Saturday, 26 November 2011

For Jer

Jer’s gone.
It’s only just struck me, that.
You’re Jerome now.
A Sunday name, full of reverence
And solemn-faced respect.

Just as I hadn’t called you ‘Jerome’
For I don’t know how long
Before that sod flicked you away-
Now, I can’t remember
The last time I said ‘Jer’.

Well, fuck that backwards,
If you’ll pardon the profanity
(NB: I know you will).
I want the joy back. And so
If I can’t talk to you,

Can’t have any new memories,
Then god knows
I intend to reclaim the ones I have.
Not the catheter ones,
Not the funeral ones,

Not the monochrome year,
The year you’ve missed,
(Although you’d be proud,
So proud, of your resolute, steely girl)
But all that went before.

From this moment I swear
That thinking of you will be fun.
I reject the twinge. I deny the wobble.
Everything of you is laughter.
Sleep well, Jerome. Hello again, Jer.

18 November 2011

Saturday, 24 September 2011

None of the above.

I have had a very auspicious week. On Thursday, Facebook chose something I’d posted as one of its TOP NEWS STORIES for the last 15 minutes! I think Facebook’s rebranding as a rolling news channel is really going to propel it to a new level, although they may need to rethink their editorial policy if they’re going to lead with the remark I overheard at Willesden Green Tube Station.

Then, as if that weren’t exciting enough, the Mayor of London contacted me PERSONALLY because he is interested in what I think! This is incredibly touching, and feels as if it’s a recognition of a sort. I’m not hugely active in politics, but I do like to spout an opinion or two from time to time, and the idea that Boris wants me- me!- to help him decide on what policies to do is flattering and humbling.

Boris’ mailshot took the form of a questionnaire. I was very careful to answer as honestly as possible, because I could tell he was genuinely interested in my opinion- that’s why the page was headed ‘Tell Boris what you think!’ in a chirpy font. So, when section 1, ‘Local Issues’ asked ‘If there was one thing you could change in your local area, what would that be?’ I replied ‘A different mayor’. This was also the answer to ‘How would you improve transport in London?’ and I was beginning to think that I might have to write it in every single little blue box. But then Boris- perhaps thinking of the recent riots that took place in as many as four small pockets of London- took to asking me about crime. ‘Which area of crime do you think needs more attention?’ There wasn’t a little box for ‘a better understanding of the social and economic causes which lead young people to disengage from society’ so I just ticked ‘other’.

These questions had all been fairly generic so far, so I was pleased to see that Boris was keen to find out what I thought of a specific policy. ‘Since being elected’ he asked ‘Boris Johnson has quadrupled London’s rape crisis provision. Do you support his efforts to increase support for victims of rape?

This was a real thinker. Like all humans, I am a massive fan of rape, and there’s nothing I hate more than seeing support for its victims increased. It was incredibly brave of Boris to risk asking for feedback on something where opinions were likely to be so polarised, when he could have asked about less controversial topics such as the 55% rise in bus fares in the three years since he came to power.

The next section, ‘Cost of Living’ pointed out that there was a huge increase in Council Tax under Livingstone, before asking what the mayor could do to help with the cost of living. Unaccountably, ‘stop raising the price of public transport year on year by loads more than the rate of inflation’ wasn’t an option, so I went back to the tried and tested and wrote ‘resign’. The next question showed a penetrating understanding of what is most important to Londoners in the current recession, with jobs being lost and services cut. ‘Boris stopped the production of Ken Livingstone’s propaganda sheet ‘The Londoner’ which cost London tax payers £3.1 million per year. Do you agree with this cost saving decision?

Well, I hate propaganda, and I’m glad to see that Boris is so strongly against it, too. Unfortunately I never saw a copy of Ken Livingstone’s propaganda sheet ‘The Londoner’, so I’m unable to judge whether my c35p a year was being well spent.

For some reason I was feeling quite depressed and angry by this point, and my answer ‘Jump in the Thames’ to the question ‘what do you think the Mayor could do to make planning your finances easier?’ may have been a little churlish. I could hardly concentrate on the questions that followed, about the Olympics, and by the time I was asked how I’d voted before and how I would vote in future I was barely able to summon the strength to write ‘not for you’.

I can’t wait for my letter back from Boris, telling me how he’s going to be putting my suggestions into effect. Meanwhile, I’m going to have a very exciting weekend, courtesy of Ken Livingstone. You won’t believe this, but he’s emailed me- me!- to tell me that he’s announcing an important new policy on Monday, and, get this, if I click on the link he’ll tell me about it FIRST! At first I thought I must have misunderstood, but when I read again it was very clear: ‘If you want to be the first to know click here to sign up to receive a text before anyone else!

I mean, that is huge. It’s like when Emma Willis tells you who’s nominated who, the night before the main show. I’ll tell you, if I’d clicked on that link I’d be swaggering around the streets of Cricklewood bursting with pride at the knowledge that I’d been told one of Ken’s flagship policies 48 whole hours before he released it to the press. I don’t quite know what I’d have been signing up to by clicking the link, but I bet it will have been awesome.

Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone have always been known for the maturity and dignity with which they carry themselves, and I can’t wait for what is bound to be an elevated and sophisticated mayoral campaign. These first shots are very promising; wouldn’t it have been awful if they’d treated us like we were really, really, really stupid?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Madeleines? They're the little cakes, right?

I remember the moment I first realised that I couldn’t remember. I was talking to a friend about ‘Guys and Dolls’, a musical I adore. I think I might actually have said ‘I know every note of that score’.

Then I suddenly remembered, to my surprise, that I didn’t just know it, I’d performed it. In 1994 I played Benny Southstreet in a student production. Just so you know, Benny is the part to play if you enjoy fun and laziness. He has about twelve lines, every one of which is a belter. He sings solo, prominently, in three of the show’s best numbers- ‘Fugue for Tinhorns’, ‘The Oldest Established’ and the title song. There’s a bit of dancing- never my strong point- but hell, if you’re the klutz with twelve lines, nobody’s going to care if you look ungainly. If you’re rubbish, nobody will notice. If you’re good, they’ll notice.

I really, really enjoyed playing that part, all those years ago. But when- probably about three years later- I was quacking on about how much I loved the show, I was pulled up short. I had literally no recollection of having been in it. Not the rehearsals, not the performances, nothing. Something which had- presumably- filled my brain for- presumably- a few weeks, had slipped out of my mind and memory, never to return.

Tonight, watching a TV programme about Jamie Oliver taking his wonderful Fifteen franchise to Melbourne, the same weird realisation hit me. There were some shots of Sydney. Now, facebook tells me that I was in Sydney two years ago today. Intellectually I know that to be the case. There’s a stamp in my passport. I can just about picture Circular Quay, and the view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. But I have no visceral recollection of what it was like to be on the other side of the world. ‘What’s Australia like?’ you could ask me. ‘I don’t know’, I’d have to reply. I remember that I danced around my hotel room listening to Little Boots. I remember reading the football section of the sports news and thinking that it focused on people like Cahill and Schwarzer, Aussies in the Prem. I remember seeing Cate Blanchett in 'Streetcar', but that's just a 'watching a play' memory, not a 'being in Sydney' one. Those are my memories of having had the privilege of visiting the actual other side of the actual world.

And that’s the thing. I’m not an amnesiac*. Some things in life remain in glorious technicolour. There are countless, unimportant experiences in my life that I could recount to you in tedious detail. But how odd that some of the biggest- running a marathon, sitting by my father’s bedside in his dying days, being in love, going to the other side of the world, most of my undergraduate life- should be things that I only remember as a series of facts, things I remember because I know they happened rather than because I can recall how they felt.

I can tell you -without even having to furrow my brow- who was relegated from League Division Two in 1982 (Cardiff City, Wrexham and Orient, since you ask, and Orient weren’t known as Leyton Orient then, so there). My boundless memory for the little things remains intact. The big things- they’re in 2D. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

*hilariously, I had to google ‘amnesiac’ just to check it meant what I thought it did. Shush.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There

Some names in the following have been changed (I’ve always wanted to say that). You’ll see why; and you’ll see why that sentence resonates, too. Some people who read this will know the real names of the people I’m talking about; I ask those people not to reveal them. I have no desire to ‘out’ anyone and any reply that does so will be immediately deleted.

Other than the names, every word of what follows is true.

It’s ironic that I should find myself writing this so soon after my comments on the characterisation of the internet, in ‘Two Boys’, because this real-life story is a companion-piece to that work. It starts (or, my part in it starts) in early 2002, when, as a slightly late adopter, I started posting on the Popbitch website. I’d been reading it without posting for a while (‘lurking’, in internet parlance) but one day I spotted something inaccurate and unfair about an actor I’d worked with, and logged in to put it right. Then I stuck around.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve spent a fair deal of time on messageboards, and have made a good many close friends as a result. They all sprang from Popbitch; in the early noughties, when PB became too lacking in genuine information, too desultory, and above all too spiteful, various former posters set up other discussion boards for those as were interested. Unlike PB, there was no need to have any ‘gossip’ if you wanted to post- conversations would ramble on nicely in any direction. More than anything else, it was an early form of social networking; the kind of thing you’d put on Facebook or Twitter is very similar to the kind of thing people discuss on this kind of board (not a chatroom; never call it a chatroom, because that’s a totally different thing. On a messageboard you can get easily immersed in an interesting conversation, it’s not just people shouting LOL! at each other. Or not always).

One of the people who migrated over to one of these offshoot boards was a poster whose username was MitheredMark. Although we hadn’t met, he’d been at Cambridge (several years after me) and this kind of common ground is meat-and-drink to online interaction. At this point, a friend of mine was dating someone who would have been MitheredMark’s contemporary at Cambridge, and I remember asking her if she remembered him, sketching in the not-very-many details I had about him. She couldn’t remember any such person, and I thought no more of it; there are a lot of students at any big university, after all.

But, as regular readers will know (another thing I’ve always wanted to say) online communities have a habit of becoming offline ones. A large group of friends (made up, as such groups often are, of various smaller ones) developed from the messageboard via post work drinks or mass-meetups. When you’re in your twenties and early thirties, it’s great to get to the end of the working day and write ‘Anyone fancy a pint after work?’ in the knowledge that as many as fifteen or twenty people- some of them already friends, some of them new ones- might reply in the affirmative.

And so, inevitably, I met MitheredMark in person. When asked for his name, he gave an eye-roll and deadpanned ‘Er, Mark’, making anyone who had asked feel a little stupid for having done so. He could be a little spiky, but he was witty, warm, generous, and immensely entertaining company; we became good friends.

Or rather, we became part of a wider, hugely supportive group of good friends. These are people who came to my sister’s wedding, and some of whom married each other. I ran the marathon in memory of one of them, with another. I’ve been on holiday several times with people from the board, alongside other friends to whom I’ve introduced them. At the height of our mild hedonism, before things like marriages and babies intervened, it wouldn’t be unusual for there to be post-work drinks three or four times a week, often- for god knows what reason- in the Phoenix on Charing Cross Road.

And Mark, who was now dating Andrew, another poster from the messageboard, would often be there. He had led a fascinating life- after Cambridge, he had studied journalism, as well as having a brief career as an actor, which he had abandoned despite being represented by one of the most prestigious agents in London. He’d also written, under a pseudonym, a couple of romantic novels. Given that he was 23 when we met, only two years out of university, this was an impressive CV.

But there was always an air of mystery about Mark, always a few things that were unexplained. Despite being a regular guest at various other people’s houses, invitations to the flat he eventually shared with Andrew were very few and far between. On one occasion I was chatting to the writer and performer John Finnemore, a friend of mine who, it struck me, must have been an exact contemporary of Mark’s at Cambridge. John didn’t remember him, an oddity which I recounted the next time I saw Mark. He was furious and, hilariously, even looked a little scared. ‘Don’t you EVER talk to John Finnemore about me again’ he said. Those of you who know, or who are, John Finnemore will agree that he is an unlikely casting for ‘terror-inducing nemesis’ but there was nothing I could do bar chalking it up on the list of ‘things about Mark I might never understand’.

During this period, roughly from 2004-2008, Mark was at the top of the list of my closest friends. If any social occasion were being arranged, he’d be one of the first names on the teamsheet. But after he split up with Andrew, a couple of slightly disturbing things started to happen. Firstly, a friend of mine checked the British Library listings for the titles of the two romantic novels Mark had written. They weren’t there, nor were they in the complete catalogue of the publisher he claimed had released them. On another occasion, he was invited by another friend to her work Valentine’s Party. He left early, in tears, after a cigarette break; while out on the balcony, two women had come up to him and homophobically abused him. My friend, rightly furious that such a thing should have happened to her guest, went straight to security and asked to see the CCTV tapes of the night before. And what they showed was Mark, alone on the balcony, calmly having a cigarette then walking back in. Other, smaller lies became noted; people just put it down to Mark being a little baroque when drunk. And if it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it. I’m terribly sorry for the previous sentence.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Mark split up with a chap he’d been dating. The dumpee was a smashing, gentle fella; everyone wondered why Mark had ended the relationship so abruptly. Then, shockingly, Mark told us why. I’m not going to spell out the reason he gave, but if it had been true then it would have been a matter for the police.

Of course, it wasn’t. When challenged by various different people, Mark told a variety of different stories, depending on who he was speaking to, so it soon became apparent that this was the deal-breaking lie. There was no big falling-out; I certainly never took the decision that Mark was someone I didn’t want to hang out with. But at the same time, he wasn’t the first person I dialled when I fancied meeting someone for a pint. Gradually, the friendship ground to a halt. I regretted this; he’s a clever, funny, warm, interesting man. But I’d been told more than enough things which weren’t true.

And that’s where it would have ended, were it not for a random tweet. I was aware that Mark and Andrew were back together, but hadn’t seen either of them for a while, when I saw on Twitter that Andrew had been promoted at work. I was pleased about this, so I had a look on his timeline to see how it had come about. And there it was: Andrew making a reference to ‘him indoors’ and someone else replying using a name I’d never heard before.

You’ve probably twigged by now. ‘Mark’ didn’t exist. Both his first name and his surname were entirely different to the name we knew him by. A quick google revealed that the person who had been my friend for eight years was a completely fictional creation. His family, his employers, the state, knew him under one identity; and the rest of us, under another. A lot of mysteries were solved by this, to be fair. Suddenly it was apparent why, whenever anyone called him at work, the operator wouldn’t have a clue who we were asking for. When he was headhunted we'd wondered what his new job was, and assumed it was another lie; in fact, the job was true but the name wasn’t. He’d swanked about using a credit card belonging to an ex; in hindsight, that was probably his own card.

I can understand using a different name when you meet people for the first time; I’ve even done it myself. What I can’t understand is continuing the subterfuge when you find yourself going to people’s weddings, meeting their families, becoming a part of people’s lives. In many ways, this final lie isn’t a big deal, compared with some of the others. ‘You thought I was called XY, in fact I’m called AB’ isn’t much of a betrayal in the grand scheme of things. But my god, it must have taken a lot of work. For year after year after year, Mark and Andrew kept the lie alive. Mark answered to a name he knew wasn’t his, from the mouths of his friends, thousands of times. He set up a facebook page under a false identity, accrued a hundred or so friends, commented on their posts. Even when he was drunk as a lord, somewhere he managed to maintain the deception. And that’s what is so odd, so hard to process.

I wrote much of the first part of this post a couple of months ago, when I’d just discovered the whole bizarre story. Then I thought better of posting it; I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest. But, in the way of these things, there was no great drama. Mark and Andrew styled it out, replying to the various ‘What the FUCK?’ emails and tweets and texts with anodyne, ‘you don’t know the full story’ responses, followed by silence. Actually, I’m not wildly interested in knowing the full story, because I’d have no reason to believe a word of it. But, a few weeks down the line, it feels like such an extraordinary thing to have happened as to merit these few words. I had a friend. We hung out for the best part of a decade. We grew apart. Then I found out that he’d never been there in the first place.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


A snippet of me singing 'Marry Me a Little' at Julia and Joel's wedding. Hosted here for storage purposes, etc etc.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Monday, 4 July 2011

What Opera North could have said.

Another day, another twitterstorm- this time around the unlikely epicentre of one of our most forward-looking opera companies, caught in a row which pits prejudice against pragmatism.

I have a lot of sympathy for Opera North's near-impossible position. Lee Hall's article in the Guardian about the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of 'Beached', the community opera for which he had written the libretto (pulled because a local school was unhappy that its protagonist was gay), was so eloquent, so passionate and so palpably right that there wasn't a lot they could say in response. And, there's no doubt that once the local school had withdrawn its pupils from the production, it was pretty much dead in the water.

But neither of the company's public pronouncements is, I'm afraid, good enough. The first attempted to be anodyne- to paraphrase, it was essentially 'Lee's work is wonderful but in order to avoid offending people...' etc. The second was feistier, placing the blame more or less where it belongs, on the school and the LEA. But here's what a lot of people, gay and (like Lee Hall, or the friend I was discussing the issue with earlier, who pointed out much of what follows) straight, might have wanted them to say.

'Opera North is very disappointed in the decision made by the school to withdraw its pupils from our production, which has come so late as to make the scheduled run impossible. While respecting the concerns of parents and teachers, the company cannot agree with their decision.

We remain committed to producing this opera, and will not allow a dated narrative of shame around homosexuality to prevent us from presenting works of art which feature gay characters. It is not harmful to children for them to be informed that homosexuality exists; it is a simple fact of life. We would welcome the chance to collaborate with any community and school in our catchment area who would like to work with us on mounting a production of 'Beached' as it is currently scripted, and greatly regret that it cannot be in Bridlington.'

Just that. Standing by their librettist, rather than washing their hands of him. Criticising those whose prejudice had forced them to cancel the production, rather than trying to appease them. Would that have been so difficult?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Neither had a wooden horse.

Last week, someone I’ve never met taught me how to make a gif. I needed to know how so I could enter a competition on Twitter, the prize for which was two tickets to Nico Muhly’s new opera ‘Two Boys’ at ENO. Having failed to win the competition, I bought tickets for Wednesday’s performance instead, and went along with two friends. I know one of them from an opera website, and met the other via a messageboard.

So, when Muhly talks about the ‘generation that grew up with the internet’ I know what he means. I’m a few years older than he is, though, so I was a young adult rather than a teenager when it began to transform our lives. Like many people my age, I had an embarrassing initial skepticism when it came to the ‘information superhighway’. With all the confidence of the man who turned down the Beatles, I dismissed it as a fad.

Now, of course, I’m a convert. A massive convert- to the extent that I have to yank the plug out of the router when I have work to do. I spend a vast amount of time online. I’ve made many, many friends via messageboards and social networks- and they’re not just words on a screen. I’ve been on holidays with friends I’ve made in cyberspace; some of them were at my sister’s wedding. And when my dad was dying- a time much on my mind at the moment, as it would have been his 75th birthday yesterday- the net was a vital lifeline. For the last three months of dad’s life, my sister and I de-camped to my parents’ house in rural Norfolk, to help with his care. Without a computer, it would have been much harder to feel connected to my life in London; without a computer, the long nights staying awake to watch at dad’s bedside would have been very lonely indeed.

I mention all this because the internet gets a bad rap, both in the press and in the arts. We’re all familiar with the tenuous, frothing ‘CHILD WITH FACEBOOK ACCOUNT GETS MURDERED’ style of news story. And when people started dramatising the worldwide web- in films such as Hackers and The Net, or plays such as Closer, the narrative was always the same. The online world was dark, scary. People used it to keep track on you, or to pretend to be someone else. Trust no-one, was the message; the cake is a lie.

My initial problem with ‘Two Boys’, pretty much the first opera to engage with a phenomenon which has been dominant in our lives for the best part of two decades, is that it followed this narrative, the idea that as soon as we type an address into a browser we are putting ourselves at risk. The plot, based on a true story, hinges on assumed/false identity; there are whole choral sections based on the premise that Everyone On The Internet Is There To Have Weird Sex. Well, yes, there’s a lot of sex, weird and otherwise, on the net. But there’s a lot of other stuff, too. It’s not just the place some people go when they want to get off- it’s where everyone goes to do everything. In fact, the opera eventually does embrace this idea, although perhaps not as much as it should.

Thus, the plot strand in ‘Two Boys’ which bugged me the most was the journey of Susan Bickley’s character, the CIO of an attempted murder case in which a 16 year old boy has stabbed a younger friend. She starts from a position of near-total innocence- the fact that online people can pretend to be somebody else, or that cyberspace can be a venue for bullying, or that young people are not only sexualized but fluent in the language and the darker corners of sexuality, seems to be news to her, and shocking news, at that. Surely, a senior police officer would be more savvy? The twist that the plot takes at the end really seems to take a hell of a long time to occur to her; I wish I’d come to the piece not knowing it, so I could gauge how much of a surprise it was. I think it was a major misstep in ENO’s publicity not to keep it under wraps, and I’d love to know what it would be like to work it out for oneself.

As far as Craig Lucas’ libretto is concerned, that’s my only gripe. Some of the reviews have been quite snippy about his contribution, but I thought that the storytelling and the release of information were beautifully timed, and some of the exchanges- particularly the early chatroom conversations between central character Brian and his online friend Rebecca- were genuinely dramatically riveting in a way operatic dialogues tend not to be. There’s no sitting back and letting the experience wash over you- you have to be alert, to concentrate, and the work is all the better for it. That, I think, is Lucas’ achievement, because Muhly’s music is more problematic.

The opening is a wonderful nod to some of the opera’s influences- an ominous ostinato in the strings which sounds exactly, but exactly, like the opening title music of a Hollywood thriller. It’s almost impossible to hear it without imagining a camera sweeping around a police station, names of the stars appearing in the bottom right of the screen, before settling on a desk where, say, Sigourney Weaver is poring over some case files. It’s a terrific start. But Muhly’s musical language seems limited, its rhythm unvarying. There has been much talk of how his composition is ‘post minimalist’ but it sounds pretty much like minimalism to me. More worryingly, it lacks the energy, the forward motion of the best minimalist composers; the opera feels as if every page is headed ‘andante, mf’. This musical lethargy has an unfortunate effect on the word-setting- there’s nothing conversational, no parlando. Even simple conversational exchanges seem to have every syllable set to minims rather than quavers, so that the dramatic tension indicated by Lucas’ libretto is dissipated. There’s a lack of theatricality, of dramatic set pieces arising from, rather than set to, music. These aren’t incompatible with the minimalist language- put it this way, when John Adams has Mme Mao enter the stage, he knows he has to do something huge. Conversely, the dramatic climax of Muhly’s opera- the stabbing on which the whole evening hangs- utterly lacks musical tension or any kind of sense of climax. It’s left entirely to the performers to generate the necessary shock which, since both of Muhly’s two protagonists are excellent singing actors, they do. But I bet they wish they had the music to help them. When a story this disturbing reaches its conclusion, the last thing you want of the music is that it be unobtrusive.

This is not to say, however, that as a musician Muhly isn’t richly gifted and, by his lights, inventive. Purely as music the score is constantly interesting, and he knows how to write for singers, particularly choral singers. The closest the evening comes to the kind of music-drama swagger one would expect from a composer with Muhly’s wunderkind status is in the work of the chorus, portraying the internet itself. The moment Brian opens his laptop to unleash a sussuration of voices, all seeking someone to talk to, is genuinely thrilling, hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff. The concertato writing, when the various people Brian has met online (none of them who they seem to be) is also richly satisfying musically and dramatically. And, just at times, the dramatic situation rouses Muhly’s music out of its inertia into something more vital, most notably in the last exchange between Brian and Rebecca, or the scene where Brian receives the detailed instructions which lead to the stabbing. The final chorus, too, notable in its ambiguity and its refusal to offer pat answers, is as intriguing and serious of intent and disturbing as the evening deserves.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Muhly- he is palpably a major, serious talent, to be cherished and to be nurtured. But ‘Two Boys’ isn’t quite there yet, and may need revisiting before it’s unleashed at the Met (the running time should definitely be reduced: this is a 90 minute opera currently stretching to 120, and boasting an utterly superfluous interval). Despite my caveats about this work, I’d still buy a ticket for anything with Muhly’s name on it.

The production, by Bartlett Sher, is sensational- scenes flow seamlessly into each other, the versatile, functional set and brilliantly-executed video projections create the world of the opera, both online and off, with glittering simplicity. Sher has also assembled a fine cast of singing-actors, too. Bickley is a known quantity, of course, and is as good as you’d expect in the elusive, underdrawn character of the cop. Despite some neat scenes with her mother, aimed at sketching out Anne’s backstory and inner life, you never really get a sense of who this woman is. She’s at her best in the scenes interrogating Nicky Spence’s Brian, as opposed to the rather generalized arias in which she expresses confusion and concern. Spence’s performance is terrific, giving life to a character who is difficult to understand. Brian’s innocence can be ascribed, I suppose, to his youth (although he seems a little too obedient to anyone who asks him to wap his cock out on webcam, whether it’s potential girlfriend or scary CIA supervillain) but his gullibility matches that of Bickley’s character at times. Vocally and dramatically Spence rises to the challenge of a young man on the edge, and his lyric tenor easily encompasses vocal writing that sometimes calls for a certain amount of heldenheft. And I can’t really tell you why without spoilering, but Joseph Beesley, as the other boy of the opera’s title, is extraordinary both as singer and actor. Everyone, though, in this large cast does a grand job. I’ve not seen a more universally convincingly acted opera production in a long time.

Disgracefully, until last year, I had never seen the premiere run of a new opera. Now I’ve seen three, and of those three ‘Two Boys’ is easily the most interesting and the work I’d most happily return to. ‘Prima Donna’ we can regretfully discount. But the comparison with ‘Anna Nicole’ is an interesting one. Turnage’s music has all the canny theatricality that Muhly’s lacks; but ‘Anna Nicole’ doesn’t ask any questions; it reminds us, none too subtly, of things we already know. ‘Two Boys’ is more elusive, more serious-minded, more ambiguous- and as a result we care much more about its damaged central characters, however loosely sketched, than we do about the tragic Ms. Smith. Lucas, Muhly, Sher and their singers have created a flawed but important work, a work which tries and almost succeeds in addressing pressing contemporary concerns, holding an operatic mirror up to society in a way which doesn’t happen nearly enough. For that, they should be commended, and for that, ‘Two Boys’ demands to be seen.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Final Cardiff post- post Cardiff final.

Bondarenko won the song prize- does that mean he’s more or less likely to win tonight? I note he hasn’t cut his hair, so he is obviously not keen to sleep with my flatmate. WOW! J Di-Do is on pundit duty, that’s a coup and she’ll have interesting things to say, so long as she isn’t too hung up on being nice- she might be too generous an individual for this job, although I suppose this five won’t need any special pleading. Cabell is the other pundit, and I’m not going to say anything rotten about what her career says about the quality of the competition’s winners (I’ve never got her, I’m afraid).

A quick run down of the judges (Old! Old! Old! Marilyn Horne is a little white haired old lady and that is just WRONG) reveals that the mystery Russian is a conductor, which makes him even more mysterious, because I’ve never heard of him. Kiri weighs in with some stretched-to-the-limit sporting metaphors and then we get a rundown of the finalists (for once, Petrova is represented by her best rather than worst moment). In fact, the rundown makes me want them all to win, apart from Raval, who I like but don’t really see as a finalist. Her Josie interview reveals, again, a thoroughly energetic and likeable woman.

Ah. Now then. She’s starting with ‘D’Amor sull’ali rosee’ which is interesting in light of the fact it was sung wonderfully in the final heat by the absent Crocetto. Raval’s voice is too thin for the recit, I’m afraid- ‘pressa e la mia difesa’ is really too wimpy. Still, her quiet singing is her strength so perhaps the aria itself will fare better. She launches the aria with a couple of little wobbles- nerves, no doubt. Frockwatch: she’s wearing a Violetta Act One special in a disconcerting shade of ketchup. Her breathing has settled down now, and she pulls out a nice legato, but this is the wrong voice for this music. The second arching phrase on ‘le pene’ (ie the one that isn’t the top C, I don’t have a score to hand) is absolutely gorgeous- it’s the reason she’s chosen the aria- but I can’t help thinking she would have done better to open with something a little less spinto. Ends it beautifully- she really is shimmering when she sings soft and high. She doesn’t essay a ‘Tu Vedrai’, which is probably for the best. Joyce says nice things without actually praising the performance. Oh, now, this is ridiculous- ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’? Really? I don’t see how this will be a good fit for her at all, apart from the fact that she’s a decent actor. She KNOWS this isn’t right, too, if the way she’s forcing the first phrase is anything to go by- pushing the voice into sounding bigger than it is? As predicted, the acting is excellent but what a dumb, dumb choice. She should be wowing us with Gheorghiu rep, not underwhelming with Tebaldi stuff. She throws in a bit of parlando on ‘tutta e finita’ which may have been necessity rather than choice. She gets through the aria all right but why stretch the voice to the limit in this way? She’s finishing with ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, which ought to be a better fit, but unfortunately seems still to be stuck in forcing mode- it’s overwrought, lacking the legato she showed in the Verdi and surprisingly unlovely. The ‘Und die seele’ section really shows her voice at its least impressive I’m afraid. She could have come out, sung Liu and ‘September’ and Pamina and ravished us. Instead she’s doing everything she can to force out tone, to the extent that in some phrases, here as in the Puccini, the breath control is compromised. Disappointing. I wonder if Hagegard is disappointed too- he sure ain’t clapping. Cabell calls her ‘confident’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘impeccably trained’. Petroc asks Joyce a question which suggests that he agrees that her rep choices were strange, and she gives a diplomatic answer about ‘hearing her future’ and it being a big sing.

Petrova is up next and starts with The Tsar’s Bride, and this is very good stuff indeed. She’s much more connected to this aria than in either of the ones we saw in her heat, no hint of that placid complacency which is bothersome for Dalila or the Princesse. She finds some smashing chest tones for the end, which she’ll need now for Ulrica- another potentially excellent choice. Yep, this is terrific and she’s transformed dramatically from the other night. I can see her shortish top causing her problems in future though (I am talking about vocal range, not a skimpy garment, for clarification). I’ll stop banging on about rep soon, I promise, but Raval should take note of what can be achieved with an aria which is securely, safely and solidly in the voice. That really was terrific. Cabell calls her a star in the making and advises caution around big Verdi, which is fair enough. She’s ending with ‘Voi lo Sapete’, which is owned in my personal pantheon by Obratszova, Troyanos and Suliotis, although I suspect she’ll be more lyric and less desperate than any of those three. And so it proves- the start of the aria has that almost reflective quality which marred her Dalila. This is excellent vocalism but Santuzza is on the edge and we don’t really get that from Petrova’s performance, which ends rather abruptly on ‘io son dannata’. Now then, this should be interesting; she’s not at her best when singing in French or being sexy, so of course we’re getting the Habanera. This really can’t afford to be as formidable as some of her other performances. The ‘pas aujourd-hui, c’est certain’, delivered with a beaming smile, is adorable, not dangerous; she’s too nice for Carmen. The aria itself is delivered with a slight frown and, as predicted, no real sense of seduction. Her French is… Russian. She’s sung wonderfully but the other three competitors must be thinking that this competition is winnable. Petroc asks another loded question- this time about ‘sunshine and the world of Carmen’. I think Petrova is a little disappointed, judging by her Josinterview.

DING DING DING! PUNDIT BINGO! Joyce just referred to ‘singing on the interest, not the capital’.

Now we have Lee, who I suspect will win if she brings her best form. ‘If I win this competition, I will be flying like a bird, because I will be in a dream’. Bless her. She’s starting with ‘Tornami a Vagheggiar’- odd to do something so very much easier than the arias she sang in her heat, I wonder if she’ll firework it up? Oooch, dodgy start- thin and pitchy. It improves, but she’s nowhere near the standard she set as Zerbinetta and Mme Mao. We get some pin-sharp sparkly stuff at the end, but she’s not done herself justice I’d say. Joyce felt it lacked playfulness, and Joyce is right. Ophelia’s mad scene now, which has the quite low bar of ‘can she do it better than Marlis Petersen’? Second aria syndrome- this is much, much better. She’s got a lot of ground to make up though- I’d say the Handel was weaker than anything Petrova sang. Hagegard appears to be asleep in a cutaway to the judges’ table, and who can blame him? Newsflash: the music of Amboise Thomas is, in the main, dull, and if she was going to insist on singing him, she should have gone for ‘Je Suis Titania’. But really, she could have rocked the place with ‘O Zittre Nicht’ or the Proch variations or Olympia’s aria or ‘Quando rapito’ or just ANYTHING would have been a better choice. She’s singing it prettily but not flawlessly enough to justify its presence, and went badly sharp at the end- another casualty of pushing. She was much, much better in the heat and I think has probably blown her chances tonight.

So, that would mean it boils down to Nafornita v Bondarenko, and the scoreboard on that one is currently running at Moldova 0 Ukraine 1. Bondarenko, wearing my M&S blue linen shirt, discusses his chances of winning with a suddenly flirty Josie. He’s starting with ‘Rivolgete’ which, even though Cosi is on some days my favourite opera, I’ve always found a bit of a slog. Much more dramatic and comic possibilities in ‘Donne mie’, surely? Still, this plays to a lot of Bondarenko’s strength and he attacks it with the confidence of someone who already has one prize under his belt. He’s undoubtedly a very exciting prospect but even this vocally unimpeachable and charmingly acted performance doesn’t quite have the thrill of a prizewinner about it. Now, however, he’s setting himself a challenge- Posa’s death. And it’s beautiful- the long breathed lines wonderfully controlled and with a legato which would be the envy of many more experienced and established singers- shame we didn’t get ‘Per Me Giunto’ as well. He ends it terrifically, giving a look to the heavens and a great gulp of air as a neat solution to the dilemma of a death scene in concert. Champagne aria now, aka the aria which nobody ever, ever sounds good singing. I suppose it’s a calling card- ‘cast me as Don Giovanni’ please- but he sounds every bit as out of breath as everyone who has ever sung this. An odd choice. Twitter is nonetheless calling it for Bondarenko, and we all know that Twitter is always right, hem hem. He ends, perhaps, inevitably, with Tschaikovsky, and it’s quite gorgeous. I think he might win, you know- although my spies in the hall tell me that he has audibility issues, but sounds better downstairs, and downstairs is, of course, where the judges sit.

Nafornita is going to start with ‘Regnava nel Silenzio’, which is spooky as I nearly sort of mentioned it earlier (although I doubt we’ll get the cabaletta). Slightly pitchy start but she’s into her stride by the second phrase. She sings it well, but she’s yet another singer who was better in the heats- there’s nothing as special as the frisson (pun intended) she brought to Juliette’s aria. Cool, we ARE getting ‘Quando rapito’. And it’s absolutely terrific, as the stadium-style cheers from the house reflect. That puts her in touching distance of Bondarenko, I’d say- it depends on her other arias. The first of which is Rusalka, so my tear ducts are in danger. She starts it beautifully, but as I said with regard to Leese in heat 1, it’s all about THAT phrase, which Leese didn’t quite nail. Nafornita does, however, in all its aching beauty. This is singing of very, very high quality indeed. We are ending- wry smile- with Je Veux Vivre. I have heard enough of this aria but there’s no doubt that Nafornita sings it well. Some people are kvetching about the Lucia, but I think her choice of rep has been very clever in both rounds. This is lovely, vibrant, expressive singing. I suspect, though, that Bondarenko has it by a nose.

Good GOD, Joyce di Donato failed to get past the audition stage. In the year that Guang Yang won. Just ponder on that for a moment while we wait for the result.

Audience prize comes first, nicely rechristened the Joan Sutherland audience prize. Bondarenko for this too? But no, it’s Nafornita, which judging from the response in the hall should have been easy to predict- and maybe it’s because people thought she should have won her heat? And- well, that’s a turn-up- she wins the main prize too, to the obvious astonishment of Bondarenko, who is the Arsenal or Chelsea of this competition- talk of trebles followed by disappointment. He wasn't as good in the final as in his heat, which is reflected in the reversed result, which might also have reflected the audibility thing.

I’d have given it to him*, but she’s a worthy winner nonetheless, of what has been a variable but largely excellent competition. But, you know what? Nobody sang Largo al Factotum.

*the prize, I mean. I'm not my flatmate.

If you can't blog the heat...

So, Heat 4 happened on Thursday and was broadcast on Friday, so as I watched it seemed a bit silly to 'liveblog'- especially as the result AND the identity of the finalists had been spoilered for me courtesy of Twitter. I'm looking at YOU, BBC Wales viewers- Grr and Tsk. So, just an overview for this heat, ahead of tonight's final.

Enzo Romano, representing Uruguay, came up with a pretty horrible Non Piu Andrai (friendoftheblog dame gwyneth described, brilliantly, his characterisation as 'redoubtable octogenarian gay jew') but redeemed himself with a much better account of Bottom's Dream- a real case of 'second aria' syndrome.

Ireland's Maire Flavin continued the trend of wonderful mezzos, certainly the most successful vocal category in this competition- there hasn't been a dud yet. She's not the most vivid performer but the voice itself is beyond. She managed to nail the Komponist without screeching, too, which is rarer than it should be. Like her a lot.

Leah Crocetto ought to be in the final and it's mental that she isn't. Despite an unfortunate resemblance to Mutya from the Sugababes (just me? Ok then) she sailed through a difficult programme- the Trov Leonora is a real challenge for a young singer, especially the Act 4 aria which only justifies its existence if it's jaw-droppingly lovely, which this nearly, very nearly, was. I'd say she is a far more exciting prospect than another, ahem, young American soprano who is routinely greeted as the second coming.

Davide Bartolucci, representing Italy, wins the 'most ethnically suitable name' award but isn't really memorable for much else. Baritones are the anti-mezzo in this competition, I think; the standard is always lowish, with the odd exception. He did some Handel and some Mozart and they were ok. Not much more that I can say, which is maybe telling.

And then, a star. Hye Jung Lee is a coloratura soprano who is for once worthy of the name- it's all spot-on and she really sings rather than chirp. We get some of Zerbinetta (cutting arias short has been a bete noire of previous Cardiff coverage, which the BBC had hitherto managed to avoid here) and then, thrillingly, Madame Mao, which she absolutely nails. I wonder if this role will become a calling card/millstone for South East Asian sopranos the way Aida did for black ones (No). Still, this is the best rendition of this aria I've heard, although it strikes me I've only heard two other singers do it. So, there's a publicity quote for her- 'Better than Trudy Ellen Craney and Judith Howarth'- notsowunderbar).

So, the finalists (it's just starting as I type) are Raval, Petrova, Bondarenko, Nafornita and Lee. Crocetto should be there instead of Raval, and I'd give an Hon Mensh to Miss Germany, Miss Australia, Mr Romania and Miss Ireland. Lee will win, but I'd like Bondarenko to. There's just a chance, too, that if Narfornita really catches fire, she could do it. Onward!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

It Just. Got. Interesting.

So, here we go with heat three, my second Cardiff dollop of the day. Hopes for tonight centre mainly around singers opting for appropriate repertory- some of last night’s choices were a little dumb, really.

We kick off with Susanne Braunsteffer, a German soprano who will be singing In Questa Reggia followed by Grossmachtige Prinzessin.

I joke, of course. (I wonder if anyone has ever sung both? Nobody springs to mind, except maybe the bonkers Deutekom). Susanne trained with Mirella Freni and doesn’t think opera is elitist. Out comes the mobile, as with the Bulgarian woman the other night. This time it’s Samsung rather than iphone and husband rather than child, but this is turning into a theme.

She’s starting with ‘Come Scoglio’ which my operatic autism (operautism?) reminds me is a portentous choice- previous winners Matilla, Harteros and Scherbachenko all sang it. And this is a lovely, lovely voice, judging by the recit. Slightly mushy Italian but a lovely tone, warm and gleaming simultaneously. This lady could be proper world class, I think. The aria’s a minefield though, of course, but my fingers are crossed for her here. She gets through the fiendish section on ‘affetto’ pretty well, bar an attempt at the C which even my opera-hating flatmate could tell was, quote, ‘a bit ropey’. But she reminds me a little of Persson, and of Gritton, and that’s pretty benchmark-y for Fiordiligi these days. She rises to the challenge of the triplets at the end, although there’s a little bit of a screech in the last phrase. Mark Padmore finds her confident and controlled.

Oh for god’s sake, ANOTHER Vespri Bolero. Sick of this now, 3 times in 3 nights. But she’s singing it very well indeed, and I’d go so far to say that this is the best actual instrument we’ve heard all week so far, better even than Petrova’s, although Braunsteffer’s technique is much ropier than the Russian’s. Elin Manahan Thomas isn’t blown away by her, I’d say, although she’s using complimentary language. Padmore seems more impressed, especially by Come Scog.

An Aussie mezzo, Helen Sharman, is next, and she’ll be doing Una Voce Poco Fa, followed no doubt by bloody Merce bloody Dilette bloody Amiche. Josie- who the flatmate tells me is from Newport, he really is a mine of information- offers her some Welsh cakes. She’s starting with Sta nell’Ircana from Alcina, an odd choice when Bramo di Trionfar is in the same opera and is ace. She’s good, you can tell straight away. The standard of tonight’s heat is already oceans away from last night’s. I like her black and red frock; flatmate thinks she looks like Evil Spiderman from Spiderman III. Make of that what you will. It’s nice to hear some clean, proper coloratura after the crimes against it in heat two, and Sharman’s voice is rich and true- a little reminiscent of Murray but fuller in its sound. Thomas finds her ‘grounded’ and ‘secure’- she’s clearly here to perform the Mary King function of technical merit, while Padmore is there for artistic impression. You know, like in the ice dancing. She’s following it with ‘Una Voce’, also overdone in competitions but I suppose I can see why. Oddly, she’s hardened her tone for the virginal Rosina- it was warmer and more feminine for the warrior Ruggiero. She’s singing it very well indeed, mind, although both singers tonight have been a little generalized where facial expression and selling the arias have been concerned. She negotiates the ‘…ma’ in the ‘io sono docile’ section without the usual frenzied mugging, for which relief much thanks. She’s firing off the fioratura (I fancied a change of word) with accurate ease, and it would be tough to choose between these first two singers. Padmore finds her musical and intelligent and rightly observes that what was lacking from the Rossini was charm. Thomas thought she was nicely masculine in the Handel and more feminine for Rosina, so she and I will have to have a fight at some point.

John Pierce now, Welsh tenor. Wales have never had a home win in this competition (although arguably they should have- Terfel I think is marginally more of a star than Hvoro) and this year their hopes are pinned on this likeable, gentle fella who is what Alexander McCall Smith might call ‘traditionally sized’. He’s starting with the Nemorino aria, which I last heard being massacred by Joe McElderry on that ITV abomination that shall remain nameless (channel hopping rather than watching, I should stress. I’m not a masochist.)

Wales is going to have to wait at least two more years. Pierce is perfectly pleasant but unspecial. He phrases nicely and has a decent legato but neither his voice nor his face have much, um, face. Massenet next- ‘Fuyez, douce image’, and, in the tradition of second arias, it’s much more successful. He launches the aria itself quite beautifully, but there’s not much to say about this chap; he’s fine, which is fine. He’ll be a useful lyric tenor for WNO and ENO, but don’t hold your breath for his Scala debut. Promisingly, however, when he opens the choke and let rip, he’s at his best, pointing perhaps to some heavier stuff later in his career where sheer beauty of tone would be less important. Thomas likes his legato but says the louder stuff didn’t do it for her. It’s like she’s set out deliberately to make me look stupid. He’s ever such a sweetheart in his interview with Josie, you just want to give him a hug.

Now, after some technical advice from Mary, it’s Moldovan soprano Valentina Nafornita, following in the Moldovan soprano footsteps of Cebotari and um, um, um. She gives Josie a pirouette lesson. And hurrah for her, she’s starting with ‘Gluck, das mir verblieb’ which I think is an excellent competition choice- not everyone does it, and if you have a good legato and a tonally attractive voice it can be the most beautiful thing in the world. Nafornita is no Fleming (out on her own in this aria, I’d say, although that might make some people cross) but she’s a vivid communicator. The legato is ok, and the voice, while not radiant, is pretty. This is another very polished performance on an evening which is really showing up the last heat. I still couldn’t pick a winner, although I don’t think it will be Pierce. Bad news for England though, in that I’d rank all three women tonight above Raval, who I think J liked more than I did. Now here’s Gounod’s Juliette again, although it is at least the poison scene rather than the waltz. This is the aria that Gheorghiu pulled out of at the Met before pulling out of Juliette at the Met, which is utterly baffling because it is utterly and totally written for her voice. Nafornita, from the same neck of the woods if not the same country, is doing a grand job of this too and this performance may edge her in front, a couple of tentative high notes aside. (three minutes later) I was too busy listening to type- this is the performance of the night, and the crowd knows it- great big cheers even though she’s up against Their Boy. And she’s only 24! Crikey. She’s HUGELY promising. Petroc and Elin are blown away- Elin says it was ‘amazing’, ‘special’ and ‘a privilege to hear her’. It won’t do Valentina any harm that she is model-gorgeous and elegantly slim. Padmore finds her top notes ‘extraordinarily gorgeous’ and ‘thrilling’ so the panel seem decided on who’s going to win tonight.

Tonight’s last singer is Ukranian Andrei Bondarenko, who has central European hair. Inevitably, opera wasn’t his first love, he wanted to be a jazz saxophonist. So that’s a rock drummer, a basketballer, a couple of dancers… these poor opera singers. WHY DO THEY GET FORCED INTO THE OPERATIC SLAVE TRADE AGAINST THEIR WILL? I know I bang on about this, but it’s so fucking patronising to the singers and the audience. ‘Don’t worry, he’s not a freak, he likes jazz! Don’t be frightened, she’s normal, she listens to rap!’ Fuck. Off.

Bondarenko’s good, but it’s all a bit ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ in the light of the previous performance. He’s an animated performer, good looking (flatmate: ‘he’d get it, if he cut his hair’) and possibly the most truthful actor of the competition so far. It’s a good voice, too- he’s singing ‘Vedro mentr’io sospiro’ and putting last night’s Mr China to shame. In fact, four of tonight’s five singers would have won last night. He’s following the Mozart with tonight’s second dose of Korngold, the aria which was so popular with baritones in 2009- and even the first phrase shows him to be better than any of them. This is a gorgeous, secure voice and unlike some of this year’s other male competitors he’s absolutely ready for the international stage. Best baritone so far, and unlucky to be in this heat with Nafornita who will surely win. He gets better and better throughout the Korngold and ends it quite ravishingly, to cheers from the house. He’s finishing with le Maschere- I’m slightly surprised he gets a third aria after two long’uns. Oh lawd help us, it’s a character number- stuttering, to be precise. Maybe he thought it would be zeitgeisty after the King’s Speech. He’s doing it very well, he really is a smashing actor, but it seems odd to end his set being all buffo and erase the memory of his glorious Korngold. But who knew- he’s actually being funny. He’s making me laugh. Remember the date- June 16th 2011, the night an opera singer was actually funny. On purpose. Crowd goes wild, and rightly. He needs to be in the final if he doesn’t win tonight.

So, here we go. This has been an excellent heat- and STOP PRESS Bondarenko wins, despite the panel’s prediction of Nafornita. They should both sing again on Sunday. Hon menshes to Miss Germany and Miss Oz, but I suspect we’ve seen the last of them.

What’s exciting, though, is that unless tomorrow’s heat is exceptional we’ve seen the winner tonight, one way or another.

Tonight, on a Very Special Not So Wunderbar...

Something a little different for heat 2 of Cardiff. Those of you who frequent opera websites (and hello, both of you!) will have come across the 'IM conversation' approach to opera criticism- two people, watching and listening to the same thing, and chatting away about it before your astonished eyes. Since my friend J (not his real name, his real name is longer) and I had both missed last night's heat, I thought it might be fun for us to harness the power of iplayer, Sky Plus and the internet to bring you our thoughts on the- mildly disappointing, as it turned out- second heat of this year's competition.

I should point out that J's real name isn't 'Dame Gwyneth Jones' either, although that is the name under which his posts appear below. However, it might be fun to read or sing his observations in the voice of that redoubtable soprano, so do feel free to do so if it pleases you.

"me: First observation: They seem to have borrowed their title music from 'Eggheads' or similar.

damegwynethjones: Yes, and Petroc is doing his best impression of the gravelly voiced Americn who does the film trailer voiceovers.

me: They should have swirling 360 degree cameras like on X Factor. Oh look, they do. The judges look so OLD.

damegwynethjones: Kiri, especially, seems to be teetering on the edge of suddenly turning into an old lady. Who is that judge who doesn't get any kind of descriptive tag? Sort of Russian sounding name, with no indiction of what his mandate is.

me: OK, Meeta Raval from England is first. She is down with the kids, follows urban artists, and wants to collaborate with Tinie Tempah. Sigh.

damegwynethjones: Oh God. At least she has some sort of personality and a natural manner.

me: Yep. 'Signore Ascolta' first. (I have to do this descriptive stuff for my PUBLIC, you understand) Hmm. A bit metallic, no? Not sure I like her vibrato.

damegwynethjones: Nice-ish dress. Wouldn't have advised lace for her though. Touch metallic yes, but I basically like it. Natural and free.

me: She's lovely with the quieter stuff, but it gets that 'balloon plastic' sound under pressure. Does that make sense or have I come down with synasthaesia? The end was beautiful.

damegwynethjones: Generous phrasing, lack of inhibition -not usual in one so young. Not completely following the balloon plastic thing tbh.

me: Haha, I'm not surprised. I think I know what I mean but I don't see why anyone else should... What about this then? Walton's Troilus and Cressida must be a new one for this competition. Someone's had a word on rep, I think, after all the endless 'Je Veux Vivres' last time.

damegwynethjones: Yes, but she isn't the only one singing it this year! She does remind me of De Niese up top, which isn't really a compliment.

me: She's singing this very well though, in general, I think. Pouring out lots of tone, to use critical cliche #1.What she is not going to do, however, is win. You're right, the top is iffy. She's good and passionate though.

damegwynethjones: I really like her, I think. Complete command of her voice, good musician, seems like she could probably act. Final high note was lovely.

me: She can act all right. This Vespri aria has every drop of the individuality it was missing in the first heat. She's very immediate.

damegwynethjones: Exactly, good word. Just a bit closed in the lower top (stupid expression but you know what I mean), otherwise, attractive and fab.

me: I'm not entirely in love with the actual voice itself, but she uses it wonderfully.

damegwynethjones: Top E on the cards?

me: Yeah, I reckon she will. She has a glint in her eye.

damegwynethjones: Innit!

me: So much for theories...

damegwynethjones: Oh well. Kiri liked it.

me: So, if you were Tinie Tempah, which aria would you want to urbanly remix with her?

damegwynethjones: Oh the Verdi fo' shizzle.

me: She has personality to burn, judging by her chat with Josie. Mary thinks she's singing heavier rep than she should be.

damegwynethjones: Maybe, but I didn't hear anything too worrying. Top does def need to open up though, that's true.


damegwynethjones: Do you think they even know who he is?

me: Maybe he just strolled in confidently. Wang Lifu next, Chinese baritone, and the first singer so far this year to make me really sit up and take notice just on the rehearsal clip- it sounds like a GORGEOUS voice.

damegwynethjones: Remember Guang Yang?

me: He's her PUPIL. She can't be teaching, she's only twelve.

damegwynethjones: He's goood!

me: This guy is having intonation problems in a RECIT, which doesn't bode well.
He's got that Rad thing where his vibrato takes him off pitch. Smashing basic voice though.

damegwynethjones: Much better than his teacher, anyway. I think he'll calm down.

me: (note: 'Rad' is being used here as an abbreviation for 'Radvanovsky'. I am not trying to be as down with the kids as Meeta Raval. Dude.) He reminds me of- and how obscure can you get?- Jorma Hynninen.

damegwynethjones: Um, ok. I'm rapidly going off him actually. It's like it's all vibrato and no core.

me: I sang this (count's aria from Figaro) at a school concert when I was 17. I held the F at the end far too long, because I could.

damegwynethjones: A born diva, clearly. This tempo for the Mahler is a piss take, no?

me: I kind of tune out when Mahler comes on. He gets in trouble at the top, doesn't he? A couple of actual shouts.

damegwynethjones: Yes. It's all rather over-weighted.

me: There's talent there but I'm not sure he's ready for competition at this level yet.

damegwynethjones: No Mary. I agree. I think he's on the wrong track technically I'm afraid. It should all be easier.

me: Haha, are you going to call me Mary King every time I get pompous and categorical? Because I warn you, I'm going to do that a LOT. He's very emotionally connected to this boring dirge, I mean masterpiece of the orchestral lied, isn't he? Interpretatively good but all kinds of problems with the actual, you know, singing.

damegwynethjones: He's got the whole Birgit 'lean back and drop your jaw' thing. Slightly different result though.

me: Mary agrees with me AGAIN, by the way.

damegwynethjones: I take that song at least twice as fast, btw. So does Hampson, fwiw.

me: Advice for singers from Mary King. Do you do yoga before you go on stage? Mary thinks you should. AVOID ALCOHOL, she says. I'm sure we can all relate to that. Canada now, soprano Sasha Djihanian. She has ‘a passion for belly dancing’ and is ‘not afraid of fun’. I hate all those people who are afraid of fun. Sounds as if she's going to do Da Tempeste from Giulio Cesare by Danielle de Niese.

damegwynethjones: Gorgeous dress!

me: It is yellow, fashion fans. Why do this aria if you can't do coloratura?

damegwynethjones: Where is the Bollywood dance routine? She needs something to distract from the singing, as you say.

me: Nice stage presence. But all these noodles are * stern face* NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH.

damegwynethjones: I cannot believe she is one of the 20 best singers under 30, even in Canada. Better than Bulgaria but come on- not anything like the standard expected.

me: I think Miss Bulgaria did a better job than this. She has been both sharp and flat and not one run has come out cleanly.

damegwynethjones: I think Bulgaria's coloratura was better, but for me the basic production of this girl is healthier. Dreadful rep choice, may yet do something nice and lyrical quite well.

me: Well, we'll find out- here's Ach ich Fuhl's. Yep, this is much more the kind of thing she should be singing.

damegwynethjones: Better. Still exposing some weaknesses though.

me: It's just as hard in a different way, isn't it? * pundit face* And there she goes, totally ploughing the one small piece of coloratura in the whole thing. STEP AWAY FROM THE SEMIQUAVERS.

damegwynethjones: Coloratura comes down to facility, IMO, so I never really take it into account as a measure of a singer's technique or a piece's difficulty. So I'd say this aria is harder than the Cleopatra.

me: She redeemed herself at the end, which was lovely. But no, not really good enough. Still, she's gorgeous and moves well, so she'll be singing Abigaille at the Met before you know it /parterre

damegwynethjones: Yep. She'll be depriving Matos, Meade AND Hong of gainful employment.

me: Josie's right to call her expressive- everyone so far has been right inside the music. Nobody's sung it all that well, though.

damegwynethjones: What is Mary on about??

me: Too much gesture, apparently. I kind of know what she means. David Pountney's saying Miss Canada does a sort of 'ta-da!' at the end of each coloratura passage, which bugged me too.

damegwynethjones: No, I meant where she said the coloratura was good and suited her!

me: Bloody hell, I missed that. Now then. Einspringer time. Olga Kindler from Switzerland, replacing someone who fell ill. Olga is VERY Swiss, judging by her interview with Josie. Fuck me, she's doing Aida. Ah, I see. She's Ukrainian really. Swukranian.

damegwynethjones: Potentially very exciting...Finally some Wagner!

me: Dich Teure Halle is one of the three or so bits of Wagner I allow.

damegwynethjones: Because Gundula did it?

me: Well, Gundula helps. But mainly because I like the end. I note you haven't mentioned the frock, which it might be kindest to ignore.

damegwynethjones: Too distracted by the poodle hair-do.

me: Are you old enough to remember Crystal Tipps?

damegwynethjones: Doesn't ring any bells...


damegwynethjones: Spitting image!

me:She sang that very very well but not very nicely, I'd say. I think Aida is going to suit her better. Tone was a bit squally for Elisabeth.

damegwynethjones: Again, stuff to work on, not terribly exceptional a talent.

me: Beginning of 'Ritorna Vincitor' is exciting though. Chest voice!

damegwynethjones: Got her chest out for the lads there...

me: The top is IDENTICAL to Freni in heavier rep. Although Freni was over 50. OH MY GOD TRAIN CRASH OCTAVE DROP

damegwynethjones: I think this may be the same girl I heard ruin some songs in the Lieder round on R3 today. This is the best thing she has done. OMG yes!

me: Very good recovery though- she's produced some of her best singing since that calamity.

damegwynethjones: WTF was that? I'm not sure she's quite exactly like Freni, up top or anywhere else... she has got better though, you're right.

me: It's that slight leaning in to the top notes from below which was a trick of Freni's Aida/Tatyana/Elisabetta She's had to drop an octave again, poor girl.

damegwynethjones: Don't understand why. Poor thing. She didn't sound like she was in trouble. Mary will blame rep choice, yes?

me: She will. Maybe someone will say something about singing on the interest, not the capital. Josie did well there- asked about the flub then kindly reassured her. I can't really see her pulling that octave trick in, say, Naples and escaping with her life.

damegwynethjones: Ha! No. I think a wobbly hot mess up there would be preferable.

me: So- singer 5 to win, whoever he or she might be?

damegwynethjones: I think Meeta could win the round.

me: Now a summary of round one. BBC- please stop playing us Petrova cocking up the end of 'Acerba Volutta'. Thanks.

damegwynethjones: They're obsessed with the one duff note in her whole programme!

me: Marcela Gonzalez from Chile. Who loves basketball.

damegwynethjones: Rubbish coloratura in the rehearsal clip.

me: Bloody hell, is she doing 'Bel Raggio'?

damegwynethjones: Any top Es in this one?

me: After the first couple of phrases I kind of hope not.

damegwynethjones: Oh God she's really not up to it is she.

me: Nowhere close. She should be singing maybe Lauretta.

damegwynethjones: G&S might work.

me: She has a spread on her voice which shouldn't happen until the farewell Bolenas in 2040.

damegwynethjones: Quite. And it happes on the e on the stave, which is a dreadful sign.

me: Ha, I wonder if anyone has ever done 'Coppia Iniqua' in a competition. That would be sort of cool. (Not this lady though, pls)

damegwynethjones: Yes it would. I wonder if Leah Crocetto could be persuaded at this late stage.

me: Miss Chile's actually not bad at some of the runs, it's the Scotto-in-trouble high notes that are her downfall.

damegwynethjones: Yes, they were better than the preview indicated.

me: BZZZT! JE VEUX VIVRE KLAXON. I'm thinking of banning this aria when I'm Prime Minister.

damegwynethjones: It's exactly the same skills set as the Rossini, which makes it a doubly bad choice.

me: She's making a better fist of this, actually.

damegwynethjones: Meeta has to win.

me: Yep, but possibly not get to the final. Don't think she's as good as Vasile, for example.

damegwynethjones: Maybe. There is something about her that I really liked though.

me: Miss Chile's Gounod is much, much better than her Rossini. What a mental choice that was. Also, we should mention her looks, for she is muchly pretty.

damegwynethjones: Yes, but still not good enough. Pretty though, as you say.

me: Ah- she's dropped one of her arias and pulled out of the song prize. None of this should be happening at 24. Disturbingly, according to her post-match interview with Josie, she thinks it went really well.

damegwynethjones: Hakan [ED’S NOTE: Hagegard, one of the judges] is being a bit cryptic.

me: Look at that tubby elderly man who was the beautiful boy in the Bergman film of Zauberflote. Sigh. Time. The recap just makes it absolutely clear that Raval should win, doesn't it?

damegwynethjones: Yes. The others all had significant problems

me: And lo, she wins, despite the balloon plastic vibrato. Ha, I love her holding up the crystal bowl like it was the FA Cup.

damegwynethjones: I do think she's really good, and deserves success. Disarmingly free of any sort of artifice. Would be ever so nice if she did slow down the career and fix the transition to the top. Don't suppose she will though..."

Back to just me for heat three tonight, as J/Dame Gwyneth will be singing for a living when it's on. I'll hope to be able to update tonight, it's just a question of persuading the flatmate to allow 90 minutes of opera onto our telly, on the eve of his birthday... wish me luck.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Contains spoilers. Also singing.

Crikey, is it that time again? I had so much fun splurging stream-of-consciousness stuff about BBC Singer of the World 2009 that I can barely contain my excitement at getting to do it again. You lucky, lucky people.

Now, who was paying attention two years ago? You will remember that a very exciting Russian soprano called Ekaterina Scherbachenko won, largely off the back of a near-definitive account of – what else?- the Onegin letter scene. You’ll also remember an exciting Ukranian counter-tenor who was tipped for big things.

In the intervening two years I’ve heard precisely nothing of either of them, but let’s not start the evening on a pessimistic note. After all, Cardiff’s first ever winner- one Karita Mattila- is still going strong some 28 years after her triumph, and singers such as Bryn Terfel, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Franz Hawlata, Katerina Karneus and Anja Harteros present compelling evidence that this is a pretty good waiting room for stars of the future. I am of course two years older than I was in 2009- maybe you are too- and I will therefore be two years more horrified by 24 year olds than I was then.

Some other things you may remember from last time: not particularly probing interviews with Josie D’Arby in which all the contestants passionately claim never to have intended to be an opera singer; too much Fiesco from the basses, too much Juliette from the sopranos, too much everything from the baritones, not enough Strauss from anyone. Mary King will prove to be spot on in everything she says, and if they have been brave enough to invite back Tom Randle as one of the Shearer/Hansen/ Lawrenson figures, he will be hilariously, grumpily candid. Oh, and despite the fact that, there having been precisely no pre-publicity and so this will be pretty much the most self-selecting audience ever, the TV presentation will proceed from the assumption that its audience’s knowledge of opera stretches about as far as ‘I like that one from the car ad’. Expect to have fiendishly complex concepts like ‘soprano’ and ‘aria’ explained at length.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.

What? What? SECOND round? When was the first? I am frantically checking the TV Guide but this is definitely the first broadcast, apart from a preview programme on Saturday*. Grr. Also- only 20 singers? Has Cardiff downsized?

With Petroc Trelawny are Mary King and Jonathan Lemalu, whose name I now know how to pronounce. Ah- and a friend of mine is currently working with the first contestant, and tells me very good things, so that’s exciting. Anna Leese is a soprano from New Zealand who we see throwing a rugby ball to Josie. Rugby is one of Anna’s passions (because opera singers aren’t allowed to like music) so Josie asks her to do a haka, which Anna politely refuses on grounds of cultural sensitivity. A quick rehearsal clip of Rusalka is promising, and it’s with the Song to the Moon that she will start. This aria is so closely connected for me with my father’s last stage play (which I was in) that I will probably cry. Fair warning. Very good start from Leese, the tone quality itself is lovely, although this aria is all about *that* phrase, of course…

…which she slightly muffs. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a bit careful, not rapturous, doesn’t transport. The top of her voice is less interesting than the middle, by the sound of things. The big melody goes better second time, but I’m not quite sold on this voice. It’s good, well-schooled, nice-sounding singing, and I don’t mean that as faint praise. It just doesn’t have whatever is needed to go straight to the heart. ‘Donde lieta usci’ now, and she has noticeably lightened her voice for Mimi, which scores points with me. This is lovely, much more successful than the Rusalka, but still unmoving, although I suppose it’s quite tough to do that in concert. She’s sung Musetta, apparently, which I think might suit her better temperamentally.

Oooh, she’s finishing with the ‘Vespri’ Bolero. That’s a ballsy choice. Once again, though, what we get is correct singing from a nice voice, and not a great deal else. There’s no playfulness, the coloratura is sung because that’s what’s in the score rather than to express anything (and is, alas, a little laboured). Leese is a very proficient singer, but in the last analysis not enough of a communicator for me.

Mary King thought Mimi was Leese’s best performance, which proves that I am right and know everything. Up next is Vazgen Ghazaryan, a bass from Armenia. We meet him playing the bongos with Josie, because he really wants to be a rock drummer. Josie underlines this by asking him to sing a bit of Bohemian Rhapsody.

He’s starting with Mefistofele. Good lad, that’s an unhackneyed choice among the Fiescos and Filippos. He’s immediately got more personality than Leese, but a less interesting voice. It’s lightish for a bass, lacking in resonance, and he gets in real trouble at the bottom. He’s almost the opposite of Leese- lacking in voice, he’s selling the number on charisma. He’s not going to win, though. And I have a horrible feeling we may have one of those ‘characterful’ Leperellos or Basilios on the way. Good, we don’t- not yet, anyway, we’re getting ‘Aleko’ instead. And the old ethnic entitlement kicks in- he’s a much better singer in Russian than in Italian. Even the tone quality is suddenly richer. Boring aria though, innit? A couple of husky, gritty throat moments which I suspect were more audible on telly than in the hall. He also runs out of breath at the end, but cannily disguises it as emotion. That was a fine performance, though, all told. Now we have Banquo’s aria, which I heard belted out wonderfully by Raymond Aceto in the Covent Garden HD Macbeth last night. Again, the voice is much more resonant than in the Boito, so perhaps we were dealing with nerves, or Ghazaryan was overdoing the diabolical. This is his most generalized performance in acting terms, and he’s no Aceto as yet, but this is decent singing. Decent, though; not exciting. Lemalu likes his rep choice, and I agree. Mary felt that he didn’t jump the footlights, which is interesting; perhaps he was more animated in close-up than from the back of the stalls.

Oleysa Petrova next, a Russian mezzo, so she has the memory of the Elenas and the Irinas and the Olgas to conjure with. She doesn’t have to play props with Josie, or say that she didn’t want to be a singer, so that’s nice. And she’ll be singing in six languages, the big show off. Wow, and ‘Mon coeur’ to kick off. My mother, who used to sing this as a student, tells me that the top of this aria doesn’t feel as high to sing as it sounds (it’s only a G or something anyway, isn’t it?) so it may be a cunning choice- something which sounds more impressive than it is difficult.

Heh, you knew exactly what she was going to sound like, right? She sounds just exactly like a Russian mezzo. Rich, lush, vibratoey. It’s a smashing sound, although for a seduction this isn’t very, well, sexy. If you didn’t know the aria you’d think it was maybe nostalgia for the old homestead, or perhaps a lullaby. It’s lovely, lovely singing though. And now a bit of the Joan Crawfords, or at least I hope so- we’re getting the Princess of Stock Cube from ‘Adriana’. So Petrova’s going for the full ‘you remember Obratzsova, right? You know Borodina’s Russian?’ This is terrific vocally as well, but, again, a little more placid than one might like. Polite verismo is a kind of oxymoron and this is crying out for a good old dollop of vulgarity. She’ll have wanted the end to go better, the top didn’t quite do what she wanted it to. Nonetheless, she’s tonight’s clear winner so far. Mary and Jonathan are almost speechless with admiration. Backstage interview with Josie reveals an immensely likeable, bubbly personality. Mary is keen to point out to the TV audience that Petrova’s is a huge voice.

Maria Radoeva now, from Bulgaria, who balances singing with motherhood, is honest enough to admit that she was very young to become a mother, and shows us a pic of an adorable toddler (on a rather spiffily new iphone 4- it’s lucrative this opera lark). She appears to be singing ‘Agitata da due venti’, the brave, crazy woman, and in its first mis-step of the evening the band launches it very flabbily. She’s exciting though, this one (although surely she can’t have intended to sing the huge intervals in the second phrase to ‘da-da-da’?). Touch of the Pendatchanskas in her tone quality and her fearlessness. It’s such a pig of a sing, though. Mary isn’t sure she pulled it off, and I know what she means. Musetta now, which should be fun. WHOA THERE LADY YOU ARE SHARP (only for the very first phrase though, as it turns out). She has plenty of what was missing from Petrova’s Dalila- I can kind of see how she ended up pregnant, if you know what I mean. This aria is such a winner. If you can remotely sing and remotely act, you’ll knock it out of the park, as she proceeds to do, moments of suspect intonation aside. She finishes with the Alleluia from Exultate Jubilate, which is ok. Not great, not bad, and Petrova won’t be quaking in her boots. The coloratura is much cleaner than in the Vivaldi- perhaps she should have done them the other way round (or, in the case of the Viv, not at all?). It turns out that I am AWESOME at whistling the Vivaldi aria though, so I’m grateful to her for that.

Serban Vasile from Romania now. He’s a baritone, so 2009 suggests he will overact Largo al Factotum and then do some Korngold. Josie calls on her RADA training (she won the Gold Award, too) to give him an acting masterclass. He’s starting with ‘Rivolgete’, the alternative Guglielmo aria. Actually, all of the programmes tonight have been pretty imaginative, perhaps too much so in Radoeva’s case. This fella is a little blustery, Shimell-like. Well, I don’t mean blustery, really, because that sounds too critical, but that kind of vibrato. You know what I mean. He’s nicely responsive to the libretto, which I suppose is where all the acting talk with Josie came from. The boys are the actors tonight, and the girls have the voices. He’s finishing with Onegin, thus flouting the Code of The Baritones by avoiding mugging his way through the Rossini. I am very grateful for this. Tchaikovsky suits his tone better than Mozart, and I’d be very happy to see and hear him in this part. He looks right, acts it well and finds a nice legato which wasn’t really there for the Mozart. There’s nothing he can do about tonight’s result, though; I’ll eat my hat if it’s not Petrova. Mary thinks he’s a good casting for Onegin as well, which confirms my position as Emperor Of Punditry.

Petroc is pretty blatantly calling it for Petrova, but Mary and Jonathan have words of praise for some of the other singers, especially Vasile. Both pundits agree that tonight is mezzo night.

Which it proves to be. She’ll be in the final, too.

I’m out doing young people things tomorrow, so will have to catch up on iplayer on Thursday. Possess your souls in patience until then.

By the way, despite my light-hearted grumbles, the BBC’s coverage seems greatly improved this year. Then they go and spoil it all by closing the show with a re-run of the end of the Cilea, so very obviously the winner’s weakest moment. Sigh.

*don't know why they called it the second round, it was clearly the first

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Cancer status: Sodded

I'm still on a massive high after last night's magnificent benefit gig, and this is where the Oscar-style thanks come in. I've never been an Exec Producer before- I felt as if it was incumbent on me to swan around saying unhelpful things like 'Can we change this floor?'.

Firstly, if anyone can think of a better line-up than Kevin Eldon, Stephen Merchant, Justin Edwards, Adam Buxton, Shappi Khorsandi, David Armand and Mitchell and Webb, all held together by the incomparable compere Lucy Porter, I'd like to hear it. We were so lucky to get them; every act stormed. The fact that so many wonderful friends were in the audience no doubt helped with that, but that lot would have made the most grimly humourless of fun-haters bark with laughter.

And somehow, somehow, we managed to keep the surprise celebrity guests under wraps. The squeals of delight when Miranda Hart came on were only matched by what a friend of mine described as the 'Beatlemania' when Dermot O'Leary took to the stage. It was huge fun to be part of that final sketch, in my cameo appearance as Lady Gaga's blood-spattered murderer. Hint to anyone needing to write a gala-ending sketch is to ask the brilliant Toby Davies to write it with you.

All the volunteers and helpers on the day- from the Bloomsbury staff to the people our producers recruited- were cheerful and excited and wonderfully efficient. The tech finished EARLY- who ever heard of such a thing? Dan Cooper and Fran McNicoll made the best possible runners-for-a-day-slash-programme-sellers, (we only had a programme in the first place courtesy of the bargaining and design skills of Michelle Tuft and Joel Morris) Tracey Littlebury, Rob Swift and Ben Sneddon shook a mean bucket, and Francis O'Dea secured one of London's most glamorous and prestigious venues for aftershow drinks.

Above all, the calmly hyperefficient Beth Gorman, the unflappable Annelie Powell, and the huge-hearted and tireless Julia Raeside, who were undoubtedly the best producers this side of Bialystock and Bloom.

Jerome was an extraordinary man, and only an extraordinary evening would have done justice to him. Thanks to a load of kind, generous people giving up their time and talent, that's exactly what came to pass. The overwhelming sensation of the night was the goodness of people, whether performing for nowt, operating lights or sound, or digging into their pockets. We raised about a grand from programmes and donations, to add to twelve and a half raised on the marathon, a further 12 and counting from the auction, and over ten grand in ticket sales. The numbers make my head spin.

And any evening which includes wandering into a Green Room and discovering David Mitchell, Dermot O'Leary and Miranda Hart tucking into Domino's Pizza while discussing Angela Rippon has to be a good one, right?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

What I did for most of sunday.

There are two main problems when it comes to writing about the marathon.

Firstly, I don't really remember it, not in detail. Moments stand out- such as when friends were standing by the road, which is more immensely useful than you could imagine- but the rest is more or less a blur. Cheering, sunshine, trying to find the blue lines on the road which represent the shortest route. Children holding out their hands for a high five. Idly reading the back of other runners' vests and realising that the common factor that has brought together all the 'fun' runners is tragedy. Grabbing water, grabbing carb gel, grabbing vaseline (of which more later). Hungrily looking out for the red and white balloons in the distance which mark another mile completed, and resenting them hugely when they turn out to be a 5k marker. The showers and the sweet relief they offered. The memories are impressionistic, and for huge swathes of the route they're absent.

Secondly, a lot of personal reportage is based on thought processes. When writing about a holiday, for example, there are moments when one takes a mental snapshot of an experience; maybe even starts to write the eventual sentence in one's head. There's none of that phrasemaking on a marathon- the internal monologue is tedious beyond belief, the very definition of 'single minded'. 'Come on' it goes, and 'I can do this'. And 'keep going'. And not much else. Sometimes it goes 'I can't do this' and has to be quashed. Then there are the calculations- 'When I crossed the start line the clock said 0:27, now it says 3:38, so I've been running for three hours eleven minutes, which is 191 minutes, and I've done about 18 miles, so that's... 18 into 191...Oooh, carb gel. Come on. Keep going'.

But nonetheless, I feel the need to record the experience. I'd never run a marathon before after all, and dear god I never will again. Plus, I can use this blog as a record of my split times, so I don't have to keep the official marathon page open for the rest of my life.


In Robert, Katie, Charlie and James, my co-runner Julia and I had the best of overnight hosts, and the best of spag bol and garlic bread (carb loading is fun). We even had a small glass of red wine, but don't tell anyone. The Thorogoods live on the road which leads from Maze Hill station to the park, so come Sunday morning there was a steady stream of passers-by going past the front window, all clutching the official red plastic bags for storing kit, and all looking intimidatingly lithe and fit. Terrifyingly soon after waking up (I hadn't slept brilliantly) it was time to head to the start.

...which felt more like a festival than anything else. Crowds of people milling around seemingly aimlessly, a tannoy (manned by a maddeningly chirpy Geordie, whose palpable desire to be Ant and Dec served only to underline how good they are at their job), signs and banners and trucks. There were a few more people stretching than at the average festival, and more vests, and more of a smell of embrocation, but the queues for the portaloos had that authentic Glastonbury touch.

Utterly terrified at this point, I nearly lost it in a flurry of tears when a man in a yellow vest walked past me. He looked like the archetypal closing-time bruiser- you'd cross the street to avoid him even in broad daylight. But on his vest was a photo of a toddler, on his arm was a tattoo of the same toddler, and the logo on the vest was that of the Child Bereavement Charity. On Saturday I was saddened by a tweet from a journalist I used to admire, who said something along the lines of marathon runners being attention seekers, and the charities they run for a 'figleaf' for their own self aggrandisement; I've noticed a few similarly sneering references to marathon runners in the press in the last few weeks. I'd like to put all the oh-so-ironic, 'edgy' journos who came up with this sparkling piece of snidery into a room with the man in the yellow vest.

Once the bag was stowed on the luggage truck (bye bye possessions! See you on the Mall, with any luck!) there really was nothing for it but to head to the start line itself. A couple of nurofen plus (ibuprofen to guard against joint inflammation, codeine because why not) a couple of bites of banana, and then onto the path with the other 30000-odd people to await the hooter.

And wait, and wait. The start itself is hugely anticlimactic. We were pretty much the last people over the line (the clock, as previously mentioned, read 0:27) and half an hour is a long time when you're more frightened than you've ever been. I felt a little sorry for the tannoy man at this point- finding something interesting to say about 30000 people when you've only got a name on a vest to go on is quite a tall order. There now follows an apology for diehard users of the imperial system; the marathon split times are measured in metric. For reference, 5k is more or less 3 miles.

0-5k. 5k time: 33.32 Total time: 33.32

This is the fun bit. The first half mile flies by on wings of 'Oh my god, I'm running the actual marathon'. The people lining the roadsides are a novelty, every child's hand is highfived as you run past. I was determined to take it slowly- the cautionary tales I'd heard all focused on people who went off too fast and had nothing left by mile 16. I was helped in this task by my choice of music. For some reason I decided almost immediately after I got the place that I would listen to the whole of Cosi Fan Tutte followed by the whole of Aida, and that I would listen to versions I'd never heard before. That's how I ended up running 16 miles accompanied by the Barenboim/Erato Cosi, which has some lovely singing in it, but is so slow and ponderous in its tempi that it is the perfect metronome for someone aiming at about an eleven minute mile. Metronomic is the word, by the way; you get into a rhythm. My rhythm was so insistent that I ran each of the first twelve miles in almost exactly eleven minutes, dead on. For those of you who don't run (ie me, six months ago) I'd found in training that ten minute miles were a decent average, and that I could do nine if I really pushed myself, so eleven seemed nice and easy.

Easy was the word, really, for the first ten miles or so. Surprisingly, wonderfully easy. I kept thinking 'Enjoy this. Enjoy it being easy. It'll get hard.'

It got hard.

5k-10k. 5k time: 33.37. Total time: 1.07.09

But not yet. This part of the route was also hugely enjoyable. It still felt easy, and the approach back to Greenwich provided the first sense of a milestone achieved- hurrah, I have got back where I started! I also got into the habit of indicating how many miles I'd completed with my fingers as I crossed each mile line. I have no idea why.

Realisation number one- you need things to look forward to. From about mile three I was egging myself on with the thought that Robert, Katie and family would be waiting with a load of my other friends at around the 6 mile mark. This was an unbelievably helpful thought, providing a distraction for the three miles before I passed them, and a pleasing memory for the miles thereafter. Patrick Wilde and Pete Shaw, compadres from the last two Edinburgh Festivals, were (unexpectedly) waiting about half a mile further on, so the return to Greenwich was a highlight.

Operafans: if you run 6 miles at about 11 min/mile on a hot day, Kurt Streit will be singing 'Un'aura amorosa' as you cross the six mile line.

10-15k. 5k time: 34.30. Total time: 1.41.49

Can't remember. Deptford, Rotherhithe, Canada Water. Jelly babies, water, vaseline.

15-20k. 5k time: 36.27. Total time: 2:18:16

I had a brilliant idea during this section. I was by now very conscious that the sun was beating down and I was very unprotected, especially on the shoulders. In what I now accept may have been my slightly addled brain, I came to the conclusion that the vaseline being handed out by begloved police officers and ambulance staff would make an effective sunblock, so I slathered it all over. I now accept that will have made it much worse and I might as well have rubbed butter on myself.

This was the beginning of the dark times. Getting to Tower Bridge was exciting (as was seeing my friend Francis at the pub on the corner, pint in hand, bellowing my name and blowing kisses as I passed) but crossing it was hard, even with the presence of another friend, Nic Holdridge, who took some photos as I crossed in which my smiling face belies the feeling of unease that was beginning to grow. I knew I couldn't stop; on all previous training runs if I ever stopped to walk I was unable to run again. On the other hand, it was searingly hot, my legs were getting very heavy, my mile times were creeping up, and the idea of another 14 miles was unthinkable. Even Mozart didn't help: I never want to hear 'Il Cor Vi Dono' again.

Everyone tells you that coming off Tower Bridge is the hard bit. All you want to do is turn left and head into town- but you have ten miles of fannying around the Isle of Dogs before you're allowed to do that. On the other side of the road are the runners with 22 miles under their belts. There's just a thin barrier between you. It is cruel, so cruel, to see them. I genuinely considered ducking under the barrier and somehow losing my timing chip. Only the thought of the shame and humiliation that would have followed stopped me; if the race were less well marshalled I would have done it like a shot. I don't like remembering this part, St Katharine's Dock and Wapping. This was the existential crisis, the moment when I knew for a fact I couldn't do it.

HALF WAY. TIME: 2.26.19

The realisation that I had run a slower half than either of my training halves was a blow. Can't do it. Not going to break five and a half hours. Going to have to walk the second half. Going to finish in six, six and a half, seven hours. Going to finish in more than eight hours so I won't even get an official time. Everyone will laugh at me. Everyone thought it was a joke idea for me to run the marathon. They were right.

25k. 5k time: 39.18. Total time: 2.57.34

My body saved me. Three and a half painful miles after Tower Bridge, in the Canary Wharf underpass, my legs stopped running and started walking without having received any such instruction from my brain. I am convinced that if I had insisted on continuing to run I would have collapsed by mile 20. At this point, however, I didn't realise this and spent a good half mile feeling angry and ashamed. I was walking- that meant I was a failure. Charlie Morgan Jones, the lovely lighting designer of the show I did last summer, was waiting by the road with a big smile and a wave. It was lovely to see him, but I just felt embarrassed that he'd seen me not running.

25-30k. 5k time: 40.50. Total time: 3.38.24

The word 'bargaining' came into my head. I'd heard it used by Paula Radcliffe at a nike event I'd attended a few days before. Then I heard the voice of my unoffical coach and running mentor Cat Armstrong, equally clearly in my mind's ear. 'Run a mile, walk a mile' she was saying. Suddenly it was possible again: I'd walk to mile 16, run to 17, walk to 18 and so on. Suddenly I only had five miles of running left! Cosi gave way to Aida (Mancini, Fillipeschi, Simionato/Gui) at exactly three hours, and exactly sixteen miles, meaning that even after a mile of walking I was now averaging eleven and a quarter minutes per mile.

30-35k. 5k time: 43.45. Total time: 4.22.09

Two obsessive thoughts in rotation now. The exciting one: I'm going to do it. I'm definitely going to do it. The urgent one: And I need to do it in under 5 and a half. I will be gutted if I don't do it in under 5 and a half. Memories of Canary Wharf- spotting Jerome's face on the back of a Tshirt and realising I'd found his brother in law Ollie. Jogging to catch up with Ollie, thinking how unfair it was I was having to run to catch him when this was a 'walking' mile. Having a nice stroll together from miles 19-20. The big screen by Canary Wharf station (I didn't spot myself because I refused to wave- that struck me as gauche and fun-runnery, and by now I was all about the Blue Steel determined look). 35k reached in Cabot Square, a place I spend a lot of time doing my corporate work. Picking up speed as I passed the office of one of my major corporate clients in case anyone I'd worked with was watching.

35-40k. 5k time: 41.43. Total time: 5.03.42

Euphoria and exhaustion. The 'walk a mile, run a mile' plan getting harder now, because running even one mile is unbearable. More friends passed- Stephen in Limehouse, nearly reducing me to tears as he shouted 'you're doing really well'. Then a whole clump of friends by mile 24 in Blackfriars (annoyed again- they were on a walking mile when I'd much rather have been running past them- although, pleasingly, there were fewer than I'd expected because I was making better time than THEY expected). At this point I remembered one of the worst training runs. I'd taken the tube to Westminster, hoping to run home via the South Bank, a run of about nine miles. I managed one before I had to stop at Blackfriars Bridge, so intense was the pain in my feet. This was in late February, about seven weeks ago. The idea that I was now closing in on mile 25 was incredible to me.

And then, as I walked round the corner by Big Ben and headed into Parliament Square, my sister and my niece and my mum and my brother in law. My sister, tearily bellowing 'WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!'. Nearly lost it. Ipod losing battery and Aida coming to an end (I'd loaded it in the wrong order, too, so the chronology of the opera had been annoying me ever since Wapping- where I'd finally passed the 22 mile marker on the good side.)

Big sign. 800 METRES TO GO. Shuffle now playing Alisha's Attic, of all things. Everyone else is running. Surely I can run 800 metres? Nope. There's a 600 metre marker, I'll run it from there. 'I Am, I Feel/I sometimes think that you forget that/ I Am, I Feel'. Still not running. Walk past 400 metre marker and just beyond it, there it is. The 26 mile marker. 385 yards to go. Indicate 26 miles with my hands- both palms splayed, twice, then one palm and an upraised finger. I start to run. Alisha's Attic gives way to Alizee. Not a shuffle, then, alphabetical order. The absurdity of completing a marathon while listening to the justly forgotten Europop classic 'Moi, Lolita'. Arms aloft as I cross the line, so my runner number is visible in the photo. I've run the marathon. I've run the marathon. I never, ever believed I could. It's the dark secret that's terrified me for six months- the knowledge that I wasn't going to complete it, that I'd collapse or die or just give up. But I didn't.

26.2 MILES. TOTAL TIME: 5.21.15 MILE AVERAGE: 12 mins 15 seconds

I collect my medal and my goodie bag and walk towards the luggage trucks. Just as I'm thinking 'How funny, I thought I'd cry', I am suddenly overtaken by huge wracking sobs. My throat is so dry they make me cough.