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War and Peace – epic in every way

15 November 2018
Full chorus are dancing under a ceiling filled with gold and white chandeliers.

Our new production this year, War and Peace, has stunned audiences with its scale, from sets and costumes to the number of people involved in the production on stage, in the pit and behind the scenes. 

Stage Manager Katie Heath-Jones gives us the backstage perspective on this stunning opera.

War and Peace is epic in terms of the number of people on stage at one time. In total we have 78 performers on stage – 13 principal singers, seven dancers and our full time chorus of 36 who have been joined by extra choristers swelling their number to 58. It’s a lot of people to look after, and they all play so many different characters. Many of our principals play three or four parts each, with our chorus being anything from French Soldiers/Russian Soldiers/Peasants – the list goes on. The wall of sound they create when everyone sings is phenomenal, particularly in the first chorus.

It’s not actually as difficult as you might think to co-ordinate all of the performers though. Our Deputy Stage Manager, Sava, does backstage calls so people are on stage in time for their entrance and Annabel, our props Assistant Stage Manager, makes sure they are kitted out with whatever props they need – be it a rifle, flag or a bearskin!  Once they are on stage we have wing stage managers on each side who cue all entrances that the cast and chorus make. The costume changes are another big part of the show. As mentioned, most of the principals play three or four different roles – which involve the same number of costume and wig changes. Where we do these on tour can change and some of them are very quick. There’s one particular change where I actually stand by and count down how many pages of music we’ve got left to the singer before they have to make their entrance as a different character.

In terms of the staging, we’re very lucky that our home theatre, Wales Millennium Centre, has one of the biggest stages in the country, but that presents challenges when we get on tour as the stages at our tour venues are not quite as big. For this show we have had to change several things, for example the side of the stage that big pieces of furniture come in from, and where we do quick changes. We try and think ahead while we’re in Cardiff but sometimes things come up on the day of a show and you just have to be ready to adapt and think outside of the box.

As an example, one of the set pieces is a large wooden wall that flies in and out to create different scenes. Every time it flies in, there are inevitably lots of people under it – so I’m always at the side of the stage ‘spotting’ it to make sure everyone is clear, and if necessary would stop it before it got too close to anyone. On tour the position of where it flies in relation to the stage can be slightly different each week so we always check that and, if necessary, tell the performers any changes to where they need to be in order to be safe.

Given all of the different elements in this production, it’s great to get to the end of a performance when it’s gone well. It’s a long night to be on your feet – four hours give or take a few minutes – but it’s always brilliant to see everyone on and off stage come together to make the show work in whatever sized theatre we’re in.

There are only two more performances of War and Peace to go on our Autumn tour so try and catch this incredible opera if you can.