Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: November 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Woman gets an award no-one has ever heard of

When the news spread last week that Katherine Jenkins had been given a "Mozart Award", the sound of serious music lovers' jaws dropping could be heard in outer space. Many simply couldn't believe it. They thought it was a hoax. How could they give a Mozart award to Jenkins? Had she ever tackled Cherubino, Dorabella, Sesto, Idamante or Zerlina? No, of course she hadn't. A Barry Manilow award would surely be nearer the mark.
But there on Twitter was her photo and in her hand a thing that looked like a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher.
A trawl on Google could find nothing about a UNESCO Mozart Award. It found their Mozart Medal, but the object in Jenkins' hand looked nothing like a medal. And besides, the Medal seems to be given, in general, to very high achievers. Its past recipients include Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, the Purcell School and Mstislav Rostropovich. And while a couple of its recipients might be described as dodgy - Tikhon Khrennikov was basically a Stalin henchman and the last recipient, Mehriban Aliyeva got hers for "strengthening the intercultural dialogue" (though I don't know what that actually means) - it is clear that the Mozart Medal is a serious award given to significant people. Surely, given the size of her PR operation, if Jenkins had been awarded the Mozart Medal we would be hearing about it from every corner of the media, let alone from UNESCO itself. But instead we were being treated to a staged photo op of her "busking" (always with the trusty microphone) at Leicester Square tube station.
Her own fans on the forum of her website, while eager to tell her how much she deserved it, also seemed bemused and asked for more information. None has been forthcoming.
Had she lied about getting the award or misunderstood and been too embarrassed to admit her mistake, hoping the blunder would just disappear? The plot thickened when emails to various offices of UNESCO could find no-one who had ever heard anything about the "Mozart Award" or could find out anything about it. All they could tell us was that you can buy reproductions of the Mozart Medal in their gift shop.
So here we had Katherine Jenkins claiming to have received an award from UNESCO when no-one at UNESCO could verify such an award exists. But then my son Adam, who can find a needle in the internet haystack, discovered that this time last year Paul Potts had announced that he had been presented the "Mozart Award" at the same gala, at the same hotel in Dusseldorf. Only he could actually spell the German city. I tweeted this new piece of information and much to my surprise, Potts tweeted me back saying that's what he "was told it was. If wrong, not down to me. It was given to me at gala in Germany. Done gala 3 times." (We then started a fascinating and touching exchange of tweets in which he asked me what I was working on at the moment - "always interested in the real opera world" - and we compared youthful experiences of singing Britten's "Rejoice In The Lamb").

However, this raised some new questions. First, why did Potts' award look like a medal when Jenkins' looked like a glitzy pyramid? Second, if there really is a UNESCO Mozart Award why is no-one prepared to acknowledge its existence apart from its recipients?
I think the clue lies in the gala itself, which appears to be a mid-range celebrity bash paid for by god-knows-who.
UNESCO is a strange organisation. Simon Jenkins said so in last night's Evening Standard:
"If ever there were a tax-free job-creation scheme for a vagrant bourgeoisie, this is it. Unesco staff cruise the world, living it up at some hapless taxpayers' expense, handing out bouquets and brickbats like a cultural Sepp Blatter. Their judgments are without accountability."

I think this is how it works: somebody throws a celebrity, black-tie bash and a popera singer is invited to perform (because that's, you know, a bit posh), lured possibly by the promise of an award. Let's not forget that award ceremonies of dubious merit, of which the Classical Brits must take top billing, are the lifeblood of the pop-classical music biz. Something is found from the UNESCO gift shop. This year it seems to be a replica of the thing they gave the actor Clive Owen, the Pyramide con Marni, for work in Rwanda. From photos I've seen they seem to give one to pretty-well anyone who turns up. Last year they gave Potts one of the Mozart Medal replicas in a frame. Some minion (probably a diplomat's niece who's just been thrown out of a Swiss finishing school and who is on 45 grand a year being a useless PA) sticks on a little plaque and the evening's host announces to the assembled freeloaders that the evening's entertainment is being given the Mozart Award! Everyone goes "ooh", checks themselves in the mirror, and then they move swiftly on to present Naomi Campbell with the Ghandi Award for her work against domestic abuse. Or something like that.
Basically, it would seem to be a load of bollocks.
So, yes, Katherine Jenkins did get a Mozart Award at a Unesco gala ("in Dusseldorff"), but it holds as much weight as saying I once got awarded some crystal glasses from BP in recognition of buying ten gallons of petrol.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Preaching to the choir

I don't know Katherine Jenkins. I've never met Katherine Jenkins. I have no personal beef with her and I have no idea what she's like.
These facts, these demonstrations of my personal disinterest (note the proper use of that word), and my own thirty years-plus of experience as a professional singer qualify me well I would think to give you my informed opinion that she is a pretty poor singer. Or to refine that a little: she's a pretty, poor singer.
That's alright. There are plenty about. I'm not about to claim that I on the other hand am a great singer, because my abilities are actually irrelevant. It's my experience that is crucial here. I'm not writing about my singing, I'm writing about hers.
My field of experience is classical music and opera and I can tell you straight away that Katherine Jenkins is not very good at singing opera. This could be because I'm told she's never actually sung an opera, and contrary to what you may think, we opera singers are all waiting for her to sing one to see how well she does in the exercise. On the evidence so far, "badly" would be the likely outcome. In a general audition for an opera house, she would be swiftly on her way out of the stage door and her agent would be in receipt of a tetchy email from the casting director.

And yet Katherine Jenkins is terribly rich and famous. Do I envy her wealth? Not much. Do I envy her career? Not a bit of it. I wouldn't do what she does for all the tea in China.
So, there we are, I think we've established that I'm not writing this with any sort of personal axe to grind. If I have a sense of outrage, and I do, it must be fuelled by something else. And in trying to pin down what that outrage is I've decided it must boil down to the way that Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson, and all the others of the pop-opera ilk have taken a beautiful art form and turned it into a chintzy piece of crap, solely with the aim of making someone a lot of money.
Ah, there's the rub. I said "making someone a lot of money".
There's an old story about a tenor going up to Doncaster, I think it was, to sing a concert. The morning after the gig, he was waiting for a train back to London and a man approached him on the station platform.
"Are thee t' singer from last night?"
"Why, yes I am" said the tenor, flattered to be recognised.
"Aye, well, I don't blame thee. I blame them that sent thee."
I don't blame Katherine Jenkins. I blame the people around her who clearly know a lot about public relations but sod-all about serious music; the people who are quite happy to fire this operatic poo out of their glittery cannon.
Their strategy is getting very tired. Basically it is this: play up the humble, unstuffy, girl-next-door origins of the protege while simultaneously describing any critic of the protege as a pitiable, elitist, over-educated snob. The genuine ingenue versus the snooty establishment. It's basically how George W Bush got elected.
Now the PR monsters have over-reached themselves. They've pilloried critics of Katherine Jenkins as bullies. A spoof Twitter account which brilliantly parodied Jenkins' cutesy self-promotion, and a blog, We Love Katherine Jenkins, which did the same for the the fanzine culture that surrounds the singer, have both closed down under pressure, I can only suppose, from Jenkins' "team". There's an excellent blogpost by Steve Silverman here about this.
Let me now retract my so-called qualifications for making a judgment about Katherine Jenkins' singing. Let's say I'm not a singer at all. I'm an accountant. Why shouldn't I voice my opinions about someone who is trying to sell me her goods? If I think a washing machine is a pile of rubbish, do I have to be a qualified engineer to say so? No. Might I not be entitled to say "it looks very flash, with lots of knobs and lights, but it does a very poor job of cleaning my socks"? And if I thought the manufacturers of the said washing machine were spending far too much money making outrageous claims about their product, conning innocent people out of their hard-earned cash, wouldn't we all consider it outrageous if my attempts to wake people up through the ancient and revered art of lampoonery were silenced by the manufacturers? Of course we would.
What particularly gets my goat, and my goat has been got, is when the corporation involved (and I use the word advisedly as Jenkins is the product of a commercial venture) starts throwing its weight around using the press. I'm no fan of The Daily Mail - you only have to glance online and see its Femail section, which seems to be devoted to discussing the state of celebrity breast enhancements, to get a measure of its standards - largely because it is unusually happy to print vapid publicity puff as news, especially if there's a pretty girl like Jenkins involved for a photo op. And so it was that last week The Daily Mail was more than happy to reveal the name of Jenkins' "cyber-bully". The piece started with the usual glamour shot of Jenkins and then peppered the rest with as many unflattering pictures of the so-called stalker as it could find. The message was clear. They were trying to make the "cyber-bully" out to be some sort of lonely, sick weirdo. It really didn't matter if people read the body of the text. The pictures would do all that was necessary. It was a beauty contest and Jenkins was, on the surface, the clear winner. And then the on-line commentators, swollen with righteous indignation, weighed in and ravaged the loser of the contest in quite revolting fashion: "One word: jealous". "JEALOUS". "Jealous". "Jealousy". "JEALOUS".
Quite apart from the fact that the word they were looking for is ENVIOUS - I don't believe the victim of this abuse has any designs on Jenkins' fiancee - I am appalled by the notion that the only motivation someone could possibly have for pillorying Jenkins' singing is a hatred born of wanting to look more like her. And if you're going to attack someone on the basis of how they look (and I'm talking here about the commentators) isn't that THE worst form of bullying? In fact, given that the entire gist of The Daily Mail's article is rooted in mock outrage against bullying isn't the whole thing a disgusting and massive exercise in irony? I've yet to witness a more blatant piece of intimidation by an organ of the press.
And if your weren't outraged enough (and I know I am), the person they've picked on so viciously ISN'T the author of the Twitter account that Jenkins found so offensive. She may be a small thorn in the side of the Jenkins empire, vocal in her dislike of her singing and plastic image, but, as I think I've made the case, she has every right to be!
(Actually I can think of another instance of such extraordinary intimidation. When Joanna Yeates was murdered last Christmas, several tabloids, including The Daily Mail, decided that her landlord looked rather odd and that was all they needed to rip him to shreds and pretty-well string him up for the murder. The landlord later won substantial damages.)
Now a paranoia has descended on the social media. One word against Katherine Jenkins and people fear they will feel the hand of PC Plod on their shoulder. Good grief.
But I don't blame Katherine Jenkins. I blame them that sent her.

A short post-script. On Sunday Katherine Jenkins announced on Twitter that she had been presented the Mozart Award at "Unesco in Dusseldorff" (sic). Aside from the howls of derision from the operatic community, no-one can actually find any confirmation of this claim or what the award is. There's a UNESCO Mozart Medal, whose past recipients include Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Rostropovich. Is it the same? If so, the PR machine has been remarkably subdued. You would have thought they'd be all over this news like a cheap suit. Perhaps at an overheated celeb gala something was mis-heard. But if it is indeed true and she has been awarded the Mozart Medal by a United Nations organisation, then this is one of the few instances when you can actually say that the world literally has gone mad. And I'm not afraid to say so.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not a fan of Dorothy

We went to see "The End Of The Rainbow" in Bath on Saturday. It's a play with songs about Judy Garland's final performances in London shortly before she died at the age of 47. It was a big hit in London, garnering huge plaudits for Tracie Bennett as Garland. I'm not about to write a review. I'm also decidedly not a Garland fan, but I could recognise that Bennett's impersonation of her was impeccable and sensational, and she certainly ripped up the stage. She was extraordinary. And yet I found the whole experience curiously unpalatable, like watching a car crash in slow motion.
(If anyone says or even thinks "if you're not a Judy Garland fan then why did you go?" can I swiftly point out that I'm not a fan of Richard lll but so far it hasn't stopped me wanting to see the play.)
It's an odd thing to watch a play about a famous person, especially when that person is a singer. If Bennett were doing a musical in which she played, say, Wallis Simpson she might impersonate her speaking voice to a degree but she would no doubt sing in her own voice, the better to express some inner feelings for which speech alone might be considered inadequate. I mean, that's pretty-well the whole point of any form of music-theatre isn't it? A song well sung lifts the mask of the character and let's us into the soul of the singer. It's not about realism. It's about creating an extraordinary and vulnerable connection where the music touches the very sides of the singer's core as it leaves her throat.
In this play, Tracie Bennett only gets to sing the songs that Garland sang, so it's not the same as a conventional musical where a character sings in order to express something of her inner self. While she pulls off a faultless impersonation of Garland's singing, it's simultaneously fantastic and excruciating if, like me, you can't actually bear the sound. Don't get me wrong, she sings the songs with enormous passion but ultimately, for me at least, it means nothing if it's not HER voice. I can admire an impersonation at that level of accuracy and devotion but I can't love the experience. I don't get it in the same way I don't understand the allure of Madame Tussaud's.
I'm not sure if many of the audience were there to see a play or, in the absence of the real thing, to enjoy an evening with a "tribute" Judy Garland. All-in-all it was a strange and unsettling experience. I wouldn't go to an opera house to hear someone impersonate Maria Callas singing Tosca, no matter how good the mimicry (but I bet if someone did it they could sell plenty of tickets). I know this isn't exactly the same but it's close enough to bemuse me.

The moment that did stand out for me in the play was when Garland, desperate not to have to perform that night, says "It's a terrible thing, to know what you're capable of and never get there."
Nobody likes to admit it in public but it's a thought that plagues nearly every performer I know - at least the ones I like - and especially those like me who are starting to look down the barrel of the September years, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. I've had many discussions about it in pubs and bars the world over, with singers of many creeds and colours. Well, it's easier to be vulnerable after a pint or two. When you scratch a little at their veneer of self-confidence, those few who appear to be immune from these fears, and who are full of bravura and bullshit (I could name some big names), reveal all kinds of clues as to what they're really feeling. And no matter how full of vim they may seem to be, you know for sure that one day they're going to hit the wall of disappointment, when their body just won't deliver what they ask of it anymore. Personally, I think it's better to be prepared for that day rather than steam along in a state of denial, hoping it never comes. But that could just be me.
I guess it's the belief that occasionally, just occasionally, you can "get there and deliver what you're truly capable of" that keeps most of us performers going in the face of unspeakable fear and self-criticism.
That and increasingly short memories.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Struggle

I just don't fit in with the opera world and I often think I never will.
I make no bones about it, compared to most opera singers, my roots are in the wrong class. My parents had nothing to do with music. They didn't play instruments and they certainly didn't sing in any choral society. All my friends were far more interested in sport and girls than in classical music. My dad was into boats, my mum a simple housewife. My early childhood was spent listening to pop and, like everyone my age, I was a big fan of the Beatles. I was sent to a school which had a terrible reputation for music but which was strong on sport. I sang treble in the choir but I asked to leave after two years for fear of being beaten up. By now I was listening to Pink Floyd and Yes and if asked what I was going to do when I left school, some sort of office job seemed to be expected answer.
You can imagine the horror and surprise when I announced to my parents that I wanted to sing professionally. I might as well have said I was going to join the circus, the idea was so alien to their experience and their expectations. But become a singer I did.
I think my parents sensed that I might feel out of place in the world of opera. After all, as I said, I was from the wrong class. The only opera singers they'd really ever heard of came from...yes... WORKING-CLASS backgrounds. There, I've said it. And they were usually Welsh to boot!
How would I ever fit in, given my solidly upper middle-class background?
My parents' fears weren't misplaced. Quickly I discovered that my somewhat posh West London vowels didn't sit easily amongst the regional twangs of most of my workmates. I didn't have a football team I supported. I didn't know how a car engine worked. I had never been clubbing in the depths of winter wearing a t-shirt. I was born in West London for God's sake! I'd never owned a whippet or a racing pigeon! What on earth was I going to talk about in coffee breaks?
My singing teachers at the RCM, Robert Tear and Edgar Evans, came from very humble backgrounds. Both grew up in council houses. Perhaps the Opera Studio would prove less challenging and more "my class"? But no, its director Michael Langdon spoke with such a thick midlands accent I could barely understand a word he said.
Every big name seemed to come from the lower classes. Gwyneth Jones, Janet Baker, Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras, Elizabeth Harwood, Margaret Price, Geraint Evans... How would I ever make it?
After the Studio I did alright I suppose, but always I felt I was carrying the burden of my background. All around me there were singers having big careers and not one of them had been to public school like me. It just didn't seem fair.
How could I ever become The People's Tenor with my BBC accent, my erudition and my ability to read music?
Lesley Garrett took pity on me and asked if I'd like to be put forward for some Raymond Gubbay gigs. I said no. I knew I just wouldn't fit in. "A Night At The Opera" and " A Celebrity Night At The Opera - Featuring The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Webber" were not for me. I knew it in my bones.
And now they just won't let me in.
Now I'll never sing "You'll never walk alone" or Take That's "Love Ain't Here Anymore" in Italian with full chorus and orchestra.
The elitist bastards.