Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: March 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bob Tear - "sublime and celestial greatness"

A neighbour of ours died last week and his widow asked me to sing something at his memorial next Friday. It's always very hard to choose something for these occasions and I suggested Britten's arrangement of "The Salley Gardens". It's short, it's beautiful and it's ripe with poignancy. The last time I sang it was just over two years ago in the dining hall of King's College Cambridge, my old alma mater, at a dinner to raise money from fellow Kingsmen. It was a great evening. Philip Ledger accompanied me and amongst the diners were Stephen Cleobury (the College Organist), David Willcocks, and Bob Tear with his wife Hilary.
It was the last time I saw Bob and today I learned that he has just died.
Like so many tenors of my generation I grew up with Bob's recordings. He represented a new vigour in English singing that made a break with the immediate past and that enormous influence that Peter Pears had wielded for so long. Where Pears gave refinement and, I dare say it, a certain prissiness, Bob was gutsy and visceral. Well that's how he seemed to me and I loved it. Bob's was the first recording of "The Salley Gardens" that I heard and owned, and it was always my favourite. The emotion was real, the picture vivid and alive.
So to have him listen to me do it, to have him hug me later and say nice things... today means more to me than I can possibly share.
I first met Bob at King's in the late 70s when he was in the chapel making one of his many recordings. I was going to the RCM after I graduated and I hoped he would teach me. A few weeks later I went around to his house, then in Holland Park, so that he could give me a lesson by way of audition. I remember my hands quivering with nerves as we had coffee ("Oh I'm just as bad love, look at mine go!) and then he led me down to his garage - it was a modern townhouse - where he had a rather dilapidated upright, and we sang through the Britten Serenade. Bob was a very good pianist who could play anything I put in front of him. He used my vocal score and gave me his miniature score to read. Over the notes of the opening horn solo he had pencilled a text that he and the horn-player Barry Tuckwell had dreamed up as a piss-take on Aldeburgh sensibilities. I won't repeat it all but it started "I like boys. I like small boy's bottoms..." And that was my proper introduction to Bob. He felt the music intensely but he loved to laugh and be irreverent too.
Bob taught me for two years at the RCM. His heart wasn't in teaching technique - something I think he found pretty dull. He wanted to develop the human, the spiritual - the real musician. He gave me, as I'm sure he gave so many, a copy of Alan Watts' "The Wisdom of Insecurity" - a brilliant insight into what I suppose you could call Western Zen - as well as books of poems by his beloved Traherne. He took me to art galleries (often with a purchase in mind) and gave me tips on racehorses. We drank beer at lunchtime and talked about love. He was a mentor in the true sense of the word.
When I got good enough, he gave me jobs. I jumped in for him on several occasions and he used to recommend me for things he couldn't do or didn't want to do. The last of these was last year when he suggested me for a recording of a piece that had been written for him. I stupidly never rang him to thank him.
He conducted me a few times. We did the Britten Serenade together, during which he would mutter encouraging things ("Marvellous darling, marvellous!"), and "The Creation" in Durham Cathedral, where he introduced me to the choir and orchestra by saying I was going to be singing the part of Urinal.
We took to writing to each other, often immensely long ramblings on spirituality, and when he finally got a fax machine (he was no technophile, always writing in longhand and never as far as I know touching a computer. He also couldn't drive) we engaged for a while on an idea of his where we would write alternate chapters of a book. It didn't work. His prose was always much more fantastical and elaborate than mine and leapt into realms of spiritual ecstasy (all that Traherne you see...) which sat uncomfortably with my more down-to-earth efforts.
We only appeared in one opera together simultaneously, and that was "Sir John in Love" at ENO, five years ago. It was a wonderful show to be in, with an extraordinary cast, and Bob gave it his all, but I believe his heart wasn't in singing any more. He was much more interested in painting and writing, and he found singing physically exhausting.
There's so much more I wish I could have shared with Bob. If ever I found myself down in the dumps about anything, I knew I could go to him for a few pints and some solid spiritual counselling.
But now he's gone. To quote The Salley Gardens: "...I was young and foolish and now am full of tears."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Time Waster

Despite having done this singing malarky for over thirty years now, whenever I go to the theatre I still find myself being taken in by the magic of the proscenium. By which I mean, when I see singers or actors (not that the two are mutually exclusive) leave a scene, rather than visualising them going into the wings and back to their dressing rooms I still get taken in. I do actually imagine them going into the street and climbing into a carriage, or strolling in the streets of Montmartre, or in the case of this Billy Budd, being somewhere else in the school.
Considering the amount of time I've spent in the wings, you'd think I would have got the hang of this by now but sadly not. It's especially odd given that I'm in my dressing room right now, typing this while Billy goes on trial on the stage. The tannoy is belching impassioned music and I'm on my iPad. Well at least I'm being somewhat productive. I could easily have been catapulting squawking birds at grunting pigs, as are half my colleagues right now (those that haven't already achieved three stars on every level) or playing Scrabble, another favourite time-waster, for me at least, backstage. I think the Novice and Squeak are already propping up the artists' bar - this theatre being one of the few that has one - as apart from their curtain calls they're done for the evening. Me, I've still got a hanging to do.
So there you are. I know how it really works and yet when I go to, say, Richard lll this summer I really won't picture Gloucester sitting in his dressing-room doing the crossword for half the play, as he almost certainly will be. He'll be in his castle, or on his horse, and certainly in another century. He won't be playing games on his phone. I'm sorry he just won't. Isn't theatre wonderful?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Last suppers

I'm into my last performances Billy Budd now which also means I'm on the Last Week Diet. This is not some special nutritional programme structured around a regimen of vitamins and protein with the aim of building up strength to get over the final hurdle. Psssh. Are you kidding? No, the Last Week Diet is one designed solely around the aim of finishing up all the bits and bobs of food that you've stocked up over the last two months so that you don't leave a stack of uneaten stuff that is either going to be thrown away, or more likely, squirrelled away by your landlord who, to be frank, has already taken what feels like more than his fair share of your hard-earned lucre. Why on earth should he also benefit from a cupboard full of free, unused comestibles? (Though I will say that in my current digs I have a gem of a landlord who is also a good friend so I begrudge him nothing, especially as he laid on some groceries on my first arrival.)
It's not just about waste though. I'm enough of a food nerd to see the tidying out of the larder as a culinary challenge; a bit like a perverse form of Ready Steady Cook where, rather then be presented with a bag of fresh ingredients, you have to see how many meals you can knock up from the mangy things lying forgotten in the back of the fridge.
At the moment I'm mulling over nearly a whole bottle of olive oil, a net of garlic bulbs, half a pack of spaghetti, half a bag of polenta, a block of mature Gouda, a pot of apple syrup, two potatoes, a chunk of celeriac and a tin of corned beef. I'd love to see what Ainsley whatshisname could knock up with that lot.
Hmm, I wonder if corned beef and polenta meatballs would go with spaghetti... topped with Gouda and whole garlic cloves roast in olive oil...

Saturday, March 19, 2011


You can watch a fine trailer for our Billy Budd here

You can see the odd radio mic in a singer's hair. They were for the archive recording (and this) and NOT for amplification. We all hate the damn things and are thrilled they have now gone.

Friday, March 18, 2011

From one cheese nation to another

Between my last two performances of Billy Budd I made a flying visit to Geneva to spend a couple of days with my wife Lucy. She's rehearsing "Punch and Judy" at the opera, a show which opens at the start of April. It had been three weeks since our last rendezvous and it will be another two before I return there for a week or so when the Britten is done here in Amsterdam. Sorry if you've heard all that before but if nothing it serves to remind everyone of the strange way in which opera singers (especially those married to other opera singers) have to conduct their marriages. Our rule of thumb is never to spend more than five weeks apart, even if it's only a two day catch-up between two chunks of five weeks. I don't know what we'd do without video calling.
Lucy was busy for much of the time I was there so I wandered around on my own for a bit and, as I tweeted at the time, I spent all my time wishing I were the other side of any of Switzerland's borders. Geneva is EuropeLite. It isn't France (far too Calvinist and lacking in joie-de-vivre). It certainly isn't Italy (too prissy, again too protestant, too clean). It isn't even Germany where at least you know you can duck into an inviting pub and see people having a good time. It's just there, stuck in the middle, being neither one nor the other. It's a diet yoghurt of a place; worthy and difficult to enjoy. And it is ridiculously expensive.
Lucy and I dined at a very modest chalet-style Swiss restaurant. The sort of place that appeals to tourists if I could figure out why anyone would visit Geneva for pleasure. We thought we'd have some meat fondue as I've never actually eaten it. It was generously portioned - so much so that we couldn't finish all the meat - and it came with chips, just to up the fried quotient. We shared a salad, a bottle of water and I had a small bottle of beer. No puddings or starters and yet the bill for us two came to about £70. For a fondue.
I'm an habitual menu-checker when wandering about cities. I'll stop outside pretty-well any eatery and check what's on the carte. Well in Geneva you'll never get away with paying less than around £20 for a main course, even if that means having bangers and mash. So, unsurprisingly, the restaurants aren't fully of happy carefree diners but are modestly replete with businessmen and diplomats on expense accounts or people like us who are feeling the pinch with every mouthful. I don't honestly think anyone goes out in Geneva to have a good time. It certainly doesn't look that way. At night the streets are fairly deserted. Everyone has rushed home to count their money.
I'll try harder to like Geneva when I go back and I'm sure I'll have more to say on the subject.
Coming back to Amsterdam presented an emotional paradox. On the one hand it meant leaving Lucy again but on the other, Amsterdam is familiar, homely yet effervescent and has so much more to offer the itinerant than Geneva. Last night I met up with a few of the usual Billy Budd suspects in the Engelbewaarder on Kloveniersbrugwaal, a lovely brown bar in a canal house, where we had a couple of Palms before pottering north to O-Cha, a good little Thai café just north of Nieuwmarkt. There a couple of courses and pot of tea cost us just €17 each. After dinner I took Clive, our Claggart,  to De Oloofsport Prooflokaal, the jenever tasting bar at the top of the red light district that was built in 1619 and which has nothing to do with its seedier environs. It's a beautiful little bar and was utterly empty but for us and the owners.  The landlady was more than happy to chat to us about the bar and its many ranks of bottles of gins and flavoured brandies.
Getting there we wandered up Zeedijk, one of the main arteries through the red light district which, I confess, I don't think I've walked up before in its entirety, believing it to be full of crud and seediness. And I think I used to be right but not any more. Now it is full of promising-looking restaurants, many full of Amsterdammers and not tourists as I expected, as well as smart boutiques and bars. You think you know a city and then it takes you by surprise. I shall have to go back in the last ten days I have here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


It hasn't all been nothing but opera in the week since we opened. Far from it. 
I've returned to a few old  noshing haunts and tried a couple of new eateries too. 

Hemelse Modder on the Oude Waal, not far from Nieuwmarkt, I've been to lots of times in the last ten years. It's always good value with decent rather than dazzling cooking based around top quality ingredients, which is just my bag. There were five of us and we all ate from the three course €29.95 menu, which seems to be the going rate for a set menu in town. I started with some duck confit; wild duck I'm guessing as the two legs were very small but intensely flavoured. Next most of us, including me, had pigeon served with a chicory gratin and proper potato croquettes. I like chicory but some of the others found it too bitter. Pudding was a small chunk of berry crumble that was nothing much to write home about. I should have had their signature pudding "heavenly mud" (the restaurant's name) - gobs of dark and white chocolate mousse. But all-in-all a fine meal.  

At the first night do there had been no food - which isn't very clever as we'd been on stage for three-and-a-half hours. So, well after midnight, most of us drifted over to the Blauwbrug pub across the road, had a couple more beers and few portions of bitterballen. 
For the unitiated, bitterballen look like spherical, deep-fried, crunchy croquettes, just smaller than a golfball. Whilst lukewarm to the touch, and therefore easy to pick up in your fingers and dunk in the obligatory mustard, the insides are in fact made of molten lava and many's the time the bitterballen neophyte has burned off the skin on his hard palette by popping one whole into his mouth and starting to chew. In truth the inside is a meaty-potatoey goo found only in Dutch cuisine as far as I know, which manages to be revolting yet strangely seductive. Bitterballen are so hot because the deep-fried breadcrumb crust locks in all the heat from the fat fryer, not as the name might imply because they're spicy; though when your mouth is combusting it does cross your mind that they may as well scrap the Hadron Collider; what's going on in your gob must be as close to the Big Bang as anyone on earth could possibly recreate. 

The day after the first night, just twelve hours after we'd left the pub, a tired-looking bunch met for a late brunch of pancakes in the imaginatively named Pancakes! on Berenstraat in the canal ring. It's a tiny place but for €10.50 you can get a so-called American breakfast that includes a good stack of smaller cakes, topped with bacon and doused in maple syrup, with a very large tumbler of freshly-squeezed orange juice and a coffee. Just the ticket after a beery late night. That's what I chose but I felt guilty for not having a Dutch pancake which is like a thick crepe and best ordered I think with apples, raisins, lots of butter and plenty of stroop (syrup).

Sukabumi got a visit too. It used to be right by the flower market but is now nearer Dam Square, just off Singel. I think it's cheap-and-cheerful Indonesian food is pretty good but I'm not an expert by any means and I'm willing to have my eyes opened to some top Indonesian cooking so that I have a better understanding of what to expect. I feel like I'm reviewing, say, Indian food on the basis of a few visits to our local curry house. 

Caffe 500, so called as it has an old Fiat 500, sliced lengthways, in its window, was somewhere I tried to take Lucy, but my landlord and friend Michiel took me there instead. He had trouble securing a table as it's very popular. Again it prides itself on its produce, much of which arrives daily from Italy. The mozzarella was outstanding. That came in a plate of good antipasti. There was a large birthday party in, and it's a small place, so I think we were unlucky but our secondi took nearly three quarters of an hour to arrive. That's just too long and I wolfed it down hungrily without fully appreciating if it was anything more than fine. It was fagotto - a thin, breaded slice of veal stuffed with two cheeses. We didn't have any pudding - it was too late - and the bill was rather hefty for what we'd had so I can't enthusiastically recommend Caffe 500. It was also incredibly noisy and conversation was only possible by cupping ears and yelling. Not good for a singer. Why did it have to have background music? Why does anywhere have to play music, especially if they are busy and people are trying to converse? It makes no sense to me whatsoever. Personally I love quiet restaurants and wish all muzak was totally banned, except possibly oompa music in Bavarian eateries which is just too hilarious to forego. 

I'm off to Geneva for a couple of nights to see Lucy. Often dubbed The Most Boring City in Europe I'm not gasping in anticipation, nor have I bothered to do any research beforehand. But it will be nice to hang with the missus for a few hours. She's in the thick of rehearsals so that's all we'll manage. I'll be back there for a week after I'm done here so I have plenty of time to, um, unlock its hidden treasures. I'm expecting burnt cheese, cake and chocolate to feature in the diet but I don't know if that's fair. We will see. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dubious stunt

I've not held much truck with the way ENO has taken its marketing in the last few years. It strikes me as a combination of X-Factor-esque, panting hyperbole and glossy mag vapidity. And now the Netherlands Opera, faced with plummeting subscriptions, subsidy cuts and a desperate need for box office revenue, has decided to market one performance of Billy Budd as a "Gay Date Night". This is picture they're using on the publicity:

Needless to say the image has nothing to do with our production. Elsewhere on the web couples are urged to see Britten's "gay opera" on this particular night. They are even offered massive ticket discounts.
I find this depressing on several levels.
I really thought we were beyond this now. Isn't every night at any opera Gay Date Night? I've never known any environment with less prejudice than an opera house and I'm more likely to bump into gay friends at the opera than anywhere else.
If they're going to promote Gay Date Nights are they also going to start Straight Date Nights for operas that they think will particularly appeal to randy heterosexuals? Because, let's face it, that's what this poster is trying to say - "Gay guys will find this sexy".  Why stop at sexual stereotyping? Why not have, say, a Black Date Night for Otello? Asian Date Night for Madame Butterfly? What on earth would they do with Death In Venice?
Which leads me to the more important issue: the labelling of Billy Budd as a "gay opera". I might not know as much about Britten as many, many people but I have a hunch that I know a whole heap more than the marketing twerp who thought up this one, and I am fully confident when I say that Britten would be horrified to have Billy Budd described as a "gay opera". Of course the homo-eroticism is a massive factor in the plot but if I had to describe it in one word - and would that I didn't - the word would be shame rather than gay, though I readily concede that "shame opera" would hardly put bums on seats. I don't think anyone on the stage is playing this production as if they were in a "gay opera". It's just so much more massively complex than that.
And finally, isn't it terribly patronising to sell an opera with the implication that "ordinary" opera isn't as interesting to the gay community as one where some sailors might get their kit off? Where do they get THAT idea? I know many more self-professed opera queens who would rather spend an evening with Suor Angelica than the cast of From The House Of The Dead. (How many naked sailors are there in The Wizard of Oz for gawd's sake?) Conversely, the label "gay opera" might put off a bunch of straight people who really should see Billy Budd because it's such a wonderful opera and they might learn a thing or two. If I saw an evening being sold as Gay Date Night I don't think I'd be alone in thinking I might not be welcome in the opera house that night if I took my wife along.
We'll learn in a couple of weeks whether the experiment in barmy Dutch liberalism has been a success. I'm dubious, as is anyone in the cast, gay or straight, with whom I discuss it, but as a card-carrying liberal I'm prepared to eat my words if I'm wrong. It probably isn't anything to do with liberalism though; just misguided opportunism by the marketing department. And these days, even in opera, the publicists rule the roost.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pre-premiere ejaculation

What is it about first nights? Does anyone enjoy them? And in that I include audience members.

Let's get the audience out of the way first. It's not such a problem here in Amsterdam but certainly in many continental houses first night audiences are largely comprised of great swathes of punters who have no interest in opera other than seeing it as an opportunity for showing off their newest wife/man/frock/earrings/handbag etc etc. And that's just the men. You can smell their indifference across the footlights. Try playing comedy to that lot. It's about as much fun as pinning medals on a Rottweiler.
Then there are all the opera professionals who make a habit of attending premieres, largely I always suspect so that they can scoff all the free food and booze that's on offer at the post-show reception. These are the agents, casting directors, intendants and all their ilk who also make a point of looking straight through anyone they see backstage whom they consider to be beneath their interest or professional sphere. That's usually most of the cast for starters. Unhindered by having to get out of costume these freeloaders are always first to get to the buffet table, so much so that I have been to some post-show parties where they've run out of comestibles by the time the performers have made it to the party. So, you stand there, clutching a forsaken sausage roll and a glass of warm white wine, insecure about how the show has gone for you (because the ritzy and indifferent audience is hardly likely to demonstrate any enthusiasm for anyone but big-name stars) and try to make conversation with people who spend most of their time looking over your shoulder to see if there's anyone more important in the room with whom they should be talking.

Then there are the critics. Hardly there to have a good time are they? Or so it would seem. The least said about them the better.

And finally there are the performers themselves. Wracked with nerves most of them, their careers are on the line. (They are always on the line.) Even the most comprehensive of rehearsal periods cannot prepare you for the sudden and awful intrusion of an audience. "Like having strangers in your living-room" someone once called it. I've never heard anyone sing their best at a first night. I've even heard it said that the anxiety causes blood vessels to expand in your neck which in turn hinders by several percent your ability to produce sound. If that's just a singers' myth, certainly it is very hard to feel as relaxed and in control as you would really like. And who came blame us? There are thousands of damn people watching us and a fair percentage of them, like Romans at the coliseum, have come to see us fail.

Nope, they're no good, first nights but you have to do them anyway. But if I'm buying tickets to a show, I'll always avoid the first night if I can.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

High Kleiber diet

It's funny how a few things in life can come together to plant a single notion in your head. Today, everything for me has suddenly become about authenticity. Not so-called "authentic performance" as it relates to classical music (which, I'm afraid, 50% of the time is about as authentic as a TV advert for stain remover) but meaning being genuine and true.
I was lucky enough to see the National Theatre's "Hamlet" before Christmas where the desperate search for authenticity was the motor for Rory Kinnear's brilliant performance, so perhaps there's something in the air, or this has been germinating in my head for a few months.
If I have one chronic sadness it is that the publicists have become as adept at lying about classical music and musicians as they do about pop. I rail against pop not because the music is always bad - it isn't - but because the industry itself is not interested in the quality of the music but only in its commercial potential. Now, this ethos has all but taken over the classical world and my industry is awash with people in charge who care neither for the abilities of a performer nor the music he plays. They only want to know if the performer can be sold. Just look at the modern classical recording industry which is dominated by beautiful young things, often of very ordinary ability but with great PR skills.
This seems to be so much at odds with the way things were when I started out 30-odd years ago. Perhaps I'm looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses but back then we we seemed to spend more time concentrating on music-making than wondering what would sell. This came sharply into focus when I started watching a documentary yesterday on YouTube about the great conductor Carlos Kleiber, called "Traces to Nowhere". Thanks to Clive Bayley for steering me to it.  I'll add a link at the end of the blog.
Kleiber held no truck with PR. It didn't interest him in the slightest. To watch him rehearse on the film is an utter joy. I was lucky enough to work with him twice and to have one brief conversation with him. Even though my role was small (Roderigo in "Otello") I still hold those experiences to be up at the very pinnacle of my professional life, because for every single second I was with him I had no doubt whatsoever why I was doing what I was doing. I was being a musician without any distractions from the essential task of being a musician. It was the only thing that bothered him so it was the only thing that mattered to us.
I'm lucky enough at the moment to be rehearsing with a director, Richard Jones, for whom authenticity is also at the heart of his work. That could sound odd when I also tell you that this production of "Billy Budd" is not set upon an 18th century warship but in a 1950s English naval school, identical to my own school, Pangbourne. While that may have puritans up in arms when it comes to the many textual references that don't, as a consequence, make any literal sense, the fact is that the new context allows for a theatrical experience that is devastatingly authentic and real. At the end of the hanging scene I have to help carry out Billy's corpse. As soon as we got to the wings after that scene today, I was so overwhelmed by what I had just witnessed and experienced - the institutionalised cruelty of public schools if you like - that I just burst into tears. I hadn't had to "act" anything beyond taking part in a ritual, yet the very lack of acting was what made the scene so devastating. I can't think of a better opera which better demonstrates the idea that it is usually best simply to play the action, nothing more.

Here's the link to the Kleiber documentary. I challenge you to watch it without feeling a sense of wonder and loss. Traces to Nowhere