Strength in Numbers

The experience of being in an opera chorus

The Guardian, 13 January 2012

An airless studio in West Hampstead, fluorescent lights flickering overhead: a group of men and women of assorted ages dressed in casual clothes, look eagerly into the middle distance, a couple of them point and look amused, their gaze shifts, they follow an invisible object until suddenly it's there, in their midst, in the form of a genial looking man who bursts into a spiel of patter designed to sell them a mysterious potion, guaranteed to cure all ills. After a couple of minutes, they stop, take a breath, re-group and do the same thing all over again.

This is the English National Opera chorus at work, in preparation for the opening of the opera season, along with baritone Andrew Shore; all of them singing lustily while memorising moves and concentrating hard on maintaining authentic mid-Western accents (to match Jonathan Miller's production), rehearsing a scene from Donizetti's comic opera The Elixir of Love. They've already spent the morning in another studio, over in East London, in rehearsal for the new production of The Passenger by Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, a grimmer piece altogether.

'It's Auschwitz to Iowa, all in one day,' says Judith Douglas. 'And people who come to performances have been known to ask me afterwards what I do with the rest of my time!' She is a mezzo-soprano and has been in the ENO Chorus since 1983, which means that she has sung music ranging from Handel to Glass, Mozart to Britten, Verdi to Shostakovich, in many different English translations (and memorably on one occasion in Sanskrit), under the auspices of numerous conductors and directors, wearing a dizzying array of costumes from corsets and crinolines to gym slips and fake animal pelts.

'As a chorus, I think we are known for being up for pretty much anything. We have to be able to keep so many different things in our heads at the same time and, especially at the beginning of a new season, there's a huge amount to learn.' Singers in the chorus follow a tight schedule, with music calls to learn the notes and the words, followed by production rehearsals when the staging is pieced together, interspersed with costume fittings and rounded off, once things get underway, with evening performances. It's an exhausting business. 'I always tell younger people when they join that the most important thing to develop is stamina.'

Judith studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was a freelance singer for a couple of years but found it a stressful experience and jumped at the chance to audition for the chorus at Glyndebourne and ENO. She was offered a place in both and picked ENO for the range of repertory and for the fact that it was a full-time job rather than six months of the year only. 'I'd just got married, I was based in London and altogether it seemed a better option.'

Along with Ella Kirkpatrick, who is the youngest member of the ENO Chorus, which she joined two years ago, Judith is keen to dismiss the notion that singing in a chorus is in any way second best. Ella also tried to pursue a solo singing career on leaving college but found that she – reluctant, like all freelancers, ever to turn work down – was having to take on roles that weren't necessarily right for her. 'I got major performance anxiety and I realized that being a soloist was very tough and often extremely lonely. When I saw that there were auditions for the ENO Chorus I thought that might be a good way to get my confidence up again. Even then, when the day came round I nearly didn't go. I was living in Stockport and there were problems with the trains that morning and I thought "Phew, I don't have to do it after all." My house mate practically had to drag me out of bed and down to the station.'

'Now,' says Ella, 'I'm incredibly happy. ENO has given me the chance to work with a brilliant group of people and I feel really well looked after. I've got a small role in Elixir, which suits me down to the ground, I'm not worrying about the likelihood of spending months out of work and every day I get paid to sing, which is what I love doing most in the world.'

Singing small roles and covering (understudying) other roles adds another dimension to life in a chorus. Not everyone wants to do it but there are plenty of opportunities. Judith, for example, has covered Katisha in The Mikado and Third Lady in The Magic Flute and was a memorably voyeuristic Nursemaid in Kurt Weill's Street Scene, pushing a large perambulator past a murder scene and reading out the shock/horror newspaper headlines with relish.

At Opera North in Leeds, chorus master Timothy Burke began the season by preparing his singers for performances of Madama Butterfly (in Italian) and Ruddigore (bravura W.S. Gilbert lyrics requiring pin-point diction and immaculate delivery), followed by Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades in a new English translation, Handel's Giulio Cesare and Bellini's Norma (both in Italian). For the Tchaikovsky the chorus was augmented beyond its core group of 36 to reach a total of 56. 'There's something uniquely powerful about a large body of people taking the voice to its limits. The waves of emotion can communicate with an audience with enormous intensity. But the dynamics of the ensemble change radically when the numbers are suddenly almost doubled. Many more people are singing the same note and there's a much higher risk of people getting a consonant in the wrong place. My job is to make sure that all the singers are completely secure with the music and then that they keep the detail and stay focused.'

Once the chorus is on stage, in the final phase of rehearsal, a fine balance needs to be struck between the demands of the production and the demands of the music. Timothy compares himself to a sports coach at this point: 'I have to keep them fit and up to the mark at the same time as being acutely aware of what the director's doing. Crashing in with a musical note at the wrong moment could be entirely counter-productive so I have to get my timing just right.'

Judith Douglas knows exactly how an audience can react to the sound of a chorus at full throttle. 'There were 76 of us when I first joined ENO [now sadly reduced to 44] and in 1984 we went on tour to America. The first time we performed War and Peace, the reaction to the opening chorus was an audible gasp. It was absolutely thrilling.'

While the strength of a chorus is in its numbers it can be dispiriting to be lumped together as a group. Director Francesca Zambello asked for photographs of all members of the ENO Chorus before she worked with them so that when she walked through the door on the first day of rehearsal she knew every single person's name. 'You can't help but be impressed by that,' says Judith. 'It's amazingly morale-boosting to deal with someone who makes such an effort.'

The other side of the coin of course is that, while most conductors have experience of working with large groups – orchestral players or singers – many directors have not. As Judith acknowledges: 'It's frustrating when we end up herded together in clumps, knowing that we could give so much more.'

Mostly however, it's clear that singing in an opera chorus brings a unique sense of companionship combined with a headily addictive mix of high-level music-making and dramatic performance.