Tags: 2016, ambassadors of harmony, barbershop, barbershop in germany, bing!, chorus, crossroads, fangirling, gasteig, germany, girls quartet, gq, guests, ladies, munich, music, musikfestival, quartet, white rosettes, women
In March, forty-six* of the marvellous fabulous White Rosettes took to the SKIES to perform at BinG!, the German barbershop convention. It’s a bit like LABBS Convention, which you might remember from last year, if you can imagine it re-set in the Barbican with a televised livestream and Tom Service presenting. Yup, Germans take their barbershop VERY seriously.
We were there as special guests (did I mention we’re the national champions and current European champions?), so there was no pressure. Well, not the competing-at-Convention type of pressure. Just the-judges-are-going-to-give-us-marks-for-mike-warming-to-get-their-hand-in type of pressure. And the singing-in-the-German-Barbican-on-TV-on-the-same-bill-as-American-barbershop-royalty-with-the-German-Tom-Service-presenting type of pressure. We White Rosettes are FINE with this kind of stuff. TOTALLY fine.
We flew out on the Friday and were back on the Sunday, and it was a bit of a whirlwind and I’m no longer entirely sure what happened when, so I’ve organised my observations under headings instead.
- GERMANY. Yes, we were actually ABROAD. You wouldn’t really know it, as our impression of Munich was mostly based on the fifty metre stretch of pavement between the hotel and the concert hall. Clues that we were not in Basingstoke included the availability of at least 173 different types of Ritter Sport in the supermarket and the fact that we couldn’t work out which train tickets we needed, even with the help of a supposedly fluent German speaker (me) [cough].
- WEATHER. Munich in March was balmy and bright. Not so Manchester, where snow and ice necessitated the wheeling-out of the Big Machine to spray hot water and alcohol on to the plane’s wings, and further heavenly dumps prevented the flight behind us (containing several front-row Rosettes) from taking off at all.
- SLEEP. There wasn’t a lot of this. Late to bed, early to rise, Rosettes run mainly on chocolate and adrenaline. Kip opportunities were snatched where possible. After one refreshing nap, Liz and I woke to find we had twenty minutes to pack our stage outfits, get our stage makeup on including false eyelashes, biggify our hair and run over to the concert hall. We made it. (She even forgave me for setting my alarm wrong.)
- SINGING. Of course, this is the point of it all. As well as mike-warming for the chorus competition, we took part in two terrific evening shows alongside barbershop royalty – Ambassadors of Harmony, Crossroads quartet and GQ (Girls Quartet) had all made the trip from the States. The Philharmonie am Gasteig was a marvellous hall to sing in, and we rose to its challenge; we got a standing ovation on the Saturday night. And, of course, we sang wherever else we could manage. Christina taught us a round over lunch; we sang in quartet in a glorious ringing atrium halfway up the stairs in the middle of the afternoon, when nobody was about; the afterglow saw us charging through half the chorus repertoire, learning tags from friendly Ambassadors of Harmony (Them: Do you know Prairie? Us: No. Them: No problem. We’ve got the sheet music on our phones) and singing with anyone who would stand still long enough. It was UTTER bliss.
- FANGIRLING. Did I mention the barbershop royalty? We gushed at Tim Waurick, tenor extraordinaire and teach track impresario (Me: We love TimTracks! Liz: Is it true you don’t use autotune? Tim: No, I don’t. Well, yes, a bit. But no.) I cornered David Wright and asked him for arranging advice. (He told me ALL his tricks and swore me to secrecy.) We introduced ourselves to GQ as representatives of their British fan club. (Us: WE WERE SO EXCITED THAT YOU SANG HOT KNIFE. Ali: Ah, we were supposed to be singing this ballad and right before we went on I said, you guys, I want to sing Hot Knife instead!) I rugby-tackled the lead from Vocal Spectrum and asked them to sing my favourite. We burbled at Dr Jim Henry, who gamely pretended he remembered us. Rasmus from the Ringmasters sat next to us at breakfast. Crikey.
Coming back down to earth after all that was a bit of a trial. I’m not sure why the world doesn’t yet revolve around barbershop; why we don’t switch on the telly and see Suzy Klein introducing the Barbershop Prom, why the Rosettes aren’t packing out the Royal Festival Hall, why people don’t ditch the karaoke machines and sing tags in the pub. If BinG! is anything to go by, it can only be a matter of time.
* Actually, forty-five took to the skies, and Isabel went in the car with our banners, canes and CDs. Dedication.
Tags: castrati, classical, countertenors, duke of york's, fangirling, farinelli, iestyn davies, mark rylance, music, opera, theatre
Well, I wouldn’t want to share a stage with Mark Rylance. It must be like having Hemingway show up to your creative writing class. However good you are, his performance is so subtle, so natural, so nuanced, it makes everyone else look like they’re trying a bit hard.
I often feel this way about Iestyn Davies, too, so it was a rare treat to have both these luminaries under the same roof. The original run of Farinelli and the King, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe, sold out in approximately three seconds, so I didn’t get to see it. But The Duke of York’s theatre is a good alternative venue; warm, informal-feeling and intimate under candlelight, and small enough that I didn’t need my James Bond-style opera glasses, even peering from the Upper Circle. I’d upgraded us at the last minute to a box – I KNOW – and Mum and I arrived to find the Ambassador Experience awaiting us. Gosh. I’m absolutely SURE the free cava did not influence my appreciation of the production in ANY way – I am a professional, after all – but it certainly got us in the mood for this sensitive, witty and absorbing play.
You’ve probably read 673 reviews of it by now, so I won’t go over the plot again. But it’s a story that resonated for me: the healing power of music, the experience of being transported by a magical voice. I loved the idea that the King and Farinelli were both lost in lives they hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t control. Mum wasn’t sure about the BOGOF Farinelli – ‘Iestyn definitely could’ve acted the whole thing!’ – but I thought it worked well: the confident, assured performer and his diffident, boyish twin. When Farinelli and Carlo finally parted, it was understated and moving.
The story developed believably with only a couple of clunky moments – ‘But the Pope doesn’t approve of your scientific ideas!’ – and there were lovely portrayals of the European opera scene, and the life of stardom and adoration Farinelli had left behind. Some scenes were partly onstage and partly in the auditorium, and the audience were cheerfully roped into bits of the action: hints of the experience you might’ve had if you’d gone to the theatre in the 18th century.
The music was the real star of the show, though. The whole place sat perfectly still when Iestyn sang. I thought about the very first time I heard him, and how I found tears running down my face; and I hoped everyone else was experiencing that, too. The arias reflected the range of Farinelli’s skills – from the coloratura pyrotechnics of Venti, turbini to the clear poignancy of Lascia ch’io pianga – and the tiny orchestra, costumed and bewigged and acting along, were the perfect match. It was so spellbinding, that sometimes it felt odd when the other characters went, ‘Well, anyway, as we were saying…’ rather than weeping, fainting, or throwing knickers. But still. It was the King that mattered, and it was completely credible that this bewitching voice could have saved him.
- Farinelli and the King runs until December 5. Day tickets are available for sold-out performances. You’ll need to queue. It’s worth it.
Tags: 2015, barbican, britten sinfonia, countertenors, fangirling, iestyn davies, music, nico muhly, premiere, review, sentences
The day started fairly unpromisingly. My +1 had cat problems and couldn’t make the wandering-around-the-V&A-in-the-afternoon bit of our assignation, so I found myself in St James’s Park on a sunny Saturday feeling a bit lost, and wishing my kids were there so I could buy them ice creams.
Things improved swiftly when Tiffany arrived – ‘We spent half an hour trying to get him into his box then gave up’ – and we sallied forth for pizza and wine and a good gossip. At the venue, we stripped off (gad, it’s hot in the Barbican, etc.) and immediately ran into Sanae, Sakie and Adrie; it turns out the key to finding your friends at gigs is not to sit in the cheap seats. I’m pleased to report the Barbican’s new FanFinder™ seating app works, as Adrie was in the seat right next to mine. We earned a few disapproving looks from nearby ladies for squawking and giggling before curtain-up.
Anyway. ROW D. Some people always sit at the front (I’m looking at you, Sanae) but this was a new experience for me. I felt a bit self-conscious, as if Iestyn might think, ‘Why does that woman keep STARING at me?’ But given that I couldn’t hear much last time I went to the Barb, it was a good move. The programme hung together nicely – Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move, which muses on love and rejection; Britten’s Lachrymae, a set of variations on the Dowland piece for viola and chamber orchestra; and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, portraying Mary’s grief at seeing her son on the cross. These laid the ground for exploration of similar themes in Sentences, Nico Muhly’s new meditation on the life of Alan Turing.
Well. The Dowland and the Vivaldi were lovely, of course. Iestyn sang, as ever, so beautifully, expressively and perfectly that I’m beginning to doubt he’s actually human. I can get a bit grumpy during the instrumental bits in gigs ‘cos, well, SINGING. It’s the THING, isn’t it. (I know this is unreasonable of me.) But I enjoyed the Britten very much, not least because I could see all the detail of Laurence Power’s sparky playing and his interaction with the Britten Sinfonia.
We spent the interval queueing for the loo (as you do in the Barb) and wondering what to expect from Sentences. I’d read the Telegraph piece and listened to the podcast. Adrie had been to the pre-concert talk (‘there was a lot of hand-waving’), and we’d read the programme notes, but we were still none the wiser, really.
For all that the piece featured knitting needles, a typewriter and crotales (don’t worry, I had to google them, too), it was unthreatening. Most of the contemporary stuff I’ve been to in the past was much harder work for the audience, but I found that freeing; I would give up trying to follow it, and just experience it. Sentences had tunes and harmonies and themes I could understand, but in a way this was discombobulating; I was caught between ‘lie back and let it wash over you’ and feeling I should try to work out what was going on, to spot developments or recapitulations. Eventually I settled, more or less consciously, on the micro approach, and came away with an impression of textures: layers of fizz and crackle, filmic strings and woodwind, moods that shifted between sombre and shimmering, Iestyn’s voice looping and merging with itself.
Nico seemed to tower over the orchestra, beating a time I barely comprehended with Wing Chun blocks and punches, then stooping to add keyboard lines, one hand still conducting above the fettled piano. Again, it was terrific being up close; his energy was palpable, and Iestyn was alive and engaged, counting under his breath, giving away little grins and frowns. It made me think how unusual it is to see this at recitals, and how I miss it; I spent a few years going to wiggy out-there free improvisation gigs, and one of the things I loved was the sense of the music being created before my eyes, the conversations between performers in a glance or a nod or a smile.
The let-down for me was the libretto. Nico’s Old Bones is brilliant, weaving found texts into something incredibly moving, and I’m in love with his settings of folk songs (the encore was one of these, The Bitter Withy, which is breathtakingly beautiful). I wanted something realer or subtler or more out-there than the words Adam Gopnik came up with for Sentences.
It was all over by 9:20pm, which was a bit of a surprise. I tried to get Tiffany to go dancing, but she had to be up in the morning to play her piccolo. Sigh. Still, there’s always the FANGIRLING, right? I’ll admit my heart sank when I saw Iestyn would be signing CDs after the gig; I know I’m being selfish, but in my experience fangirling is much more successful when there isn’t a queue and your fanobject isn’t protected by a desk. We managed to say hello, despite the best efforts of some chap who thought he had more right to be there than we did (not for the first time, I regretted forgetting the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society badges). Never mind. I’m sure there won’t be any desks on the Glyndebourne bus.
Tags: 2015, advice, eddie izzard, electoral reform, fangirling, general election, humour, marginal seat, safe seat, spoiled ballot, tactical voting, voting
Still agonising over your choice tomorrow? Help is at hand! Follow my simple voting guide and place your cross with confidence.
First question: Is your constituency a safe seat? (You can check here.) Yes? Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones – FREE to vote with your heart! Go, examine the manifestos in minute detail! Quiz your candidates mercilessly at the hustings!
Of course none of this will make a sod of difference because the outcome’s already certain, so (unless you happen to support the outgoing MP, in which case you have my permission to look slightly pleased with yourself) you might as well wrap your voting slip round a brick and chuck it through the UKIP candidate’s window. In fact, that’s probably a more effective gesture than using it to vote.
So, you’re in a marginal constituency? DAMN. This should be the sexy scenario, right? Every-body wants you! Every-body wants your love! Leafleters and canvassers are all OVER you. Lock up your baby in case someone tries to kiss it.
The SINGLE good thing about being in a marginal constituency is EDDIE ACTUAL IZZARD might show up.
Other than that, it’s rubbish. If you like the outgoing MP, you have to fret about all your neighbours suddenly deciding they’re going to vote for the Stop Costa Coffee Coming To Little-Itching-Under-The-Armpit party, letting the rival in by mistake. If you don’t like the outgoing MP, you have to vote tactically, which is like that time you were in the school play and you had to kiss Martin Notyourtype while your real love, David Blindtoyourcharms, flirted carelessly with the third years.
But! you cry. There are other options! I could spoil my ballot! Or maybe not vote at all!
Firstly, spoiling your ballot: No. No. Believe me, over-worked up-all-night vote-counters are NOT separating that pile of dog-eared scraps into ‘people who are definitely making a considered gesture about the inequity of the first-past-the-post voting system’ and ‘people who don’t understand that you only vote for one person’. Really. You’re wasting your time.
Secondly, not voting at all: They’re all the same, right? You can’t tell them apart! Except, well, you can. They may all be bastards, but there are degrees of bastardry. As Dave Walker points out in his cartoon, even if you don’t vote, plenty of people will, and you might not like their choices. And also, Emmeline Pankhurst.
So, there you go. I suggest you hold your nose, vote, and then join the Electoral Reform Society. Or move to Scotland. The SNP have definitely pledged to get rid of midges and snow. Definitely.
Tags: children, family, fangirling, jonathan dove, kids, music, opera, opera north, review, swanhunter, the wrong crowd
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.
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.’
We 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.
Tags: fangirling, julius drake, lieder, masterclass, mezzo, opera, pianist, rncm, royal northern college of music, sarah connolly, singing
Going along to watch them coaching people who DO know what they’re doing, though, was VERY appealing. I saw Sarah in the Barbican’s Poppea last year and was instantly smitten with her voice and her terrific stage presence. She was lovely in person – gracious and funny – and I was intrigued to see how she’d work with student singers. Plus, a bit of a jolly to Manchester on a Friday morning? What’s not to like?
Excitement only mounted further on the train, where we crafted pinhole cameras from business cards and projected the eclipsing sun onto the carpet. COSMIC. (This was only slightly dampened by a conversation about exactly how old we were all going to be for the next one in 2026.)
A trot down Oxford Road noting what has survived the twelve years since I worked at the University (On the Eighth Day), what is sadly no more (Amigos) and what is moribund (the Cornerhouse and the pub where I used to go salsa-ing), delivered us to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love the RNCM: you can sit in the café playing Trombone? Or Uzi? while gifted types waft around buying coffees for their ‘cellos. It feels like there’ll be a sudden blast of music and everyone will leap onto the tables and break into Hot Lunch.*
We took our seats in the cosy concert hall. The audience was small but keen. Everyone moved down a bit, so Sarah didn’t have to shout. The masterclass participants were four student mezzo-sopranos and their accompanists. One by one, they sang a song (or songs) they’d chosen, then had around twenty minutes of detailed critique.
Gosh, this was fascinating. I mean, really. Sarah and Julius quickly homed in on improvements for each musician. Everyone came out of the experience sounding different. The singers (and pianists) had very different qualities, but themes emerged. Do exactly what the composer’s written on the music. Keep to the tempo. (Sarah [pointing at score]: What was going on here? Singer: Um. I was fiddling around with it. Sarah [with a smile]: DON’T.) The music is moving along, even if it’s slow; work out where it’s going, and make sure you are heading there. Don’t predict the song’s ideas for the audience; present it in such a way that they work them out for themselves.
There were some surprisingly simple adjustments. Pianists, make sure you can see the singer. Singers, stand with your feet far enough apart to form a steady base. There was a lot of emphasis on posture and good physical support for singing, and even on facial expression – one singer was told to ‘smell the roses’ for the high notes, to make them gleam.
Some points were very subtle, like the difference in feel between 6/4 and 6/8 time, and how the pianist can ‘allow herself some space’ while still keeping to the tempo. There was a lot of fine-tuning of French and German pronunciation (Sarah: Whose recording have you been listening to? Singer: Yours.).
And there were some things to try at home. Declaim the text dramatically, in time, before you sing it. Start consonants on the note, not below the note. (Sarah: I don’t THINK I do that. I probably do. Haha! Now I’ll go and check.) Add a subtle /h/ when the first word in a phrase starts with a vowel, to avoid starting on a glottal stop.
Demonstrations from Julius and Sarah were stunning; you realised what stars were in the room with you. I was in awe of all the students. It’s one thing to perform; another to perform in front of people of stature; yet another to subject yourself to their critique in public. It felt like a tremendous privilege to be there watching these learning processes unfold. Sarah and Julius expected a lot from them, and got it; that they did this leaving everyone grinning is testament to their thoughtfulness and skill.
I left wanting to burst into SONG, but knew I’d be swiftly frogmarched from the premises by the GMP (Genuine Musicians’ Police) if I dared open my mouth. Instead, I headed for Johnny Roadhouse Music where I bought a capo for my guitar and fell in love with a drumset sized perfectly for a six-year-old. And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me with a sheaf of barbershop music attached, in time for next week’s rehearsal. As International Happiness Days go, this was pretty much up there.
* So far this has never happened, but I live in hope.
Tags: adorno, countertenors, criticism, critics, crushes, emotion, fangirling, fans, iestyn davies, music, opera, rationality, reviews, singing
Fans have a rough time. We admit to a Bit of a Thing for someone, and immediately give up all hope of being taken seriously. The Arts World looks on us with faint distaste. Can’t we keep our silly emotions to ourselves? Whatever will become of rationality, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as base as looks?
There’s so much wrong with this. First, it’s more than just a question of looks. Fans react to the package (sorry): the acting, the singing, the musicianship, and yes, the looks (though looks can, believe it or not, be secondary: think of the Cumberbatch fans who only really fancy him as Sherlock). The ability to inhabit a part, to make us believe; to transport us, to sing us into submission. And, as I’ve pointed out before, esteem takes many forms, and it can be hard to figure out which one someone evokes in us. Admiration, inspiration, identification, #voicecrush, #mancrush…
Second, just because we’re fans, it doesn’t mean we don’t know or care about music. Well, OK, I don’t know much [cough] but others do. And admiring the cut of a tenor’s jib doesn’t negate this knowledge. We know a poor casting decision, a below-par performance, a phoned-in contribution when we see one. And we’re interested in the rest of the production too, not just ‘our’ star.
Third, there’s an element of sexism lurking here. While there’s the odd joke about fanboys, most of the disparaging comments I see are about women. Dirty, dangerous, lustful thoughts, we women have. How dare we? Can’t we have a cup of tea and a nice, safe, clean, intellectual think about things?
Lastly, and most importantly, emotion is part of life. Emotion is, very obviously, part of music. Why is it OK to admit to some emotional reactions to music (joy, pain) and not others (fascination, desire)?
Because YOU HAVE THESE FEELINGS TOO. Yes, you, Mr. Serious Critic. You may think you’re overcoming them, evading them; that your emotional reactions can’t possibly be influencing your intellectual assessment of a performance. But they are, because you’re human.
I’ve been listening to lots of countertenors recently. I bring this up, not just because it’s an excuse to burble on about Iestyn Davies again, but because it’s a good example of a response that isn’t intellectual in nature. I’m busy learning about different genres and techniques and approaches to the art, and starting to understand the immense skill and artistry that goes into classical singing. But I know that part of my obsession is just because some countertenor voices do inexplicable things to me. (Not everyone shares my view: my twitter friends’ reactions have been fairly evenly split between ‘God, that’s amazing! His voice is like a musical instrument!’ and ‘Ooh no, he sounds like a GIRL!’)
So, to some extent, we like what we like. And this is interesting in itself. I’d love to explain to you how the B-52s are the most criminally underrated band in the history of pop. I could go on for ever about the lyrical faux-naïveté, the clean-as-a-whistle vocals, the undercurrent of danger in the drumming. But I know it won’t make you like them (unless you do already, in which case, highfive!).
This fascinates me. But rationality has such a hold on our approach to criticism that we minimise the importance of these responses. People feel the emotion so strongly, and yet are so convinced of lovely clean tidy rationality’s priority over base messy mucky emotionality, that they seek intellectual explanations. It’s in the chord structure, the cadences, the phrasing. It can’t just be me, happening to like it. Do you like it too? You see! It must be universal!
I mentioned this to the boyf, and he brought up Adorno (he has a habit of doing this, but that’s what you get for living with intellectuals). Apparently, Adorno said that our reaction to an artwork is both rational and emotional, and it’s folly to think we can have one without the other. Instead, the tension between rational and emotional reactions creates the ‘problem’ of art appreciation; this ‘problem’ is, of course, what makes art interesting.
So I say it’s time to bring emotional reactions back into the critical fold. Accept them; learn to recognise them in yourselves; see them as part of your appreciation of performances, rather than some kind of dirty little secret you have to suppress. Start to understand their interplay with rational, intellectual interpretation. And stop looking down on fans, with our love and our pain and our joy and our desire so close to the surface. We might be closer to the truth than you think.
Tags: countertenors, elizabeth kenny, fangirling, iestyn davies, liz kenny, lute, music, recital, review, shoreditch, songs, spitalfields, st leonard's
Well, we know opera’s brilliant. You get to watch your favourites striding around the stage brandishing swords, singing gorgeously while lying on their backs, and being hoisted into the air in the middle of impossible arias. But it’s quite another thing to be up close and personal. A candle-lit church? Lute songs? With formidable lute star Liz Kenny and the incomparable Iestyn Davies?* Ah, go on.
This gig was part of Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. Mum and I loitered around Shoreditch for a bit, with her peering into galleries and me taking pictures of particularly risible bits of bike lane. We didn’t need to sharpen our elbows for the unreserved-seating scramble after all, as everyone was jolly friendly and shoved up and passed the Lockets, and we ended up with a very good view (though not quite as good as some audience members, who were bravely sitting on the ACTUAL STAGE next to the performers). Sanae, Founding President of the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society, located me in my pew; we’ve chatted on FB for a while now and she turned out to be just as crackers and delightful in person.
The programme was Purcell, Dowland and Handel. I’ll admit I was mostly there for the Dowland, having had Iestyn’s CD on heavy rotation for months, and even crucifying bits of it myself in singing lessons. It was odd for me to go to a gig where I knew all the words; every time I recognised an opening bar or two, it was hard to resist going HOORAAAAY and singing along, like you might at Beyoncé (especially as the lyrics were helpfully printed in the programme).
One thing about knowing the CD backwards is spotting differences when you hear the songs live. (Mum asked me if the ornamentation in one song was the same as on the CD: it made me feel pleasantly nerdy to say ‘No’**.) Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite was taken at a right old clip, the music’s bubbly optimism contrasting more than ever with its lovelorn message, and the passive-aggressive digs in Can She Excuse My Wrongs shone through clearly with Iestyn’s spirited delivery. Relatively unembellished singing in Now, Oh Now, I Needs Must Part gave space for some stunt ornamentation from Liz. Dowland’s at his best when he’s REALLY down in the dumps, though. In Darkness Let Me Dwell, with its sustained notes that grow and fade, was spine-tingling, and Iestyn brought a proper pathos to Sorrow, Stay with its descending refrain of ‘Down, down, down I fall.’ (I know this is the trailer for a different gig, but that’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell, on the soundtrack.)
There were some revelations in the repertoire I didn’t know so well, too. Purcell’s Music For A While was gorgeous, with some delicious high notes. I love Handel’s O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless, with its gradually-building insistence and beautiful melody, but it was quite different transcribed for lute; with orchestra stripped away, it was inward-looking and contemplative, almost a lullaby. One encore saw Iestyn doing an aria from Rinaldo (remember Rinaldo? Of course you do) transcribed for lute; the other was Thomas Morley’s innuendo-soaked Will You Buy A Fine Dog?***
It all felt astonishingly intimate, despite the high ceilings and ringing church acoustic. Iestyn perched on a high stool, on a level with Liz, and the smoking candle behind him gave the whole thing a bit of a Jazz Club feel. I like concerts where the performers chat to us, and there were droll explanations of different types of lute, and personal anecdotes. Lutes are quiet, so the singing was often quiet, too; sounds from outside the building penetrated, but didn’t break the spell (even when Liz had to wait for a particularly Hawaii Five-O siren to fade before she started one song). Instead, the occasional reminder that 21st century London life was still going on outside made it all the more special to be immersed in this world of long-past beauty.
Yes, yes, I know. What about the FANGIRLING? Iestyn set up shop in the foyer and signed CDs with gusto, his PR people charging out to the car at one point for more supplies. I had a chat with Liz, who seemed a bit surprised to be accosted but took it pretty well. Then I joined the end of Iestyn’s ENORMOUS queue, and we exchanged a few words in which I told him off for not doing I Saw My Lady Weep, completely forgot to say how utterly marvellous the gig was, and also failed to invite him for a drink. MUST CALM DOWN. Mum took me off to Pizza Express and bought me wine and listened patiently to me doing Venti, Turbini with all the actions, instead. Bless her.
* insert your favourite Fast Show line, here
** pleasantly nerdy. And maybe just a tiny bit obsessive
*** it’s heartening that serious classical music audiences still giggle helplessly when someone says ‘dildo’****
**** apparently music scholars argued for YONKS that ‘dildo’ was just a refrain along the lines of ‘fa la la, hey nonny no’ and ABSOLUTELY DIDN’T MEAN WHAT IT DOES TODAY. This is, of course, rubbish
Tags: Coronation of Poppea, countertenors, emilie renard, fangirling, james laing, katherine manley, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, lowry, monteverdi, music, opera, opera north, review, sandra piques eddy, sex, SFW, violence
Now, you’ll remember my trip to the Barbican to see what is known in Opera North circles as The Other One. The prospect of seeing Poppea fully-staged was exciting, not least because I could pretend to be a Proper Critic and do oh-yes-well-the-last-production-of-this-I-saw and all that. Gosh! I packed my notebook and practised my Serious Opera Expression.
The Serious Opera Expression didn’t last long once I met Mary, who’d answered my twitter plea for a partner-in-crime. Like all the best people, she turned out to be crackers, and we got on immediately. We stuffed ourselves with pizza and repaired to the Upper Circle in a state of high excitement, pausing only to chat to a Professor of Child Language I used to work with [name-drop face].
Here’s a quick quiz to refresh your memory. Poppea is a tale of (tick all that apply*):
□ Blood □ Guts □ Loyalty □ Betrayal □ Manipulation
□ Power □ Lust □ Revenge □ Love □ Social climbing
This production committed itself to exploring these themes in loving detail. The opening scene set the tone for the evening: Virtue, Fortune and Cupid debated their relative power over mortals against a backdrop of wine-drinking, guffawing and lurid snogging. They then settled back in cinema seats to munch popcorn as a Tarantinoesque evening of bloodletting, gun-waving, knife-wielding and sex unfolded.
The shockwaves caused by Nerone’s infatuation were tangible, and as the opera was sung in English, it was easy to become immersed in the action (even if rhyming ‘strumpet’ with ‘crumpet’ did raise a few titters from the audience). The staging made clever use of a small set of flexible props. I particularly liked how Bloody Marys symbolised Ottavia’s despair, and her dismissal by Nerone; at the end, a fridgeful of jugs of the stuff portended the carnage to come.
Did I mention the sex? GOSH. I mean, PHEW. Nerone is usually sung by a soprano, but James Laing’s countertenor suited the role perfectly, and he was a rangy, rakish emperor, louche and petulant by turns. He and Sandra Piques Eddy’s pulchritudinous, silk-clad Poppea were gloriously matched, dragging each other about half-dressed, barely able to keep their hands to themselves.
I wondered at first about the pairing of their two voices – Poppea rich and powerful in a grand-opera style, Nerone much more Baroque – but decided it reflected the power dynamic quite nicely: the initial scenes, where Nerone is on the back foot and Poppea is busy manipulating him, contrasted effectively with the final love duet, where their voices merged so convincingly that it was hard to tell who was singing what, especially as they were on top of each other on a table, and it was so lovely, I had a bit of a cry.
There was a real synergy among the musicians and the cast, so much that it feels odd to pick out individuals in what was so obviously a group enterprise. But I’m going to do it anyway. James Laing was a revelation; I’d only seen him previously as the Magician in Rinaldo, where he didn’t get much to do. His voice is powerful, well-modulated and expressive, and the top end is truly stunning; I’ve added him to my list of People To Follow Around Slightly Obsessively. Emilie Renard was a gorgeous Cupid, funny and well-judged with a delicious voice; another one to watch out for**. I loved Sandra Piques Eddy’s just-the-right-side-of-bitchy Poppea, and Katherine Manley brought a witty girlishness to poor, doomed, trusting Drusilla.
Mary and I nearly went straight home at the end. We really did. But, you know. No opera’s complete without a bit of fangirling. We gushed excitedly all over Emilie and James, and got invited for a drink! Heavens. This conversation ensued:
Bouncer [to James]: What’s in the carrier bag?
James: Er, I’ve got my stuff from the theatre, and…
Me: DO YOU KNOW this man is INTERNATIONAL OPERA STAR who’s just been on stage at the LOWRY?
Bouncer: [side eye]
We ended up in the venue bar where everyone was utterly sweet and friendly to us and we talked about LOADS of stuff and it was someone’s birthday and if you’ve never heard a whole opera cast break into Happy Birthday spontaneously, well, that’s what I want for mine next year, if that’s ok. What a terrific night. There’s one more performance, in Nottingham next Saturday: I’m seriously considering leaping in the car and driving down, it was that good, so GO, get a ticket. Go on. I’ll see you at the stage door.
* answer: all of the above
** She also ticked the chick-playing-a-chap box; as you know, all proper operas involve a bit of cross-dressing.
Tags: 2014, aam, academy of ancient music, andrew tortise, barbican, fangirling, iestyn davies, monteverdi, music, opera, poppea, review, sarah connolly
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.
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**.
Afterwards, 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?
* 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.