you boo, spare a cheer for the 6ft-something bearded ex-basketball player who comes on to take a bow on opening night. 'The chorus master never used to take a bow,' Edwards admits, 'but I insisted.' Not out of personal vanity, he stresses - 'but just so that, if only for one minute, that rich audience out there would think to itself, 'Ah] The chorus]' '
'La Damnation de Faust' opens on Monday. See listings for details
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