Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Triumph that fired on all cylinders

(For more pictures, see Nathalie's Facebook album.)

Well, we're finished for another year. As usual, I woke up the Sunday after the final performance feeling like I'd just been let out of jail, or perhaps completed a long community service order, and could now enjoy the rest of my life.

Make no mistake: this was our most successful opera so far. There were a few minor pauses, missed entries and swopped lines, but overall both nights were a joyous, resounding triumph. It would be invidious to pick anyone out, because everyone contributed, and everyone was on top form. Congratulations all round, from singing to acting to costumes to orchestra to stagehands... and of course directing and conducting.

Audience response was fantastic too, form a near-full-house on the Friday night, and a more-than-full-house on Saturday. (They were a bit more savvy, because they knew the right bits to laugh. Or perhaps they just had better eyesight and were able to cope with the minuscule seven-point typeface on the printed libretto.)

More than ever I feel proud of our production, and what we've all achieved. Five years ago we were doing makeshift semi-staged affairs in Deptford Town Hall with a chamber ensemble. Last week - no doubt, this was the real thing, with the best set and costumes we've ever enjoyed, and a genuine opera-company feel. There'd been quite a bit of tension in the weeks leading up to dress rehearsals, but in the last few days it all came together and the spirit in the canteen - er, sorry, I mean dressing room - was really good.

Opera Gold has made another step forward this year, in terms of scale, style and standard. It's been a privilege and pleasure for me to share both onstage and backstage with so many talented, pleasant and fanciable people. Congratulations to all who have embraced this rare opportunity, and thanks to Nan for her sheer determination and unbounded generosity of spirit to keep making it all work so well.

That's all a bit serious, so before I go off into Gwyneth Paltrow mode and start thanking my marm and my parp and my fyemly and weeping down the front of my frock, here's some of the amusing images I'll take away with me from our fantastic Figaro of 2009...

• The dressing-room shriek of "Aaargh!!! Oh my God!" from Chris that had the ladies' chorus rushing over thinking he must have lost a finger in some sort of freak trombone accident. What's the matter, Chris? "There's a... there's a... cockroach!"

• Ros about to go on as Marcellina, realising the prop she needed was on the other side of the stage, requiring someone to go across the open door in full view of the audience. Thinking quickly, the slim Ros summoned the slightly less slim Nick to do the fetching instead. Manfully, he scrambled across the floor on his belly to get the prop, then threw it back across the audience-visible gap. Nobody noticed. Only then did we realise that had Ros waited 30 seconds, the door would have closed anyway, allowing her to fetch the prop at leisure. Well worth it to see Nick doing his Swampy impression though.

• Xenia, Anna and Nan in the dining room of Nan's house knee-deep in sewing machines and costumes. Most of those things you were wearing came from Streatham's charity shops, where Nan is a regular. You can just imagine the assistants there whispering after Nan's been on yet another wardrobe-bolstering spree: "Such a shame. She used to be an international opera singer, you know. Look at her now. Buys her clothes from Oxfam."

• Catching a sight of Ozzy Osbourne in the toilets during the interval, and realising it was me in the mirror in my Basilio wig.

Thanks again everyone, and congratulations. It's been fabulous, but for various reasons I just won't have the time to be involved next year.

Oh, I said that last year...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Crazy day? Well, a very long one

Yesterday was supposed to be the Sitzprobe, but we didn’t do much sitting down. No doubt something to do with having to cover our backsides. It was a stage-rehearsal run-through with the orchestra and Cast B, minus recits, but do you know, it’s almost beginning to come together. Two weeks ago we were Ivan the Terrible; we’re not quite Peter the Great, but we’re probably Boris the Adequate.

Today was the Dress Rehearsal, a marathon session from before 2pm to after 9.30pm. The girls had some remarkable frocks, some with a good deal of civil engineering in the bustles and bodice. Ros’s looks like something out of those fetish parties in north London. Er, that a friend told me about. Helen’s Countess frock is spectacular and was quite a talking point, the talking usually being ‘please don’t keep treading on my frock’.

There was a camera crew in, doing a recruitment film for Goldsmiths. Clearly they think the sight of men poncing about in wigs, tights and exotic hairstyles is going to be a fee magnet for the Annual Report. They may be right.

I did a spoof to-camera piece in the style of a news reporter, a sort of Tim Sebastian in a frock coat. ‘The atmosphere here in Seville is tense,’ I informed the imaginary primetime audience, nodding in that way that reporters do to try and cover the time lag in the satellite link. ‘The wedding of Figaro and Susanna is scheduled for today, but sources close to the count say he is trying to stop it taking place. We also have as yet unconfirmed reports that the identity of Figaro’s parents may be revealed, and which could send shock waves through the community. Whatever happens, this is turning into a crazy day. Don Basilio, News at Ten, in Seville.’

I don’t think Armando Iannucci has anything to worry about.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Unfortunate Situation in Knightsbridge

Our stage manager Nick’s Situation Opera did a staged Figaro with most of our cast last night (pic right: afternoon rehearsal). It was a benefit concert at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge (vicar: the Rev Richard Coles, one time member of 1980s pop combo The Communards, and rather successful guest on Have I Got News For You the previous week).

The concert was in aid of KwikPrint of Deptford, the only people who actually made any money out of it. It was meant as a fund-raising exercise for Helen, our Countess, to help her out with her Academy fees next year (new rules mean she’ll be rushed over seventeen grand for tuition, a sum so large Fred Goodwin could buy a round of drinks with it). But, sadly, the audience takings didn’t cover the cost of printing the programme.

Shame; the acoustics were good, the band and singers sounded great, and it was also priceless experience for all of us doing the staged Figaro later in the wek.

Actually someone else did benefit from the concert: the pub round the corner, who did an unexpected grand's worth of business between the band arriving and the bar closing twenty minutes later.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Why do we do it? Well, the buffet lunch helps

What a week it's been: rehearsals, ooh, every other day. Almost like doing a real opera.

Wednesday we had some additional music run-throughs which were, frankly, a bit overdue. I pitched up at 4ish at Goldsmiths, and we hacked through the 'Jeremy Kyle show subtitle: Figaro can't marry Marcellina because she's his mum' recit and sextet.

What always amazes me about singing is just how much physical and intellectual detail is involved before you can get it even half-right. The position of your jaw in the Italian 'a' vowel sound (totally different from English); knowing when to put in a passing note, contrary to what the score says, in a recitative; where in your upper body that particular vowel sound should come from; striking that balance between speed and restraint in the recits... Even in the simplest diatonic phrases, the capacity to get it wrong is immense.

Thursday was the Act III finale, which involves the ambitious notion of a Wedding Dance. There was a fine turnout, and I was pleased to see friendly faces such as Helen C, Xenia et al. But the choreography turned out to be quite a dog's dinner, or cat's cradle, or elephant's tennis match, or something. Nan's proposal for us all to do a 'seeeeexy' knee-bend as part of this terpsichorean wish-list delivered big in amusement value, if less big as an aphrodisiac.

Helen and I had a good giggle because it took us back to primary school, this 30-odd class of nice-natured but short-attention boys and girls being encouraged by Miss to do something a bit beyond their current skill set, and reacting by going off into little groups playing cat's cradle or football in the corner.

Then there was Saturday. We had a music run-through at Nan's house. A few people were held up by the G20 demo in central London, or by their full-time jobs, and it was a shame, because by the time they arrived the lovely buffet lunch Nan had dished up had largely been scoffed. Those of us who cycled there, and so of course arrived early, profited.

Richard B came along to accompany. It continues to astonish me how much time, effort and energy people are willing to put in for free, or for ludicrously small amounts of money, to come together and make an opera. All for no real payback other than a few minutes of people smiling and clapping. Most of it really does seem to be the sheer enjoyment of making music.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Mozart's soundtrack for daytime TV

I've been pretty busy in the last few weeks, hence the lack of posts. I was at the Coliseum on 25 February to see the UK premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic. It's really good, well worth seeing: not especially lyrical or memorable vocal writing - no wonder, when you have Peter Sellars's absurdly magpie libretto to sit. What on earth can a composer do with lumpy text such as 'the 32 points are the centers of the 20 triangular faces of an icosahedron interwoven with the 12 pentagonal faces of a dodecahedron'? What is this, Open University?

But it's a brilliantly inventive and exciting orchestral score, and any production which starts off with a massive projection of the Periodic Table gets my vote. My review's on the Sky Arts website. I did my best to schmooze, 'best' not being especially good. Maybe giving Radio 3 people my card doesn't give a serious impression when the card happens to be for my cycle-touring guidebook.

I was also doing an article for a forthcoming issue of the BBC Music Magazine on Barber's Adagio for Strings: one of those 'if you like that, then try these' pieces. It's a funeral favourite, of course, and was played at those of JFK, Roosevelt, and Einstein. But not Barber's: perhaps not surprisingly, given his irritation about how the Adagio overshadowed the rest of his output. I've tried to select some unusual pieces to try next, so rather than go for (say) Mahler's Adagietto and so on, I've gone for mostly living composers: Kancheli, Bryars, Sandström, Pärt, Silvestrov...

Anyway, the rehearsals are beginning to blur into each other, rather like us when we're not certain of our onstage positions in the mighty Act II finale.

In fact, last week's rehearsal, on 26 February, covered that finale. 'Covered', in the sense of 'with something unpleasant'. It's a long, long scene, and a combination of Nan's interjections and the odd minutes where people had forgotten their parts made it drag. The trouble is, when I say 'odd minutes', I mean minute 1, minute 3, minute 5...

So it ended with a few frayed tempers. Just as well we didn't have real flowerpots, or else they could have been flying around the Great Hall in yet another dispute about whether we'd just missed out two pages. But it was nothing that four pints couldn't put right, though, as Henry, Nick, Casey, Dan and I proved in the pub afterwards.

But this Thursday was better. We did our double-casts one at a time, instead of our simultaneous experiment of a fortnight ago.

And it was good entertaining stuff: No 17, the scene in which Figaro finds out the truth about his father and mother. It's all like a 1780s version of Jeremy Kyle. We should really have had subtitles: I FOUND MY FORCED-WEDDING BRIDE IS MY MOTHER... FATHER WAS MY DOCTOR. Shame we don't have the budget for surtitles in the Hall.

Friday, 30 January 2009

BOGOF (Buy one, get one free)

We're double-casting, but have limited rehearsal time. Our staging rehearsals are therefore bizarrely taking place with both casts simultaneously. Yesterday was a fine example of this operatic two-for-one deal.

In the arias it's OK - there's just twice the volume, trios become sextets and so on. In the recits though it's a bit confusing, as my idea of the right timing is clearly different to Panos's, my twin Basilio. You know that off-putting echo you sometimes get in international phone calls? It's like trying to do a rehearsal by phone to Qatar.

Anyway, Panos is being very helpful, supplying other people's lines when they can't remember, which I know they appreciate, and has lots of suggestions on staging for Nan.

It did get a bit crowded, though, as we were working out our moves for the bit where Cherubino and the Count are hiding behind some chairs (a difficult feat to pull off with those skeletal plastic stacking models). Synchronised opera is unlikely to be the new minority sport at the 2012 Olympics.

At one point Panos managed to swop places, so that instead of me/Nat and him/Casey, it became me/Casey and him/Nat. Casey reacted with her usual fit of laughter and giggles. I wish I could swing that trick at times of stress, such as when buses cut me up as I cycle up Peckham High Street.

Anyway, we finished with Non più andrai, with the stereo Cherubinos of Miriam and Charlotte (picture). Nan suggested that Cherubino should be dressed in a military greatcoat, patently over-large for comic effect. Nick, the not exactly petite stage manager, provided his overcoat. As he said, if that isn't far too big, then you've got problems.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Final performance dates announced

Our two performances will be:
Cast A - Friday 12 June 2009
Cast B - Saturday 13 June 2009.

Put that on the calendar section of your mobile phone before you lose it and have to create a Facebook group asking your friends to tell you their numbers again.

Well, I'm struggling to decide what to do with Don Curzio. The score clearly demands a stammer. In the John Eliot Gardiner CD that I've got (a terrifically characterised performance with cracking recits, by the way) the guy doing it really hams it up ("due mille pe-pe-pe-PEEEEEEEEEEEEE-zzi duri", that sort of thing).

Now, I'm a bit uncomfortable with this. Sure, that's what the score says, and no doubt it was hilarious laughing at people with speech impediments in the late 1780s, but then they also found cripples and dwarfs and foreigners unspeakably funny too.

Even up to the 1970s, stuttering was a cast-iron audience-pleaser. Sometimes it was at least done with wit - see for example Sam Kydd's elocutionally challenged factory worker in I'm All Right Jack, furious at a group of paparazzi: "Tell 'em to go and f, f, f, f, photograph something else", he says. But acts such as Jack Douglas or the Scaffold's 1968 novelty-single hit Lily the Pink plundered the pound shop of cheap laughs.

We don't do that sort of stuff any more, and quite right too. That's not political correctness, it's just good manners: a guy who can speak perfectly well ser-ser-ser-ser-stammering for comic effect is just sadistic and crass.

Well, I say I can speak perfectly well. I wasn't making much sense last Saturday night, but that was Hugh and Roger's party, and things always get a bit out of hand there.

So: what to do about Curzio and still respect the score? Well, it struck me that he could machine-gun stutter in the way that elderly Tory peers do on current affairs programmes. "Well, I, I, I, I, I, have seen the, the, the, the amendment, but when it comes to, to, to, to the vote, I, I, I, I..."

You get the sort of thing. Not a speech impediment, more an affectation; and wouldn't that be more in keeping with a doddery old milord anyway? Is that characterisation rather than stereotyping? Well, I hope so. Unless you have any better ideas...