Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: February 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

March of the trolls

As you can see if you look to the right, I tweet. I don't like Facebook but I like Twitter. I like the way you have to focus an idea into 140 characters.
One of my fellow Tweeters is Rebecca Caine, a soprano whom I worked with in the early 80s when we did "The Gondoliers" at Sadler's Wells. I didn't get to know her very well - we only had one scene together I think - though we bumped into each other once while doing different operas in Nice in the 90s. I haven't seen her since. I stumbled on her on Twitter, decided to follow her and it turns out she's an excellent and witty tweeter. The other interesting thing about her is a parallel with my wife Lucy in that she has managed to work both in opera and in musicals. Indeed Rebecca was in the very first cast of "Les Miserables", a show I've never seen, nor I confess have much desire to see. But the point is, she's no slouch.
So what's the relevance of all this? The other day Rebecca tweeted that she was going to unfollow Nick Jonas. They had performed together in the O2 concert of Les Mis (again, something I know very little about apart from what I get on the grapevine) but I gather that, nice young fellow though he might be, his tweets were all of the obnoxious and dull self-promoting type. You know, all about how much he loves his fans. All that bollocks.
What followed the un-following was bizarre in the extreme. Rebecca was submitted to a torrent of rage from Jonas fans, most of them teenagers apparently, who usually laced their abuse with the attitude that young Master Jonas was a gazillion times more famous than "that old bat", therefore how DARE she insult his name by un-following him? Of course they didn't use the word "therefore". Are you kidding? Their tweets had the literary skills of a gibbon that's just drunk five cans of Pepsi and they were laced with the usual plethora of OMGs and LOLs.
I'll confess I take a delight in not knowing who most pop singers are. Why should I? I'm not interested in pop music. Give me a copy of "Hello!" magazine and I wouldn't know who most of the people are inside its covers. That's fine by me. I don't feel any sense of loss or shortcoming whatsoever. It doesn't strike me as very important.
What I have witnessed in the last few days has been an extraordinary sort of inverted snobbery where all that is cheap and crap, and which has no intrinsic value (beyond what it makes for publicists and all their ilk) is held in higher esteem than what is authentic and true. Of course, the inverted snobs don't see it this way. They really do seem to believe that the fame-o-meter is a real indicator of ability and that if someone, their idol, is more of a celeb than someone they've never heard of, then their idol has the moral high ground. And if the idol has the high ground then, logically, so do all of his fans and they can hurl as much as idiotic abuse at non-fans as they like. Kind of like religious fanatics then.
I've experienced this before. A couple of years ago I got an email inviting me to watch "a bright new talent" on YouTube and leave a comment. She was a soprano that had been "discovered" by ex Take That member Gary Barlow, who as we all know is one of the world's great experts on classical singing. She was called Camilla Kerslake and her singing was the usual, bog-standard ordinary, pop-classical product. She might get a job in a professional chorus if she can read music. It wasn't her singing that bothered me though. It was the thing that she was singing. It was a pop song, by Barlow apparently, that by the device of translating the text into Italian and bunging in an orchestra and choir had been magically transformed into Classical Music. I was incensed and, as invited, left a comment saying precisely why I thought the whole thing was a cynical exercise in exploiting mediocrity.
Well, did I get it in the neck or what? Not from anyone who knew anything about the subject mind, but from irate fans. What right did I have...? I mentioned some professional credentials (I probably shouldn't have) and was rewarded with "well how come I've never heard of you?" It didn't go well after that and I gave up when someone reckoned that I was an idiot because if I knew anything I'd know that Beethoven was like a pop star in his time (er, no he wasn't) so Gary's music was up there with Ludvig van B.
I'm waiting for Barlow's first string quartet but I won't hold my breath.

And so today, I couldn't resist joining Rebecca in her conflict with some gormless fan-bully called xox-Jennie. She had called Rebecca "that old bat" because Rebecca had make a light jest about Justin Blieber. I was greeted by xox-Jennie with "and you are?" meaning I assume "who are you to make fun of Justin?"
I kept my response brief. "No, after you. I insist."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the good ship Lollipop

It's a funny thing, rehearsing a tragedy.
I'm no dramaturge or theatre theorist so I'm not sure if there's a strict definition of Tragedy. I've always supposed Tragedy to mean a drama in which the "hero" comes a cropper, in some shape or form, as the result of a fatal flaw, event or decision. And I've always supposed that in the best tragedies there is usually a moment at which the plot comes to a crossroads and, despite the entire will of the audience to take one route, the other fatal direction is the one chosen and the story takes off towards its inevitable, terrible conclusion.
If only Desdemona hadn't lost her hanky eh?
Is Billy Budd a tragic figure, or is it Vere? Hmm, I had better not go into a lengthy debate about that here or we'll be here all day, but I have already hit a problem in my Theory of Tragedy. Yes, there's a moment when you know Billy is doomed, when he bops Claggart on the side of the head. You really wish he wouldn't. But surely his fate is sealed the moment he steps aboard the Indomitable. Or is it even earlier, the day of his birth? Were he more ordinary-looking he might never have been the object of Claggart's affections. Or Vere's for that matter. Does this make him a tragic figure? I would think so. And, just touching on what I wrote earlier, if there's a crucial moment in Vere's journey, when is it? When he fails to defend Billy? Or is he a tragic figure too, but unlike Billy, gets to reflect on his fate?
The more you think about it, you just wish Billy never set foot on the damn boat.
And so it is with rehearsals sometimes. You often find yourself wishing, no matter how great the masterpiece, that you didn't have to go through the emotional mangle every single day. It's not so bad for me in this opera. Red Whiskers could never claim to bear the brunt (though I like to think I have my own little journey in the scheme of things) but he still witnesses all kinds of stuff he could do well without. Me too.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reach for the skrei

My wife Lucy has been here for the last three days, which has been good for me but not so good for blogging. She leaves again tomorrow just as we have grown used to being together again. Contrary (probably) to what you may imagine, a few days if reunion isn't like a brief honeymoon. I'm having to work during the dreariest part of the rehearsal process - stage and piano technicals, and Lucy is readying herself for her next job which starts in Geneva on Monday (a new house for her), and try as hard as we might, it is often hard to relax. Besides, the organisation of my digs has so far been entirely left to me. I know where stuff goes, how much I need, there's just my laundry to do... In other words I have been leading a selfish and solitary existence for the last three weeks and now all that is disrupted. Don't get me wrong; I want it to be disrupted but the price of company is the loss of "it's-all-about-me-ness" and it takes time to adjust.
I'm quite open about saying this because it's an entirely common experience and when I pop to Geneva myself in a few weeks' time for a couple of days, the shoe will be on the other foot. Let's face it; it's much easier to be a singer and do the job of being a singer when you have no-one to take care of but yourself. I may have actually said all this before in a blog last September, but I really cannot remember and as I write this offline, I have no way of checking. Oh dear, oh dear, I may be starting to repeat myself...
In spite of a few teething troubles of an entirely minor kind (usually provoked by some funk of my own where I contemplate out loud what it's all about, this life malarky) we have managed some good meals out and a particularly enjoyable wander around the new photography museum FoAM.
The first meal was up in the Jordaan in the unpromising-sounding but excellent Burger's Patio. It has nothing to do with hamburgers but serves a limited menu of modern French/ Mediterranean dishes in typically Amsterdammy surroundings; i.e. a sort of minimalist shabby chic which combines formica tables with subtle lighting. We were lucky to get a table but we both ate skrei, "a white fish like cod", we were told. I think it's what we call Pollock. Nevertheless it was excellent. (I've now had a chance to look up skrei and in fact it's a strain of cod in its own right - the Norwegian-Arctic. So there you go.)
Last night we celebrated Lucy's birthday a week early. Rashly and foolishly I thought our luck was good and rather than book led the way to a well written-up Italian place near the Albert Cuyp market, Caffe 500. This neighbourhood, De Pijp, twenty years ago is not somewhere where you'd lead a date for the evening unless your idea of a good night out involved munching at a cheap Indonesian caff and dropping by a seedy-looking brothel. Incidentally Pijp is also what the Dutch call a blowjob. I don't how I know that. But De Pijp is on a rapid rise upward, as are most areas of Amsterdam including the red light district, and it is now home to some very fine eateries. The reason is probably because this is where young professionals can now afford to live and the restauranteurs are hot on their tails. It also home to one of the best chefs' shops in the world, Duikelman, but that's another blog.
Needless to say Caffe 500 looked great but was fully-booked. We tried another place around the corner. No luck there either. A Friday night - what did I expect? Everywhere was looking full. I led us down Frans Halsstraat, heavy with the sense that wandering the streets on a cold night in search of a table wasn't the birthday celebration that Lucy had in mind. Frans Halsstraat has plenty of eateries. Surely one of them would have a small table for two? We stumbled on an elegant-looking place called SenT (the capital T is deliberate), busy but not full, and chanced our luck. After a lot of lip-chewing we were given a table by the window, we glugged down a glass of prosecco and started to relax. Another great meal followed. Phew. I had the 3-course chef's menu at €29.50 and it was a bargain.
I don't usually do this, but here's a link to their website:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Being studious

So, I've had a few days off rehearsals. Days off rehearsals are both adored and resented by singers, in pretty-well equal measure, though I lean much more to the former.
I'll explain. The resentment bit first.
You're away from home to work, you're not being paid (because singers are never paid to rehearse, only to perform, something which I keep banging on about because very few people believe me), and yet you have to stay in the city. In theory you might be able to go home but as often as not it's impractical or hideously expensive. Some opera companies forbid it; you are not allowed to leave the city without the consent of the boss. You're renting expensive digs (and yet you're not being paid). You're thinking: I could have arrived here a week or two later, paid less rent, and still got the job done in the time I've been used. You could find yourself in a city that is, very often, an absolute armpit (I'm thinking Liege here) with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and sod all to do.
No wonder then that resentment can sit heavily in the breast like a dump in a baby's nappy.
On the other hand you can find yourself with no-one to please but yourself. You have time to potter about, as I did today, buying tea and toothpaste. I even have found myself polishing my shoes. Angry Birds becomes a task rather than a guilty pleasure. I can read, watch Mad Men by the ton. I can even find time to....PRACTISE. Yes, I've been using a studio in the Muziektheater for long sessions of preparation for my next jobs. Even at my age I have to practise. Well, that music doesn't get learned by itself. Though it has to be said that the ability to use a studio is a rare and luxurious facility. I can't think of many other houses I've worked in where you can do it so readily. There's something very satisfactory about going out to a studio to work rather than doing it at home. A set period of study after which you leave and turn out the lights is much better for focussing the mind than working at home where the piano sits piled with music that you mean to get around to tackling as soon as everything else like paying bills and washing the kitchen floor has been taken care of.
It's a bit like the gym. The amount of people I know who have exercise equipment in their bedrooms that has become an expensive clothes horse... The thinking is "why bother to go to a gym when we can do it at home?" without realising that it's the the going to the gym that is the vital step out of indolence.
So, you see I don't resent having a few days off. I'm getting much more done than if I were at home.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tour guide

It's a lazy Sunday in Amsterdam for me. Saturday would have been lazy too; no rehearsals, for a change, and nothing pressing to do. But it didn't turn out that way. A handful of Brits, despite a free weekend on the cards, decided to stay put in town rather than cough up the ridiculous sum it now costs to pop home for a weekend. Gwynne Howell, despite his mammoth career, has never spent anything more than a few days in the city. He's 73 and his wife is joining him in a few weeks' time. He wanted to know where they should be going, what the city had to offer, and having established my credentials as the cast's longest-serving Amsterdam hack, it was only natural that he should turn to me for advice. I volunteered to take him on a little tour.
Gwynne had both his knees replaced in the last year or so, so his mobility is not what it was, and in Amsterdam this can pose a problem. But I remembered bringing my recently widowered dad here thirteen years ago, when he was much the same age, and it is possible to steer someone around who isn't as nimble as they would like to be.
When I woke up it was teeming with rain, but it often lets up mid morning so when Gwynne rang me to ask if I was still up for it I said we should go for it. I cycled to the theatre, a brolly in one hand, the other on the handlebars and we met at ten. There was hardly anyone about. The weather can't have helped. We took a number 14 tram from the stage door and headed a few stops west to the Westekerk, which is next to the Anne Frank House. I offered to take Gwynne inside, but he thought he'd leave that til Mary, his wife, got here. Though it was something of a missed opportunity as there was, extraordinarily, NO QUEUE! I haven't been inside for years, but now it is part of the Museum Card scheme and I can get in for free by waving my pass, I shall probably go again. Early on a midweek morning would be my guess as the quietest time to go.
We pottered northwards, the rain easing into a drizzle, all the way up to the Saturday organic market on Noordermarkt. We nosed around the stalls. Gwynne got some fine looking sourdough bread and I picked up some stewing goat, some minced beef, a squash and some leeks. That little lot cost me a bomb. I had planned to get a chicken but at €13 a kilo I reckoned an average chicken was going to set me back almost £20, which seems a tad too steep. I can get a free range chicken at home for half that price.
The rain started to pick up again, Gwynne needed the loo and it was mid morning, so we dived into a café and had some coffee and shared a truly awesome piece of apple pie. It seemed to be the only thing they served in there, or it was famous for its pie, because portions of it were already served up, waiting on plates for the stream of customers who were piling inside. I was offered slagroom - whipped cream - and accepted it, thinking only, hem hem, of  Gwynne of course who had never experienced this Dutch delight. I asked for two forks, but hadn't noticed that the plate was already armed with two. They expect you to share a piece. It's the default. I like that.
Gwynne is full of stories and it's always fascinating to hear him talk about singing Luisa Miller with Pavarotti, about how nervous Domingo was in the wings before Aida in Barcelona... He represents a different and, dare I say it, golden age that I suspect has passed, unlikely to return.
We moved off in the direction of Central Station, ambling gently along the Brouwersgracht, which is simply lovely. I wouldn't normally go this way but we were going to rendezvous with Henry, our Lieutenant Ratcliffe who had spent his morning learning Meisteringers  in the theatre, poor bugger. When he turned up, I led them into the red light district. Well you have to, and hidden amongst the garish crap are some gems. There's the ancient bar that sells wonderful jenevers, shut til the evening, but more immediately, Ons Liever Heer Op Solder (the merchant's house with a Catholic church in  the attic) and the Oude Kerk. We did both of those and I got that smug feeling of sharing something that I'm sure they wouldn't have seen had I not been there to steer them. Worth it I can tell you.
From there we headed south and into De Engelbewaarder, aka the Literary Café, a great old pub just five minutes from the Muziektheater, where we had a bowl of soup and a Palm to warm our chilly bones.
After that it was all downhill. We met up with our Mr Flint, Stephen, and went on a rather silly journey out to the Ajax stadium to look in MediaMarkt, a vast electronics warehouse stuffed with boys' toys, and Decathlon, the sports shop next door. Retail wasn't on my plan. It wasn't on anybody's. Gwynne got a power cable for some gadget or other but otherwise we spent our time getting separated from each other, then wandering around trying to find the rest of the group. Over two hundred years of life among us and we were still like a bunch of small kids.
The end of the day out, for me, was so absurd I cannot find the words to describe it. But it involved making an unwanted journey to Central Station in order just to swipe my travel card to avoid paying a penalty fair of €15 for a journey I hadn't made. Sound nuts? I hope so, and it proves that for all the wizardry of the new travel card system they have here, and of which I wrote so much last year, it still isn't working sensibly.
Now the lads are standing outside my front door and we're off in search of Sunday lunch. Oh boy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Move over Sharapova

It's a strange thing about being a singer, that you far more readily remember your failures than your successes. Well, I suppose that's probably true of any performer and it's not just confined to the singing fraternity. The difference is, I guess,  that singing technique is very much tied to confidence; half the battle goes on in the brain rather than in the throat, and anything that makes your brain say "really, are you sure you can sing that high note? Well, best of luck but don't count on it!" is far from welcome. 
The truly great singers, or the ones we celebrate the most, all have their bad days and duff performances. But either they don't let it bother them or they brazen it out so well that the world quickly forgets their shortcomings. I'm not going to name names or cite examples but I certainly could. I think the great singers are like great tennis players. They may lose a set or two but they don't confuse losing a set with losing a match. They move on from their unforced errors, immediately put their lapses behind them and focus on the next point. The rest of us are inclined to stew in our own shortcomings and descend into an Andy Murray-esque funk, slamming down our proverbial racquet and moaning that it's "not fair!"
Equally upsetting is the performance that you know went well but which is greeted with indifference or even a snotty review. We all get snotty reviews. Domingo gets tons of them in the blogosphere. But I bet he doesn't waste any of his time on Google, wondering what people are saying about him. It's the rest of us who fall prey to that sort of thing. Everyone has an opinion and these days they're only too willing and capable of broadcasting it. I'm a fine one to talk as I type my blog. The internet has emptied a whole new and vast bucket of vitriol on the poor performer's soul and it's harder than ever to not only keep one's head in the game but also from having your poorer moments telegraphed all over the world. YouTube can be a useful selling tool but it can also be like a window on the Oudezijd Voorburgswaal where you are unwillingly exposed like a naked old tart, your flaws and blemishes exposed for the world to laugh and sneer at.
What brought this meditation upon me? I'm not going to tell because it's simply too self-indulgent and boring, but getting it off my chest has certainly helped. So, the internet has its uses after all. Thanks!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meat and two veg

I had some of the cast, all Brits, over for a good old-fashioned Sunday lunch today. Despite having come to Amsterdam regularly for the last 21 years I've never done this before. There are many reasons for this. 
First, for many, many years I used to fly home most weekends so it wasn't a possibility. Second, this is the first time in a long while that I've done a show here with enough old friends who not only understand the concept of Sunday Lunch but who are also not flying home themselves every possible weekend. I've got used to spending Sundays here on my own. And third, this is the first time I've found a butcher who sells roastable joints of meat. Roasting is not something the Dutch generally do. Meat is normally stewed, fried or grilled. There must be historic reasons for this which I can only guess at, but the mere existence of the so-called Dutch oven, which is really a heavy stewing pot, must be a clue. It's not something in which you'd stick a leg of lamb.
I was nosing around the Albert Cuyp market the other day and was surprised to see several roasting joints in one of the butcher shops that line the street. Not only that but they sold pork in joints with skin still on. This is something I'd never, ever seen here before and I was so excited I promptly bought a piece of belly for my supper. I've only ever seen belly in slices with the skin removed. I also bought a craft knife from one of the market stalls so that I could score the skin for crackling. Got to have crackling. 
The same butcher had lamb shoulders and legs so I headed back there yesterday for my Sunday joint. Bugger me if all the lamb had gone. None in the cold store either. Damn. I'd even bought mint for some good old fashioned mint sauce. There was a large slab of beef but it looked unwieldy and difficult to roast because of its uneven shape. I was sure if I had a go I'd end up with a joint that was overcooked and dry on the outside and raw in the middle. Too risky. A shoulder of lamb would have been perfect. The only option was a shoulder of pork that was still on the bone - not how you'd buy it back home where it would be boned and rolled, but it would do.
I realised later that I could probably have got a shoulder of lamb at a halal butcher, or even a leg, but to be honest I worry about the welfare of animals that end up in halal butchers. That might be terribly unfair, and I really need to find out, because if could be sure of that I would have absolutely no problem with buying halal meat. Why should I? I've bought it before but always with a slight feeling of uneasiness. A quick trawl on the internet and I'm none the wiser. Some claim that ritual slaughter is humane and others claim it isn't. More research needed I think, and even if the slaughter is painless, under what conditions have the animals lived? It's something I really miss from home, the ability to buy meat direct from the farmer without having to mortgage the house first.
Enough rambling. Lunch was a success. There were five of us. Our Dansker, Gwynne, is 73 and has sung with all the greats in a long and illustrious career. It was an uncommon treat to share lunch (and the two bottles of red he brought) with him while he told stories of productions he had sung with the likes of Pavarotti, Sutherland and Boris Christoff. And the crackling was pretty good too. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sea interlude

There are days when you are reminded that Amsterdam sits below sea level and today is one of them. That's not to say that the city is literally underwater but it is so shrouded in damp and dankness that we may as well be a few feet under the North Sea that lurks, a grey and grumpy beast, just a few miles to the west, barely tamed by dunes and dykes. I used to swim in the North Sea as a child, on its western edge in Essex, and it has always struck me as grim and unhospitable. Cycling in to work today, to board the HMS Indomitable so-to-speak (a little nerdy opera speak for you there - it is the ship on which Billy Budd is set), it felt as if the clouds were joining the canals in a damp marriage. It wasn't raining but it might as well have been for all the cold moisture in the air. 
On my way in I usually pedal past a small café on the corner of Herengracht and Utrechtstraat. It looked so cozy today, with its regularly placed tables in the middle of which sat solitary tea lights (at ten in the morning, mind), that I could have happily given up singing there and then and become a humble barrista. No, not a mis-spelled lawyer, but a simple brewer of coffees. Polishing cups with a tea towel, frothing milk, chatting with the customers... It all looked so much more appealing than spending four hours in a windowless studio pretending to be a sailor. 
But no, I cycled on and spent the day recreating The Royal Tournament instead. Brit readers will get that; Americans probably not. Suffice it say it involved lots of looking enthusiastic, running about, and assembling a field gun, as you do in the normal course of a day's work.
I'm off to see the premier of a new Dutch opera tonight. I've yet to meet anyone who has any enthusiasm for it but I'll try and keep an open mind. Even the conductor told me that it's "crazy". At least there's a party afterwards.