While the stars get the limelight, Covent Garden's unsung heroes are the chorus – 48 stalwarts who tread the boards night after night, rehearsing and performing for six long days each week. "It's a crazy life, but I love it," says tenor George Freeburn, who hopes to carry on until he retires at 65. Like many of his colleagues, he could have been a soloist, but life in these elite ranks is the summit of his ambition: this, he says, is the Manchester United of opera companies. But like all team work, this has its stresses, particularly since the arrival of chorus master Renato Balsadonna, a stickler for discipline whose ferocious technical demands have undeniably pushed up standards.
Enter the Venturi Corporate Cookery Centre to give the chorus a spot of culinary therapy as they limber up for Turandot – in choral terms, the big one. "Some of us leaped at the chance to learn new skills," says Freeburn. "And those who've spent their lives living out of a microwave have had their horizons broadened. I've discovered pasta. And we've taught the chefs some arias."
When I suggest to Balsadonna that cooking is a good way to reduce stress, he snorts at the notion that his charges may suffer from it. "This is just a little seasonal reward. We are very privileged people, to be able to earn our living by doing what we like. And anyway, stress is positive and necessary. The day we have no stress is the day I will think seriously about quitting this job."
'Turandot' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 to 20 January (020-7304 4000)