Thursday, 29 October 2009

Berlusconi's Bluebird.

Or perhaps it was a Blackbird........

I had been singing in Palermo, the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and legendary seat of La Mafia....and hunting country.

Palermo is a glorious city with an unrivalled history and the loveliest people.....generous, kind, it is indeed the land of milk, honey and marzipan.

I went on to Rome a year later to sing the same magnificent production and by chance, my friends in the animal world "I Verdi" the Green Party, asked if I would speak in Parliament about my experience of being on a very cruelly derived drug, and why I came off it. I did this on television, sang a little, and then was asked to sing for the birds!

It was a hugely hot day. A thunderstorm had knocked out all the electricity overnight and my hair needed organising as I donned my cobalt blue silk organza dress and hat with long silk gloves and sang for an hour or so in front of the Parliament offices. This was all about discouraging the shooting of migrating birds during the hunting season. The birds fly from Africa, over Italy and up to England. They are small and it is illegal to shoot them, nevertheless this happens.

The traffic and the Parliament offices ground to a halt as all of the windows opened and people hung outside for as long as I kept going.

A close friend who was a journalist had visited me in Sicily, and later became useful to the next government in terms of organising the hunting lobby for the forthcoming elections. I watched with interest as Sicily swung totally in favour of Berlusconi and the new laws which would allow the repatriation of assets, and eliminate inheritance tax.

I also watched, as having relinquished his chair in the Senate my friend lost his promised seat in Europe....... in favour of an MP who, in danger of being convicted by the very courageous judiciary of Palermo, went to Brussels instead and thus...... beyond jurisdiction.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Sir, I Stand Corrected.

A friend who is an ex army officer read my piece below about the conversation I had with the young fusilier, "The Hackle of Victory", September '09.

"Beware of believing everything you are told by young soldiers," he said to me.

"In my experience, most troops are extremely well informed about their role in Afghanistan. What's more, their food and clothing is generally of a very high standard. NCOs and officers are always on hand to hear gripes and complaints. Only very rarely is leadership not up to the high standard which permeates throughout the Army."

"Furthermore, great store is set by ensuring that the troops are looked after as well as is humanly possible in the circumstances.
I used to read some of the letters sent home by a few of my soldiers. I would always ask them to re-write letters which started with: 'Our plane was machine gunned as we came in to land at Akrotiri (Cyprus).......we returned fire and killed hundreds of the enemy......'

"This is not to say that service in Afghanistan is not at times, extremely dangerous. Nor am I saying that equipment is the best that it should be. There is always room for improvement and likewise there is always a case for increased spending on defence.

But beware of the individual's account in isolation.

Better to hear it from a platoon, on the ground."

Sir, I stand corrected.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Crunch Lunch.

A gold inlay tumbles out of my tooth and into my hand, happily not into my tum and I hotfoot it off to my lovely dentist, Mark Barrett.

"The last time you did this" he says, "was on a toffee in August!"

"Ah Yes" I mumble through his fingers. "It was on an Italian boat in the Med and I needed some sustenance after lunch as I sang a few Neapolitan Songs. We were soon surrounded by a flotilla of yachts. Someone offered to take the money and bookings for the evening, and then the motor boats of the Carabinieri, the police afloat, all started to surround us too, along with various swimmers.

It turned into quite a party, and I realised that I might be disturbing the siesta of the occupant of a huge yacht moored a little way off, and wondered who it could be. The shores of a nearby island had started to fill up too, and I wondered if I would get arrested. Holding tightly onto my tin of Kendall toffees.....I carried on under an enormous sombrero.

It was fun! We all laughed a lot and finally our captain decided to weigh anchor and set sail for dinner. As we left, all of the Carabinieri, and La Guardia di Financia (Customs), stood up in their launches, and caps, and saluted me.

They were guarding the President of the Republic of Italy! How grand...I waved merrily back.

Thank you dear Mark, for keeping my smile bright.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Libya...Gaddafi... and.. "The Lavender Scented Swimming Pool."

This was the name of the diplomatic posting in Malta, as described by the then British Ambassador.

We had got together to rehearse a concert in the beautiful gem of an opera house, The Teatro Manoel, the earliest in Europe, built in 1731, and preceeding the San Carlo in Napoli. The island of Gozo just across the water, has two opera houses, one on each side of the street.

Brian Hitch our Ambassador, was a very good pianist indeed and we worked hard to prepare a Poppy Day programme for the veterans, in commemoration of the island's rescue during the war by one of our last warships.

So for the second half I asked for a bar stool and a microphone and we cruised through Begin the Beguine, Coward's Nina from Argentina along with Cole Porter and Gershwin, and of course.... Summertime.

I had to leave and returned in October for the concert, but I noticed that some things had changed meanwhile at the Embassy.

Brian and Margot had looked after me in Munich and I was always aware of the understated care while in the vicinity of our Embassies. However, having arrived with a huge salmon and my usual hats only to find that none would fit into the armoured Jaguar, small enough to negociate the narrow streets of Valletta, I was struck by the watchmen patrolling all night with torches in the garden and more significantly, the iron shutters which rolled down over all the windows, and the alarms now directly through to the police.

This all seemed a bit excessive for "the lavender-scented swimming pool" scenario which Brian had described, and he was learning Maltese and Arabic to keep in trim.

We played two concerts in the Manoel and later when he had moved on to Oxford University, I asked him what "all that extra security was about?"

"Oh!" he said. "Between your first and second visits, the Scottish police descended on us to investigate the Lockerbie bombing and my office was overun with them."

It seems that the bomb had been put on a plane in Malta, in a suitcase containing clothes from Marks and Spencer, and that the origin was Libya.

The Embassy was on red alert for 6 months and I hadn't known it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Pre-Wall Berlin........ Marguerite.

At some point in the '80s I was singing La Damnation de Faust at Der Deutsche Oper in West Berlin.

Marguerite is a beautiful, haunting, melancholy and solitary role. She is the only woman in the piece.

One day I was called into the corridor outside the rehearsal room to be measured for my cross. I had no idea what was to come.

I lay down on a full size 10 foot high cross, as the carpenter measured up my wrist and foot straps. This was revolved in the last scene on stage amid neon lights, thunderstorms and fireworks as I held on and tried to relax, thankfully having finished singing. The heavenly chorus followed and I cannot remember how I got out of it all.

At the end of the run I had a day in hand before leaving for London, with 120 kilos of luggage, after 10 months away. I had decided to stay for Teresa Berganza's recital, always a masterclass in how to do it.

It was a cold, wet, grey day and, having previously been invited to East Berlin for lunch at the Embassy and swept through the border control in diplomatic cars.........This time I thought I'd go on my feet as an ordinary person.

The contrast was strident.

I queued along with everyone else as our passports were removed and we all waited in the wind and rain with no progress.

We got chatting.....a journalist had his camera taken away and we tried to keep cheerful as no one told us what was happening, there was no tea or water and a couple of hours dragged by. It seemed more prudent not to ask questions.

However there was no way back, or forwards.

I finally decided that this was enough and went to the front of the queue saying that if we were kept in this weather I would get a cold and then would not be able TO WORK.

"Und was machen Sie?" "What do you do?".

"Ich bin Sangerin" I replied, trying to sound elegant and not bark back at Irma Bunt.

"Where do you sing?" "An Der Deutsche Oper - last night. And if I get a cold, kann ich NICHT ARBEITEN." "I cannot work."

Miraculously my passport was immediately returned and I was whisked via the chicane of barriers, with metal teeth hanging down to prevent even the fastest vehicle from zigzagging through, and was escorted ahead of everyone leaving all of my new friends behind. I felt a bit uncomfortable but so grateful, as my leather jacket hadn't kept the weather out.

Slipping into the total greyness and concrete of East Berlin, I wondered about the real value of being a performing artist within the Communist block.

The throat specialist whom I knew in the West, had given a most wonderful supper party for me after a performance, with lobsters and champagne served by men in white gloves. He also explained the mechanics of crucifixion, given the production that I was in, and I wondered how he had known.......and why he wore a wig.

I remembered my friends left behind at the border and the total. utter silence at Checkpoint Charlie....... save for the birdsong.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Hackle of Victory.

All of the above, the previous post, was eclipsed by the conversation that I had with a young man on the train returning to London.

After a while, I realised that someone behind me was coughing and spoke about being in the army. I looked round and recognised a badge on his jacket.....and asked if I could chat a bit.

He was a 24 year old returned from Iraq and preparing to train for Afghanistan.

I asked about armour. "Why" he said, "do they spend the money training us from scratch for 6 months, and then send us out on patrol without sufficient protection, particularly on foot patrol and tank duty?"

Food:- "We get two meals, sausage and beans like you get in a tin, and the other is potato and meatballs, though there aren't many of those, and we pour hot water on it."

"Veg? Dairy? Fruit? I asked. "You need protein 3 times a day." "That's it" he said, "sometimes they top us up with Lucozade stuff." "That's a quick fix" I said, "It's not going to maintain you."

"I've seen men on the floor having given their all after a 12 hour night march and carrying 70lbs, being dragged up by the Sergeant.  A man being hit with a book against the face.........They only think about their own promotion and more money." We talked about intimidation and bullying tactics.

He had asked if he could go to his friend's funeral, but the wait to get written permission was so long that he didn't make it......"All it needed was a verbal Yes". "We have no direct contact at all with the officers, and no way to complain."

No one has told them why they are there.

"Many get very shaky"......"Do you have any help with that?.....The Padre?" "Yes, but there's a two week wait to see him."

I showed him how to meditate, to remember his deep breathing and to surround himself and his mates in a circle of light as protection, and I drew it on my card for him.

He had spent his first two weeks in Iraq in the same clothes, and his first six weeks in split boots. "The Americans are REALLY well provided, fed and armoured. They have visors to protect their eyes against the sand."

He had had to buy his own, smart blue tracksuit for himself....the one that I had noticed with his regimental crest. 

He asked about the rose stuff that I was reading, and I explained that she is given to the Heroes. "That's great!" he said and he suggested songs for a cd for them, and carried my bag off the train.

I gave him my card and a huge hug. "PLEASE remember" I said, looking straight into his eyes, "How much we all value you and the work that you are doing.....How proud we are of you and that we think of you all every day and we never, ever forget you."

He showed me his cap badge and then his hackle, proudly.

He was a wonderful young man and I truly hope that he contacts me again. 

I'd like to go out and sing for them.

How to judge a Rose....Vivat! Vivat Regina!

 In Rome and on camera, I was asked.........

 "How do you judge a Rose?",

and in a brief soundbite in Italian, I found myself saying; "Beauty, Health, Shape, Perfume, Form, Colour, Leaf"...........

This is only the beginning, and it sounds rather like judging a woman.

Last week I judged in Glasgow in the wind and the rain and it was a very different experience to judging in Rome in April.

The City gave a most splendid dinner in their magnificent glasshouses, accompanied by pipes and fireworks, and The Lord Provost asked me if I would sing the next day. "I would love to, but cannot do both things at once" I said. "May I come back!"  ("I love your jewellery!")

Having been announced, I asked if I could say something about my rose, and that she is given to Help For Heroes. The Great Palm House erupted with applause and I hoped so much that it would result in some real effect for our men and women currently serving in Afghanistan.

I ran off to stay with a dear, but long lost cousin in Edinburgh, whose spouse is Lyon Clerk, Herald of Scotland, and who has edited the new book on the Thistle Chapel, home to the Ceremony of the Thistle and our equivalent, The Ceremony of The Garter.

Elizabeth Roads' work is very fascinating, and I spent many hours in the night reading about the origins of our coats of arms, how they distinguished men on the battlefield and of their relevance today. She is a descendant of Robert the Bruce, the first King of Scotland.

Vivat! Vivat Regina!


Monday, 17 August 2009

Fast Digital.

Today one of the finest pianist/accompanists in the world came to work, and as we stepped over the piles of music in various keys and languages and the scores all laid out carefully in my music room, I wondered where he would feel like beginning.

He is John Alley, pianist extraordinaire of the London Symphony Orchestra with the technique of a great concert pianist and a fine musicianship to match and crucially from my point of view,
he played for hundreds of singing lessons as a student at Guildhall.
He understands us perfectly and is very patient with me when my counting goes awry.

We kicked off with one of the greatest songs by Rachmaninov, Spring Waters, almost a piano concerto in itself through which he sailed while I struggled hilariously with my rusty Russian.
Then on to late night cabaret French songs from between the wars and luscious, Belle Epoch Italian delights from Respighi to unpublished Mascagni, in indecipherable manuscript which he still managed to play magnificently.

Then to my great love - the Neapolitan Songs, taught to me by Nicola Rescigno, "Well all the great singers sang them - you know." 

With recordings by Gigli and di Stefano, I have a lot to live up to....and they bring the house down. Neapolitan is not an easy language to understand or to pronounce, being a mixture of the influences generated by the cauldron of Naples. There is Arabic, Spanish, French and some Italian too! It also has a great conservatoire which produced Bellini, Spontini, Riccardo Muti and his maestro Nino Rota, who wrote the music for the Fellini films.

 We race through Noel Coward's Nina at the gallop, a masterpiece of  Latin American footwork and verbal problems there, and wonder where to place it in a programme and for what sort of audience. A glance at the beautiful songs of Ivor Novello, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart and we think about Castelnuovo Tedesco and Kurt Weill.

John was running out of time and I of voice after almost five hours, and we hadn't even begun on my Adriana with her ravishing Intermezzo (with three harps) and which in a concert programme gives me a little break, and he can make sound like an orchestra...or Berlioz' great Dido or Verdi's Desdemona. Her Salce, Salce with its Ave Maria is perfect for a cathedral, as is Mascagni's.  There are so many more of my great operatic heroines but they must wait for another day.

Very few musicians could cope with such a range of style and repertoire and make it all sound wonderful.

John Alley does.

What a happy day! I think about it all until late, as I water the roses, and now of course I can't get to sleep because I'm full of music..............Where is my lavender candle?

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Heavenly Spires.

This week I had the wonderful experience of singing in three of our oldest and most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings, all on the same day.

I began in Salisbury Cathedral, rather early in the morning for my top C's but they managed to work nevertheless, and it was a real joy to be in this great place and comune with its glorious spirit and acoustic. 

Singing in a space as grand as this requires a sort of meeting with its spirit, and in order to really come over to a very large audience, not just in front of you but around the sides and sometimes behind you, means truly claiming that great space and its atmosphere.

Then we went on to Wimborne Minster with its perfect acoustic clarity. The origins date from AD 700, and standing under the great square tower I thought that the sound would just go up instead of out, but no.
The building is so perfectly constructed that even if I turned 180 degrees, facing two rood screens and with my back to the congregation, the sound was identical and carried perfectly.
A Minster is the resting place of the relics of a Saint, and this church has therefore been endowed and very well cared for.

Finally to Christchurch Priory, almost as large as a cathedral and the home of Augustinian monks although their living quarters alas, are no longer there. The vicar was wonderful and gave me a lesson on the reformation and the cost to the parishes of buying back their churches from Henry VIII. It was all fascinating, and marvellous to see these great buildings so cherished and still in use, each wonderfully maintained.

The priors had chosen a truly magical spot with magnificent trees and a little harbour, and the atmosphere was full of peace, yet life and vigour at the same time. 

I returned to my lavender-growing chums brimful of wonder and happiness that I am given the chance to sing in such glorious places.

PS. The answer to the quiz at the top of  "Numbers"  two posts down is.......90!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Roma Eterna.

If the last post is all about numbers, it's shot reflects some of the great influences in my life........

Rome, the Eternal City and it's Roseto, the Rose Sanctuary tended by 15 great gardeners. One day in January last year, I had the honour of being invited to an every day (but very splendid) lunch in their bothy, with a roaring log fire, lots of pasta, red wine, Panettone and laughter. When I joined them again in May, leaving for a moment my co-judges of the competition, the Father Christmas tablecloth was still onboard. On the following day I had lunch with another very dear friend, Francesco Ernani, Sovrintendente of the Rome Opera, in a smart restaurant near the theatre and the Archeological Museum, to which he escorted me afterwards. I had never seen Livia's Summer Palace.....and it is there, her Summer dining room beautifully displayed, with no windows or doors (it was too hot). The room is lit by an occulus...a circular hole in the roof, as is the Pantheon, and the walls of her dining room are painted with birds and trees......a miracle, and two thousand years old.

Francesco Ernani runs four busy theatres in Rome, for both opera and ballet. He is President of all of all of the opera houses in the world. How fortunate I felt, to count all of these wonderful friends of mine.

Here is the  Circo Massimo in the background where the chariot races were once held. It now rattles with traffic, and to the right the immense Baths of Caracalla where all of Roman life, sport, learning and healthcare as well as many deals and decisions all took place in an entirely egalitarian society. It is now the spectacular setting for Opera and Ballet in Summer.

This shot was taken by Julia Owen, a very great friend.


How many people does it take I wonder, to run a Cathedral?

I do know that the Paris Opera needs 2500 and La Scala 1200, and that the "Damenschneiderei" in Munich (the ladies wardrobe) requires 41 and the same for the men, and that their wig and make-up department is 12 strong. The "petit mains" who do all of the detailed work on costume are the same as in a great fashion house and 6 or 8 of them are always with us as we go on stage. In Italy they are the 'Sarte" and we have to open the dressing room door and call "Sarta" if there is no bell to ring. It is they who bring the costumes down on racks in the morning and I sometimes then go in just to check on something. They get us into and out of them and are able if necessary, to do an instant repair. They follow us into the "gasse" or "quinte" (the wings) with water, and send a runner to order trays of food and espresso during rehearsal and performance. We NEVER use zips in theatre, and rarely hooks and eyes, always corseting, laces and buttons because these never get stuck during a fast change. For the same reasons we don't have lifts to our dressing rooms, but always stairs....hopefully not too many..... the costumes are heavy enough as it is. They are always made of the original fabrics so that they hang and move correctly and we are of course, very hot indeed! There is nothing that misses the eye of our dressers and wigmasters and they know all about us...almost as much as our coaches.

Nearly as hot as we are,"Les Machinistes"or"Machinisti" are the men who pull the ropes, 'flying' the scenery for the changes. They are often ex-sailors, doing the same task although in modern theatres this is done electrically (they still have to be there just in case) but, as my friend Laurent Gerber the French! Stage Manager at La Scala once said to me; "They do so much standing around waiting, that they know more about good singers than anyone else!"

MRI (and still wobbling).

Have you ever had one?

I had one for my brain in Munich, because I sang, standing on my head, the Barbiere di Sevilla aria with all of the coloratura variations for Carnevale (rehearsal) and next morning awoke with a black eye.

The wonderful throat doctor whizzed me straight off for a scan and said that I must NEVER do it again and so I had to keep telling everyone that I mustn't do it although I did really want to.

I remember my shocking pink jumpsuit and hair twisted over to one side.

Then there was a full body scan, with a dye in one arm to arrive who knows where (it got very hot) and this takes about an hour and a half, but it's on your back, gently chugging through a huge polo mint machine......The Nuclear Scanner is even bigger...10 feet high.

I've just had a couple more MRIs, one privately and one publicly.

I climbed aboard with needles and tubes in an arm to lie face down, strapped in with no movement, and earplugs to defend the ears from very loud noise and vibration. You move through the machine for 40 minutes like a sort of coffin. I explained that I was a singer and could they please tell me when I could get a good breath in, between the norm, but I couldn't hear what she was saying through the window and the heavy door which closes with a CLUNK. You are alone inside a huge magnet...had I really never had any metal inside me? and were all my hair clips out?

The private machine was quieter....if only they would explain everything first, but I couldn't understand the Indian lady anyway, and she was behind the window....CLUNK.

The NHS machine had broken down several times lately and I tried to make friends with it as it waited for me throbbing and pulsing.........was it going to have to do my heart's job for me?

 I was allowed a friend in the room, but no one wanted to come. It was indeed a sort of coffin, and I was strapped in head first and  face down but the vibration, noise and battering on my eardrums was tremendous, like being tied beneath an old train and a lawnmower. The dye going in was indeed hot and I didn't move and hoped the machine wouldn't either  They gave me a buzzer but I couldn't hear anything they said, and at the end a new girl came in and I never saw the people who had injected me and strapped me down originally. 

She said that some people take one look and won't go near it, many others stop half way through and won't go on. I'm not surprised. I only hope the images were clear and accurate, and that they will be very well interpreted. 

 Hungry, neither before nor after, I wished so much that someone had been there to take me home for a cup of hot, sweet tea. 

It was raining.......

Friday, 7 August 2009

Salisbury Cathedral.

                      This is Charlie Hopkinson's portrait of my rose.
                It was taken at Chelsea Flower Show for Country Life 2004.

Preparing repertoire for a Cathedral is never simple.

Understanding the acoustic and perhaps more importantly how to use it, is everything, and this one has a fairly long reverberation of perhaps half a second.....500 milliseconds. This is the way in which we dissect sound when editing recording.

I've sung in Salisbury a couple of times and while the sound I make has to reach the back easily, and needs to be big enough to arrive well, it can take so long to do so that I'm already well ahead with the follow-on. This makes for aural confusion for everyone and needs very specific delivery and content so :-
No very fast coloratura or runs. These don't come over cleanly.

 However impeccably they are sung these just sound muddy from the back of the aisle, and no big, soupy lines with lush accompaniment either. These get lost in a mush as do most words, at least in the Latin languages no matter how clearly they are pronounced..."Sempre la Pronuncia!" my Italian coaches chant at me. So German or English with it's more broken line  and percussive text is easier for the listener in an acoustic like this, but is less beautiful musically.

I work away at the magnificent Ave Maria by Mascagni, written as the Intermezzo for Cavalleria Rusticana....the Easter Hymn has a ravishing rising, diminishing arpeggio to a pianissimo top note at the end which has to float perfectly atop the spire. This is where I can really use the tremendous height. The sound I make has to emerge from the top of my head and hover, as well as project forward and all around to at least 500 yards.

Then there is the Rusalka aria to the moon. This is in Czech, and while the line and melody are glorious, the language just breaks it up enough, and musically the end should be thrilling.

 Most of my anguished ladies don't have a chance here, but Desdemona's "Salce, Salce" with her Ave Maria works well. It is a long scena but so skillfully crafted by Verdi that the drama really holds the audience in such a big space, leaving us all with a deep sense of completion. Unlike the theatre, a Cathedral is long but without the embracing arms of an opera house, or the eliptical "ear" of a theatre auditorium.

In Wells Cathedral I once began the second half with the melancholy introduction to the last act of Traviata, and we glided gently into a long jazz medley of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin while everyone fell about in the aisles.........That was FUN!

Sunday, 26 July 2009


                                                                                                                                         Jose Lasheras.

I had to send off my measurements for a grand new production of Carmen in the Arena of 26,500 capacity.

This I did, hoping that they were correct, and euphemistically thinking that I would lose a couple of pounds before arriving for rehearsal. Normally measurements are taken by the dressmakers of the house when you arrive.

It was immensely hot and I was staying in a horrible modern box of an hotel outside the city and thus could not run around and study it as I worked. We rehearsed from 8pm until 2am. I turned up for my first fitting and the designer was there too......Disaster! 

The ravishing jacket in cobalt silk, which was hand painted all around in silver did not do up! and the seams had to be let out under the arms....which disrupted all of the narrative of the painting. The designer was truly forgiving....lovely, and we got on despite, as I watched his patience and calm eye for detail. We talked about so many things as the "sarte", the semstresses pinned and tacked away.

I felt that I had let him down and spent every day in my icebox hotel fretting, eating nothing and wondering how else to lose weight in such a hugely hot city, when I had to keep all of my energy in reserve for the nightime.

I think that he must have forgiven me for Christian Lacroix and I are still friends, and I have  his paintings, Christmas cards, jewellery, book and his most beautiful clothes for which I saved so long and now treasure more than ever.

His clothes are so impeccably made, truly exquisite in detail, shape, and colour with a flair that I have never seen before......and I shall do my best to remain in them for the rest of my days. 

They are cut to the body in a way that you rarely see and are always supremely comfortable as well as the most beautiful.

Our world needs this great talent and supremely gifted designer who understands entirely our shapes, lives and the way in which we express ourselves and need to inhabit our clothes.

All of this he interprets with the most veuve, brillo, daring panache and immense flair.



Rhumba Numba.

This week, since I have a moment to spare, I thought I would learn a couple of new dances!

Salsa and Rumba........

I have danced seriously, since I was three, and after classical ballet, I went for Flamenco, jazz and anything else that I need in order to work in theatre.....the music is SO Great!

Every morning after singing Lady in the Dark (Kurt Weil and Ira Gershwin) in Palermo, and then Rome, I clambered up 85 stairs to ballet class at 9.15 am.

The dancers looked astonished as they draped themselves, elegantly drawing on a cigarette, around the old theatre staircase.......(Nicotine cuts your appetite and thus your weight) and I would labour away at the barre, with my towel and bottle of water, gazing at the puddle of sweat beneath my feet. Dancers don't work near air-conditioning nor open windows..and this was in 40 degrees C.

 Singers go near smoke at their peril.  

So....singing Carmen is a piece of cake if you can dance and, in Madrid I said during rehearsal....."If all of these wonderful dancers come on as I am hardly need me!"
" I'll sing if I can dance flat out when I"ve finished".

This we all did, and then I went on to dance for half of the night, and out after breakfast for the magnificent art galleries in Madrid as well. Two weeks in the Prado was hardly enough....

This is my Rhumba Numba frock..which I wear for a fun second half in concert....or indeed for anything else!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Illustrious Jeans!.

La Belle cantered in to collect a case of Noilly Prat (in precisely the right shaped bottles) and happily delivered to me by mistake.

She had lavender socks and matching baseball boots on, and we were too busy laughing for me to ask if she had dyed them herself.

I wondered where in deepest Hackney she had fallen upon them, for she is too busy too go much further afield than her studio.

Perhaps these things just migrate in her direction.

She has after all, the most Illustrious Genes!


Monday, 20 July 2009

Out of the Frying Pan.....

I made an appointment with Herr Direktor in Munich towards the end of my first year at The Bavarian State Opera.

I had not been allowed to sing a new production at La Scala. Milan, because I was told that I would be required to sing the tiny, offstage part of the shepherd in Tosca. "But" I protested, "there are 15 young mezzos in the Opernschule here who could do it and this is a premiere at La Scala. If I remain faithful to this house and lose opportunities like this what will happen to my career?"

"Ah, replied Herr Direktor "We have planned so many performances for you in the next season and indeed, you can stay for at least 8 years."

Three months later, I was no longer required, and all of my furniture, car and the paraphanalia of a settled home was discarded.

Loyalty seemed a disposable asset.

I went to Vienna, to the Wiener Staatsoper where the new Direktor who had seen me in Munich told me, "You can sing all of your repertoire with us."

He had resigned before I arrived.

Every time that I came in for a performance I was greeted by the press with the infights between the Government and the Direktor of the Staatsoper, the man who had engaged me, and himself also a member of the Government.

I sang well, all of my performances, but of course the plans were changed and much was cancelled.

Always watch your back when hired by an outgoing regime!

As we say in Vienna,"Take the money and run".


"Coraggio! E il piu difficile di tutte le opere. In Bocca al Lupo"

So wrote Nicola Rescigno in my first score of Norma.

The great Maestro taught it to me himself at the age of 85 since he felt that I should sing it, and many were the moments when we broke for a cigarette (his!) and I beat the kitchen table with frustration and looking heavenwards, wished SO much that I could ask Callas how to negociate a certain phrase. The great salto or leap of almost two octaves, straddling the two ponte or bridges in the voice, in the duet with Pollione for instance, which has to be accomplished exactly in tempo, and this tempo must be precisely judged at the outset...fortunately in this case it is my responsibility and not that of the conductor. 

These great scores are really a life's work, and this one in particular is I feel, the perfect synthesis of Classic and Romantic, with the simplest of orchestration to illuminate the vocal line. It is this, at times spare writing, which makes all the more impact and gives the piece such elegance. 

Norma is so drenched with love and passion and is deeply moving not only for it's glorious music....... and this is Bellini's genius.

"You have been given Susan, a great responsibility, and inheritance which I hope you will bring to others and use for them, continuing these traditions in this great period of music.

 So profit, and I hope I've been helpful to you in being able to show you these things, and that you can be of help to others, bringing joy to people through singing these things well."

Nicola Rescigno to me,
Rignano Flaminia,
12th June, 1995.

"Courage! This is the most difficult of all operas." 

"Into the mouth of the Wolf."

A Highly Rated Filly!

In praise of my chum Cressida.

Ma Belle as I call her, moved in almost next to me longer ago than we can recall, and has been steadily creating her very personal niche in the world of design ever since.

Her screen prints are legendary as is her family background, and I am lucky enough to possess her beautiful clothes and textiles. She has painted my lampshades to go with 17th Century needlework, my coal bucket...a huge flower pot decorated with a regiment of flames marching round it, and my musical boxes.... a series of very lightweight briefcases which never leave me and get regularly beaten up at airports. They are filled with scores, recording equipment,water and practice shoes and Cressida has painted each one with legends, to go with my voice and winter coat.

Her scarves are so gorgeous that I can't bear to put them away and they just hang around the house - or hotel rooms - upliftingly.

 My practice skirt is made from her offcuts,and a magnificent length of silk velvet, somewhat Art-Nouveau/William Morris, is now an off the shoulder sheath, cunningly transformed by Sandro my dressmaker in Milan, who managed to do it without cutting the fabric.

It's in her genes of course. 

All that she touches is transformed by her magic from carpets to furniture, even cakes, and I can't wait to see what happens next. We did a photo shoot last week for a magazine when I wore her wonderful jacket, and my roses arrived by courier from Hitchin in the nick of time to be included too as we chatted away about hats and gardens and calligraphy.

She is a stalwart friend and I am proud to know her. 

Heaven help the person who has to live in between us!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Ciao Milano!

Here are my roses singing away in front of La Scala while I work away inside.
Another great gardener came to dinner this week from Milan, where he is head of all of the green areas....parks, gardens and lakes. Carlo Marinoni holds the original plans for the medieval grounds around the Castello, where Leonardo da Vinci worked for nine years, employed by the Duca di Sforza....450 years ago.

While he lived in Milan, half a kilometer from where I did, Leonardo painted the interior of the Castello, with one huge room as a tree with trunks winding up the circular walls toward the apex of the ceiling, leaves and birds all intertwined. I've seen his few, tiny and immaculate books which comprised his library there too, along with his own writings all in mirror plate, written from right to left.

He went on to fresco Il Cenacolo, The Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, to design the war machines for the defence of the city and the vital canal system, I Navigli. His beautifully observed portrait of a musician is in the Ambrosiana, the great library created in 1607 by Archbishop Federico Borromeo and Leonardo's Codice, his original manuscripts, are (all but three) still there, currently being transferred to computer so that you can dismantle and rebuild all of the elements of his designs from catapults to helicopters, the bicycle and flying machine. I've done it, fascinated by the extraordinary genius which seemed to operate in any area that he chose.

My friend Carlo is entrusted with all of the beautiful gardening in Milan. He restored the English Garden with it's lake and swans and weeping willow, a magical place which you can only visit if taken by someone under twelve years old.

Carlo looked longingly at the edging and the ladies mowing this week in St. James's Park, and tells me that instead of deciding and organising planting, his time is now entirely taken up in looking for sponsors.

NOT Violetta.

As I practise away, envelloped in the mostly anguished ladies of Italian 19th century opera lyrica, I take a break for an espresso and watch the birds from my kitchen, opera glasses in one hand and short, sharp coffee in the other.

Rattling my brains back to the real world, I have to ring some of my dear gardener chums on their mobiles to talk about tap roots, mycorrhizal funghi and from my point of view, food and water.

"She's as busy as me, and just as hungry" I cry, as no-one seems to understand how much energy a heavyweight soprano or continually flowering Florabunda rose gets through, in terms of water and nutrition!

I truly love my dear gardener friends and try to cherish them, because I know that they are well away from my profession and I can really trust them. We speak at 7.45 am as I do to my Opera house director friends on the continent (8.45am)...their only quiet moment, but to have the mobile numbers of all of these great gardeners is I feel, a wonderful privilege.

We discuss aspects, sites, tending, planting and with endless patience, they teach me.

I love it if the roses can go in on my birthday and this year my wonderful borough had two little parties, morning and afternoon in November both with birthday cakes, and we all dug and planted away so that she can help The Little Angel Marionette Theatre.

 Their party is next week and we must all be ship-shape!

Oh dear...back to the delicious Adriana Lecouvreur, Cilea's great masterpiece with the most gloriously ravishing orchestral interlude of one in this country knows it. 

She usual! this time poisoned by..........violets.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Tap, Tap, Tap!

I heard him and, any distraction from my daily practice, rushed to the windows on the south side of my house and grabbed my opera glasses....and there he was!

A beautiful Woodpecker! 

His head was black and white, flashed with crimson and his long yellow beak searching for insects in the lime tree at the bottom of my garden. 

Oh, how I wish that he would stay but he zipped off, reminding me of the bullfinch with his pink chest, who comes to visit but lingers so briefly. I look them all up in my battered bird book!

These days I wake to the brilliant sound of a little wren, at any time after 3.45  in the morning. Her voice is so strong and she so tiny, and later in the day when she is upset, she chatters incessantly.

There are two pairs of blackbirds who call to each other and one, a handsome male with a golden eye and orange beak, sings magnificently at dusk from the rooftops to the South and at dawn from the ariels on the north side of the house. I fed them this winter for the first time, and could spend all day watching instead of studying. We have nightingales too, that I have been so glad to hear very late at night as I come back from Italy, and robins, confused by the new streetlights, singing at the wrong time. The bluetits visit in a threesome, poking among the ivy for their lunch......Now I understand why Olivier Messian wrote so wonderfully about birds. He must have listened to them all the time in that concentration camp. That's where he wrote Le Quattuor pour le Fin du Temps, full of birdsong strident and beautiful. 

There's an Angel in there too.

I find their voices more and more intriguing and the greatest lesson for a singer, and feel a bit churlish as I gently hone my 132 decibels beside their glorious songs.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Fire and Ice

This week I was reminded of a particularly tough call in front of one of the finest orchestras in the world and its distinguished Direktor, my employer for several years.

We were in final orchestral rehearsal for Elektra, nerves particularly concentrated since we were in the company of the legendary Birgit Nilson, and this, as it turned out, was to be her final stage performance.

After sleeping and dreaming my very tricky interjections with which the piece opens, amid a tremendous orchestral cacophony, I was really ready for the baton. It came, along with the "Obey me or else..." glare that I grown to expect...but the baton came down a bar earlier than written.

It was a traumatic moment for a very young singer. Either you disobey the Maestro and get it wrong, or you refuse and get it right, possibly exposing him either way. 

I had about one tenth of a second in which to decide and went for my good training...the composer first, but I think the icy eyes behind the specs didn't forgive me.

 I sang the performances flat on the floor on a steep rake, with face painted blue and enormous, rubber feet like a Platypus which made getting about tricky, but the music always went right.

Much later, I smiled at Herr Direktor across a beautiful dining room in Madrid where I was having lunch before a Carmen I was to sing that night, and watched as he slid, looking at me, with his back along the wall... and out..... 

Saturday, 20 June 2009

and Paris.........

The following year as I shuttled around Europe, I found myself at the Paris Opera for a new production of La Belle Helene. This was a grand affair to be filmed and televised live throughout France on big screens with the entire Government in the front row. I had to be in good shape but didn't need to worry about exercise as my dressing room was on the sixth floor, I had nine costume changes and the lift was broken. One day with a few precious hours to spare between rehearsals, dialogue coaching, fittings and interviews I ran to the beautician, a hectic emporium where apparently everyone went, although we were all so muffled up in face cream and turbans and lack of make-up that no one would have known anybody else.

In between treatments I waited for the ladies room, but the passage was so narrow that when the occupant came out we both had to breath in, laughing with scarcely a towel between us.

 I did however recognise her..Farah Dibah, the Empress of Iran.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


 All this noise from Iran makes me think of my friend Bijan Ahsef.

When I first arrived to work in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper I had to sing the exposed role of the Kammersanger in Manon Lescaut, a vast and grand production created as a vehicle for Domingo in which to open the season. 

The Director was Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the great tenor Mario, but when he wasn't there his highly capable regie-assistent was an unusually literate, brilliantly capable and multi-lingual man with a funny name....a little older than the norm for that position. He seemed overqualified and I couldn't work it out, but he was endlessly patient and kind to me as a newcomer.

 Bijan held us and The Book all together, as temperatures rose and Placido didn't materialise until AFTER the final dress rehearsal, but the experience of taking bows for almost an hour, holding Placido's hand - just four singers - as that great house fell in, never left me. Bijan was of course holding the curtain, directing us through our various solo calls....."Tutti Frutti" he would shout against the fantastic din of the front of house.

He guided me precisely and carefully through weeks of solitary rehearsal for the next piece Rossini's Cenerentola, as he put me into another glorious production made by Ponnelle for La Scala which I sang 26 times in Munich, each one sold out. He possessed not only great knowledge and experience but intuition, recreating the original and getting inside the Director, Composer and the music, but only then did I finally solve the puzzle.

Bijan had been Sovrintendente, the Director of the Tehran Opera, but with the last revolution he was warned that even his beautiful production of Carmen would not be acceptable and so reluctantly gathering up his American wife, two small daughters and his carpets left just in time, for Vienna.

"We ate our rugs" he told me with a smile.

This is the dress for the ballroom entrance in Cenerentola. The corset alone took 3 full afternoons just to pin on me...arms suspended in tapes above my head, then back to rehearsal.

Ah....... fittings!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Me and a lovely dress

London based photographer Charlie Hopkinson, took this terrific portrait of me wearing one of Gucci's stunning creations.
Charlie is a star to work with, really relaxed but professional too.
I first wore this dress when I met the new British Ambassador to Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts, in Naples, in 2006.

The Rose

This is a stunning rose, and I am proud to say, it has been named after ME!
I know, I shouldn't blow my own trumpet , but not every opera star has had this honour bestowed on them.
The rose was grown by Robert Harkness (, a dear friend.
You won't believe where it's been planted. Chelsea Flower Show, the Pope has some, so does the Queen (Queen Elizabeth of course) La Scala, and so on.

C'est Moi

I'm Susan Daniel, Diva extraordinaire.
Here's a pic, so you'll know who the hell I am.