Magazine article The Spectator

Behind the Scenes at the Coliseum

Magazine article The Spectator

Behind the Scenes at the Coliseum

Article excerpt

Henrietta Bredin gets to grips with the daunting challenges faced by the technical team at ENO

I do wish English National Opera would remember what it's called and, mindful of its status as the only English-language opera company we have, translate opera titles into English as well as singing them in that language. There was no reason for Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin not to be given as Love from afar, nor for Donizetti's Lucia to be 'of' rather than 'di' Lammermoor. Ligeti's Le grand macabre is, admittedly, harder to render and may perhaps be allowed as an honourable exception, along with the untranslatable Cosi fan tutte. Rehearsals for the Ligeti opera, which opens the new season at ENO on 17 September, are currently being conducted in a mixture of Catalan and English, under the auspices of the Fura dels Baus company, known for its wild and wonderful theatrical events, often on a massive scale.

In the case of Le grand macabre, this sort of scale is manifest in a gigantic figure of a crouching woman, known as Claudia, upon, through, over and around which the performers will clamber, crawl, slide and swing. She also represents a considerable challenge for the technical team at the London Coliseum, headed by Geoff Summerton. ENO is a repertory company, performing one opera one night, and another the next, so a dauntingly complex schedule has to be constructed to make that possible. I met up with him on the Coliseum stage, during the ostensibly 'quiet' period of August. The cavernous space is almost empty, although the visiting Legend of Kung Fu company has left a few props in one corner, including a heap of rubble - remnants of the concrete blocks smashed by the athletes in their bravura finale. 'It's difficult to get rid of, ' says Summerton. 'We'll probably have to put it all in a skip at the end of the week when we start our annual maintenance programme.'

The Coliseum first opened to the public in 1904 and any technical advances since then have had to be incorporated within that context. 'A lot of European opera houses, and all new-build theatres, have automated flying systems for scenery and lighting rigs. We still work on a manual, counterweight flying system. That has to be carefully assessed whenever we embark on a co-production with another theatre, the sort of collaboration which is increasingly part of the way opera houses manage to mount new productions.

We have to work out how we can replicate a show from La Monnaie in Brussels, for example, which involves a lot of flying or hydraulics. But in fact there isn't much we can't do - the only real difference is the motor. You can do it with people rather than buttons to press; it just takes more of them and the repeat accuracy is potentially less.'

Summerton leads the way up a series of metal ladders and along walkways, lovingly patting a set of big black painted rivets in passing: 'They're part of the original Edwardian stage machinery. Nobody makes them like that any more.' From above it's easier to see the restrictions he and his team have to deal with. Most productions are built so that they don't take up the entire stage space, allowing some elements of the alternating opera production to be concealed and stored at the back. There is also a certain amount of room in the stage right area, but almost none to stage left. What is unusual is that we are currently the only people in a space which, during a performance, can contain upwards of 150. 'Let's see - if there's a chorus on stage, that could be 60 to 80 people, then say five principals, 22 stage crew, eight people in the flies, up to 20 dressers, four people on wigs and two on make-up, four stage management, six lighting crew, an offstage band of 12, possibly some video technicians. …

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