The low, autumnal sunlight slanted across the churchyard of St Paul’s Church in Clapham on a beautiful September evening one week ago. Cars drew up to the church’s railings, people walked down the winding path to the heavy church doors and inside there was a buzz of anticipation of good entertainment to come. They were there to celebrate the launch of ‘Opera‘ the third in the Cassandra Fortune series of murder mysteries, together with the music of Puccini and Tosca in particular (the opera in ‘Opera‘). I was at the door to greet them.
Everything was prepared. The lighting was in place (it would be dark during the second half of the evening’s entertainment), the sound system was set up, the bar was stocked, staffed and ready to dispense and the Claret Press table was ready with signed books for sale. Programmes were handed out at the door. The church filled, gradually, with local friends, of the author or of the opera company, and with those from farther afield who had come to help celebrate. About a third of the crowd were probably also writers, many of them writers of crime fiction (see Anne Coates, author of the Hannah Weybridge mysteries, with Katie Isbester of Claret Press and myself, right). Other Claret authors, Steve Sheppard and Sylvia Vetta were there as well as reknown Clapham authors like Elizabeth Buchan. Clapham Book Festival friends were out in force, as were the members of the Clapham Writers Circle. In total there were between seventy and eight people in the beautiful church.
The evening began with an introduction, to Tosca and how it fits with ‘Opera‘, as well as reminiscences of his time in Rome, by Reverend Canon Jonathan Boardman, Vicar of St Paul’s. This led into two sublime arias sung by two young, but remarkable singers from St Paul’s Opera, accompanied by SPO Director of Music, Panaretos Kyriatzidis. First Vissi d’arte, sung by soprano Fiona Hymns, then El Lucevan le stelle sung by Latvian tenor, Martins Smaukstelis. I sat in the choir pews beside the altar and watched the faces of the audience. They were rapt. One could have heard a pin drop.
Grand opera is always intense and these two arias especially so, so a lightening of the mood was required before the interval. This was provided by an ‘interruption’ by a police constable, PC Willis, who had just arrived from the Houses of Parliament (although dressed in pink). Bass baritone Masimba Ushe delivered the sentry’s song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe ‘When all night long, a chap remains…’ in sonorous and amusing fashion. Laughter heralded the interval, when everyone headed to the bar (where the barkeepers were kept very busy).
The second half of the evening was music-less, consisting of a Q & A session between Elizabeth Bergstone, former music broadcaster and Hollywood actress (and narrator of my first audiobook) and myself. Liz and I had prepared a broad outline beforehand and I kept my answers short (as she had told me to, I tend to ramble). People seemed to enjoy it and, after questions from the floor, we ended to loud applause.
The bar stayed open (though it shifted into the church hall) and people stayed to drink wine, chat and buy books. There was quite a queue at the signing table for me to inscribe dedications and sign copies of the earlier books in the trilogy. We had, earlier, decorated the hall with bunting made of the posters and other images of Tosca which I had been collecting for months before the book was published.
Eventually, folk started to drift away and a small army of helpers swung into action clearing up and returning church and hall to their earlier state. By nine fifteen it was as if we had never been there and everyone was ready for a pint and a curry. We repaired to Clapham High Street and the ever-dependable Maharani restaurant.
It was a tremendous evening – though an awful lot of work – and with very special support from Tricia Ninian and the singers of St Paul’s Opera, which made it unique. Many of those who attended spoke or wrote to me, telling me how much they enjoyed it. Plus, my publisher sold lots of my books. It was a spectacular way to launch a title and a very special occasion.
I, and others, will be back at St Paul’s on 14th October for the SPO Autumn Gala ‘Musical Mirth’ which kicks off the Clapham cultural weekend, as the Book Festival follows. on Saturday 15th. But I’ll be blogging about that soon enough.
‘Opera’ is on sale from Amazon at https://tinyurl.com/4u8twmz5 and all good book shops.