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)
-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!