senza sord | orchestra victoria

During Opera Australia’s lavish production of The Merry Widow, we tracked the movements of Operations Co-ordinator Mark Lowrey and Operations Assistant Rachel Owen to see what really goes on behind-the-scenes.

See if you can keep up!

The work starts early for any mainstage production at Orchestra Victoria, from up to a year before the official first rehearsal. For The Merry Widow, Mark began to prepare at the beginning of 2017, looking at pit plans and developing strategies about how the orchestra would get in and out of the space below the stage. There’s rarely room to stretch out for the musicians, so an enormous amount of pre-planning goes into getting everyone and their equipment settled and comfortable.

The Merry Widow, a charming operetta about love, jealousy and comical encounters, features a standard-size orchestra and regular pit set up. Due to Orchestra Victoria’s lack of permanent rehearsal space, all equipment had to be transported from venue to venue. “We’ve had to use a number of temporary rehearsal venues across the city since the beginning of 2017,” Mark explains, “including churches, town halls, function centres and studios. None have been specifically designed for orchestras, so we do our best to acoustically treat them for rehearsals.” This additional work has been helpful in some ways, though. “We’ve become very efficient at bump ins and bump outs” Mark laughs.

Over the course of the year and the constantly shifting venues, Rachel has refined her packing skills even further, preparing lists for each project. “Speaking to the musicians helps a lot”, she explains, “they’re the experts, so we are always talking to them about what they need.” Because the standard opera pack is slightly more involved than packing your holiday suitcase – you need everything from chairs, music stands and a full-size printer to smaller essentials, like spare black ties for pit-wear and additional percussion instruments.

That’s a lot to remember, and timing is everything, so what is Rachel’s secret? “It’s talking only in military time! It’s clearer for everyone and we don’t always bump in late at night – sometimes we start early in the morning.”

Early is an understatement. For The Merry Widow, bump-in for rehearsal began at a cool 3am (or 0300, as Rachel would say).

A full seven hours before rehearsal begins, various Orchestra Victoria crews are setting up and trouble-shooting to make sure the space is ready to go. When we checked in at 1630, Rachel and Mark were happy with how this first day of rehearsals had gone. “It’s been pretty smooth sailing!”

Each opera provides different excitements and challenges for the team, sometimes requiring an hour or two of pit changes each day. Often instrumentalists are required on-stage or in the wings, meaning Rachel and Mark are kept busy running instruments and musicians from one end of the theatre to the other. And that’s not all – at the end of the show, there’s still paperwork to do!

“Once the show has started and everything’s running smoothly, that’s the time to do our administrative work”, Rachel explains. “There’s reporting, attendance grids and timings to track. It’s important to be prepared for that before the season begins.”

Working in operations is not by-the-book and takes a lot of quick-thinking. According to Mark, there are some skills that are nonnegotiable. “You must have the ability to problem solve, to identify issues before they arise and to prioritise. And then do all three of those really, really quickly.”

The first day in the pit for any season is the hardest and despite the best laid plans, any number of issues could crop up in the five minutes before the dress rehearsal starts.

So how do you stay cool under pressure in the pit? “You have to know how the orchestra works”, says Mark, whose technical expertise comes from significant experience in stage management. “Rachel has been the operations team’s secret weapon because of her background as a trumpeter.”

That background has helped enormously, according to Rachel, who says being able to empathise with the musicians makes it easier to make tough decisions when they come up. It’s no easy job in the pit, regardless of the number of times you do it or the hours you spend preparing for a season. “It’s a demanding environment, and it’s the operations team’s job to make it as safe, comfortable and pleasant for the musicians as possible. You have to care about the musicians”, says Mark.

This sentiment is echoed immediately by Rachel, who believes that staying positive amidst the pressure has been a huge benefit to her work: “you have to stay cool and be aware of your team – both in the office and in the pit. You’re there to support each other”. So, as the curtain rises to another exciting production, we are well aware that the work hasn’t quite ended. “There’s always the next show”, Mark reminds us, “so we better get planning!”

Written for Senza Sord.