Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: June 2011

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Where Texas Eagles Dare

I'm trying my best not to be disappointed. That's especially difficult when you haven't had much sleep. It was Lucy's last show last night and afterwards we went to The Tent (the marquee with a bar where cast and audience mingle after performances) so we could make our farewells. There had been the odd rumbles of distant thunder earlier in the evening but the skies were pretty clear. Within half an hour we were in the grip of a full midwestern storm.
Now, the weather in Saint Louis is unlike anything I've ever experienced before. For starters I'd never heard a tornado warning until this trip. Sirens blare and a barely intelligible voice echoes around the city telling everyone to get into their cellars. With recent news of Joplin, where hundreds died when a massive tornado touched down, a twister so fierce that it stripped the bark off trees, and seeing for myself Saint Louis airport, which had been hit at Easter and where half the windows are still boarded up with chipboard, you bet I was down in that cellar the moment that siren started wailing. Luckily no tornado landed on our neighbourhood but a few other parts of town got visited upon for a moment or two and the odd roof got stripped.
Thunderstorms have a habit of whipping up in an instant, or so it would appear if you're not a meteorologist. I think what they really do is zoom across the empty plains like vicious joyriders, smacking things around a bit for a few moments of noisy chaos and then leaving as quickly as they arrived. Last night's was no exception apart from the matter of its departure. It arrived quickly but it clearly liked beating up Saint Louis and so, oddly, it hung around for four hours. Only during a brief lull in the torrential rain were we able to escape The Tent and run to our car to drive home. At 3 a.m. the storm finally eased up and staggered off to bed, like a belligerent drunk.
We were up again at 6.15 and off to the railway station by 7. We're taking the Amtrak train, The Texas Eagle that began its journey more than a day ago in San Antonio, up to Chicago. I'm on it now as I blogify.
America has some fine railway stations. Washington DC's Union Station is lovely. New York's Grand Central is stunning. A pity that most useful trains go from the much duller Penn (though I would loved to have seen the old Penn Station, notoriously flattened before its destruction could be prevented). Los Angeles' Union Station is another beauty. Saint Louis used to be one of the busiest rail hubs in the country and its old Union Station reflected that - a manorial terminus built in stone. As I've blogged recently, the Amtrak station has been moved and Union Station is now a chain hotel and third-rate shopping centre. The new station is a steel-framed shed that makes Bristol Parkway and Watford Junction seem luxurious. Such a pity and a real downer when you've envisaged something from a 1930s movie, with a steaming station buffet-cum-oyster-bar (as you find in Grand Central), that's peopled with ticket clerks wearing green visors and sleeve bracelets, with porters wearing smart blue uniforms and beaming smiles.
Amtrak would have you believe many of these things and a few others besides. They offer a free checked baggage service. We thought this would be a good idea rather than handling our four suitcases ourselves. So we rolled up good and early only to be told that the service wasn't available. We waited for a half hour, not unlike waiting to board a Ryanair flight, and schlepped our luggage onto the train. The carriages on this route are double-decker and you leave your bags below and ride up top. Oddly, like Ryanair, you have a train reservation but no reserved seat. A conductor asks you where you're headed and points you into a carriage where you look for a seat that doesn't already have a ticket above it, or a person in it, and climb in. Shortly the conductor comes along (there are plenty of them on American trains), checks your ticket and scribbles out a reservation slip for the seats. That's you set for the rest of your journey. Now you can wander around the train or sit in the observation car (or Lounge Car as they call it).
Amtrak's blurb says this train has a dining car. You can even look at the menu online. There are photos with smiling chefs and white linen table cloths. I was up for a bit of this and last night had already punted on French toast with maple syrup served, so I imagined, from an elegant metal jug with Amtrak's logo on the side. And coffee in a cup, china of course. On the white linen cloth.
We asked the conductor if the dining car was open for breakfast. "The dining car is not in operation but you can buy snacks from below the lounge". Oh. No apology or explanation. No smile. That's just the way it is, and I suspect it's the way it always is on this leg of the journey. That explained why we saw several passenger detraining at Saint Louis (where the train stops for about an hour) and popping into the station's KFC for some hot, albeit disgusting food. Yes, that's what you get instead of the steaming buffet-cum-oyster-bar, a KFC and a Pizza Hut. So much for progress.
As the train crawled out of Saint Louis and across the seething Mississippi I volunteered to get us some breakfast. Lucy bagged a booth in the Lounge Car and I went downstairs. The buffet made First Great Western's seem positively opulent. A guy who had clearly been to a special Amtrak clinic to have any bonhomie surgically drained from his system responded to my request for various breakfast items from the menu in a flat negative which kind of implied I was several kinds of idiot to even ask for them.
"Two of your yoghurts please."
"There ain't any." (Thinks: what kind of moron wants yoghurt?)
I gave up scanning the menu (Bagel and Cream Cheese? Nope...Muffin? Nope...) and just ordered what I could see scattered about him. So we each had a plastic-wrapped Sara Lee cinnamon danish and coffee in paper cups. It turns out he was doing an egg, sausage and cheese muffin because someone else got one, scalding hot and still wrapped in cellophane, which can only mean it had been electrocuted in a microwave. I think I'd rather stick with the eternally "fresh" danish. Funny that, as it was trying very hard to stick to me.
Next to the Lounge we could see a Dining Car. My hackles preparing to rise, I asked a passing steward about it. "Only open to sleeper passengers" was the response. Sleeper passengers get meals included in the price of the ticket so feeding the few people I could see in there was an obligation. I couldn't see any table cloths though. Or jugs of maple syrup.
The Lounge Car is all very well with its curved ceiling windows and outside-facing seats but on this stretch of journey there is very little to look at. The countryside of Illinois is an expanse of dull farmland, mostly vast fields of corn. Otherwise it's all suburbs or, worst of all, large tracts of ruined industrial landscape. You could be forgiven for thinking, from looking out of the windows as you pass through most of these cities, that America is pretty-much broken. It's an impression that riding in its slow and inefficient trains does very little to dispel. What a pity.

Huh. No sooner had I plonked down that last full stop when something rather sweet happened. A conductor announced that there was pizza for the whole train, a slice each which we could collect from the Lounge Car. She called us in, coach by coach (there are only three coaches aside from the sleepers and the Lounge and Dining cars) and everyone took back to their seats a slice of cheese, pepperoni or sausage pizza, on an Amtrak (plastic) plate as well as some cookies, crackers and dried fruit. It looked like the pizzas has been delivered straight to the train at the station where we last stopped.
How very surprising and I've no idea why they did it. I also see that we are now running along side the old Route 66. Things are looking up. For $32 (£20) each for a ticket it seems churlish of me to moan.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A fine line

Before I got here I assumed that the Opera Theatre Saint Louis (let's just call it OTSL from now on) was a repertory opera company that performed throughout the year, but it's actually a summer-only set-up. Its closest equivalent in Britain would be Glyndebourne, although that gives entirely the wrong impression. For starters no-one here wears evening dress to the performances, nor is OTSL a company that aims to appeal to an exclusive audience as part of "the season". It performs in an unusual theatre that seats about 900, which is intimate by American standards, and the audience is arranged in an amphitheatre around a thrust-stage. There is a proscenium too but because the audience is arranged in a 180 degree arc anything played behind it is lost to a large chunk of the house. So they don't tend to do that.
The theatre is on a university campus, not in the grounds of a country manor, which is handy; as term is over the army of young artists that come for the season can live on site in student digs. The young artists cover principal roles and make up a chorus where necessary; a bit like the Glyndebourne Chorus, but the emphasis is on their solo abilities as opposed to their use as choristers. From what I've been able to hear they are a talented bunch. Some of them do principal roles.
The big surprise for me was that all four operas they perform each season are sung in English. This season they kicked off with Don Giovanni and each subsequent week sees the opening of the next opera, until the last two weeks when all four shows are up and running in rep. This week, the last of the season, they will give eight performances, two of them matinées.
Something else unusual: they pay the singers a weekly salary rather than a performance fee. Because of the staggered start dates the singers arrive in waves, one cast a week after the previous. The earlier in the season your show opens, the more performances you will have (and the more time off between shows), but because you are in Saint Louis for longer you will also take home more pay. It's a pretty equitable system I must say. It also means that if you fall ill for a show you still get paid, though it has to be said that if you're sick you still have to walk the part while your understudy sings from the side. Understudies are never sent on to act. I assume the thinking is that they are so busy with all their other commitments that there's no way they can be rehearsed sufficiently to bung them on stage.
The Saint Louis Symphony, which is a very fine orchestra, plays in the pit. Their concert season is over for the summer so it's an ideal arrangement. The Symphony basically splits into two with each half playing two operas apiece.
Another difference with the usual country house opera set-up we experience in Britain is that there is a large and loyal local following for OTSL. Some punters attend every single show in the season, something that boggles my little mind. After each performance, audience and performers are encouraged to mingle in The Tent, a large open-sided marquee on a lawn by the theatre, and booze the night away. There's no long interval but punters are encouraged to picnic before and after the show. OTSL even gives the singers vouchers to use at the bar after the show, something I don't recall Glyndebourne ever having done.
It's all very collegiate, social and un-starry and I wonder how much of that is to do with the influence of Colin Graham, who used to be here for many years. I only worked with him once, in the early 90s at Covent Garden, and a more considerate and diligent director you would struggle to meet. I was just singing the Glass-seller in "Death in Venice" but was amazed to get a thank-you note from him after the run, as did everyone in the cast.
There are a couple of things at OTSL that I would find alarming if I were working here rather than simply observing from close quarters (for that read: bumming around while the missus brings home the bacon). Colin introduced the concept of The Wingers. These are patrons who, in exchange for extra financial donations, can sit in on practically every single rehearsal. They sit to one side (the wings) and aren't allowed to make a sound, but I know I would find their presence disconcerting. How could you have a good old swear if you screw up? And isn't screwing up a good part of the rehearsal process? If you don't dare to make mistakes it all gets a bit careful and dull doesn't it? What if a winger pays a compliment to one singer and not another? Wouldn't that be the seed for a good dose of paranoia?
The other odd thing is that each show has only two stage-and-orchestra rehearsals and both of them count as public dress rehearsals. So the very first time you step on stage with your full kit and make-up on with a band in the pit, there will be a few hundred bods watching you.
I can see this is all part of a plan to engender a sense of connection between stage and auditorium, which I'm sure helps with patronage and support, but they are sailing dangerously close to the line of demarcation between performer and punter, a line that I rather like. While I applaud the idea, there are times - many of them in fact - when you want that line to be a twelve foot wall, for reasons no other than your sanity and sense of self-preservation. It also shields you from all those questions like "How long did it take you to learn your role?" which are of genuine interest to the civilian but which are totally baffling to the foot-soldier.
But this is America where you have to do everything in your power to bring in revenue, and in OTSL it clearly works. I believe I'm right in saying that despite some adventurous programming over the years they have never gone over budget. Compare that to the train wreck that is happening at New York City Opera and it's a pretty remarkable thing.

Monday, June 20, 2011

California jaunt

I went to San Francisco with very few preconceptions. I've seen the Steve McQueen movie "Bullitt" a couple of times and various other films set in the city. So I knew it was hilly, that it had cable cars, the Golden Gate bridge and Fisherman's Wharf, but that was about it.
I took the BART train from the airport, as it seemed the sensible thing to do, and it wasn't at all bad. It's a subway train really, though who thought it a good idea to put carpet in a subway train is clearly someone who doesn't travel by public transport very much. I was downtown in about half an hour.
I'd booked a small hotel in Nob Hill on the basis that it looked close enough to the opera to walk - there's nothing worse than getting to grips with a strange transport system on the morning of an important audition - and it wasn't expensive, nor was it seedy. The Nob Hill Inn fit the bill perfectly; a twenty-five minute stroll to the War Memorial opera house and quiet and comfy. No bells and whistles, no gym or trouser press. $89 per night including a light breakfast and free wifi (though why ANY hotel charges for wifi these days is a mystery). My room was a little gloomy I suppose as it faced an inner courtyard, but I wasn't there to spend any daytime in my room and I didn't mind in the slightest.
There are three things in a singer's life which are pretty-well equally terrifying and they are The First Night, The First Day Of Rehearsals and The Audition. I try and treat the whole audition process with a sort of take-it-or-leave-it disdain. "This is what I do and if you don't like it then clearly we're not meant for each other" is the attitude I try and have in mind. Not that I do very many auditions these days; certainly not as many as I had to do when I was a nipper. Longevity in the job is no bar to having to go through the process though. Certainly not in an age where companies like ENO make every Tom, Dick and Harry sing for directors who have absolutely no experience in the medium and yet, for some reason beyond my understanding, feel the need to be consulted. I once had to fly in to London from Amsterdam at a godawful hour, the morning after a show, travel halfway across town and sing to a neophyte director who confessed to having no idea what we were supposed to do. I said "how about I sing a bit of Britten?" She stood there while I let her have it and all she could say afterwards was that I was fine, but she thought that when we got around to doing the opera I should be sure not roll any Rs. In fact, a couple of years later when we eventually rehearsed the thing, that was about the only piece of direction I got during the course of eight weeks. Not a happy time.
Anyway, I did my thing for the bods at San Francisco Opera on the stage of their very large theatre, standing by the prompt box on the set of The Ring. Unexpectedly, the pianist completely stopped playing at one point and I fluffed the next line, but I hope no-one minded. And then I went and had lunch.
I went to a kitschy diner called Lori's and ordered a Club Sandwich with fries. It was only then, hearing a bunch of Yorkshire accents from the booth behind me, that it dawned on me that I was deep in the heart of touristsville. Now, I know I was done with work and was also technically a tourist, but I hadn't come to San Francisco with the aim of being a tourist and so I felt entitled to feel superior and up myself in the way every singer I know does when they're working in a city as opposed to visiting it for, you know, pleasure. Of course, having spent the last four weeks in Saint Louis where I've seen and heard no European tourists at all, to suddenly find myself surrounded by Dutch, Germans and Brits, all of them in their standard issue, horrid tourist clothes, with their backpacks, guidebooks and cameras, was something of a shock. I felt snobby and horrified. As you can probably tell.
It didn't stop me doing the touristy things though, albeit with a very superior attitude. The man at the desk of the hotel had advised me, if I planned on getting around on cable cars, to buy a three day "passport" for $20. A single ride costs $5 and as the Inn was near the top of a considerable hill and near the junction of the two cable car lines, I imagined myself popping all over town on the quaint old cars, hopping on and off at will. So I bought a pass.
As it turned out, this was a mistake. One line, that goes West-East along California, isn't working and there's a replacement bus instead, for which the single fare is only $2. This, I'm sure, has put a lot more pressure than usual on the other line, the Powell Street line, that runs North-South, not because of the direction it's travelling but because all those bloody tourists want to have a go on the cable car. I first tried to catch a cable car a few blocks up from its southern terminus but it was packed and no-one was being let on. Every car that passed was full. It soon became clear that the only way to get on was at the very extremes of the line. I eventually managed to get on one later at it's northernmost stop, near Fisherman's Wharf but I had to queue for about half an hour and wait until the third car pulled up. It struck me that this really wasn't a means of transport at all but a theme park ride. I really couldn't be bothered to use it again as it was a pretty useless way of getting around town.
I did use the F line a few times. That runs from the heart of the city out to the Ferry Building and then past all the piers to Fisherman's Wharf. It's unusual because it uses a variety of beautiful vintage trams from all over the States, painted in different liveries, and even an old wooden tram from Milan. Though when I first took that route I thought my travel karma was particularly bad; I waited for a good twenty minutes while loads of trams passed in the other direction and when something did eventually turn up it was, of course, a replacement bus.
The Ferry Building is full of foodie fun as it has become a posh gourmet market. It was almost the highlight of my visit.
Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf is a tourist magnet and the best way I found to deal with it was to skirt along the very outside of the pier, thus avoiding the plethora of cutesy restaurants and retail outlets that draw the throngs. I saw Alcatraz across the bay. I could just about see The Golden Gate through the sea mist and dazzling sun. And I saw the harbour seals. Then I left again, annoyed by the swarms of touroids who were spoiling my tourism.
In the evening I ate at a very basic Italian café a few blocks from the hotel. I was too tired to be adventurous or to enjoy eating a fine meal alone. Besides, I had no idea where to go where I could avoid couples from Croydon in Hawaiian shirts. Yelp!, the handy online guide, was suggesting restaurants but they all seemed to involve a trek across a town. I reckoned I'd already spent a good hour or more queuing for transport. I'd lost the will to do it any more that night. I could have walked to Chinatown but I never think that a Chinese meal for one is a great success. Besides I'd eaten some noodles the night before, straight after checking in at the hotel. A nice quiet wine bar would have done me perfectly but I just couldn't find one.
The next day I had a few more hours to kill before heading to the airport, so I ambled around the shopping streets near Union Square. I thought the Apple shop, so close to Silicon Valley, might be the mothership of all Apple shops but it was just like all the others. A bit at a loss as to what to do in a limited time, I took an old Boston tram back to Fisherman's Wharf with a view to getting a better look at the Golden Gate but there was still a lot of mist engulfing it. So I walked a bit further on and ended up looking at the fishing boats and the plethora of fishy restaurants nearby. Curiously, no-one was bothering to walk along the pier where the boats were moored - too busy gaping at the freshly-steamed crabs I suppose - and I had it to myself.
With time running out and concerns about how long it would take me to get back to the inn to collect my bag (given my persistent bad luck with transport), I thought "what the hell" and dove into one of the fishy eateries for lunch. And it wasn't at all bad. I had a cup of clam chowder then some crab cakes, with some sourdough bread on the side. Service was brisk (I had barely finished my chowder before the crab arrived) but polite and I was out again in forty minutes. Just as well because the trams were running slow again and it took me a full hour to get back to my hotel.
San Francisco is rather alarming compared to sedate Saint Louis. Perhaps tourism attracts them but there were awful lot of panhandlers and, I hesitate to say it, strange people around Downtown. I saw one poor woman who was walking along, arguing loudly with herself. She stopped suddenly, dropped the carrier bags she was carrying and slapped herself sharply across the face before picking up her bags and continuing her noisy promenade. Apart from the yelling, she appeared to be perfectly normal. Perhaps she'd just done a few too many ENO auditions and it had finally got to her.
When I was lunching in Lori's Diner a man dressed in classic gay leathers shimmied in for a look at a glass case that contains a dress once worn by Elizabeth Taylor. He had huge circles of bright red blusher on his cheeks and put on a performance of such over-the-top adoration of the Taylor reliquary that for a moment I thought he must be taking the piss. But he wasn't. Just a bit eccentric. Or perhaps not.
California is known as the land of fruit and nuts. Los Angelinos, or whatever you care to call them, are all about show business, so I get them. I know why they're there and what drives them. They're still mostly bonkers though. San Franciscans I have yet to figure out. It could take some time and who knows if I'll ever be back. That could all depend on how the audition went, and frankly I haven't a clue.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A cheeky condition

I think I've discovered a psychological condition.
Nessun Dorma Syndrome, or NDS for short: the state-of-mind on realising the gaping chasm between singing a popular aria from an opera and the ability to sing the entire role from that opera in an opera house. Also known as the Habanera Delusion and the Brindisi Complex.
The patient may, with plastic surgery and lots of eye make-up, learn to live in the state of delusion or simply be too dim to see the inherent problem as a problem at all. In this case it helps if the patient cannot actually sing the popular aria itself, except possibly in a much lower key, and thinks of the words of the aria as a sort of nonsensical shopping list in a funny foreign language. In time the patient will give up any intention of singing the entire role and may possibly marry a daytime TV presenter. In this case NDS can, hopefully, be safely contained within a very small area of Wales.
In some cases, amongst those with enough awareness of the inherent problem, NDS can manifest itself in an outburst of rejection: the patient, on realising his (or her) possible shortcomings, spurns the entire medium of opera rather than face his (or her) dilemma head on. "If I dump it, it can't dump me" is the essence of what is happening, and the patient never faces the danger of revealing his (or her) shortcomings to a more discerning audience. The general public then believes the problem to be with the medium rather than with the NDS sufferer himself (or herself). In this way the patient can live with the condition, eventually convincing himself (or herself) that he (or she) never actually had NDS but rather that he (or she) was never given the opportunity by the opera establishment to prove what he (or she) could really do.


If you find yourself in Saint Louis and in need of breakfast, I have just the place for you: Uncle Bill's Pancake House. There are two branches, open 24 hours a day, and we've now been go the one on Kingshighway twice. It's not much to look at. The neon sign is broken and it is half-timbered on the inside as well as the outside. But once you've slid into a booth and one of the long-serving waitresses has given you an iced water and your first cup of coffee you realise you're in American breakfast Nirvana.
The first time we went I had the 2+2+2+2 Special for $7.95. That's two eggs, two link sausages, two strips of bacon, two buttermilk pancakes and an order of hash browns. I don't know their secret but the pancakes are very, very good with just the right balance of cake-iness and syrup absorbency.
A couple of days later and we were back. This time I had biscuits and gravy with some scrambled eggs on the side. If you've never had biscuits and gravy you must give them a go. The biscuits are best described to Brits as very light scones, a bit like a very soft soda bread. You get two, split in half, with the gravy poured over. But this is not gravy as we Brits know it. For starters, it's white. I've made breakfast gravy and this is what you do: crumble some breakfast sausage (the innards of a good banger or two will do) into a hot pan, keep breaking it up with a spoon, and cook it until it is well done and has rendered its fat. Lift out the little lumps of meat with a slotted spoon and sprinkle a tablespoon of flour onto the remaining fat, cook it for a mo, then stir in full-cream milk, or "half-and-half", or milk and cream - it's up to you - until you have a good white sauce. Bung back in the sausage bits, stir, season, and there it is. Pour over the warm biscuits until they are well and truly smothered.
Uncle Bill's were good, though I do think my home-made were better, though I'll confess to not having made the biscuits from scratch. Just about everyone in the States buys those tubes of ready-made dough which you break open to reveal several ready-to-bake biscuits, so I did too.
I ate half of Lucy's pancakes. She wasn't going to make it through her whole stack, not with her corned beef hash and poached eggs.

At the other extreme we dined with our hosts in an extremely smart restaurant called Tony's, in the heart of Downtown. Our hosts' daughter worked there many years ago as a pasta chef. She died of AIDS seventeen years ago, but how she became infected is still a mystery. All of her sexual partners were contacted and tested negative and she never had a blood transfusion. The best guess is that she became infected when a burn was being treated. It's a tragic story, made all the more poignant by the fact that yesterday, when we dined at the restaurant, was her birthday. Dinner was a thank you from the four of us staying in the house to our extraordinary and unbelievably generous hosts.
The cuisine is high-end American Italian and the service is very high-end with a large army of waiters to keep an eye on you. The walls are covered with good modern art, except in the bar which has a vast rogue's gallery of signed photos of celebs (including three ex-Presidents) who have dined there. Dishes are finished and plated at the table with plenty of pizzazz. I had a Tony's salad to start - mostly green leaves with strips of salami - and then one of their signature dishes, Lobster Albanello; big chunks of lobster tail cooked with mushrooms, cream and brandy. It was delicious but was nearly eclipsed by the expertly-cooked side dish of spinach. A pity that my trousers were, inexplicably, a bit too tight.
It was a lovely evening but unless you're on an expense account (which, clearly, several people were) it's not a place where people on a normal income can afford to eat regularly. As an indicator, their tasting menu, with wine, is $210 per person. Wine-less it's $180. Bung on top of that tax and a 20% tip (which is what they would expect), as well as paying the parking valet, and the eyes start to water. I'm pretty sure the tasting menu doesn't include caviar. I say this because I noticed that one ounce of the stuff a la carte is $110.
I'm not sure if you get a stack of buttermilk pancakes with that but somehow I doubt it.

Caped Crusader

I've had it with Norman Lebrecht. I enjoyed his book The Maestro Myth. I enjoyed even more handing it to a well-known French conductor for a gander and watching him dive straight to the index to see if he was mentioned. (He wasn't.)
I like the idea of a journalist who takes a particular interest in the workings of the classical music trade. Unfortunately Lebrecht seems to think he is the ONLY journalist with this interest and has turned himself, so he imagines, into a sort of caped crusader with super x-ray vision that can see through the veneer of PR. Supernorm and his Sword of Truth can cut through agents' bullshit with a single stroke! Summoned by the Normphone he will jump into the Normobile to do battle with musical injustices, arrogant divas, people who don't like Mahler and, er, fees that he thinks are too high!
Sometimes he gets it right but too often he gets it wrong, imagining skullduggery where none exists. And he loves a headline, even though it might be total bollocks. Bad news for the music profession is good news for Supernorm. He adores it, drooling over the imminent collapse of various orchestras, and pronouncing the death of opera and record companies even though they are in fact still breathing. In fact Supernorm has become so obsessed with being the first to break a story with an eye-catching headline that he seems to have stopped bothering to find out if a story may be accurate or not, and if a few musicians get hit while he's fighting music crime then so what? They're victims of friendly fire! Supernorm to the rescue! That's what's really important!
I used to follow Supernorm on Twitter but last week he overstepped the mark. First he tweeted a headline "Lady Rattle gives way to Plain Jane", the story being that Magdalena Kozena was being replaced in a performance of "Das Lied von der Erde" by Jane Irwin. To me this smacked of the worst form of sexism, the implication being that rather than getting his Mahler fix from Harrods, it would now be coming from Woolworths. Now, if Supernorm really knew his stuff he would know that Jane Irwin is a fantastically talented, world-class singer. Perhaps he did know that but he didn't care, simply because he liked his headline too much. Someone has argued that he was simply making a joke about titles. Even so, the implication is still that somebody was getting short-changed, and I find that offensive on Jane's behalf.
It was the story that Supernorm "broke" a few days later that really did it for me. Another hugely talented singer, Sandrine Piau, has withdrawn from Glyndebourne's "Rinaldo" because of a knee injury. Supernorm smelled something fishy where no seafood was in evidence. He sneered, he quizzed. He cast doubt upon Sandrine's professionalism. Joyce DiDonato has sung Rosina with a broken leg, why couldn't this French woman buck up and do her job? I'm not going to begin to pull this apart. It does it for itself but I'm sure that what Sandrine really needed when she's probably depressed and in pain is Supernorm jumping up and down on her injured knee. That really scored a victory for classical music.
There are other instances I could cite of Supernorm's thirst for sensationalism, a thirst that would be more appropriate if he were writing about premier footballers for the Sun, but I think I've made the point.
Classical music, and I mean real classical music and not all that Brit Awards tosh, is under serious threat. What we need is considered and thoughtful journalism fighting its corner. What we don't need is a twat in a superhero cape beating the living daylights out of its practitioners just because it makes him look important or clever.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cons and pros

Life for me in St Louis isn't all blogging, swimming pools and smokehouses. No siree, no. I am actually squeezing in a bit of singing too. And, oddly, I've actually quite enjoyed it.
Now, if you're not a professional singer, if indeed in singers' parlance you're a "civilian", you possibly won't get that remark. You would naturally assume that we singers enjoy singing all the time. Well, no, that would be an amateur who does that, in the literal sense of the word. I'm not saying that professionals never enjoy singing. I'm just saying that professionals don't have the luxury of singing exclusively when we feel like it. We have to do it an awful lot of times when it's about the last thing we feel like doing. And I'm not saying that professional singers don't love singing (and I use the word "love" advisedly); it's just that, like all affairs of the heart, it can be something of a stormy and complex relationship. In fact I'm finding these days that it's a bit like dealing with a parent that's going through the onset of dementia.
As the parent/voice gets older the instances of lucidity and clarity become shorter-lived. The real person/voice is in there somewhere but he is befuddled and it takes a lot of patience and gentle coaxing to get him out. This can lead to frustration and tears, culminating in putting the parent/voice in a home that smells of pee and forgetting all about him. Well, perhaps not so much on the last thing, but you get my drift.
In spite of these difficulties that the ageing singer faces - and these are inevitable and undeniable truths; I'm not being twisted and cynical - I can still find myself being pleasantly surprised by the physical act of singing.
Take yesterday. I drive Lucy into her piano dress rehearsal, go to my usual haunt for a cappuccino and a catch-up on Twitter and Facebook (which takes a long time in the mornings when you're six hours behind most of your friends) and then drive back to our digs.
Despite every fibre of my being opposing the idea, I think I should do some practice. I have an audition next week (and I'll get to auditions in another post). I start warming up, very gently at first to coax the old bugger into life and then with a bit more gas. It seems to take an age to feel like a tenor again. Finally I have my full range. I sing through all my numbers, fiddling about, trying new things. Playing a bit. I have no real idea if any of it is any good but after a while the rush starts. It must be something to do with taking in larger quantities of oxygen or the release of endorphins, but bugger me if I don't start to feel the old sensations of elation. They are nothing to do with any sense of self-satisfaction but are entirely physical. I carry on for a good hour. Normally I hate practising if I think anyone can hear me, but once the rush has kicked in I'm past caring. And after I've finished, when my voice is getting tired, the chemicals keep pumping through the veins and I'm on an up for an hour or two more.
Am I back at the piano the next morning? Like hell I am.
Like a middle-aged subscriber to an expensive gym, all the elation is forgotten and all I can see is the struggle up the vocal hill, while my nostrils seem to be filled with the faint smell of pee from the Silver Meadows Home For The Elderly Vocal Cords.

I've also watched a dress rehearsal of The Death of Klinghoffer, and I was bowled over. The Opera Theatre, like Glyndebourne and Garsington, has a young chorus during its short festival season, made up of young artists on the foothills of the profession. John Adams' choruses are fiendishly hard and to see these young singers go for it with conviction, passion and finesse was a very moving experience. All the moaning and sniping, the accusations about opera and the resultant outrage - all of that seemed insignificant in the face of such commitment to the art.
So, if some people aren't comfortable with the world of opera, there are very many of all races and classes who are, and who are hungry for the chance to prove it. Watching the rehearsal I was overwhelmed, bathed in a sudden sense of reassurance. I found myself thinking that if anyone in my profession doesn't realise that we are all eventually replaceable then they must be an idiot. Oddly, rather than making me sad, this makes me feel extremely happy.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pizza slut

Now the dust has settled a bit on Alfiegate, it might be a good time to reflect on what happened in the last couple of days. The more I think about it the more it seems to me that Alfie may well have no intention of singing many, if any, opera roles again. He may have said what he said on Desert Island Discs because he is in the process of rationalising a choice to leave conventional opera behind.
Who can blame him? The temptations are huge.
On the one hand the life of a regular opera singer: long rehearsal periods leading to relatively few performances. A limited audience. Difficult repertoire. Public anonymity, save to a few enthusiasts. Critics dissecting his performances. Long stints away from his family. Loneliness. Auditions. Opera managers sucking their teeth about which repertoire is right for him and his voice. A modest income (despite all the rumours to the contrary). Worst of all perhaps - and something that is oddly peculiar to opera as an art form - the very real possibility that a few fanatics will one day develop an irrational loathing of his singing and boo loudly at the end of a hard evening's work (which singular phenomenon alone could be the subject of a whole different blog).
On the other: all the trappings of popular success. Earnings well beyond anything he can possibly earn on the regular opera circuit. The love and adulation of a relatively unsophisticated public (and I don't mean that in a sneering way). The luxury of being critic-proof. Repertoire which he likes but would never sing on the opera stage. A certain amount of self-governance in his career path. Amplification - that is, never having to worry about fighting an orchestra or being told that his voice isn't loud enough; the microphone can take care of those problems. The chance, in musicals, to inhabit a role for more than a handful of performances at a time.

Whenever pundits start banging on about opera singers having "a responsibility to their art" I find myself grimacing. Afie's first and foremost responsibility is to himself and his family. Singers leave the opera profession on a daily basis for a plethora of reasons, the vast number in complete obscurity. Who on earth has the right to say to someone else "you have to keep on doing on what you're doing because it makes ME feel better"?
But this is all speculation on my part. Whatever Alfie chooses to do with the rest of his life is alright by me. I hope he does return to opera because he was starting to manage the rare feat of being a popular singer both inside the opera house and away from it. And that could be a very good thing.
A lot of people (and I include myself until I took the time to reflect on what this fuss is all about) took umbrage because the implication of what Alfie said was that unless he was in an opera it was going to be very boring. Well I for one don't think Alfie is capable of that sort of malice. I just believe that he didn't think it through.
No, if there's a villain in the piece it has to be the PR types. They've got exactly what they want. Opera is back on the stand as elitist and snobby. And Alfie is the populists' champion. And, more immediately and important to them, Les Mis has garnered vast amounts of absolutely free advertising.
The truly extraordinary thing about this is how this idea of opera snobbery came about. I remember a time when I was completely unaware of any charge of elitism. I went to Covent Garden in jeans, standing in line for cheap tickets with lots of perfectly ordinary people from all backgrounds.
Then Classic FM came along.
Suddenly we were in a new world of bleeding chunks and popular arias. While claiming to bring classical music to a new, wider audience, all they were really doing was establishing a new class system in music appreciation. The PR people got to work and when they heard the word opera they immediately glammed it up with images of people in evening gowns and dinner jackets. There were black limousines, champagne and red roses. The message was that by listening to classical music, people were tapping into a whole new world of sophisticated glamour. But - and this is the really insidious part - heaven forbid that ordinary people think that they could eat at the banquet itself. "Oh no, that's far too glamorous and refined for the likes of YOU. You can have some tasty little morsels, some scraps from the table. You can go in your jeans and baseball caps to big arena concerts where you can see singers in lovely dresses come out and sing the bits you like and know, but the real stuff, proper operas, that's hard. That's for an elite who dress up in their finery and go to stuffy, intimidating places called opera houses. Keep out you ignorant plebs!"
You can just look at "Popstar to Operastar' to prove my point. I haven't seen it this year. I saw one episode last year and, even though I'm told it's supposed to be a bit of fun, was profoundly depressed. Not by the godawful singing, but by the perpetuation of the idea that anything to do with opera necessarily involves everyone bunging on dinner jackets and getting tarted up. What better way to reinforce the idea that opera is, above anything else, elitist and snobby? And none of this has ANYTHING to do with the music or the drama. It is all to do with a marketing image. Opera is now a publicist's easy shortcut to depict a type of lifestyle, a lifestyle that is utterly and bizarrely at odds with 99.9% of the people I know that love the art-form.
And if that doesn't make you want to say "grrrr", I don't know what will.
So-called opera snobs don't react badly to the various assaults on the genre because they're elitist. They do it because the stuff that is being force-fed to the unknowing public is simply bad.
I use the Italian food argument. Lots of people eat pizza, which they regard as Italian food, at Pizza Hut. Lots of people except Italians, that is. Italians of every class and income would regard the food that Pizza Hut sells as an affront to their civilisation. Yes it's edible, barely, but it is as close to authentic Italian food as a poodle is to a racehorse. You wouldn't call Italians snobs for not eating at Pizza Hut. You'd say, well, yes of course they wouldn't eat there. Because it's not the real thing. It's not really Italian food.
And so it is with the pulpy, glutinous, pineapple-chunk-topped atrocity (which comes with a huge cola and garlic bread) that is the thick-crust pizza known as "popular classics". It isn't really opera.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A little Boe peep

Alfie Boe is a very nice guy. We did A Midsummer Night's Dream together at ENO about seven years ago when he was Lysander and I did my usual Flute. He even asked me if I could give him some advice about a section which sits in an awkward part of the passaggio, the area where the voice "turns" into the higher register. I can't remember what I told him but he sorted it out. He acted well too, quite happily playing the buffoon.
A couple of years later we met in the green room at Television Centre. We were both on BBC Breakfast News, he to promote his first solo album and I because there had been a lot of media interest in a project I'd done, photographing everything I ate for a year and displaying the photos as a collage. It was a slow news day in the Silly Season. I was introduced as an Artist and he as a Tenor. It was quite strange because, at the time, of the two of us I guess I was the one with more of a track record in the Tenor department, though in a very different area of singing. That's television for you. Not that I cared very much. I was just so confused and flattered at being described as an Artist. Alfie had two minders with him from the record company's PR department. I was on my tod.
A couple of years after that I went and saw Alfie backstage, very briefly, after the Dress Rehearsal of La Boheme at ENO when they did the new Miller production. I thought he did a great job. So, his voice didn't have quite the oomph that the Coliseum needs for Puccini - it's an awkward bugger that way as I know all too well - but it was a lovely performance and his singing was always true, never pushed.
I heard that Alfie's record label, I think it was EMI, dropped him after a couple of discs because he refused to sing crap. I'm not sure what exactly but I think it was the genre that can be best described as taking a banal pop song, translating it into Italian, bunging in an orchestra and choir and, bingo, transforming it into "classical" music. It is total and utter bilge and I wish the Mylenes, Katherines, Russells, Hayleys etc etc of this world and their Hello! magazine approach to culture would be flung from a very high cliff, but I don't suppose that's going to happen. I digress. Anyway... I admired Alfie for saying "no, I'm a trained opera singer and I don't want to do that stuff." He moved to another label and knuckled down to building his opera career, singing large roles at ENO and small roles at Covent Garden. The last role at the Garden I saw him down for was The Messenger in Elektra, who has about three lines, albeit difficult ones.
The thing about Alfie, I always thought, was that he had the talent and the will to do all that Classic FM stuff which I so hate but he also managed the rare feat of sticking at his opera career at the same time. Good for him, I thought.
In the last year or so (in which I believe he switched again to a big record label), I've noticed that Alfie's publicity machine has been out in full force, and he's hardly been out of the media. This, I'm sure, has everything to do with him going into Les Miserables at the end of this month. I don't know the show - I'm not a huge fan of musicals - so I have no opinion on whether this is a good or a bad idea. That's up to him. I have no problem with opera singers doing musicals. My wife Lucy does both and very well too. Opera companies in Britain can be a bit snooty about it. They tend to assume that once you've done a musical, that's it, you've turned your back on opera, and it can be very hard to persuade them otherwise. I have no idea if this is something that bothers Alfie. We will see what the next years bring.
Today, Alfie appeared on the BBC's Desert Island Discs. I haven't heard the programme but apparently he said that he finds going to opera pretty boring and only enjoys it when he's in it. Good for him for being honest but he surely can't be surprised if this is making a lot of opera people upset. It's the sort of thing Jonathan Miller says all the time, but from a slightly different perspective. And let's give Alfie a break. He has a young family. Why should he go and see operas in the evening? It sounds to me like he and his publicists have decided that they want to project an image of the ordinary bloke, a bit anti establishment, with whom other "ordinary" people can identify.
I don't go out to the opera that much either, for many reasons. In the last six months I think I've seen four productions I've not been in. But I have a huge respect for my fellow professionals and for the punters who do love and support opera. I hope Alfie said something like that. If he didn't then he certainly shot himself in the foot as far as the opera world is concerned.
The more I think about it, the more I find that my biggest problem with today's Alfie "scandal" is that he was on Desert Island Discs at all. He's sung a few operas, made a handful of records and is about to debut in his first musical. He doesn't have a career in Europe and is little-known in the States. In what way is he a prominent candidate for this flagship radio programme? The only reason is that he is currently very much in the public eye due to all the publicity surrounding his upcoming appearance in Les Mis. But is that the remit of the programme? Has DID become just another publicity vehicle for people with stuff to plug? If so, then fine, have Alfie on. But if it's to celebrate the life and work of a renowned singer or public figure (which is what I thought the programme was about), for my money, he's a few more years of hard graft to do to collect those laurels. I can prepare a list of much more qualified interviewees. And no, not for a moment would I put my own name on that list. Do me a favour!
I don't blame Alfie for doing the programme. Are you kidding? He should say no? I blame the publicists and the producers. Do you know that the great humorist and columnist Miles Kington never appeared on DID? That rather demonstrates how off-kilter this is. Why not get Katherine Jenkins on? Or Justin Bieber? Or Jordan?
It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Quietly slagging off the very genre that started your career in the first place doesn't seem like a good plan if Alfie is serious about continuing as an opera singer. And when I say opera singer I mean someone who sings whole operas, not just little chunks of the stuff. You know, like some of those twats I mentioned earlier.
I think Alfie, like so many before him, finds himself at something of a crossroads; but if he thinks that by taking the yellow brick road which promises arena concerts, frequent appearances on daytime telly and massive wealth, he can later roll up at Covent Garden or any major opera house and expect them to take him seriously and offer him some decent roles, I think he's being led up the garden path. But what do I know?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A bunch of flannel

I haven't posted in several days, partly because my brother was in town for the Memorial Day weekend and partly because I've been out being a tourist. One day I tried doing this on public transport, as I'm a firm believer in the stuff, but while the MetroLink train - a fairly new light train system - was very good and shot me from west to east in no time, the buses were a bit crap. I had very long waits - I gave up once and walked the two miles I wanted to go - and the sad fact is that in this town (unlike New York for instance) bus travel seems to be exclusively for the impoverished or the slightly deranged. In my khaki shorts and pink polo shirt I looked and felt desperately out of place. Fellow travellers looked at me oddly, thinking perhaps that I must have been caught Driving Under the Influence and banned from driving; though one man tried to engage me in a conversation about some recent shootings-cum-killings and I really didn't want to get into that on a crowded bus.
Sad to say that most of the impoverished are black. Indeed the only army recruiting office I have seen so far has been in a neighbourhood best described as poor and predominately African-American. Ugh.
This is not The South though. Indeed, without getting into a history lesson, Saint Louis has played a massive and pivotal role in the advancement of Civil Rights.
What have I seen? A quick rundown:
The Arch, Saint Louis' most famous landmark. Built in the 1960's it's America's tallest monument at over 600 feet and very impressive it is too, bang next to the slightly flooded Mississippi. There's a lift-tram thing that takes you up the inside but we ran out of time to do that. Just as well as I suffer from vertigo and I think I would have been in several kinds of torture at the top. We did watch a fascinating old documentary on the building of the Arch and the aerial views of steeplejack floating around on girders hundreds of feet above the ground were enough to give me the heeby-geebies. Try and work out how to erect an enormous arch built out of stainless steel and your mind quickly boggles. The way they did it was extraordinary and too long to detail here. No wonder it took well over two years to build.

The Art Museum is really excellent and FREE! As is, wait for it... the zoo! I haven't been to the zoo, but when was the last time you saw a free zoo? Free entry is guaranteed by statute, which is a very civilised thing. Both are sited in Forest Park which is simply enormous; bigger than New York's Central Park, and the site of the World's Fair of 1904. The Art Museum's collection is not especially spectacular but there are some lovely things in it, especially the German Expressionists.

Also in the park is the Missouri History Museum, also free, and worth visiting especially for its exhibitions on the World's Fair and on Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly the Atlantic in 1927 in the Spirit of St Louis. I had no idea that he became an environmental campaigner in the 1960s. The size of the World's Fair was and is truly extraordinary. The Art Museum and a smallish pavilion are the only two buildings remaining from the Fair. All the rest were built out of timber and covered in a sort of plaster which gave them the appearance of massive, classical pavilions complete with columns and domes. Disneyland is small by comparison. They held the Olympics here in the same year but it was little more than a side show.

The Cathedral is really quite new but built on very traditional Romanesque lines with mosaic covered domes. It's impressive but oddly un-enthralling. Well, to me at least. Perhaps I just wasn't in the mood after a long and fruitless wait for a bus to get there.

The bus I eventually caught from the Cathedral to Downtown dropped me near Union Station, once one of the busiest train stations in the country. Now it's a hotel and shopping mall and really rather shit. Trains now leave from a characterless shed a few blocks away. The demise of railway travel is one of the saddest things in this country and every attempt to reverse the decline seems to hit the buffers. We're taking the train from here to Chicago in a few weeks' time. Might as well while we still can.

Downtown near Union Station is bleak and grim but just a few blocks north and the city is hip and lively. Saint Louis is a beer town, thanks largely to its German immigrant roots. There used to be several big breweries in town, most of which were sucked into the Anheuser-Busch empire. They are the people who make the unspeakable gnat's piss called Budweiser, and who are now owned by Belgians. In the last twenty-odd years several small breweries have emerged to satisfy the thirst of people who want proper beer, pre-eminent among which is Schlafly. And by golly their beer is good. We went to their Tap Room, a bar-cum-restaurant in their downtown brewery, ate really well and drank a black beer and an American Pale Ale which were knockouts. The APA is strong, about 6%, and has an extraordinary aroma of caramelised orange peel. I ate a big dish of mussels with salsa verde and fries and was a very happy camper.

Not so far away is Pappy's Smokehouse, a good old-fashioned barbecue joint that closes when it runs out of food. The first day we tried it was the day after the Memorial Day holiday. We got there at 5.30 and they had already run out of what we were after, their spare-ribs. We made do with brisket and some turkey. We went back the next day at about 4 and secured a half rack each. They were very good but, I have to say, not as good as the sample I got from Bogart's in Soulard, despite having the same executive chef. Bogart's is only open at lunch from Tuesday to Saturday so there's no two ways about it; lunch it will have to be.