Friday, 5 October 2012

Headless corpses, rubber kidneys and The Mad Hatter…

Hidden on the edge of the bustling Covent Garden piazza, there is an oversized, handle-less door that, understated and inconspicuous, blends into the side of Bow Street. A swipe of your pass and it swings open, admitting you into a box-like corridor. Painted a dark red, it is home to little more than two lifts and a sorry-looking vending machine. Welcome to the innards of the opera house: a multi-storeyed, colour-coded network of narrow corridors that hug the main auditorium and historic front of house areas. A grid-like system, it should be easy to navigate. In reality, it´s a labyrinth. On some floors, certain corridors are inaccessible, and a handful of departments can only be reached by one particular lift. Several staircases seem to bypass all floors and deposit you on a street-level fire exit, while other corridors suddenly open onto lofty terraces with views across London.

Since starting at the House in March, I’ve often found myself circuiting the building in search of a meeting room: I’ve come across glass cases displaying manuscripts from the 19th century and lingered on passages to listen to arias resonating from private rehearsal rooms; crossed workshops lined with elaborate wigs and passed studios dotted with ballerinas chatting while stretched out comfortably in the box splits. On these disorientated wanderings, though I struggle to re-trace my steps exactly each time, I have learnt to avoid ground level Yellow Core at all costs (choose the wrong door and you could unwittingly stumble onto the main stage) and have developed a preference for certain areas…

+2 is a particularly good floor to be lost on. The corridors overlook the enormous set-build area – a warehouse-like space big enough for a house. Look left and who knows what you might see. Last week it was the bloodied stump of a headless corpse, its dismembered limbs resting next to a snowy white elk; the next window revealed two giant forearms with claw-like hands, the pink muscles and sinews stretched taut over gleaming white bone: just some of the props for Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In April, I looked through the same windows and saw the entire city of Carthage – a towering Arabian metropolis of golden sandstone (reinforced polystyrene). An enormous circular structure, it was backed by a battle-torn Troy – a tarnished edifice of board-planks and scaffolding (artistic paintwork): the set for Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

Riding up and down in the lift can also be interesting, particularly so in Blue Core. Doors open on +2 to reveal costume rails heavily laden with elaborate period dress and posts stacked high with sparkling, netted tutus; stop on +4 and you get a quick glimpse of the twinkling mirrors and glass walls in the ballet studios. Interesting characters always alight the lift when in Blue Core. Once, the Mad Hatter stepped in next to me. His face daubed white, with dark eyebrows penciled in permanent surprise, he wore bright white, furry breaches and a waistcoat. Another time two baboons entered, both moaning about aching quad muscles from too much monkey-based choreography.

The Props Department is one of my favourite destinations. A light and airy workshop, it is hidden in the rooftops of the house (+6, access via Blue Core lifts only). On entry, you are greeted by an ominous looking black raven, its wings spread in mock flight. One of the only permanent residents in the workshop, it oversees proceedings from atop the corner of a heavily laden bookshelf. Though the team there works to a strict timetable on tight deadlines, the workshop resembles an over-sized, junk shop that is constantly accumulating new stock. Tables are cluttered with everything from rubber kidneys and fake jewels to paintbrushes and blow-torches. From the back corner, a disembodied baby’s head protrudes from a workbench; fashioned onto the end of a light-stand and cocked sideways, it watches the work going on with blank eyes. Last time I visited, two life-size plastic horses – one a vibrant red, the other a canary yellow – occupied a corner of the workshop, standing alongside a morbid collection of entombed nuns and a rustic fruit wagon laden with gourds and impossibly conical heaps of herbs and spices.
Needless to say, I have been late to quite a few meetings!