“The nose of a mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.” – Edgar Allan Poe
The Nose. Even the title gives you a clue. This is no ordinary opera, but rather a ferociously difficult array of pitches to be sung in constantly changing time signatures, performed as a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of visual wonder. Directed by the brilliant Barrie Kosky.
Nothing about this opera is ordinary. Or easy. Or predictable. But it is pretty much the most fun you can have in a rehearsal room or on stage … just as long as you don’t forget to keep counting the beats.
In the beginning, there was the music.
And we saw that it was difficult. And there was much pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth and pounding of pianoforte. And Shostakovich giggled from beyond. Mongrel.
Verily it came to pass that we finally nailed down this fiendish score, wherein pitches are ephemeral and rhythms a serving suggestion only.
Well … ‘nailed’ may be a little too strong a word, as this is the type of score that you can never become complacent with. You have to sit on top of it as you would a raging bull, keeping a firm grip on the reins and counting like your life depends on it.
Counting. Always counting.
If you forget to count in this show, you are lost at sea, floundering for 20 pages until some kind of recognisable signpost appears for you to snatch at desperately, like a wildly bobbing lifebuoy.
It’s diabolical, challenging … and loads of fun! Shostakovich wrote this opera when he was 20. I suspect there is an element of youthful malice slapped down in its manuscript.
As British composer Gerard McBurney stated: “The Nose is one of the young Shostakovich’s greatest masterpieces, an electrifying tour de force of vocal acrobatics, wild instrumental colours and theatrical absurdity, all shot through with a blistering mixture of laughter and rage …”
Soloists, chorus and orchestra are on their toes for the entire length of the production. It’s exhilarating and exhausting.
As always with opera, you are expected to learn your role on your own and turn up to the first rehearsal (usually a sing through of the complete show with the conductor) knowing your part inside out.
Often, if you’re in the same city, music staff are willing to help you out with some private coaching sessions before you hit the ground running, and we certainly took advantage of the extraordinary generosity of Paul Fitzsimon and Siro Battaglin, spending endless hours in practice rooms swearing, sweating and stamping feet as amorphous musical phrases slowly coalesced into something vaguely familiar.
Hearing the score sung through by the complete cast for the first time on that first day was an absolute treat.
We have an extraordinary bunch of singer-actors and there was manic hilarity – and not a little panic – in the air as we marvelled at the creative genius sparking out amid the desperate beat-counting and frenetic note production.
With ringing ears and excited spirits, we headed home, thanking the Gods of Theatre that we were singing this one in English, not the original Russian.
We also thank them on a regular basis for the calm, delightful, incredibly encouraging genius of our conductor Andrea Molino. While some of us (*cough* me …) are struggling to learn 10 pages of music, this prodigiously talented guru is conducting the whole score from memory.
Let me reiterate: From. Memory. The whole opera. Eighty named roles, full chorus and orchestra complete with eleventy thousand percussion parts. We are so, so lucky to have him in our corner.
Pretty much every single performer has stated that this is the hardest music they have ever had to learn, and for once it actually sounds like it. You know those annoying roles that are incredibly difficult but sound easy and logical once you’re finally singing them in? It’s not one of them.
Kosky. That says it all, really.
If you’re heading to a Barrie Kosky production, you know you are in for something special. That you should be prepared to be confronted, shocked, baffled and challenged … but you will not be bored.
His name is synonymous with boundary pushing and innovative reimaginings, and this production is no exception. The plot is outrageous (a man’s nose leaves his face, takes on a life of its own, and we spend the entire opera searching for it) even without Kosky’s intervention. When the two collide, the resulting spectacle is a veritable supernova of surrealism.
It is liberating to be handed a role where your entire function is to be over the top and outrageous, vocally and dramatically, allowing you acting liberties and choices of vocal stylings that you would otherwise never dream of employing on an opera stage.
We have Kanen Breen flicking seamlessly between full voice and falsetto bar after bar, soprano choristers singing a sustained line of staccato obscenities on a top C, and my good self abandoning all sense of good taste or vocal purity in the name of characterisation (and loving it).
Our fabulous dancers rotate through an astonishing array of intricate costumes including those of a line of tap-dancing noses. The men’s chorus strip down to their smalls with courageous abandon, and a variety of mechanical noses are set loose at regular intervals to scuttle across the stage. Mayhem reigns.
And nothing is harder to direct than a show that must appear utterly chaotic but in reality be meticulously choreographed and rigorously rehearsed in order to be safe for everyone involved.
We rehearsed the whole production in the studio with rehearsal director Felix Seiler (assisted by Matthew Barclay), whose brilliant sense of humour was infectious and who encouraged us all to experiment with our roles and characters, all the while maintaining the integrity of Barrie’s original vision.
This is the mark of a truly magnificent revival director, one who can keep the spirit of the original director’s vision alive while weaving fresh magic with the new cast of characters.
Barrie joined us when we hit the stage at the Sydney Opera House.
I adored him immediately. He disappeared up into the auditorium on that first day with a promise that, “I’ll just let Felix and Matt run this rehearsal. I’ll sit back and watch and then sprinkle some fairy dust.”
That lasted all of two minutes before he grabbed the God Mike (the microphone in the auditorium the director uses to talk to the cast when we’re in the theatre) and started weaving his magic over the assembled throng. His eye and his instincts are immaculate.
My very favourite Barrie quote thus far, about precise diction and making every word you utter count: “Words are weapons. You have to shoot them like bullets into the space.”
Closely followed by “Celebrate your psychosis.”
He also had a very serious discussion with my five-year-old son about why he should avoid a career on the stage.
Adding to the mayhem of the technical theatre rehearsals, our wardrobe team, led by the indefatigable Rebecca Ritchie, were scurrying about making last-minute adjustments to the gazillion costumes worn by the cast, many of whom have multiple roles and lightning-quick changes.
The heroes of tech week were, as always, the tech and stage management teams, who worked to a hellish schedule to keep the rehearsals running smoothly and to keep the cast alive as giant hooks hanging from the flies swung just above our heads.
Plus, they have to keep the more unsavoury props out of sight of the child in the cast.
All in a day’s work.
Ah, yes. The noses.
We get more questions about these little prosthetics than any other thing in the whole show. I’m here to answer your burning questions.
Yes, every single performer in the show dons a huge fake nose.
Yes, they’re a bit uncomfortable, but extremely light, and once they’ve been on for a while, you pretty much forget about them. Unless you try to drink a coffee or eat a banana, both of which require expert lip contortion for successful execution.
No, they don’t impede our singing. They’ve been expertly designed and tried and tested over several previous productions and don’t hamper airflow or resonance.
Yes, some of us with more sensitive skin do experience Little Known Opera Injury #3475: Fake Nose Glue Burn.
The noses are glued on with a double layer of glue (one layer is allowed to dry before another layer is applied and the nose pinched into place). It’s not spirit gum, but it ain’t miracle elixir either, and removing it leaves me with an angry, red, Rudolph-esque nose for a little while.
I also remain unconvinced that we’re not all indulging in some subtle glue-sniffing for the duration of the show, which of course will only add to the fabulous psychedelic nature of our performances.
Now, the answer to the question you didn’t know you should ask: The one about condensation.
I reveal our collective shame in the interest of journalistic integrity. The noses pretty much close off your whole nose-breathy-area and, disgusting though it may be, turn into a little hothouse of exhaled water vapour.
The first time we wore them, we had not been warned of this phenomenon. It is utterly disgusting.
The first time I performed the scene where I faint and the boys all grab and hold me, I was spattered with the nose-sweat of a multitude of generous colleagues. Welcome to the glamorous world of the opera.
An anonymous genius to whom I will forever be grateful discovered that the nose glue was so strong that we could actually turn our noses inside out (see photo above) when offstage to allow us to breathe more freely and ventilate adequately. We just need to remind each other to turn them back the right way before stepping on stage.
We are incredibly grateful to our wigs and makeup team led by the inexhaustible Andrew Keshan who glue every single nose on every single face and fit and maintain our fantastically impressive wigs. A huge job, and they never blow it (sorry).
The final dress rehearsal.
Everyone is always, to quote Sondheim, excited and scared for the first audience run. Especially in a show like this, which is just so, so weird. You never know how the audience will react.
Even in a predictable show, there is always laughter when you least expect it, and lack of laughter at the point you thought was the pinnacle of funny.
This show was a delicious mystery in anticipation of audience reaction.
Would they laugh or clap, or just sit in silent baffled wonderment?
The curtain rose and within minutes, the crowd were laughing. Cacking themselves, actually.
It’s a relief and a little slice of heaven when you hear it backstage. Sighs are sighed, smiles broaden, heads are nodded … and everyone escalates their damn game.
They say never work with children or animals, but our glorious 12-year-old tap-dancer Sam turned in a spectacular performance in his custom-made nose-suit, dancing up a storm and winning hearts theatre-wide.
Sir John Tomlinson gave his customary immaculate performance. Alex Lewis cracked out about a million spectacular top C’s.
My dressing room buddy Sian Pendry brought the bogan to her fabulously Ocker spoken dialogue.
Antoinette Halloran channelled a mean Sandra Sully for the bizarrely self-reflective epilogue, and Martin Winkler stormed the stage with a virtuosic marathon performance of a role that he has made his own all around the world.
We were happy, Barrie was happy. The audience was happy, with sample comments on Twitter reading:
“Simulated sex. Man running around in underpants. Multiple Gunshots. Crazy CRAZY countessa. 9 tapdancing giant noses. Cutthroat razor shaving. And no interval for the ‘subtle escape’. 71 (I think) perfs on stage at once. Written by a 20 year old. WE LOVED IT” #Opera #TheNose @ozbluey
“I took my ex-flatmate to see his very first opera last night with #thenose and he loved everything from the choreographed dancing to the random plot – I told him not every opera is a story about a wayward but very popular nose featuring a huge orgy scene!” @phillipabarr_
“I feel like I’ve been assaulted. But in a good way. I loved it! I need to go home and think about this.” Unknown audience member
Yep. Sounds about right. Guilty as charged, on all counts.