Thursday, 25 August 2016

Menotti and Yorkshire at its beautiful best !

I am in Yorkshire at the moment for a bit of holiday combined with some teaching and choral work. The teaching is always very rewarding - generally the ladies who are hungry for lessons are those who come to Song School, so only have imput once or twice each year, or ladies who cannot make SS and thus hardly ever have me for lessons.

The difference this year is very marked - those who are not Song Schoolers have been going for lessons to another of my older singing friends, E. She has always had the most exquisite natural voice, and was a Middleton Singer star from a very early age. Quite why she has not thought of teaching since the redoubtable Middy died, baffles me a little. She plays the piano, has had years of teaching and is utterly rock solid in her own technique and musicianship ! I want it recorded that she has done a marvellous job with those younger ladies who have been seeing her regularly, and they now have much more technical discipline and their voices are developing at a rate of knots ! We didn't really tackle much in the way of repertoire, it was more technical imput that was needed, and they all worked their socks off !

I recorded new music for my old duet partner Julia, and gave her some more taxing and more tricky music than she has had before. The wonderful song Rhyme by Walton, so breezy and clever but so tricky, then a couple of Puccini arias in the original Italian, she having sung them years ago in an English translation ! Mostly I so enjoyed giving her the lovely and interesting Monica's Waltz from The Medium by Menotti. Fortunately she loved it and was clearly excited by the dramatic possibilities of this aria. It changes as Monica's madness swerves in many different directions, and was completely new venture for Julia !

I had a great evening with Renaissance doing some hard choral graft on pieces which need vocal as well as interpretational work, and by the end of the two hours they were exhausted but flying, and sounding like a wonderfully homogenous group, swelling and falling like one voice. A most satisfying rehearsal !

Yesterday, in the searing heat we went to Egton Country Show. A real old Yorkshire event full of elderly farmers in vintage tweeds and hats which have seen many a year of wear, each carrying a stick or carved top shepherds crook. Their accents are almost impossible to decider, even for a born and bred white rose woman ! We wandered around the rings, marvelling at the sparkly white sheep, the clean and mud free milking cows, and the majestic and slightly terrifying bulls being walked around the ring by folk who weighed about as much as one of the legs of these great beasts. Then the glorious moment when the gigantic and beautiful Dales heavy horses with their splendid be ribboned manes, looking as proud and perfect as a Yorkshire Pegasus ! 

It was a day which zoomed me back to my childhood when I rode horses and jumped in gymkhanas during the long school summer holidays. I rode a great deal, like many Thelwell girls, but I am secretly pleased to say that at about 15 the horse addiction waned and the singing addiction kicked in. 

A trip back in time...........

Ready for the show jumping !

Proud junior handlers

Contented and hot cows ?

Just magnifique !!


The view from the benches specially put out for watching the sheep dog trials.

Henry, the resident teenage peacock at Littlebeck. 

He is having a gaze through the kitchen window - wondering what is for tea ?







Sunday, 14 August 2016


I was reflecting on the needs of an aspirant professional singer whilst watching the Olympics. The analogy seems ridiculous but much of  the sheer slog and persistence has marked similarities with the work load of a singer. There is so much daily grind, so much physical balancing and then a great deal of luck and what happens on the day !

I see these amazing athletes, bound entirely by how their body feels and works when they are required to perform, and we singers are bound equally by the way our body and vocal equipment decides to function at the crucial moment of the 7.30pm start or the midday exam recital ! A little sniffle of cold, or a few tears make it exponentially more difficult to deliver and fulfil our potential. 

Over the years however, I have learned that the mental approach to how we feel has almost more impact upon our ability to perform. The magnificent Jess Ennis-Hill is a shining star of positivity combined with a clear self knowledge. She is so very onward looking and radiates humility and gratitude. She blames nobody for fails and is humble when her successes are stellar. Others try to blame the 'day' the weather, their age et al, and probably blame their coach in private. 

What we put in is what matters, how we know ourselves is the key, and when we work as hard and as honestly as we can there is no blame. Only a precious few stars in any 'performing' art or sport reach the top. The junction where coach/teacher and student meet should be exactly halfway on the road to success. Talent itself is almost relegated to superfluous - it is the team that matters !

Those who can't be happy in the team will find the struggle to improve impossible, and a long and bumpy road ahead of them. Fortunately my own experience over 40 happy years is largely of fantastic team players, willing and hungry for any wisdom I have had to offer, and always meeting me in the middle. In my game, the sum of these two halves meeting, adds up to much more than 100% !

Individually we are one drop. Together we are an ocean. 
(Ryunosuke Satoro)



Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Iolanthe 2016

Wow, I can't believe it is two months since I last posted - I think I have been caught up with Iolanthe and lots of teaching - that is all I can manage as an excuse anyhow ! The run up to the show had its usual ups and downs. These fluctuations in highs and lows are par for the course, and such a large emotional and exhausting undertaking is never ever without this. Sometimes I think I almost survive because of it ! There have been one or two crisis moments over the last five productions which were a step too far, but this year's extravaganza did not have any of those life or death happenings. It was as smooth a run up as it could be, and the company worked fantastically and with their amazing team spirit. 

It had some glorious sections and the standard of the singing was tremendous - full, healthy and so full of vibrancy. I was so privileged this year as I could sit in the audience and simply watch and enjoy the show. I collected my grandchildren from Inverness airport on the day of the penultimate performance so when we arrived back at the venue we picked three seats and I became ( for the first time in my producing life) a member of the audience who could laugh and whoop and share some of the detailed mo nets with a 13 and 9 year old ! It was an amazing experience, and one I would love to repeat again. If I am honest I'm not sure if I could do it from performance 1 when I need to pace and metaphorically bite my nails whilst it all shakes down and falls into place !

The adults are staunch and so strong both vocally and dramatically, and they have to take great responsibility as each has their own character and personality. In a chorus of 12 men each one is utterly crucial. I hope they appreciate how valued they are and what a difference they make with their individual personalities. The young voices are the centre of the amazing tone quality of the show, and it is such a privilege to have more than a dozen youngsters who want to sing this 19th century music ! They have a solidity of fresh and younthful tone which takes the whole standard of the show up about five levels from average and even good  amateur productions ! How lucky we are !

The male principals were, as usual funny, wild and acted with gay abandon, encouraged by our wonderfully loose canon M. E and I as the two lords grew in performance and humour each night, and after five nights the ad libs were flying like Easyjet ! M as the Chancellor was quite exquisite and even given the restrictions of wearing a kilt he managed to appear drunk and out of control from the moment he entered. M as the Scary Fairy Queen was majestic, and vocally lasted the course very well indeed, it is as if the role was written for her in character and vocal tessitura. She was absolutely in control of her fairy cohorts and the dim witted lords. What a star.

The younger roles were stunning and sparkling, N sang a heart breaking Iolanthe bringing a previously unsung reality to the final section when she offers her life for that of her son. This made for an interesting audience dynamic, and she managed to switch the atmosphere in the flick of a veil. A was a wonderfully bossy Phyllis, and even though her voice is dropping like a stone she upped her game, transposed the duets down a tone, and used every shred of her considerable talent to make her performance way beyond her 16 years. I can't wait to hear what magic will happen to this voice in a year or two ! M was such a wonderful Strephon ! She has always played female roles to this point and asked me if she could play a boy ! Strephon could have been written for her, bright, breezy, intelligent and full of fun and sass ! She was like a huge breath of fresh air when she stepped on stage, and she and A were a dream team pair of lovers !

L came back to us to sing a brilliant Private Willis, returning from the end of his second year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and showed us that his voice has grown and developed over those years, but pleasingly still entirely recognisable as himself - no unnecessary changes to his large and resonant baritone voice. His facial expressions were a wonder to behold !

The three youngsters playing Celia, Leila and Fleta have doubled in vocal size since last year, and they were just delightful. Each had their own personality, a fairy with anger issues, a fairy with common sense and a fairy who was thoughtful and considered in her ideas, just lovely. They sang their music beautifully and with such maturity and held the tricky music of the chorus together with style and assuring. We have much to look forward to with this trio, and the others snapping at their ankles !

Tiny fairies stole the show when they appeared, working beautifully and adding to the detail of the overall picture. The production was set in deepest winter in a magical forest covered in snow and sparkle. It looked magnificent and was quite breathtaking when the audience first saw it. The costumes made by K were magnificent, so stunning and quite beautiful - they were exactly the picture which had lived in my head for the last year, and that is the finest compliment that I can ever give ! The time and effort was all worth it K and her ladies ! Many many thanks. The set was wonderful and thanks for that go to G and his team. 

I am lucky indeed to have a team with spirit, heart and the will to make my rather shimmery brain vision come true. I know the singers can do it, but without the rest of the team the singers are nothing !

A miracle of a show.

Enjoy some production and pre production photos

Phyllis and Strephon

The opening chorus

 Trio of fairies

Oooooo my !

 A nightmare of a song !

 Frolics in a trio !

Signs of things to come !

A serious and beautiful moment 

Tan tan ta ra !

 Blue Blood

The sewing team

 Final rehearsals !



Thursday, 16 June 2016

Madam Butterfly and a packed weekend........

What a hectic last week or so. I have taught a mammoth amount of hours due to our impending exams on top of having a wonderful weekend in London to see Madam Butterfly. My old student Tom Colwell is now covering roles at English National Opera and is as we speak covering Yamadori in Butterfly. Prior to departing for London the week was heavy but fulfilling and I think all my candidates are on the edge of 'ready'. Peaking too soon and becoming slightly bored with the repertoire makes for a less than sparkling performance, but slightly under prepared is equally as worrying, so like a 100 metre runner building to the Olympics one has to reach that moment where there is still spontaneity yet all is secure. They have to do without me for a week now, so I hope the work will continue to be done and polished !

We also welcome H to our happy family is singers. She is a beautiful mezzo soprano who, after Song School decided she would like to pursue a post grad course at conservative and to prepare for that regular lessons in the most beautiful place was the order of the day ! So last Saturday she caught the return leg of the flight upon which Pam and I flew down, so we passed in transit ! She is living close by temporarily but hopes for more permanent accommodation after August. She will bring yet another breath of fresh air to the Paradise singing community.

In London, quite apart from seeing the most moving and beautiful productions of Butterfly we managed to have a packed day. We visited my old alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music which was a lovely treat for Pam, and I could drop off my smart work clothes with Sara so as to save on paying the extortionate £38 per hold bag per journey on my next visit. It was wonderful to catch up with Anthea Dwyer whom I taught at the JRAM and is now teaching there herself, and Ciara Burrows ( cannot remember the married name !) another old pupil who is now teaching there. Both of these girls are very close to my heart, both very fine singers and have chosen to teach - the legacy goes on - which makes me so proud ! Even more touching was the huge welcome hugs which I got !

After that we cabbed to St Martin in the Fields where we met up with Pam's sister and had one of The Crypt Cafe's most delicious lunches. They popped over the road to the Portrait Gallery to see a new exhibition whilst I rested my now aching legs in the beautiful church in Trafalger Square and thoroughly enjoyed a rehearsal with the London Concertante who were playing a concert in the evening in the church. The Bach Violin Concerto in A minor was exquisite, and as a musician myself I almost enjoy the stops and starts more than a complete performance !

The Anthony Minghella production of Butterfly is breathtaking. I wondered if the impact would be as great the second time around. I need not have worried, the colour, the sparse and spacious set, the peacock beauty of the costumes and the mystical emotional roller coaster from the puppeteers was enough to break the heart, when you add in the lush score and the beautiful singing - most of which was very good indeed, it becomes unbearable. Watch the short clip on the ENO website which gives a tiny taste of the overall effect. Puccini style needs such freedom and lyrical legato, combined with the ability to rise and peak at moments of great emotion. I often find that watching opera live can disappoint me, I hear the faults more than the virtues of the singers, a somewhat sad by product of my job, but the tenor Pinkerton was magnificent, the baritones were gruff enough but still had beauty in their voices, and Butterfly was initially a little light and edgy for my taste until she came into her own and showed that it was in the full vocal blast her sound filled out and rang with total support and commitment. It was worth the wait !

We ate with Tom afterwards, and bearing in mind Pam and I had been on the road since 3am, we staggered back to the train, which was held up (Grrrrr) and finally at past midnight,  a shuttle bus back to our Gatwick hotel. Shattered, I think we both fell into bed having opted to miss breakfast and simply sleep longer then eat at the lovely No 1 Lounge at the North Terminal......

A brilliant weekend.

Four teachers - what a joy !

Pam and Tom outside ENO - Butterfly awning above their heads