Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: July 2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

If O2 ran the Royal Opera

Scene: the auditorium of the Royal Opera House. A stage and orchestra rehearsal of Vito Odafone's opera "La Merde d'Orange" is in progress. In the pit, conducting, is the Music Director Tony Mobile. He's generally very happy with the progress of rehearsals but the soprano keeps singing a wrong note. He picks up the telephone on the wall of the pit behind him and dials 0800.

"Welcome to ROH O2 Performer Services!" says a cheery voice.
"Ah, hello..."
"The number for ROH O2 Performer Services has changed!" continues the recorded voice. "Please dial 0844 1234578973623322!"
The line falls dead.
Maestro Mobile finds something to write on and a pencil, redials the 0800 number and writes down the new number. He dials the new number.
"Welcome to ROH O2 Performer Services!" says a different cheery voice.
"Hello! I just..."
"If you want to find out how much rehearsal time you have left, press One! If you wish to add more rehearsal time, press Two! If you are thinking of leaving the production, press Three! For all other enquires, press Four!"
Mobile presses 4.
"Ah, hello..."
"I'm sorry we are experiencing a high volume of enquiries at the moment. Please wait while we try to connect you to a member of our performer services team!"
Mobile holds the phone well away from his ear while the phone blares some 80s rock music at him.
After a minute or so a distorted voice comes on the line.
"Hello. You are through to Performer Services."
Mobile waits, assuming this is another recorded message.
"HELLO! Performer Services. My name is Kumar. This call is being recorded for training and monitoring purposes. How can I help you?"
"Oh sorry, hello. The soprano is singing a wrong note and..."
"Can I have your production name please."
"Oh. La Merde d'Orange."
"Fantastic. And a few security questions. What is your name?"
"Anthony Mobile"
"Brilliant. And are you the prime conductor of this production?"
"Yes, I am"
"Brilliant. And can I have your password please."
"Pardon? Oh, I didn't know I had one. Um, crikey what could it be. Can you give me a hint?"
"Your mother's maiden name."
"Oh, Cellulare."
"Sensational. And the first line of your current address."
"Royal Opera House."
"Brilliant, Fantastic. And how can I help you?"
"Well, the soprano is singing a wrong note. On page 124, fifteenth bar, she keeps singing an F when it should be an F sharp."
"Hmm. One moment sir, but I don't see you on our system as the conductor of this production."
"What? But I'm the Music Director of the Royal Opera!"
"Oh, I'm sorry, you've been put through to the Visiting Conductor service team. Hang on one moment and I'll put you through to our Music Director team."
Again the 80s rock plays through the earpiece.
"Hello! You are through to Music Director performer services. My name is Jarleen. This call is being recorded for training and monitoring purposes. How may I help you?"
"Well, the soprano is singing a wrong note. On page 124, fifteenth bar, she keeps singing an F when it should be an F sharp."
"OK, brilliant. First we'll have to go through some security questions."
"Oh god, not again."
"Never mind."
"Right sir, What is your name?"
"Anthony Mobile"
"Brilliant. And are you the Music Director of this opera house?"
"Yes, I am"
"Great. And what's the name of your current production?"
"La Merde d'Orange."
"Brilliant. And can I have your password please."
"Fantastic. And the first line of your current address."
"Royal Opera House."
"Brilliant, Fantastic. And how can I help you?"
"Well, the soprano is singing a wrong note. On page 124, fifteenth bar, she keeps singing an F when it should be an F sharp."
He can hear typing on a keyboard.
"Brilliant. And when did this problem start?"
"Well, day one, really. A month ago."
"Fantastic. OK well it's in the system now and we'll make sure that gets seen to. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"
"Well, every time I ring the number you gave me to call Performer Services, 0800, I have to redial and then I get put through to the Visiting Conductor line and then be redirected through to you. Can we get that fixed?"
"Brilliant. Let me have a look." There's tapping at a keyboard. "Well, Mr Bomile, according to the computer that shouldn't be happening."
"But it IS happening."
"Brilliant. Well, I'll put a note on the system and have our team have a look at it."
"Thank you. Good bye."
He hangs up.
An hour later, while he's conducting Act 3, the phone in the pit flashes at him. He picks up the receiver, worrying that some calamity has happened.
"Hello. Am I speaking to Mr Mobile?"
"My name is Brooklette and I'm calling from Cello Customer Surveys on behalf of ROH O2 Performer Services and I was wondering if you have a few moments to take part in a survey about your recent experience contacting their Performer Services team."
"Well I'm quite busy right now"
"The survey will only take a couple of minutes."
"Oh alright then."
"Fantastic. This call is being recorded for training and monitoring purposes. On a scale of five to one where five is Very Satisfied and one is Very Dissatisfied, how would you rate your recent overall experience with the ROH O2 Performance Services team?"
"Well, the soprano is still singing the wrong note."
"I'm sorry sir, I'm not here to address the nature of your original problem. We are an independent survey company that has been commissioned by ROH O2 Performer Services to help them assess the performance of their Performance Services team."
"Well in that case I would have to say One, Very Dissatisfied."
"And how well would you say they performed it tackling your particular problem?"
"One. Very Dissatisfied."
"And how would you rate the friendliness of the members of the team who dealt with your problem? Five for very friendly, one for very unfriendly."
"Well they were friendly enough but they didn't solve the problem. Three. This is turning into a colossal waste of time."
"Brilliant. Just one more question. Given your recent experience how likely are you to stay with the Royal Opera? Five for Very Likely, one for Very Unlikely."
"Fantastic. Thank you Mr Bromide."
The next morning Tony Mobile receives a text message from ROH O2 Performer Services. It says "Thank you for contacting ROH O2 Performer Services. We have sent you an email about the problem."
Mobile fires up his computer and his email programme but there is no email from ROH O2 Performer Services.
At the morning's rehearsal the soprano is still singing the wrong note.
Then he gets another text message. "We are sorry you have been unhappy with your recent experience. We take our performer servicing very seriously and one our Team will be contacting you shortly to discuss the issues you have raised. Please do not reply to this message."
Again, the next morning Tony Mobile receives another text message from ROH O2 Performer Services. Again it says "Thank you for contacting ROH O2 Performer Services. We have sent you an email about the problem."
Still there is no email.
He decides, much though he dreads it, to ring the 0800 number again.
"Welcome to ROH O2 Performer Services!" says a cheery voice.
"Ah, hello..."
"The number for ROH O2 Performer Servies has changed!" continues the recorded voice. "Please dial 0844 1234578973623322!"

Come the first night, the soprano is still singing the wrong note.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

So the tenorman told when he had grown old

Sometimes Art and Life can collide in the most extraordinary way, where each informs and enlightens the other.
Richard Suart is one of my oldest and closest friends. Two weeks ago his 26 year-old son Christopher died after a battle with cancer that first struck him as infant leukaemia, which was beaten back by chemotherapy, and which then re-emerged two years ago as tumours in his brain. I didn't know him much as an adult but I still remember him as a newborn, before he first became ill.
Yesterday was his memorial service and the church was full of Christopher's friends, all in their 20s. In fact I'd say I lost it as soon as I saw the first group of them, smartly dressed but not in mourning, waiting for the service to begin. So much for the "me-me" generation who think of no-one but themselves. Here were well over a hundred young adults who had come to share the pain of losing of a friend in a way I don’t think my generation would ever had done.
The service was extraordinary. Richard spoke, brilliantly, and two of Christopher’s friends too, their tributes full of funny stories about him, his humour, his kindness and his lust for life. As a child Christopher had struggled to make friends - a symptom of his combat with his disease and his long periods of hospitalisation - but he'd later flowered at a local theatre club and then at university.
And of friends he clearly had no shortage. Someone wrote and played a song. Tears were shed by the gallon. But there was no anger, no sense of outrage at Christopher's too-short life; just wonderful memories, deep gratitude to have known him and lots and lots of love.
And then the vicar spoke.

Earlier in the week I could think about nothing but vicars.
There's going to be a memorial service for Bob Tear in King's Chapel, Cambridge in November (as well as the one planned in London in September) and I'm very touched that Philip Ledger has asked me to sing a few songs with him in tribute to Bob. We've been figuring out what to do and there was no doubt that we must perform Britten's The Choirmaster's Burial from "Winter Words", his cycle of Thomas Hardy settings. The poem, related by "the tenorman", tells what happens when the choirmaster dies - "choir" relating not to singers but to a choir of viols or "lutes", commonplace in the West Country before churches installed organs. Hardy's novel "Under The Greenwood Tree" is all about this. The choirmaster has asked his players that when he dies, they'll play his favourite psalm, Mount Ephraim, at his burial but the new-school vicar poo-poos the idea as old-fashioned and he is buried in silence. That night the vicar is awoken by the sound of the choir, dressed in white, playing and singing Mount Ephraim at the grave of their friend.
It's a wonderful song and you can see how it just has to be sung for Bob.
Bob wrote a set of poems as a response to Winter Words which became a song cycle by Jonathan Dove called "Out Of Winter" and they performed the cycle together a few times. I'd hoped I could do their song about the vicar at Bob's memorial. It describes how the moment the vicar said "no" his soul turned to a husk. Bob's poem is very "Bob" in that it can seem like a coruscating attack on the priest and his kin, whereas, if I had to offer my take on it (which I suppose I do as I'm the one writing this blog) I'd say his point was that you don't have to wear a dog collar to understand the true nature of God. Far from it.
Philip Ledger and I discussed long and hard whether we should do the song, the worry being that people might miss the point Bob was making and they'd feel that his own memorial service wasn't the place to be having a vicious dig at the clergy. So, sadly, we decided against it.
We want to celebrate Bob's deeply-held spirituality and the best way we can find to do that is by singing Salutation from Finzi's "Die Natalis", his settings of Thomas Traherne. And we'll do a song from Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin". When Bob taught me, these were both pieces that I took to him for lessons.

Just as the vicar who appears in Hardy’s poem (and later in Bob’s) is spiritually disconnected from his flock so, it seemed, was the vicar at Christopher’s funeral. He launched into a sermon that sounded as if it had been pulled from a file marked “for funerals of people who die too young”. In his third sentence he said “death often strikes me as being at odds with nature” at which point the entire congregation collectively thought “what the hell are you talking about?”  I don’t think one person there thought that death was at odds with nature. Death is entirely natural. He went on in a vein that presumed we were all angry with his god for snatching Christopher from us too young. And his solution to this was to ask his god into our lives.
Hadn’t he been listening? Hadn’t he heard the tributes of gratitude for Christopher? Didn’t he hear how joyous these young people had been to have known Christopher? Had anyone manifested any sort of anger? Er, no. The only anger I was now feeling was that he seemed to be turning the death of my friend’s son into a campaign to drag a large number of young adults back into his fold.
God had already been in the church, in the hearts of Christopher’s friends, but the vicar was so locked into his dogma and his own job description that he couldn’t hear him/her.
Luckily the vicar shut up after ten minutes, by which time no-one was listening, and we could all lustily sing the final hymn, leave his church and hug Christopher’s family. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Burned at the steakhouse

The penny has dropped. I have spent years and years wondering why American tourists in London flock to Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses and now I think I have it figured out. Because, let's face it, you'd have to be something of an idiot to take a close look at one and not realise that they're awful. If, like me, you grew up in the age of the Berni Inn you'll associate the word Steakhouse with something naff and third-rate, barely a short step up from a Little Chef. In the States a steakhouse is an altogether different beast.
In Chicago we were hunting around for places to eat. Our first night in town we went to a Michelin-starred place called Boka which I didn't like much. The cuisine was what you could call Italian-Pacific fusion. That stuff always makes me wary but I was up for an experiment. The first course was great - stuffed baby squid on a bed of spinach. The second was just weird. Ravioli, filled with beef ("steak tips"), were dotted around a large oblong plate which was also covered in tiny gobs of various vegetable purées as well as little bits of morel, the odd pea and dribbles of "truffle jus". It looked a mess and it tasted a mess. The ravioli were greasy and would have been fine in a good old-fashioned tomato sauce but not like this. Perhaps I wasn't in the best of moods, having just lost my reading glasses for the second time on the trip, but I also found the service cloying. Each item was described fully on the menu (which in itself is overkill - I don't need to to know every single bloody ingredient in the dish) so it struck me as fairly ridiculous when the expeditor (the odd name they give to the bloke who delivers your food to the table as opposed to the waiter who takes your order) laid down our plates and obsequiously described the dish in minute detail all over again. You do reach a point where you want to tell him to just fuck off. Lucy had a fish dish with piles of mushy red rice. The point of the redness of the rice utterly eludes me. It was a bit of a disaster and she couldn't finish it.
(The evening was saved by seeing an excellent play, Middletown, brilliantly performed across the road at Steppenwolf.)
The next night I was in the mood for something much more old-school with white linen tablecloths (Boka's were black - oh puh-lease...) and less pretentious waiters, and the more I hunted on Yelp the more it because clear that, downtown at least, our best bet would be a steakhouse. Yelp was telling me that steakhouses were places where you went on special occasions, dads' birthdays being a favourite, and especially when you wanted to push the boat out. Not exactly my experience of steakhouses in England but I was intrigued and as it turned out, Yelp wasn't wrong. (It was wrong about Boka though.)
We decided on Benny's Chop House principally because a review had described it as like stepping onto the set of Mad Men, and that alone sounded like our idea of a good night out.
Well, let it be said that on the evidence of Benny's a Chicago steakhouse is about as similar to an Aberdeen Angus as a Rolls Royce is to a tricycle. The service is impeccable for starters. Lucy had an organic, grass-fed Kansas strip and I had a 12 oz dry-aged rib. We shared two sides: a charred romaine salad and a basket of fries. The salad was the star of the meal. A romaine is split lengthways, singed on a griddle, drizzled with a citrus dressing and topped with Parmesan shavings. The fries came in a little deep-frying basket (and cost a whopping $5.99). Rather than ask us how we wanted our steaks cooked we were asked what temperature we would like them. A new one on me. I can only guess that in a country where meat thermometers are commonplace some people actually answer that question with some digits. We said "medium rare". The food was very good but let's face it, not exactly the stuff that demands the highest-trained chefs in the world. That's not to diss the skill of the people grilling the steaks - there's nothing worse than duffly-cooked meat - but "haute cuisine" it isn't.
The food was expensive, no doubt about it (and I guess those poor buggers in Aberdeen Angus see the menu and think they may be onto a bargain), but the drink pricing was a whole other ballgame.
When I eat out in Europe I'd say the norm is to be handed the wine list with the menu and once everyone has decided what they're eating there follows a discussion about what to drink and someone chooses a bottle. Not so in the States. We sat down and after a moment our very slick waiter presented us with a cocktail list and the wine list. Well, being in Mad Men mode we had to order a couple of martinis and no sooner had we done so than the waiter whisked away the wine list, well before we'd even seen the menu. So we had to ask for it back. Speaking personally, after a large martini there's no way I can tackle half a bottle of wine so now we were into the realm of ordering single glasses of wine. In fact, ordering single glasses is what they expect (and want) you to do. I don't know how they do it but waiters manage to turn drinks ordering into a strictly one-by-one affair. Perhaps it's rooted in a culture of expense accounts where everyone at a table wants separate checks. I don't know, but you realise at the end of the meal that you've spent a vast amount on a very small amount of wine. I'm told that the typical policy is to charge for a glass what the restaurant actually pays for a bottle. Add onto that price sales tax and a  20% tip and it gets positively bonkers. Lucy had a glass of an Oregon Pinot that cost $21. That's about $28 (£17) by the time you've actually paid for it. For a 6oz glass. My Zinfandel was $17. And these were on the cheaper end of the list. You can see why the Don Drapers of this world stick to Martinis at $12 a pop. Benny's Chop House sells a Richard Hennessy cognac for an astounding $375 a glass. How that single brandy would then merit a $70 tip beats me, but so it goes.
When you're spending that sort of money on a bevvy then you must surely be in a macho world that I find quite disgusting; one where businessmen try and out-impress each other with the size of their willies, I mean expense allowances.
Don't get me wrong. We had a good evening. I just think I'd rather blow $100 a head on, say, a tasting menu of small dishes at a French restaurant with a shared bottle of wine, than a meal that, let's face it, consisted solely of a big steak, chips and salad, washed down with a couple of drinks. That is, after all, all that we ate. No starters or puddings.
So that's your Chicago steakhouse for you.
A bit stunned, we walked around the streets of Chicago and into the lobbies of some of its astonishing buildings. Then we bought a tub of Ben & Jerry's "Americone Dream" from a Seven-Eleven and ate it with plastic spoons lying on our hotel bed, watching The Late Show.


I'll be posting this from back home in England having only had time to write on the overnight flight. I had hoped to sleep but that didn't work out.
I'm sure we're all used to looking around a departure area and thinking "oh please, please, don't let me be sat next to him." No? I do it all the time. The guy I picked out was a 70 year old Indian man who must have been sitting a good ten feet away. The thing that was bugging me was that every two minutes he would clear his throat noisily, as if dealing with a serious case of post-nasal drip.
Well sure enough he's in the very next seat to me and he has cleared his throat for the entirety of the eight hour flight. Not only that, but he has quite stupefying BO, so bad that I worry it is seeping into my clothes as well as his.
So if this is full of typos I apologise but I haven't slept a wink.