How to be a Grownup- embracing my inner-adult at 44

 

imagesIf you had told me when I was 24, that two decades hence, I would have stopped doing  most of my favourite things I wouldn’t have believed you. At that time, those of my favourite things which aren’t too rude to mention were (in no particular order) my boyfriend, living in London, my mum and dad’s dog, drinking copious quantities of gin and wine, eating out, takeaways, sight-reading instead of learning my music properly, lazing about on the settee eating crisps and chocolate, and shopping. 

 

Ten years ago, a lot of these things were beginning to pall, or at least to take their toll. The boyfriend (who was an awfully nice chap) had been married, divorced and then exchanged for a different model. We’re both much happier with the people we’re with now. I’d moved out of London, following my dad’s clever advice not to let my home be dependent on my relationship, and had a little cottage in Northamptonshire. Mum and dad’s rescue black lab did brilliantly, coping with arthritis until he was nearly 12, but by the time I was 34, mum and dad and I were dog-sharing beautiful chocolate Treax. She was very definitely one of my favourite things.

I was still extremely committed to my gin and wine hobby – aided and abetted by my then boyfriend (now husband). We invented an almost nightly activity called “kitchen” where we would stay up too late standing at the back door (Andrew smoking out of it) talking bollocks to each other while we emptied bottles into ourselves. It was great! The eating out was less enticing in Wollaston than in London – Wollaston has a number of pubs which at the time didn’t serve food, and one that did which was well on its way to getting a Michelin star which meant people who actually lived in the village could never get a table as it was booked up for six months in advance. There was, however, the Chinese van which parked outside the church. This was more suited to my budget and sensibilities. I dread to think how many times I had a jumbo spring roll instead of a proper dinner – it was hard to resist because they were HUGE and only cost £1.

By this time, I had stopped thinking that sight-reading from memory was either big or clever. I was constantly stressed because I didn’t have time to learn my stuff as well as I thought I should have. I didn’t have much time for indulging in my sofa-surfing – I was usually supplementing my very expensive hobby of being an opera singer by teaching until stupid-o’clock in the evening – but chocolate and crisps were definitely two of my usual five a day. All of this consumption of delicious and naughty things had, however, begun to catch up with me. My skinny post-divorce figure had been exchanged for quite a bit of prematurely middle-aged padding. I called it contentment. Piling on the pounds also meant that my shopping habit was still very much in evidence – going up a dress size every year meant I had to keep buying new clothes (dressing always for the sorts of singing jobs I wished I’d had rather than the ones I actually had) and because I looked fat in everything, I kept wanting to buy new things to make me feel better. I was spending far beyond my means and had a massive overdraft as well as a massive arse.

Fast forward to 2016, and some things had definitely changed. My boyfriend was now my husband and we lived in a village on the outskirts of Chesterfield.  I still really enjoyed talking bollocks and emptying bottles into myself (in a different, posher kitchen).  I’d started exercising properly -hiking, swimming and running seemed to be the only way to offset the takeaways (the gastronomic delights of Chesvegas’s restaurants being even dodgier than the Wollaston pubs). Our takeaway of choice was Hasland House who made delicious jumbo spring rolls for, guess what? £1. I was very sadly without a dog. Treax had finally succumbed to her arthritis, just like poor old Benson. I was just about managing not to have to do my shopping in plus-size shops most of the time. I got posher, louder singing jobs by this stage, so I needed posher clobber. However, despite my plethora of Hobbs and L.K.Bennet outfits (however well and flatteringly cut, they were usually straining a little at the seams), I really was starting to look old, so I spent more and more money on skincare and makeup and superfoods and supplements which I was convinced would offset my poor lifestyle choices. I drank a lot of Berocca. I memorised all of my music.

59747882_10157236112899490_711566932943306752_n

Looking back, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. It was BRILLIANT! But then, as I’ve written about here I got a horrible germ and everything changed. First I gave up the booze, then I gave up the unhealthy food. Then I got my beautiful Juno and started getting fit. And then I had an epiphany.

You see, the thing that came as a complete surprise to me, was the realisation that things which I had considered to be treasured, favourite and really non-negotiable acitivities – drinking more than I should and eating delicious greasy things – were actually causing me a huge amount of background stress and guilt for quite a lot of the time. I worried about my poor lifestyle choices. I felt guilty about my lack of self-discipline. I worried about my health. One of the ways I stopped worrying so much and feeling guilty was to eat and drink and be merry.  Then I’d feel guilty and crap about myself about that too. It’s really quite a relief to be out of that cycle. It’s also really great waking up and not having a hangover and remembering exactly what I’ve said to who, and what embarrassing things my friends who were all drinking have said and done. Smug doesn’t cover it.

I turn 44 on Sunday. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to live the rest of my life. I’ve had an absolute blast, but I think it’s time to embrace my inner-grownup, so I’ve started to think hard about what other things in my life are making me feel frustrated or guilty or like I could be doing better. One of those things is shopping. Not just because spending too much is, like over-indulging in food and drink, satisfying for a short time, and leaves you feeling terrible afterwards. But it’s also that I feel that I am drowning in stuff. I have so many things. It isn’t just that my house is cluttered (it is) – a spot of Marie Kondo-ing would sort that out – but it’s the terrible, crucifying guilt at looking at all of the impulsive, greedy purchases which I didn’t need. I don’t need four different pairs of gold shoes. I don’t need three different Jo Malone body cremes because I couldn’t decide which one I liked best. I don’t need fifteen (at a conservative estimate) handbags. I don’t need four cashmere jumpers in different colours. For God’s sake I can only wear one at a time!

I think the number one is key. I aspire to be as minimalist as my husband. He has one set of tails, one suit (bought c.1985), one smart pair of shoes and two dress shirts (he only wanted one, but I persuaded him that a tour of 24 Messiahs meant he needed to alternate and wash them!).  He doesn’t wear makeup or anti-ageing cream, and he doesn’t smother himself in Jo Malone. Andrew’s grooming regime involves Vosene and not much else. It really shouldn’t be more expensive and difficult to be a female singer, but I’m not brave enough to ditch my makeup bag entirely and however much I wish it wasn’t the case, I am judged more on my appearance than my husband is. I’ve got my own grooming regime simplified to shampoo bar (cropped hair has its advantages), deodorant (essential  for everyone particularly people sitting anywhere near me on public transport), one Jo Malone body creme (the rose one if anyone’s considering buying me a birthday present but actually don’t buy me any until I’ve run out) and my factor 50. Add a slick of mascara and lipgloss and I’m respectable for most professional situations.

Seriously though, what about all the stuff I used to use? What about all the expensive outfits just sat in the wardrobe? The shoes gathering dust under the bed? The thousands of pounds worth of cosmetics going off in their tubes? The gadgets sat redundantly in kitchen cupboards? So much stuff. We are all drowning in stuff. Stuff that makes us individually poor. Stuff that makes us stressed. Stuff that none of us need. Stuff that is using up our world’s resources. Shopping on a need-only basis is a good idea for lots of reasons. It isn’t going to solve climate change – as George Monbiot says, we get easily obsessed with fannying about changing what sort of cotton buds we’re using and buying reusable coffee cups instead of attacking the way in which our whole economy and society operates. But George says here that there are two things we can do on a personal level which actually will make a difference, and here’s where the real adulting thing comes in. He says we can stop flying, and we can eat a plant-based diet. My initial reaction to this was “I can’t stop flying and meat is delicious.” Well, no I can’t stop flying, but I can take the train when possible, even if it eats into my earnings a little bit more (after all, I won’t be spending them on shopping). And as for meat? Meat is delicious, but it makes me stressed. In the way that drinking made me stressed, and shopping makes me stressed. I worry about it. I worry about animal welfare. I worry about using up so much of our resources with intensive farming that we can’t feed everyone properly. I feel guilty about the little calves and the little lambs too, and I really like pigs.

Unknown

And for all it is fannying about with cotton buds and reusable coffee cups and (if you’ll excuse the pun) reusable menstrual cups instead of tampons, if everyone makes changes, it will make a difference. I know I won’t get it right all of the time, I know I’ll mess up, and cave into consumerism sometimes, but knowing that we won’t be perfect isn’t an excuse not to try at all. So as of Sunday, I’ll be aiming to be a middle-aged, teetotal, vegetarian exercise fanatic who doesn’t buy stuff she doesn’t need, always turns the lights off, doesn’t leave the tap running while she cleans her teeth and has reusable cups for both ends of her anatomy, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Now how grownup is that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Project Salome

rachel nicholls 20185244It’s now nearly 2 years since I began my journey from sickbed to Strauss, or more specifically Salome (with a couple of detours via Elektra). For anyone who doesn’t know, Salome is the sort of role where there are certain “expectations”. I’m singing it for the first time this year and I am very, very excited about it for all sorts of reasons. The story is incredible, the music is divine, the challenge is enormous. It’s really hard to sing, there is a lot of lively discussion about which fach it falls into – is it for a lighter voice singing up? A heavier voice singing down? A low voice singing high? And looming over the whole (mainly joyous) preparation process, is a quote from Strauss himself, namely that he wanted his Salome to have the voice of Isolde, but in the body of a sixteen year old girl. The opera opens with the line “Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute nacht!” and the norm is that Salome gets her kit off in return for a snog with the severed head of John the Baptist. No pressure then!

I’ve got my kit off on stage before. I’ve been a topless Tatyana at Scottish Opera, as well as doing the traditional breasts-out bit in The Knot Garden. I’ve got down to my underwear doing a sex scene with Alan Opie in For You (he managed to get away with only removing his shoes). Most outrageously, on arriving to do a late jump-in in Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel in Montepulciano, I was met by the director who greeted me effusively with “Hello Rachel, now we will go to ze sex shop!”, where he proceeded to watch me parade around in a variety of ever increasingly pervy outfits until he was satisfied that what he wanted for ze concept was me in a pair of white PVC hot pants, 4 inch perspex mules and nothing else. However all of this was an increasingly alarming number of years ago when I was jung und schön. I’m very much afraid that I’m now just und. I don’t have a problem with nudity on stage at all… as long as it’s justified by the piece and by the production, but I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive about the prospect of baring all in my mid-forties.

It’s not just women who feel the pressure – a baritone friend of mine who was double cast in a shirtless role with a notable barihunk tells me that he’d spent weeks psyching himself up to go on stage topless for the first time. The director took one look at him and said “We will find you a shirt”. Ouch!

Performers are all to some extent exhibitionists. Every time we go out onto the stage we are putting ourselves in front of a judgmental and critical public. In fact the whole process from our singing teacher’s studio, through the coachings, the rehearsal room, and stage rehearsals until we finally get to the performances is an exercise in us singing our hearts out and acting our socks off, and getting feedback on our best efforts. It takes a huge amount of mental and emotional strength to withstand being criticised every day, and those of us who choose to do this for a living have to fundamentally get a bit of a kick out of showing off. Even so, you have to be very brave to stand up in front of an audience. The higher profile the gig, and the more of a reputation you have, the greater the pressure. And we aren’t just judged on the quality of our voices, our ability to communicate and our musicianship. Clothed or unclothed, we are judged on how we look too.

Between my skinny late twenties and my recent illness and subsequent weight loss, owing to a busy lifestyle, my love of all things food and drink related, and a genuine belief that I sang better at about 2 stone heavier than I “should be”, I was a British size 14-16 who worked out. While my GP used to tut gently about my BMI, at 5’5″, I didn’t (quite) qualify as obese. Nevertheless, I stood in costume fittings being humiliated by various designers and wardrobe staff, listening to them discussing my bingo wings and spare tyre and how they needed to be disguised. Every time I revived an existing production and the (more famous) person who’d done it before was thinner than me, there were mutterings about re-making costumes and expense. It felt horrible. Worse still, my optimistic belief that it was only the costume fascists who cared was shattered when I overheard some audience members at Leicester Square tube complaining about how big my hips looked in my Die Meistersinger and saying that they felt my appearance undermined the plausibility of the story. I mean let’s just consider the story of Die Meistersinger for a moment- dad offers his daughter as a prize in a singing competition, and the man who’s been in love with her for years loses on purpose for the good of Holy German Art. Obviously how big my bum looked was crucial to the suspension or not of disbelief.

I felt militant about this. It made me very angry. I gave the people on the tube platform a piece of my mind and told them only to make personal remarks when they were further away from the performance venue. I fought my battles for flattering costumes where possible and tried not to obsess about how I looked. After all, it was my voice that mattered, right?

Melanie Lodge of the wonderful Audition Oracle has recently masterminded a new singing competition where it really will be people’s voices that matter. Her By Voice Alone initiative is designed to remove unconscious bias from a panel of judges. In the first round, contestants (for whom there is no age limit) will sing to a panel made up of representatives nominated by the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and The Grange Festival in a blind audition, with no names, CVs or headshots. The 30 voices considered the best, will be put forward to sing the the competition jury. The final round will be for 5-8 singers, and will be judged on a combination of their voices and stage ability. Melanie’s hope is to encourage more diversity within the industry, and I wish her every success with it.

Personally, when I’m watching an opera, I don’t need the characters on stage to conform to supermodel proportions. I’m captivated by the story, the music, the concept and the characters. How those characters are packaged up is the least interesting bit. I certainly hope that as an industry we can move on from the infamous Little Black Dress scandal at Covent Garden in the early naughties, and #Dumpygate at Glyndebourne. I would absolutely love more diversity in the opera industry. Opera is about life, (and often death). Its themes are moving and relevant to everyone and it would be great if everyone could be represented..with the proviso that everyone involved needs to be able to do the music justice – I draw the line at casting non-singers in the interests of equal opportunities.

Something that often gets left out of the diversity debate is age. The age at which singers’ voices are in their prime doesn’t necessarily coincide with when the singers are at their peak-castability. A combination of “aesthetic considerations” and economics (young, less-experienced singers are cheaper) means a lot of singers, particularly women, in their 40s struggle to find work, even though they’re singing better than ever. This is sad, and I hope that it will change.

So why then, am I getting my own knickers in such a twist and subjecting myself to a rigorous 5-days-a-week regime of running, personal training and dance lessons in the lead up to Salome rehearsals? Well, half of the answer is pragmatism. I know how I would like the industry to look, but I also know how it would like me to look. I know just how hard it is to sustain a performing career, particularly as a woman over 40. I may have to some extent dodged the ageing ingenue bullet by singing repertoire you can’t really touch until middle-age, but I still feel the pressure. Although I feel that we should be accepted in all our wonderful diverse shapes and sizes, I know it will hurt if there are sniggers from the auditorium (or in the press) after the opening line of the opera. Although it seems on that score, I can’t win. I don’t read reviews (you can read about why here), but I’m reliably informed that many of the crits of my first Elektra commented on my size- this time that it’s surprising that I’m thin. Sigh.

In a highly competitive environment, it helps to have a USP. I can’t control how the industry perceives middle-aged women, but I can make choices which make me more employable. And the other element to my fitness crusade is that it’s going to give me more choices about what I do on the stage. I will be in a position to have a go at whatever the choreographer wants to challenge me with. Knowing I’ve worked hard to achieve the strongest, most flexible body I can have is empowering, and gives me confidence at a time when I think I’ll definitely need it. If I feel confident, and am not using mental space and emotional energy feeling insecure, it is going to make my characterisation of a sixteen year old girl who’s only ever been told she’s beautiful more convincing.

So, am I betraying my diversity principles by doing sit-ups and yoga in my hotel room and going running in the snow? I think I would have to say yes, if body-image was my primary reason for doing it. But I’m also prepared to admit that in order to do this job, lots of us need things to help prop us up. I used to find huge release from the pressure of my performing life from a few glasses of wine and comfort food. Following doctor’s orders, those things are no longer a good idea, so now, I find headspace, solace and feel-good endorphins from my runner’s high instead.

My drama teacher at college told me that the first step to taking on a character starts with self-awareness. I know that if I had the most beautiful voice in the world, the rest of the package would matter less- the audience would be transported and it wouldn’t matter what I looked like. Similarly, if I looked like a supermodel, there would be more of a chance for the eye to deceive the ear, and my singing ability would matter less. If I were the truly uninhibited, brave performer I wish I was, I’d be able to convince an audience that I’m a sixteen year old princess at the age of 60, stark naked, and weighing 30 stone.

But I’m not Pavarotti, I’m not a supermodel, I’m not Judi Dench, and fundamentally, I’m not brave enough to strip without my emotional support system of toning my arms and glutes. So, in the same way that I work on my voice to make the most of what nature’s given me, and continually work on my process and stage skills to improve my characterisation and acting, I’ll carry on with my mission to keep strong, fit and healthy, and in a position to do the dance of the seven veils without getting out of breath, and hopefully without eliciting guffaws from the dress circle. By the time I’m 60, let’s hope for more enlightened times… or maybe by then Herodias will be a better option!

 

I don’t do it for the money!

Old suitcases

There are glorious aspects of the life of an opera singer, but personally I wouldn’t class foreign travel, hotels (however luxurious and often they aren’t!) and aeroplanes as my favourites. The logistics of my life involve a lot of sparrow’s fart starts, lists (passport, dog’s passport, dog, wallet, Yorkshire teabags), and airports. I hate airports. I hate the humiliating way we are all herded and corralled, our forced handing-in of water bottles and hand cream only to be bombarded with the items we’ve just handed over at twice the price once we’ve gone through security, and most of all I hate the plastic air. It gives me a headache. The lights are too bright, maybe in an effort to wake up zombified passengers all blundering about in states of sleep-deprived bewilderment and buying things they didn’t realise they’d forgotten from shops that don’t sell anything useful. I also hate the fact that personally, I always forget a charger for one of my essential bits of sanity-saving tech (phone, iPad, Kindle, smartwatch) and have to shell out £20 to Currys every time I travel anywhere because I am addicted to being plugged in at all times. Airports suck.

Doing what would otherwise be my hobby for a living doesn’t suck. Singing is great, but usually there is something which stops it being really fun. Either it’s somewhere high profile and scary which means I have to be very stressed about being rather better than medium, or there will be a muppet directing, or a conductor who does 1 in exactly the same way as 2 or stirs his arms around in wild circles while shouting that no-one is following him (seriously, I think they should have to pass an MOT every year demonstrating that 1 goes DOWN and the up-beat goes UP), or there will be a costume or prop trauma (the red dress which I had to wear concealed under my army uniform which had an unfortunate habit of descending while I was digging Florestan’s grave while I was still supposed to be a boy, and the hairpiece concealed under my hat which Marzelline had an unfortunate habit of knocking off during the trio in Act 1 both conspired to make Fidelio a very stressful experience), or we’ll be told that Peter Katona might be coming to watch (N.B. We are almost never told which performance he is coming to, so we have to try to be better than we are for all the shows in the run).

I jest of course. Those people who know me well know that I am a passionate believer in trying to make every performance as good as it can be because a) why wouldn’t we? and b) the audience only comes once (apart from the people in Basel who met me at the stage door saying they’d come to Elektra seven times and when was I doing it in Karlsruhe because they wanted to come to all of those too- LOVELY PEOPLE!). But if you’re a bit of a perfectionist, there is always an element of pressure about performing. It’s also rare that you’re having a day when you feel 100% in good voice and like you can do anything – usually you’re getting better from something or you have hay fever or the air conditioning in your hotel room has dried you out or you are jet-lagged, and if you are having the best day ever and feel like you are superwoman you are almost certainly going to wake up with a stinking cold the following day (something about the pre-snot inflammation in its early stages does amazing things for your resonance I think).

During our recent Siegfried with the Hallé, a colleague expressed perfectly what I’ve been feeling for the whole of my performing career. He said he doesn’t get paid for singing. He sings for free. He gets paid for the nerves he suffers, the travelling, missing his family while he’s away, the pressures of keeping his voice in tip-top condition all the time, and for being a sitting target for the critics. This is it, and purely financially, many of us would earn more and possibly have less stress doing something else. We’d certainly have a bit more security. I know of lots of singers who temp in the quieter times, or have sidelines and second jobs. Sometimes it seems we’re all subsidising our very expensive hobby of opera singing with other things. I have always taught alongside performing, because I want a safety net. I’m very lucky because I’ve been constantly in singing work for 20 years- I have a fantastic agent who is very proactive at finding me opportunities. My husband’s record is even better and longer than mine. Somehow he’s managed to do it for 30 while working  almost exclusively in the UK and while being his own agent. Admittedly there are usually 2 or 3 parts to suit him in every opera (Q:Andrew are you a bass or a baritone? A: Which do you need this time?) but during our time treading the boards, we’ve both lost wonderful, talented colleagues to other more lucrative careers. Best of all possible luck to them, but I suppose for both of us, even with the pressures, the nerves, the insecurity, the time away from home and the hard, hard work that it involves, we both love it too much to give it up.

This love of my job was really brought home to me yesterday when I ventured to St Albans to perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah.St_Albans_Cathedral_Exterior_from_west,_Herfordshire,_UK_-_Diliff

Choral society concerts have always been part of my professional singing life and I have always loved them. 20 years ago when I was starting out, most of the people in the choir were my mum’s age. Now, although we’re told that it’s hard to get young people to join, a lot of them are my age (which goes to show that I obviously don’t count as a young person any more). I love that we are always greeted by helpful, enthusiastic choir members (yesterday one of them got into my car and directed me personally to my special parking space because I was in a panic about the one-way system). I love the effort many of the choir ladies go to to make their choir uniform unique – I am never wearing as much jewellery or makeup as anyone in the first sopranos. I love the team spirit and pulling together and the good-natured response the choir has to being shouted at by the conductor who is desperate to pass on last minute potentially concert-saving instructions. I love the “are we still in tune?” vibe after the unaccompanied bits, and the smug smiles or smiley shrugs when the orchestra comes back in depending on the answer. I love that we are offered hospitality between the rehearsal and the concert. Usually the phrase “You won’t want anything heavy before you sing, will you?” which could theoretically make a hungry singer’s heart sink, precedes the unveiling of a veritable feast. There is ALWAYS quiche. I love quiche.

And then there’s the music. Many of my European colleagues are simply astounded when I explain that in the UK we’re used to putting together a piece which lasts nearly three hours in a three hour rehearsal in an afternoon with a group of musicians who we’ve never met, and performing it together in the evening. Our rich tradition of amateur choral singing of which we’re rightfully very proud, and our brilliantly trained, fearless, sight-reading- proficient musicians, enable large-scale choral works to be put on in our beautiful Cathedrals and concert halls in towns up and down the country with the tiniest amount of tutti rehearsal. For what sounds like a gentle day out in a pretty Cathedral town, it’s actually high-octane stuff. We only get to sing through everything once. In the concert we have to be cool under pressure and it’s just as important to get it right as when we’re singing a main role at ENO. The choir has rehearsed for months in preparation. Their subscriptions are paying our fees and they deserve our best singing, and for us to wear really spectacular concert frocks.

Yesterday’s concert was genuinely one of the best I’ve ever done. We had a professional orchestra (the excellent Sinfonia Verdi), the choir was fantastic (the joint forces of St Albans Bach Choir, the Cathedral Choir, the Abbey Girls Choir and the Abbey Singers) and the conductor, Andrew Lucas, was musical, incisive, clear (he did 1 going DOWN and the up-beat going UP), well-prepared, calm, polite and just such a pleasure to work with. The mezzo who sang the most beautiful rendition of “Woe” I’ve heard, is someone who I privately tipped as one to watch when I first heard her, and whose voice and career have blossomed over the last few years. The tenor, a friend who I’ve worked alongside for a great many years, gave a spectacular and charismatic performance- technically so assured and just so classy- and last, but by no means least, the baritone was simply the best young low voice I’ve heard this decade, and managed to sing the whole of Elijah out in the rehearsal as well as the concert without getting remotely tired.

Add to this the genius of Mendelssohn’s choral writing- if you don’t believe me please go and listen to Blessed are the men who fear him immediately- the low evening sunbeams peeking through the stained glass of the cathedral, the swell of the orchestral sound and the organ, the glorious voices of all of those singers raised together, all riding on a wave of the most enormous enthusiasm and what you get is an absolute treat for the audience, and also for every single person involved in the concert. Singing your heart out with no thought for the baggage associated with being a professional singer is pure exhilaration. If we as professionals can get swept up in it, just for an afternoon and an evening, we are tapping in to something which reminds us why we got the bug for singing in the first place.  Music making is a wonderful thing and singing, amateur or professional, has many compensations.

 

 

The Art of Revival – A square peg in a round hole or something more creative?

26240342_1736917963037977_3403388135373257193_o

ⓒSandra Then/ Theater Basel

Every time the phone rings with news of a new, exciting opera contract it presages a heady day of euphoria, pride, relief and usually the optimistic paying off of my credit card in full. When we’re booked for a job we are vindicated as artists. Someone loves us. In these turbulent times of Arts’ cuts and austerity, the promised financial reward can mean the difference between identifying as an Artist, and identifying as a more-or-less full-time Temp.

Friends of mine have often joked that the day you’re booked is fabulous, and so is the day you get paid (often months and MONTHS after the last performance if the last two years’ track record is anything to go by), but everything in between is torture. I sympathise but cannot concur. Ultimately I act and sing because I am a massive show-off who likes acting and singing. For me, there are two days that are even better in the life-cycle of an opera contract- the first day of rehearsals when the director explains the concept of his or her vision of the piece, usually accompanied by the designer with amazing drawings of what supermodels would look like in the costumes, and a sexy model of the set, and the Sitzprobe where I meet the orchestra for the first time. I get genuinely very excited about these. In both cases, there is so much potential for creativity. So many artistic people to meet and bounce ideas off.

Of course, the ultimate collaborative creative process is a new production of an opera. These are less common than you might think though. New productions are incredibly expensive and they’re a risk for the Opera House. More often than not, us singers are slotting into a production which has already been done, where other singers have collaborated with the Artistic Team and have had 6-8 weeks of character-work, discussion of concepts and have come up with a blocking which is instinctive and comfortable for them. Coming into this, sometimes in a different Opera House, can feel like trying to fit a square peg (me) into a round hole (the gap left by the more-famous singer who did it last time).

Often, the director isn’t even there. We rehearse with a revival director. Sometimes we are lucky and it’s someone who worked on the piece when it was first conceived, but sometimes we get someone who has only had a chance to read the director’s notes and watch the DVD a few times before being left in charge of a bunch of unruly and recalcitrant opera singers, none of whom has any idea of the important themes the director wanted to bring out, and all of whom complain vociferously about whatever the original cast did in each scene. The revival director must then tread a very careful line between keeping the new cast happy enough so that the prima donna does not announce “I go airporrrrt!” on day 3, and retaining enough of the original director’s vision so that the production will still hang together cohesively and be close enough to the original that they won’t get fired when he or she swans in for the General, ready to take all of the credit at the Premiere-which-is-not-a-premiere.

So, often, the process can be a little bit bumpy. We get frustrated because we are doing someone else’s moves, wearing a costume designed to suit someone else and our little creative flames are dimmed as we feel we don’t have any input. We have to stick to the blocking devised by someone else for someone else because if we don’t we will be standing in the dark (the lighting design suddenly becomes the most important diva in the room as soon as we’re into technical rehearsals).

We’re trying to be replacement panes of glass through which the audience can look into the innermost depths of the piece, but who contribute no personality of our own. We are, after all, being artificially separated from the drama by an extra degree. I’m not Rachel playing Isolde, I’m Rachel trying to play Nina playing Isolde (actually I’ll stop there – I would definitely settle for Rachel playing Nina any day… if only I could sing like her too…).

Tristano_2187

ⓒEdoardo Piva/Teatro Regio di Torino

Add to that double-casting and we have yet another layer to factor in. Rachel plays Ricarda playing Nina playing Isolde? It gets very complicated. But in a way that’s reassuring because all of these interpreters do contribute something of their own and every interpretation which I do, watch or listen to informs my own understanding of the character- which means my own characterisation becomes much more faceted and three-dimensional. Which will be very useful next time I do a new production.

Of course it’s not just characterisation “baggage” we pick up along the way- I’ve now sung Isolde under the batons of eight different conductors with ten different orchestras. Musically I now have the huge luxury of “favourite” bits of interpretation from each of these experiences which I hope I will take into future performances. Sometimes I see myself as a tumbleweed, or a snowball, adding layers and layers onto myself as I career chaotically down a slope.

Sometimes though, even when it is  a revival, the creative process can be something of a dream-come-true and this is what I’ve had at Theater Basel in Elektra which opened last night. I have been gearing up to this production for the last year. Elektra is a rite of passage for Dramatic Sopranos. It’s huge. It’s epic. The orchestra barely fits in the pit. The music’s really, really hard and you need to sing athletically as well as with a huge amount of stamina, but it’s a different race-plan to Wagner. Tristan is a marathon. Think of Elektra as the 1500 metres –  a race in which you have to run as fast as you can for the entire time. I was beyond excited at singing for Erik Nielsen who I think is one of the very best conductors I’ve ever worked with, and the process kicked off with a week of music calls. To have this time to spend on working out what we wanted to do with the music was the most enormous luxury and I fear has spoilt me for all future jobs.

 

IMG_1627

ⓒSandra Then/Theater Basel

In Basel we also had the luxury of a six-week production rehearsal period for a revival. This is really generous, particularly considering the piece is only 90 minutes long (admittedly the most intense 90 minutes I’ve ever experienced). Our Original Director, David Bösch was there on day one and his first sentence and the concept-talk was enough to reassure us that we would be collaborating in the process wholeheartedly. He said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Once I’d seen the designs by Patrick Bannwart, Maria Wolgast and the costumes by Meentje Nielsen I was completely wooed. When David told me he was a horror-film nut and gave me “homework” of watching “The Woman”, “Eden Lake” and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. He had to go somewhere else as his Tote Stadt was premiering in another theatre so we got to work with Barbora Horáková-Joly our (amazing) Revival Director. She didn’t seem ever to be compromising either our creativity or the production concept. She explained the overall blocking shape the production took in each scene and then let us develop the characters and relationships ourselves. If something didn’t work we scrapped it and started again from scratch. When someone had a brilliant (or slightly sick and twisted) idea, we found a way to slot it in to the production.

When David came back two weeks later, the show looked very different. He loved it. He took our new ideas and ran with them with his own unique spin. He came up with some even sicker and twisteder ideas. Together with Meentje, he decided that our characters needed less “theatrical” costumes and wigs because of the way we were playing. The design was adjusted accordingly. Ursula (Klytamnestra) and I got to go on with our own hair (roots and all) and Pauliina (Chrysothemis) got to perform in her rehearsal costume instead of the pretty dress she’d been given originally. The lighting design was adjusted and brightened so all the little extra details we had worked in would be visible at the back of the theatre. We were happy.

In terms of artistic creativity, this decision from the Director and the Costume Designer was an enormous act of trust. By letting us be more natural, they were willing to take the risk that what we were doing on stage was going to stand by itself without the extra heightened image that the more formal costumes and wigs were providing. For me, it made becoming the character a far more organic process  – by physically working in an intense way for weeks, I didn’t need to play “dressing up”. The physical manifestation of Elektra was all about how I used my body, not what I was dressed in and as a result, when I went on stage last night for the Premiere, I was more comfortable in Elektra’s skin and in my costume than ever before and I felt there was no barrier between me and her. At no point did I give a thought to being someone else playing Elektra.

Trust, time and open-mindedness from everyone involved in this production were the key ingredients to making it such a very satisfying artistic process. Thank you Theater Basel for collecting together a cast and team of very creative people and letting them have the time to get to know and trust each other to develop something organic and cohesive together. This is how I want to work. This is what it should be like!

 

Elektra runs until 23rd April at Theater Basel.

Couch (no, really!) to sub-30 5K

So today I ran my first ever sub-30 minute 5K. I’ve been aiming for this since I started running regularly (see Jogging for Divas) – mainly because Jade-the-Nazi (my long-suffering ex-personal-trainer) told me that under 30 minutes was a “non-embarrassing time”.

IMG_1339

I am delighted that Jade-the-Nazi no longer counts me among the embarrassing members of Nuffield Health and Fitness, but for me the achievement means so much more than that.

 

Earlier this year, I nearly died. It’s not an exaggeration. I had a vile virus which turned into a viler bacterial infection. Around this time I went to Germany to sing Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. I had to stop 3 times on the way to the airport to throw up in lay-bys. I rang my husband and whined that I really didn’t feel well enough to go and wanted to come home and go to the Doctor’s. His sympathetic response went something like “For God’s sake Rachel you’re not even ill enough to waste the Doctor’s time. Don’t be so bloody wet. You’ve got food poisoning. Get on the plane, sing your thing and collect the money.” I got on the plane, sang my thing and collected the money. I came back exhausted and a bit of a funny shade of yellow.

The virus it seemed had decided to attack my liver which meant I had to go to hospital where the doctors looked worriedly at my charts and made dire prognoses. One of the scans was very worrying. I was sent for extra blood tests with a form saying “probable primary liver cancer” – my husband took a picture of it. I’m really not quite sure why. At this point he did at least concede that I was “a bit poorly”.

There’s not really much treatment for liver failure because any medicine you take would have to be processed by yes, your liver. They sent me home to see if I would get better or not. The blood test results came back. Fortunately, the lumpy bits they thought might be tumours on the scan turned out to be new bits of liver. I waited to feel better. For months.

I needed to sleep. ALL THE TIME. I would wake up late, foetid and sweaty in bed. By midday I’d manage to have a bath which would exhaust me, so I’d need a rest on the settee. This rest would last all day until, exhausted by resting, I would go to bed early. This went on for weeks. I lived in pyjamas and only put clothes on for hospital appointments. I wore out my slippers. The settee and I became BFFs. I watched the whole of Netflix. Twice. For the first time ever, I had to pull out of an opera contract. This was particularly gutting because I’d just finished memorising the role before I got ill.

And for the first time in my life I had no appetite at all. None. The only thing that could tempt me was ice cream and fruit juice. We bought a juicer. My husband spent hours splattering the kitchen with sticky goo. My favourite was pear and grape. Blackberry, celery and carrot was less successful and made indelible stains on the worktop.

My husband was on a mission to find me tempting things to encourage me to eat. The real breakthrough came when he supplemented my Mackies Vanilla and pear and grape diet with a new superfood. The toasted teacake. Toasted teacakes are BRILLIANT! I quickly became a connoisseur. Tesco Finest win hands down. Sainsbury’s are very poor in comparison and don’t get me started on Warburtons extra-fruity- Rubbish.

Very slowly, I began to respond to the toasted teacake cure. I had more tests done, the results were a tiny bit better and the doctors started talking about recovery instead of booking the crematorium.  I stopped worrying quite so much that I was never going to get to the bottom of who did it in Line of Duty. At this point my husband decided to buy me the best of all possible incentives to get wellIMG_0986.  Meet Juno the Healing-Dog. Seriously have you ever seen anything cuter? Seeing this picture posted by a local breeder, I roused myself from the sick-settee to go puppy-shopping.

Well we were never going to come home without her were we?  As soon as we had got her in from the car, Andrew announced he had to go straight off to Durham to be Scarpia so it was just me and her.

Juno required 24/7 attention and LOTS of cuddles. To start off with, I breathlessly lumbered around after her, but gradually it became easier and easier. By the time she was allowed to go for walks outside the garden, I was well enough to take her.

Ok, so the second walk we went on was not a great success. I took her to the Five Pits Trail for an explore. She tried to eat a (full) poo bag left by someone else on the footpath. I tried to get it out of her mouth. She ripped an enormous poo-filled hole in the palm of my hand and I had to go to A and E and explain that my liver consultant had told me not to take any medication at all unless completely unavoidable. Dire pronouncements and lots of iodine followed my refusal of antibiotics . When I proudly showed the consultant my scar at the next appointment I said “I didn’t take any antibiotics!” “That was bloody stupid!” he replied.

I continued to recover with the help of my furry companion. I stopped being yellow. By June I was well enough to sing in some concerts. In July I went to Lisbon to perform the Liebestod and the Immolation Scene. I made it to St Endellion to immolate myself again, feeling that I was well and truly “back on the horse” – thanks Grane – and then I went out to São Paulo to sing Act 2 of Tristan which was a nice warm-up for doing the whole role here in Turin.

During this time, Juno had progressed to needing 2 half hour walks a day. I got my trusty fitbit out of its retirement in my bedside drawer and was pleasantly surprised that I was meeting my step goal just by doing that. I started, slowly to get my appetite back and began to eat nourishing, healthy food to try and speed my recovery as much as I could.  The nearly-dying diet had meant I’d lost nearly 2 stone. After talking it over with my consultant, I decided to make a concerted effort to get down to a healthy BMI. I’d always felt my ideal singing weight was about a stone heavier than the upper limit, but my health was now my top priority. Back I toddled to Slimming World, and before too long, I achieved my target with the help of the wonderful Sandra Oldfield.

But I wanted to boost my fitness too. Given the go-ahead by my consultant (but with the warning from his lovely registrar that I would be “rubbish after so long not running”) I embarked on the NHS couch to 5k plan as part of my mission to be as healthy as possible. I can’t recommend this plan enough. It is fantastic. Bearing in mind I’d been hard pushed to stagger from the settee to the kitchen unless there was the lure of a toasted teacake as late on as May, I really needed to start completely from scratch. I stuck to the plan religiously and had built up to the whole distance a couple of weeks before I came out to Turin. I’ve been running 5 days out of 7 since being here and slowly but surely, I’ve got faster.

As far as the singing goes, I decided that the best way of being singing-fit to sing Isolde was to sing Isolde over and over again to build up my muscle strength.  The only thing that makes you fit for singing Wagner is singing Wagner. It feels very different singing with a different body, and I have to work a lot harder, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

So eight months on from getting ill, I am probably the fittest I’ve ever been. I have turned into one of those annoying morning people who goes running in a cute little baseball cap before breakfast. I am teetotal and I do yoga every day. I suppose it’s a mid-life crisis of sorts. All I can say is a massive THANK YOU to my husband, my mum and dad, my best friend and my godsons and all of my wonderful friends and colleagues who’ve supported me through being ill and getting better. Just being well enough to run again makes me so happy. Especially if there’s a toasted teacake at the end!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the Fourth Norn doesn’t read reviews.

img_0106

I’m aware that I have a voice which polarises both the professional critics and the public. Some people love how exciting it is to be pinned to the back of the theatre by its metallic, chainsaw-like quality. On the other hand, rather than being viscerally thrilled, others feel instead eviscerated, and would prefer to turn off their hearing aids or escape the theatre altogether.

For the first part of my career, I was absolutely DESPERATE to please. I wanted everyone in the audience to love my singing. I wanted to be all things to all conductors and would tie myself in ever more complicated knots of muscle tension to try to make my voice do what they wanted. My USP was that I could sing (or at least would have a go at singing) anything. Except, that it wasn’t really a USP. It was a massive con. Effectively I was cheating the musicians I worked alongside and the public by doing an impression of other singers, who because of natural predispositions, superior instruments or different experiences were better at the particular repertoire I was performing than I was. It took me until I was 35 to “find my true voice”, and once I’d found it, I had to train it, nurture it and learn to love it.

Well that’s one spin. The other side of the story, is that just as I wouldn’t play Bach on my violin in the same way that I play Bruch (and probably truth be told most people would prefer me not to play either), I didn’t sing Handel or, yes, Bach, the way I sang Mozart. And I used different vocal colours again for Beethoven, Shostakovitch, Tchaikowsky and Birtwhistle. I used a very different style again when singing Yentl down a microphone at the Concertgebouw or singing Swedish Pop Songs in the Dutch crossover group, CALL (if you look hard enough the internet evidence can probably still be found, but please don’t!) This attention to style and performance practice made me versatile and popular and paid my mortgage for over a decade.

But nothing quite felt  “right” until I dipped my toe, and eventually plunged headlong into the Wagnerian waters in which I’m currently swimming. All of a sudden, everything seemed to fall into place. The jigsaw of technique I’d been assembling over the years finally became a recognisable picture. It felt like coming home. The complexity I have always so loved in Baroque Music enticed me into the lush, late-Romantic era in all its glory. Now, I can even sit through a whole recording of Siegfried (which is all about tenors for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure) without fidgeting. Much.

So I became much more of a one-trick pony. That trick is to sing loudly over the biggest orchestras you can imagine, all blowing and scraping as hard as they can, and be heard. At the back of  very big theatres. In operas that go on for hours and hours. I put all of my effort and application into getting good at this new skill. And the result is, well, not always pretty but usually pretty effective.

And here we come to the crux of the confidence crises of so many singers. I know my limitations. I’ve worked alongside the very best Wagnerians in the world. One of the Wagnerian legends of our age is my singing teacher. I’ve listened to her recordings and wept. I can’t do the magical things she did. Annie Evans span lines of radiant rose-gold. Everything about her singing is warm. Her legato is completely flawless. Her voice a thing of unmitigated beauty. In comparison I am all stainless-steel and hard edges. I skewer the lines through the orchestra. I penetrate. She’s an artist and I am an artiSAN. I am workmanlike.

The thing is though, my one-trick skill (which I am constantly honing, evening out, rounding off- imagine me as a Blacksmith, patiently forging each performance out of increasingly precious metal, making it more ornate and less cumbersome each time, aiming for strength, a searingly sharp edge and burnished beauty, all to the specifications of the conductor) is good enough. Not for my personal satisfaction and certainly not for Annie’s. But it’s good enough to get me the job.

So I have performance opportunities. I’m a very hard worker and I have really good intentions.  In many ways I am very proud to be a craftsman rather than an artist. What I do is all about the nuts and bolts. It’s all about understanding how the thing is put together. Ultimately the artistic decisions about the piece are made in collaboration (if I’m lucky) with the conductor and the director. My job is to make their magic happen with my technical skill. That technical skill (currently still very much under development) is to offer them as many artistic choices as possible. Within the limitations of my individual instrument.

And because of my awareness of those limitations, and the aesthetic sensibility I do have, I am very cognisant, always, of not being good enough. I walk out on to the stage for every performance with a mix of sensible preparation, trepidation and optimism. I know I’m getting better, but each audience is only there for one performance and I always feel I owe them rather better than my best. After all, most of them are die-hard Wagner fans. They have all the recordings. And a lot of them would secretly prefer those recordings to be magically recreated for them live, rather than submit themselves to the ordeal of a younger generation giving it their best shot.

But that’s the thing. We ARE all giving it our best shot. We’re giving it our best shot within the constraints of the artistic sensibilities of the conductor and the director. The questions I’m subjected to by members of the audience on a regular basis: “Why did you decide not to die at the end?”, “What made you choose that costume? It didn’t suit you!”, “Why did you start the Liebestod so slowly?” – these are all borne out of a massive misconception that I have ANY ARTISTIC VETO AT ALL. During the rehearsal process I can argue my case and lobby for what I feel is essential but after the discussion is over, my job is to do the agreed version of the piece. I view myself as a craftsman. So do the artistic team. Audience perception of my artistic input is the subject for another blog and I won’t venture further into it here, but suffice to say, a lot of the things you thought were terrible ideas WEREN’T MINE! Admittedly, I can’t take the credit for the genius pacing of the accelerando and slow, irrevocable building to a climax of the  Liebestod in last night’s Tristan either. That was Daniele Gatti’s artistry and I was just lucky enough to be carried along by his momentum. He made it so very easy for me to sing what can be such a very hard aria at the end of a very long evening (it was well past midnight when I started on “Mild und Leise”).

And this is why we, the public, rely on critiques from professionals to help us be discerning. A professional critic should be able to judge what is down to the singer, and what that singer has been subjected to at the hands of the artistic team. A professional critic will be aware of the great interpreters of the roles and their legacies. I have a huge amount of respect for these writers who are so very well-informed about not just the music we interpret but of the performance history of each piece and of the CVs of all of the singers and of the creative team. How else can they legitimately tell us what is good and what isn’t? After all, the reception of a work of art is entirely subjective, but critics have a duty to justify their opinions to the public. We won’t be satisfied with “I liked X’s voice. I thought Y conducted the piece too slowly.” – We need references and reasons. We need to trust.

I may be naïve, but I like to assume that whoever is criticising my performance has prepared to the same level I have. I like to think that if they’re influencing the Wagner fans of the world to think well or badly of my best efforts, that they’ve done their homework and know what they’re talking about. If any would-be critics are reading this and feeling guilty then may I refer you to an earlier paragraph about my feeling inadequate? To perform one of these roles I need to be flawless of pitch, rhythm and text. I need to remember all of the dynamic markings and the tempo changes. I need to adapt to whatever the conductor and any of my colleagues throws at me during the performance and I often need to do it dressed in a hideously unflattering costume (NOT MY CHOICE) made of rubber which makes me sweat so much I am dehydrated. If you’re going to criticise me, you, in return, need to demonstrate background knowledge, beautiful prose, flawless spelling and grammar and an ability to discern who is responsible for what.

The thing is though, however brilliant you are at your job (and, believe me, as an aspiring writer myself, I have huge admiration for many of you),  you need to understand that nothing you can say is going to influence what I do during any performance during the run. The reason is very simple. I don’t read reviews. It’s not just because if you’re mean about me in the National Press, I cry.

My good friend, the wonderful baritone,  Brett Polegato related to me a conversation he’d had with a colleague:                                                                                                                               -“This review’s awesome about you, but it’s really mean about me!”

 -“Oh! Does that mean you’re going to start trying?”

Brett’s point was that the colleague was already doing his best. He was already singing as well as he could sing. He was acting as well as he could act. He was interpreting the artistic decisions of the artistic team in a good and professional way. What was he going to change because of the review? Was he going to change the way he sang? Well let’s hope not without consulting the conductor. Presumably the conductor had given him all the input he felt was necessary before the first night. The same goes for the acting. Changing the level of energy in either singing or acting affects the overall picture of the entire production. However important we feel our role is to the performance, we are a part of something bigger. The balance of the overall picture is chosen by the artistic team. If we change it, WE ARE BEING UNPROFESSIONAL. We are not doing what we’ve been engaged to do.

If I read an unflattering review, I feel more rather than less insecure. However professional I attempt to be, I will be tempted to change aspects of my performance to align myself more to what I believe the public wants, represented by the critic. Now, ultimately I know I sing for my supper and if I don’t please the public, I’ll go hungry, but I have to accept that although to some extent I am accountable for the public enjoying their entertainment, being a maverick and playing to the gallery by altering my interpretation because of a review is unfair to my employers. It’s unfair to my colleagues and ultimately it’s unfair to the piece of art which must stand or fall in its entirety.

That’s why I don’t read reviews. Ever. Even if,on rare occasions, I’m told they are “love letters”. Because it won’t do me  or any of the rest of the cast any good to be complacent and smug. And on all the other occasions, it is vital that everyone on the team has a confidence borne out of the integrity of the entire production to put themselves out there and do their best. Ultimately, an opera production is all about preparation, collaboration, vision and trust. Of these trust is the most important.

The Saga of the Undeliverable Cheese

 

 

 

img_0670

I love cheese. I love crackers. I love wine. I like to play a game whereby when I am consuming these together, every time something runs out the presence of the other two components offers a cast-iron excuse to replenish plate or glass: “I’ll just have some more wine to go with my cheese and biscuits”, “I’ll just have some more crackers to go with my cheese and wine”… you get the idea. It’s a game for one or more players which can go on for hours.

So lately I have been experimenting with getting posh food delivered so that I can be adventurous with my cooking and eating. Abel and Cole has proved a massive success. Gorgeous vegetables, yummy organic meat and reliable, friendly delivery man.

And we sampled some absolutely world class cheese at the Chatsworth Country Fair earlier this month from Neal’s Yard Dairies. Imagine my delight when I found out that you could order online and get it delivered to your door (for an exorbitant extra charge). I was considering signing up for their exciting “Cheese of the Month” scheme as well as ordering yummy Colton Basset Stilton and  mouthwatering mature cheddar.

But here’s the thing, we all know that waiting in for deliveries can be annoying and frustrating and the only guarantee is that the doorbell will go when you are on the toilet/teaching a singing student/out, but my recent experience has been so outrageous that I felt moved to share it.

When you order online from NYD, you are given a provisional date for delivery and you’re also given a link so you can track your order. You’re advised that UPS will contact you the night before your parcel is due to arrive. Obviously you provide your address and postcode.

The first time I ordered cheese, I was given a provisional date of delivery on September 6th. UPS didn’t email me on 5th and on the morning of September 6th I received an email saying my parcel would be delivered on 7th. So far so good. I go out for the morning to buy wine and crackers in Tesco. While I’m there I receive two emails from UPS. One advised me that the delivery was going to take place on 6th after all. The second said that my parcel had been delivered. To the wrong address. I live in a village called Hasland. It had been delivered to an address in Scarcliffe which is 6 miles up the road. A little internet research just now suggests that the name of the road is the same. The postcode and town are not. The parcel had apparently been signed for. I wondered which lying and lucky so-and-so was greedily enjoying my cheese.

I ring UPS. I wrangle with their automated phone menu for several minutes, mainly because none of the options on the phone menu were relevant to my specific issue. Eventually I get put through to a real person…who cannot do anything about the problem. They suggested I contact the retailer. It wasn’t their fault apparently. After roughly 25 minutes of calmly expressing my dissatisfaction and frustration, and making sure that UPS did in fact realise that they were to blame for delivering my parcel to the wrong town,  I extracted a promise that someone from the depot in Sheffield would talk to the driver and then call me back. Which they did. The driver had left the package on the porch. It had not in fact been signed for. It had definitely been left in Scarcliffe. They were unable to tell me why. I then hatched a plan of enormous cunning. I decided to track down the address in Scarcliffe and was all-set to re-claim my prize… but first I wanted to put my wine in the fridge.

I pulled up at home and went in to unpack my shopping. Nothing on the doorstep. No delivery note. I picked up my car keys, opened the front door and what should I find on the porch but my cheese!!! Amazing. No need to risk being prosecuted for trespassing in Scarcliffe. I happily put it in the fridge and awaited the return of my husband and a very jolly time was had by us both. It was just as delicious as we’d remembered. We thought it would last us a month. It lasted a fortnight so on Saturday evening when the fridge’s cheese level was getting worryingly low I decided to order some more.

It was very hard to choose which particular package to go for, but I decided we would be a bit adventurous and was very much looking forward to sampling Appleby’s Cheshire, Kirkham’s Lancashire, Stichelton and Lincolnshire Poacher. Salivating at the prospect I filled in my details and was promised a delivery in two day’s time.

I received no email from UPS on the Sunday, but I hadn’t received an email the night before my last delivery so I wasn’t unduly perturbed. I started to be a bit impatient on Wednesday. The link tracking my order seemed to be broken so I rang NYD. The incredibly helpful lady sorted it all out. There had been a glitch in the system at their end apparently and my cheese was dispatched for a guaranteed morning delivery on Thursday.

Surprise, surprise, I received no email from UPS on Wednesday evening. On Thursday though I received one with a link for me to track my package. Off I went to buy anticipatory crackers and wine. My package was slowly wending its way North and while I was in the supermarket it had got up the motorway as far as Castle Donnington. I continued to track its progress and was astonished to see at 10 am that it had been re-routed to Southampton. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, so I rang UPS. I was still unimpressed by their phone menu. I was even more unimpressed by their rude and unhelpful representative who informed me that the misguided insertion of the letter A into my postcode had led to my cheese being delivered to the wrong end of the country. SA for Southampton, S for Sheffield. Clearly UPS weren’t able to read and obviously they have no system for checking that a postcode marries up to an address. Odd for a company whose sole purpose is to deliver parcels.

I explained that my package was perishable and that the mistake should be rectified as soon as possible. UPS said that I couldn’t change the delivery address on my item until an attempt had been made to deliver the package, and that only NYD would be able to alter the postcode. I rang NYD. They offered me a full refund with no quibbling at all which I accepted. I set off for the Chatsworth Farm Shop to buy some consolation cheese, exciting organic wine and posher crackers.

But… I couldn’t help wistfully thinking of my NYD parcel smellily mouldering in the UPS depot in Southampton. I felt it was such a waste of such very lovely cheese. I hadn’t yet totally given up on my treasure and decided to make a massive effort to get UPS to actually do their job properly. I decided if I got my cheese before close of play I would ring the lovely lady at NYD and pay for it again over the phone. That after all, would be fair.

How do we best complain in the age of social media? What tends to get things moving?  I thought I might have more luck with Twitter. I tweeted and immediately got a reply giving me a special email address for complainy customers. I sent all of my information and received an auto-reply saying that someone would get back to me in 24 hours. I thought sadly of my cheese and tweeted again, asking for the contact details of the depot. No can do said UPS. The only number available is the main switchboard. I tweeted back humorously “Wot no phones in Southampton?” “You are tweeting to social media in the USA” came the reply “We don’t have the information”. Bugger. I considered driving to Southampton but realised I would be unlikely to get there until after the depot closed.

I reply to UPS’s auto-reply with the heading URGENT. Perishable Cheese Sitting in Southampton Depot. I receive a reply asking me for my phone number. No one rings me. Four hours later my cheese is still in Southampton. During the afternoon and evening I receive no fewer than 4 emails from UPS – each apologising that the last person to be in charge of sorting out my problem has left for the day and asking me for my information again. I send back increasingly irate replies. Eventually I receive a response

“Please be advised that UPS does not provide a protective service for the transportation of perishable commodities. These items will be accepted for transportation solely at the shipper’s risk for any damage arising from the perishable nature of the item. I suggest that you contact the shipper for further assistance.”

I reply that they have known about my perishable item sitting in Southampton for SEVEN HOURS and have done nothing about it. I receive another email “The status of your package has changed, exception reason: incorrect postcode. We are trying to obtain correct postcode”. At this point I become seriously annoyed. I have, of course, put my postcode on EVERY SINGLE BIT OF CORRESPONDENCE ALL DAY.

The icing on the cake is the final communication of yesterday from yet another person at UPS (Maria, Christine, Katya and Maja had all it seems now left for the day). My package would be delivered the following day. Because I am very cross, in spite of my usual attitude to best-before dates and penchant for cheese which is practically crawling out of its wrapper, I email them back and in BIG SHOUTY LETTERS say that it’s pointless delivering my PERISHABLE item which has been SITTING IN SOUTHAMPTON ALL DAY DESPITE THEM KNOWING ABOUT IT SINCE 10AM as it will have gone off by the time it arrives. I email NYD and list the iniquities, inefficiencies and general rubbishness of UPS and suggest they might like to adjust their choice of courier.

I have a glass of wine and another glass of wine. The Chatsworth cheese is delicious. I go to bed.

Now this is where it gets really good…

I am awoken by my phone’s email beep. “You have a parcel coming” cheerily announces UPS. I swear at my phone. I spend the morning learning my music and preparing lunch for my friend who’s coming to visit. I am in, within hearing range of the doorbell and with good visuals of my driveway for the entire time. I can categorically state that no UPS representative has been within 50 yards of my front door.My friend arrives and we are sitting down to lunch when my phone beeps:

 

img_0669

So… it says it has been delivered to the “rear door”. I check – no parcel. Aha maybe the side gate I think (obviously forgetting that the UPS person would have had to be invisible, silent and driving an invisible van for this to be a possibility). No parcel. I check the front door, behind the bins, the end of the driveway. Nothing. I examine the email more closely and yes, there it is. They have delivered my parcel to Scarcliffe. AGAIN. TO A POSTCODE THAT IS NEITHER MINE, NOR THE ONE IN SOUTHAMPTON.

At this point I become so enraged I actually scream. I ring UPS. Again. I battle through their phone menu. I am put through to a representative. I explain. Again. I am given the same non-excuses. Again. I tell them they are the worst company I have ever had contact with. Again.

While I am on-hold because eventually the representative decides she might be able to provide me with some more information which 5 minutes ago she said she didn’t have, my doorbell rings. A smiling UPS man is rather bewildered when I collapse in hysterics at his feet. Held tenderly in his arms is a rather smelly box of cheese. He didn’t understand why I’d received a delivery notice involving Scarcliffe as he’d come straight from the depot in Sheffield. Returning to the line, the UPS representative on the phone told me categorically that the package had been delivered to the back door of an address in S44 and that someone had signed for it. “That’s interesting,” I said “Because I’m just signing for it myself as we speak at my front door in S41”.

UPS emailed me about 20 minutes after he left, offering a refund for the value of the items, despite my having told them that I had already received a refund from NYD.

The well-travelled cheese is now in my fridge. I fully anticipate it being extremely delicious. I mean, cheese is a way of preserving milk, I’m sure it will be ok… I certainly can’t bring myself to bin it. If it tastes as good as it smells I will ring NYD tomorrow and pay them for it. It doesn’t seem right to have it for free. I will, however, take the delivery charge off the bill!

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s No Place Like Home

IMG_0371

Something delicious cooking in the oven, a roaring fire and my (post-run) feet up on the settee, and anticipating a night of blissful sleep in my own (extremely comfortable) pocket-sprung bed under my luxurious Egyptian cotton bed linen. This is exactly the opposite of how it feels to be billeted in a dubious hotel in a foreign city.

Over my 15 years of international travel, I have stayed in some wonderful hotels. I’ve had fabulous 5 star experiences in cities all over the world, including Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon. I’ve stayed in hotels with pools and gyms and spas. When I was singing Isolde in Tokyo last year, the Hilton (where I had a room roughly the size of the entire upstairs of my house) had an Executive Lounge where those fortunate few of us whose key cards granted access, were able to feast all day long on delicious snacks, beers, wines and cocktails without any extra charge. This would have been idyllic had I not been on an extra-strict diet and off the booze to protect my voice. Nevertheless it was worth going to for the view – not only of the Tokyo skyline – one especially clear day we could even see Mount Fuji in the distance.

For those of you unfamiliar with the finances of a self-employed classical musician, I should probably qualify the above by explaining that I only stay in hotels like this when my accommodation is organised (and paid for) by the promoter. The same goes for business class flights. When I’m organising my own travel and hotels (or when the WONDERFUL lady at Ingpen and Williams does it for me) I’m more of a budget flight and chain hotel sort of a gal. In the UK I favour Premier Inns. Always clean, always comfortable. Travelodges are also perfectly fine. I don’t need bells and whistles. I need a boring, reliable experience which guarantees me a good night’s sleep before a performance or a long drive home. I like a reliable wifi connection too so that I can indulge in my favourite pastime of wasting hours on the internet.

Abroad, I am always perfectly happy with an Ibis (although I think I could do without spending a third Christmas in one – it’s a bit soulless even if we did manage to “borrow” a couple of baubles from the Christmas tree in the foyer to brighten up our room). It’s the same plastic, personality-free, sanitised idea as a chain restaurant. You know what you’re getting. If I were a tourist, I would be far more adventurous in my food and hotel choices. But when I have to be fit and well to work I want to avoid anything interesting at all to eat, other than some tried and tested favourites in cities around the globe and I want to be able to sleep in a bed-bug-free, quiet environment. Preferably for eight or nine hours without being disturbed.

But sometimes, I don’t get to choose. Often my accommodation is organised by the theatres where I’m singing. Sometimes I’m lucky, and other times not so much. Again, given any say in it at all, I’d always rather have an apartment with cooking facilities – 8 weeks of eating out is grim, fatty and salty. I start to crave vegetables unsullied by butter. Sometimes this isn’t possible and I end up in small independent hotels. These are extremely variable. Some of them are delightful. Quaint even. One such hotel which I discovered by accident is almost a home from home for me. But it’s often a bit of a lottery and I haven’t always had a winning ticket.

There was the hotel in Paris, where it was obvious that the bed linen had not been changed before my arrival – the bed wasn’t even made. On finding out they were unable to provide me with a different room, I checked out and sat in the Gare du Nord nursing cup after cup of coffee until it was time to check in for my Eurostar. There was the hotel in Edinburgh where there were hairs in the sink and dirty towels strewn all over the bathroom and the hotel in Glasgow where I was served some bits of wire in my scrambled eggs.  There was the hotel in Cardiff where I actually found faeces smeared on the wall in the bathroom. There was the hotel above a nightclub in Portsmouth which was so overheated I needed the window open in order to sleep. Unfortunately the fresh air which came floating into my room was mixed with cigarette smoke, pounding drum beats and the sound of a car alarm going off. All night. And there was the hotel in Germany where the bathroom was so minuscule that I had to stand in the shower to close the (inward opening) door, and where once in the shower, it was impossible to stand under the water without knocking the temperature controlling tap. Results: one finger trapped in door, lots of blood everywhere and a scalded bum. Add to that an uncomfortable bed and a dodgy wifi connection and you end up with a CROSS soprano.

You see, the thing is I don’t think I’m asking too much. My checklist really is only:

  • Comfy bed,
  • Clean room,
  • Noise minimal,
  • Not much too hot or too cold,
  • Wifi that works,
  • Shower that I can wash in without injury,
  • Not wire in my scrambled eggs.

I have two very favourite places to stay when I’m working away from home. At both I have received the very highest standard of accommodation, catering and the finest wines I could hope for. Add to that comfy beds and a relaxed ambience plus good company and you have a recipe for success. My wonderful friend, the fabulous mezzo soprano Catherine Carby and her husband let me stay in Carby towers whenever I’m working in London. Catherine lays on a gourmet evening meal every night and even gets up early to bake breakfast muffins. She specialises in lending me all of the things I forget to bring with me too (I have 2 of her umbrellas in my suitcase ready to return). In the Cotswolds, my friend Michael de Navarro gives myself and my husband a whole wing of his astonishing house to ourselves. We have a music room which can seat over 100 people to practise in, complete with grand piano. Michael rustles us up fabulous multi-course meals made from organic local ingredients at any peculiar time of day or night to fit in with our complicated rehearsal schedule and on days off we get to relax in his stunning gardens.

So there are places which are very nearly like home. But I just can’t wait to hop on my train back to Derbyshire tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

Jogging for Divas

JOGGING FOR DIVAS

I have a serious problem to address this afternoon. There’s a very big reason why I think jogging is important and necessary to my life and that reason is PIES! I love them in all their incarnations. In my world travels as a singer, I have been lucky enough to sample some of the most delicious food on the planet. I’ve had sushi to die for and  big bowls of steaming noodle soup accompanied by gingery, garlicky gyoza in Tokyo, pasta with squid ink and creamy, decadent gelato in Venice, langoustine cooked with 50 chillies in Beijing, lobster with spiced rice in Lisbon, paella flavoured with saffron with huge lumps of chorizo and rabbit and prawns in Madrid, air-cured jamon in Barcelona, rich, meaty stew with pig cheeks and baby vegetables in Bergen (I avoided the sheep’s head). Sometimes, the fare has been simpler. Germany is excellent for pig and chips. In France, steak frites occupies much the same niche. I’ve had real pizza that melts on my tongue in Napoli and a ciabatta with fresh tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with fresh basil and a little salt in Montepulciano. Just heaven.

Then there’s the booze. I have a joke with my friend, the countertenor, Robin Blaze that he can order a large beer in 12 languages. I asked him once what a small beer was in Japanese. He replied that he’s never needed to know! Beer is delicious. So is wine. It’s lovely to socialise with colleagues over a few drinks. Especially if they come with little salty snacks and nuts and olives. When I’ve done a gig, the combination of nerves preventing me wanting to eat beforehand and the release of tension and withdrawal of adrenaline afterwards mean I am guaranteed to be completely starving. What could be nicer than to wind down with an enormous curry or a plate of cheese and biscuits or a bottle of wine?

And then when I’m home, one of my biggest joys is cooking. I love everything about it from the pleasure of selecting the ingredients by touch and taste, look and smell through the combining of them into dishes which complement each other, to presenting food so that it looks appetising.  My husband’s hobby is eating so that works out well for both of us. But it is very tempting to help myself to an Andrew-sized portion even though he’s a foot taller than me and to try and keep pace with him glass for glass- I mean I wouldn’t want him to drink alone, right?

All this happy, sensual venality means that unless I am very, very careful I could easily end up being the size and shape of the stereotypical Wagnerian soprano. Yes, believe me ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the controlled version here.

Now, some of you may think that opera singing is one of those careers which has an acceptance of all body-types and where fat shaming is a complete “no-no”. Not so ladies and gentlemen. One of my first jobs on leaving music college was playing a very small and insignificant part in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden. The renowned dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt had been engaged to sing the role of Ariadne. But then there was the littleblackdressgate fiasco. The director, Christof Loy, had a vision of his Ariadne looking svelte and willowy in a little black number and Deborah didn’t fit his idea of the character in more ways than one. The Royal Opera subsequently engaged Anne Schwanenwilms instead. Now both of these ladies are world class singers at the very top of their game. But one is tall and slender and at the time the other, before she had a gastric band fitted, was extremely large. The job went to the thin one- at the very highest level in the profession when Covent Garden needed a household name as the star of its production.  Can you imagine how this plays out at all the levels below? When there are literally thousands of sopranos competing for roles?

It used to be the case that the conductor had most of the power when it came to casting. Artists were selected on vocal ability ahead of looks. Now, the power is largely with the directors. Opera audiences are now used to realistic acting, with characters played by singing actors who are believable and, I’m almost sad to say, young and attractive. By young, I mean only being twice the age of the characters you’re portraying. Obviously most of the women I play are in their late teens. Anyway… Moving swiftly on…

Opera is part of the entertainment industry and like it or not, image is key.  When a top opera company is looking to cast a new production, they love to have a name which will literally put bums on seats. As in so many other areas of the industry, looking glamorous is likely to do you no harm in your career. As consumers of the art form we probably all adore Jonas Kaufman’s singing. But he’s incredibly easy on the eye too. Then there are the barihunks. Andrew’s a bit disappointed he hasn’t been nominated for the website which shows chiseled  would-be-Don Giovannis senza shirts- all smoulder and six packs. Lovely! These are the opera stars of today and tomorrow.

Recently we’ve had another looks-related opera scandal in the UK. Last summer, Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier starred a nude and stunning, slim Kate Royal  as the Marschallin alongside the up and coming Tara Erraught as Octavian. Now Tara isn’t fat by any stretch of the imagination.  She’s at most a curvy British size 14 with a voluptuous hourglass figure that most women would kill for and most straight men would drool over. But a combination of a hideously unflattering costume and a press used to trouser roles being played by tall, less curvy mezzos led to an accusation of her being, and I quote, dumpy in more than one national newspaper. No mention of her glorious voice, beautiful phrasing and affecting acting was made apart from by the leading female critic Fiona Maddox who was more accepting than the middle-aged men who reviewed the show. You can probably tell I got a little bit hot under the collar about this. The reason I was upset and angry on Tara’s behalf is because I have had EXACTLY the same thing happen to me. I’ve been called a lot of unflattering things in the National Press over the years. Shrill, and loud and unmusical spring to mind. When I was Tara Erraught’s age (she says patronisingly) I used torture myself with nerves to the point of nausea after every first night about what the reviews would say. I’d be high as a kite if they were good and I used to get very, very upset when they were bad. But I started to realise that critics are there to entertain their audience just as I am.

Reviews are important to opera companies because good ones put bums on seats. I have no personal axe to grind at all with critics. My point of view is really that if I can’t deal with the pressure of reading them, I don’t have to. I can choose not to. Of course when a well-meaning member of the public comes up to me and says “I wouldn’t worry too much about the review in the Telegraph, I mean I didn’t think you sang out of tune particularly” in the INTERVAL of the show’s second performance I might have a little weep (yes that has happened) and wish I could hermetically seal myself away from punters but I do give myself a strict talking to whenever my finger is poised to click on google and make myself promise that I won’t get upset. And I never EVER read them before the show has closed and the reason is this. My job as a singer is to put across my best version of the conductor and the director’s vision of the piece. If I am slated in the press for over-acting or under-singing, I will be tempted to change the nuances of my performance and the key point is that those nuances are what has been chosen by the creative team. So it’s not fair to my colleagues to read them before we finish the run. Interestingly, even by professional critics, we are often criticised for choices that have nothing at all to do with us and everything to do with the director or the conductor. This makes me cross. We really get so little say in what happens on stage and how the music goes unless we’re working with conductors and directors who genuinely enjoy a collaborative process. I mean most of the time we are reviving productions which were conceived with other artists and a crazily short timescale so there isn’t much time for discussion.  But of course another thing we have no say in at all usually is what we wear on stage.

Costume designers enjoy torturing singers. They enjoy designing costumes which would look fabulous on supermodels. Most of us aren’t supermodel shape. Including poor Tara. Sometimes we are put in the most ghastly things which have often been altered as they were originally designed to unflatteringly fit the previous singer to do the production.

In my twenties I had a series of roles which required me to go topless. It was a big deal for me at the time and very nerve-wracking but I had youth on my side. I like to say I was Jung und Schön- now I’m just “und”. I did fret about it, but actually, looking back, it was nothing compared to the pressure I now face as a 40 year old woman trying to look like an ingenue. After an initial foray into the world of opera I spent 15 years as a baroque concert singer, occasionally doing a production but more often jetting off around the world singing Bach and Handel in concert halls and cathedrals all over the world. I had to look polished and smart, but I was allowed to look like me. My age, my own choice of clothes (flatteringly cut). Now in my late thirties I was taking the decision to go back into opera more or less full-time and I had to completely reinvent myself.  I’d worked hard to get in shape for my topless roles but it was a question. of toning up, not trying to tone down the effects of 15 years of hard work, not enough time to exercise, tour-eating when sometimes the only food that’s affordable and available is high calorie fat laden junk. I was unprepared for the pressures a woman my age now has to deal with in the industry’s ageist and sexist climate.

I recently performed the role of Eva in Die Meistersinger. It’s a VERY long opera, with mainly men in it and not very many good bits for the girls, but to cut the VERY long and incredibly sexist story short, my father gives me away as the prize in a singing competition. Maybe it’s not particularly believable. It’s not actually a beauty contest but the show works better if I look pretty. I had a beautiful blonde wig down to my bum, lovely makeup and, actually, one of the dresses was very flattering, but the outfit I spent most of the opera in was possibly the worst shape for my body that’s possible. It was high necked, flattened my already fairly non-existent boobs, had a bodice that was so stiff that it compacted all of my flab into a sort of oblong shape with no waist, clung to my bum, and cut my legs off at the widest point of my calves. It was made out of curtains in a peculiar shade of yellowy blue which made me look simultaneously washed out and jaundiced. My husband said I looked like a barrel. I cried. I complained, I whinged and the upshot was that I still had to wear the barrel dress. I knew it looked horrible.

Now really, my remit as Eva is to sing the opening to the quintet beautifully and as quietly as Wagnerianly possible. On the first night I managed to sing even more quietly than I had in the dress rehearsal, meaning that instead of Ed Gardiner furiously hissing “SHHHHHH!”over my first 8 bars he had instead had a beatific smile on his beautiful face. I hadn’t cocked anything else up either so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I stood with Andrew on the platform, to Leicester Square Tube station, dressed in my “I’ve just made my ENO debut” outfit of designer jeans and little cute leather jacket which actually were doing a lot more for me than barrel dress.  And what do I hear as we’re waiting for the train to arrive? A nice elderly couple discussing the show. They were nice about Iain Paterson who played Sachs. They were very nice about Gwynn Hughes-Jones who played Walther. Now neither of these lovely men would mind me saying that they wouldn’t make it onto the barihunks website. The boys were being discussed in terms of their performance. And when they got onto me? “Well I don’t know” guffawed the posh pompous man “I mean it was completely unbelievable her looking the way she did. She’s so enormously hippy” “Yes such a shame” replied the posh woman.

Well what do you do under those circumstances? You could do as my husband did and stare down at your shoes wishing you could disappear down a hole, or preferably that the people insulting your wife would disappear down a hole, or at least that the train would come. QUICKLY… Or you could do what I did. I called them on it. I marched up to them and said “Excuse me, that’s me you’re talking about. I really think you should wait until you’re a little bit further away from the theatre before you start insulting the cast. And I think it’s particularly rude and ungrateful when I’ve been trying my very best to entertain you for the last five and a half hours”. It felt wonderful… For all of about 10 seconds and then I burst into uncontrollable sobs and Andrew had to buy me a Cornish pasty from St Pancras to cheer me up.

It’s not the first time or the last that I’ve experienced rude punters by the way, but it was a particularly upsetting experience. So if you take one thing away from this weekend could it be that it’s very dangerous to express negative opinions until you are WELL AWAY from the venue? Incidentally we don’t like it either when you tweet meanly about us in the interval and unless I’m the wicked witch I would prefer you not to boo during the curtain call. None of us ever stands up there deliberately trying to be rubbish or sing badly or indeed look fat in our costume.

So duly suffering from a minor self-confidence crisis I decided that the somewhat extended honeymoon period of myself and Andrew eating and drinking whatever we liked whenever we felt like it had to come to a close and I decided to begin a rigorous campaign of self-improvement. Soon, I thought to myself, I would get my own back on several costume designers by being far too thin for the costume they’d made for me when I came back to do the revivals, necessitating loads of extra annoying sewing. I would no longer be buying a ticket to the “can I get into my costume three years later?” lottery. My GP would be pleased with me and actually consider treating me instead of just telling me off about having a BMI of over 25 and blaming every single thing I think is wrong with me on my flab- sore throat? chest infection? Lose weight! Directors would queue up to cast the new slimline me. I would be fitter, more flexible, and without my massive belly I might even be able to bend down and touch my toes. No longer would I be fat Fiordiligi puffing my way around the stage to keep up with sickeningly thin Dorabella as she effortlessly danced her way through our act 2 duet. Being slim would enhance my ability to jump around my Valkyrie rock singing Hojotoho! One day I might even get to be Salome- wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to dance the 7 veils without wobbling in front of the audience? Maybe my days of public nudity aren’t completely over after all.

Andrew wasn’t very pleased that we would be going on a diet. Barihunks aside, he didn’t feel that his BMI (which incidentally was higher than mine) was adversely affecting his career, and he wasn’t trying to look younger as he spent the first 20 years of his career wearing lots of stage makeup to make him look old enough to play the parts he generally has. He’s a bass baritone so mainly he is a king, a murderer or somebody’s dad. He can have a beer belly and grey hair for all of them. He did mention that he doesn’t make a fuss about his costume or how fat he looks in it when it’s him who has to carry a spear around in his numerous appearances in operas as third guard or second armed man. I pointed out that when I have to carry a spear it’s because I am waving it dangerously at Siegfried, and that everyone will be listening to me and, importantly, looking at me for several hours, so dieting was going to happen and he could join in or not. But he is such a dreadful cook he didn’t really have much of a choice.

Now then. I believe that there is a lot of rubbish talked about diets. I’m sorry to break it to you but there is no easy, painless method to shift the pounds. We’re machines and there is a very simple equation that we have to do and it’s this: We need to burn more calories than we eat. We did cut down on fat and carbs and we did up our intake of fruit and vegetables, but ultimately we had to make lifestyle changes which were sustainable and compatible with being on a diet while singing Isolde and Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde. Believe me you cannot sing Isolde if you’re hungry.

So I had to factor in some sport. I have always enjoyed exercise. I love being outdoors and my favourite thing of all to do is hiking. But I was in the middle of learning 2 Wagner operas, both of which were more than 4 hours long, which was more or less a 9-5 job every day. I had to come up with something which took less than an hour a day and was so exhausting it would make a real impact on my calorie output.

In a fit of zeal a few years earlier (brought on because Music Theatre Wales had threatened me with a semi-nude sex scene in Michael Berkeley’s “For You” which was mercifully scuppered because Alan Opie refused to take anything off except his shoes) I had tried having a personal trainer. Her name was Jade, which I quickly decided should actually have been Jade-the-Nazi. She was 10 years younger than me and was one of those girls who I just knew would have been effortlessly popular at school. She looked like a sportier version of Angelina Jolie or maybe a Disney princess- all big eyes and pouty lips and swishy hair. She would make me do circuit training. In my first session we did squats, burpees, press ups (real ones not the ones girls are supposed to be allowed to get away with) mountain climbers, skipping and kick boxing. I remember thinking through my tears that I hadn’t done too badly for a first time until I looked at my watch and realised that we’d only been going for 10 minutes and that in fact that was the warm-up. By the end of the session I was a teary, sodden mess. I was transported back to PE at school and I just knew perfect Jade would never have picked me to be on her team. I persisted with personal training for a year. I did get fitter, although I didn’t get thinner, because I just ate more because I was starving the whole time. But every time I achieved a goal, Jade would decide I needed to do it faster, higher, lower or again. When I went to do a job at Scottish opera I continued the process with a trainer at the gym I joined in Glasgow. Jess was the same as Jade except she shouted at me in a Scottish accent. In the end I decided that I’d been shown how to use every single piece of equipment in the place to assault myself with so I couldn’t justify the expense. Now when I’m in the gym I sometimes wonder if I should have a recording of Jade and or Jess on my iPod. I mean, it never mattered which exercise I was doing- it always needed to be fast higher lower and again.

Jade and Jess had taught me a very important lesson though. I do like exercise and I really, really enjoy the feeling of having done my exercise. It’s not just the endorphins swooshing around my body and the pleasant ache of muscles that have done some work. It’s the delightful smug feeling that comes over me of being a worthy person. If I’ve done some sport first thing in the morning I need achieve nothing else all day and somehow I am always in credit. I can enjoy looking down on other less worthy, lazier people and feel really superior. I can boast about my achievements on social media because as we all know there’s no point to doing anything unless you can tweet about it. So yes. Exercise is one of the good things. But…I don’t really like gyms very much. I don’t like the posing. I don’t like the smelly, sweaty fug of too many people perspiring inside a confined space, and most of all I don’t like the sensory overload of  8 TV screens and 2 different lots of  blaring music accompanied by shouting from the spinning instructor- you guessed it- faster, higher, lower, again! The thing I find most ridiculous of all is people who drive to the gym. I mean drive to a gym and then spend an hour running on a treadmill going nowhere? It defies logic.

Despite my gym reservations, I considered signing up with Jade again because actually, for all I complain, she’s a very nice girl and she had genuinely helped me get fit, but she’s gone off to learn how to be a physiotherapist. Good on her. She will really enjoy inflicting direct pain on people I’m sure. I couldn’t face starting with someone new- I mean I’d worked very hard to make Jade aware of my limitations. A new person might have higher expectations and it might be even WORSE.

I thought about swimming. Swimming is really good for you. It works more muscles than any other one exercise. I have two problems with swimming. One is that it is INCREDIBLY boring. Up and down, up and down, try not to kick the annoying person who’s got in your lane, up and down, bugger I’ve lost count I’ll have to do an extra 2 lengths just in case, up and down, try to overtake the annoying SLOW person who should be in the SLOW lane for SLOW people, get kicked in the head… – you get the idea. The other issue is the thing all self-employed singers fear more than almost anything else- GERMS. When I was a student I worked at the York Barbican Centre. One of my jobs was cleaning the swimming pool and showers and changing areas. I KNOW how revolting swimming pools are and don’t even get me started on jacuzzis. GERM SOUP! I have to save swimming for when I don’t have any work.

I thought about going to exercise classes. Yes I did a lot of thinking, and even tried out a couple. The exercise class I like best is Yoga. I really like the bit at the beginning where you fall asleep on your mat. And the bit at the end where you fall asleep on your mat. The bit in the middle is a bit annoying and I’m rubbish at it because I’m not very bendy, but at least you don’t get too sweaty.  It doesn’t burn many calories though. Natalie, our instructor is VERY bendy and extremely pretty. I enjoy the competition amongst the middle-aged men to give her a lift home after the class. I tried body pump and step and body balance and legs bums and tums, but I still don’t like the blaring music and shouting and also I do find the participants awfully cliquey. There’s the “in” crowd who put their mats at the front and suck up to the instructor and a lot of dirty looks if you get your feet in the wrong order. Designer lycra abounds and my ancient jogging bottoms and York University class of ’96 T-shirt somehow don’t quite pass muster.

You know around this time I started walking with a rambling group. I wanted to explore the Peak District and Andrew refuses to go walking with me because he’s too lazy, and if he does come ever, he just whines all the way round and wants to take shortcuts. The rambling group is full of old people. They walk several times a week which tends to be incompatible with working – I know this. If I wasn’t busy learning my operas I would go out with them every time and walk on my own on the days they don’t go. Most of them are retired. They are the fittest people I know. Even including perfect Jade. They are also incredibly friendly. Totally not cliquey. On a 10 mile walk you get to talk to loads of different people. They are the antithesis of gym posers although they do get a bit competitive about who has the best walking poles. My favourite rambler is Roger. Roger recently had a phone call from someone researching pensioners accessing leisure and fitness facilities in the area. The conversation went like this:

-Good morning Sir, I’m researching how often pensioners are accessing leisure and fitness facilities in Derbyshire. May I ask what facilities you use yourself

-Hills! (says Roger)

-Hills?

-Yes Hills.

-Ah I see. You mean walking. How many days a week do you go walking sir?

-7 (says Roger)

-And on average how far do you walk a day?

-15-20 miles (says Roger)

-And sir,do you get out of breath?

-Not anymore (says Roger)

-I’m sorry sir I need to end this call because you are messing up my statistics.

Walking is as I’ve said a passion of mine, and I genuinely feel it’s the most natural and purest form of exercise. It’s brilliant for burning fat and it’s done outside in the glorious fresh air. I can’t wait for some time off because I’ll be out on those hills the whole time. But it doesn’t work well with a six day per week rehearsal schedule and when I looked at my schedule for the coming months, it was going to involve a LOT of travelling.

Actually the last three years since I went back into opera has been the toughest I’ve ever done. Because I changed repertoire and sing grown up music now, almost every piece I’ve done has been for the first time. Factor in that these pieces are mostly in German and never less than 3 hours long and mainly have me in them and you get an idea of the huge number of words I’ve had to to memorise. The singing is hard physical work too. I’ve needed to train my voice as in train in the voice gym. Usually I’ll be performing one opera but learning the next one at the same time because we have to turn up on the first day of rehearsals knowing it all perfectly or we get sacked!

So given that I was going to be globe-trotting and needed to find a physical activity which would literally fit in my suitcase, everything seemed to be pointing me towards running. It’s something you can literally do anywhere. You only need to compete against yourself. It’s ideally done outside in the fresh air. I am a massive fan of fresh air. I think it has health-giving properties. It’s like the opposite of germ soup. Needless to say I can’t back up either my fresh air or jacuzzi theories with any actual science but I’m going to stick to them nonetheless.

Now you do need to be warned. Running. Is. Horrible. Even if you are already a very fit person, the first five minutes of any running are torture. For a start you will have kitted yourself out in an improbable outfit made of Lycra. On seeing me in my running kit for the first time, my husband choked on his sixth slice of toast and marmalade (yes he was cheating at the diet already) and said “bloody hell you look like a fat penguin!”  It was true. You see I’d done my research in Women’s Running magazine about how to go from coach potato to 5k in 6 weeks. Women’s Running was very keen on clothes that did “wicking”. They’re supposed to magically make the sweat from your body disappear and evaporate. I was in Holland for Christmas and before I set off, I’d gone to Up and Running and bought a top to toe outfit suitable for running in cold weather. It looked great on the mannequin – all slinky black with sporty little pink stripes designed to elongate your already toned quads. I even had a matching hat for when it was freezing. Slinky black meets Rachel was ever so slightly less slinky though. More kind of lumpy. Also, what I hadn’t bargained for was that my subcutaneous layer of blubber was already insulating me very effectively from the cold and so even before I set off, sweat was quite literally pouring off me. Being a bit of a princess, my skin is only normally subjected to lovely natural fibres. I like cotton and cashmere. I’ll put up with silk at a push. My bed linen is just that or lovely pure Egyptian cotton with a thread count so high you need a microscope to get anywhere near it. Lycra felt HORRIBLE. Wicking, my arse. Nevertheless I boldly waddled into the Dutch countryside. A few swigs from my nicely co-ordinating pink and black water bottle to replace lost fluids and I was off.

So the first thing I discover is that although I am boiling hot, my lungs are categorically rejecting the icy cold air that I’m gulping in. I remember Women’s Running says breathe through your nose. I try. I sniff. The cold air is making my nose dribble snot. I haven’t brought tissues. I decide to accessorise my fat penguin outfit with an attractive smear of slime on my right sleeve. I start to breathe through my nose and am assailed by a waft of pig shit from the neighbouring farm. The water I chugged down thirstily before I set off now swishes around and eventually settles giving me a stitch in my right side. I bend over and run like an old lady to try to relieve it. That doesn’t work. I try arching my back and sticking my boobs out. A bit better but I now realise that my ancient sports bra which has done me proud for the last decade of pumping little weights and doing gentle Pilates is woefully inadequate. I grab hold of my boobs and improvise with my hands.  Now my legs seriously start to complain. My calves are cramping up. I put up with lung freeze, snot dribble, stitch, wobbling chest, and burning calves until my trusty Fitbit tells me I’ve done a kilometre. Ahhhh! I think. I’m about to die. Hang on! I’m allowed to stop for a stretch. I stop. I breathe, I stretch. I set off again ever so slightly slower. This time I don’t gulp air like a drowning person, I set up a steady rhythm with my feet, I clear my mind, my heart sends oxygenated blood into my newly stretched muscles and I fall in love. It feels great!  I cover another 500m, and another. I turn round. It’s easy now. All I have to do is run back again. I enjoy the little land marks on the way. Pig shit smell marks one kilometre to go. I speed up a bit. I arrive back at my apartment buzzing and happy. The glow lasts until at least lunchtime.

I built up slowly until I could comfortably run 5 kilometres. 5k is a perfect distance for a busy person. I doubt I’ll ever achieve the Mecca that is 5k in 30 minutes but it’s nice to have a goal – even an unachievable one. I can run and be showered, ready to be in rehearsals in an hour and I think that’s a level of commitment to exercise that I can live with long term.

So that’s the jogging. As for the diva part… That’s more difficult. What is a diva? Literally, the word is derived from the Italian and it means Goddess. If we’re being kind, a diva is an outstandingly talented female singer in the world of opera. Used pejoratively, a diva is stereotypically a Prima Donna who is an attention-seeking show-off, makes huge and unreasonable demands on her colleagues, and who turns up to rehearsals dressed up to the nines or who cancels them because she’s decided it’s more important to go for a manicure. Think pashmina (to protect the throat darling), think huge sunglasses (especially when it’s raining).

Famous Divas of the past are legendary. There was the diva who had a rule that no one must get within 10 feet of her backstage because she was terrified of germs and whose specific brand of mineral water which needed to be imported from Switzerland at vast expense had to be served at precisely 20 degrees in a crystal glass. There was the diva who was so angry at the costume she was given that she raised her skirt above her head in the open dress rehearsal and gave the audience a flash of her knickers. Divas are famously unreasonable, narcissistic and badly behaved. They won’t think twice about emptying a glass of red wine over a critic that’s been mean if they see him in the theatre bar. They are insanely jealous of any potential competition. They’d rather be in an opera with talentless colleagues than share the limelight with anyone else and they can be pathologically mean to their understudies. I have heard stories about one very famous singer who put her cover on for a dress rehearsal at Covent Garden because she wanted to go shopping at Harvey Nichols. The cover did a fantastic job and the whole opera house was buzzing with how good she’d been. The diva then became jealous and, when she saw that her cover had a costume that was identical to her own, demanded that should the cover go on for a performance she must wear an uglier dress.

Maybe a Diva needs to start practising at an early age. During my training at the Royal College of Music we had an several Apprentice Divas amongst our motley crew which included the huge girls who used to sit around the lunch table eating chocolate muffins while simultaneously complaining they couldn’t get concert dresses in a large enough size; the early music singers who preferred to wear clothes made out of hessian and no deodorant and who quietly looked down on anyone singing anything written after 1700; the young baritones with long floppy hair who competed to pull our yoga teacher…  Need I go on? At that time I had decided that if I was doing yoga and movement and rolling on the floor for most of the day and if I was riding my bike to college which was 9 miles in each direction I was just going to wear sports clothes and have done with it. This landed me in trouble on the day we had to audition for solos in the Brahms Requiem and my teacher who caught me in the corridor waiting for my turn sent me off to High St Kensington to buy a dress and high heels. I guess she wanted me to look a bit more like the Apprentice Divas.

Apprentice Divas turn up to college late. They wear 4 inch heels, leopard print, the requisite pashmina and if at all possible, a furry hat. Mock Croc is de rigeur, especially in the form of a clutch bag held in bright red dangerous looking talons. An Apprentice Diva refuses to take her high heels off for movement class, refuses to come to yoga at all and will march up to the head of opera and tell him which opera scenes she is prepared to take part in and which parts she wants (needless to say, she is after the most glamorous roles which will get her noticed) And do you know what? She often gets them. Because actually, faced with someone who knows exactly what she wants and who isn’t afraid to ask for it, you’d need a very compelling reason not to acquiesce.

Divas can be difficult and demanding and and nobody likes a drama queen. Behaving like a diva when you’re not really qualified yet is a big no no, and once you’ve got the job you want, you have to deliver the goods and behave in a reasonable way, or you’ll end up on the wannabe scrap-heap of people who don’t get asked back.

But, given that above a certain level, everyone is great at singing and knows her stagecraft, and that everyone has her audition technique perfected, I think the Apprentice Divas had something right. Because ultimately you have to make yourself memorable enough to get that job. Part of that is giving the impression to others that you deserve it. That means taking the risk of putting yourself out there as a serious contender.

Our American colleagues seem to be much better at self-publicity than we self-effacing Brits. At the endless rounds of auditions every year, we English cringe at the confident Americans loudly celebrating their recent successes. We see it as boasting and in rather poor taste.  But actually I’m not sure that our British Reserve does us any favours in this cutthroat business. We are, after all, competing with them for roles. If they’re happy to tell everyone how amazing they were in the last 10 operas they’ve been in, and we just look at the floor mumbling in an embarrassed way, waiting our turn, who is going to make more of an impression?

When I was trying to break back into opera and into Wagner specifically, I did decide for once to take a leaf out of the Diva’s handbook- or to put it another way, to dare to put myself forward and volunteer instead of politely waiting to be asked and it had amazing results. I was approached and asked to sing Helmwige in a concert performance of Die Walküre that I knew would attract a lot of press. I’d already sung Helmwige and got some nice reviews for it the previous summer. She’s one of the Valkyries and she gets a couple of good lines, but nothing substantial to sing. Because I’d had a couple of glasses of wine (actually more than a couple) and was feeling uncharacteristically brave, instead of saying “Yes please, thanks very much” I found to my horror that what was coming unedited out of my mouth was “Actually I’d much prefer to sing Sieglinde- I’ve been studying it with my teacher and it’s the repertoire I’m going into now”. Of course Sieglinde (which is a MUCH better part) had already been cast.  But. Then the singer who’d been asked to play Sieglinde pulled out, and the conductor remembered my slightly foot-stampy conversation and I got the job after all. And it made me realise that actually if you don’t ask you don’t get. The conductor deals with thousands of performers. He’s not going to be aware that one insignificant little soprano is changing repertoire. Why would he?

That had worked really well, so when I found out that Longborough Festival Opera hadn’t cast a Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, I volunteered for that too. I was slightly more organised about it and instead of relying on Dutch courage I made sure that Dame Anne Evans, my teacher, was going to put in a good word and report that I was in fact going to be able to sing it. I then pestered them incessantly until they decided to give me the job. And those two jobs proved absolutely key to me building my new career as a Dramatic Soprano.

Actually I’ve never personally witnessed appalling diva behaviour other than from the occasional megalomaniacal conductor. I can honestly say that all of the really famous singers I’ve worked with have behaved well. I can’t speak highly enough of Placido Domingo who is a lovely, humble man, Anne Schwanenwilms who enjoys talking about gardening, Jonas Kaufmann who preaches the superiority and health benefits of espresso over decafeinated coffee in the Covent Garden canteen, and Sir John Tomlinson who was very reasonable about moving his car out of the way of a massive tractor (and got his concert shoes and trousers covered in mud in the process) 10 minutes before singing Boris Godunov.

There are, of course, big, big egos at work in the industry, but I don’t think there is much room for the stereotypical Prima Donna hurling vases of flowers at her agent because she didn’t get a standing ovation anymore. No one is impressed by tantrums and unreasonable demands. In the climate of ever dwindling Arts Funding and ever smaller budgets, we are none of us immune to the worry we won’t be engaged a second time.

So where do we draw the line? There has to be some middle ground somewhere between diva-dom and obscurity. I think it’s important to make yourself charismatic and memorable enough to be offered a job in the first place. You need to stand out from the crowd, and sometimes that can mean asking for what you want. And sometimes it can mean arguing for something you passionately believe in artistically- even if it’s getting a costume that suits you, that you can breathe in, and that is comfortable enough to sing in for 5 hours. It also means putting yourself out there and making it known (nicely) to as many people as possible that you are keen and ready for every opportunity.

I think it’s important to take responsibility for all of the areas you can be in control of yourself. You must be totally professional and deliver the goods. You must look after your voice and keep having the singing lessons. You must make yourself aware of performance practice and notable historic interpretations of your roles. You must know your music flawlessly and both your words (and what they mean) and everyone else’s so you pull the right face at appropriate times. You must be punctual and never ever cancel a rehearsal to go to Harvey Nichols. And while I’m on the subject of Harvey Nichols, I don’t advocate wearing designer clothes to rehearsals – firstly if your experience is anything like mine  – and this has happened twice to me in the last six months- the airline you’ve travelled with will lose your luggage and you’ll be forced to assemble a capsule wardrobe for €100 from H and M to last you a week. When I’m working from home, I will be found in leggings and a long T-shirt- partly because I will have ridden my bike to work, and partly because I don’t want to ruin my Armani jacket by rolling around on Florestan’s prison cell floor (and I don’t earn enough to own more than one). But I think it’s absolutely great to glam yourself up as much as you like for auditions. I find 4 inch heels inhibiting when I’m leaping about the Flying Dutchman’s ship, but I’ll wear them to the after-show party when I’m doing my bit chatting up sponsors, and I’ll hide my trainers in my designer handbag until I’m on my bike back to St Pancras. Seriously, in an image-led profession it’s ok to make the best of yourself. Until you’re old enough to be competing for the old bag roles then you can dog yourself down as much as you like. I am SO looking forward to that. My Nirvana is Auntie in Peter Grimes. Or maybe Filipyevna in Eugene Onegin.

But for the moment I’m stuck with being the romantic lead. Obviously in Wagner that isn’t incompatible with also being the daughter or twin sister of the man I’m playing opposite, but that’s another story. It’s a challenging and sometimes lonely life. I spend 6 months of the year away from home, usually in, let me politely say, variable hotels. A lot of my friends think my job’s a lot more glamorous than it actually is. But I have worked really, really hard to find my place in the opera world. I’ve done the practice, had the lessons, learnt the words and turned up on time. I’ve made friends with the conductor’s teenage daughter and given her singing lessons. I’ve walked the director’s dog. I’ve been glittery and shiny and worn my designer outfit to the auditions. I’ve been brave and rude and have shamelessly self publicised when it’s been appropriate. And I hope very much that I’ve been un-divaey enough to be asked back to most places where I’ve sung.

Of course it gets harder and harder to sustain because once you develop any kind of a reputation, you have to work like anything to maintain it. I’ve set myself up for criticism here simply by telling you all about my dieting and exercise regime. I know that most of you will be sat there thinking “er… but she’s actually still quite fat – I thought she said that singers were aiming to look castable and realistic” well, yes. I am actually still a bit fat. I did in fact get a bit thinner than this. Now there are many people who will pooh pooh what I’m about to say but all I can speak from is my own experience. I found after losing 28 pounds that I started to notice a difference in my singing. It wasn’t necessarily that I was losing power, more that I had to work so very much harder to make the same amount of sound that had previously been effortless, that my sound became pinched and driven. So I came to the conclusion that regaining the perfect size ten figure of my twenties was unrealistic for the repertoire that I’m now singing. And ultimately I had to make a choice between the aesthetic that the profession demands, and the sound that I instinctively know is right for the music. I plumped (pardon the pun) for the sound. And I would only ever claim to be thin by Wagnerian standards.

Despite my failure to achieve my weight loss goal, I have, however kept up with my jogging, and with my healthier eating. It makes me feel better. Eating right means I ‘m stronger with a better immune system. I’m less sluggish and have more energy. Running’s still horrid for the first five minutes, but it’s also still amazing for the rest of the day. It cheers me up by sending those endorphins and smug feelings around my body and it stops me from watching too many box sets in my lonely hotel room when I’m away from home. It helps me explore the places I visit and it gets me out in the fresh air. I can sing my words along to myself when I want to and totally clear my mind of anything if I don’t. I don’t run to make myself more attractive to the profession anymore. I simply do it because it’s part of who I am. Now, who’s up for a little jog? We have to sing ride of the Valkyries!IMG_0400