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At the end of “Faust,” that dark tale of sin and, for some, redemption, the voices of angels envelop a character ascending into heaven. If it sounds as if the voices are coming from a magical and distant place, that’s because they are.
Sadly for the chorus, they never get to hear the full effect because they’re singing from a tiny room four floors above the stage. All that connects them to the world below are flights of narrow steps, a 7-inch TV screen and audio monitors so they can see and hear the conductor and stage.
“So when the heavenly choir sings at the end it really is coming from above,” said Walter Huff, choir master for the San Diego Opera.
That’s all some audience members will remember about the chorus, even though they’ve spent considerably more time in sight, Huff jokingly predicted.
“And after we’ve sung an hour-and-a-half on stage,” he said, “someone will come up and say ‘I loved that off-stage chorus!’ “
The roles and sizes of the choruses in different operas vary wildly — from telling stories to acting as characters to standing in as living set pieces. Townfolk. Rowdy friends. Soldiers or scoundrels.
Despite how widely the chorus’s role varies from opera to opera, they have one consistent role musically, Huff said: to produce a dramatic impact and deliver the melodies that invade our collective imaginations.
Huff orchestrates illusions like singing from above the stage to make the moments when the chorus is involved as credible as possible. In “Faust,” which is written in French, he’s also asking people on stage to mouth French sentences when they’re in crowd scenes. That’s because “some of the audience members are good lip readers,” he said. At a fair, for example, they’ll be gossiping about a handsome man, commenting on the dancers and deciding what fair attraction to visit next.
The first full dress rehearsal of “Faust” is happening this evening, Thursday. By this point the 57 chorus members have rehearsed 29 hours and practice staging for about 20 more. This afternoon, over a late lunch, Huff was reflecting on the final pointers he’ll give his singers in the 15-minute warm up.
First, he’ll encourage them focus; these are professional singers, but they also have day jobs, so the transition from lawyer or teacher to a 19th-century millworker or fair reveler might not come naturally. He’ll remind them to enunciate, because the rehearsal space is different from the stage.
“Sing to the back row,” he’ll instruct.
He’ll also tell the singers placed in challenging locations like balconies or lofts to watch the conductor closely and make sure to stay in time with the rest of the music. Anyone who’s performed live music knows how sounds lag across big spaces. As a result, Huff and his singers need to compensate for the space between themselves, when they’re standing far apart, and for the area between themselves and the audience.
Next up: More from the first full dress rehearsal, Thursday evening.
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.