Volunteers worth their weight in Rheingold

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Published: 29th November, 2016

They act as one. Donning swimming costumes at the beginning of Das Rheingold to hide golden pom-poms as they form a Sea of Humanity, they are still there 16 1/2 hours later for the closing bars of Die Gotterdammerung watching everything go up in flames from the sideline bleachers.

Acting as one but in fact a large group of diverse individuals, the volunteers in Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle are an integral part of Neil Armfield’s stage production at Melbourne’s State Theatre. Among them are a dental technician, a retired ophthalmic surgeon, an art history lecturer, a student of opera, an executive assistant in finance and a delivery driver. But the 70 or more adults and children just like them share a desire to be involved in Wagner’s epic work, although their motivations for volunteering are many and varied.

Rowan Pollock, 57, was first exposed to Wagner’s works via his opera-loving Austrian father who came to Australia as a refugee on the ship HMT Dunera at age 18. (The “Dunera Boys” are credited with a great contribution to Melbourne’s musical life in the 40s and beyond).

“Dad would play the old recordings at home and he could often be heard singing along despite being somewhat tone deaf,” says Rowan, who first appeared as an extra with the Victoria State Opera as the result of auditioning as a dare back in 1991, and has since appeared in over 30 operas, including the 2013 Ring Cycle, juggling rehearsals and performances with running his own dental laboratory. In addition to his love of being on the stage, he felt the experience of learning more about Wagner’s music would be a fitting tribute to his father. “One of the highlights of volunteering for the 2013 Ring,” says Rowan, “was sitting and listening to Siegfried’s Funeral March backstage. It was the music played at my father’s funeral and I found it so powerful and moving!”

Eighty-year-old William Firth-Smith cites his “constantly evolving musical tastes” as including Bartok, Messiaen, Purcell, Janacek and Byrd. Wagner, however, has always been a personal favourite. Die Gotterdammerung was one of the first LP recordings ever bought by the retired ophthalmic surgeon whose busy and demanding medical practice meant he was unable to see as many operatic performances as he would have liked throughout his career. “I missed the Adelaide Ring that I dearly wanted to attend due to surgical commitments.” When a friend who realised he was very interested in Wagner passed his name on to Opera Australia in 2013, it seemed like a good opportunity to get personally involved in the music. Like half of the volunteers involved in the 2013 production William was excited to be able to be involved again this year in what he describes as “a life changing experience.”

Sophia Errey, 68, took out an Opera Australia subscription when she left full time academic life at the end of 2010. In 2013 she and a friend debated “too long” about whether or not to purchase tickets to the four Wagner operas and they sold out within days. But in April that year Sophia attended a concert for subscribers and Lyndon Teraccini, opera Australia’s Artistic Director, alluded to “wanting people” for the project. “We are watching you,” said Teraccini after asking the audience to join in the Brindisi chorus from La Traviata. She was not at all sure that he was serious but was delighted some days later to receive an e-mail setting out the requirements for volunteers. “I took a deep breath and made up my mind that if I was lucky enough to be accepted I would schedule my year around the rehearsals.”

There was never a doubt in her mind that she wished to repeat the experience in 2016 and Sophia has once again structured the year around her participation. She says that while “the element of surprise is obviously much less,” this time around she now knows far more about the music and has amassed a small library of books and recordings in the interim.

Ex telemarketer and motorcycle courier turned delivery driver, 61-year-old Barry Gration is happy to admit that he “generally accepted the view that Wagner’s music has great moments but dreadful quarter hours.” In 2013 he saw three of the four Ring operas for free when a friend became ill and couldn’t use the ticket they had purchased. “I thought using people as the waters of the Rhine was absolutely brilliant. After the show I chanced to meet a friend who was in the Rhine as a volunteer and he put my name forward to Opera Australia for this season.” Barry says he is now happily reviewing his previous preconceptions about the music.

Currently in her second year at the Melbourne Conservatorium and studying Opera, 22-year-old Hannah Kostros is another “repeat offender” volunteer. She loved every aspect of the 2013 experience and says that it has “ignited my desire to become one of the Rhine maidens or a Brunnhilde in the future. I love every aspect: the waiting around, the processing of new ideas, the challenges of remembering my cues and actions. I enjoy meeting the random like-minded people that you wouldn’t normally come across and I’ve been able to chat to some of the lead singers and gain an insight into the opera world and where to go from here.”

This year Hannah decided to invite her mother, 55-year-old Michele Kostros, an Executive Assistant in Finance, to join her on stage. “She was so concerned she would get stage fright,” says Hannah, “but it’s been such a fun opportunity. How often can people say they were in an opera with their mother?”

The highlights of volunteering are many and varied. Sophia has enjoyed experiencing the “mystique” of life backstage firsthand. “I enjoy waiting in the corridors, the glimpses of performers and flourishing my backstage pass with bravado. In general I have a rather low boredom threshold,” she says, “yet curiously I can watch the same scene over and over again without the slightest disinterest.” One particular highlight for her is “the extraordinary feeling of lying on the stage in darkness at the beginning of Das Rheingold and hearing and feeling the revolve rumble to life beneath us as the opening notes reverberate.”

Hannah says that she gets goose bumps just being on the stage for the Ride of the Valkyries in Act Three of Die Walkuere. Having attended operas from a young age with her Grandmother, she says it is hugely exciting to see all the work that goes on behind the scenes in order to get a production from the working rehearsals to opening night.

What about the challenges? The costumes, especially the bathing suits, seem to have posed a problem for many. Both “old” and “new” volunteers continue to bemoan the unflattering swimsuits and the difficulties of extracting the gold in the form of large pom poms. “Every time we do that scene I seem to end up in a different position,” states Sophia. Another jokingly suggests that patrons don’t look too closely with their opera glasses and describes it as “rather challenging” being so scantily clad when meeting new acquaintances for the first time. “On the other hand,” laughs Rowan, “I now know the Opera Australia chorus and staff a lot better than before. Spending time with them half naked tends to have that effect!”

William says everything about his involvement is a challenge. “My problem,” he clarifies, “is that I want to be as perfect as possible.” He recalls a moment in 2013 when he found himself centre stage at the wrong time and was gently chided by director Neil Armfield for his lack of attention. Counting the bars in the Vorspiel (prelude) and having to sit upright on the floor for five minutes (“it feels a lot longer than that,” says Barry) are other examples of unexpected challenges. Other gripes are minor as in any workplace: the instant coffee on offer, the noise in the communal dressing room and fitting “more rehearsals than expected” into already busy lives.

Interested in the beginning to see if there was an “us and them” attitude, the volunteers comment without exception on the “inclusiveness” of the experience; how everyone involved has acknowledged their investment, time and commitment in the most appreciative manner. William says, “It is a joy to be associated with such wonderful and creative people who are in turn so helpful and friendly. They treat us volunteers as “equals” but I have no delusions about this!”

“One of my favourite moments,” says Sophia “was having senior production staff come into the rehearsal room to tell us how much they valued our participation. We were made to feel that we were – in our amateur way! – contributing to such an exciting event.”

With less time now in front of them than behind them, already this fascinating group are thinking about life “post Ring Cycle.” “What to do now now?” asked Sophia at the end of the 2013 experience. Inspired by her time immersed in Wagner’s music she mounted a small exhibition of images in 2014 and says she knows more work will emerge from this production as she has time to reflect on the experience.

Rowan eloquently talks about returning to “normal life. This has been the highlight of all my years on stage. I have met so many wonderful people and I fear there may be a feeling of emptiness after this amazing spectacle.”

One of these “wonderful people” was international hotel consultant and volunteer Graham Brown who has sadly since passed away. Instrumental in making sure a group of the “vollies” kept in touch following the 2013 Ring he described his experience to me at that time as magical. “The camaraderie, the sharing, the buzz; those that live in this world all the time may find my feelings somewhat over the top.” Graham has been fondly remembered time and again as I have spoken to people in preparation of this article, which is perhaps a testament to the kind of friendships that develop when people work so closely and intimately together.

But in the end it’s all work and no pay. Volunteers for Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle are certainly worth their weight in Rheingold.