These days if you want to see backstage during a show, a quick search of YouTube will provide plenty of opportunity.
Unfortunately, most of these videos consist of shaky, badly lit shots of dancers gurning at the camera and showing off their favourite costume. These videos are more of an embarrassment than an accurate picture of the skill it takes to present a show, night after night.
So, for those of us who have reservations about giving away the secrets that produce the magic that audiences pay to see, the idea that the Royal Opera House was going to embark on ten hours of live streaming of its activities was greeted with mixed feelings.
As it turned out, the day’s programme, streamed on the websites of The Guardian, the ROH, and ACE’s The Space, was a triumph. Pre-recorded interviews with members of the Youth Opera and the Thurrock Community Chorus alternated with live interviews, a model viewing, a sitzprobe, rehearsals and masterclasses.
The day ended with an Act III of Die Walkure “recorded as live” with a choice of watching from backstage as edited from 21 cameras, a fixed view of the conductor or of the view from the stalls.
A comment on the website before the event cynically anticipated that the impression would be as like the reality of backstage as opera is to real life. This turned out to be wide of the mark.
The calm good humour with which the crew and stage management dealt with the malfunctioning of a key effect was, in itself, a masterclass.
Anyone who has worked in opera will have instantly recognised the characters familiar to any opera company – the chorus tenor slumped his seat with his arms folded and the score balanced on his knee in an example of lack of concentration and bad posture that would not be tolerated in a school choir, and a certain self-importance in parts of the orchestra.
But these were the exceptions to a fascinatingly accurate glimpse of the professionalism and skill that goes into backstage work. The scenic effects were explained in advance in just enough detail to allow us to appreciate what was going on, and the calm good humour with which the crew and stage management dealt with the malfunctioning of a key effect was, in itself, a masterclass.
From the impressively quiet raising of the tallescope in a silent scene-change to the crew member creating a shadow rabbit’s head on the back of a flat in an idle moment, we got a real feel of what it is to work backstage on a major production.
Of course, DSM Sarah Woodward was the star of the show and it was just right that the final interview was not just with leading singer Bryn Terfel but that he shared it with the full stage management team.
The debate about giving away the mysteries of backstage will continue. The wider promotion
of backstage as a career is good – ill-disciplined recording in the style of the worst kind of TV
reality show is not.
But since we cannot put the genie back in the bottle and there seems to be an appetite for our work to be more widely recognised and understood, then the Opera House has set a standard to which all those who follow should aspire.