Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A score to settle

Hooray! Amazon delivered my score of Figaro today. It is, of course, the Schirmer edition, a blobby nth reprint of a postwar original lovingly put together by chaps in ties and hats, and ladies in smart skirts and nylons. It has those delightfully arch and quaint translations by Ruth and Thomas Martin ('Se vuol ballare' becomes 'Should my dear master want some diversion', for instance) that I remember from when we did Zauberflöte, OMG, three years ago.

It fell open at page 88, and the first words I saw were 'Basilio (maliciously)', which is probably a good omen, seeing as I will be Basilio on one of our nights in distant June next year, when because of the recession we will all be living in caves in hunter-gatherer communities.

Basilio is generally described as 'slimy', a bit like having Peter Mandelson for your music teacher, but he strikes me as just a bit cynical and a bit of a stirrer, so I can at least supply the first half the qualities required for the role.

After Grimes, it's rather nice to have music you actually can read through in bed and hear in your head, instead of having to pick out your line on a Yamaha keyboard while listening to your budget CD of the opera. It reminds you again of just how considerately Mozart writes: he'll stretch the proper singers, but for the comic side roles such as Basilio he writes comfortable, singable stuff, expressive and in character, yet well within the compass of someone whose full time existence is spent unknotting HTML style sheets in websites rather than practising scales.

Anyway, last night I was at the first night of ENO's Boris Godunov, and bumped into Nan and Andy, who were there with some friends (including Stewart, who does the lighting for Opera Gold). It was pretty good, and really gave you a feeling for the suffering of the Russian peasants, chiefly because they ran all two and a quarter hours of it without a break. That's right, no interval. Well, it saves on those costly interval drinks, I suppose. Whose bonkers idea was this? No doubt someone decided self-importantly that an interval would compromise the dramatic whole, or some such artsy tosh. Let's hope whoever it was gets stuck on the Trans-Siberian for six days without a working toilet.

I couldn't make rehearsals last Thursday as I was up north for work, on a damp and grey trading estate in Wetherby, which is about as pleasant as sitting in the Coliseum with a full bladder and realising there's still over an hour to go. But I've no excuse for missing this Thursday, so punctures permitting I'll see you there.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Website redesign

When I first thought it was time to redesign the Opera Gold website, Hull City were in the bottom division. Last weekend they were in the top four of the Premiership. Following two losses (to Chelsea and Man U) they've slipped a bit, so I thought it was high time I actually did this darned redesign before they were back in the bottom division again.

So, over the weekend, apart from coping with Rebecca's relatives for dinner (who said those delightful things relatives do, such as "I used to live in London, you know. Princes Gate. You won't have heard of it, it was a rather nice area, you see") I spent hours hacking through style sheets and HTML when I should have been learning my recits and ensembles.

Anyway, the new-look website is now up, and it has the latest rehearsal schedule too, thanks to Nan.

I won't be there for Thursday's rehearsal (6 Nov) as I have to be on a trading estate in Wetherby for work. Life in the western world is just one long party.

Opera Gold new-look website
Latest rehearsal schedule

Saturday, 25 October 2008

A whole new ball game

I do a few reviews for HMV's free in-store music magazine. In the latest batch of CDs was a live recording, made on 8 May 1971, of Wagner's Parsifal from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Jon Vickers as Parsifal.

The cast list was a little more interesting from our point of view further down, though. For there, as Erster Knappe, was one Nan Christie. I emailed Nan to let her know. She was amazed - she had no idea it had been recorded, and remembered little of the occasion. Which is hardly a surprise: it was 37 years ago (Nan must have been a child prodigy) and she was only on stage for about five minutes, out of four and a half hours. (Goodall conducts with the urgency of a glacier outrunning a tectonic plate.)

Oh yes, I did listen to all four CDs of the review copy, honestly. I'm a professional, you know. I mean, I wouldn't do anything like listen to the football on Radio 5 at the same time.

Oddly enough, I remember that particular day very well: while she was doing her stuff on stage, I was watching Match of the Day, seeing Arsenal beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Final 2-1. Which tells you the extent of my musical background.

Anyway, I brought the Parsifal disc along to the rehearsal on Thursday (pictured above and below). We were hacking through the mighty end of Act II, the bit where the gardener comes in and Mozart does his showpiece ensemble composition stuff.

I'd hurtled from work to arrive late, then immediately missed the easiest of entries. I felt rather like Chris Iwelumo, the Scottish striker who came on as sub and immediately missed an open goal last week.

Compared to Grimes, of course Figaro is far far easier to sight-read and get in your head. Except that it's hard in a different way: there's tons of it, some of it very very fast, all that machine-gun buffo patter.

And the recitatives. We've never done that before – none in Grimes, Carmen or Magic Flute – so that'll take a lot of work.

After Grimes last June, I spoked to Natalie (one of the Nieces). (We were in the same year at Goldsmiths and were in Magic Flute and Carmen together too.) We agreed then that we definitely, certainly, would not be doing any more Opera Gold.

We're just too busy, we said, and have too many other things to do: Nat's now at the Academy, and I'm just up to my eyes trying to earn a living.

So, we confirmed to each other, there was simply no way we'd be doing Figaro.

You wouldn't be seeing us at rehearsals.

Oh no.

So, Nat's the one second from left in the picture below. I'm the one taking it.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Welcome to our civil Marriage

Is Opera Gold coming of age?

Yesterday was the first meeting for our 2009 production, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. The parts haven't been all assigned, or the auditions done, yet. So it was really a sequence of run-throughs of this duet or that aria, not a rehearsal.

But it was packed. Well, I counted 30. That's much more than last year. That's almost enough to have a chorus, dammit. It's probably more than the population of Iceland, or at least the solvent population of Iceland.

Why so many?

Partly because there are some welcome returning faces: Ros and Helen C, for instance, who finished at the same time as me in 2006. Ros was a show-stealing Papagena when we did Mozart last time, in 2005; Helen was involved then too, but both have been busy earning money to pay their council tax to invest in Icelandic banks.

Partly because we'll be double-casting for the two nights again this year, so it's just as well we have our growing band of regulars: Dan, Charlotte, Ryan, Casey et al.

And partly because we have a few singers from Trinity hovering around. We've had a few informal links with them recently: Mario, who sang Don Jose and Grimes for us, was a student there, and several Goldies took part in a Trinity-based production of Carmen last year. Helen B, who sang a fine Micaela, is one of the Trinity singers who was there yesterday.

That production included me, and you'll be pleased to know it was the first time I've worn eye make up. (Er, apart from once a long time ago, but look, I can explain everything, and the photos aren't as compromising as they seem, honest.) Anyway, my girlfriend howled with laughter when I rolled up home each night after Carmen having been too busy or lazy to wipe off my eye-liner. "You look just like your mum", she kept saying.

My mum's 74, so I'm not sure who this insulted more.

But I couldn't help feeling yesterday that we had, well, come of age somehow. We now have four (or possibly five) productions under our belts: Venus and Adonis, Dido and Aeneas, Magic Flute, Carmen, Peter Grimes. I hesitate to use a word like 'serious' - you can always tell when I'm taking the piss, because my lips are moving, or alternatively, my fingers are pressing some keys - but though we may be a small amateur outfit in scruffy south-west London, we're a genuine outfit. (At least, I hope that's what the several Trinity students think who've come along fondly hoping to plump up their CVs.)

I mean, Opera Gold even has its own page on Wikipedia, so we must be serious. (Mind you, it was me who put the page up.)

Having all those people chasing a limited number of parts, double-casting notwithstanding, means (as the astute Mr Crowhurst pointed out to me, possibly at length, possibly while Tim was trying to play the piano) there might be a few egos under pressure. But, to paraphrase the old saying, you can't make an opera without breaking egos. And a bit of friendly competition, done in the right spirit, is good for everyone. Just so long as I get the part, of course.

So, has Opera Gold come of age? Maybe that's meaningless. Maybe that was just a good line to start the first blog of the new season.

Just as well. When I came of age, at my 18th birthday party, I got off (a) my head on brandy and (b) with a girl called Gill who was wearing a man's three-piece suit and had muscles like an Olympic swimmer. It all ended rather strangely, in Cherubino-like circumstances. But look, I can explain everything, and the photos aren't as compromising as they seem, honest.

So there you are. Beware the coming of age.

See you all next week.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

OperaGold site update, and Grimes DVD review

Two items of news - neither, unfortunately, regarding our choice of opera next year! That won't be decided until October.

(1) I've updated the Opera Gold website with information about our Grimes performance back in June. If you have any photos or videos to add, email me.

(2) A new set of DVDs of Britten operas is out. One is of a 1969 BBC broadcast of Peter Grimes, conducted by Britten and with Peter Pears in the title role. There's a review of it on the Sky Arts website which is so good I could almost have written it myself.

Enjoy the summer break! Now we can start the nod-and-wink business of trying to guess what Nan has up her sleeve for our next production. Changing the subject completely, I'm just off for a haircut. And some orange juice. Haircut... orange juice... haircut... orange juice...

Monday, 9 June 2008

Back to real life. Damn

Well, it’s over. Around 10.10pm on Saturday we chorused the final words of Peter Grimes, and nine months of slog, stress and singing was finished.

Those final words are ‘terrible and deep’, and in the last stages of rehearsals there were quite a few of us worried that our Grimes would be more terrible than deep. I was too jittery to post up any blogs here through May. Each week we’d stuttered through another scene with results rather like this:

Tim: Right, four before 46, one-two-three-four-one... (plays piano with left hand, conducts with right)
Chorus: Er... mm... ter... gri... Pe... er... mmmes... (shift in awkward silence)
Nan: Noooohhh! Stoppp! Look, we’ve got threee weeeks left, and you still don’t know it. Goohhh awayyy and learrrn it! And where's Mario/Hamish/Abby/Jenny/Hamish/Ryan/Rob/Dan?
Chorus: Er.. in Cardiff/at work/at work/in a recital/in a lecture/at work/in a seminar...
Tim: Four before 46, one-two-three-four-one (falsetto) Peee-tahhh Graimmmmmes...
(repeat ad nauseam)

The Bank Holiday Monday rehearsal on 25 May had been a profoundly depressing experience, enough to make you sail out till you lost sight of the Moot Hall and then sink your boat. It consisted of a few episodes of adequacy strung together by vast expanses of mumbling uncertainty. The slightest change to a stage direction – how about coming on from the left for this bit, not the right – would throw us into the sort of distressed confusion of a Saga coach trip stopping to find the toilets closed for cleaning.

The Sitzprobe on Monday 2 June, our first run-through with the orchestra, was all rather bitty. Understandable, given that it was only the second time we’d been in the same room as Mario, our Grimes. But then as Mario is a surgeon, being in the same room as him is not necessarily a condition to aspire to. It was then just 72 hours before public performance. If the opera had indeed been one on the slab for one of Mario’s operations, you suspect the anaesthetist would have been a given a subtle signal to save everyone needless stress and effort and ‘accidentally’ overdo the propofol. In my drunk scene I actually did have some anaesthetic of my own, in the off-licence plastic bag with two cans of Polish beer in it.

The first glimmer of hope – that we might just get away with it after all – came in the dress rehearsal on Thursday. This was down to two reasons (apart from most of us knowing most of our parts by this time, no doubt due to frantic last-minute exam-style cramming). First, the orchestra kept plugging away regardless when one of came in a bar too late or forgot a line, so we had to grope our way back without the noohh-stoppp business; second, Britten thoughtfully does that opera trick of giving one instrument your vocal line, so you can home in on the oboe or viola or whatever it is and just follow that line.

It was still ropey in most places, but it was getting there. Rather like those station announcements for a severely delayed rail service: ‘the train now approaching platform 6...’, goes the computer-generated voice, omitting to tell you that while it is technically approaching the platform, it’s still in Plymouth. I went out with Tim and Hamish for a few beers afterwards, and while we weren’t exactly brimming with confidence, we weren’t too scared to rush off home early to pore over the scores.

And so to Friday 6 June, the opening night. Traffic problems, a hot sunny day, and the belief that it was a 7.30pm not 7pm start, had kept a few people away. When the orchestra tuned up and we trooped on stage to the court scene, it looked only half-full. But that got up to over three-quarters by the time Act I started. And once that chopped-up sea shanty got cranking up to start the piece, with that immediate Brittenesque touch from bar 2 (the almost obsessive repetition of little melodic phrases, the morphing of rhythmic cells, conjunct lines that keep switching through modes or keys) the little miracle got going. There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t my off-licence plastic bag.

Read Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music if you haven’t already. It’s excellent: the story of how music briefly brings peace and transcendence to the awfully messy personal life of a quartet violinist. The central character, Michael Holmes (a northerner whose dad was a butcher, like me), discusses the effect music has on him in profound ways, but when it comes to what happens in a performance, he’s stuck. From the moment his quartet plays the first bar to the end, he blanks out; he’s immersed in the music, and has no recollection after what he was doing or thinking.

Well, it’s bit like that. I can remember everything about Friday evening up to when the court scene started; but between there and five past ten, nothing. Away with the musical fairies. As out of it as one of Mario’s patients, being filleted on the slab. I think that’s good. Mind you, I do remember the episode in a certain fisherman’s mad scene where he missed out two pages, to the consternation of conductor, tuba player, and backstage chorus. Fortunately Dan was on the money and worked out where we’d jumped to, and got us back in. Did anybody else have a memory lapse on the night? Perhaps, I can’t remember.

Then it was finished, we went to the pub, I drank with some friends who had very supportively come along (thanks Tim, Jen, Mark). One of them was a rather uncompromising friend, hereafter UF, who wasn’t all that encouraging. The orchestra was very good, UF thought, but there was a litany of quibbles, from inaudible passages here to unclear diction there to inauthentically tied cravats everywhere. I went home rather subdued and spent most of Saturday morning knackered and brooding. Much of what UF said was correct, but a bit unfair, I thought. This is not Covent Garden: our total costume budget was a hundred quid, as much as the ROH would spend on a single cravat. Anyway, I spent the afternoon practising and trying to address some of the points he’d raised about me, and feeling rather down about it all.

But Saturday night put pretty much everything right. Nan was looking happier than she had for about a month: reaction had been good from the college, which was very welcome since they had been very wary about putting in such big chunks of resources to support an opera. And there was a curious feeling among all the cast that tonight we’d nail it. Curious because the second night of Magic Flute and Carmen weren’t quite as electric as the first; less adrenaline maybe, a notable drop in voltage. Yet here we bucked the trend. Perhaps it was the feeling that the Friday ‘first night’ had felt more like a dress rehearsal, and Saturday was the true first night.

There were still a few slips, the usual collection of entries a bar early or late. But we got over them. In the court scene, we nearly got two bars ahead at one point, and I could see panic-stricken Tim miming ‘WATCH ME!!!!!!!’ at us, before cueing in the vast tenor chorus (ie me, Jonny and Will) in a gigantically exaggerated gesture that could have been seen on Google Earth.

And, well, it just felt great. The applause at the end had been OK on Friday; tonight it was huge, and that feeling as we all came on to do our slightly self-conscious bows was something very very special indeed. As I discuss at length in post-performance binges, it’s something money can’t buy. (Which is just as well, given the amount of unpaid leave some of us have taken...)

Big cheers, big applause. Big success. Everyone played their part literally and metaphorically. Nan’s usual talent for bringing in favours paid handsomely - Stewart C for example, who does the lighting for what’s effectively beer money. (Evidently we couldn’t even hire the equipment for three times what we slip him to come and do it all for us. Everyone mentioned about how much difference the lighting makes, giving the whole thing a really professional image.) Masumi, who did stage stuff and brought in her baby to one dress rehearsal, to much cooing from the female members of the cast. Roz, who helped out shifting stuff and supplied some invaluable vocals in the offstage chorus. Jo, who started as Nan’s hairdresser and ended up doing all the wigs and makeup. No doubt lots of other people too, who I’ve forgotten or neglected; apologies.

It was fabulous, one of the great nights of my life. Yes, it was a flawed student production, and if we had another night, we’d really nail it. But it was something very special. There’s a climax in Mario’s mad scene where he does two phrases starting on a high A and swoops down a seventh ('Come on! Land me!') and then, forced up to an A, 'Turn the skies back and begin again'. I was sobbing; it moved me in ways I can’t begin to express in, er, you know, what’s the word, er, words.

I went off to the post-match celebrations, swigging all that wine Nan had so generously provided for us and enjoying the free buffet provided by the Hobgoblin. I talked bollocks to Nathalie and Roz, and later on total bollocks to Ross and Casey. Like the performance it’s just one big happy blur. I cycled home through bustling, but traffic-free, streets at around three in the morning. On one particularly deserted stretch I contrived to fall off, sustaining nothing more dramatic than a bruise and a graze, but otherwise got out unscathed. It seemed a metaphor for the opera: minor problems here and there, but basically we got away with it. I thanked my lucky stars when I got home though. Let this be a lesson to anyone thinking of cycling home after a few drinks. If you leave for home at a sensible time, say half eleven, the streets will be busy and you might come to grief with a vehicle. So stay drinking until at least 3am, when the streets are empty. Phew.

Thanks especially to Nan and Tim for their unswerving mix of encouragement and backside-kicking. Thanks to Mario, Abby and Hamish for carrying off big parts so well. Thanks everyone. You were all stars.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m knackered. I’ve had enough of this opera thing, it was great while it lasted, but I want nothing whatever to do with any more opera ever again. I’ve got too many other things in my life to worry about.


And that’s final.



Wonder what Nan has in mind for next year?

Sunday, 27 April 2008

What you have to remember is, erm, oh, you know

I've been up to my eyes with stuff lately, so haven't had time to update this blog since Easter.

The first rehearsal after the holiday, on 17 April, was an all-day affair, so we were all a bit hoarse by the end. Especially Nan, who spent most of it berating us for still not knowing the choruses well enough. The following week - last Thursday, 24 April - we were not quite as bad, and there were even some bits that all started and finished together, with lots of people singing much of the time.

Hmm. Those choruses are a bit tricky, and you have to remember quite a lot of counting. In the 'Grimes is at his exercise' sequence, for example, tenors have to remember the sequence 2-no-no-no-3-yes-no-yes-4-no-no-no-4-no-yes-yes-3-no-no-no-3-yes-no-yes+1-9-no-yes-yesx2-4-no-no-yes-yes. Which is just about possible, but the effort of remembering does tend to make you shuffle round like a bewildered care-home patient. (Which, coincidentally, was the subject of conversation over coffee afterwards with Abby and Caroline, both nurses experienced with the confused; they must feel at home in our rehearsals.)

But most of the time your counting is easily confounded. The highly varied nature of Britten's rhythmic chopping up, across the bar line, makes it very easy to get lost. If you've mentally based your entry on following someone else and they screw up, then you screw up too.

So chorus members, it's best not try to take your cues from the sops or altos, as they're not too sure of themselves. Don't rely on the basses or tenors, who aren't too secure either. Or the soloists, as half of them are unlikely to be there. Indeed, Mario is still slicing people up in Cardiff or something so we haven't seen him this term yet. We've had no Jenny either - she's doing jury duty, so we missed her in the court scene, ironically enough.

Anyway, that stuff I've been up to my eyes in has included having to finish my bike book 50 Quirky Bike Rides in England and Wales. It's finally going to press, only a year and half late, and will be out by June this year. I'm expecting that the royalty cheque will be enough to buy me a decent-sized pied a terre.

Oh, hang on, no, I mean pomme de terre.

I also reviewed Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, done by ENO at the Young Vic, for Sky Arts - it's up on their website. (Visit http://www.skyarts.co.uk/SkyArts/Opera/Default.aspx to see if they've got round to putting the review up on the website yet - the opera finished its one-week run last week...)

I was expecting it to be two hours of jagged orchestral torture, vocal screeching and 1960s expressionist hiccuping, but I was wrong. It was only 90 minutes. And actually it was rather good - being in the round at the Young Vic puts you within a string of sausages of the singers, and you feel the physicality and presence of the singers. You could even feel the heat from the baby Mr Punch gleefully incinerated at the beginning.

But I did come away feeling a little chastened. We've had seven months to work on Grimes and we're still struggling to do it without a score. Or even with one, actually. ENO's lot on the other hand had memorised 90 minutes of highly unmemorable and difficult music perfectly. How do they do it? Amazing. Well, I say perfectly – how would anyone know?

See you next Thursday. It's from 1pm to 5pm, so we'll have time to do the whole opera, seeing as we'll have all memorised it perfectly...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

A sideways look at the world of Dr Crabbe

Hope you enjoyed your Easter hols, everyone. Nice, wasn't it, waking up cosy in bed last Sunday to see two inches of snow outside, and thinking great, the cricket season starts this week?

Like most of us I've taken a couple of weeks off from thinking about Grimes. I've just started looking at the score afresh, uncluttered by preconceptions such as remembering any of the notes or the rhythms.

Next Thursday's rehearsal is the first of the summer term. It will also be, as you know from Nan's txts, an all-day affair. Principals at 11am, rest of chorus to join at 1pm. Rather like cricket, in fact: lunch and tea breaks, and perhaps some scampering off for rain or snow showers or bad light or another bollocking for not knowing the music well enough. I hope we perform as a team rather better than England's middle order.

I've got a temporary job which is based in Lincoln's Inn Fields, right in central London. Rather excitingly, it's just next door to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. This is another of those curious, free, London gems. In its display cases are jars of pickled foetuses, five-legged lizards, and skeletons of eight-foot Irish giants. Most entertaining are the gleefully annotated nubs of diseased offal hacksawed off some Regency pauper without the encumbrance of anaesthetic. ("This grapefruit-sized tumour was removed from a Mr Phillibert of Crouch End on 6 June 1784. His screams were said to be audible as far as Islington. He died at 6am the next day.")

It's only one of several attractions in the area for the lunchtime flaneur. The Oxbridge-like tranquillity of Lincoln's Inn itself, the weird and wonderful Soane Museum, are there too. But for sheer rubbernecked fascination, the Hunterian is something else, a show-and-tell casebook of eighteenth-century medical misfortune in freeze frame. After a while you get blase about it all, like the surgeon bantering about lunch while in the middle of slicing up somebody's pancreas. You happily work through your Sainsbury's egg and cress sandwich while staring at encephalitic skulls, monster cysts, prolapsed intestines and Mr Hunter's mighty surgical toolshed.

It's all a world that would have been familiar to two characters in Grimes: the dodgy pharmacist Ned Keene, who would probably have misappopriated the pickling alcohol and sold it off to Mrs Sedley, and Dr Crabbe, the non-singing physician, dismissed by Boles as a drunken charlatan ("He drinks! Good health to all diseases!"). So I'll count my visits as research.

Talking about surgeons, Mario, I hope we'll have the pleasure of your company on Thursday? I'll bring some egg sandwiches for the Tea Interval, and you can entertain us with stories from the operating table...

Friday, 7 March 2008

Nude women, and Britten (unlikely combination)

I was away from rehearsal last week, as I was mired in my new job. I'm working at the National Gallery, on their website.

Some of it does involve looking at pictures of nude women. They may look fabulous and elegant in the pictures. But you later find out that they were tarts who are now at least 158 years old. Rather like online dating I suppose. At least that woman in Déjeuner sur l'herbe actually is an oil painting.

But the job is only for four weeks. And most of it actually involves putting up mundane details of events on the website. Such as informing people that at 1pm there will be a gallery talk on some 16th-century Madonna and Child, painted by a bloke who sounds like a pizza chain. Web services in most companies are not considered 'creative services': they come under the umbrella of marketing. Presumably the one they use to shelter under outside while having their hourly fag break.

Anyway, the rehearsal yesterday was a musical run-through with scores. We spent about half an hour in the Great Hall before Roger R came in and threw us out. This was because they had to prepare the piano for a Prepared Piano concert later that day. (There's some crack about nuts, screws and bolts here, but I'm too bored with Lynne Truss to work it out.)

It was annoying but quite amusing. Roger had the air of a building foreman telling you to go and park your car somewhere else. Look, we put up that notice of works on that lamppost six months ago. In half an hour there'll be a ruddy great skip going right here where your car is. Not my problem if you can't find another park, pal, etc.

So we trooped off to some pokey rehearsal room upstairs that happened to be free. Fortunately the zombie saxophonists and drummers who usually live up there must have been on lunch break, or not got up yet, or something.

And there we had the company of - for the first time - Peter Grimes himself. A teeny bit late, considering we started five months ago in October, you might think. But it does rather highlight the main problem we've had so far: that the most committed people are mostly (though not all) the ones with commitments, which means they can only make some of some of the rehearsals.

(It's the same principle that scuppers your love life after 30: all the lovers worth having who might make a commitment to you are taken, because they've made a commitment to someone else. Probably someone not as nice, but with better salary/legs.)

Take Dr Mario for example. He's an excellent, committed lyric tenor who will be a fabulous Grimes, and boy he'll look the part. You wouldn't get in a fishing smack with him lightly. (Er, I don't mean it that way. Mario's straight, as he confirmed with some entertaining post-rehearsal anecdotes, more Jon Vickers than Peter Pears.)

But he's also a full-time surgeon who lives and works abroad in a small developing country. (I think he's based in Cardiff.) So when your rehearsals are on Thursday mid-afternoon 200 miles away, that presents clear logistical problems. Sorry, guys, I've got to go and sing. Can you just see to that left ventricle, patch up the aorta and close the rib cage, and if there's any problems I'm on my BlackBerry?

He's not the only one. Hamish, Abby and others, and several chorus members, have to squeeze what they can - sometimes less than an hour - between work commitments. Stuff that has to be done to pay the bills: nursing or making photocopies or assessing the work of Gustave Courbet. At most rehearsals we've had about half the principals, max, and a chorus of two tenors. If we do make it all the way to a half-decent performance it'll be a miracle.

At least yesterday we had everyone, and some bits (some) actually sounded quite good. For an hour - at which point Hamish (Balstrode) and Abby (Ellen) had to scoot to a masterclass, and Dan (Swallow) had to go to I don't know where. So we were back to the Reduced Britten Company, like those Americans who do comedy potted Shakespeare plays with three people.

Still, there were two big positives. First, it was really nice to see Mario again - Charlotte (Mrs Sedley) hadn't seen him since she was dancing provocatively for him last summer on stage as Carmen. Second, Hamish's muttonchop sideboards are coming on a treat. By June he'll be a ginger Captain Birdseye.

Nan, of course, wasn't there. It was her birthday, and she thoroughly deserved a day off, and was off celebrating. We'd put together a special gift for her: Jonny (Hobson) had had the great idea of the Opera Goldies recording a CD for her. (Actually, Charlotte said it was her idea and that Jonny nicked it. Rock-Paper-Scissors, guys.) So last week, we whizzed through some of the songs and arias Nan's worked with us on, accompanied by the ever patient Richard Black on piano, and recorded them on to a CD. (I made a token contribution to the smugglers' quintet in Carmen, stepping straight off my bike, wheezing and croaking like Ian Paisley. Everyone else sounded fab.)

So we really hope Nan likes it. I knocked up the cover for the disc - email me if you want to see an image. If you need to ask why I called it the 'Opera Gold Omnibus', then you probably wouldn't understand the answer. Nan: hope you had a fabulous day yesterday. Happy Birthday, and love and thanks from us all.

Well, I suppose I'd better back to work. Back to Déjeuner sur l'herbe.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

You don't have to be mad to be at ENO, but...

Rehearsal last Thursday (21 Feb) was another dismal, shuffling affair, with the chorus doing their famous impression of Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Nan looking desperate, so we won't dwell on that.

Instead we'll dwell on ENO's Lucia di Lammermoor, which is really rather fab; here's the review I wrote for the Sky Arts website. (This was the performance that made national news because one of the principals lost his voice after the first scene, and a bloke from the audience came up to sing the part from the wings while the hoarse bloke mimed.)

Anyway, I went with Abby, and it was the most enjoyable evening I've had there in ages. Usually, when I go with a Goldie to ENO, it consists of
(a) people I used to work with desperately trying to avoid eye contact with me, and
(b) me opening up two tins of cider and a packet of cheesy wotsits in that area downstairs by the loos, where you can stand by a big square pillar and put your drinks on a ledge.

Well, this time, it was different, because it wasn't just me. It was also Abby trying to avoid eye contact, with the various people she's done voice coaching with and suchlike. She was concerned about being seen furtively swigging my bottle of Chilean Cab Sauv, instead of paying nineteen quid a glass or whatever it is at the bar, and thought this might adversely affect her future. (Merely being seen with me, of course, does the trick effectively enough.) So we both ducked and dived round the pillar as voice coach after voice coach, and journo after journo, swanned past.

It was ever so exciting. Then afterwards we had a quick one in that little pub down the Dickensian alley (the Lemon Tree?), or perhaps two, and tried talking French.

And at last, some good news: I have a job. Only for a month, but it's at the National Gallery, so I should get to look at a lot of pictures of nude women. Shame they all died in 1532.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Recruitment Agencies: Useful, just not for getting jobs

Our Thursday staging rehearsals generally consist of us standing around knowing that whatever we're about to do will be wrong, and then getting shouted at. (Guys, this is all good practice for being married.) Don't get me wrong, it's rather fun, and is the most organised and pleasurable part of my week. Which tells you what a disaster the rest of my life is.

Well, no such luck last Thursday. It just turned into a music call. We all stood around the piano with scores and bashed through the church scene and its aftermath. This is the bit where I do my radicalising-imam thing, and soapbox the villagers into an attack against Grimes and Ellen. Which gives me the chance to do a lot of shouting, cursing, waving of hands and railing against the system. Recent graduates, this is all good practice for the experience of job-hunting.

Yes, I still haven't had any luck fixing myself up with any gainful employment since 21 Dec, despite being registered with about ten recruitment agencies. Honestly, they're all absolutely useless. Imagine the piercing intelligence of Jade Goody, the integrity of Heather Mills, the self-awareness of Michael Jackson, the ability to fulfill promises of Del Trotter, and the sense of humour of Margaret Thatcher, and you've got the average recruitment agency drone.

What happens is this. You see a job online. It suits you perfectly. So you apply for it. Ah, but you're not applying to the company. You're applying to the recruitment agency, who obviously are there to take a cut. What happens then is that you get a call from someone from the recruitment agency called Claire who suggests that you go in to their central London office and have a chat about your skills and requirements. So you take along your passport (to prove you're actually British and not an international spy) and chat to Claire for 45 minutes, who tells you at unnecessary length what a fantastic agency they are, asks you naive questions which are answered on the CV she claims to have read, and writes down copious notes in biro on her hardback jotter. Then you never hear from her again and she never returns your calls. Repeat ad infinitum.

Or is it me? Perhaps it's time to take a long, hard look in a mirror. Urgh. Actually this is what Nan keeps telling me to do. I don't like looking at myself. Apparently I'm doing the amateur thing of bobbing my head too much, leaning forward and straining from the neck, when I should be standing up straight and letting the body do the work. And I'm talking about the interviews with Claire here. With the singing it's even worse.

Still, all my job-hunting experiences have been useful for my Boles characterisation. When I want to vent spleen against Grimes and Ellen Orford, I obviously don't picture Mario and Abby, two of the most pleasant and talented people I know. (Er, that's meant to be a compliment, not a comment on how many people I know.) Instead, I picture Dave and Claire from the recruitment agency. It makes all that shouting a pleasure.

Of course, if you ARE from a recruitment agency and you're reading this, the above description doesn't apply to you. Oh no. Of course not. You're smart enough to have found this page, for one thing, and to have read it this far, for another. In which case, what on earth are you doing working in recruitment? Ah, but to change jobs you need... a recruitment agency to help you! Doh! I see your problem. Tell you what, if you fancy being surrounded by talented people for a change, come along to our rehearsals on Thursdays.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Well, last Thursday's rehearsal went comparatively well. That's a bit like saying Derek Conway MP is honest compared to his Italian or Nigerian counterparts, but at least it was something of an improvement, with quite a few people knowing several of their entries.

And there was plenty of entertainment. We were doing the Pub Scene where Bob Boles, viz me, gets roaring drunk and tries to chat up one of the Nieces. My efforts to portray the beaming pisshead caused a fair bit of amusement, possibly for my staggering acting ability, possibly for my staggering, or possibly just because of the novelty of seeing me sober pretending to be drunk.

We also did a couple of run-throughs of that pesky 7/8 round about Joe and his idiot son going fishing and, do you know, we pretty much started and finished in the right place. I'm beginning to think that we might just get through this opera without having to take down our Facebook pages out of embarrassment.

In the evening I went out to ENO to review their re-run of Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly. (You can read it on the Sky Arts website.) It's really rather good, despite the odd sight of Butterfly's three-year-old boy being played by a wooden puppet. Actually the puppet was one of the best actors on stage. That's meant as a compliment to the blokes working him, not a dig at the singers, who were jolly good.

Though I was a bit distracted by Ashley Holland's Sharpless, who was a dead ringer for Hale of 1990s TV duo Hale and Pace. I kept expecting him to break off into an aria about 'the Management', though of course Puccini didn't do comedy very well. A bit like Hale and Pace I suppose.

I went with Casey, who is doing the Butterfly/Suzuki Flower Duet later this year with Jenny somewhere for someone. So she could come along and make some notes. Casey is playing the very Niece that I slobber over in that Pub Scene; so she was remarkably composed, considering that earlier that very day I'd been repeatedly groping her in E flat minor.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Nessun' dorma nelle montagne Lake District

Not really a Grimes connection here, really, but I've just got back from a stag weekend up in the Lakes. Not, of course, mine. One of the lads in the room next to me heard me singing bits of Grimes in the shower and commended me the next morning on my singing. Actually, he thought he'd been hearing selections from HMS Pinafore, but I suppose he wasn't a million nautical miles away.

Anyway, the next day we all walked up to the top of the Old Man of Coniston and he insisted I sing Nessun' dorma at the summit, in the freezing cold fog. Which I did, after a fashion - probably the fashion of a Stars in their eyes contestant doing Russell Watson after nine pints of Bluebird the night before.

The party was amused, anyway, though they were keener on doing a team version of The hills are alive with the sound of music.

I can't make the rehearsal on Thursday, as I'm up north for a wedding. Not, of course, mine.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Good news and bad news

I'm a firm believer in getting bad news out of the way first. So here's the bad news.

The Act I rehearsal today was really a bit rubbish.

We did the bit from Grimes's first appearance, bawling offstage for someone to come and help him bring in his boat, to the end of the 'storm' ensemble ('Now the flood tide and sea horses...').

Or rather, we didn't. Much.

Same old story: hardly anybody having memorised the parts well enough, with some honourable exceptions (Abby! That kind of attitude could take you places, you know... well, Manchester, anyway). At 2.35pm, we'd hacked through the entrails of Act I with about five per cent of singable words actually being sung. Nan was into her usual manic-laugh-despair state at this stage of proceedings.

It almost got called off then, and given up as a Concert Performance. (Er, it still might.) But it didn't, and the reason it didn't was because we did *another* run through of the whole of Act I up to page 86 without scores.

And, guess what. Most of us had been wandering around Act I to date with scores in hand, like befuddled American tourists with maps of central London confounded by the streets not being laid out on a grid like Atlanta, Georgia, but on a tangle of spaghetti like London, England. But once we'd been forced to put the libretti down and actually look up and watch each other and even, er, look at that bloke called Tim at the piano who waves his hands around in a rhythmic kind of way sometimes....

Well, put it this way. Before we put our scores down and were forced to sing from memory, it was worse than a scratch performance of Grimes by a bunch of Radio 4 comedians. And after we put our scores down and sang from memory, it was just about as good as a scratch performance of Grimes by a bunch of Radio 4 comedians.

Then we did it again from memory, the whole of Act I. And this time it was so good that Nan only gave us the same bollocking as she gave us at the same stage in the previous two years. That was with Carmen, which was a much easier opera, or even Magic Flute the same stage the year before, which was easier than that.

And the good news? Well, I made a very good curry. And also, Abby's got into the Royal Northern College, except that's kind of bad news as it means she won't be in next year's Opera Gold performance of Bohème or whatever (I'm guessing). She'll be up in Manchester. But it's good news for her, if not for her bank manager.

So, see, I was right about this business of memorising things. If you put in a bit of application in learning parts, you'll be like Abby, or me. And be confident on stage.

And, er, skint. But impressively skint.

Anyway, I'm off this weekend on a mountain-biking-stag do up to the Lakes. The weather forecast's terrible: torrential rain all Saturday and Sunday. Oh dear. We may end up being stuck in a pub.

Monday, 14 January 2008

The patience of jobless

If you have neither a family nor a job, you're always having to justify yourself to people at parties. The first two questions they ask are usually 'Do you have a family?' and 'Do you have a job?'. Once you've answered No to both, they look blank fora few seconds, say Oh, then sidle off claiming they've left their drink in the kitchen.

Occasionally, people sympathise:
Them: "Mm. Must be tough without a job. Must be hard to know what your role is."
Me: "Well, fortunately, I DO have a role: that of an angry drunk who shouts constantly."
Them: "I see. And didn't you say something about being in an opera, as well?"

We had our first staging rehearsal on Thursday. Some bits went OK, mainly the bits that involved shifting scenery or making pretend paper fish for me to fillet.

The singing went less well, due to (a) the usual problem of nobody having quite got round to memorising their part yet, and (b) most of the principals being at work or in Cardiff or in a lecture or just AWOL. We did the court scene and the opening chorus of Act I, pretty dreadfully, and that's our main rehearsal for that bit gone.

So Nan is suggesting that we move rehearsals to Wednesdays, to give the principals a chance to be absent for different reasons. We'll vote on it next Thursday, except that nobody will be there as it's Thursday and nobody can make it on that day. Obviously I can make any day, as I don't have a job.

Still, I was pleased with my origami herring. You could tell it was a herring because I wrote HERRING on it in biro.

And there was some good news. Nathalie has got a place at the Academy, which is great, because we can make Opera Gold sound really cool and say our company includes members of the BBC Symphony Chorus (Dan) ENO (Abby) Trinity (Mario) and now the Royal Academy (Nat) etc. Congratulations Nat! Thoroughly deserved.

I'm not a member of anything just now, not even Goldsmiths, as I'm doing the rounds of Recruitment Agencies. Some people say Recruitment Agencies are useless, that they're just full of airhead 30-something women who get all enthusiastic and promise instant unlimited lucrative employment and then fail to return your calls.

Well, I'm currently on the books of about a dozen agencies, and I don't have a bad word to say about one of them. That one is TFPL. It's because they at least made me a cup of tea at interview before failing to return my calls. They haven't got me any work, though.

Enough moaning. Time to go and chase the fox out of the front room: the door is open to let the washing dry and they keep coming in and nosing around, perhaps trying to find that bar of chocolate I lost down the back of the sofa. Perhaps I do have a role after all.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

You don't have to mad to do Grimes, but it helps

This is about the time of year when Opera Gold starts to invade my daily conversation. There I am talking to someone at the checkout or the water cooler or the bar, and bits of Peter Grimes come out.

For example, I was in a tapas bar the other night. (Meson Don Felipe on the Cut, in fact - great atmosphere, but the food at Mar in Terra round the corner is better, we reckon.) Anyway, we'd troughed our main courses and glugged the wine, and the waitress came round.

"Would you like to see the dessert menu?", she said.

Out came this bit of Grimes in the Prologue as my instinctive reply:

And whenever I'm in a train that's spent ten minutes waiting in the middle of nowhere and then suddenly gets going again, I find myself doing a quick bit of Mrs Sedley:

And goodness knows what the Aussie barmaid at the White Bear round the corner thinks when I go in to order a beer and do an unconscious Balstrode quote instead:

At least all these involuntary outbursts are in English. For the last two years the checkout girls in Lidl have been listening to me gabbling in Bizet-era French and Mozart-period German. But then as nobody in Lidl has English as a first language it didn't seem all that strange.

There is, of course, a slight problem with all this: none of the bits are actually my part. This is what always happens. That mental CD of the opera keeps playing on shuffle through my head, but it's always Grimes or Balstrode or Mrs Sedley and never me.

See you at the first staging rehearsal tomorrow...

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Happy New Year to all partners in Grimes

There's now a group on Facebook for the Opera Gold Peter Grimes. Thanks Jenny, I think.

On it, you'll see amusing descriptions of each character on the Facebook group. Here they are with some additions and amendments:

Jenny Hunt - Auntie: Landlady of The Boar; dispenser of dodgy gin, and fixer for Ned Keene's three-in-bed quickies upstairs with the obliging nieces. Nod-and-wink vocal lines. Think Cilla from Blind Date with Cynthia Payne.

Ryan Webber - Ned Keene: Sex-crazed quack; gobby joker, Jack the Lad, initially chum of Grimes but turns against him. Jim Davidson with a chemist's shop.

Charlotte King / Ruth Willow Mariner - Mrs Sedley: Drug addicted fuss-pot; snobby retired old bag collecting reward points on Keene's Pharmacy clubcard. Think Heather Mills with an addiction problem in 20 years' time.

Dan Rudge - Swallow: Pompous, Captain-Mainwaringesque local magistrate, who can barely conceal his contempt for Grimes. Vocal lines mostly proclaimed rather than melodic.

Hamish Gallie - Balstrode: Retired sea-captain, wise village elder who's been around the block a few times; sticks up for Grimes at first but ultimately tells him to commit suicide. Bold, controlling, often ominous vocal lines. Think Alec Guinness (perh. as Col. Nicholson in River Kwai) with a pipe and a pint.

Jonathan Crowhurst / Ross Michalski - Hobson: Too pissed to walk home? Boy to be sent up a chimney? Call Yokel Taxis of the Borough. Anything and anyone carted anywhere, any time of day or night. The village carter, a dull-witted local who can't stand Grimes. Trigger from Only Fools and Horses, perhaps.

Nathalie Chalkley / Casey Evans - Nieces: Relaxing massages for gentlemen discreetly performed in the Boar's state-of-the-art shed. No job too big or small. Mostly girly, giggly melodic lines, but gorgeously moving trio with Ellen. Nowadays would be two girls both called Natasha from Eastern Europe.

Rob Ainsley - Bob Boles: Drunken, ranting, lecherous, Bible-bashing fisherman. The Borough's equivalent of the radicalising imam, a sort of Methodist Abu Hamza. Spends most of time shouting. Detests Grimes.

Abigail Sudbury - Ellen Orford: Curiously non-romantic 'romantic interest'. Lonely widowed schoolteacher, forlornly hoping that her compassion and kindness can redeem Grimes. Doesn't. Has softest, most palliative vocal lines of the whole opera. Possibly a young Maggie Smith.

Mario Sofroniou - Peter Grimes: Fisherman loner. Not evil, but stubborn, uncaring and desperately unwise. Craves ordinary respectability but won't make any compromises to get it. Most balanced man in the Borough - has chip on both shoulders. Like the man, vocal lines veer between extremes, often cutting abruptly across the chorus or even himself, trampolining between aggression and self-pity, restless lyricism and disjointed bullying.

Now, I'd just like to stress that the above description is of the roles, not of the people.

I've never gone fishing, for example.

Happy New Year, everyone. Hope 2008 brings you a very different kettle of fish.