Wednesday, 30 December 2009

An Annual Audit

And other things which begin with a letter A. This is going to be tremendously self-indulgent so look away now.

Things which have been good about 2009:

1- How unexpected everything was. This applies to suddenly writing a play, randomly visiting a lot of the world without ever intending to, doing well with some jokes, Scott Mills The Musical, Edelpanto, starting a blog, people actually reading it, usw. I would have expected a lot of same old for this year, and it threw a lot of excitement my way. And, of course, Fulham being wonderfully unuseless all year.

2- Pals. Pals getting married, pals having kids (well, I am in my earlymidtolate30s, so I guess that would been inevitable) but also, and almost mainly, the new pals. There's the one in Ameriky, there's the one who came to London with mud on his boots drinking Malibu, there's the semi-Scottish bass, there's the one who does writing who I've known for a couple of years but who became more of a pal, there's his excellent award-winning missus, there's the SMTM pals... I have done well for pals (overusing the word now, but it's one I like) this year. Plus the old faithfuls, of course, who should feel in no way denigrated by that description. I am unusually lucky when it comes to friendship.

3- Sky Plus. I am one of those hypocrites who despises the Murdoch Empire, but nonetheless adores coming home from the pub to find that the magic box made of science has recorded 30 Rock without my even remembering it was on. NB: if James Murdoch and David Cameron plot between them to take away the BBC, as seems likely, I will belatedly discover some principles and throw it away, possibly in some kind of ceremony.

4- The discovery that in amongst all the random numptyness on the internet there is still a lot of wit, honesty and righteous decency . I discovered SYB this year, and Enemies of Reason, and all manner of good things said by sensible people. It just goes to show you can't be too careful (ooh, thanks too to David, for taking a good pub idea and making an unexpected number of people spread the word).

5- The fact that I had four things which were good. I bet I could think of more, too, but it's late and I'm tired.

Bad things about 2009:

1- Let's not. It's Christmas, still, nearly. What with bombings and executions and Horne and Corden's sketch show and climate change and climate change deniers and expenses and banking and and and and it's probably depressing enough. And come the spring, George Osborne is going to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Now I'm really depressed.

On the plus side, though, I have been bought a food processor. So, whatever happens, 2010 will be a bonanza of soups and stews.

Happy New Year, kids. May this last year of a weird decade bring you everything you dream of, unless you dream of rubbish things.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

I did a pome.

This is a poem I wrote for my sister, about my niece.

"My Niece, September

Today is Hope’s birthday. A pleasing phrase;
One of many which will show up over the years.
‘Can you see Hope?’ ‘Hope makes me smile’
How can hope be gone, or one lose hope

When Hope is in the world? Now we know
What’s in a name. In the darkest corner
Of Pandora’s Box, after the darkest times
There lurked the solution, the happiness-hit.

‘Hope, ta-da!’ as the man said. From the first
That sparky little girl made herself known,
Her personality felt. A birth canal? Don’t be wet.
Coming through the hipbone, that’s a challenge.

And so she entered the world in a manner
Perhaps more complicated (I can use euphemisms:
I’m not her mother) than most, and yet
Utterly characteristic. ‘This is how I do things

And if something seems difficult, that’s the cue
To keep hammering away until crowned
With glorious, hard-won success’. Some Ratcliffe granite
Seaming through the languid Taylorness.

Months earlier, three had become four, and now
Four and a bump became four and a bit, then
Slowly, quickly, wonderfully, five. A person
Grown from scratch, as a dock-leaf for grief-

Not to take it away, but to soothe it, assuage,
And with her newness to make the old less raw.
We laugh with someone discovering laughter
We dress a cut knee with a promise the pain will end.

There is another noun, my beautiful girl,
That folk have turned into a name; like yours
It is a sound to describe something to feel, and you
Possess and exude its name as utterly as your own;

The embodiment, not just of Hope,
But of Joy."

December 2009

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Esprit d'escalier

What he (sharp suit, university education) said:

'I don't mind immigration if it's people who want to contribute, what bothers me are all these asylum seekers sitting around on benefits not even trying to work'

What I said:

'Well, asylum seekers aren't allowed to work'

What I should have said:

'Why not get even the vaguest bit informed before you presume to hold forth on something so important, you greedy, complacent, willfully ignorant fucking moron?'

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Don Taylor, 30 June 1936- 11 November 2003

My dad died six years ago today. If you click on this link, or this one or this one you can find out a bit more about him.

I wanted to write something a bit more personal at this point, but now I come to it I'd much rather let him speak for himself. When Dad was dying, he wrote a series of poems for my mum to read after he was dead- aimed, I suppose, at consolation, or as a continuation of their forty-seven year conversation and delight in each others' minds. Indeed, one of the poems encouraged her not to visit his grave after he was dead, but instead to read his work, so she could 'look into his living imagination'.

That imagination still lives, and dad would be delighted to know how much of his work is still being performed around the world. Every few months or so I meet someone who performed in 'The Roses of Eyam' at school or with their local amateur group; and Katie Mitchell's championing of his translations of Greek plays have led to more productions of those translations than he, or we, could ever have dreamed of.

When I want to look into his living imagination, I come back time and time again to one of those poems he wrote after the oncologist's sentence had been pronounced. It's called Roses.

'There is a rose garden at the end of the world.
The Old English roses are marvellously scented.
I shall sit there on long summer evenings,
Drinking white wine, and breathing in the perfume,
Marvellously contented.

When the shadows close on you too,
I shall be waiting, if anywhere, in the Rose Garden
Drinking good white burgundy,
At peace with what I have been and done.'


As I said at the funeral six short, long years ago- enjoy your peace, lovely daddy. You have deserved it.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Silence broken, by a bloody great plug.

Well, why not?

You have a week to listen to this lovely programme on the iplayer- Robert Webb talking about his favourite pieces of poetry and prose. He's a great companion in this kind of thing and his choices are fascinating.

In the name of full disclosure, I might mention that I did some of the reading out.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00npwhj

Friday, 23 October 2009

On resisting temptation.

Like you, I watched tonight's 'Question Time', and I'm sure that you, like me, were particularly struck by what a singularly weird f


Nah, better not. Not twice in the one week.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Why There Is Nothing 'Natural' About Jan Moir's Weird Face

“The sight of Jan Moir’s weird face in today’s Daily Mail was deeply shocking. It wasn’t just that another hate-filled, frothing journobot was as ugly outside as in.

Through the recent travails and sad deaths of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger and others, fans know to expect the expected of low-rank journalists- that the moment someone a bit famous drops off the twig, a weird face like Jan’s will start flapping on about how there’s more to it than meets the eye and making prurient , twitchy, offensive speculations dressed up as moral weariness.

Now look- don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Jan Moir’s weird face. Some of my best friends are Jan Moir’s weird face, although I wouldn’t let it adopt children as they might be bullied. But let us be absolutely clear about this. Normal faces don’t wake up in the morning looking like that. Whatever happened between Jan Moir and her weird face is anyone’s guess. But it strikes a blow against the happy-ever-after myth of loathsome gutter journalism spewed by people with weird faces.”

Bit of a low blow on my part, huh? After all, the poor woman can’t help the way she looks (which, by the way, is HORRIBLE). But if the horrible, upsetting death of a 33 year old man can be poked and pried into in order to further a slimy, bigoted agenda, I don’t see why I shouldn’t point out that the person doing the sliming has a horrible, upsetting face. Moir and her like argue that celebrities forfeit some of their right to privacy when, through their courting of publicity, they ask for our attention. Well, by the same token, Moir has forfeited her right to me not commenting on her weird face by putting a picture of it on the internet. Oh, and by indulging in net-curtain gossiping about someone who never did her (or, so far as we know, anyone) a moment’s harm, before his young body is even cold.

And in many ways, she got off lightly. I could have concentrated on the even more spectacular ugliness of her soul.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A shaming, but honest, admission.

A wonderful Hamlet. A Zerbinetta absolutely nailing it. Bernadette Peters singing Sondheim. Pele passing to to Maradona who passes to George Best who volleys in from 40 yards to win the league for Fulham. A sketch written by Fry, Laurie, Peter Cook, the Pythons and Victoria Wood, and performed by Eric Morecambe and Ronnie Barker.

I have this evening realised- and this is speaking as someone who finds dance basically weird and pointless- that I'd trade any or all of the above for a really, really well-executed tap number.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Dilatoriness.

If that's not a word, it should be. Anyway, this is by nature of a guilt post. I can't stand the type of blogger who castigates himself for not posting- it seems to imply that hundreds of people are desperately waiting for the next effusion- but I am about to become one of them. There is so much to say about Hong Kong and Sydney that every time I sit down to start to write it, I begin to whimper slightly. I will say two things to you, however, as a placeholder for any future time when I might feel a little more verbose.

1) If ever you get a chance to see Cate Blanchett on stage, for god's sake go.
2) Typhoons aren't as exciting as they sound.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Answer four questions then sign of backside*

While there may be no such thing as a free lunch, I am here to tell you that should you roll up to the Sakura Lounge at Narita Airport Terminal Two, there is such a thing as a free breakfast, and very welcome it is too. Bacon! Sausages! (well, mini frankfurters, but I ain't going to quibble) Boiled potato! There were all kinds of soups and salads, too, and a gleaming sushi selection, but I reverted to type; I am English after all. If you show me bacon in the morning, I will eat it. Fresh orange juice, coke, mineral water- even Kirin on tap (they had cans of Kirin in the meeting room where I ran the workshop yesterday, too. This is a civilised country).

It's rather cruel to be getting on another plane so soon after an 11 hour flight (although that sped by, to be honest, thanks to the opera channel on the inflight audio- the Gheorghiu/Alagna Trov, the Mackerras Cosi, which I had last heard at Fran and Steve's wedding, and a stupendous Glyndebourne Fidelio which I shall be buying when I get home. Plus some comedy. British Airways still carries That Mitchell and Webb Sound, which is nice, and it's very comforting to hear James read out one's name when one is 36000 feet above Irkutsk. Don't know why he did, though, as there was none of my material in the episode. Stop complaining, Jon. There was a TV sitcom I watched, too, in which Gus showed up. At the start of a journey I was very apprehensive about, it was strangely reassuring to have these little reminders of home crop up. So I recommend that you all encourage your friends to get themselves included in in-flight entertainment).

Stunning traveller's insight number one- cor, isn't the old Soviet Union big? I mean, I knew that, I've seen it on maps, but nothing quite prepares you for the physical reality of entering its airspace a couple of hours into the flight, after looking down to see Sweden and Finland, and then staying above the ex-USSR for the next nine hours, almost until the descent begins into Japan, only ending when one passes briefly over Mongolia from Siberia, before skirting China. I never saw myself as an international traveller; for the likes of me there is a surreal quality to looking at the inflight map screen and finding out that I'm above Ulan Bator.

Yes, after almost exactly 48 hours, it's sayonara Tokyo. I can't presume to give an impression of the place, except perhaps that it was nowhere near as scary and alien as I had neurotically expected. There's no getting round it- I don't like being a foreigner. Not being able to speak the language unnerves me, as does not knowing customs or etiquette (all my online research left me throughly confused, for example, about the ins and outs of bowing. I ended up doing embarrassed semi-nods at pretty much everyone I spoke to, in the manner of a demented yet reticent woodpecker). But everyone really was as friendly and as helpful as they tell you, and I wish I'd got to see more of the place beyond the hotel room and meeting room, both in the same building, in which I spent the bulk of my time. Other highlights- well, the only other lights, actually- were a quick stroll into Roppongi with Warwick, who very kindly gave up a couple of hours to take me to a gaijin bar and a yakatori restaurant (chicken seven ways. All on sticks and that. The wasabi one was nice. Watch out Jay Rayner) and a Quattro Formaggi in 'la Trattoria'. Yes, yes, I know, but before you start throwing things at me I have decided that in my life I am going to eat pizza on every continent, although Antarctica may be a stretch. Anyway, Europe and the US had better look to their laurels, because my Tokyo pizza was good, good eatin'. It's so rare to get just the right amount of gorgonzola, don't you find? In my experience you have to go all the way to Japan.

It's funny, surrounded by so much that is different and exciting, what odd little details stick in the mind. In Japan, you stand on the left on an escalator. I may be more understanding next time my way is blocked on the Tube. Hey up, these banalities will have to wait for now- they're calling my flight. Hong Kong awaits, which I know you'll be looking forward to. If I keep up this level of insight I will be doubtless logging on in a couple of days to tell you how it's sort of British and yet Chinese there, and that the buildings are quite high. Watch this space.


*Quite a funny sign at Immigration, referring to the embarkation forms. But that's the only Engrish you're going to get, because it's cheap, really, isn't it? Lord knows my Japanese is nothing to write home about.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Yes, it's still about that.

Now then, where were we? Obviously I’m on a train again (I’m not going to tell you where, location fans. I feel like I’ve overindulged you lately) and I ought really to finish this megablog about the show before it passes into prehistory. There are a few more people you need to know about first, though.

Scott (played the Hoff/ the Crap DJ): A question I have been asked quite a lot in the last three weeks is the inevitable ‘What’s Scott Mills like then?’ And nobody looks the slightest bit surprised when I say that he’s a really lovely bloke. This is a man who is able to get my 70 year old mother listening to Radio 1 (she thinks he’s ‘an excellent broadcaster’). I was dead impressed when I went into the studio a couple of times, too. He makes it look pretty effortless. The Pinot Grigio gags, by the way, have a certain basis in fact. I thought I had a good line in inhaling bottles of wine, but I look like a slowcoach next to Mills. I’d challenge him to a wine-off, but I don’t like losing.

Beccy (played KylieWhileyMyleene): What have I done I’ve only met actual Beccy. Listeners to the show will know that Beccy is really, really funny. She reminds me of David M in the way she’ll cut right to the chase whenever someone says anything illogical or unlikely, and get comic capital out of pointing it out. Essentially, the one-liner is her forte. She’s also really good value in a game of ‘would you rather’ and is the first person I know who has ever priced herself out of the market with the ‘tramp’ question (and if you don’t know what that means, you don’t want to). Has a scald on her arm in the shape of pepperoni, and seems to be under the impression that all listeners to the Scott Mills show are from the West Country.

Rob/ Emlyn/ Lyndsey/Sam: Our Radio 1 angels. Emlyn (the real TOTDS) wrote the show and was its chief cheerleader- his enthusiasm for it kept us all going, and he has an uncanny ability to say ‘does anyone want a drink’ at JUST the right time. Rob- or Linda, as he now prefers to be known after his discovery of the ‘Broadway’s Leading Ladies’ DVD- couldn’t be less like his counterpart in the show, although he does have the same surname. Lyndsey mainly spent her time with actors saying ‘where are my keys/ tickets/ Pleasance passes/ contract/ money’ which can’t have been much fun but somehow resisted the temptation to slap anyone upside the head. Sam the internet guy took more photos than anyone ever has in the world ever, and managed somehow to upload them before they were even taken. He also made a very convincing, um, photographer in the Brits scene. R1 in general was incredibly supportive of the show, and it made such a difference to know they were right behind/ alongside us. There was no divide, I suppose is what I’m saying, between ‘radio show people’ and ‘people off of the musical’- we were all in it together, which was what made it all so ace.

Patrick/ Ollie/ Roshni/ JP/ Nick/ Robin: Ok, I know this is turning into a tedious Oscar speech now, but hey, nobody asked you to read it. Patrick, our director, made it into a proper show. We’d have got away with something endearingly chaotic, but Patrick insisted that we come up with something as tight and as slick as possible, which I think made a real difference when it came to audience expectations. He created a smashing atmosphere in rehearsal too- surprisingly few directors seem to realise, as Patrick does, that you’re allowed to like your actors and tell them that you think they’re good. Ollie, Patrick’s assistant, is possessed of enough charm, enthusiasm and charisma to persuade a bunch of cynical actors to do a Peter Brook-style workshop with sticks, without ending up wearing one. Roshni, our company stage manager, managed somehow to co-ordinate the whole show, set, props, costume and all, on a budget of tuppence ha’penny and a diet of fags and whisky. The woman is a legend. She fell asleep at one point during the overnight, and immediately sat up- in a moment of silence when nobody had called for her- and said ‘NO, SORRY’. You have to love that. John, the production manager, and Nick the LD seem to have smiled their way through the whole job. And Robin, on sound, put up with us blocking his radio mikes with our sweat, which, if you think about it, is pretty disgusting.

So that, at some length, is the gang. Now, you left us having just finished the all-nighter. We went off to get varying degrees of sleep (the R1 team had three hours of Drivetime to do, remember, the poor sods) before reconvening, white with anticipation, at the Pleasance that evening. To say that we were nervous would be to say that Chris Moyles is carrying a few extra pounds. Pacing was the order of the day, along with that kind of half-conversation you have on first nights where you say to each other ‘IT’S GOING TO BE FUN, ISN’T IT? YES. YES IT’S GOING TO BE A LOT OF FUN’ while trying to ignore the fact that you both have crazed eyes. The turnaround from the previous show was pretty smooth (apart from one actor having lost a crucial item of costume, and, what’s worse, attempting to lie about it. Pond scum. Yes, it was me. Shut up.) and, shatteringly quickly, it was time for the actual punters to come in. All 300 of them. This is where we began to visualize 300 angry, tired drunks who had queued for four hours to get their tickets. This is where we realized that the opening number went on for seven minutes and Scott, the man they had come to see, wasn’t even in it. This is where we began to get REALLY scared.

I might tell you what happened next, sometime.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Dramatis Personae

As promised, then, a few words about these people I keep insisting are such smashers.

Them what was on stage (in order of appearance):

Kathy (PR4L): You know her voice because everyone does, and at first it’s strange to hear it coming from a person rather than from the Today programme. She is a ukelele-toting, tiara’d streak of elegance with a singing voice as beautiful as her speaking one, and a devilish quick sense of humour. Kathy’s enthusiasm for the whole project was always a boost and my word she can make people laugh. It’s also fun to get her to say rude words. Formed an unholy alliance with Andrew.

Laurie (played Beccy): The best thing ever to come out of Belgium and yes, I am including waffles in that. We were gutted to miss her burlesque performance (although it was sold out, which is of course the best possible reason) because playing Beccy required her to be sweet and musical theatre-ish (which she did as if to the manner born) whereas I’m pretty sure our Ms Hagen would be great at the darker, more decadent side of performance. Taught me the running man, for which I will be forever grateful. Can inflect the simple word ‘Babes’ in at least 48 different ways. Formed an unholy alliance with Andrew.

Simon (Dep musical director, cameo as ‘man on intercom’ in the opening number): Baptism of fire. Simon agreed to come in and play for the times that Des was unavailable and, due to various unforeseen circumstances, ended up as our de facto MD. I have never before attended a music rehearsal where the cast had to teach the MD the songs, but Simon showed himself to be a quick and, fortunately for us, patient learner, and when it came to notes, an even better teacher. He got a great tight sound out of his small band, too (also comprising Dominic on bass and Andy on drums). Didn’t to my knowledge form an unholy alliance with Andrew but the signs were there that he would have done, given time.

Joe (played Scott): I’ve mentioned him a couple of times before, so you’ll know about him. Joe joined us as a fresh-faced, eager drama student, and left us three weeks later as a seasoned pro with a shattered liver. So, as mentors, you’ll see that we could hardly have done a better job. He reminds me of myself when I was his age, (back in the Pleistocene epic) in many ways, chiefly in his refusal to sing the end of any given song as written if there’s a gala high note to be had. But beyond his performance, which as you’ve seen was great, he handled the pressure and the madness of the whole project- which must have been twice as intense for him as for anyone except Scott- with real maturity, modesty and grace. So probably not that much like the younger me, after all. Formed an unholy alliance with Andrew.

David (played TOTDS): The straight man who is always in gay plays. We tried to insist that this one didn’t belong on his impressive gay theatre CV, but round about the first rehearsal of R.A.D.I.O it became apparent that that wasn’t fooling anyone. David came to our show straight from his wedding (that’s a pun, kids) and having lived abroad for a while, so he must have been pretty dazed by the whole thing. Being the great galumpher that I am, I was very envious of his physical precision on stage, and I think his performance is one of the highlights of the video version, as that kind of precision translates so well to camera. Fans of the song ‘We’re Not Allowed’ will be interested to learn that David used this very laptop to perform one of the taboos mentioned in the lyric, while we were ON THE TRAIN to Edinburgh.

Andrew (played Chris Moyles/ Andy Parfitt/ a Stepsesque cowboy): As I thought to myself what to say about Andrew, I found myself smiling. He’s that kind of person. He is responsible for christening me ‘Jennifer’ (it’s a long story, but basically think Dreamgirls) a name which I haven’t answered to since I was teaching English to a girl from Hong Kong who couldn’t quite manage ‘Jonathan’. He appointed himself as ASM to our stage manager, the estimable Roshni (with whom he formed an unholy alliance, and of whom more later) and worked his butt off helping to marshal the scene changes while retrieving the necessary props that his colleagues (ok, ok, me) had left in eccentric places in the wings. Had less to do in the show than some of the rest of us, a fact he occasionally mentioned, but you wouldn’t know to watch it, because everything he did was so memorable. I suspect he may have a slight tendency towards corpsing.

Guy (played Rob the boss): Current holder of ‘Wales’ nicest man’, a title he has held every year since his birth, Guy is one of those sickening people who you can’t imagine ever hearing a bad word about. Like, ever. Anyone who laughs at jokes like Guy does- the laugh sort of takes over his whole upper body- is always going to be popular with them as makes jokes, which is to say most of us. Irritatingly, he is of course also very funny in his own right. He’s getting married in a few weeks time, and his fiancĂ©e is a very lucky woman- except, you’ve guessed it, she’s irritatingly lovely too. Guy is a bit of a worrier, but in social and professional terms he has nothing to worry about, the lovely talented jammy bastard.

Bloody hell, that’s about a million words and I haven’t even started on the crew and the Radio 1 brigade yet. In fact I haven’t even finished on the cast- I’ve missed Scott and Beccy. But once more I’m on a train nearing its destination (my mum’s place in Norfolk, persistent location fans) so that, along with the madness of the performances and my fun on radio wun*, will have to wait for another time. This is turning from a few blog posts into a fucking novel, but I want to get it all down while it’s in my head. So, y’know, tough.


*it’s to make it clear that it rhymes, ok?

Monday, 17 August 2009

You've got to put me on the S. T. A. G. E...

I’m on a train- currently at Peterborough, location fans- and trying to fathom exactly how I can put the last three weeks or so into words. It’s fairly safe to say that I’ve had an unforgettable time.

It began, like all good stories do, with a mysterious phone call. My friend Des, who I’ve known since Cambridge, called me as I was on another train- heading, coincidentally enough, up to Edinburgh for Fran and Steve’s wedding. He left a voicemail which was very crackly and difficult to understand. All I heard was ‘potential job… first two weeks of August… paid…’ and then an email address to which I was told to send my CV. The address, however, was a BBC one, which was encouraging, so I emailed my Spotlight link over and waited to see what would happen.

The next day I was in Jenners buying a tie for the wedding (crimson and black, neckwear fans) when my phone rang again and Des greeted me with the immortal line ‘Welcome to Scott Mills The Musical’.

Of course, to an accomplished and professional actor like me the work starts way before the rehearsal room, so as soon as I received my script I set to rehearsing my characters- sports correspondent Chappers and ubercool NZ type Zane Lowe. I was already familiar with Chappers from the 606 phone-in, and since we both like football I figured I’d probably pretty much nailed that character already. For Zane I decided to do an insufferably generic antipodean accent and shout a lot. An invaluable insight into the creative process for you all, there.

In all seriousness, it was one of those jobs where you know from the first hour of the first day that you’re going to have an incredible time. Although in my case my major contribution to the first hour was to inadvertently out myself during a cast bonding game when I was forced to answer the question ‘When was your last girlfriend’ with the reply ’18 years ago’. This did not, needless to say, cause too many ructions. As far as the percentage of gay men involved, ‘Scott Mills The Musical’ was not exactly the Woodsboro Baptist Church. But a lot of other worries were resolved in those first few days.

The worries I’d had before starting rehearsal had been based largely on the unfamiliar; I was worried that a competition winner rather than a ‘pro’ was playing Scott, and I was worried that the stars from R1 might be a little grand or distant. Well, you know how that turned out. Joe, the competition winner concerned, is an absolute star, a pro to his fingertips and a smashing fella with it, and as for Scott, Beccy and co they could hardly have been friendlier or thrown themselves into things more. On about the third rehearsal they came to, when Beccy had belted out ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ and Scott had watched us perform a (very wobbly, at that point) stage lift on Joe before immediately and cheerfully agreeing to take part himself in the very same health-and-safety nightmare*, I realised that 'grand and distant' was pretty much the antithesis of the people we were working with.

So, those worries evaporated immediately. But as we began to realise that we had potentially a rather good show on our hands, they were replaced by others. Would people take us seriously or just turn up for a shambolic bunfight? What kind of audience would we get at half ten at night during the Fringe (the expected answer was ‘drunk’, mainly) and were the critics gleefully sharpening their knives in anticipation of our arrival? And, most worrying of all, how the hell were we going to survive a 12 hour overnight tech rehearsal?

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend teching overnight but I have to say it was much worse in anticipation than in reality. We all went a little delirious at one point- everything was suddenly funny- and once we discovered that it was possible to lie very comfortably on the empty benches in the auditorium the energy levels may have dipped a little. But it was yet another testament to the incredible people who made up the cast, crew and creative team of this show that it was easily the smoothest and best-natured tech I’ve ever been involved in. That’s not to say, of course, that when 7am rolled around, and I’d been up for god knows how many hours, and it was time to start a dress rehearsal, I didn’t want to kill myself and maybe whoever invented radio, the fringe, and Scotland. I didn’t kill any of those people though, I danced around a bit instead. After the dress I was lying prone on the stage trying not to actually die when I noticed in my peripheral vision that Scott was talking on his phone. This is not an unusual occurrence so I thought no more of it until he came over to where my remains were lying.

‘It’s fake Chappers! Say hello, fake Chappers!’ said Scott.

Drawing together every last ounce of my energy to be polite to whoever Scott was speaking to, I summoned up a cheery ‘Hello!’.

‘No’, said Scott, ‘Say it like you do in the musical’

I think that’s when I realised I was on air. I hope I’d have been a little less dumb if I’d had more sleep, but that’s the story of how I made my radio 1 debut getting it all wrong.

Heading towards King’s Cross now so I’d better break off for now. In subsequent posts I’ll have a crack at describing the sheer terror that struck us all on the opening night, and the extraordinary audience response that turned that terror into euphoria. And I’ll probably talk about our cameos from Costa and Outen and Kay, and about how I met actual Chappers, and about how I went on the show with a little more sleep and played ‘Oh, What’s Occurring’ and and and and…

But be warned. I’ve hardly even started on how ace the cast and crew were, so I’ll mainly be banging on about them. People of a misanthropic disposition may want to throw their computers out of the window at this point.



*note to insurers etc: this is phrasemaking. It was totally safe.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Contains spoilers.

'Wow, amazing'

That, in a world exclusive, is my first line in 'Scott Mills The Musical'. I promise I will write more about this in due course, as it's one of the more surreal jobs of my career. But after a hectic first week, with an even hecticer second to come (only 2 weeks of rehearsal, ladies and gentlemen, followed by a double all-nighter of a tech) I am spending my Sunday evening motionless on a sofa rather than slaving over a hot keyboard.

Plus, it's probably all a bit anodyne anyway. Who- despite my suggestion a couple of weeks ago that happy blogging should be encouraged- actually wants to read that everyone involved is smashing, the show is shaping up to be really quite a lot of fun, and that I'm having a whale of a time? But that's the case, I'm afraid. I've been lucky in always being in casts of nice people, I've come across very few utter frights in my career. But this mob is especially lovely and- the part of Scott himself having been cast by a 'Search for a Scott' competition- the Radio 1 listeners have unearthed someone in young Joe who I think is going to be a bit of a star.

But there is, of course, one lurking thought in the background of all this positivity. As any actor knows, if you get a week into rehearsal and you don't know who the company wanker is- it's you.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

More on comedians and journalists.

Did you see this article in the Guardian the other day?

One Brian Logan has taken it upon himself to wade into the murky waters of what is or isn't offensive from the mouth of a comedian. And guess what- he's utterly fucked it up. I mean, spectacularly. It seems he interviewed both Richard Herring and Brendan Burns, among others, on the topic- one which, I would imagine, has exercised anyone who ever dared to write a joke- then filleted their replies, and misrepresented their responses into lowest common denominator soundbites which gave the impression that they were at best thick and at worst actual racists.

Herring- here, and Burns here have made their cases in response, and very eloquently too. Read what they had to say, compare it back to the original article, and make your own decision.

My only contribution to matters (apart from saying in passing that a sidebar took a pretty unnecessary swipe at the show I work on) is to mention that I have been greatly enjoying quoting Brian Logan for years. It all dates back to the time when he reviewed Rob and David's 2001 Edinburgh show, 'The Mitchell and Webb Clones' and began with the immortal line (ok, I'm paraphrasing, but Bri doesn't seem to have a problem with that) 'Human cloning is a very serious issue, but you wouldn't think it to watch this show'. The critic- the COMEDY critic- was, apparently, shocked that they'd decided to concentrate on, you know, jokes. I probably would have forgotten all about this, but swipe me down if he didn't repeat the same trick a while later when reviewing Victoria Wood's one woman show at the Albert Hall. This time, his hackles rose when (again I paraphrase; you know the deal) Wood talked about her hysterectomy in the second half, and despite what a harrowing experience it must have been, seemed only to concentrate on the funny side of it.

Now, never mind that this is the rankest idiocy, ('stabbing a police chief is actually a very serious crime, but Puccini only seems to care about making it into an opera') and let's even be charitable enough to forgive him for utterly missing the point not once, but twice. The reason I dredge up these ancient reviews is to ask the question 'What right has someone who doesn't seem to understand the basics, to impugn the motives of anyone?' I wouldn't trust the man to tell me how to breathe in and out, never mind to guide anyone's thinking on what is actually quite a complicated and sensitive issue, which deserves so much better than the cheap sensationalism of Logan's article. The irony is, of course, that Herring and Burns treat the issue with a great deal more intelligence, and purity of purpose, than their accuser.

I saw Goody Herring with the devil. I saw Goody Burns with the devil*

*That's a reference to The Crucible, Brian love. It's a play.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

'Her head was as dry as a whisky's finesse'

A strange thing, the subconscious, I'm sure we'll agree. Who knows what was going on in my head when my alarm woke me the other morning? All we can know for sure is that when it did, I exclaimed the above sentence to my hotel room. If it helps, I would classify the tone of voice I delivered it in as 'outraged'.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

And another thing, right...

Bloggers, I reckon, are a reactive bunch, and I'm no different. Most posts seem to fall into three categories:

1- I went to a thing and this is what it was like
2- Here's something I think is funny
3- You know what grinds my gears?

I'm in a good mood this evening. I had nice drinks with a good friend for his birthday, another good friend has had a beautiful baby, I am excited about heading to one of my favourite cities on the planet for the wedding of two more good friends. It's probably quite dull to read, but bring on the 'everything is smashing' blog post, I say.

Although, reading back, I doubt I'll do another.

Friday, 10 July 2009

I promise, promise, promise that this isn't an opera thing*

Nonetheless, though, I couldn't love a person who didn't love this.

She's not the greatest of all actors, but she is nonetheless giving it some. And I will always love that. And there's an E flat.

clicky


*it is a bit

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Trafalgar Trav/ Squillo Square.

I'll apologise for those poor quality puns later, and I hope you'll understand why.

So, earlier today, I was having a friendly disagreement about tennis via the internet. Not one of those adrenalin-fuelled 'I can't go to bed, someone on the internet is WRONG' deals, just a lazy, easy-going difference of opinion. A pal of mine was saying that the reason he dislikes tennis is the way this country goes mental for a fortnight, paints its face with a union flag (or, nowadays, a saltire) and screams about whatever Brit just about makes it into week 2. His point was that this was a lot of people who aren't interested in tennis for the rest of the year, and it was a good one. My point, which was better, was that tennis is ace and why shouldn't they have a fortnight of fun?

Anyway, as I sat in Trafalgar Square (yeah, you're beginning to get the puns now, hey? They're no worse than 'Henman Hill' anyway) I began to think about this. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the ten thousand people who sat in the sun, glugging Sauv Blanc, snacking on identical M&S or Waitrose party food, and watching Fleming, Calleja and Hampson in 'La Traviata' (final bit of pun slips into place) weren't all that interested in opera.

But, like the Henmaniacs, they were interested enough to give up an evening to sit and look at some people doing fab things on a screen. I'm ambivalent about the Traf Square audience- they talk too much, mainly- but as a fan of a minority interest I do get a thrill when so many people turn up for what I'm constantly told is something rarified and inaccessible. It's worth remembering, today of all days (more later) that 'high art', whatever that means, ought not to be anything to do with wealth, class, or age. I was encouraged by the mass media when I was a kid to know all kinds of songs off by heart. They were mainly by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and I still know them off by heart. I also, thanks to some records my grandad left me in his will, was encouraged in a different way to listen to something called opera, and with the obsessiveness of the pre-adolescent learned all that stuff off by heart too. In those days, I couldn't really see a difference: I just loved what I loved. Now I still love the throwaway music of my youth, and the throwaway music I listen to now in my (*ahem*) early middle youth- but I know what's better. Look, on the tube home there was a nice girl opposite me who had just seen 'We Will Rock You'. She was bubbling about it. I don't mind the songs of Queen, as it goes. But I know that if she knew Traviata as well as she knew Bohemian Rhapsody she would have had a better night in the Square than at the Dominion. Does that make me elitist, patronising? So I'm told. I have a sneaking suspicion that my conviction that everything should be for everybody makes me the exact opposite.

So, Mrs Lincoln, the performance? Well. I should start by saying how wonderful Calleja and Hampson were, both as singers and actors (to my surprise, in the case of the former, as I'd heard he was a stick. He isn't. On a big screen the intensity of his facial expressions more than complement the extraordinary sound of his voice. It's been said, and it's not fair, but i'll say it too- he reminds me of Bj*****g). So yes, they were great. And Park-from-Cardiff was good, and Anina looked like David in his Mrs Danvers drag, which was unfortunate, but was good also. Yada. You want to know about herself, and I want to tell you.

A lot has been said about Renee Fleming, and I'm not about to add to it. Is she the greatest Violetta there has ever been? No. But she GOES for it. There is not a moment in which she isn't thoroughly committed, vocally and dramatically, to portraying the character as best she can. Now, I come to opera from an actor's perspective, I know. And the thing about some singers is that they don't. And that will always, always, annoy me. La F wants to play the part, and wants to sing it gorgeously at the same time, and goes all out to do so. Give me that over a canary any time.

I liked her in act one, a few silent-movie moments aside. I had been led to believe that she was going to blues the whole thing up, and she really really didn't. Stylistically it wasn't great, but it sounded like what she is- one of the most purely vocally gifted singers in the world. Even the scoopy moments seemed less egregious when you could see her- she wasn't just doing something vocally vulgar, she was interpreting the character by her lights.

In Act Two, her dramatic limitations became noticeable, and her vocal ones faded. An actor I once worked with told me that certain performers will never make it because, and I quote, 'they don't go to the dark'. Fleming acted up a storm in Act II, but her eyes were always looking at sunshine. It made me realise why I love this act the best, and why I love my favourite interpreters of it: their voices (ie Callas) or their eyes (ie Cotrubas) should tell you that to give up Alfredo is to look into the abyss. RF gave us beauty, sadness, melancholy- and that's ok, but it ain't enough.

Where she scored for me was in Act III. The letter is fine. Hammy, but opera hammy. Certainly not the disaster other folk would have you believe. 'Addio del Passato' was gorgeous, if again generalised. 'Parigi, Oh Cara/o' was ace- she and Calleja played it to and about each other, rather than cheek to cheek and staring at the conductor. But what I really loved about this Violetta was her raging against the dying of the light. I guess one of the stylistic annoyances people have mentioned is her propensity to go into a big Leontyne chest note at the drop of a hat, but by GOD it worked in 'Gran Dio, Morir si Giovane'. It's a rare Violetta who can get you with that bit, and she more than did with the rage and despair she got into the voice. Interestingly, the following 'Se una pudica vergine' section, where you would have expected her to have scored big time with lovely lyric floating, was- well, lovely, but left me dry eyed.

I've written too much now, but I wanted to make it clear that we probably shouldn't moan about Renee. There's such a voice there- SUCH a voice- and an artist who is giving her best in the service of the work, which if it sounds like faint praise shouldn't, because she is so often accused of the opposite. And we should treasure and look after Calleja, because he is major. And Hampson is Hampson, and that's also cause for celebration. And- one last shot on Traviata- in the 1850s they had to put in a dull chorus/ballet about matadors or something to keep the crowd interested. In 2009, we want it to go away so we can get the story back. That interests me. We have bitten the bullet and cut Shakespeare, after all- do we really have to sit through any more half-hearted skirt swishing or campy matadors? Cut it.

So, yeah, I enjoyed the tennis and I enjoyed the opera. So did a lot of other people, here and there, and that can only, basically, be good news.


---------------------------------


There's no arch, flippant way to segue to this, so I won't bother. Today would have been my father's 73rd birthday. If you would like to find out how ace he was, you can do so here.

Happy, happy birthday, daddy. I love you. I miss you more than language has the ability or the need to express.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

On hitting and missing.

Well, I'm on a train with magical free wifi, so I might as well use it. It's rather unreliable though, so don't be surprised if I suddenly

Heh, did you see what I did there? I done a joke. And of course some other jokes that I done are being broadcast on tv at the moment, to what is a so far a satisfyingly positive response. Of course I hold in my mind the excellent advice my late father gave me- 'never take any notice of the bastards, even if they praise you'- but for this particular series I was interested in what the critical response might be, since David and I had written a sketch about it (from a table idea from, I think, Toby- but I may be wrong about this). Anyway, most previewers and reviewers neatly avoided the trap-for-heffalumps which was 'Behind the scenes- Hit and Miss' (the only one who fell squarely in was of course the doltish Sam Wollaston of the Guardian, who is beginning to approach pathological hatred for R and D. Did one of them push him off his bike or something?).

It was fun to write and the boys clearly had fun performing it, but on reflection we missed one trick. It strikes me that the response to any sketch show from Python to Horne and Corden is so subjective that it's kind of pointless to opine that one liked or disliked any particular sketch. Take Sir Digby- there are as many people who can't stand those sketches as there are people clamouring for one every week. If one hadn't seen the show, to read all the reviews, not to mention the internet scuttlebutt, would leave one unbelievably confused about what was and wasn't funny.

So, yeah, reviewing sketch comedy is so very subjective as to be a waste of time. Got that, critics? Off you pop, then.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Fysga Bennau

Google translator tells me that this is the Welsh for 'loose ends', but then google translator, as the Armstrongs will tell you, can be unreliable. 'Do a lot of people in France have music academies attached to their houses?'

Anyway, having spent so long on the Cardiff heats I thought I ought really to dot the tees and cross the eyes. So- I didn't see the song prize, but Martinik won it. I'm glad about this, I like him. As even the stupidest person alive could have guessed, young Luca won the audience prize, despite being one of two singers (Nakamura being the other) who didn't quite cut it in the final. Martinik did a good job, but it became clear that this was a two horse race between Mynenko (a bit of (dull music, nicely sung) Broschi, the Serse aria which belongs to judge Ann Murray, and Tanti Affetti) and Scherbachenko (a good but not stunning Jewel Song, a heartrending and beautiful 'Signore Ascolta', and a rip-roaring 'No Word From Tom' (hurray!- oh, and while I'm at it, Nakamura did Cacilie, so finally, finally we had some Strauss). I would have been happy had either won- and Scherbachenko did, which on balance was probably right.

Now then, if you want to hear Mynenko sing the queen of the night to a disco beat, pop over to parterre where you can do exactly that. It's not a recording which does much to disspell the idea that all counter-tenors are gay*.

And yes, I know you now have permission to shoot me. So shoot me.


*usual disclaimer- apart from Andreas Scholl

Friday, 12 June 2009

Diffcar (anag)

I hope we get some Strauss tonight. Ridiculous that there hasn’t been any. Other surprises- no Rusalka, no Lauretta, no Violetta, no Cherubino…

Mary King again, with Hazel/Rebecca. I suppose I’ll have to chance my arm tonight and predict my final five while the judges are deliberating. Well, Nakamura will be there, and Scherbachenko, and probably the Ukranian male soprano, which leaves two more places to be fought for by Park, Lucic, Martinik and tonight’s five.

First up tonight we have New Zealand bass Wade Kernot. He restores vintage cars. This is more interesting than singing. Everyone loves vintage cars, right? Sigh. Reminiscent of Jon Favreau (the actor, not the speechwriter). Kicks off with Madamina. His Italian isn’t great but he brings a lot of character to it and- heavens- actually gets laughs. Voice sounds ok, but it’s hard to tell in this, which I would categorise as a personality aria rather than a voice aria (categories: writer’s own). However, he fills out the ‘maestosa’ stuff nicely. Now he’s going to do something serious, apparently, which this year means Fiesco. Much more of a true bass than last night’s winner, nice rich dark chocolate sound- and the first of our three Fieschi really to nail the last note. Very good start. Mary will love him, she loves a bass. But no- both King and Evans think he’s better up top, and he’s forcing a register break. Can’t say I felt that.

Helen Kearns- Irish Soprano. Talks about singing, and hey, it’s interesting. Josie please note. Another coloratura, another Regnava, so she’ll be in direct competition with Ivanova, who as promised I haven’t stopped banging on about. But no- she’s a lyric, not a coloratura soprano, richer and maybe more varied of voice than Ivanova. Not as agile, though, nor as pure of tone, but still this is very very good and hey, there’s room for both in the world, if not in the final. She’s good enough to win tonight on this evidence, but then so was the kiwi bass. If I’m honest she finds a lot more in this aria than Ivanova did, but isn’t as reliably lovely of tone or precise of noodle. Does some nice things at the end. Now for some Stravinsky- the Rossignol. Question- why hasn’t someone done ‘No Word From Tom’? In fact, why isn’t she doing it now? Because this is lovely, lovely singing of a number I’ve always found a little arch and annoying. Yeah, she’s better than Wade.

Giordano Luca- Italian Tenor- youngest competitor at 21. Born 1988. Are you kidding me? Che Gelida Manina, of course, and very nice it is too. Sappy and youthful. A larger gentleman, his gestures remind one of another slightly overweight Italian tenor of recent memory- one doesn’t imagine him to be an electrifying actor. But this is lovely swoopy romantic Puccini singing, even if he doesn’t quite bloom up top as he ought to. Can’t resist forcing a bit on ‘la speranza’ so no doubt he’ll be singing Radames next year and things will go all Villazon. Follows it with a gorgeous, light but impassioned version of the Lombardi aria. He’s going to win tonight. Finishes with a pretty unimpeachable ‘Pourquoi me reveiller’ and this is a part I would love to see him play, if I were the type of person who went to see people play Werther- and not yet. There are bags of potential here.

And now a new country. Ha, Andorra. Well, he’ll put 10 men behind the ball and commit little niggling fouls behind the ref’s back. Mark Canturri, a baritone. He’s starting with Gounod’s R&J, because although I missed the memo there’s a new law that everyone must sing it all the time everywhere. It’s ok, nothing special. I am beginning to get slight singer fatigue, to be honest, it’s all becoming a bit of a blur. He’s neither the best baritone in the competition (IS there a best baritone in the competition?) nor the worst. Next is Deh vieni alla finestra, which is better than the Hungarian chap’s (but then so was my father’s funeral) while not being particularly special. He sounds a little ragged up top, if we’re being hyper-picky. And finally- oh, please. Korngold twice and no Strauss? I suppose it was the responsibility of the sopranos to give us a bit of RS but it seems a little mad that we’re getting Tote Stadt for a second time when we haven’t had any Ariadne. He sings this nicely enough, but he’s faceless. Ends it beautifully.

So, the last of 25- Dora Rodrigues, Portuguese Soprano. No doubt she’ll do Mein Elemer, Da Geht er Hin, and Es gibt ein Reich, just to make me look stupid. Nice and bubbly in interview. Donde lieta usci. Don’t like the first phrase- sounds careful and music boxy. Nope, Luca’s won this, and this before Dora has got to the word ‘fior’. She’s a polished enough singer, and emotes nicely, but the tone isn’t quite to my taste. Has an odd tendency to coy, pecky little staccati, as if she were a particularly 15-year-old Butterfly. Giuditta next, which should give her a chance to show what kind of stage animal she is. Ah, sideways glances and eyebrows, is the answer, like someone who has had the word sexy described to them by an inarticulate person. Other than that, she’s good. There’s nothing wrong with this, just doesn’t blow me away, that’s all. And in fact that’s something of a theme of this evening, and why Luca will win it- other than his performance it’s all been a little safely unspectacular. I’ll look out for Kearns though, she’s got something.

So, time to put my neck on the line. The finalists will be Luca, Nakamura, Mynenko, Scherbachenko and Ivanova. If not Ivanova, Lucic or Martinik or, at a pinch, Kearns, or a pincher, Park.

Now lets see if I’m right *bites nails*

1) Luca wins
2) Finalists are the five heat winners. So I am going to give myself 4 and a half out of 5, and now I’m going to have my dinner.

I won’t be around for the song prize tomorrow night, as I shall be out doing young person things, or the final, as I shall also be doing young person things. So you’ll have to fend for yourselves from here on in.

And if you see me blogging on opera again in the next month or so, you have permission to shoot me.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

I went for an audition there in 1995 but it went badly because I dried

(I'm running out of Cardiff-themed clues. Tonight's title has the virtue of being true, if not that of being interesting)

Night the fourth. Tonight’s heat is of course very much of a curtain raiser for the first episode in the new series of THAT MITCHELL AND WEBB LOOK on BBC2 at 10pm. And there is tonight’s plug dealt with. I’ll stop doing that now.

Mary King is back, which is good news on the evidence of previous nights. And look- Gerald Finley. There’s real star-gathering clout.

So Catherine Teare kicks us off- Aussie mezzo. Let’s hear from Josie how she actually wanted to be a lion tamer or a psychic juggler or something. No- crikey- maybe she actually wanted to be a singer. She’s starting with ‘Dopo Notte’ which is nowhere near the quality of Stephany’s from the other night, technically or tonally. She’s also come as Christine Baranski, for some reason. This is not an attractive voice- plummy at the bottom, shrill at the top. The voice is much, much better suited to ‘Im Treibhaus’. This is clearly her rep, and it’s demonstrating something of a theme in Cardiff this year- people singing stuff they think they ought to rather than stuff that suits them. She really oughtn’t to have gone anywhere near the Handel. But even the improvement in the Wagner doesn’t hide what for me is an unspectacular voice. I suspect she has a lot of Siebels and Lolas and Mercedeseseseses ahead of her- well, and Lene and Erda and all that stuff, especially as her post-show interview reveals that she has a touching and gibberingly bonkers admiration for Wagner.

Javier Arrey- Chilean Baritone- like the Russian soprano the other night, Javier doesn’t get a chat with Josie before we hear him sing. He’s starting with Rodrigo’s death scene from Don Carlo, but I’m sure we’ll hear him roaming the streets of Seville before too long, telling us about his cucagnas. This isn’t good, in the same ballpark as the Hungarian who gave us this aria last night, before we gave it back. Arrey is similarly choppy, similarly undistinguished of tone, and on a couple of phrases suffers from a big old attack of smoker’s breath. Ahime! he says as he dies, Monteverdianly. A Dvorak psalm reveals only that his voice isn’t any lovelier when it’s less forced. Sorry, son. Stick to- I’m trying to think up a lazy cultural stereotype for Chile- um, stick to being somewhere where planeloads of Uruguayan rugby players crash land and eat each other. That’ll do. He finishes with ‘Vedro, mentr’io sospiro’, which is better tonally, but still dullish- until a bunch of triplets which end up more like twins. Ha ha ha indeed.

Help, what’s going on? King and Finley love him. Really, really don’t get that. At all.

Blimey, the welsh contestant is 22. I didn’t know people were allowed to be 22 any more. Natalya Romaniw, late of Guildhall, about to head to Glyndebourne as a cover. ‘Padre, Germani, Addio’ a nice unhackneyed choice to start. Does a good job with what is, if I’m honest, not the greatest recit accompag Mozart ever wrote. She’s technically strong (at least during the recit), and is feeling the words without overdoing it. I prefer a richer voice than this in Mozart, though- she’s a little thin of tone for my taste, and purely beautiful moments are few and far between. Well, actually, there aren’t really any. There are a couple of moments, too, when it feels as if the sound isn’t the one she intends to make which shows that HA HA PEOPLE IN THEIR THIRTIES ARE BETTER. Sorry about that. Tuning is a little awry towards the end, too. I don’t want to harp on about the age thing, but she just doesn’t sound ready to me. She follows this up with yet another Gounod Juliette. Better, and again nicely animated, but still thin of tone- more like Deanna Durbin or Jeanette McDonald, or someone like that, that 30s Hollywood soubrette flutter. A few unlovely shrieks at the end, and then a bit of a write-off at the finish.

Mary King has turned into Elizabeth Watts, who ought to have washed her hair if she knew she was going to be on telly. That’s the only criticism of la Watts you’ll hear from me, however, as I love her to bits. Finley is enrolled in a different charm school from Tom Randle- he manages to avoid praising Romaniw without slagging her off either. Backstage, the singer herself isn’t happy, which is honest of her and I guess encouraging.

Now the American entrant, Vira Slywotsky, who is going to be singing ‘Non mi dir’ by the sound of the rehearsal clip. She’s full of personality. Fuller, turns out, than of voice- they’ve cut straight from her charming Josie into the middle of ‘Non mi dir’ and it’s an unlovely sound. Am I grumpy tonight, then? I thought I was last night, but tonight here we are at singer 4 and I haven’t heard anyone I like. Slywotsky isn’t entirely comfortable with pitch, the tone quality is acid, the coloratura a little like that famous Elinor Ross clip, and although she’s bringing her personality to bear on the aria and really, really selling it, someone needs to tell her she’s playing Donna Anna, not Mame. Not good at all, and it’s sad because on the basis of her interview I really wanted to like her. Plus all the best Donna Annas are American anyway. Oh, a segue has presented itself, and it’s Steber-based- Vira’s giving us some Vanessa now, and it’s much, much better. Reminiscent, actually of Steber, in a way the Mozart never, ever came close to being. She used to be an actor apparently (didn’t we all? Mustn’t get bitter…) and it shows in this selection. The tone still curdles unpleasantly under pressure, though. She’s met Sondheim. Bitch.

We finish with Czech Bass Jan Martinik, and he’s better be good because otherwise nobody wins. He is apparently seventeen feet tall. Fiesco again. Nice enough, but not for me up to the same standard as the Croatian who sang the same aria last night. The voice seems to me a little light for Verdi at this stage- there are plenty of phrases which, if you strolled into a room and heard them out of context, you would assume were coming from a baritone. And lo, it comes to pass that the end of the aria reveals that his weakness is at the bottom of the voice. Now we’re getting ‘Vecchia Zimarra’. I’m a sucker for a correctly aged Boheme, so he gets points right away for this. The lightness helps, here, of course, and he makes a lovely job of it- catching just the right sense of melancholy in the chromaticisms (a musicologist writes). He should probably win based on that alone, since it’s the only entirely successful performance of any single piece all evening. He’s finishing with Rachmaninov’s Aleko, a work I of course know from nave to chops. Again, lovely singing, again very very baritonal. He gets oceans of emotion into it, too- or rather, this being Rach, rides along on what’s there. If I were a judge (and I am, I’m Giacomo Aragall, I reckon) he’d win tonight, but would be pipped to the final by Ivanova from night one, and no, I’m not going to stop going on about her.

The judging gap is filled by Josie talking to lovely Rebecca Evans, who is standing in a trench, or teeny. In fact, she looks unsettlingly like Hazel Blears. Finley and King go for Martinik, so I hope that whole Chile thing was a blip.

Hurrah, Martinik wins. Now I must dash, as I have various things to do before 10pm, when I shall be settling down in front of BBC2, and so will you.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

FA Cup Finalists 2008

A smashing day in the studio today. People who like Elizabeth Gaskell, or people who like the Radio 4 Classic Serial, will be in for a right old treat in August. That's all I can say at this point but watch this space.

And while we're plugging, there's episode 1 of series 3 of That Show I Work On tomorrow at 10pm.

But, those of you who are clever will have parsed the title of this post. So here are my reactions to tonight's heat.

Tomislav Lucic- Croatian Bass- Another looker. Is careful to tell us how he didn’t want to be an opera singer- that’s actually getting annoying now. Starts with Fiesco, and shows up the Argentinian from the other night by having as mellifluous a sound, but getting real intensity into it. Follows it up with Madamina, which is a wee bit earnest to start with but develops into a very characterful performance with a nice vein of sleaze to it. Yep, like him.

Izabela Matula- Polish Soprano- Wanted to be a dancer. Sigh. Starts with Pamina, which is brave, I reckon. Horrible green dress but lovely lyric soprano. Ooops, makes a hash of the first high arching phrase on ‘Ewig hin der liebe gluck’, and is a bit worried and careful thereafter. Pulls something out of the bag for the end but I think the damage may have been done earlier. This is what I meant by ‘brave’- ‘Ach ich fuhls’ is one of those pieces of simple beauty which has to be basically perfect. Follows it up with ‘Herodiade’. Nice enough but still a little careful; good legato line and pleasant basic tone but doesn’t excite either vocally or interpretatively.

Csaba Szegedi- Hungarian Baritone- Does a cheeky adjustment of his bow tie in the little ident, doing all but wink. Figaro is the only role he has ever sung with an orchestra, which would suggest we are to be treated to ‘Largo al Factotum’ for the third time in three nights. Josie tells us that he’s actually a very good salsa dancer so gets him to demonstrate. Has anyone told her that they’re here to FUCKING SING?


You. Will. Not. Believe. This. There is now a little film insert of people who have sung ‘Largo al Factotum’ over the years. Just in case we haven’t heard it enough. This seems like a good time to switch over to the football. I’ll watch the rest later.

So, back to Szegedi. You can guess what he’s singing. He chooses to start offstage, like the South African guy did last night, and, also like him, comes on and overdoes it. Lots of twinkling and smiling but equally quite a bit of subpar singing. He almost sounds out of breath. His Italian is a little Budapestish. Hmm, no. The voice itself is charmless, and all his bells and whistles can’t hide that. And a DOUBLE falsetto in the ‘Figaro, Figaro’ bit, which ought really to be a red card. Perhaps I’m grumpy tonight, reading back what I’ve written about these first three singers, but I really think the standard is significantly lower than the previous two nights. Things don’t improve with ‘Deh Vieni alla Finestra’, which is equally overdone, equally charmless, and (I’m about to use a proper grown up opera word for the first time ever, so pay attention) a little pitchy. Rodrigo’s death scene was better because he stopped ‘performing’ and engaged emotionally with what he was singing. Still not a fan of the voice, mind.

Someone didn’t tell Tom Randle the rules- he’s the first expert summariser to dare some genuine criticism of a singer- he kind of gives Szegedi both barrels.

Now then, excitement. We have a counter tenor. Yuriy Mynenko, from Ukraine. Starting with Va Tacito, which is a pleasing (although on reflection, unsurprising) choice. Lovely bit of horn playing. This chap has charisma- first of the night that you actually sit and watch, as well as listening to. Technically very good. Not the most refulgent counter tenor but an interesting tone quality. Very musical, lovely legato, elegant ornamentation, smack in tune. We like. I’d say at this point it was between him and the Croatian bass, which is appropriate since England have just won as I watch this and both Croatia and Ukraine are in England’s group. There. Opera AND football. Anyway, back to the Handel- this is really very very good indeed. The hall likes him, too. He’ll need some fireworks to get through though, I recOH MY GOD HE’S DOING PARTO PARTO. I have never heard a man sing this before. And it is BRILLIANT. Beautifully phrased and more impassioned than I can remember this aria in a long time. If he nails the tricky stuff at the end he’ll bring the house down. Which he does, and he does. Wonderful. Randle compares him to Troyanos and Horne, and it’s a comparison which comes close to holding up.

Claire Meghnagi- Israeli Soprano. Father a cantor. Immensely likeable in interview. Starts with ‘Deh, vieni’, another one of those simple arias which has to somehow engender rapture. She’s bright, responsive, charming. The tempo of the aria is a little rushed for my taste, which makes it hard for her to engender the right kind of magic. She has a good go at it though. Like Mynenko, she phrases beautifully, and the tone quality is lovely, too. The first ‘incoronar’ is nearly lovely, but goes a little awry. She finishes the aria very nicely but there’s no moonlight. Yay, we’re getting some Poulenc! Mamelles de Tiresias, to be precise. Hurray for Miss Israel. This gives her personality full rein and she lets rip- she’s more imaginative and daring vocally than she was as Susanna. She’s really projecting the character, too, you wouldn’t need sub or sur or any other kind of titles. I’d still give tonight to the counter-tenor, although it does emphasise the whole apples v oranges aspect of this kind of competition. Probably let herself down with some serious squall on high towards the end, too.

King and Randle reckon it’ll be our male soprano, too- and good, because it is. Would be nice to see the bass in the final, but I suspect that he’d be pipped by both of the winners of the first two nights. This is fun!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's Shirley Bassey, isn't it?

Watching TV after a hard day of rewriting about three jokes, it suddenly struck me that I had sky plussed the first heat of 'Cardiff Singer of the World' last night. I became mildly obsessed with this competition in my adolescence, in its bi-annual appearances. I remember (ok, this is where you decide I'm weird) that I read a nice article in the Guardian once about how they all had fun and went out drinking together between concerts, really just a puff piece, and for some reason I covered said article in sticky backed plastic and blu tac'd it to the wall next to my bed. Perhaps everyone's quite weird at 14, but really, it's no wonder I used to get beaten up, is it?

So, anyway, I love CSOTW, and thought I'd write a bit about it on here. I'm aware that this is turning into more and more of an opera blog, which was never the intention. There are other people who do that much, much better than me, for one thing. But, what can you do? The football season is over, I haven't got anything to plug (that's Thursday, when That Mitchell And Webb Look returns to your screens with more material of mine than ever before. Oh look, I did have something to plug) and none of my neighbours have played Afroman loudly late at night for a few weeks. We have a new floor in the hall- should I tell you about that? Besides, BBC4's coverage of Cardiff is a great way to get into opera. Just don't laminate anything.

When I was rambling on about Cosi and Trov, I was frustrated that I couldn't remember half the things I'd thought at the time. So tonight, watching last night's heat, I just typed as I watched. It may not be coherent but it's immediate. Or something. And now tonight's heat is starting. Balls. I'm falling behind. Anyway- last night's mob.

Josie D’Arby doing backstage interviews- wtf? Still, she was an unexpected addition to ‘Look Around You’ and she was great in that, so I’ll keep an open mind.

Etienne Dupuy- Canadian Baritone- words that cause the heart to flutter with adolescent memories of Gino Quilico *reverie*- This one is full of personality, lovely voice but nothing to make me sit up and take notice. I’m kind of allergic to Papageno, though, especially out of context. Oh look, he’s finishing with Largo al Factotum. I’m so pleased. Slightly odd Beatlemania screaming from the audience at the end.

Dana Bramane- Latvian Soprano- apparently inspired to be a singer by hearing Whitney Houston aged nine, which makes me feel old. She doesn’t think she’s going to win, likeably enough. Sounds nice in the rehearsal clip of ‘Donde lieta usci’ which is her opener. Oooh yes, I like her. Very Slavic sound, but of the light, bright, forward, Vishnevskaya- type, rather than the ‘please stop clouting me with your vibrato and go and sort out that samovar’ type, which can get wearing. Cor, it’s ‘Mi Tradi’ next, which is brave, and unexpected. Very nice it was too, although she chucked in a vulgar high note at the end. I liked her a lot, though, and she’s certainly first in the field of two at the moment. Mary King’s talking about a register break, which I didn’t hear, but hey, I’m not a voice teacher.

Fernando Javier Rado- Argentinian bass- cuteish (‘opera cute’ to borrow a savagely accurate phrase from someone else) He’s doing Philip II, which is a brave choice when you’re like twelve*. I suspect, by the way, that age will be a running theme in these notes. This is the first Cardiff where I’ve been conscious of being older than the singers. But in this case it’s relevant- he’s singing beautifully but all we’re getting facially and vocally is ‘I think this man is probably sad’. Followed by ‘Non piu andrai’, which was finely sung but again dullish. So, if he swiped his card, he’d see for voice: ten, for oomph, three.

More high pitched screaming for him from what seems to be an almost entirely female audience. What do gays do in Wales, then? Rugby maybe. Oh, and there was that one in Steps.

Wow, Kurt Moll’s on the panel. And Gwyneth Jones. Cool.

Emiliya Ivanova- stunningly beautiful Bulgarian soprano. Coloratura by the sound of the rehearsal clip. Initially wanted to be a pop star- hmm. She’s doing ‘Lucia’- Regnava nel Silenzio. If you can carry this off, love, you’ll probably earn more of a crust than most Bulgarian pop singers. Oh, and sack your stylist. Now, this is lovely singing. She can act, too. Easy winner so far, you’d be happy with this in a major house. Although I have to go to sleep for a moment now because it’s Donizetti. Seriously, so far ahead of the rest it’s not funny. Confirms this with a lovely version of Juliette’s Waltz Song. Would be lovely to hear her sing something, you know, interesting.

Eri Nakamura- Japanese Soprano. Josie D’Arby is completely redundant, by the way. She just asks them one by one ‘how did you decide to become an opera singer’, and then grabs them as they come off to ask ‘How did that go?’ since she patently has no idea. More Donizetti.- the Don Pasquale aria. Overdoing the soubrettish laughs- looks and sounds sinister. Good though- plenty of personality, strong technique. The voice doesn’t do as much for me as Ivanova’s does, although I have a sneaking suspicion she’s going to pip this as she’s more extrovert. And now more Juliette- but ‘Dieu, quell frisson’ this time. No doubt she’s impressive, but I don’t actually like the tone quality. And she went a little sharp on the last note. Pick pick pick. She’s super-dramatic facially and gesticulatively though, which will go down very well live. King and Neal Davies are big fans.

Josie D’Arby- ‘this is a bit like the Olympics, isn’t it?’. Now she’s talking to Connie Fisher, who is telling us that eyes are more important than voice. Chew on that, parterre.

Nakamura wins. There’s still hope for Ivanova, though, as the finalists aren’t necessarily the heat-winners. Hope she gets through. Now for tonight’s lot. I'll put all the subsequent heats in as comments, so people don't have to wade through them. And so I can decide not to bother if I feel like not bothering.

*Oh gawd help us, he's 23.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Three score and ten divided by two plus one less a day.

Woo. And yay, also. Birthday time has started. Having a small party tonight, but last night was the swish bit. Dinner at the Ivy (I know!) followed by Cosi Fan Tutte at ENO.

I'd never been to the Ivy before, but it certainly lives up to its billing. I hadn't realised it was such a lovely room, especially on a magnificently sunny afternoon/early evening such as yesterday's. I opted for Bang Bang Chicken followed by nettle and potato gnocchi, a kind of fusion cuisine menu I shall now christen 'Ithailian'. And they were very good, and that is my restaurant review. Oh no, I should mention the tomatoes. They were really small. Like, tiny. Size of blueberries, and they burst in the mouth in exactly the same satisfying way. So, my conclusion on the Ivy is that it's a pretty room where the tomatoes are really small.

My mother once devastatingly described a lot of Chekhov productions as having 'oatmeal sets and oatmeal costumes' and the same might apply to the new production of Cosi at ENO. It really is very very taupe indeed- sets, frocks, everything. The grand gesture of the set is its video wall- the chaps are watched by the bustling patrons of the 'Caffe Amadeo' (yeah, boom boom) in the first scene, then we get a nice big bay of Naples for most of the rest of the show. It adds much needed colour to the stage picture, and otherwise is used in a way which is sometimes charming (the gradual approach and departure of the boat either side of 'Soave sia il vento') and sometimes irritatingly tricksy (the filmed conductor and orchestra for the whole of the final scene raised a laugh but got pretty old pretty quick). Unfortunately, the video wall seemed to be the limit of the director's imagination. This was an achingly straightforward production. The three men raised glasses DS centre at the end of 'Una bella serenata', like they always do. The men stood to attention in the midst of the chorus during 'Bella vita militar', like they always do. Dorabella draped herself on furniture during 'Smanie implaccabili' and eyed up Guglielmo during 'Come Scoglio', as per. And if it took slightly longer for Fiordiligi to sink to her knees during 'Per Pieta' than usual, we all knew it was coming. I really can't think of a single piece of business that I haven't seen before, let alone an actual insight.

But the unforgivable element of this Cosi was that it was sexless. Neither 'Il core vi dono' nor 'Fra gli amplessi' generated any heat at all, despite by and large all the right things happening musically. The capitulation of the sisters needs all the help it can get- all those references to 'I can't believe it's only been a day and now we're getting married' don't make life any easier- but if you get no sense that they might actually fancy their Albanians, it just gets something close to silly. And then there's the ending. We all know that we like to get post-Freudian about the end of Cosi. There have been the traditional 'everyone gets married to their orginal partners and that's FINE thank you very much' productions, the 'let's stay with our second half partners because the duets suggest that'll be hotter' productions, and- most often, in my experience- the 'let's make everything dead ambiguous and have some exchanged glances or even do a strange kind of slo-mo minuet' productions. This one just dodged the whole thing. None of the four 'lovers' had any contact with the others as the finale was sung, in a straight line, facing out front, and then everyone rushed off excitedly, in different directions, as if they'd just finished the Marriage of Figaro, or Falstaff. A cop-out.

Musically, things fared a lot, lot better. The band sounded great under the direction of Stefan Klingele, who started very well, had a bit of a dip with a prosaic 'Soave' and a too-slow rendition of Dorabella's aria, and didn't subsequently put a foot wrong. He whipped up the end of Act One into something really a bit exciting. As for the singers- well, let's get one thing straight. I bloody love Susan Gritton. The tone quality is so consistently beautiful, her musicianship is exemplary, and there's just a glamour about her singing, as there is with all the best voices. If I were being picky I might say that the bottom of the voice isn't quite rich enough for Fiordiligi, and there were a couple of unfortunate phlegmy moments in an otherwise glorious 'Per Pieta'- but that would be very picky. Her singing in 'Fra gli amplessi' had me holding my breath, in that 'please let this never stop' kind of way that you really, really can't complain about.

As one of my companions of the night said, Gritton's voice is so beautiful in the flesh that it was really a little unfair to put Fiona Murphy as Dorabella next to her. Tall, flashing eyed, and with cascades of dark hair, she was reminiscent of Agnes Baltsa from where I was sitting- but while the face was more beautiful, the voice was a good deal less so. She sang very well- better in aria and duet than in ensemble- but the instrument itself isn't really all that. She has that glinty, slightly wiry sound familiar from singers such as Ann Murray or Delores Ziegler, and I guess I like a little more sofa-cushion in my Mozart mezzo sound. Sophie Bevan did a grand job as Despina. The lack of imagination in the production demanded no more of her than 'standard pert' which she pulled off well and to which she added some neat and polished singing. She was desperately unfunny as the doctor and the lawyer, of course, but then no Despina ever in the history of opera has pulled that one off.

Crikey, Liam Bonner's tall. It wasn't solely for this reason, though, that he was the most memorable of the men. This was a charismatic, cheeky, confident performance, very securely sung, and managing a real sense of rapport with the audience. Alone among the singers he managed to generate a few genuine laughs from time to time, which was welcome- and impressive, given the archness of the translation. 'Look, I'm rhyming' was the overall impression, and after ten minutes one wanted to sit the translator down with the Big Book Of How You're Not As Clever As You Think You Are. Thomas Glenn, the Ferrando, had a deal less presence than Bonner and at first I found his singing unpleasantly weedy. However, things began to change after one of the most purely beautiful renditions of 'Un'aura amorosa' I have ever heard, and he had a good stab at 'Tradito, schernito' and his part of the duet with Gritton. For once, it was a voice that I wouldn't have minded hearing in 'Ah, lo veggio', although of course that didn't happen. Steven Page is an old pro, isn't he? I mean that in the most laudatory sense possible. He didn't miss a trick vocally or dramatically, although he suffered from the fact that this production didn't have the first clue who Alfonso was or what he might have been for.

To wade into an ongoing debate, I think the odd bit of score-tearing, or someone writing 'ARIA' on a blackboard, or whatever, would have been welcome. What we got last night was some good acting and some excellent music making, in a production which was cautious, routine, and lazy. And for a masterpiece like Cosi, that ain't good enough.

Right. Off to get my hair cut and thence to my birthday party. Ah, the suffering of late-middle-youth.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Power Of Music*

I just popped out to the shop, at ten to midnight. The street was deserted, and the air was warm and heavy and sweet in that early summer way (bear with me, I'm desperately trying to avoid the cliché that is 'balmy').

The only sound was the loud music playing from the top flat of one of the buildings opposite, which was Sinead O'Connor singing 'Nothing Compares To You'. The whole set-up was so lovely that I stood and listened for a minute or so.

As I came back from the shop, I turned into my street thinking about that magical moment of stillness. Coming out of the same flat, even louder than the O'Connor had been, was 'Because I Got High' by Afroman. I was less inclined to stop and listen and think about stillness.

This is why people earn lots of money for film soundtracks.


*I was going to entitle this post 'Musik ist eine heilige Kunst' but even I am not that poncy.

One should always have something sensational to read in the train

I have recently received a couple of emails about things I have posted on here, which is both pleasing and disconcerting. It is of course tremendous to discover that even anyone is reading, but at the same time it's... odd.

*writes and deletes pages and pages of solipsistic, overwritten introspection*

*re-reads above sentence*

*goes to bed*

*ceases to write arch, faux-self-deprecating remarks in asterisks*

*re-reads*

*just gives up*

See what I mean?

Monday, 18 May 2009

'a whole layer of tennisy nuances'

I wrote that phrase on another website earlier today.

It's not something I would ever have imagined myself saying.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Late night age terror.

Oh my dear lord. I've just realised that 1791-1756= 35.

Which means that in three weeks time, I shall be older than Mozart ever managed to be. And I'm not going to look up his birth or death day, because I might already have overshot him.

I've dealt with the rites of passage as they come. It starts with tennis players, moves on through Olympians to football (thank God for Mark Schwarzer, the only Fulham first team player who has had the decency to be born before I was) and then you find yourself moving into compromises like politicians.

But Mozart, that's a bad one. Obviously he was writing operas at 11, and all that kind of thing, so he had the advantage of an early start, but I don't think my few telly sketches and my critically-acclaimed Horatio in the Highlands really look that good when set against, you know, The Marriage Of Figaro. I haven't felt this pointless since Schubert (33) and Jesus (also 33, maybe).

I'm going to hold on to dear, dear Shakespeare, who gave us all hope by hanging in there until he was 52. And ignore the fact that by my age he'd already written Hamlet.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Well, at least they got his name right.

Killing time in Hammersmith before the Fulham game today (yes, we did, thank you for asking) I wandered into Books, Etc and spotted an unauthorised biography of Sacha Baron-Cohen. Now, he and I were in a couple of shows together back in the rah rah rah days of the alma mater, so I picked up the book and had a flick through the Cambridge chapter.

I think it might be the worst researched book ever. There's a quote from 'Footlights archivist Harvey Porter' (that'll be Dr Harry Porter, then) a reference to Sacha having performed in the 'annual Footlights review' (that's 'revue', and he didn't) and it's also observed that he received a 2:1 in his degree, but had he worked harder he would have been capable of getting a '1:1'. A score draw, presumably. Three points on your coupon.

But the footnotes are the real treat. The degree result gets a footnote to itself, explaining that it means an Upper Second, and that degrees at Cambridge are scored 'not from A to F, but rather from 1-9'. Now, I knew a lot of people who didn't work very hard, but I can't say as I knew anyone who got a Ninth. Best of all is Dan Mazer's description of Sacha as a 'cultural polyglot' - which is explained as 'Cambridge-speak for well-rounded'.

What a load of old bollocks, which is Cambridge-speak for testicles.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Laugh of the day

courtesy of the BBC's appalling drama series about a small village choir. Two characters talking about a funeral to be held at the tiny local church.

'Deluxe coffin, full sung Requiem Mass- I'm thinking Verdi'

Are you? Are you REALLY?

Friday, 24 April 2009

The post with the host

Some recordings of me singing stuff, for whenever I need to point people in such a direction, can be found Here

I should point out that I'm hosting this stuff for professional reasons rather than to say 'LOOK! I DID A SONG!' So sorry to anyone who's actually read that, it's just a way of giving myself a permanent reminder of the URL. I am using the internet as the equivalent of a note on my fridge.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Never got half my wishes... *

Well, look at that. There's just about time for one more tiny update on Cinderfella in the Big Apple.

Not much time though, since I've only got about 15 minutes before they call my flight. Fortunately today was spent largely doing things by mistake, so this'll be a knockabout, Keystone Kops kind of travelogue rather than the overwritten purple prose you have doubtless come to expect.

I'll tell you what was NOT a mistake- going to Gray's Papaya for hot dogs. Shamefully, I did this because of the rightly forgotten Matthew Perry/Salma Hayek vehicle 'Fools Rush In' (in which it turns out that fools rush in) which must have taken a hefty kickback from the Gray's people as the plot turns, as so often in romantic comedies, on a Fed-Exed hot dog. Blimey, but they're good though. So good, in fact, that I searched around the village for a second branch because I wanted another go on them without the staff laughing and calling me fatty. I didn't find the other branch, but I found the Stonewall Inn, which probably says something about something. I took a photo of the outside like a good little boy and then headed uptown to explore the park.

Rather further uptown than I hoped. My friend Alice was once visiting me and I told her to get the Thameslink from King's Cross. Unfortunately I forgot to mention that there are stopping trains, and trains that whizz off to St Alban's with nary a backward glance. I discovered this when she sent me a text saying 'Help- I think I'm being kidnapped by a train'.

Well, the subway kidnapped me today. I decided not to get off at 59th, because I thought I'd have an amble down from the middle of the park. This plan changed when the next stop on the inexorably thundering train was 125th. So I got to have a look at Harlem, strolling to the northern end of the park via a road which appeared to be called Adam Clayton Boulevard. Bono must be furious.

Once in the park, my famed sense of direction kicked in and I walked round in circles a few times before giving in and taking the subway back down to 86th, and walking down to fifth avenue from there. There was a lake, there was a big fountain that they ran round in 'Friends', it was sunny, it was pretty, I took some photos. You should know by now that descriptions really aren't my thing (for example, there are five windows on the frontage of the Met, not the four I raved about) so I recommend you just look at some pictures of Central Park and imagine a tubby balding man getting lost in it; you'll pretty much be on my page.

And now I've got to get on an aeroplane. Bye bye NY- you have given me several very compelling reasons to return.


*if you don't recognise this reference blah blah blah etc etc

Little Bo Peep loses, files for grounds*

Half eleven (although my body clock would tell you that it's quarter past four, or perhaps ten to seven) and I'm back at my nice brown desk in my nice brown room at the hotel. I have no doubt that there's a clamour- a clamour, I tell you- for me to provide the second instalment of my epic, two-instalment, adventures in Manhattan.

Tuesday was work day, so I went there and did that. Afterwards there was just about enough time to head back, get changed, iron a shirt (yes! I ironed! I am beyond proud of myself) before heading uptown to the Met. I'll share my opinions about the opera itself later on in this post, so as to give those of you who don't give a flying fuck about it the chance to avoid them, but in all conscience I have to say a little about the experience of the Met itself.

I get the same frisson of excitement approaching the place as I did going to Wembley Stadium as a kid, before they knocked it down and replaced it with a high-tech garden centre. The design of the Met is so daring and so (duh) theatrical that approaching the building is as exciting as anything that goes on inside it. It rises out of the plaza, all square and seemingly two-dimensional; you wouldn't be surprised to find that it was a massive piece of flattage being held up by a couple of french braces. Well, you would, but you know what I mean. Four gigantic arched windows stretch from pavement to roof, meaning that the Chagall murals and the ludicrously lush, camp staircase are on plain view as you approach it. And- Covent Garden take note- decent seats are affordable. I paid more than I'd planned to- 80 dollars- but I was in the Orchestra Stalls, which will usually set you back a good 200 notes on Bow Street. Then there was the opera, which although not a performance for the ages had some pretty wonderful stuff in it. More, as I said, later. One thing I must mention before I move on to other things- as I walked onto the subway platform with the rest of the crowd after the show, the saxophonist busker launched into a jazzed-up version of the most famous aria from the opera and that, kids, is fucking classy.

I got off the subway at 14th Street and walked 'home' down 6th, because I was determined that it would not defeat me with its sneakiness. I took a brief detour into the Village- heading down Christopher Street and returning to 6th via Gay St (snigger) and Waverly Place, just because it has a reputation for being gayish and I wanted to, oh, I don't know, be in a gay bit. My dinner companion of this evening, being somewhat on the gay side himself, informs me that I was walking through OldGay; it's more about gyms in Chelsea and hairless plastic people these days, depressingly predictably enough. But I didn't know that then so I smiled benevolently at the tribe as I passed and ambled back to the hotel.

I was woken up this morning by my conviction that it was either lunchtime or midnight, and before too long was pounding the streets, touristly. Well, I say before too long- a couple of hours and some room service Eggs Benedict had passed before I actually made it out of the room. I went to Century 21, I bought shoes, and then suddenly realised that if I didn't sleep more or less instantly I would probably die or something. So I had a two hour nap on a Wednesday afternoon, in the city that doesn't sleep. I am either an iconoclast, or old. By the time I had surfaced it was time to meet up with G, whose name I am censoring because he writes a quite widely-read blog and people on the internet are weird. He was every bit as charming and funny in person as his writing would lead one to believe. We went to a nice relaxed gay bar in the East Village, where he drank beer Americanly and I did so Britishly, and we talked about opera and plays and politics and tried to watch/ignore the couple at the table opposite who were competing in the annual Manhattan 'Get A Room' contest. There was straddling. Then we headed back west and I stuffed myself full of lovely lovely carbs and fat, in the guise of Italian food. A smashing evening.

People who aren't interested in opera stop reading now; move along, move along, nothing to see here.

---

How lovely of you both to have stayed. So, Trovatore at the Met...

I have to start- and will probably finish- with Dolora Zajick. She wasn't initially down to be singing Azucena last night but my god I'm glad she was. A huge voice, stupidly big and secure with it, and chest tones you could cook ribs on or slaughter kittens with or whatever ridiculous simile does it for you. I was expecting some heavy-duty vocalism, but nothing like that. I was also expecting her to be a big blank as an actor, which in a way she is; she's never going to glue you to the seat with a sudden emotional insight- but she is undeniably a stage animal. She possesses that intangible charisma that forces you to watch her. Even on her first entrance, in the crowd scene that segues into the Anvil Chorus, I spotted her at once. It was fitting that her character should end the opera. She owned it.

Now, I've got this far without mentioning that old Caruso thing about Trovatore needing the four best singers in the world, but really it's impossible to write about this opera without even glancing at it. Firstly- has it ever really happened? Maybe a 1970s night with Price or Caballe, Cossotto or Verrett, Domingo, and Milnes or Cappuccilli. Well, actually, looking at that list, definitely one of those nights. But at that time you'd have been happy with, oh I don't know, Tucci, Quivar, Bonisolli and McNeil, wouldn't you? (Maybe you wouldn't. When did you get so fucking fussy, huh?)

The point is, it rarely if ever happens. Last night it's arguable that one singer, Zajick, was the gold standard in her part. And we maybe had the best 1.5 singers in the world, because I thought Zelko Lucic was pretty special, too. A proper Verdi baritone. I love Hampson and Hvoro and Mattei and all the lyric baritones who do a good job of pretending, but it's a long time since I heard a singer with such vocal qualification to sing a part like Di Luna. Apparently he's variable and the top of his voice is unreliable. I'm glad to have heard him on one of his good nights.

Ok, so now for the moaning. A performance of Trovatore isn't going to blow you away if, in the second scene, you find yourself struck by how much nicer Inez's voice is than Leonora's. I'd heard of but never heard last night's Leonora, Hasmik Papian, and I can't say I'll be rushing to hear her again. Now look, it's good that there are committed, decent, honest professionals, and bar the odd unfortunate note she didn't do much that was actually wrong... but her voice doesn't make a very nice noise- at all- which I reckon is a bit of a drawback for, y'know, an opera singer.

As I write this, my itunes shuffle has thrown up Jussi Bjorling singing 'Di Quella Pira'. Bad luck, Marco Berti. He's sort of tubby and doesn't act much, but you come to expect that of tenors, no? By the end of the evening he was coming up with some singing which came close to being thrilling. But at the start he sounded uncommitted, and with the best will in the world his voice is just too ungainly for some of the more lyric moments in the role. The lead into 'Ah si ben mio' put me in mind (literally put me in mind, this isn't phrasemaking) of those ballet-dancing hippos in Fantasia. And if you ain't lyric enough, you'd better blow me away with 'Di Quella Pira', which he didn't do, meaty though it was. I don't have perfect pitch, but I'm pretty sure he took a B not a C, if it matters. It was high and it was exciting but it didn't have that top C ping. That's a technical term.

I'm not going to talk about the conducting, because it was bollocks and I don't like to be cruel. The production was decent, but without the sudden special touches of insight that make McVicar such a special director, although maybe you just can't do that in Trov. When I expounded my new-minted theory that Manrico is a dick (he really IS a dick, going on about how heroic he is and then cursing Leonora for, um, saving his life) it was pointed out to me that they're all pretty unpleasant people who behave in bizarre ways. There's nobody in there you'd want a pint with. Except maybe Inez. Anyway, McVicar didn't manage to negotiate some of the idiocies of the libretto (the Count asking Manrico who he is when he already knows, for example, or the moment when Leonora takes the poison 'I HAVE TAKEN POISON BECAUSE I HAVE TRICKED THE COUNT AND HE IS GOING TO SPARE MY LOVER BUT I'LL BE DEAD SO WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?' I think he's standing right next to you, you silly cow, so stop singing so loud) and added one of his own- for the entire scene where Zajick constantly sings about how she longs only for death, she was standing up and wandering about. Try lying down love, it'll be easier. But there were some nice details, some good stage pictures, and the usual and welcome McVicar shirtless types, so I shouldn't moan too much.

In fact, I shouldn't moan too much just generally. It was a treat, more than a treat, to hear Zajick, I'm going to look out for Lucic, Berti had his moments and even Papian perked up towards the end. Plus, did I mention how much I love that building?

In summary then- I went to the Met and it was nice.



*if you don't get this reference there is an ace song you don't know, which like the last such reference, is a song named after a Manhattan street. You have to remember I am HUGELY intelligent and cultured.