Simon says (2): welcome to our office

Simon Schmidt is a baritone in the Opera Vlaanderen chorus and has worked for the company for 7 full seasons. He writes this monthly blog to give honest insight into the inner workings of an international opera house and the lives of the people who inhabit it.

Your VIP pass backstage: welcome to our office

It's 10:26 and yet again I'm running to work. I enjoy the rush, the focused direction to which all my energy strives. Or at least that's what I tell myself. With my daily chocolate muffin in hand, I finally reach the door of the Artists' entrance. I don't even notice anymore how much dirtier the back façade is to the front, but I do wish we had the funding to clean it sometime. I give a smile and a wave to a couple of familiar stage technicians smoking by the door. I silently chastise myself for not knowing their names as I simultaneously reach for my swipe card. At least this time I didn't leave it in my other set of pants. It's always embarrassing having to knock on the door of your own house.

I'm in, and now the rush to the lift begins. I pass the empty refectory, which means my colleagues are already upstairs and I have about 120 seconds to be in my chair on the top floor with my score open, ready to see if my voice is going to cooperate with me today. I step into the lift and I am greeted by my cheerful (and occasionally not so cheerful) admin colleagues, who proceed to stop at what seems like every floor. This one is gonna be close.

At the top floor the lift door opens and I am welcomed with a wash of animated conversation, complete with soprano cackles, baritone belly laughs and all pitch ranges in between. I walk in the door of the choir room, and I feel a strange sense of comfort in this aviary of overgrown canaries. Panels of foam line the walls of this large rehearsal room, yet they prove no match for my 43 full time colleagues and however many extra singers we hired for this opera. It's loud.

I sit down and give a quick thank you prayer as I open my score. As always, I have avoided the walk of shame - that long, awkwardly unsubtle walk between the choir and choir master when rehearsal has already commenced. If you take that walk too many times, your career in this business will be short. This time was a bit close - I tell myself I will leave earlier tomorrow as I take a bite from my muffin to moisten the early morning dry throat. The room hushes, the choir master gives the upbeat to the pianist and the music making begins.

Wagner's reputation as both the most influential composer in Western Music and the father of film music is well deserved, as his 'music dramas' are nothing short of epic. And any epic opera demands more from the voice.

Welcome to our office. This could be a typical morning for me on any given business day. But today, we are musically preparing Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer, and we know we will earn our paychecks today. For those not very familiar with Wagner's work, just imagine that Hans Zimmer had a love child with a German folk music enthusiast, sent him back in time to the 19th century to humiliate all the other antiquated 'opera' composers and swallow their careers whole. Wagner's reputation as both the most influential composer in Western Music and the father of film music is well deserved, as his 'music dramas' are nothing short of epic. And any epic opera demands more from the voice.

When we aren't deafening each other in the rehearsal room, our office is the stage itself. There is no bull pen with cubicles, no desks, and only in non-staging rehearsals do we ever get chairs. There are no mountains of paperwork, save for a few scores of music. Even these have the singular purpose of eventually rendering themselves redundant, that is, once they are memorised until they can't be forgotten (even when you sometimes want to). 

We have no official dress code at work - our only uniform is a costume, the components of which vary wildly. It could be black tie cocktail party, sentient alien beings complete with white-haired wigs down to the floor, priests, prostitutes, or if you revive Neuenfels' direction of Nabucco in Berlin you may even get to wear a giant bee suit (seriously, check out the picture below). One thing is for certain - it's always different. 

Picture of Hans Neuenfels's staging of Nabucco (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2000)

The hours we work vary almost as much as the costumes. Whilst you can count on having Monday free to share the mall with shift workers and the unemployed, the other six days are a free-for-all. Rehearsals start about 10:30 and can go as late as 17:30 (also on Saturdays), but many days we will start at 14:00 and work until 21:30. If we have a performance, unless it's a Sunday matinee we have the whole day free, until we sit in with the choirmaster at about 18:40, before hair and makeup one hour before the start of the performance at 20:00. Depending on whether the performance is in Antwerp or Gent, many of us won't arrive home until well after midnight. This is standard in the performing arts and a part of the job description.

We can try to put it in numbers, graphs and pie charts, but its value is still personal opinion. It's subjective, not always logical, and exceedingly difficult to quantify. But isn't that the point? That you can go to the opera and decide what it means to you, without judgement? You don't have to qualify it with observable, peer-reviewed evidence. You get to experience firsthand its impact on your individual emotional disposition, and you get to observe, with some control, how that shapes you henceforth when you leave.

Depending on whether the performance is in Antwerp or Gent, many of us won't arrive home until well after midnight. This is standard in the performing arts and a part of the job description.

The same goes for us artists. At the close of business hours, when I swipe that card again by the artists entrance, I can feel I made a difference, but I will seldom ever have any evidence to prove it. But I remember seeing that person crying in the 2nd row of the balcony during the last performance, and I know they did not necessarily leave the theatre exactly the same as they entered. I remember seeing that man on the ground floor sleeping and I question whether or not he earned his brownie points for accompanying his wife that night. I don't know the value an opera holds for anyone. All I know is whether they stop coming or keep coming back. And whilst perhaps for me it is just another day at the office, I respect that for many of the paying public, it is a personal memento.

It is a moment, without judgement, to feel human.


Who is Simon?

Simon Schmidt is a baritone in the Opera Vlaanderen chorus and has worked for the company for 7 full seasons. He also sings small to medium roles as a soloist in various productions. Originally from Australia, Simon moved to Europe in 2007 and has sung as a soloist and chorister in opera and oratorio in many different countries around the world. He writes this monthly blog to give honest insight into the inner workings of an international opera house and the lives of the people who inhabit it.

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