Saddo abroad

Saddo abroad: September 2012

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Old news

A decade or so ago I used to write the odd column for Private Eye. I wasn't the only contributor writing about music and opera so don't go delving into the archives and think that I was behind any and every story that was being published. Chances are it was someone else. And don't go asking me whether I wrote such-and-such and article about so-and-so because I'm simply not going to tell you.
I used to send in pieces and whether or not they made it in for the next edition came down to a plethora of reasons: space, relevance, whether it was funny or pithy enough, or simply if someone else hadn't beaten me to the editor's desk and the music slot was already filled. The first I knew if my piece had made it in or not was when I opened the magazine later in the week, and if the piece had made it in, chances were that a sub-editor had chopped and changed it. A small cheque would arrive a few days later. As often as not, I wrote a piece and it didn't get used, and so of course then I didn't get paid. Once, Ian Hislop commissioned a lengthy piece, but that was far from the norm.
I stopped after a couple of years. Journalism isn't really my thing. I was (you may laugh) tired of being indignant and sceptical.
I have just stumbled on some of the pieces I wrote which didn't make it and of course they'll make excellent blog posts, thus saving me the effort and time of writing a whole bunch of new stuff! (A bit like William Walton then.) A few of them I simply cannot post as they're very hard-hitting and alarmingly prescient. The subjects have mostly got their just desserts; they don't need me reminding them of their shortcomings. It's history now. Some people have even changed for the better, no thanks to me.
Also, Private Eye has a thicker skin than I have and it was easier to be brave hiding behind them than it is sticking my own neck out. I'm pretty sure I've already successfully pissed off one or two important people; I don't need any more of them taking up arms against me, thank you. Not until I've hung up my tonsils for good.

The piece below was written ten years ago, and it demonstrates that, bar a few name changes, you could write almost exactly the same piece today.

Opera news

During ENO’s latest run of The Mikado, KoKo’s “little list” included every serious singer’s top candidates for execution, namely Russell Watson and Charlotte Church. But in this elevated cultural age it was no great surprise to learn then that one offended member of the audience wrote to Richard Suart, the KoKo in question, to complain of his “musical snobbery”. This must be the same musical snobbery that has restrained any opera house so far from employing the two light music superstars; for surely it can be no other reason. Or can it? Perhaps if Watson were to attempt to sing an entire role, without a microphone and at the correct pitch, he might be take seriously by the opera establishment. To call Watson (who manages the strange but contemporary feat of being lauded for his lack of training) an opera singer is akin to calling someone who occasionally fills his car with petrol a qualified mechanic.
But Watson may yet make it onstage, if he really wants to slum it for the feeble fees that properly trained singers can collect in Britain. No doubt aware that its cultural slip is showing, Channel 4, in a transparent attempt to fulfil its “serious programming” remit without, heaven forbid, getting too serious, has dreamt up with ENO a sort of Big Brother Goes To The Opera. Called Operatunity (geddit?), it is a competition “open to anyone without professional experience as an opera singer” which will be entirely televised and for which the big prize is a televised performance at ENO. This may make for “good television” but has anyone at ENO stopped to consider if it makes for “good opera”. Can we also expect to see the RSC choosing, say, its next Hamlet in co-operation with a telly docu-soap? How about having our television programmes made by people who’ve never stepped inside a studio? Or is that happening already?
There is another disturbing new phenomenon developing here. Whereas it is quite acceptable to criticise a pop artist’s singing as, well, crap, by the new trick of marketing the same performer as a “classical” singer any criticism is condemned as snobbish. Rather more sinister but totally in keeping with Blair’s Britain, because Watson is marketed as “The People’s Tenor” anyone daring to stick his head above the parapet and shout “Emperor’s new clothes” becomes by definition an Enemy of the People.
And quite what the appeal is of Charlotte Church is anyone’s guess. Anyone with the tiniest knowledge of singing who has heard her struggle recently through such heavy and demanding vocal challenges as, er, Silent Night must be wondering how many weeks it is before her shredded vocal cords pack up for good.


In other news, the Britten-Pears School for advanced musicians in Snape, Aldeburgh, has received its first letter from someone making enquiries about the “Britney Spears School”.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Call me Rusty

"Lead by example" they always say. Not that anyone is asking me to lead anything but if a young singer came to me for advice, amidst much spluttering and umming and aahing I'm pretty sure one of the things I'd say is "make you sure you sing at least twice a week, just to keep everything in shape, especially when you're not working."
Yes, well, easier said than done. Especially at my age when, idle for a morning, listening to some cricket on the radio is infinitely more appealing that sitting down for half an hour with Mr Vaccai and his worthy but dull exercises. And once the rot sets in and you find you haven't sung a proper note for two weeks, the task seems pointless, uphill and Herculean. You'll get back on the horse in time for the next job, you tell yourself.
I don't know about you, but when I'm not working (by which I mean actively employed in singing) I have a million other things to do and the days fill up with so much stuff that I wonder how "normal" people, with regular jobs, can possibly get everything done and spend all day at work. It beats me.
So it is that the last two months have been filled, not with warbling, but with accounts, a fair amount of writing, some archiving and some major cleaning out of boxes of old books and papers in the loft. Have you ever cleaned out the loft? It's a dusty job. Old books and papers can be quite hazardous, filled with spores that can cause all kinds of respiratory nastiness. Certainly after I've worked through a box of my father's old papers my voice feels tight and hoarse, but that could just be psychological.
So it was that I was at my desk two days ago, boxes stacked all around me and not having uttered a note (except for a couple of times in the shower) in two months or more, when the phone rang. Someone had fallen ill, could I sing a brand new solo piece in ten days time? Yes. Good, first rehearsal is in 24 hours. "Tomorrow?" "Yes, with the band." Rashly, I accepted. I wasn't worried so much about learning the piece. I was more worried about how I'd cope with singing anything at all at such short notice. It was like being asked to run a marathon after two months of being a couch potato. This is not to say I am a couch potato; though not a fan of the gym I keep in fairly decent shape by walking and general activity. But vocally I felt rustier than a damp bag of old spanners. And I had only myself to blame.
I'm not writing this as any sort of excuse by the way. I'm just describing how it is to climb back on the horse to anyone who thinks that you just pick up where you left off and that singing is, well, just singing and a bit of a doodle.
The score was emailed to me and I printed it off. 75 pages. A 35 minute piece in which I sing nearly the whole time. Brand new. Not exactly atonal but melodically obscure (to say the least). Vocally not extreme, thank god.
I did a quick bout of warm-up exercises and some Vaccaj to rouse the sleeping cords in my neck. Oh boy, this was going to be interesting. I plugged on, note-bashing, working out the very complex rhythms. Rhythm would be my first priority; in my experience conductors mind much less if you sing wrong pitches than sing in the wrong place. Getting the rhythmic structure wrong messes it up for the band (who frankly haven't a clue if you're singing the right pitches) and wasting orchestral time is a cardinal sin.
That afternoon and evening I did about four hours at the piano. My voice grew tired after only half an hour. What else could I expect? The voice is governed by muscles and if you don't use them... After an hour my back was aching fiercely as my support muscles groaned about their newly-enforced labour. I went to bed exhausted and woke tired and with a range that started at a basso bottom C but which barely made it above the stave. Not much use for a tenor. After breakfast I went back to the piano for another two hours.
In the afternoon I took a train to Birmingham, feeling as if, given the choice between singing for three hours and juggling with chainsaws, I'd be seriously examining the juggling option.
It didn't go too badly under the circumstances, but when you're out of practise, finding pitches that are tricky to begin with is even harder. You have no muscle memory to rely on. You're just foggy all round. If it had been a performance, it would have been embarrassing. As a first rehearsal it was good. Besides, I was bathed in the bonhomie generally conferred on someone who has turned up to save the bacon. I came away from the rehearsal with a better idea of what to expect and how to spend the next seven days, before rehearsals resume in earnest, learning the piece properly. Thank goodness I have that luxury. As I said on Twitter (albeit in shorthand), if you're lucky, learning a new piece can seem like painting a picture. You sketch it out first, build up layers, then work on sections piecemeal until the whole work is complete. In a hurry, as I was yesterday, it becomes a process of trying to clarify what needs to be done in order to see a way through. It felt like wiping at a filthy window with an oily rag.
By the time I got home last night I was very tired, vocally, physically and mentally. Today I feel a wreck, my whole body aching, as if I've gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. If I had obeyed the age-old advice and kept myself in vocal shape I would feel fine.
So let that be a lesson to me and to any young 'uns. Don't stop when you have a quiet period, as you undoubtedly will. Sit down for an hour, twice a week, and keep yourself in shape. Actually, it's advice probably more useful to the ageing hack like me, whose body is more sluggish to respond to change.
And for any "civilians" reading this, you see, being a classical singer isn't about popping on a nice frock and singing the national anthem for Her Maj or going out clubbing with the Beckhams. It's physically and mentally demanding and involves hours and hours of solitary drudgery.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to the piano.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A touch of politics

Now I'm a green card holder I can donate to a candidate in the US elections. I'm going to give money to the Obama campaign, not because I expect him to stop the oceans rising - it's a serious albeit ambitious aspiration - but because when Romney says he's going to "help you and your family", noble and modest as that may sound, it is profoundly dishonest. You'll have to be very much the "right" sort of person to feel the benefit of Romney's help. You can only hope that somebody else will come along and help you if you happen to be a woman, gay, a rape victim, unhealthy, innocent on death row, poor, uninsured, uneducated, a musician, a public broadcaster, disabled, Iranian, a soldier, a non-Christian... to name but a few.
If I've learned one thing this week, thanks mostly to the Paralympic Games, it is that enlightenment needs a second chance and it could certainly do with a second term in office. I've understood that progress, like wealth, doesn't trickle down from the top. Progress comes from allowing ALL people, from every corner of society, to give of their best. All too often conservatives have leaned their considerable weight against progress and against those things which are now held to be fundamental rights - votes for women, civil rights, equality, public education...again to name but a few - and history has treated that resistance with the scorn it deserves.
My money's going to Obama quite simply because he's a progressive and Romney most certainly is not.