She sashays down the corridor, a sideways glance in the mirror confirming that her spectacularly bejewelled, sequinned costume and feathered headdress is perfectly in place. Two more silver shoed, fish net clad beauties appear alongside immediately conjuring up visions of the Moulin Rouge. But we’re not in Paris. And the girls aren’t dancers. They’re opera singers backstage at the State Theatre in Melbourne, preparing for performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a snapshot of everyday backstage life most patrons will never see.
In the corner the Woodbird from Siegfried sews halloween costumes and a chorus member in a navy blue laboratory coat scans the internet for news on the Sydney bushfires. A soprano in a gold evening gown is knitting with her feet up. Two dashingly clad gentlemen walk past dressed appropriately for Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival. They are mates, laughing and joking together, but they are also characters in Das Rheingold. In a few minutes time one of them will kill the other on stage in Scene Four.
An announcement over the tannoi requires that I make my way to the wigs and make-up room. It’s time to put in my ‘zombie’ contact lenses for my blind entrance as the Earth Mother Erda. The thick white lenses totally startle my colleagues who are seeing them for the first time. “Oh my God that’s really creepy,” laughs one nervously. I turn around and someone’s baby bursts into tears. Only a beautiful Rheinmaiden can make him smile again. He’s young but obviously already aesthetically inclined. Hopefully Wotan won’t react the same way on his conjugal visit and Brunnhilde will actually make an appearance in Die Walkuere.
Next day I get to try on my Chanel inspired suit for the first time. I look very sensible in beige tweed and pearl earrings, a cross between Angela Merkel, Maggie Thatcher and a high school head mistress. I try not to be envious of the tiara, diamante jewellery, dainty slippers and frothy wedding dress carefully laid out on my colleague’s dressing table, reminding myself that both Angela and Maggie would probably turn up their noses at the concept of such frippery. It’s hard not to be totally jealous though when your own props include a blind cane and a wheelchair. Erda’s all encompassing knowledge and wisdom should provide some consolation, although by the end of this particular rehearsal even that will be lost. During the following scene the director calls out from the stalls. “Wotan, you are a bit close to Erda. Try taking a step back and see how that looks.” The man with whom I have had many on stage children whispers in my ear. “It’s the story of my life. I am always getting too close to the ladies.”
Another day the Valkyries stand side stage while a man from the technical crew inspects our safety harnesses ready for our vertiginous entrance. It’s somewhat embarrasisng the first time as we need to pull down our trousers which involves showing him much more than i imagine he wants to see. But he has an important job and one quickly gets used to displaying the day’s chosen underwear to a complete stranger. We get onto our swings, clip ourselves on and as we are about to fly away one of the 100 or so volunteers who is dressed like a 1950’s housewife approaches me. “Do you remember me Deborah? You taught me singing years ago.” I quip that I can’t have done a very good job if she’s a volunteer. She replies with good humour “Don’t worry, I’ve got a sensible job.” Good point. As we disappear up to our starting positions a Valkyrie colleague sings out “Ho jo to ho, it’s off to work we go.” The seven dwarves never had a day’s work like this I think. The first time up there is pretty scary. It’s difficult to see the conductor four stories up and with your eyes squeezed tightly shut. My first line comes out with a vibrato that is, well, rather shaky.
More interesting characters continue to appear throughout the rehearsal process: a trio of seamstresses in German inspired footwear that makes me feel slightly better about my hiking boots. There’s a naval officer and someone who looks like they are off to play a game of tennis. Is that a used car salesman I see? Wotan’s nagging wife, another lucky mezzo-soprano in beige, appears with a dead animal slung over one shoulder. We console each other over our lack of glamour, happy at least not to be lone members of the beige brigade. An elderly Erda double gives me a view of things to come in about forty years. “Does my bum look big in this?” asks a soprano as she walks past wearing a white velour tracksuit about to do an on stage workout. I can’t answer because I am too busy eating the homemade cookies kindly delivered to the dressing rooms by another cast member. At this precise moment a member of wardrobe staff saunters by. “Careful Miss Deborah,” he says, “we have enough to do without elasticising your trousers.”
Other sights to behold include numerous chorus members and volunteers roaming the corridors in bathing suits with gold streamers stuffed into strategic hiding places (these will later appear as the Rheingold). Brides, bridesmaids and wedding guests are on their way to what appears to be a colourful celebration. Someone appears to be badly injured and covered in fake blood. There’s a girl in a fur coat and a couple of men in woollies obviously off on a hunting trip. A one eyed person is off to put on a long, white wig and some dark glasses. Coloured feathers and silver leotards are everywhere as are factory workers in fetching white caps. Side stage it’s a veritable zoo and difficult not to get up close and personal with all the animals. There’s a Tasmanian tiger, a giraffe, a gazelle, a warthog and many other beasts of burden. Birds hanging from the ceiling look disturbingly lifelike. Grane the horse seems strangely inert there in the dark and I can’t help but give her a consoling pat.
Dressers and wardrobe staff are frantically busy. They make cups of tea, do emergency repairs, collect washing, replace laddered tights and then get into the spirit of things by deciding to have a homemade hat making day in honour of Melbourne Cup. There is a hat featuring pins and needles and my favourite is a bicycle surrounded by a ring made out of metal coathangers. A RIng Cycle. Yes, there can be a lot of waiting around in this saga and it’s important to fill in the time backstage. Going to the toilet at least thirty times before and during a performance fills in a bit of time. So does torturing yourself by listening to Christa Ludwig’s recording of Waltraute in Die Goetterdaemmerung five minutes before you do it yourself. Writing blogs in the five hour break between appearing onstage and taking a curtain call is another favourite pastime.
Eventually Christmas decorations appear in the wardrobe room. Apparently it’s that time of year again although it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the real world down here in the dark bowels of the theatre. But hey, who needs tinsel, coloured Christmas tree baubles and traditional carols when we have all of this going on?
– All characters are fictional and bear absolutely no resemblance to anyone living
– Official photos by Jeff Busby
– Dominica Matthews (Rheinmaiden) in top photo