I (sort of) go to the THEATRE to see FRANKENSTEIN

October 31, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Posted in reviews, theatre, tv & film | Leave a comment
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I used to love a bit of theatre. I mostly blame my Dad, who was an am-drammer in the great Coarse Acting tradition. At school, I hammed my way through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Wizard of Oz, and directed one of Dad’s tiny plays for the drama competition (I credit myself with discovering the huge comedic acting talent that is Ralph Bailey, who is now, er, a vet. Such a waste.)

who killed cummingsThis carried on for a bit at university, where my strategy of auditioning for everything in sight and hoping I got into something generally worked. The Crucible, where I did that popular staple, the All-Purpose Crucible Accent, and the other actors were brilliant, and I cried every night at the final scene. Who Killed Cummings?, a spoof whodunnit written by the director which we (unbelievably) took to the Edinburgh Fringe.

It all started to go a bit wrong with The House Of Bernarda Alba. Cast as ‘a maid’ (not even ‘THE maid’), I had to come on first, and deliver the terrible, portentous line that would set the stage for this most desolate of plays: ‘Dong, dong, dong!’

I started to doubt my commitment to the Craft. Halfway through rehearsals for The Real Inspector Hound, I had that sinking feeling: ‘Oh, no. This is going to be terrible. And it’s too late to pull out.’ Gradually, I found other things to do, like writing essays.

There’s something about being in a lot of risible am dram productions that colours your view of theatre forever. You Know Too Much. You can see the workings; you can’t stop yourself. Did he bring that hat in himself, and insist on wearing it? Was that boat meant to fall over? Are we supposed to notice that ‘a maid’ and ‘a prostitute’ are being played by the same person? And is she Scottish, or Irish, or South African, or what?

Despite all this, I set off to watch the National Theatre’s live ‘Encore’ screening of Frankenstein with high hopes. After all, Cumberbatch! And Jonny Lee Miller! And a full six hours in make-up! What’s not to love? Fiona and I settled down right at the front with our cups of tea and glasses of wine and acres of legroom (I love Hebden Bridge Picture House).

The initial scene – the ‘birth’ of the Creature – was terrific. Cumberbatch slowly learned to control his unfamiliar limbs: to stumble, then walk, make sounds, lit by striated flashes from thousands of lightbulbs. It was like watching dance: absorbing, fascinating.

It all went a bit pearshaped when people started talking. The play aims to tell the story from the Creature’s point of view. When he is the focus of the action, this works well; scenes where he learns about literature and morality from a blind man, or meets a child and tries to make friends with him, or confronts his maker are well-handled and gripping.

The trouble is, a lot has to happen without the Creature, and these scenes were less believable. Frankenstein does a lot of striding about wringing his hands and shouting things like ‘I must go to England! They are far ahead in Electricity!’, while Elizabeth pleads with him to reconsider in that ineffectual way fiancées have, and his father dejectedly strokes his chin and wonders where he went wrong (a baritone role, if ever I saw one). There was one brilliant moment where I thought Elizabeth was going to abandon decorum and become his partner-in-crime, but then she went back to furrowing her brow and being all moral. Frankenstein’s motivations remained unexplored: Jonny Lee Miller’s body language and all the SHOUTING indicate madness, but what kind? Frankenstein struggles with all sorts of incompatible drives – the desire to see his name in lights, a real commitment to Science, the need to put right the errors he’s made, the bizarre inability to think through the consequences of his actions. It would have been fun to see these tackled with a modern eye.

A lot of energy went into the relationship between the Creature and Frankenstein, and these scenes were the best: you could almost forget for a moment that Cumberbatch was up there Doing Acting, and lose yourself in it. Sadly, everything else felt a bit pencilled-in and last-minute; supporting characters were sketches with no hope of three dimensions, relationships strange and implausible. There was even a woman doing the All-Purpose Crucible Accent, just for me.

It’s not ALL their fault. After decades of watching cinema and TV drama, where nuanced, naturalistic performances are possible, I found it hard to go back to theatre, with its Declaiming and Projecting and Enunciating and Making Sure You End Up On This Spot Under The Light. But for a subject with so much potential, this just lacked life.

How Not To Die, from The Art Of Coarse Acting, by Michael Green. I don’t have permission to use this image, but I am mitigating this by telling you all to click here and buy the book, which I have read approx. 1763 times, and which still makes me weep with laughter.

I extend registration vests to the REAL menace on our roads

October 13, 2014 at 11:46 am | Posted in cycling | 4 Comments
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Now that the campaign is well under way to enforce registration vests for cyclists [caution: opens Daily Mail article], I’d like to extend it to another group of irresponsible road users, whose reckless behaviour is responsible for countless accidents that go unreported, simply because they don’t occur in cities.

Some of my best friends are sheep. Living in the countryside, it’s important that we all get along – that we show each other mutual respect.


Key contributors of ozone-depleting methane gas. Or something

But increasingly, I’m seeing sheep barefacedly refusing to acknowledge that the person who is bigger is always right. Instead of sticking to the nice, safe fields designated for their use – fields built with huge sums of taxpayers’ cash – they insist on dicing with death on the roads. They appear from nowhere out of the fog, very few of them using adequate lights or reflectors. Oblivious to the fact that their grey coats render them all but invisible against Yorkshire skies, they stubbornly refuse to wear the recommended hi-vis clothing.

Moreover, once on the roads, do they stay in single file, allowing motorists to pass carefully and go about their law-abiding business? No, these wool-wankers amble along in packs, their stupid little tails rotating as they trot, while car drivers on important trips to country pubs are held up for hours.

And they’re so insufferably holier-than-thou! Out in the open air, vegetarian diet, plenty of exercise, yes, yes, we know. Yawn.

But the worst thing is they are intent on teaching these terrifying habits to their offspring. Earlier this year I looked up from checking Facebook as I was driving along a rural road, to suddenly see a gaggle of sheep in my path. Some of them were lambs who looked to be nothing more than a few weeks old. And not a single one was wearing a helmet. It’s time these cloven-hoofed crackpots were put in their place.

So, I ask for your support in backing my campaign for sheep registration. In time, this can be extended to other jaywalking, motorist-endangering nuisances like pheasants, squirrels and hedgehogs.tabby cats


I go to the BARBICAN

October 6, 2014 at 10:45 am | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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Day 250 - Stairs at the Barbican

Stairs at the Barbican. I love these stairs.

A Saturday night, and @spandelles and I found ourselves ALONE in LONDON. The excitement! As anyone who’s attended a fortieth birthday party knows, you let a bunch of parents of under-10s off the leash at your own risk. What to do with all that freedom? Go to the OPERA, of course.

We bounced off to meet the lovely @adrianartn for snacks. He kindly walked us to the Barbican in time for the pre-concert talk. Standing room only; the powerpoint was postcard-sized; the title was The Full Monte(verdi). Boyf: This is just like being at work. Me: Shall we go and get a cocktail? We sloped out, with the slight thrill of bunking off, and perched at the Martini Bar. The appropriately dry @Adrie_vdLuijt arrived to tell us stories of Joyce DiDonato ordering her audience to drink Standing Ovations*.

Gad, it’s hot in the Barbican. We removed all the clothing we felt we could get away with, and went off to find our seats.

Dueling Theorbos ~ Lynda Sayce and David Miller

Theorbos. I found out what they are called by googling ‘big lute’.

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of the earliest operas-as-we-would-recognise-them-today. Based on a true story (a groundbreaking approach for the time), it’s a tale of sleeping your way to the top, and the destruction left in your wake. This production was ‘semi-staged’, which means there are no lavish sets or complex choreography, but it’s more than just singers standing in a line. It featured a bit of fighting, some rolling around in front of the theorbos, some pacing up and down the steps in anguish, as well as that (admittedly ever-impressive) operatic staple, people singing while lying on the floor. Some characters appeared suddenly on the balcony, or wandered through the stalls. All this made it a lot easier to follow what was going on, as did the librettist’s habit of helpfully giving people lines like ‘Ah! Ottone! I am secretly in love with you!’ every now and again.

Like all good operas, it had men dressed as women (the show-stealingly fabulous Andrew Tortise as Poppea’s nurse, who was the perfect comic turn: funny and endearing, but still real enough to pull off a beautifully clear and nuanced lullaby), women dressed as men (the utterly wonderful Sarah Connolly as Nerone, who, with her stage presence and showstopping singing, quickly confirmed herself as my new girlcrush), and men pretending to be women by putting a Special Cloak on (the reliably marvellous Iestyn Davies giving a very believable performance as poor Ottone, jilted by Poppea as she heads thronewards). There’s a fair amount of falling in love instantly and seeking bloodthirsty revenge for infidelity, but also some thoughtful musings on being an ageing woman and the place of philosophy in everyday life, and an interesting duet featuring Nerone and his manservant (Nerone: Let us sing together of my lust for this woman! Her eyes! Her breasts! Let us writhe around together! Manservant: Er, OK, my Lord!)

The Academy of Ancient Music orchestra was small but impressive (two theorbos, two harpsichords – the C17th equivalent of two drummers and banks of synths) and it was brilliant to have them in full view on stage, rather than in the pit. But it was sometimes hard to hear what was going on in enough detail. (Boyf: Ah, that’s the Barbican. It’s basically shit. Everyone hates playing here.) Some lovely singing was rewarded with silence from the audience, which I found a bit disappointing; perhaps the enthusiastic applause for arias at Glyndebourne wasn’t How Things Are Normally Done**.

WP_003641Afterwards, we loitered. @didoregina and @operacreep were sensibly hiding from people wearing jokey necklaces, but I got accosted by @automatamaker (Her: Excuse me! Are you from Hebden Bridge?) who’s a massive Sarah Connolly fan. Emboldened, we headed for the stage door:

Me [enormous smile]: Hallo!

Doorman: Are you on the list?

Me: I shouldn’t think so.

Him: Shall I put you on it?***

We had jolly chats with Iestyn and Sarah Connolly and Andrew Tortise (who greeted me with a hearty ‘Hallo, Fangirl!’). We discussed train routes and York nightlife and Hong Kong tailors and inter-countertenor intrigue and where EXACTLY in Barnet I am from. Iestyn’s delightful girlfriend took my picture with him. The boyf quietly took advantage of my habit of shamelessly striding up to people I don’t know, and talked to them knowledgeably about music, much to their surprise. Evenings rarely go this well: can you blame me for being an opera convert?


Barefaced backstage floozery has its benefits


* Yes, I’m working my way thru’ my twitter friends in alphabetical order

** Or perhaps just London too-cool-for-schoolness

*** Boyf: How did you do that? Me: I’m not sure.

Man! I feel like a… Oh

September 19, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Posted in mental health, music | Leave a comment
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Singing, rather than being merely a delightful thing to do while washing up, continues to be all about excavating mental skeletons. It’s getting a bit irritating. After all that enthusiasm over singing up HIGH (which is totally new to me, and feels terribly STUNT) and LOADS of practice, I develop a searing headache that lasts a week and stops me doing anything other than peering, mole-like, at the kettle for just long enough to make a cup of tea.

I run, trying to visualise my head floating lightly above my shoulders. (In the dappled dusk, this is one of the most cosmic experiences of my life, by the way. I keep expecting unicorns to leap out of bushes.) I sing lying on the floor, noticing when I’m pushing my chin forward and my head up, and trying to stop. The bottom end still sounds fine; the middle of my range sounds better; but my newly-discovered top end is basically gone.

I arrive at my teacher’s house and immediately burst into tears. Her: It’s all right. You have to take a step back sometimes and re-learn something. Me: I know, I know. But, BWAAAA.

gorple pic

Teacher’s house, by that clump of trees. In space, no-one can hear you blub

We reach an agreement. I spend an hour happily splashing around in the octave below middle C. Her: It sounds lovely. I always wanted to be able to sing down there. Let’s do it a bit lower.

And I recognise this. All right, it’s a bit of a theme for me. Ignore the stuff you can already do, the things that feel natural and unforced, in favour of busting a gut trying to do whatever you find difficult. It can’t have any worth if you find it easy, can it?

UoL SU card

London-era me. Definitely NOT compensating with the earrings

But there’s something else going on, too. I’m six feet tall and beanpolesque. I’ve got what women’s magazines euphemistically call strong features, and a laugh like Sid James. I don’t really get why anyone would go to a spa or have a pedicure or get their eyebrows threaded. When I used to cycle around London with cropped hair and a tracksuit on, people called me ‘mate’.

Mostly, I manage to ignore my ineptitude at girliness, or subvert it. Salsa, for example, favours short, cute, curvy chicks. (Oddly, male salsa enthusiasts are rarely over 5’6”.) Standing out got boring, so I learned to lead. It IS fun, and you get a LOT of compliments even if you’re not very good, but sometimes, you know, I just wanted to be whirled around the dancefloor, like a Proper Girl.

Now, I’m googling around, trying to find out what voice type I might be. This post suggests contralto, which sounds like a gorgeous, pulchritudinous thing to be, but all the clips are of women singing around an octave higher than me. This chap sings Dowland at the same pitch as me (though I’ll admit I lack his richness of tone, not to mention his sharpness of suit). And he’s a BARITONE. Gulp.

As someone whose ideal day is spent lying on the carpet with a countertenor cranked up to 11, the irony is not lost on me. Just as some people’s reactions to a countertenor are ‘Ooh no! He sounds like a GIRL!’*, I imagine people listening to me and giggling ‘Eh! You a BLOKE?’ Sigh. I’m not sure I’m ready to be an individual AGAIN.

So, I challenge you. Find me some role models. Ideally, they’ll sing happily right down to the D below middle C. My teacher suggested Nico, though that didn’t end too well, did it. Dagmar Krause (the boyfriend’s idea) is fabulous but decidedly idiosyncratic. That one off the Communards, praps? Help me out. Please. I’ll be girlishly grateful.


* these were @jenlovescycling‘s actual words. Don’t look at me like that.

Why I’m not admitting I have anxiety

September 12, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Posted in mental health | 14 Comments
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This tweet from @wjohngalloway made me smile:

john galloway MH tweet

I love this attitude. Mental health problems are just, well, health problems. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by them, or worried about admitting them.

I wish I felt like this. I really do. But I still find it incredibly tough to admit I’ve got any kind of mental health problem.

My name is Alison, and I am anxious. I don’t have a diagnosis; I don’t have medication; I don’t go to a support group. I just have a kind of free-floating anxiety. Sometimes it’s over something realistic, like the worry that the six-year-old will dash out in front of a car; but generally it’s over something daft. (I lay awake from 2-4 a.m. recently, unable to stop my brain obsessively picking apart everything I’d said in a conversation with someone important, highlighting the bits where I’d made an idiot of myself, and playing Venti, turbini in the background.)

Having fought with it all my life, telling myself I was Just Being Silly, and everyone felt like this, and I just needed to pull my socks up, putting a label to it last year was a massive relief*. But I still hate saying it. It feels like some kind of moral failure.

To go off on a tangent for a sec, there’s a bit of a campaign going at the moment to rehabilitate introversion, and see it as part of life’s rich tapestry, instead of Mr Hyde to extroversion’s Dr Jekyll. Introverts say being an introvert is fine, thanks very much, and all you noisy extroverts should stop expecting everyone to play by your rules. I recognise some traits of introversion in myself, even though I’m the one who’s getting ridiculously overexcited about stuff and trying to make everyone laugh and marching up to people introducing myself. I love people, but they tire me out. I fear crowds. Noisy places make me want to cry. I need a little lie down after the school run. And I’m absentminded, forgetful, because I spend such a lot of time in my own head (mostly lost in daydreams about winning cyclocross races and writing bestsellers and seducing opera singers) that I forget how to interact with actual people.

walshaw reservoir

Hold on. Is that a countertenor down there?

I might be able to learn to live with introversion: to think of it as something that makes me Pale and Interesting, perhaps, or Bookish, which seems like quite a nice thing to be. At any rate, it’s an excellent excuse to never, ever go to Glastonbury. But anxiety? Do I have to accept that’s Just How I Am? Like introversion, there’s not much sign of it going away. And while I might be learning to manage it, this is cold comfort, because it’s SUCH a right royal pain in the arse.

Anxiety’s why I eventually quit my career, after years of vague unhappiness escalated into weeping with fear on the commute every day. I don’t have to go there any more, and I’m a lot happier as a result, but anxiety’s still in my way. It’s why I drag my feet over doing lovely things, like going for bike rides and writing blogposts and ringing up friends. It’s why I cancel things I really, really want to do, with people I really, really like, at the last minute. It’s why I fear committing myself to things, agreeing to stuff, volunteering, putting my hand up.

And, of course, in that greatest of ironies, I’m anxious about my anxiety. How should I manage it? Do I have to force myself to do the stuff I’m scared of, in the hope that it’ll help, in some kind of aversion-therapy way? Or can I get away with just avoiding everything that makes me anxious? Would it be OK never to leave the house again, except maybe to go to the opera?

And, most scary of all, is it going to stop me doing all the things I want to do?

I don’t have any answers to all this, and so it still seems safest just not to tell anyone about it**. Maybe, then, it’ll just go away, and I’ll wake up one day and be FINE.


* I filled out the Anxiety & Depression scale at Occupational Health, thinking ‘I’m just writing normal stuff. I’ll look like I’m malingering. Everyone feels like this.’ The nurse said ‘Well, I’m seeing a lot of anxiety here.’ Ah.

** Apart from the internet, which doesn’t count

I have a think about female falsetto

August 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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This is a semi-serious attempt to talk about falsetto singing in women, which is a new subject for me, so I’m sorry if you are a) only here for the LARFS or b) someone who actually knows about this stuff*.

It all started with Kate Bush. I’m not a fan, but I watched this BBC4 documentary the other night. It’s full of people going ‘Wow! She sounded so WEIRD! And it was so HIGH!’ And then I went and made a cup of tea, and found myself singing Wuthering Heights, and thinking ‘Actually, it’s not that high. I can sing it, so it can’t be. But it SEEMS really high. What’s going on?’

I started to wonder about falsetto. We associate falsetto with men singing in high registers, like the Bee Gees, and of course lovely delightful countertenors. But what about women?

Up until recently, many singing teachers argued that women didn’t have a falsetto, mostly because falsetto doesn’t add significantly to their range in the way that it does for men (and therefore lacks the ‘stunt’ appeal). But this description of falsetto points out that falsetto isn’t about singing high, per se; it’s a different way of producing a sound. Anyone can produce a falsetto, and you can do it through most of your range**. Some women use it to produce notes that are above their normal range (though this also gets confused with ‘whistle register’, which is yet ANOTHER method of vocal production used to do Mariah Carey-style 5-octave stuff) but others are using it for more interesting, less talked-about effects.

So, in the Challenge Anneka spirit, I thought I’d have a go at producing it. This turned out to be a very good idea, as if you know what (female) falsetto feels like, you start to understand what it sounds like. This WikiHow article says you need to lift your eyebrows. Okay… Iestyn Davies is a bit more helpful. He tries to teach Alan Yentob to sing falsetto here:

Iestyn & Alan Yentob

Iestyn suggests Alan uses a ‘Dame Edna voice’ to get the feel of falsetto. Dame Edna’s not very high-pitched for women, so here’s an example of me trying to sound ‘girlish’ instead:

Then trying to sing in that voice:

Falsetto is described as sounding ‘thin’, ‘ethereal’, ‘airy’. You run out of breath a lot more quickly. It’s a bit easier to hit the high notes, but moving around is more unpredictable (falsetto is also described as being harder to control, which means for many people things like vibrato are out of reach).

So here’s Kate, doing Wuthering Heights:

That sounds to me like falsetto. Thin, breathy, girlish, no vibrato. So then I thought about other singers. Here’s PJ Harvey doing a terrifying song where she spends most of the time speak-singing, but listen out for her falsetto when she sings ‘Jesus, save me’:

So far, so up-the-top-end-of-the-register. But Peej turns out to use falsetto in other songs, too. Listen to this one. Not as high-pitched, but still sounds falsetto to me:

And when I listened to the next one, I got really excited, because this is low. That first note is the E above middle C, so it’s near the bottom of soprano range, and in the middle of alto. And yet that sounds like falsetto to me. Compare with her voice at ca. 2:45, where the song changes and she sings ‘When I’m not with you…’; suddenly her voice is richer, fuller, you can hear the vibrato, and yet it’s the same range:

The boyf couldn’t hear this when I played it to him, so I did my own version. Sorry, Peej fans. ‘Normal’ voice first, then falsetto:

What’s interesting about both Peej and Kate Bush is that they’re using falsetto, not to sound beautiful, or to hit particularly high notes, but to create a particular effect. Kate, in Wuthering Heights, telling the story from the point of view of the ghostly Cathy; Peej, taking on various ‘girl’ characters, all more or less deranged.

Twitter came up with some more examples. Here’s Debbie Harry doing Heart of Glass, where the ethereal falsetto matches the dreamlike sound and sentiment of the track. (thanks @Cheyneyk):

(Am I imagining it, or is ‘Once I had a love, and it was a gas’ in falsetto, and ‘Soon turned out to be a pain in the arse’ in normal head voice? Nice contrast…)

And then there’s Joanna Newsom – I might need answers on a postcard about this one, but it’s jolly lovely (thanks @ATreeWithRoots):


* Please tell me if you know good things I can read on this. I can’t find much, and I’ve been googling around all day.

** and laryngoscopy shows that women sing falsetto, too.

Ratha! Supper Cross comes to Framley Hall

August 25, 2014 at 7:31 pm | Posted in cycling | Leave a comment
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Cyclocross is one of the most accessible branches of bike racing. Women, men, old and young participate with equal gusto. However, there is one sector of society that is still under-represented in ‘cross: the upper class.

In the interests of inclusivity, I’m promoting a new event. Ratha! Supper Cross provides an opportunity for ‘cross racing in the beautiful setting of Framley Hall. Course highlights include:

Ha-Ha, Heaton Park - geograph.org.uk - 490439

Shoulder your bike for the Ha-ha Challenge

Rose thorns - 01

Don’t fall off in the Rose Garden


Bunny-hopping ability will gain you advantages in the Vivarium

Rock garden (6172688208)

Sketchy under-wheel in the Japanese Rock Garden

Inspired by the Glyndebourne model, the race is split into three sections, with intervals allowing participants to make the most of their glorious surroundings.

Ratha! Supper Cross begins at 5pm. After fifteen minutes of racing, there will be a twenty-minute interval. (Interval drinks, from High-5 to tequila, should be ordered in advance, and will be handed up in the last lap.) After a relaxing stroll around the course, participants return for a further half an hour’s racing before the ninety-minute dinner interval, where they are encouraged to change into evening wear in the Portaloos and make their way to one of our Michelin-starred French dining establishments (L’Hut Scouting, La Chippée, or our newest acquisition, Le Café Au Centre De Leisure L’Autre Side Du Ring-Road). Alternatively, riders can set up their picnic tables in the grand Ratha! tradition; please bear in mind that prime spots (the Dense Clump Of Trees, the Only Flat Bit Of Grass) may need to be booked early.

Participants then return for the final fifteen minutes of racing. Podium presentations will take place in the Orangery, for warmth: staff will do their best to remove all the tarantulas, but please watch your step.

Ratha logo


August 20, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Posted in music | 9 Comments
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After all that anticipating, the day finally arrived. The train journey was hyperventilated away in SECONDS, and I arrived in Lewes to brilliant sunshine and a room booking cock-up. Luckily the White Hart had a space. ‘We’ve got a gym, sauna and swimming pool.’ Always pack your cossie.

I changed into my Opera Outfit, packed my handbag according to the list of instructions I’d left myself*, and tripped down to the station to catch the Glyndebourne shuttle bus, feeling a bit like Eliza Doolittle. Would I maintain my cover? Or would I, overcome by emotion, leap out of my seat and yell COME ON IESTYN! MOVE YER BLOOMIN’ ARSE!

A nice chap called Justin befriended me in the queue. Me: I’ve been DESPERATE to see this so I’m DEAD excited. Him: I’m not much of an opera buff. Tell me about it. Me [enormous breath]: WELL… He left me graciously at the bar, probably to go for a quick lie down.


Dress code infringements are frowned upon


Selfie, taken shortly before being frogmarched from the premises by smiling chaps in perfectly-pressed shirts

Glyndebourne is what Dr No would build if he were an opera fanatic: a modern, 1200-seat opera house in the middle of someone’s Sussex garden. I wandered around with a bitter lemon, looking at people unpacking coolboxes and taking pictures of each other by the lake. (I loitered by one group for a while as I thought they were speaking German; they just had really strong Essex accents.)

The sun shone. The bees buzzed. Men in kilts ambled past. Suddenly, it was five o’clock, and impeccably-coiffed chaps with startling grins were ushering us in. Finding myself sitting next to an elderly Austrian couple, I excitedly engaged them in German conversation. Me: You are come to England special-like for the opera only? Them: Yes, we came for Rinaldo because we love Handel and we’ve never seen it. Me: Ah, that is cool. Them: You like Handel, then? Me: Very! And I love the, how you say, countertenors.

And so, to business. Rinaldo’s a tale of Crusades, heroes, maidens, boats, magic, Furies, and people falling in and out of love quicker than you can sing ‘He is more handsome than I’d imagined!’ This production set the story in a schoolboy’s imagination: Rinaldo dreams of fighting glorious battles and winning fair maidens in his school uniform.


Spot of light bicycle maintenance, just to make me feel at home

The staging was brilliantly inventive: clever use of (often quite simple) ideas and props. The Furies were a bunch of rebellious teen freak-chicks; journeys were mapped out in chalk on the blackboard; the army went into battle on bicycles; the final skirmish was a football match. (The elderly Austrians didn’t think much of this. Them: This modern malarkey doesn’t suit Handel. Me: Ah! But think you not the fantasticality of the story means one cannot it seriously staging?)

The singing was breathtaking. I’m still enough of an opera newbie to be totally blown away by the fact that people are up there making this surreally beautiful noise, live, for my listening pleasure (never mind all the riding bicycles, cracking whips, and writhing around tethered to beds that they’re engaged in while doing it). Act I ended with Iestyn Davies pedalling hard as his bike soared towards the rafters; that he did this while singing Venti, turbini, prestate perfectly is beyond my understanding. Listen to this version for an idea why:

Highlights… well, the highlight for me was obviously Iestyn. In a kind of C18th ultramarathon, Rinaldo is barely off the stage, and Iestyn was mesmerising throughout, his gorgeous voice infinitely flexible and expressive**. Four (4) countertenors was a TREAT, and I was fascinated by differences in vocal qualities. Argante was indisposed, and his role played by Aubrey Allicock; I loved his richness of tone. I’m not always a big fan of women’s voices (me, to the boyf: Are there any operas that only have men in them?) but Christina Landshamer and Karina Gauvin sounded lovely to me; Lascia ch’io pianga rang round my head the next morning.

Some voices got a little lost towards the back of the stage, and the (brilliant) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sometimes overwhelmed the singers (perhaps historically-accurately, according to @stuckinoregon). The cast got up to lots of ‘business’ while the main action was going on: although this was beautifully done (e.g. the tender, credible silent conversation between Rinaldo and his lover Almirena after their reunion), it could be distracting. But these are minor niggles. We were vastly entertained. For all I’ve read recently about How To Behave In Classical Concerts, the audience was rowdily engaged. Arias were loudly applauded; visual gags raised snorts; there was a groan of ‘Here we go again’ laughter as baddie Armida announced herself suddenly in love with her captive, Rinaldo. (Their subsequent duet, which translated roughly to ‘Come here! / Get OFF me!’, was received with giggles.)

As an opera, Rinaldo’s pretty upbeat; while there are some beautiful arias (and moments of loveliness in other bits), it’s not the kind of thing that makes you sob into your Pimm’s. So I was surprised to find myself full of tears at the end. I hid in the loo for an America’s Next Top Model-style weep***, and wondered what was wrong with me. The expectations and build-up had been so intense that people on twitter were worrying about me:

stuckinoregon's tweet

but it had all gone astonishingly well. All the bits of the day I’d been worried about turned out, instead, to be little gifts. The trips on the bus; the sitting next to cantankerous-but-chatty Austrians; the way you’d keep going off and having a wander round the gardens or a glass of something, then there would be MORE OPERA! Even the dinner interval was a delight, despite my lonesome status. I was assigned to a table of People Who Don’t Mind Sharing****. They turned out to be two retired women (‘We’ve known each other for forty years, so we thought it might be fun to chat to someone else’) and we had an unexpectedly jolly time discovering overlaps in interests. And then of course the opera itself; I’d been so crazily overexcited about it, yet it was better than I’d dared hope.

So it felt a bit like I’d been to a secret island hideaway, where Dr No, grown mellow in his old age, presided genially over beauty, serendipity and harmony. And I just cried because it was over.


WP_003672Eager readers are no doubt wondering about the FANGIRLING opportunities afforded by Glyndebourne. My top tip is to get the last shuttle bus back into Lewes as this, the BUS of CELEBRITY, contained not only Iestyn but also Tim Mead (who kindly but firmly deflected my attempts to make him laugh with beard banter) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (who I rugby-tackled as he got off at the end). I managed to corner Iestyn and burble incoherently at him (‘Oh it was MARVELLOUS and you RULED and I LOVED it and I don’t have any more words’) while probably hugging him a bit too often. Thank the Lord he’s such a stoic.

(I later immortalised the experience in cake.)

* good job I did this as otherwise I’d’ve packed three tubes of toothpaste and a Gideon Bible, I was in such a state

** yes yes I KNOW but LOOK the critics agree with me

*** the one where you weep facing the floor so your eye makeup doesn’t smudge

**** (@sallyhinch commented that this was better than People Who Definitely Don’t Want To Share, and we agreed it was probably safer than People Who Are Very Keen On Sharing).

I get ready for GLYNDEBOURNE

August 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

You may not have realised this but I’M GOING TO GLYNDEBOURNE!

WP_003086After putting up with me burbling on for WEEKS about how Rinaldo features FOUR (4) countertenors, which is basically UNHEARD OF, and one of them is ineffably marvellous IESTYN DAVIES, and it’s written by utter genius HANDEL and this is ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME chance and other stuff mostly in ALL CAPS, @spandelles buys me a ticket as a birthday present. Proving, once again, that he is the world’s best boyfriend.

Despite people warning me to pace myself, offering me training plans etc., I’m still ready to POP with excitement/ terror. I even have a Handel nightmare:

night terror

I decide to distract myself by sorting a few things out. It turns out that when you go to Glyndebourne there are an AWFUL LOT of things to sort out.

1. Outfit. Glyndebourne, terrifyingly, suggests ‘formal evening dress’. I google this to find out what it is. After a frenzied evening trawling through maybe 175842 dresses online, I realise I can put together a fairly respectable outfit from things I already own. None of them are in any sense ‘evening attire’, but I’m hoping if I sprint everywhere, they will blur enough to fool bystanders.

2. Handbag. Ransacking the house turns up three neon backpacks, several well-loved Carradice saddlebags and a Power Rangers lunchbox. Hmm. Tiffany, who is a Proper Girl, recommends TK Maxx. The boiz run about like CRAZY PEOPLE while I yell STOP THAT YOU PROMISED TO BE GOOD YOU BUGGERS and try to remember what colour my dress is. Against all the odds, something completely perfect leaps into my arms. The boiz take turns to cuddle it all the way home.

fyopera3. Accessories. My Loom Band bracelet collection may not cut it. I buy some divaesque dangly earrings, and a necklace which supplies you with all the letters of the alphabet so you can construct your own words. TOO MUCH POTENTIAL.

4. Tights. The less said about this the better. I now have some. That’s five hours of my life I won’t get back, Leeds.

5. Travel and accommodation. Thrillingly, I book a room right in the middle of Lewes, and fantasise wildly about singing in the shower and being Discovered. Or looking out the window and seeing Tim Mead walking past. Hi, Tim! Lots of Sussex people immediately volunteer to meet me for coffee, which is cheering.

6. Dining. This is utter MINEFIELD. Glyndebourne operas have a 90-minute interval, where you’re supposed to have a jolly champagne-sodden picnic with your chums. I’m going on my own. I toy with the idea of stalking the grounds with a Subway, coaxing people into doing voxpops into my Dictaphone. Then I see Glyndebourne has introduced ‘sharing tables’ especially for Wilhelmina-No-Consorts like me. I’d like a little more information on my potential tablemates, but beggars can’t be choosers:

glyndebourne sharing table

I cautiously book a meal, choosing the options which seem least likely to jump off the plate and down my front.

lightkeeper's doggerel 27. Homework. I read the synopsis on the Glyndebourne site, which makes no sense at all. I put this down to its overuse of passivisation and unclear reference, and go to Wikipedia instead. @Lightkeeper helpfully writes me some notes in a language I can understand.

Glyndebourne posts some pictures from the opening night on its Facebook page. Once I realise it contains bicycles, I know it’s all going to be fine.

iestyn on a bike

my night tweet



I do some SINGING (aka, I Heard My Neighbour Weep)

July 31, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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I sing constantly. In the shower, at the bus stop, on my bike, at my desk. (Yes,  I’m aware that this is intensely irritating. I genuinely don’t know I’m doing it half the time.) I’ve passed the habit on to my kids, who hum ‘Thunderbirds’ while building Lego spacecraft and ‘Happy’ while digging up the things I’ve just planted.

But for all that, I’ve never liked my voice. I can’t trust it to hit a note precisely, to hold on without wobbling. In the spirit of Giving Stuff A Go, I find myself looking out of a window in Colden, with a teacher at the piano, trying to stop shaking long enough to get a sound out. She asks me what I want to sing: my list includes Dowland, Velvet Underground, Gluck and Dagmar Krause. So far, so midlife crisis.

Of course, I’d overlooked that voice exploration is bound to be more personal than, say, having my ‘cello bowing technique critiqued. Is it my voice I don’t trust, or myself? What’s with the confidence issues, anyway? Tell me about your childhood…


Nothing to do with me

I decide, in typical fashion, to ignore all the rattling of subconscious cages and just practise. Practising is the BOMB. Proper, give-it-some-welly singing turns out to be a mad, zen-like, out-of-body experience. I gaze out at the neighbour’s hedge, doing my warmups. Mee-mah-mee-mah-meeeeeee*. Within a few steps up the scale I’m in the ZONE. The privet blurs. The clouds slow. Half an hour passes. I don’t notice the window cleaner arriving (though he compliments me when he knocks for his cash, possibly fearful I might break something with a high F).

It’s like being taken over by some malevolent force. I tune back in suddenly and think, blimey. Am I making that noise? It’s not that it’s beautiful; there’s just such a LOT of it. Down at the bottom of my range, my sternum thrums and my teeth rattle. Up at the top, I double-check my feet are still on the ground.

Pilates mat class setup

Scenes that some readers may find disturbing

I never thought I’d learn to meditate. Anything where I have to think about my breathing is guaranteed to freak me RIGHT out. I’ve wept in Tai Chi, in Pilates, even in the lying-on-the-floor bit of aerobics classes (though that may have been the teacher putting on I’m Not In Love, come to think of it). But this is surprisingly close. At the end, my ears hum and my eyes won’t focus. I float about for an hour or two, saying things like ‘Hey, that’s just the way it is,’ and ‘Hmm? Cup of tea? That would be AWESOME.’

I’m learning to breathe properly, and control the breath. To understand what tension feels like, and realise that I can drop it. I’m starting to feel in charge of the sound that comes out of my mouth, which is bizarre and brilliant. I can’t escape thinking about how this relates to, well, everything. Normally, I put my fingers in my ears and squinch my eyes shut when Life throws me Lessons, but here they’re so BLINDINGLY obvious, even an idiot in full denial like me can’t fail to be whacked around the head by them.

The Life Lessons of Singing

1. Commit. Like cyclocross remounts, if you believe, you might do it. But if you don’t, you definitely won’t.

2. Relax. To quote my teacher, ‘Don’t worry about sounding nice; just get the sound out.’ Realise what tension and ‘holding back’ feel like, and just decide to let them go.

3. Do your thing. Sing in front of people. It sounds fine. (And if it doesn’t, they mostly won’t care. As my granny said to my Dad, anxiously primping in front of the mirror, ‘Who’s going to look at you, dear?’)

4. Try to love a challenge. Quoting my teacher again, ‘Enjoy the high notes.’

5. Give yourself the occasional gold star. Note progress. Be pleased with yourself.

singing selfie

The author, thrilled

6. Feel thrilled by what you can do. I sound better if I sing at the top of my range or right at the bottom, and avoid the octave or so in the middle**. I took the plunge and pitched the Dowland up a tone, meaning I hit a high G*** at the end. It feels like the edge of the world. The utter KICK of going for it and getting it. I did a bit of jumping around the kitchen. (Then I did it a few more times, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.)

Naturally, I am failing comprehensively to transfer any of these insights into the rest of life. But, you know. Baby steps. I’ll keep you posted.


* Shutting the door on the boyf, who’s asking me why I’m singing ‘mummy, mummy’, and giggling.

** This is officially weird, by the way

*** It’s high for me, OK? I’m basically some kind of freak tenor-countertenor hybrid.

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