Laura Davis goes behind the scenes at Welsh National Opera, which is bringing three productions to Liverpool next week
STEPPING backstage at Welsh National Opera’s waterfront Millennium Centre gives you an idea of what it must have been like for Alice down the rabbit hole.
One moment you’re squeezed into a tiny room, packed with rows and rows of wigs perched on expressionless polystyrene heads – the next you are pipsqueak-small inside a giant rehearsal space with scenery soaring overhead.
And, from what I am told on my visit, it takes as much effort to squish an ample operatic figure into a stage corset as it does to keep a dormouse away long enough for a cuppa at a Hatter’s tea party.
A short drive from the Millennium Centre, which is also home to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is Cardiff Theatrical Services – a commercial subsidiary of WNO that builds sets for external clients as well as for the organisation’s own operatic productions.
Designs begin 25 times smaller than the finished product so that they may be tweaked before being created at full size.
One of the people behind the transformation from tiny to towering – Alice-like once more – is Liverpool-born Ian Siddall.
The 58-year-old scenic art manager stayed in Cardiff after studying art there in the 1970s.
“At the time it was quite hard to find work in Liverpool,” he explains.
“About a year after leaving university, I bumped into someone who was working here on a casual basis and I liked the sound of it.
“In 1980, a full-time job came up which I thought I’d do for a year and then go back to my studio but I never left.”
As well as working on WNO productions, Siddall has helped build sets for shows staged all over the world, from London’s Royal Opera House to the New York Met.
For Sir Cameron Macintosh’s revival of Oliver!, he helped construct a 6m-high replica of St Paul’s Cathedral.
“That was great,” he says. “Cameron Macintosh said it was the best he’d ever seen and sent us a signed photo saying ‘who needs Christopher Wren?’.
“I also worked with David Hockney, who was a real character. He was really down to earth – I had faggots, peas and chips with him. His models were 1:5 scale and were basically his paintings.”
One of the few drawbacks of working for WNO is the risk of being spoiled by the company’s purpose-built facilties. It’s rare for an opera house to have such extensive rehearsal space. Elsewhere, casts often have to work in rented halls, which are neither as convenient not as high-spec.
“The facilities here are so much better than most other opera houses,” says soprano Flur Wyn, who stars as Iphis in Jeptha, one of three productions WNO is touring to the Liverpool Empire next week.
Written by Handel in 1751, as he was losing his eyesight, the opera is based on the Old Testament story of a man who promises God that in return for victory in battle he will sacrifice the first creature he meets on his return. Unfortunately, he is met by his only daughter, Iphis.
“It’s a very intense and difficult role emotionally but it’s great to get my teeth into such an interesting character,” says Wyn, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2006.
“She realises the difficult position her father is in and, because of her love for him, she offers herself up.”
Wyn played the same character in WNO’s original production of Jeptha six years ago. At the time director Katie Mitchell encouraged the cast to improvise scenarios as a way of developing their roles.
“We got to investigate different emotions and it was about working out what fitted the music and drama,” says Wyn.
“This morning we’ve had a very intense rehearsal where we did the scene leading up to the sacrifice and when we had our lunch break we were physically and mentally drained.
“There are a lot of people in the chorus who are parents themselves so for them to imagine what the father’s going through in the story is quite emotionally difficult.
“But, if we experience it fully in these rehearsals, we’ll be able to really control the emotion a little bit better once we’re in performance.
“It’s more powerful to watch someone on stage trying not to cry than seeing them openly weeping.”
WELSH National Opera visits the Liverpool Empire from November 20-24, with Jeptha on November 20, La Boheme on 21, 23 and 24, and Cosi fan Tutte on 22.