October 27, 2009
NICOLE DONNACHIE, Community Ensemble Participant
Something exciting happened in rehearsal today: a group of near-strangers began to sing in harmony.
Bringing Londoners together is exactly what the ENO Community Ensemble Programme seeks to do, but it is still early enough in the project for me to be amazed by our diversity. Aged from twenty-one to seventy-three, we are teachers, advertisers, actresses, pensioners, and students. Perhaps in a nod to this multiplicity, Nic Chalmers, Assistant Chorus Master, introduced us to Messiah’s basic history by noting that Handel was a German based in London, who created a religious oratorio that integrated secular operatic technique. The work has been re-framed and re-interpreted nearly every year since its debut, including by Quincy Jones, as Nic demonstrated by playing a Jazz and Hip Hop-infused remix of Messiah.
Our first step in coming together was leaving trepidation (and our day jobs) at the door. Nic assured us that, in order to sing well, “the main thing is not to be embarrassed.” With that, he enthusiastically and mindfully took us line by line through four sections of Messiah. We practiced pursing our lips, squeezing our diaphragms, and belting out the melody in a manner that worked our belly muscles rather than damaging our throats. I felt like I was gaining better control of my voice, as well as a miniature insight into the focus and acuity demanded of an opera singer.
As the session progressed, self-consciousness dissolved and we immersed ourselves in learning something new. We repeated and absorbed the basic rhythm of the piece, starting with ordinary speaking and then carrying the note in song. Together, we adjusted to tune and pitch, gradually acclimatised to the nuances demarcating melody, alto, and bass, and, without hesitation, got used to the idea that the orchestra may play an entirely different tune!
The session required concentration and commitment, which is why we needed to be unabashed. I think that it is this utter absorption in the newness and beauty of harmonising that brought us together. In order to truly sing, we had to forget the hassles and triumphs of our individual days and refocus on Messiah, in its intricacy and splendour. These brief moments of pure concentration reaffirmed the power of music to unite and inspire. We really did become better, together!