I take the boiz to the OPERA and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS

April 27, 2015 at 11:09 am | Posted in music, reviews, theatre | Leave a comment
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In between building Lego spaceships and using unlucky shrubs as goalposts and designing underground lairs to live in when they’re grown up, the boiz have been vaguely intrigued by my Damascene conversion to opera. They peer over my shoulder, going ‘Is that Iestyn Davies AGAIN?’, and hum Handel/Thunderbirds mashups while eating their tea. I came out of Rinaldo last year thinking the 9yo would have loved it, so I got all excited when I spotted Swanhunter – a short opera by Jonathan Dove, written with younger audiences in mind, brought to The Lowry* by Opera North in collaboration with The Wrong Crowd.

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Palpable tension in the air as we wait for tea to arrive

In proper opera-going fashion, we got dolled up and headed for Pizza Express. Me: ‘That’s the bar where the bouncer gave James Laing the side eye.’ Boiz: ‘Yes mummy. Can we have ice cream?’

Suddenly it was five to seven. A last-minute dash got us to our seats in the lovely, intimate Quays Theatre; row J gave us a brilliant view. The 6yo sat on my rolled-up coat. ‘When’s it going to staaaaart?’ ‘Soon.’

Swanhunter opens with the cast swapping stories around the campfire. The opera is based on a Finnish legend: Lemminkäinen travels to the frozen North in search of a wife, where the Mistress of the North sets him three perilous tasks involving mythical beasts before she’ll allow him to see the girl of his dreams. This is a tale of love, bravery, foolhardiness, death, resurrection and the magical power of song; pretty spot-on for an opera.

It’s a small-but-perfectly-formed production: six cast members, a variety of clever props, and a kooky little folk-meets-classical band including a squeezebox, a harp and a French horn. Marvellously, the music wasn’t at all dumbed down for kids, apart from in the shorter running time. It was a proper opera. Dove writes amazingly for voices, teasing everything out of the singers’ vocal and emotional ranges; the Swan’s stunt aria knocked all our socks off, and there was so much to love in both solo and ensemble writing, brought to life through some terrific singing and playing. (We particularly liked how the Mistress of the North had her own theme, a bit like a character from Bod.) Despite it being all modern and everything, I was relieved to see a few operatic rules being adhered to. The hero was a tenor, his mother a contralto, the baddie a bass. There was no cross-dressing this time, sadly (though I can imagine a reprise with a countertenor as the Mistress of the North, in her Brighton Rock wig). I could say to the boiz with honesty at the end, ‘The operas I go to are just like that. Just bigger. And longer.’

Rachael Canning Puppets for Swanhunter , Lighthouse Poole 21-04-2015We go to the odd kids’ play, and I tend to avoid puppetry, finding much of it uninteresting compared to real people doing actual acting (though this may have its roots in my pathological childhood fear of the Muppets. I’m fine nowadays. Really.). But the puppet animals stole this show. The Mistress of the North’s dogs, scenting something suspicious from the South; the Devil’s Elk, all red leather antlers and torchlit eyes; the huge Devil’s Horse, pawing the ground and rearing, but eating out of Lemminkäinen’s hand by the end.

It was pacy and witty and dark and scary and moving and surprising. The 6yo sat there for an hour with his mouth open. (Boyf: ‘I’ve never seen him sit still for that long.’) There were some jolly small people in the audience (one mother had brought a booster seat for her daughter to sit on), but I didn’t hear a squeak from anyone the whole way through.

When the lights went up, the 9yo stretched and said, ‘Well… That was long.’ But on the way out he was talking excitedly about the singing and the way the music made the dogs bark and how Lemminkäinen was his favourite. Me, to the 6yo: ‘What was YOUR favourite bit?’ Him: ‘I just liked it all.’

Nobody wanted to go and hang around the stage door, despite me insisting that it wasn’t a proper trip to the opera unless you did a bit of fangirling. But I cheered up when the 9yo put his hand in mine. ‘I’d like to go to the opera again.’ Job done.

* More Local Opera Locally

Swanhunter’s tour continues to Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate.

Music, emotion, denial, and anyway, I blame Iestyn Davies

April 21, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in music | 6 Comments
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Yesterday, I biked through Old Town in tears. Yeah, yeah, I know. This time it was different, though: I wasn’t weeping over the hills, the headwind, my lack of grit, my terrible urge to pack up and go home after 15 miles. I was thinking about Dad.

It’s been a troubled couple of weeks. Mostly, I blame Iestyn Davies. I don’t listen to classical music. I kid myself it bores me, but really, it terrifies me. The other week, the boyfriend went to bed early, and I sat half-watching Rule Britannia, one eye on twitter. I looked up to see Iestyn singing ‘Dove sei, amato bene?’ and suddenly I was a mess.


It’s all still raw, then. The cracks, papered over. So much I’d forgotten. I was probably fourteen. It was getting late; I left Dad in front of the telly and went up to watch the end of Madama Butterfly in bed. God, it’s heartbreaking. Dad came up the stairs to say goodnight. He wiped his eyes; I blew my nose. And we laughed. Silly sods.

His emotions ran so close to the surface. Sunsets could bring him to tears, but music did it most reliably. He’d hide in the lounge and turn the volume up: Verdi, Puccini. No interrupting.

This was me, too. Singing in The Crucifixion, dreading the approach of ‘God so loved the world’ because I was going to cry, no matter what, in front of everyone. Paired ‘cello lessons with Denise, who was measured precision and correctness where I was all mad emotion and fluffed intervals.

But for Dad, joy in a beautiful performance had a flipside. That sharp intake of breath at a bum note. Hilariously accurate pisstakes of operatic overindulgences. Watching New Faces: ‘All he’s got is cheek.’ ‘She’s just a belter.’ Tuning, timing, interpretation, criticism. I used to wait until he was out to practise, because I couldn’t bear to murder the music he loved. Bach, Elgar, Saint-Saëns.gary larson roger screws up

And I couldn’t be good enough, never mind for him, but for myself. I stopped playing, because the fear of failure, of screwing up, far outweighed the joy. And I stopped listening, too; it was all just too much.

Dad had a folderful of skits. Good stuff. I put on one of his tiny plays at school, and we won a prize. I don’t know what happened to it all; I didn’t realise that after a funeral, stuff just gets thrown away. He was going to send his writing to Punch, some day, soon, when he’d just tidied it up a bit. It never left the house. He thought the world would be a harsh critic, as harsh as he was; he couldn’t expose himself to it. And I know I don’t want to be like this.

My boys are learning the piano. I bash out boogaloo riffs, worked out by ear. ‘That’s really GOOD, Mummy!’ I blow the dust off my ‘cello and scrape through TV themes. Someone dares me to post them on audioboo; I do it (after a couple of glasses of red), and I’m taken aback that people don’t go, ‘Eeeurgh! Stop it!’ but instead say, ‘How great to be able to do that.’
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So I’m trying to love the fear. It’s a bit of a work in progress. Like the joke about the stubborn understains being all that’s holding your pants together, I’ve grown accustomed to the tension: the conviction that if I relax, it will all come out – love, terror, pain, god knows what else – and where will it stop? So, small steps. This week, playing bad boogaloo. Next week, digging out the Elgar. Listening to The Messiah, and letting myself bawl uncontrollably, then stumbling back from the edge.

Because it’s not just music, of course. All those dreams, procrastinated over, because I’m paralysed with fear that I won’t be good enough. If I can do it with music, will it transfer? Embrace the emotion, feel it, let it rip me up, then piece myself back together. I’m going to try. No, really, I am.

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that is what you think, in that glass

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that IS what you think, in that glass

(The best bad boogaloo:)

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