The opera…

… is Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini.In my forthcoming thriller, Opera, characters go to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to a Gala performance. So, not only have I been seeking out performances of Tosca (see Shivering in the Park with Tosca  ) but also imagesTosacSarahBernhardt2 connected with it.

To begin with the original play, La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou, which premiered in 1887, starring Sarah Bernhardt as the diva. Bernhardt often appeared in Sardou’s historical dramas and they were always promoted using posters by Alphonse Mucha, usually depicting Bernhardt herself. But here she is (left) standing over the prone body of the evil chief of the secret police, Baron Scarpia, on a postcard. Postcards like these were relatively recent innovations and very popular at the time.

Bernhardt toured with La Tosca, across Europe and the Americas, to great acclaim, but today the play has largely been forgotten, other than as the original upon whichTosca_poster(1899) Puccini’s opera was based. The first performance of the opera was in 1900 in Rome and the poster was by Adolfo Hohenstein who also designed the stage sets. It is very much in the Art Noveau style of Mucha and features the same scene as the Bernhardt postcard, a scene which was to feature again and again in images of the opera. The pious Tosca sets candles at the head of the Baron, whom she has just killed ( in self-defence, as he has just tried to rape her ) and places a crucifix on his chest.

When Tosca was first performed it wasn’t that well received by the critics, although the public loved, and continues to love, it. This divergence has continued, to an extent, with the American musicologist Joseph Kerman calling it a ‘shabby little shocker’ in the 1950s. Its continuing success with audiences, conductors and performers has, to an extent silenced the nay-sayers, but it is sometimes still regarded as too florid, melodramatic and insufficiently high-minded.

ToscaNakedMany of the more modern images are explicit about the subject matter and the link the opera makes between sex and death (see left). The dagger is a recurring motif, as is blood – red is the most popular colour. The Castel Sant’Angelo appears too. Tosca herself, as in Bernhardt’s time, is often the the central image, although other posters prefer to concentrate on Scarpia, like that for Florida State Opera (right). Only a few depict Cavaradossi, the hero. Ordinarily one might say that this is an example of ToscaFloridaState ‘the devil has all the best tunes’, except that in the opera itself, it is the tenor arias, belonging to Cavaradossi, which are most memorable.

So, aside from a performance occurring in Opera what else does Tosca have in common with my book? First, the action of it, like the opera is set in close to ‘real time’ and in ‘real places’. Tosca was unusual for an opera in that it was set on specific days, the afternoon and evening of 17th and the morning of 18th of June, 1800. In it, the forces of repression, including Baron Scarpia, believe that Napoleon has been defeated at the battle of Marengo, on June 14th, only for news to arrive that, in fact, there was a rearguard action and Napoleon prevailed. Good news for Cavarodossi, the democrat and his lover, Floria Tosca. There is an ongoing battle in Opera, but it isn’t of the traditional sort.

Opera is also about democracy under attack and it too involves the world of spies and secret police. My heroine, Cassandra has to confront her own Baron Scarpia. More on the parallels in a later post.

Opera will be published by Claret Press on 5th September 2022.

The Language of Music

David_Butt_Philip_Masterclass_Flyer_FrontIn particular the language we use when we talk about singing.

On Thursday night in south London there was a singing Masterclass at St Paul’s Opera, given by David Butt Philip (Royal Opera House, ENO, New York Metropolitan, the Vienna Statsoper) to five young singers, the opera stars of tomorrow. Hector Bloggs (baritone), Alex Akhurst (tenor), Anna Marmion (soprano), Fiona Hymns (soprano) and Martins Smaukstelis (tenor) have all begun their performing careers, at St Paul’s Opera, among other places. They sang, respectively, Donizetti ( Come Paride Vezzoso from L’elisir d’amore ) Bizet (Je croix entendre encore from Les Pecheur de Perles), Mozart (the first Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflote) and Puccini (Mi chiamano Mimi from La Boheme – Fiona and Parigi e la citta from La Rondine – Martins ).

DBP apologised from the outset because he was suffering from laryngitis and would be singing less than was his usual practice, nonetheless he was able to demonstrate – in every register – how improvements could be made. They most certainly were, each singer adapting their original performance as DBP took them through each piece, sometimes line by line (and not letting them get away with anything). It was fascinating to watch and listen to.

He was equally interesting afterwards, talking about singing. During the Masterclass he had encouraged one singer to ‘almost forget the text’ and to ‘sing through the words’ – this singer had a history in choral music and had been taught to enunciate every word clearly, which wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do in opera. The next singer, of Bizet, he encouraged to ‘use the vowels’ to add resonance and drama – this was Bizet after all ‘it’s romantic music’. The next he encouraged to shorten the vowels and stress the consonants, using a more glottal sound to create slight breaks in emphasis, this was in the Mozart. On more than one occasion he added ‘Sing on the body.’

So how far does the language in which the singer was singing impacted upon the sung presentation – the glottal German, the liquid Italian and so on – and how far it was technique, regardless of language? DBP replied that it was a balance, of course the language impacted, but it was also about the degree of legato (singing in a smooth, even style, without any noticeable break between the notes) most suited to any particular piece or phrase within a piece. He defined ‘singing on the body’ as always having the sound produced supported by the diaphragm.

So this led to a brief discussion about how we  describe singing. A teacher of the violin can suggest a student holds the bow differently, or places their hand higher up the neck of the violin. A teacher of guitar might ask her student to play higher up the frets. But a singing teacher can’t tell their student to ‘raise their larynx’, the human body isn’t quite the same sort of instrument. The beginner can be told about posture and learn how to control their breathing when singing, but, at this level that has already been mastered. So instead we use metaphor. More diminuendo on a long held high note, then returningDavid_Butt_Philip _Fundraising_Gala_Image_Eventbrite to the crescendo, was described as the ‘luxury version’. ‘Don’t be polite, don’t apologise for the note’ signified not to sing it lightly, not giving it due sound, but to sing it loudly, the quality of loudness being needed in a theatre. Also, ‘complete the note’, indicated holding it for as long as necessary. Easily understood, though less easy to define.

It was such an interesting and enjoyable evening. David Butt Philip will be returning to St Paul’s in a Gala concert on 24th March raising funds for the Opera, to enable them to fund young artist’s bursaries and reach out to local schools. At £30 a ticket, to see four remarkable singers, it’s a snip.

For myself, I move onto a different type of performance next Monday, at the first Live Brixton Book Jam since COVID.bookjam-banner-7-mar-22 It’s at the Hootananny, 95 Effra Road, Brixton, SW2 1DF and doors open at 7.30 pm on 7th March, where I’ll be appearing alongside William Ryan, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Leo Moynihan, West Camel, Paul Bassett Davies and Paul Eccentric. It’s free to attend and there’s booze and books on sale. If you’re in south London why not come along?

Post-Festival blues (or greys)

FlamencoTeatroIt will take a while for the complex rhythms of flamenco to leave my head. The interlacing of voice with the clapping of hands, the stamping of feet and various musical accompaniments, but especially the guitar, has been ubiquitous for me over the past nine days. From wonderful professional performances by masters of their art to the joyous dancing of the students of the schools of flamenco on Plaza Belen before an appreciative, local crowd, it has been a delight. This morning’s grey south London has nothing to compare with the vibrancy and colour of Jerez de la Frontera, where the scent of orange blossom is already in the air.

FlamencoDanielCasaresTwo amazing guitarists were the bookends to our festival this year. We began with Salvador Gutierrez in the converted 16th century church of the Sala Compania. He played a loose and fluid form of flamenco guitar, often varying completely from the melodic into atonality and jazz, only to return to the melody later with supreme artistry. Our festival was closed by Daniel Casares, (left) whose recordings I will seek out. His playing was more traditional in style but he too ranged widely, interweaving with the light and liquid flute of a flautist whose name I didn’t catch and who isn’t credited on the official programme. This was a very informal type of show, with people climbing up on to the stage from the audience to join in. I’ve attached a clip below (starts after five seconds).

FlamencoManuelLinanIn between we were treated to some remarkable dancing. Manuel Linan, darling of the Festival, was back at Teatro Villamarta with a new show Pie de Hierro. Named for and dedicated to his father, who was injured in a road traffic accident which curtailed his career as a bull fighter, but who placed his own heavy expectations on his youngest son, Linan; this complex and difficult relationship is explored in terms of conformity and rebellion, tradition and personal expression. Linan likens this to his relationship with flamenco. There’s a full interview in Lavozdelsur here. It was a highly personal show and very different to the wonderful ensemble work in Viva! or the clever Reversible. The dancing was, as ever, exquisite and powerful at the same time and David Carpio, a long time collaborator with Linan, admirably represented the father/tradition figure in song. A duet between two guitars, one electric, one flamenco, extended the metaphor of duel and dialogue. It was wonderful too.

Javier Fergo

Less personal, but also excellent, was Alfonso Losa, dancing at the same venue with Concha Jareno. The stage pictures of them dancing separately, but in absolute unison, will stay in the memory for a long time. The sensuality on show, with minimal physical contact, was remarkable and totally unlike another pairing, that of Olga Pericet and Daniel Abreu at the Atalaya Museum. That was born out of flamenco but had moved a long way away from it, into the realm of modern dance, atonal white noise and strobe lighting. The artistry was breathtaking, though sexy it wasn’t. This was the second part of an ongoing work which Pericet began developing some years ago and which she aims to complete in 2023, inspired by the famous guitarist Antonio De Torres.

FlamencoPlazaBelen1Much more laid back (though probably not for the participants) was our Andalucia Day morning in Plaza Belen watching the students of the various flamenco schools strutting their stuff. Everyone got their turn in the spotlight and everyone received applause from the predominantly local crowd sitting in the amphitheatre and standing near the stage (proud relatives included). Then we all went off to eat venison at an open air cinema. Perfect.

Official photography is by Javier Fergo (unofficial by me and Helen Hughes). Here’s a bit of very fine guitar to send you away happy.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/683044321?h=3ccd97151c

Festival de Jerez 2022

FestivaldeJerez2022In 2020 I managed to get to the wonderful flamenco Festival de Jerez, two weeks before Spain locked down for the first time in the pandemic. Before vaccines, before masks, before all the mayhem and death. The UK locked down about three weeks later. In 2021 it was a low key, local affair, rescheduled to May and I missed it – the first time for over a decade – because travel was still difficult. Now Festival 2022 is up and running and I’m going.

There is so much to look forward to. There’s a new venue, the Palacio de Atalaya, which houses the poetically named Museum of Time. That’s a museum you really want to be in at midday when the massive clock collection (and there are some truly exquisite timepieces) chimes twelve. We’re seeing the fabulous Olga Pericet, a dancer who I have wanted to see for years but who we’ve always managed to miss,Museo-de-los-Relojes-Jerez-1 before heading off for gourmet tapas. Then to the Sala Compania, a 16th century church converted into a performance space, in the evening for Angel Rojas Dance Project, the Madrileno’s latest show. Sunday and it must be Miguel Linan, an old favourite, in the Teatro Villamarta with his latest show Pie de Hierro. Another of our favourites, Jerezano singer David Carpio, is appearing with Linan as an invited guest. I booked tickets in November, shortly after they were put on sale and the only ones available were up in the gods, which is where we are, but at least we got some.  Linan is becoming a noticias-nacionales_olgapericet-ojocriticosuperstar of the Festival and of flamenco in general and he regularly collaborates with Carpio, good news for both. Then on Monday to the Sala Compania again for a more intimate performance and the Malagan guitarist Daniel Casares. It’s with the guitar that we begin, in the same venue on Wednesday with Salvador Gutierrez.

There’ll be more besides; meeting up with old friends, convivial food and drink (given daytime temperatures of 22 degrees quite a lot of this might be done outside in the blossoming tree-lined squares of the old town). No Carnaval this year, either in Jerez or its more famous Carnaval cousin, Cadiz, as both events have been moved to June, mainly because of COVID. These are street events, drawing huge crowds so itjereztower makes sense to hold them when it’s hotter and the virus less pervasive, though it will be a strange experience, especially in Cadiz, where the Carnaval has been held in February for as long as I can remember. But that’s something else to look forward to later in the year.

The Festival has already begun and friends there tell me that the city is still relatively quiet. Usually the whole place resounds with music and crowds of flamenco lovers from around the world fill the bars and restaurants day and night (and the performance venues). This year might be a little different and maybe restaurant tables will be easier to come by. Every cloud…

I’ll be posting pics in my Insta account. For more on the Festival de Jerez go to The Story Bazaar website and use the Tag Festival de Jerez.