Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jonathan Miller vs Stephen Sacker Hard Talk

BBC World's HARDtalk is a daunting challenge to even the most hardened interviewee. Jonathan Miller faced up to the current incumbent Stephen Sachur safe in the knowledge that they both went to Cambridge. I am not sure Miller felt quite so confident at the end of the encounter as it was refreshingly frank. Stephen Sackur did what he usually does so well and fronted up with some searching questions.

Miller is a renowned media personality, comedian, Establishment Opera and theatre director and celebrated science TV presenter. He has been given all that life has to offer by society and yet Miller is not a happy man and this came over today in waves.

Miller it appears is very sensitive to criticism. Being a performing artist is not the best place to have a thin skin but I can attest that I have suffered at the hands of various critics and it is not nice. He feels that only those who have achieved what he has achieved is allowed to have an opinion about him and as most of the London critics have not produced as much as a CD let alone an opera they should shut up. So what about me?

Well I have directed Schoenberg's Erwartung! and if that is not enough I sang Flora at Aldeburgh for Britten in his Turn of the Screw. 

The interview was very enlightening. It seems Miller fell into his artistic career by accident. He pointed out he really doesn't like the theatre, he never goes to the theatre, and would much rather have stayed in medicine and that I think is the trouble with his work. Miller's dislike of  arts production shows  through. Yes Miller can do it all extremely well, he thinks about it and talks extremely well on the subject but he doesn't love it. For the artist to succeed you have to love it, you have to have passion and want to do it even when all sorts of obstacles are it the way. Miller will tolerate rehearsals but he goes home at 4.30 pm. His productions are clever, academic but lack passion. Peter Brooke is a director of passion and his productions wreak of it, that is why he will be remembered.

Miller is torn between his major love which is medicine which he feels he should have followed and the arts which fell into his lap. Maybe he feels like a dutiful son that he has let his parents down by slumming in the arts.

Miller's ambition seems to amount to getting actors to act. Today this is a rather old fashioned concept as the film and TV media really demand type casting. Britten knew this and when allowed to cast his operas he type cast. Peter Pears was not amused on occasions. However I do agree with Miller operatic star soprano's and tenors should be given the widest birth if anything ensemble is to be attempted.

It is no good saying to Miller that he was fortunate to be given the opportunities that were denied others and should be happy with his lot. Miller isn't. It happens to most of us I wanted to be a ballet dancer and Britten put a stop to that but the world he opened up for me was magic. Yes I didn't dance Swan Lake but I produced Erwartung!

We don't get what we want out of life and it can be so unfair. Miller wants to author a brilliant scientific paper that will be remembered. By accident I had one of those insights that come only once in a lifetime and have a short YouTube Video on the best of Science YouTube list which will be remembered. I would have given my eye teeth to have produced my Bluebeard's Castle at The Royal Opera House but not my luck. Miller did direct operas at major houses and was not grateful just bitter at his lost science opportunity.

Sackur did not let up, hard question after hard question till at last it ended. It was a greatly chastened Mr Miller who murmured a reluctant  thank you. I felt sorry for the man. I actually felt sorry for him. 

PS In about 1963 ITV were looking for a young woman to join Jonathan Miller on a chat show and teenagers of my age were encouraged to write a short article on any subject on the front of any paper on the 23 April. I wrote about the date! I wrote well even at 17 and was shortlisted. Of course when I turned up Mr Miller must have had  a fit. I was not the OxBridge student that was expected. In fact I think they thought that I hadn't actually written my article but I had.
I should have got Miller on to Britten and 'The Turn of the Screw' and he might have been impressed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Singer's Revenge Garageband

Pity the poor professional singer.  Theirs is an unhappy lot and although instrumentalists, composers, accompanists are given every help possible the singer is left to make the best of a very difficult job. In the musicial stakes the ordinary professional singer comes off worst.

Since the advent of new modern instruments the orchestral tuning has got higher and higher. If Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were alive today they would never believe their ears as the pitch of the modern orchestra has gone up and Up and UP. Modern steel frames and strings have made this possible. Also some instruments do not like certain keys and pitches and all tuning revolves around the oboe.

Consequently the keys that singers are expected to sing in has gone up and Up and UP too. Unfortunately when they invented  modern strings and frames they did not invent steel human vocal chords as well. In Mozart's time a choir of sopranos would not be expected to sing above a G above the stave (G4 in Midi terms) but today the poor things have to reach for a top B Flat below top C. A Queen of the Night in Mozart's Day would have sung a Top C (C5) but today modern sopranos have to sing a top E (E5). Sopranos who can do this are as rare as a Unicorn.

For most of my professional life I have been at the mercy of instrumental musicians,composers and producers who never keep their word. I know how high I can sing . I have a breathtaking top B (B4) and a non existent Top C. Whenever I went for a job I would tell the management that and all promised to have the part taken down. On this provision I accepted the jobs only to find the producers broke their word. Even Benjamin Britten broke his word. I had to sing the Top C and I can just about make it but not in the way It ought to have been sung. I would have been sensational with a Top B preferably flat for those not so brilliant days that all singers have and the audience would never have known. It would have sounded glorious.

The reason was expense. The producers found that writing the re-orchestration and copying  was a just too expensive or the key that it had to be transposed into was difficult for the orchestral players to cope with. I missed out to my detriment.

Then the orchestra's are mean and  will not rehearse with the singers. They want to be paid a performance fee if a singer wants to rehearse and obviously the management won't stand for it. Many a time my first sing through with the orchestra was on the first night. I used to go to their rehearsals and sometimes I was appalled at what I was supposed to sing to.

Composers and pianists look after themselves. There are certain keys they find difficult and so instead of modulating into a difficult key the song is just left to languish in one ordinary key for convenience. Even if you ask for a semitone modulation if it hits a difficult key like B Major with lots of sharps and double sharps you can forget it. Many pianist can only play from music and cannot transpose at sight so one has to sing songs in uncomfortable keys for the singer but easy for the pianist. Life is just not fair.

Wrong notes are a singer's nightmare too because it is the singer who takes the blame. A poor pianist can wreck a singer's performance with a handful of wrong notes.

All pianists are the same. Some like Benjamin Britten who actually played for me at a huge concert hated rehearsing. He left it too late to have a complete run through. He also would not transpose a part for me although he knew it was too high and he had promised to do so. My husband could only play from sheet music and I had to sing Schubert in some horrible keys for me but OK for him. He could, bless him, play a handful of wrong notes in the difficult bits but we never sang in public which is just as well. When he died I lost my accompanist and I resigned myself to never singing again.

Six years after his death it happened. I had played with Garageband on and off and I wanted a certain tune. I discovered I could write it out quite easily and then I had an idea. Why not write out my accompaniments? It was a revelation. Not only could I write out my accompaniments but I could choose my key and eventually I learned to orchestrate and now even do four part Harmony. My lessons of 50 years ago have come in useful.

I could sing every day with a sympathetic accompanist. No wrong notes, tempo of choice and best of all key of choice even if it is C Sharp minor. For the first time I learned to sing as I like to sing. From hating my voice I now started to like it. To my surprise I like the way I sing and my voice improved by not being forced. I enjoy recording. I don't have to shout to fill a 3000 seater theatre. That I still have a voice is a miracle. 

I can also sing music that no pianist wants to play as it is too hard like Cantaloupe's Songs of the Auvergne. Tried unsuccessfully to get a pianist to play this for years.

So singers learn a Midi programme like Garageband and give yourself the chance you deserve. No more expensive pianists, no more worrying about rehearsals, sing anything you want with a full orchestra and enjoy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Wombles a tale of sadness for the creator Elizabeth Beresford

I meet Elizabeth Beresford, the creator of The Wombles a long time ago in Alderney where she lived. I was in the process of selling a creative idea to a huge USA cartoon firm and the BBC.

She was very disillusioned with her Womble experience and told me all the money had gone in court cases. She was quite bitter and I don't blame her. When I received the 58 page contract from the US I saw what she meant. I only got paid after everyone else. My animal is still in the attic! They were offering just US $1000. When I demurred and said it was worth more than that they told me that Walt Disney never paid more than $1,000 for Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Winnie the Poo. I declined their offer.

She gave me a signed book and was absolutely delightful. Financial success or not I am so glad she created The Wombles.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Childhood Immunisation a Controversial Topic

I have had three bouts of measles/rubella/ in my long life and two of whooping cough! It appears that docs have difficulty in diagnosing the difference between rubella and measles as it is all in the shape of the rash. That is what I was told but they may have got better at it by now.

I had a childhood something then at 21 I had another something. It was icy cold I went out and whatever kind of measles it was it attacked my inner ear. My balance has been off for the rest of my life which is not good as I was a dancer!

Then one Xmas when my daughter was 6 I got some sort of measles again and had to cook Xmas dinner with it. Not a pleasant experience.

Last year I caught whooping cough again. One can get it in old age as the immunity of childhood wears off. This went undiagnosed for quite a while until NZ medics woke up to  an epidemic. Now I can see why children die of it as you cannot breath. It clogs your nose and throat and you have to sort of gasp to catch breath. It also goes on for a year in my case.

If I had been immunised, there was none available when I was a child, I would be healthier today. My best friend at school caught polio and my cousin rheumatic fever before anti biotics. It was a dangerous childhood which now can be avoided. I was so glad when the polio vaccines arrived but I never learned to swim because swimming pools is where you caught polio.

Thanks to science times have changed. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Memories of Basil Coleman opera director pas excellence

I learned today of the death of Basil Coleman, the brilliant opera director who was a favourite of Benjamin Britten and directed many of his operas including the one that has had a profound influence on my life The Turn of the Screw which premiered in Venice in 1954. Many musicologists consider this work to be Britten's masterpiece and certainly Basil Coleman's input must have contributed to this ground breaking production.

It seemed I had the good fortune to be directed by Coleman for the 1961 Aldeburgh production of this work. I played Flora. I wish I could say that this had been a happy experience but for me at 18 it was one of the most difficult productions I have ever been in.  Aldeburgh was not the place for a young girl alone. Aldeburgh just did not understand young girls and in fact I was just ignored.

My problem was that I was not Coleman's choice of a Flora. I was Britten's and Coleman had to make do with me. Britten and Coleman had very different ideas as to the importance of Flora. Britten realised that Flora is not just a side kick of Miles but a person in her own right. Coleman dismissed Flora and wanted all the focus to be on the boy.

I had already played Flora for the famous Associated Redifussion
1959 performance on British Television which had been a great artistic triumph. I was Britten's choice, Britten knew I understood Flora. Now I was 18 Britten and I talked about Flora for hours.

It was not that Basil did not like me personally he just did not want me in his production and made me feel inadequate. He told me that I had to take a back seat, that in the TV production I had moved to much and he did not want me distracting from the boy in anyway. I was a professional and I did exactly what I was told.

At Aldeburgh I was given virtually no rehearsal. The boy's scenes were rehearsed daily while mine were left alone. What Basil didn't know was that I was a Britten favourite. It seems now that I was the only 18 year old girl in that category and I told Britten. He was furious and came down to rehearsal, played for me and saw I was rehearsed.  To see Britten taking such an interest in me had not been anticipated. The sight of Britten publicly driving me home alone in his car took them all by surprise. This came as a shock.

Aldeburgh could be unwittingly cruel. On the day of the first performance I was walking down the high street and a bicycle fell on my foot. The brake handle went right through it like a nail and I could see it sticking out the other side. With great presence of mind I pulled it out, like an arrow. It did not bleed immediately and it did not hurt so I walked across to the Jubilee Hall where the first person I encountered was Basil Coleman.

I told him what had happened. He was talking to Stephen Reice the manager and they were having a heated conversation about should Flora look at the Ghost! This was the one direction that seemed to change everyday as everyone except me was allowed to have an opinion. Britten directed me to look at the ghost and Coleman wanted the opposite.

Instead of looking at my foot which was now starting to bleed profusely these two men marched me up onto the stage and redirected the scene. After five minutes they were satisfied and Basil looked at my bleeding foot and said "Oh look Janette is bleeding all over the floor cloth. I think you should get that looked at" and both men left me.

I found the local GP who said it was nasty and that tomorrow it would hurt. I refused a tetanus jab because of the side effects and I walked the miles home. In the evening a car was reluctantly sent with a furious Mrs Reice who was not amused. She felt I should have cycled  I did the performance with out a limp and in fact no one ever knew. I have the scar till this day.

Britten again was not amused at the change of direction behind his back and I was back to looking at the ghost the next performance. Britten tended to the view that the ghosts were real.

When I did get to see the long lost TV production I was terrified of seeing my performance and how distracting I had been. I was in for a shock. Far from fidgeting I had had long periods of absolute stillness. Basil had been wrong. He had seen what he wanted to see not the reality.

I did meet him again in the BBC club when he was directing Billy Budd.  I was working  in a play He got a surprise to see me there and he looked slightly embarrassed and guilty. He knew he had given me a hard time. Directors can. We parted friends and in fact I learned from this experience. Always try to be the director's choice.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Boston Bombing Atrocity- Religion + Guns = Disaster

Yesterday the USA Congress voted down President Obama's moderate request that all gun sales should be subject to checks on the owners. The National Rifle Association which seems now to be just a powerful arm of the Ammunition and gun manufacturers won. 

Today two young American men not only blew up innocent  spectators at the Boston Marathon, shot dead a policemen but held a full scale automatic gun battle that went on for at least a minute with many rounds being fired.

As yet no one has asked the question where did they buy the guns or why were they able to buy such guns that cause such mayhem? These horrifying events are not going to be isolated to incidents in schools.  Now it is open season on anyone unlucky enough to be in the sights of anyone with a grudge and an automatic rifle.

The NRA has allowed this to happen. I hope they are proud of their victory.

These two young men who should be grateful for the land that embraced them but instead they seek to destroy it. They  seem to be doing this in the name of their religion. They are engaged in a religious war in which Jews, Christians and Infidels  are to be killed and if the two young men are killed they will be martyrs and will enjoy the services of 72 virgins in heaven.

They have YouTube Channels praising Al Quida.

It has taken many hours after them being named that anyone has dared to mention that they are Muslims. It is the horrible union of the ease of obtaining guns and religion that has made it easy for these ordinary young men to kill in such a disturbing manner.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Surprising story of Painted Veil French Folk Song

The Crystal Fountain  song is thought to have been  written in France in 1604. It still sounds as if it were composed yesterday. 

It is featured in the film The Painted Veil based on a story by Somerset Maughan and I howled my eyes out as it was sung. It was a song I just had to sing but doing that was not as easy as it sounds.  There is no downloadable Midi piano version available so it was out with Garageband and a 'do it yourself job'. I am used to doing this! 

It is usually sung in French but my French is not up to the task as the words are full of double entendre. The little song is sad and powerful. It tells the tale of an illicit rendezvous  the secret swim and the unfortunate consequences of a cheated lover who was not amused. That is has stood the test of time for 400 years says something. How many of today's songs will do that?

The vocal line was easy to write as it is just a  verse and chorus but then it has to be arranged and that means Harmony!  I once learned Traditional Four Part Harmony when I was 17 at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama. I knew then I should never use it and as I only had a basic musical education and I do not play an instrument I struggled. I had a wonderful teacher who gave printed notes but as soon as I could I gave it up. I lost the notes.

Fifty years later I needed to refresh my Harmony so I could orchestrate the song. I asked around music teachers and musicians but nobody was of any help. In desperation I rang up the Auckland University Music who failed to ring back and then when all help was gone I found this wonderful site on the internet and my problem was over. Learning and Loving  Music Theory  which solved my problem

One evening study and all the 'consecutive fifth's' and 'hidden octaves' came flooding back. I had enough Harmony knowledge to do enough for me. I do not think I should pass a harmony exam but who cares. My old teacher would be so proud of me. His lessons have come in useful after all.
This version has been enhanced by YouTube! When I uploaded it YouTube informed me that it did not like my lighting  and could they have a go at correcting it. In a spirit of adventure I said yes and this is the result. It is very dark and saturated and something I would never dare attempt but I rather like it. What do you think?

PS I discovered that the fabulous Greta Garbo has also starred in a 1930's version of this film. Sadly it is not yet available on YouTube. One day?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How Patricia Swift/Webb became Polly Browne

Patricia Swift/Webb in Auckland
Sometimes one realises that one doesn't really know one's friends. Yesterday while having a goodbye coffee with Patricia Swift/Webb who is off to Wimbledon and Alderney Pat was fascinatingly frank about how she became a West End musical star. Pat reigned for 21 months in the original Boyfriend by Sandy Wilson at The Wyndham's Theatre  in London's West End. Pat was the perfect Polly Browne.

To my astonishment Pat entertained us all by relating how she got into musicals and went on to become a world class coloratura soprano. With  delightfully straight face Pat told us how at the age of 15 she rebelled and refused to go back to her covent school in Clapham. She just walked out and having seen an advertisement for an audition for the chorus line in a Watford pantomime got on the green line bus and attended.

At 15 Pat had no idea of what to expect. She didn't even have any suitable dance practice clothes but not surprisingly she got the job. I expect the management was only too pleased to see her as she must have been beautiful and the pay was meagre.

To Pat's relief her father was not unsympathetic and Pat perfomed in her panto two performances a day for three months, pantos still do have long runs travelling daily from home by green line bus. We all did long journeys to work in those days. I once rehearsed Windsor and played Bournemouth!

After the panto Pat refused to go back to the convent and her father found her a job as a trainee florist which consisted of sweeping the floor. In three  months Pat did not touch one flower except one lunch time when a man bought a dozen red roses for his wife who had just given birth. Pat looked me in the eye and said "Do you think one dozen roses is enough?" He upped his order and Pat was popular that for that sole afternoon.

As the florist did not work out Pat asked her father if she could go to a famous stage school Aida Foster in Golders Green, another long journey every day. Her father said he would pay the fees but Pat had to work to pay her train fare which she did. On Saturdays she worked in a dress shop.

Aida Foster was a remarkable woman and helped many young women to stardom, Joan Collins, Jackie Collins, Jean Simonds, Shirley Eaton, Marti Webb to name a few. I also attend this school for a year as my own school Arts Educational was threatened with closure. The academic standard was nil but the confidence and the way one presented oneself was fostered, excuse the pun, to a very high standard. Although I disliked the school I do not think I could have survived the London Theatre without it. You were taught how to do well at auditions and to be professional. To always look your best, turn up on time, learn you lines and do what the director tells you.

Pat enchanted Sandy Wilson who must have been delighted to see her and she went on to captivate the West End. Pat does not look or act like a rebel but now that I think of it she had that strength of character to succeed that only one who has the courage to rebel can achieve.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Joys of the London Theatre Queue

Memories of the joys of queuing for seats in London theatres came flooding back to me in this delightful article by Lyn Gardener .

Spent most of my London life queuing for theatre tickets as for me it was the only way to get in. Spent hours in the Royal Opera House queues for gallery tickets. The first tube train, the 5.10 from Canon's Park, the smell of oranges and urine as you hit Covent Garden station, the ladies of the night and the porters urinating over the vegetables and the joy of getting the precious tickets for wonderful first nights. Never had any luck with the Gala's though although I did get to one by being in the ballet there!

Later I found the Standing tickets. By law the theatre has to reserve tickets for daily sale and these could be bought on the day at around 4pm. These were cheap and allowed you to stand at the back of the stalls  Stood through The Ring this way at 16!

Obviously The Proms, queuing for these concerts was great fun when a student. Sold out musicals could be seen too.  

Turning up in the foyer one can usually get a ticket from someone who has one to give away. Royal Festival Hall and Wimbledon Center Court are good places for this.

When I married my GP Opera loving husband I still had to queue although this time for the posh part. However I still preferred the gallery for ballet!

Now when I come to London I still do the same but I spend more to sit. I would still stand if the performance was one not to miss.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Who wrote Shakespeare? Who cares?

Shakespeare's identity is much less interesting than his plays
A new book attempts to bury the endless disputes over who he really was. But surely it's the plays, not their author, which deserve attention?
 Lyn Gardner Guardian

There is nothing wrong with this. Writers write about what they know and some writers have fascinating life stories better than their novels. Shakespeare is perhaps an exception because we know so little of his life.
Jane Austin had a rather secluded life but she knew about the difficulties of finding a suitable husband. She never did and all her novels stop at the altar. All the Bronte sisters had strange upbringings and these appear in their novels. Ann Bronte wrote about the horrors of drug and alcohol abuse because she witnessed the fall of her brother. The true story is perhaps the stronger.
If one wants to enjoy Marcel Proust it is almost essential to read a biography as he wrote about what he knew. Keats, Shelly, Byron too wrote from experience. Benjamin Britten never composed an opera that dealt with heterosexual love.
Read and enjoy both. The biographies show why the writer wrote as he did.
Who cares anyway who wrote Shakespeare! Let us just be thankful someone did!