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on to late night cabaret French songs from between the wars and luscious, Belle Epoch Italian delights from Respighi to unpublished Mascagni, in indecipherable manuscript which he still managed to play magnificently.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!