Darcey Bussell, Royal Ballet Company, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo © David Secombe, 1994.
From London: a book of Aspects by Arthur Symons, 1912
The most magical glimpse I ever caught of a ballet was from the road in front, from the other side of the road, one night when two doors were suddenly thrown open as I was passing. In the moment’s interval before the doors closed again, I saw, in that odd, unexpected way, over the heads of the audience, far off in a sort of blue mist, the whole stage, its brilliant crowd drawn up in the last pose, just as the curtain was beginning to go down.
Ballet is one of those art forms – like poetry and jazz – which may be cheerfully disparaged in polite conversation. Such discussions offer opportunities for the uninterested to dress up their prejudices at the expense of a form which is seen as a minority interest, the province of the uncool or the far too radical. I confess I shared a similar ignorance, even hostility, to dance until I started photographing it. I had been looking forward to seeing opera in the raw and regarded the ballet as a rather irritating add-on to my obligations on the Royal Opera House project. You see something on television and arrogantly assume you know enough to hold an opinion. As it turned out, I found the ballet thrilling and opera a comparative let-down (as theatre, anyway); but the dance was a real discovery. The staggering physicality of dancers at their physical and artistic peak: the noise of the corps de ballet thudding onstage is a shock in itself. Standing off-stage, or just in the wings – as I was when I took the picture above – gives you a glimpse of what it costs to defy gravity; the strain of the job showing just outside the frame of the proscenium arch. I went from total skeptic to convinced enthusiast: a faintly humbling position for a sedentary, overweight photographer to assume.
Some doubts remain. The Royal Ballet’s version of Daphnis and Chloe was a disappointment. Ravel’s rapturous score concludes with one of the great orgiastic frenzies in all art, but the action on stage was something akin to Morris Dancing, with the fabulous Viviana Durante and company poncing about with over-sized handkerchiefs. Even Bernard Haitink’s conducting couldn’t compensate for the absurdity of that.
© David Secombe 2011
Sir John Tomlinson in make-up, right; model of Sir John’s head, left: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Photos © David Secombe, 1994.
Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 1990s opera Gawain derives from the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, in which the titular hero avenges the honour of King Arthur by decapitating the mysterious Green Knight who has appeared at court and insulted the King. This being a medieval romance, the Green Knight picks up his severed head and invites Gawain to a return match one year hence.
The Royal Opera House commissioned the opera from Birtwistle, with a libretto by David Harsent. The commission was an ideal match of subject and composer, given Birtwistle’s fondness for using mythic narratives as a foil for his austere, modernist style. In the photograph above right, the great Wagnerian bass John Tomlinson (now Sir John Tomlinson) sits in make-up, having just been transformed into the Green Knight. To facilitate his onstage decapitation, a model of Sir John’s head was made (above left, nestling in its box) commissioned from television’s Spitting Image puppet-making team.
The 1994 revival of Gawain at the Royal Opera House was booed by a group of musicians opposed to all post-romantic developments in classical music; they called themselves ‘The Hecklers’ and went to the opera for the purpose of abusing the work and its composer. Naturally, the publicity drew more attention to the opera and Birtwistle himself, as did the programming of his characteristically uncompromising saxophone concerto Panic at 1995’s Last Night of the Proms. Birtwistle’s music reminds this listener of the best 1960s Brutalist architecture: short on charm, but supremely confident in its structural integrity and expression of purpose. That said, my own attendance at the opera lasted about fifteen minutes, after which I went to the crush bar in search of a gin and tonic. D.S.
Jane Mitchell, backstage, Royal Opera House, 1994. Photo © David Secombe.
Massenet’s Cherubin is a comic opera conceived as a sort of sequel to The Marriage of Figaro. It has received a few revivals in recent years, notably a splendid 1994 production at the Royal Opera House which featured Susan Graham, Angela Georghiou and some extremely arresting wigs. The photo above was taken on the first night of this production, and shows the soprano Jane Mitchell waiting in the wings for her final entry. In the backstage gloom, Jane’s marvellous profile was illuminated by just one, blue worklamp – and I had just enough time (about a minute) to set up my tripod and take a few frames before she left for the finale.
(You can hear Susan Graham and Angela Georghiou in this production here: a duet from the finale.)
I was working on a book project profiling a season of opera and ballet at the Royal Opera House, an offshoot of the famous BBC documentary series The House. The films painted a fascinating and not-entirely flattering portrait of life within the building, and several sackings and resignations ensued. As a stills photographer, I was less concerned with organisation’s internal politicking than I was with the sheer beauty of the working environment. However, complaints about the inadequacy of this environment and its antiquated facilities eventually led to the major redevelopment of the building, which was tied to a major re-landscaping of Covent Garden to monetize the scheme. The unfortunate consequence of this has been a further loss of character for the area: one entire Georgian terrace on the north side of Russell Street was demolished, creating more facilities for the ROH but also adding yet more chain outlets to a district choked by them.
(It may sound feeble, but I promised Jane a copy of this picture, a promise I never delivered; Jane, if you are reading this, drop me a line and I will make good on this. D.S.)
Backstage, Royal Opera House. Photo © David Secombe 1994.
Edward Mirzoeff writes:
The House was, in many ways, the definitive “fly-on the wall” television documentary series. The six episodes, shot in 1993 and 1994, went behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to reveal the astonishing dedication, talent and sheer hard work put in by singers, dancers, technicians and craftspeople in decaying and unhelpful surroundings. It also revealed the equally astonishing conflicts, confusions and ineptitudes of some members of the management and some grandees on the Boards.
The television audience, and newspapers all over the world, were gripped by the saga from week to week. Some people took it as an allegory of the state of the nation. And after it was over, the series went on to win all the prizes. BAFTA, Banff Festival, Broadcasting Press Guild, International Emmy, Royal Philharmonic Society – The House cleaned up all the statuettes.
Just one puzzle remained. Despite the many awards, despite the publicity and controversy, the series was never shown again. In a culture of endless repeats of mediocre television programmes, such restraint by BBC Controllers was curious.
[Edward Mirzoeff was executive producer of The House for BBC Television.]