Opera + Classical Music Features

Book Review: Chorus Lines by Raymund Dring

Raymund Dring was a member of English National Opera’s chorus for nearly 30 years and in Chorus Lines he chronicles his eventful working life with the company. Far from being an official history, it is a highly personal, often irreverent, view of the work of the humble chorister.

Dring joined the ENO in 1976, the same year I started going to the Coliseum as an audience member. Production after production he mentions brought back memories to me, but you don’t have to have “been there” to enjoy the book. For anyone interested in opera, it’s a fascinating look at the life of the unsung heroes of the art.

Unlike actors or opera principals, members of a chorus have relative job-security but have to experience the dullness that can go with this. Going in everyday for years must feel a little like working in an office. A friend of mine, who like Mr Dring at one point, worked for the BBC Singers, said that he considered himself a civil servant.

But of course most clerks and pen-pushers don’t get to dress up in silly costumes, do some of the even sillier things required of performers or know the joys of participating in great works of art. Anyone who has any experience of performing will recognise the backstage camaraderie, the joking and playfulness that get you through the “longueurs” and the general otherworldliness of the theatrical professions.

Much of Dring’s memoires are pretty inconsequential and he is a little too fond of bad jokes, worse puns and the exclamation mark as a means of emphasis. The text is liberally scattered with them and after a while they make you want to scream! If you know what I mean!

Not all of his stories are that funny (for some of them you do have to have been there) but it’s all good-humoured, if tending towards the bitchy at times, and plenty of the anecdotes are good going home to cook a meal between appearances and nearly not getting back to the theatre in time, coming up against the real mob while touring Jonathan Miller’s Mafia Rigoletto in the USA, surreptitiously eating choc ices onstage often behaviour that you wouldn’t expect in one of our premiere opera houses. Clearly, a fair number of eccentrics find their way into our national companies!

I hope he ran the manuscript by a libel lawyer before going to press, as he names names and catalogues in detail some of the idiocies and bad behaviour of colleagues and employers. The penultimate chapter titled “Rotten Row” is something of a Chorister’s Revenge, in which he describes some of the appalling productions inflicted on him and the public by wayward (if famous and successful) directors. Quite a few singers come under withering attack, although he’s more often generous in praising erstwhile colleagues.

It’s a light and entertaining read and informative in its way and would make an ideal present for anyone with an interest in opera or the theatre (or as a treat for yourself). You can buy Chorus Lines online at Amazon or from various retail outlets including the Royal Opera House bookshop.

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