wno chorus

The WNO chorus. Picture: Clive Barda

russia head

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

There’s high drama taking place in front of us. There’s a woman being attacked, two former lovers fighting, a father and son having a serious row, a religious leader creating a scene and a crowd of people commenting on all that is going on.

And, when there are stops for pauses, a man hugging a green folder might step in and have a quick chat with someone.

This is the first week of rehearsals on set for Welsh National Opera’s autumn season and the scene we are watching is from early in Musorgsky’s political opera Khovanshchina. And the man who has now returned to a chair to watch the scene is the show’s language coach John Asquith.

A linguist and musician, John’s role is to ensure that all cast members from the chorus to the soloists have mastered their Russian – the language of Musorgsky’s opera. By this point John has been working with the singers for more than four weeks and is only making slight tweaks as most have clearly been doing their homework.

“I’m delighted,” he beams. “They’ve really got it.”

Russia is a theme in the autumn season for Welsh National Opera. Alongside Khovanshchina the company is performing Tchaikovsky’s great love story Eugene Onegin and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead which is based on Russian writer Dostoevsky’s prison diaries. While From the House of the Dead is sung in English, the two Russian epics are sung in their original language with English surtitles – which does pose some demands for the singers.

“There are both singing challenges and textual challenges,” says John. “If you take the textual challenges, the score is in the Russian alphabet so a transliteration has to be made. We provide singers with a score which has a sheet at the front with the conventions of the language and the score has words which show how the words are to be sung. Russian is not entirely phonetic and what you have to show the singer is how to sing each bit. In doing this we try to make it easy for the singers to sing the text.”

asquith with Wild

John Asquith with Claire Wild. Picture: Olivia Richardson

There is no translation in this score, only transliteration, but alongside this process the cast are also learning the meaning of the text.

“Some singers like a word-for-word translation and that is really difficult in Russian because very often a word-for-word translation would look like gobbledegook,” adds John. “But they do need to know what they are singing. Almost all Russian opera has a social or political context so the singers do need some background and advice. For example with Eugene Onegin it could just be seen as a series of scenes of country life but actually underneath there’s a lot of sharp social criticism.

“Then there is a further complication with Russian because there are relatively few words which resemble English ones. In French or Italian there are, but not in Russian, which means there’s no purchase so the job of memorising the text takes longer.”

Once the singers have the grasp of the text, they then need to replicate the sounds of the Russian language which brings its own challenges.

“Russian is dominated by what are called dark and bright or hard and soft consonants and vowels,” says John. “It requires the singer to use the voice and to operate what I call the curvature of the mouth in ways that they may not have used before. It can be difficult for singers if they’ve not done it before but over the years at WNO the chorus has done well and has built up a lot of knowledge.”

John, who studied both Russian and music in St Petersburg when the city was still called Leningrad, says that sometimes his first job is to convince the singers that they can master singing in Russian.

“It’s not actually as difficult as people think – so it’s often a case of getting over a psychological barrier to begin with. Every language to a native speaker is completely natural so all we need to arrive at is a method by which we can get as close as possible to it being natural.”

emma and ivan

Claire Wild (Emma) and Adrian Dwyer (Prince Ivan Khovansky) in Khovanshchina.

Picture: Clive Barda

From that point on John then works with the singers, whether soloists or the chorus, to perfect the detail.

“It’s the language coach’s job not to criticise but to explain, to correct and encourage and support. You gently, gently push. It can’t all be done at once. You explain at the beginning and then correct maybe 10 per cent of mistakes that day and then you correct a few more. And then you often find that later down the line some of the mistakes correct themselves as the pattern has been learnt.

“There are no short cuts, no easy way, but actually that’s not specific to Russian, it’s true of all languages. Actually, in English there are strange differences but because people learned it without realising they were learning it they also don’t realise they’re there.”

John’s satisfaction with the chorus has followed intensive work on both Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin. In fact the cast were already working on these shows when they were touring the country, including Birmingham, in June. And John says working with a chorus has its own dynamics.

“On the whole with a chorus and a large group of people you get something like a herd instinct and somehow in the mix of that everyone ends up hearing the correct thing. Because the singers can hear what others are doing they can naturally correct.”

And with the cast now rehearsing three operas, John is being kept busy. Just hours before attending the full chorus rehearsal he was sitting round a piano with a handful of the Khovanshchina soloists as they rehearsed a different scene.

“We have to use the time in the best possible way,” he says. “It’s important that I’m there when they are doing the sing-throughs to pick things up. And when you hear it sung so wonderfully that brings its reward. When you’ve worked with a singer or singers from the very beginning and then hear it done so well – that reminds me why I do this job.”

By Diane Parkes

WNO perform Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Janáček’s House of the Dead alongside Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus at Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre on Oct 31-Nov 4. For more information, visit birminghamhippodrome.com 

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