Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Classical music
Yesterday I wrote here about the twenty-first century social obligation to use a mobile phone when meeting up with someone, because of the problems this solves and despite the problems this creates. Hence the need for me to take my mobile phone with me when going photowalkabout with G(od)D(aughter) 1.
But, on Saturday evening, the evening before GD1 and I went on our walk, I was very nearly deprived of my mobile phone, by which I mean deprived of the ability to make use of it.
What happened was that, while I was also out and about on Saturday evening, a baritone-singing student friend of mezzo-soprano-singing student G(od)D(aughter) 2, sought the help of GD2. His mobile had run out of puff and needed a recharge. GD2 uses an iPhone, but Baritone has an Android mobile, so Baritone could not use GD2’s recharger. What to do?
Between them they decided that I and my Android recharger might be the answer. I guess that GD2 then rang me on my immobile home number and discovered that I was out. Then, knowing my aversion and incompetence as a mobile phoner, and especially as a reliable receiver of incoming mobile messages, she did not not attempt to ring me on my mobile. Or, she did try my mobile and I did not answer.
For various reasons that I still don’t understand and which in any case do not now matter, Baritone ended up coming to my home, armed with GD2’s key to my home, and having made his entrance, he “borrowed” my mobile phone recharger.
I want to emphasise that the above quote marks are not sneer quotes. They are confusion quotes.
For, what exactly does it mean to “borrow” a mobile phone charger? What GD2 meant, when she assured Baritone that it would okay for him to “borrow” my phone charger, was that it would be okay for him to charge up his mobile phone, using my charger at my home. As indeed it would have been.
However, Baritone misunderstood this assurance to mean that it would be okay for him to “borrow” my charger, as in: take it away and make use it throughout Saturday evening, in other places besides mine. I don’t believe that Baritone would have done this without that assurance from GD2, as he understood it. After all, whereas charging up your mobile in situ is socially very okay, taking a charger away without permission is surely a twenty-first century social gaff of the first order. But, Baritone thought that he had permission to do this otherwise unacceptable thing. GD2 is adamant that she gave no such permission, but I believe that Baritone genuinely thought that this unusual procedure was, in the light of GD2’s assurance, okay. He made this clear in a written thankyou note he left on my desk.
And it normally would have been okay. Had I not been going on an expedition the following day with GD1, then the charger could have made its way back to my home some time on or around Sunday, and all would have been fine. But, for all the reasons that were explained in the previous posting, I needed that charger by quite early on Sunday morning at the latest.
So, despite GD2s protestations, I acquit Baritone of wrongdoing.
But then again, Baritone is a baritone. And baritones often behave very badly, quite often at the expense of notably virtuous mezzo-sopranos. So maybe I’m being too kind.
All was speedily corrected by GD2, who was rather insulted by the profuseness of my thanks when she brought my charger back at 8am on Sunday morning. Of course I got your charger back. (See what I mean about virtuous mezzo-sopranos.)
It was just as well that I did get it back. In addition to using my mobile for all that meeting up at the start of the day, I also used it for its map app, and to tell me how Surrey were doing against Gloucester. Very well, as it happened. Nothing like your sports team winning to keep you going when you are knackered.
However, I now understand better why people have cameras with mobile phones built into them. What with my bag and all, I was having constantly to choose between knowing where I was, and photoing it.
Surrey are on a bit of a roll just now. This evening they beat Gloucester again, in a T20 slog at the Oval. Surrey needed a mere six runs from the last four balls. So, how did they get them? The last four balls went: wicket, dot, dot, six. In English that’s: probable Surrey victory, possible Surrey victory, almost impossible Surrey victory, Surrey victory. I got that off my laptop, but I could have got it from my mobile, if I had been out and about. Provided it hadn’t run out of puff.
Most churches in London are, if not dwarfed by modernity, then at least jammed up against something else big right next to them. But earlier this evening I visited a London church that is not like that at all:
This is All Saints Blackheath. I was there to hear Goddaughter 2 and two of her RCM fellow students sing some songs. Very good.
Here is another and better picture of the same church, in winter.
I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:
In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte. The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words. Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763. He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world. He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.
Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera. By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.
The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments. They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem. Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being. He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature. He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.
Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri. The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians. Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning. But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding. And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.
Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration. Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods. He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words. But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.
Goddaughter 2 is a student at the Royal College of Music, where a fellow student of hers is a certain Edward Jowle. This evening, GD2 and I both greatly enjoyed the Grosvenor Light Opera Company’s production of Ruddigore, in which Edward performed the pivotal role of Sir Despard Murgatroyd. It was great, as was Edward in it. The duets Edward did with Dauntless (Jack Roberts) and later with Mad Margaret aka Lady Murgatroyd (Laura Burgoyne) were two of the evening’s highlights. I already know Edward a bit, so I was never going to tell him afterwards that he had been anything other than terrific. But the thing is, he actually was terrific. It was a quite small stage and a quite small audience, but his total command of both were nevertheless very impressive.
I also thought that director Vicky Simon did a fine job. Not everyone in the caste sang like a present or future pro, the way Edward and Jack Roberts did, or as the lady who sang the part of Dame Hannah (Charlotte Collier) did. Not everyone seemed perfectly cast. But everyone did as well as you could imagine them doing, and every moment was entertaining and absorbing, wherever you looked.
I love Gilbert and Sullivan, but Ruddigore is one of the less famous ones and I was seeing it on a stage for the first time. Beyond sensing that a reasonably happy ending would eventually be contrived, I had little idea of what was going to happen until it did. But it is a very strange show, as well as very funny. And the contrived happy ending is indeed rather contrived. But, having been outshone for a century and more by the likes of The Mikado and The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard, perhaps Ruddigore is an opera whose time has come. Ancestral oil paintings are very old school. But when the people in them come to life and the stage is suddenly filled with zombies, you could be watching a stage musical written just a few months ago.
Sadly, tonight’s performance was the last of the very short run that this production was getting. Unless, that is, you fancy a trip to Harrogate in early August, where it will apparently be given one more outing, competing for a prize with a dozen other G&S shows.
There will surely, however, be further opportunities to see and hear the likes of Jack Roberts and Edward Jowle in dramatic action. And although there is no point in me now recommending that you see this Ruddigore, when GLOC announces its G&S show for next year I will be recommending that, sight unseen.
My favourite shop in London is Gramex, which sells second hand classical CDs in the basement of 104 Lower Marsh, underneath the Book Warehouse.
Below is a picture I took this afternoon of a would-be purchaser of a classical CD patiently waiting for the attention of Gramex proprietor Roger Hewland, seated:
His gaff. His rules.
Today, he had some cardboard boxes out from which we were invited to select items to purchase, for nothing. (He had bought them for nothing and he was passing on the good news.) I selected over a dozen really good CDs, some of the sort I usually buy. Which was good. And others of the sort I don’t usually buy. Ditto.
Mozart’s musical progress began in 1759, at age three, when he began to remember themes and pick out chords. The next year he was taught brief pieces on the clavier and reproduced them correctly. In 1761 he began to compose pieces, which his father wrote down. It was essential to his father’s belief in his miracle-genius that his son should be displayed “to the glory of God,” as he put it. In 1757, when Mozart was two, Leopold had been appointed court composer by the prince-archbishop, and as a senior musician, had opportunities to show off his son. But in Salzburg they were limited, so in 1762, when Mozart was six, he took him to Munich, capital of Bavaria, to play before the elector. Nannerl went with them, as a co-prodigy, and by now a very accomplished one. But as a child of eleven, she did not raise much of a stir. Mozart did, and was feted at many fashionable gatherings.
Next they went to Vienna, capital of Austria and of the German- speaking musical world, in so far as it had one. Maria Theresa, the empress, who had survived the attempt by Frederick the Great of Prussia to destroy her and was now a formidable woman, received them graciously but, though a robust Catholic, showed no signs of treating Mozart as a personified miracle. She was not unmusical. On the contrary, she was gifted, a fine singer, and had been educated musically by her vice Kapellmeister, Antonio Caldera. But her advisers were strongly against spending much on music. Under Emperor Charles VI, her father, and his Hofkapellmeister, Johann Joseph Fux, there had been 134 musicians in the imperial chapel. Under Maria Theresa, the number fell to 20.
Hence, the empress received the Mozarts, but that was all. Her daughter, Marie Antoinette, picked Wolfgang up when he fell on the slippery parquet flooring. Her mother listened patiently when he played a difficult piece by Georg Christoph Wagenseil. When he jumped up onto her lap and kissed her, she made no complaint. Leopold got a bag of Maria Theresa thalers; the children, presents of court dresses, in which they were painted (not too well). But no job was offered. Later, when her son did offer some kind of job, she objected, in a devastating letter: “You ask me about taking the young Salzburger into your service. I do not know why, believing you have no need for a composer or useless people. If, however, it would give you pleasure, I would not hinder you. What I say is so that you do not burden yourself with unproductive people, and even give titles to people of that sort. If in your service, this debases the service when such people go around the world like beggars. Furthermore he has a large family.”
The last point is curious as Leopold did not have a large family. Otherwise the letter gives a telling glimpse of how a sovereign saw music on the eve of its greatest age in history. Musicians were exactly in the same position as other household servants - cooks, chambermaids, coachmen, and sentries. They existed for the comfort and well-being of their masters and mistresses. The idea that you took on a composer or performer simply because he was outstanding, when you already had a full complement of household musicians, was absurd. And of course performing music for money, outside palace or church employment, was mendicancy. There was plenty of it, of course. The trade was overcrowded. Groups played at street corners for coppers. In London there were “German Bands.” There were also Italian street musicians, who played “Savoyards,” what we would call hurdy-gurdies, or barrel organs. All this was begging, and beggars usually had, or came from, large families: hence the empress’s error.
In short the only respectable way a musician could earn his living was in salaried employment at a court, a wealthy nobleman’s house, or a cathedral or major church. Leopold had such a job, but it was at a low level and miserably paid. To rise higher - at a court like Vienna or the elector’s in Munich - required interest. That was a key eighteenth-century word, usually to do with family connections. When George Washington distinguished himself in colonial service during the Seven Years’ War, when Mozart was an infant, he aspired to rise in the British regular Army or its Indian offshoot. But he had no interest at the Horse Guards (War Office) or the East India Company in London. So he went on to become a revolutionary leader, and first president of the United States. When Napoleon was a young teenager in Corsica, he greatly admired the Royal Navy ships that anchored in its harbors. But he had no influence in the London Admiralty, and so a commission in the Royal Navy was out of his reach. He went on to become emperor of France and conquer half of Europe. Thus history is made. In Mozart’s world, to become a court painter, architect, or musician required interest, and his father had none. Fortunately in his case, he could go on “begging” by composing and performing.
I was out and about again today, and I have now got into the habit of photoing newspaper front pages, often in the shop where I usually buy my monthly copies of Gramophone and the BBC Music Magazine (by “music”, they mean classical music). Which means that the guy in the shop doesn’t mind me photoing other stuff.
The big story just now is of course FIFA, and the badness of Blatter:
But, this front page story also got my attention:
I don’t mean the FIFA stuff flagged up in the big yellow bit at the top of the page. I mean the bit below, where it says “Cameron cuts off labour funding”. Although the Daily Telegraph itself now lives behind a paywall, I managed to find the story here.
This would appear to confirm what my friend Tim Evans says about Cameron. He is a much more determined and focussed politician than he lets on, and much more “right wing”. He is systematically destroying the Labour Party. Trying to, at any rate.
But, and this is what pisses off many libertarians, he is a politician whose focus is on changing institutions (in this case destroying an institution) rather than in spreading ideas. Also, he does things one at a time, which means he leaves a ton of bad stuff untouched, and often does other bad stuff, to protect the main task in hand.
All of the above flies in the face of the Samizdata orthodoxy, which is perhaps why I am thinking aloud about this stuff here, rather than there. If I put anything there about this stuff, I will have to think it through better than I have so far.
One of my favourite buildings that I’ve never seen is the recently completed (quite recently completed - 2008) Oslo Opera House, which looks like this:
Sooner or later, some big public building was bound to be built like this, with a roof that doubles up as a big public open space, where you can walk to the highest spot on the building’s roof, without once having to go indoors.
Oslo Opera has become a new landmark for the city and proved an instant success with both locals and tourists.
And of course, that roof doesn’t have to be the bland and featureless desert that this one is, in this picture. Sooner or later, it will acquire roof clutter! Perhaps it already has.
As entire cities compete with one another for tourists, buildings like this, with walkabout roofs, will surely become ever more common, as ever more tourists search, as I search, for places up in the sky from which to take tourist snaps. It is no accident that I found the above picture and quote at a site called Visit Norway. (Although sadly, this Visit Norway site fucks with the links and causes them not to work, and these fucked links also fuck with subsequent links which are none of Visit Norway’s damn business. This caused me major problems, until I just stripped out all Visit Norway linkage, at which point sanity was restored. So if you care, you’ll have to find the damn place for yourself. I think Visit Norway was trying to help. It failed. Norway, sort this out.)
Even as I praise this building, I make no judgement about what goes on inside it. The point of these “iconic” buildings - horizontal Big Things - you might say, is that they are fun to visit, regardless of their mere indoor contents. See also: Tate Modern. After all, one of the advantages of a roof like this is that the roof can be enjoyed even as the inside of the building can be entirely ignored.
What got me writing about this Oslo building was a recent posting at Dezeen, featuring another proposed building by the same architects, Snohetta (which has a forward slash through the “o") which uses the same trick, of people being able to walk up to the top in a big zig zag. This time it is a museum in Budapest:
And oh look, I went to the Sn o-with-forward-slash hetta website, and here is another Snohetta proposal, using the same trick, for another opera house, this time in Busan, South Korea:
With the design of the Busan Opera, the opera is no longer a passive playground for the elite but becomes interactive, democratic space, responding to the public’s ambitions and interests.
This is architect speak for:
People can walk about on the roof and take photos without having to sit through some stupid damn opera.
And oh look, again. Snohetta have also proposed that a new media centre in Vienna should look like this:
Look again, and you encounter the Barack Obama Presidential Center:
These last two are not so zig zag, but the principle is the same.
London awaits you, Snohettans.
I find writing about music very difficult, because … why bother? I like what I like and you like what you like. Either this is a music blog, in which case we can all agree about how right I am to like the music which I like (which you like also), or it is not. And, it is not.
Nevertheless, here is a blog posting which is sort of about music, except that really it is about how the mind works, which this blog is often about.
On Saturday morning, I was woken by my alarm clock to make sure that I started the recorder on my radio to record CD Review, which I duly did, very dozily. I then, dozily, heard the announcer telling me that I was about to listen to Beethoven’s First Symphony, first movement, and I duly listened.
Beethoven’s First Symphony has a very particular start which is, if you know the piece, instantly recognisable. However, I have not known it, in the sense of hearing it and knowing with certainty that this was Beethoven’s First Symphony, until last Saturday morning. I could recognise the tune and hum and conduct along with it, but I was unable to tell you which piece it was with complete confidence, the way I could and can with all Beethoven symphonies from Third to Ninth. I might well have guessed it right, but it would still have been a guess. But this time, I am pretty sure that hearing that very recognisable opening of Beethoven’s First together with being told immediately before it began that this was what it was may actually have stuck in my head, as a twinned pair of facts.
This was because I was half awake, but not fully awake, I think. I was, I surmise, in a highly “suggestible” state. I think that’s the word the psychologists use.
The reason that all of this matters to me is that, as I get older, I find that getting to “know” a piece of music, as in: going from knowing it as a piece of music to knowing it as a piece of music and also being able to identify it, going from knowing it to knowing what it is, is becoming a rather rare experience. There is lots of music that I know in the sense of being able to hum along with it and of knowing approximately what is about to happen next, but as the decades roll by, I still can’t identify these pieces. The pieces I got to know well when I was young are like a fixed catalogue of pieces I know and can identify, rather than something that is expanding steadily. The catalogue is only expanding very slowly.
You may say: But merely knowing or not knowing the mere label of something is rather a superficial matter. Well yes, that may be. But I don’t think knowing the label of a piece of music prevents me from getting to know it more in all the deeper and more meaningful senses. Rather the reverse. Knowing what the music “is” frees my mind to concentrate on all of the more interesting things about what the music “is”, as opposed to the superficiality of what its mere label is.
Just before Christmas, Goddaughter 2 arranged for the two of us to see and hear a dress rehearsal of a Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. This was, for all practical purposes, a performance. I didn’t much care for Verdi before I went to this event, and I still don’t, but the show was at least notable for the outstanding singing of the lead tenor, Joseph Calleja, a new name to me. I was extremely happy whenever he was singing. (He has a blog.) The rest of the show I found somewhat forgettable, mainly because Verdi seems to have been opposed to doing nice tunes that you can remember, unlike my operatic composer favourites, Mozart, Puccini, and Richard Strauss.
But very memorable indeed, almost as good as Calleja’s singing, was the bar we visited afterwards, which is right next to the main performing space.
From the outside the opera house and the bar look like this:
The bar being the thing on the left as we look there.
And on the inside, the bar looks like this:
The ROH refers to this place as the Paul Hamlyn Hall. What regular people call it for real I have no idea, but I like it.
I especially like that disembodied clutch of drinkers, suspended up there as if in mid air, but actually in mid mirror.
Here is a closer look at that same feature:
I know exactly what is going on here, and how this weird effect is achieved, but still I’m impressed.
A bit of hasty googling has failed to tell me what this place used to be and when it was first built. I’m guessing it was at first something to do with selling fruit and/or veg, but that’s only a guess. Anyone?
My Last Friday meeting last night went, from where I sat, very well. The speaker (Professor Tim Evans) gave a bravura performance. Not everyone was convinced, and said so, but that’s fine. That’s a feature, not a bug.
Best all, the exact right number of people attended. The room was full. Every seat was taken. Nobody had to stand.
From my personal point of view, the rearranging I did to the furniture set-up turned out beautifully. From when they resumed at the start of 2013 until last December, these meetings have suffered from the presence of a sort of sideboard thingy, that sticks out from the wall of CDs, to your right as you step into the room. From this sideboard, drinks and nibbles have been served. But this didn’t work. Most people couldn’t easily reach for sustenance during the meeting, and the sideboard broke the circle of seating, in a most ugly and unsatisfactory way.
But last night, food and drink, rather than being stuck away at the side, were instead dispensed from a central table, made of three big plank-like objects bolted together for the evening. It worked much better, because everyone could then just reach out for their junk food and junk drink, instead of either pining for it in frustration or else traversing the room.
And, the intrusive sideboard thingy was replaced with what God had always intended should be there instead, more CD shelves:
Details of this sort may seem very foolish, but they are what the craft of hospitality consists of.
Another personal highlight for me was the wine I found at Sainsbury’s in the afternoon. The only way it could have been improved upon, for my purposes, would have been if it had come from Tesco.
My wine-savvy guests laughed, but were also curious. Yes, I’ll try a glass, they said, one after another. And the verdict? “I’ve tasted worse!” One of them said that in a loud voice, and the others concurred.
The cheapest wine usually costs a minimum of £4 in London, but this was £2.50. Don’t you just love that it came in a plastic bottle (photoed by me afterwards, empty and with no top).
The attenders were as fine a bunch as I and my speaker have ever managed to assemble, being greatly improved by the presence in our midst of Goddaughter 2 and a couple of her Royal College of Music friends, a soprano and a baritone. Word is that they had a good time.
I also personally enjoyed both the beginning and the end of the evening. I always like it when the first person to arrive is a particular friend, rather than someone I only half know and am fretting about impressing, or failing to impress. And last night the first person to arrive was a friend.
And, I like it when the last few people are also friends, or at least people I am not in any way anxious to be rid of. Last night, two especially agreeable people (they know who they were) were the last to leave, but not before we had discussed the whole business of the scarcity of sociability, and the consequent possibility that I might, rather suddenly, wish to be alone. The point is, knowing that I could tell them this without causing offence, I found that I did not want to. My sociability was running very low, but an ordeal that you can switch off at any moment can often cease entirely from being an ordeal, and so it was last night. Instead, we had an extremely interesting conversation. They left in time to catch the last train, having absolutely not outstayed their welcome.
So all in all, everything went very well, for me personally.
Will I have anything to say about the speaker, Tim Evans, and what he actually said? Well, on that, time will tell. I’m still thinking about that.
This morning I had reason to be in the vicinity of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, at about 10 a.m. Later you will learn why, but in the meantime, just to say that this uncharacteristically early-in-the-day expedition enabled me to reacquaint myself with an old friend, in the form of the delightful footbridge that allows the ballerinas of the Royal Ballet School to make their way to the Royal Opera House, without having to risk being damaged by traffic or by the public:
The ROH is on the right there. I like how the squares in the bridge echo the strong right angles of the building and its roof details.
I also like the blue sky. But, you think that’s a blue sky? That’s not a blue sky.
This is a blue sky.
When I got to that ASI Christmas Party the other night, I was already in a grumpy mood, on account of not being allowed to bring three Opera Babes to the party. That’s right. The Adam Smith Institute didn’t have room for three glamorous young women, two of them at the Royal College of Music (Goddaughter 2 and her friend) and one of them (another friend of Goddaughter 2) who was auditioning for the Royal College of Music (having already been accepted last year by the Guildhall). I had already arranged to bring Goddaughter 2, but the ASI having spurned her two glamorous Opera Babe friends, GD2 not unreasonably preferred to be with them. I don’t mean that the ASI said: Opera Babes? - No thanks. I mean that they didn’t even allow me to say that they were Opera Babes, so oversubscribed were they. Or so she said. The ASI lady put their names on the subs bench list in case of cancellations, but your guests only get on the pitch if the ASI tells you so beforehand, and I heard nothing.
So instead I went to the ASI Christmas Party with Goddaughter 2’s glamorous elder sister. When I got there, it was clear that although there were many persons present, there was most definitely room for three more Opera Babes. But, too many mostly very non-operatic males of the species had already signed up to be there, and they needed room to stand around in all-male groups and shout their opinions at each other.
So there I was at the ASI Christmas Party feeling grumpy, looking around the room and recognising hardly anyone, and feeling bad about having dragged GD2’s sister to this ghastly do and being so grumpy about it, and for about the first half hour of being there, I continued to be grumpy. Three things, however, cheered me up.
First, I bumped into someone I did know, Anton Howes. And it turns out that he has a new blog. How very last decade, I said, but really, I was truly delighted to hear this, and started to feel that the evening was not going to be a total write-off after all. I had actually learned something of genuine use and interest to me. Cheer-me-up Thing Number One.
Cheer-me-up Thing Number Two, I got my camera out. I think I saw some other person taking photos and I thought: time for me to do some soul stealing. Was this uncouth? Probably. Would I look like an old prick? Presumably. But I was feeling like an uncouth old prick anyway, so out came the camera anyway. And immediately I cheered up. Suddenly, people cheered up when I approached them, and ceased from only talking about what they were talking about and instead started presenting themselves to my camera in a way that would make them look approximately as good as they were capable of looking. And, if they ignored me, well, that’s fine, because when people ignore you and just carry on enjoying themselves, that, if you are a photographer rather than a human being, is good.
Cheer-me-up Thing Number Three: Eamonn Butler saw me taking photos, and approached. Oh dear. “Brian, could you please stop being such an uncouth old prick? And if you do insist on photoing, could you please make a point of not photoing him, or him, or her.” Paranoid rubbish like that flashed up in my brain in between Eamonn being clearly about to say something and Eamonn actually starting to say it. And what did he say? He said: “Could you please send us a few of your best photos?” or words to that effect. Hah! I was now an officially designated photographer. I was someone. Instead of me fretting about not knowing anyone (and about not being allowed to be The Bloke Who Brought The Opera Babes), everyone else had to feel bad that they didn’t know me. Hurrah!
And actually, when I bustled my way through the throng some more, snap snap snapping, it turned out that actually I did know quite a few of those present.
Here we have, I think, another impact of digital photography. Digital photography cheers up people like me when we go to parties. But, shame I couldn’t photo the Opera Babes.
All of which began life as a mere intro to me showing you lots of the photos I actually took at this do. But, people who might google their way to - or maybe even be steered with a link towards - such photos won’t be wanting a long ramble attached to them about how I felt before and during the taking of them. So, I’ll stick them up in a separate posting. This I promise.
Being the Godfather of Goddaughter 2, who has just started out as a student at the Royal College of Music, is a bit costly, but it most definitely also has its privileges. Yesterday I was kindly allowed to sit in on one of GD2’s one-on-one lessons, and today I got to see (at no further cost) the first dress rehearsal for the College’s production of The Magic Flute. GD2 was not performing in The Magic Flute. She merely arranged for me and various others of her acquaintance to be there, and she watched it along with us. As did many other RCM students by the look and sound of things. GD2’s singing lesson was most encouraging, and the Magic Flute was terrific, truly terrific, reflecting huge credit on all the professionals named at the other end of the above link, who between them set the tone of it.
Michael Rosewell conducted stirringly, emphasising the menace as well as the grandeur and beauty of the music. Jean-Claude Auvray directed wonderfully, with lots of pertinent comic business. Ruari Murchison’s set was dominated by a big, black, modernistic wooden box, with big sliding hinged doors at the front, with little doors in them, and with more doors at the sides and the back. This moved the action along with minimal fuss. They could shut the big doors at the front and do a scene in front of them, while inside the closed box other cast members could then set up the next scene. Since so many of the scenes in this opera are contrivances by some of the characters within the drama, them opening the doors to reveal the next scene made perfect sense. The production reminded me, in its clarity and austerity, of the best sort of Shakespeare productions that I have seen.
The costumes were modern, in a way that illuminated the characters and the various stages their lives were going through, rather than in a way that stuffed Mozart’s story into a specifically different era and made an anachronistic nonsense of it. Mark Doubleday’s lighting emphasised the brightness and lightness of the final scenes, but in the meantime it emphasised what a dark and morally ambiguous story this is, ending up as it does with the hero and heroine joining a religious cult. Tamino and Pamina started out in jeans, then found themselves clad in pantomime hero and heroine costumes, and they ended up power-dressed, City-of-London Moonie/Mormon style, in matching grey suits with, in Pamina’s case, shoulder pads.
Mozart loved being a Freemason, but a modern audience can’t be so unreservedly happy about this particular happy ending. In many ways, this is a story about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over the forces of modernity and of female emancipation. There are numerous references to how women must subordinate themselves to men, with the only Queen involved being the Queen of the Night, the leader of the eventually defeated forces of modernity, individuality, and darkness. These anti-modern references became particularly chilling when spelt out in plain English, in the illuminated surtitles at the top of the stage.
The Three Ladies were dressed to kill at a Premier or a Charity Fundraiser, but not in uniforms, rather as three individuals. The Three Boys, on the opposite side of the conflict from the Three Ladies, were all dressed identically, like Mrs Krankie, being also ladies underneath their boy costumes. All six acted and sang splendidly, individually and as teams.
As for the singing generally, only Sarastro, the leader of the ultimately triumphant cult, needed to be granted a little slack. It was absolutely not his fault that although most of his singing was fine, his voice lacked that final ounce of basso profundity required for those fearsome low notes. This was the one time when you wanted to be hearing one of the half dozen, or however many it is, aging-giant Sarastro super-specialists who roam the earth, bestowing their show-stealing low notes upon rich opera audiences everywhere. But this Sarastro acted very convincingly, especially given that he had less help from his grey suit of a costume than I presume most other Sarastros tend to get, and not much help either from his relatively short stature. Being the one black man on view, on the other hand, meant that he was instantly recognisable. (I want to hear this guy singing other things.) As for everyone else, terrific. This was the first time I have actually seen The Magic Flute on a stage, and I can’t imagine a better introduction. GD2’s mother, who has seen other non-student productions, reckoned this one to be the best. Yes, really.
The biggest round of applause came at the end for the entire cast, and quite right too. But the Queen of the Night got the second biggest ovation for her famously spectacular and difficult aria, and thoroughly earned it. Sensational. Watch out for her. Papagena also stole every scene she was in, although I didn’t get her name. (Maybe I can later add a link for her too.) Papageno handled his various musical instruments with particular aplomb.
But better than any individual excellence on show was the general air of sincerity, enthusiasm and esprit de corps. As the lady teacher said at the end of GD2’s lesson yesterday, opera has changed from the days when all you had to do was stand there and sing. You have to be able to sing and act, and often to sing in very demanding circumstances. You may have to “sing with your legs in the air” was how GD2’s teacher put it yesterday. There was nothing like that on the stage today, but the director did demand lots of acting of a less undignified sort, and got it in abundance. The show came alive from the first minute, and stayed alive throughout. These young singers are being very well prepared for the sort of careers that most of them will surely have.
I’m looking forward to more RCM dress rehearsals, and hope one day soon to be seeing GD2 in one of them. I am reluctant to enthuse too much about her prospects. Just to say that her voice sounds like a pretty fine one to me, that her teachers and fellow students seem to agree about that, and that she seems to be working hard at learning how to make the best use of it. But, as yesterday’s teacher said, there are a lot of circumstances - some of which you can surely imagine and many of which you can hardly begin to imagine unless you also know one of these singers yourself - that can derail a classical singing career. So, fingers crossed.
During a discussion on Radio 3’s Music Matters at lunchtime today, about whether knowledge of classical music is necessary for the enjoyment of classical music, noted baritone singer Sir Thomas Allen mentioned that Luciano Pavarotti could not read music. During recordings, said Allen, someone used to stand behind Pavarotti and quietly hum his notes for him, to make sure he got them right.
However, when Pavarotti himself was challenged about this, he denied it:
In an interview in 2005 with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC, Pavarotti rejected the allegation that he could not read music, although acknowledging he sometimes had difficulty following orchestral parts.
I’m guessing that what is at stake here is the difference between being able to read music after a fashion, and being able to read it fluently and with utter confidence that one is getting it absolutely right every time. Sort of like the difference between having to spell out lots of the rather harder words, and just reading.
When I played the flute at school (until I gave it up and just became a classical fan) I had, by the sound of it, even greater difficulty reading music than Pavarotti did. But even so, this makes me feel much better.
Allen also said that Mirella Freni (a soprano about as noted as Allen himself) was the same.