The Phantom of the Opera, a haunting challenge
Choosing the correct production to produce is a directors first challenge. There exists an almost infinite number of options. Context, resources and a desire to work with a particle genre often acts as the primary reasons behind a given choice. When the Michaelhouse music school suggested that they wanted to stage “The Phantom,” as a director, I must admit, I was reluctant.
Michaelhouse College produces a large scale musical every two years, a tradition dating back through time. It was musical time, so the genre was covered. The resources needed to mount a musical the size of Phantom are immense. When talking to Marc Malherbe, who designs sound for Prosound, and Pieter Toerien Productions, with recent shows including Sunset Boulevard, Jersey Boys and The Phantom of the Opera; he explained that they toured Phantom through the Far East and Australia packed neatly into twenty-two, forty-four foot crates. That’s about three hundred meters of equipment, a long train or a small ship load. You need to think about the orchestra, the singers, dancers, actors, costume, lights, sound, set, props; it goes on. We did not have those resources. The context too, was a bit thin. Why the Phantom, why now?
When I was contemplating the question of context, I came across a blog on masks and the Phantom. The author, who I confess to have forgotten, made some good points. He was commenting on the hugely popular super hero genre in films. He concluded that what he found most attractive about the genre was the masked hero, or anti-hero. When the hero is de-masked we see through the mystery, the power and the imagined reality of the masked crusader in his or her own world. The backstage of everyday life is revealed and the truth behind super natural powers are made transparent for all to understand. And is this not what art is all about? Making the invisible, visible. In this frivolous time of social networks, viral You Tube videos and brilliant television series; is it not possible that we still crave the tangible evidence that we are still human? And what better way to celebrate humanity than through the glorious musical, through song and dance, through a masked hero, who is as human as all of us.
Perhaps it was revelations such as this one that made the rehearsal process run with more ease. From the outset we took the approach of prioritising people, and their real gifts, over elaborate tricks or unrealistic expectations. The performers were cast by their ability to sing the roles, rather than what they looked like or how they acted.
We were blessed with an incredibly talented group, with leads Bryan Hall, Van Wyk Venter and Georgina Borros delivering professional performances from the beginning of the audition process, through rehearsals and into production. Having the skill of professional dancers and choreographers Bonwa Mbontsi and Tegan Peacock, and adult performers Carlien Walters and Mike Thompson on stage, and with Kirsty Geldart-Mitchell on lights, a professionalism was introduced that added hugely to the feel of the show.
The music, under the direction of Abri Venter, was orchestrated with simplicity and quality under a massively sophisticated score. This was possibly one of the greatest successes of the production. The only request I had from Abri was, after all the intensive song training and musical rehearsals, that they be heard. So it was imperative that we had the best sound. Prosound, with gracious support from Terry Acres, and under the direction of Marc Malherbe, designed a complete surround sound system, provided extra mics, speakers and technical support. The set and lights were designed by Mike Wiblin, another professional in the industry, with experience in school theatre and with a great knowledge of the Schlesinger Theatre. With all this support, and far more, in the end it was boys of Michaelhouse, and the girls of St Annes, who ran the show. With professionals by their sides, all involved behaved and performed like professionals.
Staging a large scale musical is not easy. But the schools around Pietermaritzburg seem to ease out excellent productions on a yearly basis. I am grateful to work at an institution that values the arts, and supports culture as Michaelhouse does. We are lucky to be surrounded by other intuitions that do the same. These theatres in our schools and university are run by highly qualified professionals. Supporting the arts, theatre and cultural events enriches our society hugely. It is, in this time of quick fixes, an inspiring way of celebrating humanity.
William le Cordeur
Photos by Matthew Le Cordeur