For the final scene of the film version of Evergreen
Trying to cram two lives into an evening concert is a challenge, and in writing Over My Shoulder about the lives of Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie Matthews, I inevitably had to leave out a lot of lovely detail. One of subjects there wasn’t space for was their wardrobes and the outfits that caused a stir.
In my show I quote director Victor Saville who said “Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!” in reply to press comment on Jessie’s scanty outfits in one of his films. His response was to commission the silver sequinned bodysuit on the left for the next film.
Jessie was famous for wearing clothes that left little to the imagination, and not always by design. In Evergreen she had accidentally gone onstage one evening having forgotten the special skin-coloured leotard that should have been worn under her chiffon pyjamas. The audience saw rather more of her at that performance than they expected.
Chiffon was ideal for Jessie’s dresses because she loved to exploit the fabric’s floatiness as she moved, as in this video of Dancing On The Ceiling from the film of Evergreen (this sequence is 1’10” in if you are watching the whole film).
Elisabeth Schumann’s concert attire was generally more sober, although she did create a sensation in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Vienna. It being a midday concert, an evening gown was not appropriate and Elisabeth felt that the purple dress she finally agreed on was still rather too smart. So she ‘softened’ it with the addition of a matching hat. This startling choice attracted as much press attention as her singing: “ES made an entrance…as if she had just popped in from a stroll on the Ringstrasse for a moment, to sing about the heavenly life. With a hat. Let us hope that (Richard) Mayr will not appear for the Ninth in a top hat…”
Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
History doesn’t record what the conductor, Bruno Walter, thought of Elisabeth’s outfit and sadly I haven’t been able to find a photo of it. But I particularly like this one of her and Richard Strauss, with whom she toured the US in 1921. Elisabeth appears in many publicity shots in a fur coat and holding her favourite pet dog, Sorry (so named after the English habit of apologising, which she found hilarious). This lovely shot seems to catch her mid-rehearsal and more relaxed in her casual clothes.
Stephen Dickinson has written a new group of songs for me entitled A Shakespeare Quartet, which we will be premiering together on Sunday 16 July at 3pm. The songs are settings of speeches from four different female characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind’s teasing of Orlando (As You Like It), Viola to Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s watery death (Hamlet) and Hermia’s dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Stephen will be accompanying me in these new songs, as well as in a duet he wrote last year for baritone Paul Sheehan and me, setting Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest.
Stephen has also written a new Benedictus duet for us, commemorating the death of his great-uncle Oxley Jones Frost, who was killed in action on 15th March 1917 aged 24. This will be performed alongside a Pie Jesu which Stephen wrote in 1997.
Paul will also be performing Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, and the three of us will open the concert with three duets by Schumann: Tanzlied, In der Nacht and Ich bin dein Baum.
The concert is at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at 3pm on Sunday 16th July, and lasts an hour without an interval.
I saw Robert Lepage’s autobiographical one-man show 887 this week. Lepage came onstage unannounced to make the traditional plea to the audience to turn of its phones and beeping gadgets. His informal and fluent chat established the intimate tone of the show and led seamlessly into the first scene. The performance had begun by stealth. It’s not the first time I have seen this done (think Simon McBurney in The Encounter), but it’s undeniably effective when executed so effortlessly. It was the perfect place to start a discussion with Dr Toby Young and undergraduates on the music course at the University of Oxford, as to what actually makes a performance.
Toby’s students will be taking a course with him next year about Opera and Music Theatre since 1945, for which this was a preliminary sharing of ideas and skills. As well as attending academic lectures, the course requires the students to participate in a performance written especially for them by Toby, which will be directed by my fellow mezzo Loré Lixenberg.
Today we were discussing what defines a performance and how we can control various elements to direct the audience’s attention. Not all of our students are singers, but they were each asked to present a short performance of some sort, in what turned out to be a rich mixture of genres: song, aria, electronic club music, spoken monologue, even a magic trick. Fascinating insights emerged as to why and how performances work, with discussion about boundaries between the audience and the performer, focus, (mis)direction, gesture, text, silence, rhythm, energy, pace and humour.
Walking back through Oxford town centre I was struck by the number of performances simply taking place in the street, some consciously, others less so. Buskers, shop staff offering free samples and evangelists of other kinds were all working the crowd but no-one with the innate showmanship of East London fishmonger Muhammad Shahid Nazareth who enjoyed stardom as One Pound Fish Man when his sales patter went viral.
The students and Toby will now collaborate on a piece for performance during the Hilary (Lent) Term. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
September 16th will be the first performance of Over My Shoulder, my latest McCaldin Arts project, about soprano Elisabeth Schumann and musical comedy star Jessie Matthews. In this recital I narrate the remarkable life-stories of these two women and sing some of the wonderful music most closely associated with them. Accompanying me in songs ranging from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Schubert to Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hart will be pianist Paul Turner, my regular collaborator on Haydn’s London Ladies.
It was a photograph of the grave of Elisabeth Schumann at St Martin’s church in Ruislip that first prompted the idea for a recital, followed by the discovery of Jessie Matthews’ grave in the same churchyard. It seems appropriate that Over My Shoulder should get its premiere at St Martin’s where these two women finally came to rest. I hope that, having heard me weave their stories together, the audience will not only visit the two graves, but seek out the substantial legacy of recordings and film left by Elisabeth and Jessie, many of which can be found on You Tube. I am delighted to be presenting their song repertoire, but the inimitable originals are really worth hearing too, and Jessie’s dance routines (she was the “English Ginger Rogers”) are absolutely extraordinary.
This performance of Over My Shoulder is sponsored by Edmission UK and all ticket receipts will go to the Myosotis Trust, a charity with which St Martin’s church and the local community have a long association.
Concert starts at 7.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door. Interval drinks.
A few months ago I blogged about a forthcoming project at TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, with Dr Toby Young of Somerville College. We have titled our work Transforming the Operatic Voice and this Monday was our first experimental workshop exploring different vocal genres and stylistic uses of the voice.
Toby and I were joined by regular McCaldin Arts collaborator Libby Burgess (above seated) and a new team member (above left) Heather Cairncross. Heather’s singing career spans a wide variety of genres from early music with the Monteverdi Choir to the chameleon vocals of the Swingle Singers, jazz and pop.
We worked with a range of songs and arias from different periods and challenged ourselves to analyse what we did intuitively (or through training) in one genre and to apply this to music from a different vocal heritage.
We discussed technical issues (support, soft palate, mask resonance, consonant production, vowel shape and purity) and stylistic questions about the creativity of the response to the melody, situation, use of amplification and text. This was early-stage work to homogenise our language and understanding in preparation for making a new set of songs. The two versions of the song-cycle will be performed acoustically and in a recorded ‘studio’ form by me and Heather respectively, and we will be looking for points of contact and difference between the two performances, based on our experimental learnings.
Prior to the session we had also compiled a fascinating list of singers performing outside their normal musical or vocal territory. To see the list and listen to the tracks, click here.
Preparing a solo recital is always a lot of work, so the chance to repeat a programme is a welcome opportunity. However, performing the same programme three times in three different counties in just over 24 hours demands a whole new level of stamina and focus, as Libby Burgess and I confirmed on our mini-tour for Concerts in the West. But there is simply no other way to discover how to do it other than by actually doing it. To sing the programme through three times without the presence of an audience wouldn’t achieve the same effect, such is the importance of the audience in the whole undertaking.
Although any programme becomes easier with familiarity, the physical toll of delivering three concerts so close together is not to be underestimated, for both singer and pianist. Clever programming and knowing how to pace oneself are essential, as is the art of cat-napping.
Being on tour is not only about the performing and, as in this case, journeys on winding country roads between venues can also take their toll. We were fortunate that with each passing concert the distance back ‘home’ became shorter, and we were glad to be driven than to be doing the driving as well.
As its name suggests, Concerts in the West is based in the South-West and covers venues in Devon, Somerset and Dorset. It’s always a pleasure to discover new places to perform and we were particularly delighted by Bridport Arts Centre, a lovely little space with a super acoustic, and Ilminster Arts Centre, run by volunteers and, I’m pleased to say, thriving.
Thank you to Catherine and her team at Concerts in the West for a very enjoyable flying visit.
In March this year I will be on a mini recital tour in the South-West with one of my regular collaborators, pianist Libby Burgess, courtesy of Concerts in the West. This excellent organisation manages a large series of classical music concerts spread across small venues in Devon and Somerset, and gives emerging artists the chance to perform a recital several times in quick succession. Repeating a programme has such benefits for the performers and it is often difficult to engineer a series of performances close together from scratch. Concerts in the West has an established relationship with many venues and a loyal audience, and we are delighted to join the 2017 series. We will also give a London performance of the programme on Thursday 23 March at 7.30pm at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, 32a Wilton Pl, London SW1X 8SH.
Camille Pisarro’s Lordship Lane Station (1871)
Our programme explores the cultural love-affair between England and France, in particular the romantic tropes and shared reference points: these include Fauré’s and Vaughan Williams’ settings of Verlaine’s poem Prison, Britten’s folk-song settings in English and French, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s jazz-infused A History of the Thé Dansant. Contemporary songs by Dominic Muldowneyand David Owen Norris complementsongs from the early C20th by Cole Porter and Poulenc. See below for full programme.
Finzi – To a Poet
Vaughan Williams – The Sky Above The Roof
Fauré – Prison
Fauré – Trois Mélodies de Venise
Head – Three Songs of Venice
Britten – French and English Folk Songs
Il est quelqu’un sur terre, Eho! Eho!, Salley Gardens, Oliver Cromwell
John Ireland – In A May Morning from Sarnia (piano solo)
Dominic Muldowney – In Paris with You
David Owen Norris – Big Ben Blues
Poulenc – Les Chemins de l’amour
Cole Porter – C’est Magnifique
Richard Rodney Bennett – The History of the Thé Dansant
Every so often someone casually suggests an idea to me that just grabs me, and one of my current projects in development comes from just such a moment. A friend noticed a connection between two very different singers: Elizabeth Schumann (above right), international classical diva, and Jessie Matthews (below right), darling of 1930s musicals, on stage and screen.
Each of these women reached the very peak of her profession, working with the creative giants of her day and experiencing the ups and downs, rivalries and challenges that the performing life unavoidably entails. It is fascinating to weave together the strands of their narratives as an introduction to their music and artistry, built around the curious facts of how their stories finally intersect here in England.
After the success of my first narrated recital Haydn’s London Ladies, this format seemed ideal for combining similarly varied musical items and historical anecdotes. The new programme ranges from Schubert to Rogers and Hart, from Covent Garden and Hollywood.
Elizabeth and Jessie is currently in development, for presentation in late 2017. Dates to be announced.
Last Wednesday, January 18, I visited the Edward Saïd Business School at Oxford University with one of my regular collaborators, Dr Toby Young. We were appearing as guests speakers in the School’s lunchtime series entitled Engaging with the Humanities. Among other speakers this term are Dr Ben Morgan (on how Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate the form, survival and collapse of all kinds of communities – national, political and domestic) and Pegram Harrison (on synchronicity as a key to high performance in teams).
We were encouraged to talk about leadership in general terms, but soon focussed on the unusual fluidity of the system that has developed to produce such a complex art-form as opera. The range and number of skills and contributors to the finished product requires a strongly-defined but flexible system in which different functions can take the lead at different moments.
We chose to illustrate the issue of leadership at a micro-level by performing Schubert’s An die Musik, Toby accompanying me on a piano suitably graffitti-d with inspiring quotes. Musicians often speak of the negotiations that go on between players or singers in rehearsal or performance. While many audience members understand the principle, it is always interesting for them to see and hear this in action. It is also a pleasure for us to find sympathetic listeners in a business world that sometimes appears exclusively concerned with tangible assets at the expense of the intangibles in which we deal. How appropriate, then, to find on the side of the piano, these words of Winston Churchill’s.
Two images of Mary I and Katherine of Aragon (top)
McCaldin Arts is excited to announce a new project with an old friend: Martin Bussey, whose music I first sang at the Ludlow Festival a couple of years ago.
We agreed we want to make a work featuring the Tudor Queens Katherine of Aragon, her daughter Mary I, Elizabeth I, with reference to the other wives of Henry VIII. Martin is extremely well-read in this area of English history, which I am definitely not. So I have been catching-up by reading various books by Alison Weir, David Starkey, Jessie Childs, David Loades and Anna Whitelock.
Mary I has had a bad press. It suited her successors to denigrate her and she is chiefly remembered as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestant heretics.
But there’s so much more to her that she has become the key figure in our project.
Mary’s rule was in many ways unhappy, even disastrous, but she made political and legal changes without which it is unlikely that Elizabeth I could have reigned so successfully. Mary’s private story is not only sad because of her inability to bear the child she so longed-for but is also at the heart of her failures as a ruler because her deeply Catholic conscience could not substitute for the political astuteness she lacked. Several books have recently rehabilitated Mary’s image and our piece is essentially sympathetic to her in recognising her significant achievements while acknowledging her as a woman of her time.
Having completed our research and found our target, we are now ready to start writing the piece. I think I will leave that bit to Martin.
Listen to Martin’s song A Church Romance which I sang on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune with Iain Burnside.