Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Acknowledgements

Glossary

Overture

The Conductor

La Bohème

Tristan und Isolde

The Prima Donna

Tosca

Lucia di Lammermoor

La Traviata

The Mezzo Soprano

Carmen

La Forza del Destino

The Marriage of Figaro

The Tenor

Madama Butterfly

Il Trovatore

The Baritone

Don Giovanni

Faust

Rigoletto

The Bass

The Mikado and Other Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan

Norma

The Barber of Seville

Turandot

The Chorus

Encore

Front Cover Flap

Back Cover Flap

Back Cover Material

For Geraldine and the Babies

‘Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables.’
Franz Schalk, Austrian conductor

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Ian Watt for patiently extracting every word and editing out the rudest bits, and to Benny Thomas for having faith that this book could eventuate in the first place.

To Geraldine Turner for correcting my grammar, putting up with my tantrums when I had writer’s block and steadily reminding me that I had another few pages to write...

To the great Australian baritone, Robert Allman, who supplied a wealth of information (most of which could not go to print!).

To Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge and to all my colleagues, past and present, who have not always patiently endured hearing these anecdotes in coffee breaks.

And to the brilliant lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who once said, ‘I have always believed that only genuinely talented people can create something that is genuinely bad. Only the mediocre are always at their best.’

Glossary

Aficionado: Someone to avoid at all times when talking opera.
Aria: A solo moment for the singer, a song.
Bel canto: This translates from the Italian as ‘beautiful singing’ but is a commonly misused term. Correctly, it refers to a musical and vocal style when drama and perfect singing technique were considered at its peak. These days bel canto means anything from singing fast and high to low and slow. The most eloquent usage comes from the divine Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh, internationally renowned traumatic soprano, who declares that the vocal life of a soprano has four stages: ‘1. Bel canto, 2. Can belto, 3. Can’t belto, 4. Can’t canto’.
Cabaletta: The bit following an aria where the singer suddenly changes his/her mind and sings a more rhythmic tune over a rumpty-tum orchestral accompaniment. If there is a repeat of this cabaletta the singer is advised to embellish the tune with extra notes which appear to the listener to be improvised – but in reality it is well rehearsed. Our heroine, Maria Callas, commented that the first cabaletta was for the composer, the second was for Callas.
Cadence: An harmonic comma or full stop.
Coda: That’s all, folks!
Coloratura: The fast runny bits that sometimes thrill an audience.
Comprimario: A performer who specialises in character roles. Although frequently not possessing the most beautiful voice on the stage, this is the person who sometimes supplies the laughs and the irritations.
Continuo: A harpsichord, fortepiano or any museum-type keyboard instrument that plays with the singer during recitatives to keep them in pitch. Continuo players are encouraged to be inventive and embellish their music to enhance the onstage action.
Heldentenor: A dramatic tenor who specialises in the German repertoire. Some opera authorities believe that they are related to the dodo – long extinct.
Interval: A 20-minute pause between acts where you can catch up with friends in the foyer for a drink and chat about anything not related to the performance in hand, or indeed the time to leave a bad performance. Life’s too short.
Maestro: God.
Manuscript: The original scribblings of the composer – the holy paper chalice.
Metronome: A mechanical device that produces a regulated beat, measured in beats-per-minute, which enables a performer to play the exact speed that’s marked on the sheet music. It’s the thing I hated most when I started out learning the piano. It would suddenly go faster or slower than I was playing!
Motif/Leitmotif (tr. ‘leading motif’ or recurring musical fragment): The little snippet of a recurring tune which composers, especially Richard Wagner, used to remind you of a specific character or dramatic moment in the opera.
Obbligato: An instrumental solo that occurs at the same time as someone is singing. It’s like a duet with your favourite instrument.
Podium: The sacred spot in the orchestra pit where the conductor stands. Great performances, not necessarily musical, are regularly seen on this small rise.
Proscenium arch: The archway between the audience and the stage. It’s the sometimes elaborate frame that borders the curtain. If you’re a performer onstage and not behind the proscenium arch when the curtain comes down, you’re going to be very embarrassed.
Recitative: The ‘talky’ bits between the arias and ensembles. Sometimes there’s a tinny harpsichord playing at the same time.
Repertoire: Scheduled operas in an opera company’s season – or the roles an artist would like to sing.
Repetiteur: A musician (often reluctant to be in the public eye) who resembles Rossini’s Figaro – a master of all trades. Simply translated, a repetiteur ‘repeats’ until it’s learnt! Not only does he (or she) teach the singers their roles and oversee standards of musicianship and diction, but they also play piano at staging rehearsals, work backstage during performances and assist the conductor. They are also scapegoats for any problems between maestro and artist!
Squillo: The core or edge of the voice that can cut through an orchestra like a sabre.
Stretta: The bit at the end of a musical section that speeds up to boiling point.
Tessitura: The vocal range where the role or aria sits. With most singers, it’s always too high.
Testosterone: The manly juice that makes a singer sexy.
Verismo: ‘True to life’ opera plots that have fairly passionate vocal outbursts with lots of yelling, crying and death.
Vibrato: An expressive and technically modulated vocal tool created by the flow of air as it passes the vocal folds. Used in excess, it can wobble out of control – thus making it hard to distinguish what pitch is intended. In the hands of a sensitive vocal artist, it can resemble the artistry of a fine instrumentalist.

Ensembles

Duet: When one singer is joined by a second singer.
Trio: The stage is getting a little crowded.
Quartet: Far too many egos on stage for one man to handle.
Quintet: Not interested.
Sextet: Let’s have fun.

Dynamics

Pianissimo: Very soft – a dynamic never used or understood by an opera singer.
Piano: Soft – or a little softer than you sang the last phrase.
Mezzo piano: Half soft (are you kidding?).
Mezzo forte: Half loud (give me a break!).
Forte: A general volume for a singer.
Fortissimo: Very loud (just in case my fans in the back row can’t hear me).

Overture

This future bestseller came about when a publisher from Exisle attended an outdoor opera concert which I conducted and compered, apparently with wit and whimsy. She found the experience at the same time so profound and hysterically funny that she asked me to pen my particular observations about music, singing, opera and the personalities housed therein for the benefit of those who’d like to know more about the opera business. Luckily my memory is such that I recall every little detail from the past – all those anecdotes that singers from previous generations have passed on over the dinner table – as well as the myriad of quirky things that have happened since I started in the industry. I have no idea what I did yesterday but I can tell you, in detail, who sang what, where and what their colleagues thought of them in many performances worldwide over the past fifty years – and who they slept with.

Essentially, I feel a little bit like Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser when she gathered and preserved the collection of Scottish folksongs that became known as Songs of the Hebrides. These little-known treasures of song would have been lost for all eternity had she not spent hours jotting down the tunes and lyrics before they were forgotten. Classical musical whizzes might prefer me to have compared it to those really popular Chants d’Auvergne (affectionately known as Ditties of the Aubergine) of Joseph Canteloube but my country upbringing has allowed my musical tastes to be cheerily eclectic.

Goodness only knows how I got myself into this crazy world of opera. It surely wasn’t the attraction of a fat lady wearing a metal breastplate, though this can be attractive under the right conditions, but if you need to know how I arrived at this point in my life, here it is in a nutshell.

My parents married just after the Second World War and became the owners of an unwanted second-hand piano that previously belonged to a friend. During the move the delivery men dropped the instrument and it remained unopened and unused in our living room until I, a cute four-year-old, decided I would like to learn to play the instrument properly. Weeks later, I performed my debut recital at a school assembly to display my musical prowess. The repertoire that day was not technically or emotionally taxing (I had considered my audience’s youthfulness) so it consisted of selections from the songs from Mary Poppins. From that glamorous moment on, I never looked back.

My early musical passion consisted mainly of Scottish songs. My mother was born in Ayrshire and adored the records of the ‘good’ Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. I also had some weird liking for the records of 1930s film star Jeanette MacDonald. How I got that affliction, I will never know. Fortunately, my parents allowed – nay, encouraged – my musical studies by providing me with several new records every week. That was indeed a big financial outlay on a humble miner’s income. Throughout my years at school I was hungry to learn and digest every detail about most aspects of vocal music. With the encouragement of a teacher, I recognised at an early age that the singing voice can communicate better than any instrument especially when united with dramatic text. Therefore I firmly decided to put all my eggs in one basket and forge a career in opera, while keeping my admiration for Kenneth and Jeanette to this day.

I survived high school and university (or should I say that they survived me?) and almost the next day was welcomed onto the music staff of a major opera company. There my life dreams seemed to be complete. Like the naïve Candide of Voltaire (or Bernstein), I was oblivious to the world around me, unaware what vipers and snakes were nearby in the guise of colleagues and management. It was then that I subconsciously decided to remain an ever young Peter Pan figure and observe the craziness that continues to be my professional career. Somehow it paid off. I happily seek out the ‘nice folk’ with their unique stories, many of which are documented in this book.

Working as a vocal coach is a bit like being a psychologist. A lot of time is spent chatting, listening to the singer vent their anger at whatever is going wrong in their life and enduring the depressions when the voice is not responding as desired. Love-life and career are almost inseparable. Since the voice is the mirror to the soul, the singer has to feel secure with the coach because every aspect of his or her personality is on display in its rawest form. The slightest musical or vocal correction can trigger a tirade of emotion from the singer. Then the coach has to expel unlimited volumes of energy to stabilise the stricken singer before the next patient is due. At the end of the day, the coach feels emotionally and psychologically exhausted! Did I make the move to the conductor’s podium to free myself of that daily draining of energy? Perhaps.

Almost everyone connected with the opera business is peculiar. Their idiosyncratic behaviour is encouraged – after all, they’re artists. If you think gossip magazines are trashy, well this book far exceeds that quota. Of course, it’s not all about opera. Life inside the opera house is much like what some of us experience at home, from well-known tantrums by principal artists to the conductor who meditates upside down and naked in his dressing room before a performance.

During intervals I usually chat to each of the principal singers and encourage them to maintain their good performance for the next act. Once that bit of ego pampering is over, you’ll usually find me gossiping with the make-up artists in the wig room. Like friendly hairdressers, they have the low-down on everyone. Their duties finish long after the stage performance has ended. They have to prepare the wig in readiness for the next performance as well as clean off the glue residue which sticks the hairpiece to the singer’s head.

Financial supporters play a major part in the production of opera. They have always been a necessary part of the industry but, in the present climate, we really cannot do without them. Part of my job is to attend functions, cocktail parties, dinners to help make these supporters feel a part of the company. One soprano of a few generations past told me that singing is a little like prostitution: you’re paid by the client to perform on cue. This is sad but true. The patron’s understanding of the lowly paid singer is sometimes beyond their comprehension and most of the time an artist’s income in no way compares to that of a patron. A few years ago a woman of enormous wealth engaged me in conversation and we discovered that we were both fond of dogs. Her poodle, Clarence, was one of the joys of her life, but she had to find a suitable dog-sitter for him when she was out of the country. On a recent trip overseas, this wealthy opera and dog-lover was in Cartier’s in Paris and decided to purchase a diamond-studded collar for Clarence. Not knowing the exact size to buy (diamonds can be expensive) she called home – several thousand miles away and in a different time zone – and asked the dog-sitter, who was on trial, to measure Clarence’s neck and provide her with a sizing. ‘Do you realise what time it is here? It’s seven o’clock in the morning. I’m not going to wake him!’ the nanny exclaimed. Instead of being angry, our patron was overjoyed. She knew she had found the right dog-sitter!

Without further ado, let’s get going. You must remember that all tales contained within are true. They have been lovingly selected, collated and reported just as they were passed on to me by my colleagues. Some may seem extreme, but that’s opera. Grab a coffee and a plate of chocolate biscuits, just as we do in the green room, and eavesdrop at the dressing room door of a little boy from the country who became an opera conductor.

The Conductor

The conductor is the boss of the opera production. What he/she says goes. I have witnessed intricate staging, painstakingly rehearsed by directors and cast for weeks, being overturned, or shot down in flames, by conductors at the final stage rehearsals. ‘Just stand at the front of the stage, look at me and sing,’ the conductor screams at the singers as the director sulks in a corner. ‘You want to please me, don’t you?’ the conductor adds with a satisfied smile.

And yet a lot of people think that conducting is easy. How hard can it be to stand there and wave your arms about? The orchestra knows how it goes, doesn’t it? The guy in the penguin suit must surely be there for show.

As the American composer Stephen Sondheim once wrote, ‘Art isn’t easy.’ There’s a lot more to it than that. Apart from having to know the score intimately and being able to cue each instrument and singer at the important times, the conductor’s reading or interpretation is what the audience experiences. Well, in an ideal world that’s the way it should be. The conductor is responsible for applying the correct musical and theatrical style to the work at hand while allowing the composer’s intention to shine. In most cases this does not occur.

It might be news to you that orchestral conductors sneer at opera conductors. There’s an unmentioned ranking system in every aspect of the arts. Opera singers look down on music theatre performers. Operetta is looked upon as ‘lighter’ fare and easier to sing than opera, which is certainly not true. Orchestral conductors who have never ventured into the realm of opera don’t realise what a challenge it is to marry music and words. Each enhances the other. It’s pure theatrical magic. If only the orchestral conductors understood that the great works of the operatic repertoire can be just as orchestrally interesting as a Mahler symphony or a Beethoven concerto.

Many of the great operatic composers have been profound orchestrators, supplying the theatrical colour that complements and assists the onstage action. Pit players rarely reach fulfilment in performance because the person on the podium fails to include them in that action. When orchestral players are led by a great artist the result is poetry in motion.

Opera conductors fit into three particular categories, the Maestro, the Routiner and the Hack. Let’s get the latter two over and done with prestissimo. When an orchestral player asks another, ‘Who’s carving tonight?’ it means that the orchestra has been led by a conductor of the Hack variety for too long. There is a myriad of conductors who mount the podium and simply beat time. Sometimes, by chance, it happens to be a suitably correct tempo but little thought or honest emotion is delivered. Smiling at the band to suggest ‘Aren’t we having a lovely time?’ isn’t good enough either. Routiners, on the other hand, are competent but display nothing of their own personality. They are conductors of experience, authority and a certain prestige who perform with competence but without individual flair. They are hardly inspiring but many conductors are content to be enrolled in this school of dullsville – or are simply unaware of their mediocrity. After all, mediocre performers are at their best all the time!

A Maestro gives life to the score, takes command and makes everyone feel secure under his baton. Some have very big batons, others small and a special few have none at all. We must remember that it’s how they use them that counts. The orchestra is swept up with the power of the reading and the onstage singers feel so comfortable that they deliver their very best performance. How many times have you seen that happen in an opera house?

When opera began several hundred years ago it was the singer who was the star. In the middle of the last century the conductor took the lead and now, it seems, the productions are more important than the music. These days an audience doesn’t really care who’s singing as long as the singer looks okay and the production appears to be expensive. Every now and then a celebrity is the focus of the performance but, in the current climate, a ‘celebrity’ is someone who has won a competition or your next-door neighbour who has appeared on a television reality programme.

Conductors can be crazy creatures. Many believe that the world revolves totally around them which, in many opera companies, it does. I’ve seen stage managers destroyed by temperamental conductors. An assistant chorus master missing a cue in an early stage rehearsal was dragged onstage – in front of the cast, orchestra and crew – and humiliated and sacked by the conductor. I’ve seen singers demoralised just before they go onstage, but rarely is the conductor confronted in such a way. Some maestri strut into the rehearsal room on the first day of production and expect their opinions and needs to be observed by everyone. The ‘eyebrows down’ expression favoured by some initially scares but the upbeat reveals everything there is to know. If the conductor doesn’t know the score, or what he or she is doing, it’s evident to all. Some can fake a great deal by emoting with the flow of the music: some have had long and successful careers doing this. I relish the memory of a noted conductor, during an ensemble call of a Monteverdi opera, trying to persuade a mezzo soprano to come with him on a musical point – ‘You trust me. Don’t you?’ Her reply was a straight and honest ‘No’. She was right but her candour didn’t win her any Brownie points. The rest of the cast congratulated her afterwards – a long time afterwards.

Other conductors can be delightfully crazy. A young conductor knocked on an old Italian maestro’s dressing room door and entered to find the lovable musician working in the toilet. He was painting white-out liquid onto used satay sticks, dripping the fluid all over the cistern and bowl. ‘Isn’t this great? I make batons for free!’ The young conductor nodded in agreement then made a hasty, if confused, exit. The same aged maestro would denounce orchestral players if he felt they didn’t agree with his approach. He did this with regularity until one French horn player revolted: ‘And I denounce you back’. Following a complaint that he continually used broken batons (or white satay sticks) for his performances, the maestro conducted Verdi’s Falstaff, a rather delicate and tricky score, with a twig he’d found on the way to the theatre.

Opera conductors of the old school could and would comment on the stage performance during a show with a paying audience behind them. Some have been known to hold their noses and pull an imaginary toilet chain if the onstage vocal performance displeased them. They might even take off their shoe and sniff it to display a more sensitive criticism. It has been known for the maestro to call out ‘why you sing so horrible?’ in a voice reminiscent of the Godfather. It’s true. I was there.

I was playing a rehearsal of Puccini’s one-act opera Il Tabarro (The Cloak), a wonderful work. The story plays out on a barge in Paris. Michele, the baritone, and his wife Giorgetta, the soprano (because Puccini didn’t write any good roles for mezzos), are in a loveless marriage. Because Giorgetta is bored, she is having an affair, perhaps only in her mind, with Luigi, the tenor who is attempting to portray a stevedore, and they plan to run off that night. Before this can happen Michele strangles him and covers the body with his cloak. He calls Giorgetta, who has been waiting endlessly for her Luigi, and uncovers his dead body. Hence the title of the opera.

Anyway, Giorgetta is a very sexy creature. Her music suggests great passion as well as sexual frustration. The soprano playing her in this particular production was far from fulfilling the dramatic requirements of the role. Just at the most inappropriate time, at the end of the week when we were all tired and emotionally on edge, the sensitive Italian maestro pronounced in the same Godfather voice, ‘You sing like potato’. The soprano stopped. ‘Sorry Maestro, what did you say?’ ‘You sing like potato’, he repeated, then added, ‘You have all the sex of a potato!’ Oddly enough she ran out of the room in tears and we all had an early break. Actually, the maestro was exactly right. Giorgetta’s husband calls her ‘scalandrina’ meaning ‘slut’. You can’t be a slut if you’re a potato.

There are the Slavic maestri who look at you and say, ‘Come on, we make’ as they do the downbeat so quickly that they reduce the opera’s playing time by fifteen minutes. That type of conductor would be a great taxi driver. One such colleague, if you can call a conductor a colleague, mistakenly conducted six in a bar instead of four in a section of Act Two of Verdi’s Otello. When I pointed out this minute mistake, he insisted that this was how he always did it. For the remainder of the production he kept it in six – to the surprise of the orchestra, who followed the six but played four. At his best, he gave vividly vibrant performances that lifted the audience out of their seat. At his worst, he was just plain vulgar.

We have happy memories of moments when an internationally renowned Mozart specialist, with the full orchestra in front of him, began the exceedingly well-known penultimate scene in Don Giovanni. The scenery on stage falls, as directed, in time to the crashing chords that herald the appearance of the stone guest who comes to drag Don Giovanni down to hell (or the green room cafeteria). The full weight of the orchestra is heard and the respected conductor cues the bass portraying the commendatore’s statue for the famous ‘Don Giovanni’, which should make the walls of the theatre shake. At this moment in the rehearsal nothing happened. There was absolute silence. An even larger cue was given almost dislocating the pompous conductor’s arm. Again the bass didn’t sing. The conductor asked in a frustrated voice, ‘Why don’t you sing when I give you the cue?’ The bass responded wryly, ‘You cued me two bars early!’ And he was correct. Moments like these prove that there is a God. The question used to be: If you saw a conductor and a viola player walking down the street and you had to kill them both, which one would you kill first? Answer: The conductor. Business before pleasure.

Some older conductors like to unbalance or confuse younger colleagues by offering unsolicited strange advice. Going into the pit one night a friend was stopped at the pit entrance by a conductor who had led the production in a previous season. He offered the following deliberately subversive advice: ‘All you have to do is work out if it starts up or down’. This puzzling piece of information stuck with the young man throughout the performance. Fortunately he managed to work out which direction the upbeat was and went on to carve out a decent career on the podium. The older gentleman, no longer his mentor, retired soon afterwards.

Sadly, characters like the old Italian maestro, or even the Slavic conductor are no longer appearing on the world’s stages. Personalities seldom mount the podium. They have been replaced by academics and human metronomes. But when a great maestro mounts the podium you will know it. The audience is transported from curtain rise to the magnificent opera bows. (Aren’t the bows wonderful too? The best acting of the night.)