Life in the Chorus

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We talk to Jessica Duirs, a member of the Auckland branch of the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus

By day, Jessica Duirs is New Zealand Opera's Artist Contract Manager; by night, she's a member of the Auckland branch of the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus. 

We caught up with Jessica to talk about life in the Chorus and how rehearsals for the Auckland season of Carmen are shaping up.

Tell us a little bit about your day job at New Zealand Opera:

One of the joys of working for New Zealand Opera is the variety in what I do each day!  Sure, there’s a bit of contract writing, but there’s also lots of interaction with really interesting (and seriously talented) people.  My main focus is getting our cast and creative teams contracted for each opera – simply put, this means negotiating fees and other conditions with artists or agents, and making sure the paperwork is all in place. However, in any one day I might do a bit of contract writing, organise coaching for some of our Dame Malvina Major Scholars, coordinate singers and accompanists for a company event, or set up auditions for visiting singers.

Were you a chorus member before you worked at New Zealand Opera or was it the other way round?

I’ve been in my New Zealand Opera day job for five years now, but my first opera as an NZO chorus member was waaaaay back in 1999 – Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. I’ll never forget the magic of sitting side of stage during Mascagni’s intermezzo on opening night, pinching myself to see if it was all real!

When did you start singing?

I did my first real singing with my high school choir, Opus. David Hamilton was our choir director, so along with other repertoire, we sang many of his compositions over the four years I was involved – a real privilege.

What do you enjoy about being part of the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus?

Opera is a result of the efforts of so many people – performers, designers, conductors, directors, stage management, carpenters, répétiteurs, orchestras, wardrobe teams, backstage crew, admin and more... which makes for a hugely diverse bunch of colleagues. What the audience sees on stage is such a tiny fraction of it.  The fact that as a chorus we are contributing to this shared goal is really exciting.  It is also a lot of fun!

What are some of your highlights from your time as a Chorus member?

In Macbeth, the witches show Macbeth a premonition of a line of Banquo's heirs, prompting Macbeth to kill Banquo. In our production in 2010, I had to enact the witches' vision by giving birth to eight baby "kings" from a cast iron bed in the middle of the stage. The babies (just dolls, I should note!) were then thrown around the stage by the rest of the women's chorus like rugby balls. Surreal madness, and especially weird given that I'd recently had my first baby in real life!

How are the rehearsals for the Auckland season going?

We've just had the sitzprobe (literally "seated rehearsal", just focusing on the music) with the APO and principals, which is my favourite rehearsal as we get to hear pretty much the whole opera - once we're in the theatre we are too busy. We're all ready now in terms of music and blocking (the basics of who goes where onstage), and now we're looking forward to getting onto the set & into costumes to add the detail.

Between the day job and your commitments with the Chorus, it sounds like you don’t have a huge amount of spare time!  What do you do away from opera..? 

I am enormously grateful that I am able to work shorter office hours that fit around my two children. They're aged six and seven, so afternoons are all about ballet, swimming, netball and soccer. I also love food and cooking, and when I'm not busy rehearsing I enjoy making fresh pasta or bread, or trying something new. I'm also in a book club, although I must confess I don't always have time to finish the book!