‘Ever fancied singing at the Royal Albert Hall with Brian Kay?’ was the question I found myself asking my fellow sopranos back in 2005 having picked up a leaflet for The Really Big Chorus Summer ‘Singday’ of Carmina Burana. The answers I got were enthusiastic and positive, so I sent in my choir application for the performance on 10 July and thus began a regular summer pilgrimage to join the Sony Award winning broadcaster and choral conductor for a fabulous day in one of the world's greatest concert halls. This year we’ll be there to revisit the work that hooked us into The Really Big Chorus and I’d like to share with you how our love affair with the ‘Singday’ began. Instructions from The Really Big Chorus arrived and asked us to learn the music beforehand, but reassured us that we would rehearse with Brian and the English Festival Orchestra during the day. Never having sung Carmina Burana, little did we know of the tongue-twisting pleasures and challenges that lay ahead as we tried to master the tricky lyrics and speedy tempos! Help was fortunately at hand in the form of practice CDs produced by ChoraLine (others are available). These guide singers through their voice-parts at a moderate tempo with an instrument (a flute for sopranos) playing the line with organ accompaniment, and guidance given by an instructor. I also bought a recording of Carmina so that I could get an idea of pronunciation and hear what the finished performance should (hopefully) sound like.

In those days, my son was just starting school so whilst he was out I would put on the music and listen as I went about my daily chores imbibing the music, so that on the days when I sat down with a score to listen and practice, I already had a pretty good idea of where I should be heading. One evening we ladies got together and had a sing through, although none of us dare sing out the top B in ‘Blanziflor et Helena’! 

On the Thursday before the concert, terror stuck London with the bombings on the tube and buses. Horrified by what had happened, we were nervous about going up to town, but decided that after all the months of anticipation and preparation we would not be defeated. On the Sunday morning we caught the train into town and decided to get a cab to the Royal Albert Hall. However, the events of the previous few days meant that the queue at Victoria was enormous, and not knowing in those days that the no.52 bus would deliver us straight outside the Hall, we took a deep breath, and took the tube.

All was fine, and arriving at the Hall we tried to find the ladies' dressing room and proceeded to walk an almost complete circle through the subterranean tunnels before finding where we should be. The dress code had asked for sopranos to wear blue, altos red, tenors in white shirts, basses in black, but other than that we didn't really know what was expected. I plumped for being comfortable with a blue t-shirt, a pair of black loose fitting trousers and some ageing black trainers.

As the ladies dressing rooms are near to the No.1 dressing room, we too could enjoy stepping out across the stage to get to our seats that the tickets indicated were ‘Stage East Row 2’. It came as a great surprise arriving on stage to find we were in fact on the front row! There was no way I was going to make my debut at the Royal Albert Hall in those trainers, so made a swift phone call home to my bemused husband with a request to bring respectable shoes for the evening. What a fabulous sight before me. Sopranos to my right in the choir stalls and first block of audience stalls in the auditorium; tenors (so many tenors—wow!) and basses covering two thirds of the stage; altos to my left in the choir and auditorium stalls. There must have been about 1,500 of us, and at that point I was feeling a wee bit nervous. How could any conductor work with such a vast choir?

I need not have worried. Brian’s skill and humour helped us feel at ease. He is a consummate professional and knows what he is looking for, whilst at the same time appreciating the variations in experience amongst the assembled singers. My confidence grew as we rehearsed, first with piano and then in the afternoon with the English Festival Orchestra and professional soloists. I was in awe as counter tenor James Bowman stood in front of me performing ‘Olim lacus colueram!’ (the spit roasted swan). I have to admit to being surprised at just how good we were sounding!

I’ve never felt such an adrenaline surge as when the drum thundered in at the opening of ‘O Fortuna’ that evening. Carmina Burana is certainly not a work for the prudish. The men sang ‘In Taberna quando sumus’ with appropriate drunkenness and, as instructed, we all ‘sang dirty’ in ‘Tempus est iocundum’. The concert was thrilling. My husband described his audience experience as ‘being in surround sound as opposed to stereo’.

Six years down the line having sung in many performances with The Really Big Chorus and sat in the audience to watch others, I can say with hand on heart, that it is an experience for both singers and audience like no other. And six years to the day exactly on Sunday 10 July, I’ll be back at the Royal Albert Hall for what I know will be another fabulous concert and a Really Big Day Out! I do hope you’ll come and listen.

Jo Forrest

Messiah at Royal Albert Hall © Don & Ann Monro

Read parts two and three of this epic.