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Interview with the new Chorus Master of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
“People standing there singing at each other – quite laughable, if you think about it!” Yes, some people think that about opera. Thankfully, Jeremy Bines, the new Principal Chorus Master at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, is not one of them – even if the words do stem from an interview that he himself gave. But he made the remark only as a way of demonstrating that opera of the likes of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophète” which premieres on 26th November, can do anything it wants and still be fascinating and acutely relevant to our modern world. And it is more by accident than design that Bines, born in Belfast in 1977, can count himself a sought-after operatic chorus master. But let him tell us in his own words.

Actually, I don’t consider myself a part of England’s famed choral scene at all. I mean, there are the old, established concert choruses, church choirs, early-music consortiums, opera choruses and the like. I kind of fell into the job of chorus master through my opera work. I grew up in Canterbury in the south east and was a choirboy at school and in church, but I’ve had no special training as a singer. In England there are opportunities to get your first taste of choir singing and ensembles quite early on in life, and if you start singing harmonies at the age of 8 or 9, you develop an ear for it. And that’s ideal, because I need it now in my job, which is all about listening.

What did you do before?

I was répétiteur at the Copenhagen Opera. After a year there I felt it was enough, that I’d done enough and seen and learnt enough. When the management got wind of that, they asked me to stay and audition for a part-time job as chorus master. So I thought, well, if it’s just part-time then I’ll be here for a few weeks and can work in England the rest of the time, so I applied – and got the job. And I really loved it! That’s how I came to be principal chorus master – or plain chorus master at first. You don’t have to be a trained singer yourself; you just have to know how to assist singers in their work.

I’ve found a quotation, quite a mean quotation actually, and I’d like to hear your opinion on it. Most opera choruses merely go through the motions – they file on and off, they stand and deliver without commitment to anything beyond the notes they sing.” Why? Didn’t it hit the mark?

No, definitely, what other reason would I have to be a chorus master if I were okay with that Opera choruses are made up of highly skilled artists whose training has been in a variety of areas. It goes without saying that in big groups there will be one or two people who are trailing the others. But they’re balanced out by the supremely brilliant singers. I’ve spent the last eight years as chorus master at Glyndebourne. The chorus there has ages and ages to prepare, and a lot of it is spent rehearsing the action onstage. But that’s all up to the director. There are doubtless some directors who are used to choruses of the calibre described in the quotation. They have no inkling of all the things you can do with a chorus. And then the chorus gets very frustrated because they’re not being deployed as they should be.

“Le Prophète” poses a real challenge to any chorus: difficult stretches, and many of them, and an opera that is over four hours long. How have you been preparing the chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin for the premiere?

Time is of the essence here and the chorus has a lot on its plate. We’ll soon be starting to rehearse set pieces from “Le Prophète” onstage, but parallel to that there’s the reprise of Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges” and in the evening the chorus is on hand for “The Barber of Seville”, “The Flying Dutchman”, “Elektra”, “The Marriage of Figaro”, “La Bohème”, “The Magic Flute”, “Lohengrin” and “Nabucco” and is also singing as part of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. All that is going on at the same time! So the singers have their heads cram packed with music – and very different pieces of music at that. And not much time to rehearse. And that’s when they show their true mettle as artists and add their own dramatic touches into the mix. It’s our job to respect the audience. The audience is an integral part of the event, buying tickets and watching and listening attentively, and we are also an integral part, delivering a good show. In my opinion, opera should be credible and convincing. If you take a step back, you have something that is, in essence, totally not credible: people standing there singing at each other – quite laughable, if you think about it! And yet it is credible and it works!

In “Le Prophète” we have Münster’s Anabaptists, among other protagonists, singing at each other. At the world premiere of his blockbuster opera in 1849, Meyerbeer had a runaway triumph. What can an opera with that kind of a storyline hope to achieve in an age when people are beating a track to the cinemas to see “Blade Runner 2049”?

First off, opera is like a 3D film by its very nature. And you don’t have to wear annoying 3D glasses to enjoy it. As for the “Le Prophète” story, it’s about how people convince other people to set up a theocracy – with lethal consequences. Whether it was happening in the 1530s or is happening now is immaterial; the story is a gripping one. Meyerbeer’s operas are very long and very loud and in the end everything goes up in flames. I can’t yet say what it’ll look like onstage, but I can’t see it being anything other than a good show. After all, you can still go to Münster and see the cages in which the dead Anabaptists were hung on display on the steeple of the St. Lamberti Church. That’s not made up; it really happened! And that’s what makes the story so great and worth watching onstage, with everything that goes along with that.

Interview: Renske Steen
(c) Glyndebourne