Het Koor bij Turandot
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

A major challenge for the voice

29 November 2022

The Chorus of Dutch National Opera prepares for Turandot

In Turandot, the Chorus of Dutch National Opera gets a chance to shine. Not only does the director Barrie Kosky see the Chorus as the leading role in his production, but Puccini’s score also demands a great deal from them musically and in terms of their vocal technique. The chorus has been working hard on these musical challenges with its brand-new artistic director Edward Ananian-Cooper. We took a look at how they were doing in one of their rehearsals.

By Eline Hadermann

 

When I enter the rehearsal room, I am almost knocked over by the force of the “Ah” screamed at full volume three times by the 84-member chorus. The singers themselves do not seem immune either: throughout the rehearsal, many of them sing their parts with one hand covering an ear and the other turning the pages. Baritone Sander Heutinck, who sang in the Chorus for a previous production of the opera, says he thinks the chorus part in Turandot is one of the toughest there is: “It’s a score of extremes: the tessitura is outside your comfort zone, a lot has to be sung forte and notes have to be sustained for a long time. I often say I would rather sing Lohengrin twice in a row than Turandot once, because Turandot is a bigger challenge for the voice as an instrument.”

Puccini’s music has also made a big impression on soprano Jannelieke Schmidt. Not only is it her first time singing in Turandot, but it is also her first appearance with the Chorus of Dutch National Opera. “Each rehearsal, I feel how powerful this music is. The extremes you go through as a singer — hard, soft, low, high —mean you have to remain incredibly focused on your singing technique. I also discover something new every time we rehearse, which I just love.”

‘Edward goes all-out to get a homogeneous sound from the chorus.’

The chorus’s artistic director Edward Ananian-Cooper sees the first act as the most interesting musically. “It’s non-stop chorus music. It starts with a burst of violence, with the chorus screaming and singing very loudly. But after a while the score suddenly changes gear, switching to buoyant, sugary music that ends on a single note — for three to four pages. This contrast is very difficult for the chorus, finding that magical timbre after a passage screaming like that.” It is precisely those contrasts that make Puccini’s music so fascinating, says Jannelieke. “As a character, the Chorus doesn’t adopt one specific viewpoint; we constantly change our stance. Sometimes we literally say, ‘Bind her! Kill her!’ whereas at other times we sing to the heavens with the sweetest of melodies. I love those differences.”

 

Veterans versus rookies

As a pair, Sander and Jannelieke epitomise the composition of the 84-member chorus: some have had Turandot in their repertoire for years whereas others are singing it for the first time. The chorus’s director Edward says that particular mix poses a major challenge. “On the one hand you don’t want to bore the veterans by making them learn the part all over again, but on the other you want the rookies to be able to master the score at an appropriate pace. What’s more, my task is to make a group of 84 individuals sound like a single cohesive whole. That means even the experienced Turandot singers need to get used to new voices around them and adapt their own timbre accordingly. That requires time and focus.”

 

Homogeneous sound

Edward certainly pays a lot of attention to creating the overall sound in the music rehearsal. After a breath-taking harmonised passage, Edward stops the practice with the words, “Let’s clear that out a little”. What follows is an exercise in which the second sopranos sing their part again and again, with a different voice every time in order to gradually put together the concordant whole. Jannelieke explains this rehearsal method: “Edward is really focused on building up sounds. He approaches the score vertically, developing the chords slowly.” That gets good results, says Sander. “Edward goes all-out to get a homogeneous sound from the chorus. He does that partly by focusing on our vocals too. Our A’s all have to sound the same, for example, as that helps the intonation. Once you’ve achieved that level of homogeneity with the entire chorus, you really feel the harmonics resonating — a magical moment.”

‘The chorus is at the emotional heart of this production.’

Edward devotes time to such exercises on several occasions during the rehearsal. He believes this is the best way to prepare the chorus for the stage rehearsals. “Once the chorus mounts the stage, the focus shifts and less attention is given to the technical aspects of the singing. The stage director also often wants them to perform certain movements or adopt certain positions that make things difficult for the vocal technique. That is why I find it so important to virtually drill the desired homogeneous sound into them during the musical rehearsals.” Even so, Edward will be attending the stage rehearsals as well. “I’m always there so that I can remind the singers from time to time of what we agreed. Of course, it’s also my task to advise the stage director on positions and movements. I have a responsibility up until the last moment to make sure the chorus sounds at its best.”

 

Chorus in a leading role

The chorus will take pride of place in the stage direction for Barrie Kosky’s new production. Sander: “Barrie really sees us as having the leading role. The emotions expressed in the opera will be brought to the stage by us. It’s lovely to have such a big part in a production, and to be tested in our staging too.” Edward tries to incorporate those challenges already in the musical rehearsals. “Just now, Edward casually told us, ‘Remember you’ll have to sing this high note lying down!’” laughs Jannelieke. “That did make me feel pretty scared for a moment”. “The chorus is at the emotional heart of this production,” says Edward. “So during the musical rehearsals, I warn the singers that they’ll be on stage almost the whole time and they may end up in a claustrophobic setting. That will help them prepare mentally for the challenging yet amazing overall picture.”

  • Turandot will run from 2 to 30 December 2022 at Dutch National Opera​​​​​​.