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A WORD OF ADVICE TO THE SLOVAK NATIONAL THEATRE ENSEMBLE

Let them eat rats!

AS THIS theatre season draws to a close, I think back to my years as a boy soprano in the New York Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus. My friends and I, completely oblivious to the great institution we were part of, were rehearsing for the world premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles, American composer John Corigliano's dark masterpiece about the French Revolution.

TIRED singers spoil the magic.
photo: Courtesy of SND

AS THIS theatre season draws to a close, I think back to my years as a boy soprano in the New York Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus. My friends and I, completely oblivious to the great institution we were part of, were rehearsing for the world premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles, American composer John Corigliano's dark masterpiece about the French Revolution.

Though not vocally challenging, the children's part required very real dramatic commitment from every single one of us. We had to ooze bloodthirsty viciousness while parading the stage, snapping miniature guillotines and chanting "Antoinette, we want your head!"

Colin Graham, the opera's world-renowned director, was a British man with a kind smile and snow-white hair, who rubbed his fingers together and sucked his teeth as he gave us explicit instructions: "Don't be afraid to really give it all the nastiness you've got," he said. "You are Paris street orphans. Children like you eat rats for supper."

My friends and I loved that idea and took it to heart, adding extra vigour to each stomp and chant. But a few rehearsals later, Graham once again took us aside. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to let some of you go," he said. We were shocked. "You're not being nasty enough out there. Really give it everything, if you want to keep your jobs."

Now, I realize Graham's true intention, but then, of course, my friends and I took his words at face value. And that night, and every night afterwards, we growled and grimaced and spat out our diction. Each stomp was meant to cause an earthquake and each phrase was delivered with such hatred for the French aristocracy it could've given us nightmares.

I wish something similar could inspire the ensemble at the Slovak National Theatre, which is too often lethargic, timid and unfocussed. Operas such as Carmen and Peter Grimes demand a passionate chorus that is utterly in tune to every note, gesture, and expression. Tired singers spoil the magic.

The national theatre ensemble performed brilliantly in Rusalka and Un Ballo in Maschera, among others, tapping into a personal reservoir that inspired touching emotional drama.

But it should take the same personal approach to all the music it performs, and find motivation from great directors.

If that doesn't work, perhaps they should be made to eat rats for supper.

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