Behind the Scenes at the Coliseum

Henrietta Bredin gets to grips with the daunting challenges faced by the technical team at English National Opera

The Spectator, 12 September 2009

I do wish English National Opera would remember what it's called and, mindful of its status as the only English-language opera company we have, translate opera titles into English as well as singing them in that language. There was no reason for Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin not to be given as Love from afar, nor for Donizetti's Lucia to be 'of' rather than 'di' Lammermoor. Ligeti's Le grand macabre is, admittedly, harder to render and may perhaps be allowed as an honourable exception, along with the untranslatable Cosí fan tutte. Rehearsals for the Ligeti opera, which opens the new season at ENO on 17 September, are currently being conducted in a mixture of Catalan and English, under the auspices of the Fura dels Baus company, known for its wild and wonderful theatrical events, often on a massive scale.

In the case of Le grand macabre, this sort of scale is manifest in a gigantic figure of a crouching woman, known as Claudia, upon, through, over and around which the performers will clamber, crawl, slide and swing. She also represents a considerable challenge for the technical team at the London Coliseum, headed by Geoff Summerton. ENO is a repertory company, performing one opera one night, and another the next, so a dauntingly complex schedule has to be constructed to make that possible. I met up with him on the Coliseum stage, during the ostensibly 'quiet' period of August. The cavernous space is almost empty, although the visiting Legend of Kung Fu company has left a few props in one corner, including a heap of rubble - remnants of the concrete blocks smashed by the athletes in their bravura finale. 'It's difficult to get rid of,' says Summerton. 'We'll probably have to put it all in a skip at the end of the week when we start our annual maintenance programme.'

The Coliseum first opened to the public in 1904 and any technical advances since then have had to be incorporated within that context. 'A lot of European opera houses, and all new-build theatres, have automated flying systems for scenery and lighting rigs. We still work on a manual, counter-weight flying system. That has to be carefully assessed whenever we embark on a co-production with another theatre, the sort of collaboration which is increasingly part of the way opera houses manage to mount new productions. We have to work out how we can replicate a show from La Monnaie in Brussels for example, which involves a lot of flying or hydraulics. But in fact there isn't much we can't do - the only real difference is the motor. You can do it with people rather than buttons to press; it just takes more of them and the repeat accuracy is potentially less.'

Summerton leads the way up a series of metal ladders and along walkways, lovingly patting a set of big black painted rivets in passing: 'They're part of the original Edwardian stage machinery. Nobody makes them like that anymore.' From above it's easier to see the restrictions he and his team have to deal with. Most productions are built so that they don't take up the entire stage space, allowing some elements of the alternating opera production to be concealed and stored at the back. There is also a certain amount of room in the stage right area, but almost none to stage left. What is unusual is that we are currently the only people in a space which, during a performance, can contain upwards of 150. 'Let's see - if there's a chorus on stage, that could be 60 to 80 people, then say 5 principals, 22 stage crew, 8 people in the flies, up to 20 dressers, 4 people on wigs and 2 on make-up, 4 stage management, 6 lighting crew, an offstage band of 12, possibly some video technicians.' And every one of those people needs to know exactly where to be at any given moment.

I am possessed of no sense of direction or orientation whatsoever, capable of turning the wrong way out of doors inside my own flat, but even those less acutely incompetent would encounter difficulties manoeuvering their way around backstage at the Coliseum, in the dark, with loud music thundering away and scenery, large props and other people looming unexpectedly out of the gloom. 'That's where someone like Phillip Turner, our head of stage management, is completely invaluable. He has an instinctive sixth sense for which performers need guiding into place. Some people are just absent-minded but others can be badly affected by nerves or are concentrating their focus on the music they're about to sing.' And it's potentially dangerous - health and safety is genuinely a primary concern. 'You prepare, you plan, you do risk assessments, and' - Summerton casts about him to touch wood - 'it's as safe as it realistically can be. We provide as much of the set as we can for rehearsals. For Le grand macabre, the figure of Claudia is the set. She's 7 metres high and 12 metres wide. The only way to make climbing around her safe is to get used to it, by repetition. After a few times you understand what you're doing, what the limitations are. And you have to be prepared for when the light levels change, the acoustic changes, the pressure of performance kicks in.'

Back in Geoff Summerton's office he shows me the deceptively succinct stage schedule. 'Look, take that Tuesday - there's an LX session in the morning, then a stage and piano rehearsal. At the end of that we strike the set and start building Rigoletto. Physically, Grand Macabre is then upstage centre, Rigoletto's on stage and Turandot will be at stage right. Then it all revolves around. We can't fit all of Turandot and Rigoletto in at the same time so we have to take out the flooring.' That involves loading everything into big scenery vans, with access via doors onto Bedfordbury, the narrow street at the back of the Coliseum which, awkwardly, is above stage level. The transport department is kept constantly busy, shifting things in and out of the theatre, to and from the scenery stores in Marden, Kent and servicing rehearsals in West Hampstead or 3 Mills Studio in Bromley-by-Bow.

Quite apart from the logistics there's a budget to consider. 'Balancing your budget against the demands of the repertory is quite tricky,' admits Summerton. 'We've got full-time staff and fixed-term contract staff who we take on seasonally, supplemented by casual labour on particular shows. Union agreements mean that there are a certain number of hours we can work people and we have to post their schedules two weeks in advance at the latest. In terms of design for individual shows we try and work a year ahead and ideally I'd like that to be two years. It's difficult for designers to accept the fact that there are limitations on what they can do because of other people's shows in repertory at the same time. That can take some explaining.' So he has to be a highly skilled diplomat as well as a multi-layered and lateral thinker. One can only hope that his previous experience as technical director of the Tour de France has stood him in good stead.