Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Well, at the Opera House.

When my lovely friend A came to visit last week, we finally acted on a tip given to me over a year ago by Belgian Waffle, to go on the ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Opera House, La Monnaie (De Munt). We were completely unprepared for what this dull Saturday morning had in store for us.

La Monnaie is responsible for Belgium. For a hilarious history lesson, see Belgian Waffling’s post here, but the short version is that riots started during an opera led to the creation of this independent nation. (The Dutchman is convinced that if it still belonged to him, the roads would not be in such a poor state, but I digress.)

The tour starts in a way rather unassuming way. You are not in the Opera House, but the building behind it. This is the first surprise. The tour begins in the ateliers, the workshops. In fact, most of the tour is here, only heading over to the actual Opera House for the final twenty minutes or so. We were not complaining. (Tours are run in French, Dutch, and English if the audience is there, but we found that our guide often forgot to repeat herself in English. Never mind, we had plenty to occupy us.) The guide began her talk in front of row upon row of costumes for Hamlet, the latest production. We were given a bit of history, but swiftly moved on to talking about the work that is done here, and the production teams which work year round to supply costumes, sets, and props for the shows.

First stop was the painting studio, and the various workshops for set design:

Chaotic but obviously dedicated, this is a side of theatre production that one doesn’t often see. I loved the fact that the plans were lying about, that one could see the names of famous operas casually scrawled on the backs of flats, and that all that magic comes from paint, wood, metal, and hard work. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this area was the 'assembly room' where they check the sets before taking them across to the Opera House itself (bottom left photo above). A cavernous space, marked all over with measurements, the industrial look is about as far removed from the final setting as you could get.

My favourite part of the tour was wandering through the costume department:

There were rows of sewing machines, boxes and boxes of bits and pieces, bolts of cloth, and notes everywhere. After walking through the rooms where they make the costumes, we saw the storerooms - an archive of previous operas and other productions. The guide told us that the costumes and props for one opera are 'copyrighted', as it were, to that specific production, and cannot be reused for any other production. Apparently they auction off the surplus every so often, when they run out of space.

I also loved the little in-between spaces, where props from old operas had been used to decorate the spaces: a giant bookcase from Don Quixote near the lifts, costume sketches on the walls, and those beautiful wings hung up like coats.

The last stop in this building was to see the miniature theatre, an eighteenth century copy of the theatre at Bayreuth:

Our guide also gave us a ‘show and tell’, which added to the experience, but made me feel a little like we were a visiting school group. We handed round a severed head modelled on a famous singer for a role where he was executed and a make-up artist’s notes for travelling productions. It was certainly interesting and a nice addition, but I think it would have been hard to impress us after being allowed to walk freely through the workshops (especially for me, who once harboured the desire to be a Theatre Designer). Time had really flown, and having started the tour wondering if we would actually see the Opera House, I was quite disappointed to leave the ateliers.

We entered the Opera House through the artists’ entrance, a stark contrast to the plush velvet-and-gold main entrance. Like the workshops, the Opera House was mostly empty, giving us the space and time to appreciate it in a way I don’t think you would when filled with people. For example, the sweep of the staircase and expanses of rich carpeting are more impressive when you can see the full scale. Inside the theatre itself, we sat in the ‘best seats in the house’, centre of the front row of the balcony (I think the sight line is called something like 'the Prince’s Line'). We also stepped into the Royal Box – the worst seats in the house for actually seeing the opera!

View from the Royal Box - looking out to the audience, not the stage!
(Please excuse terrible phone photo.)
The tour made me want to see a production at La Monnaie, but it also made me want to explore the backstage areas of other theatres. I don’t know how well-known this tour is, but I honestly think it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in Brussels. Especially when followed by a massive cone of frites with mayonnaise.

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