OperaOn Monday I was lucky enough to be allowed access to the Royal Albert Hall in London to have a look at the construction of Puccini’s La Bohème, which opens today. I had been invited by the inimitable Simon Byford, who was capably and calmly in charge of the production management of the opera. Having met Simon a few weeks previously through a mutual friend/business connection (see, I am networking!), I managed to get a day off work to be able to take up his offer of seeing how a complex performance is facilitated in such an iconic building.

The experience was fascinating: so many people at work, from ‘truss monkeys’ clambering around the rigging to adjust lights to an army of ‘humpers’ busy attaching things to other things, shifting pieces of scenery and neatly distributing bags of black foam rubble which looks exactly like track ballast but is in fact a by-product from some chemical manufacturer which was specially sourced for the purpose.

As far as I could tell, the process ran like clockwork. No one shouted at anyone. No one tripped over anyone. Nothing fell on top of anyone. Everyone seemed to know what they were meant to be doing, and did it. Most people seemed to know each other, and there was plenty of banter and hugging and back-slapping – which I took as a sign that no one was getting particularly stressed.

The production is a recreation of a previous performance from 2006, and a blurry video from the last incarnation occasionally had to be called upon to provide clues for how many stage entrance and exit points there were, and where bits of scenery had to be positioned. Halfway through the day it transpired that one of the entrances had to cross a big hole, one of the underground access routes to the stage. A call was made and within a couple of hours, specialist contractors had constructed a bridge on the spot. Working in the type of large organisation where one has to wait an average of 247 years for anything to get done, this was quite marvellous to see.

Of course, I felt very much like the new girl at school. I didn’t want to get in the way, so I mostly wandered around and observed. I was struck by how incredibly friendly everyone was – not at all like the ‘clique-y’ stereotype you might expect from people working in such a rarefied environment. Because things were going so smoothly, Simon had time to talk me through the ins and outs of the production, including a look at the budget which was, as you would expect, mind-bogglingly detailed.

I also took the opportunity to roam around the building and take in its splendour. I walked around the upper gallery to watch the busy miniature army below. I looked out of the window to see sunlight hit the Albert Memorial outside. I glanced at the slightly cheesy photos in the corridors of Sting and Paul McCartney and the 1998 Fund Manager of the Year Awards Gala. I took some blurry pictures on my iPhone to serve as a prompt for this week’s illustration (which I apologise for, incidentally – as you can tell, perspective and architectural details are NOT my forte).

I was acutely aware that I would have felt more comfortable being busy with something. When you reach the age of 33 and a half, it is strange to be in a position again where basically you don’t know anything and you’re just trying not to get in the way. It brings out my natural shyness and insecurity, realising how much I have to learn still. But actually, I should embrace that feeling – how great to be able to learn something at the age of 33 and a half! And how great to be able to start over, try different things and see if anything sticks. Of course I can’t go out tomorrow and production manage an opera in the Albert Hall in my lunch break, but even in my state of general wide-eyed impressed-ness I could see that production managing an opera is essentially delivering a very big and complicated project plan, which broken down into smaller chunks doesn’t seem quite as daunting.

The immediacy of this type of work definitely appeals to me: you work hard and there is an instant, tangible result. That immediacy does have a flipside: once the run of performances is over, all your hard work is undone again, leaving less in its wake than even Ozymandias’ trunkless legs in the desert. However, the unmistakeable thrill of helping to create something was evident in most of the people darting around the place. I hope I will get the opportunity to do more than just observe from the side lines at some point this year.


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