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!