I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the Future of Knowledge conference at the British Museum on Monday 12 February 2018. The conference is organised by the Knowledge Quarter to mark its third year of promoting productive partnerships, fruitful networks and creative interaction between its member organisations.
I will talking about McCaldin Arts’ project Mary’s Hand, which is in development for performances in 2018. In dealing with historical issues around the life of Queen Mary I, the show considers how her reputation was posthumously manipulated by her half-sister Elizabeth I, and the partial treatment of important facts and truths. As it turns out, fake news and PR spin are not a recent invention.
This morning I joined Clare Lynch and Leslie Hardcastle OBE at Soho Radio to talk about my connections with the area. Clare and Leslie co-host The Soho Society Hour on Thursday from 9-10am. Under Leslie’s indefatigable Chairmanship, The Soho Society lobbies for a local community voice in discussions affecting everything from planning consent and heritage to licensing and events. Each week, alongside Leslie’s updates on the current issues in the area, Clare interviews a couple of guests about their work and life in Soho. Appearing with me today in the studio was singer, writer, curator and Soho resident Celine Hispiche and, down the phone, playwright Martin Murphy.
As it turned out we all had a one-woman show to talk about. I was there mainly to talk about Jessie Matthews, born and raised in Soho, whose story I narrate and perform in Over My Shoulder. In addition to curating a salon for new performance work, Celine is also developing a show about a notorious London Bohemien, Betty May. Martin’s latest play, Victim, is a one-woman show about the relationship between a prison guard, Tracey, and an inmate.
We began by discussing Joseph Haydn, whose blue plaque at 18 Great Pulteney Street is visible thanks to the campaign by The Haydn Society of Great Britain, in which I played a small part back in 2015. Although I had frequently visited Soho in the past to enjoy its many restaurants, it was only through this project that I really got involved in the history of the area. Researching my second Soho story in Jessie Matthews has led me to all kinds of discoveries and people, not least the lovely group with whom I spent this morning.
You can hear this morning’s full Soho Society Hour online here
Born in a Soho slum, Jessie Matthews rose to become a superstar of stage and screen throughout the 1930s, and was often described as “the English Ginger Rogers”. Elisabeth Schumann was a German opera and song specialist whose popularity with British audiences remained undimmed even after Germany and England had fought a war. Both women were hugely famous in their day, and yet their names are hardly recognised now by
younger generations of music-lovers.
Over My Shoulder sets out to remedy this by weaving together the stories of these two singers around their unexpected intersection here in London. In a strange twist of fate, Jessie and Elisabeth now lie buried in the same churchyard. Could they also have met years earlier in Covent Garden at the height of their fame?
Clare McCaldin (mezzo-soprano) and Paul Turner (piano) combine story-telling and singing to celebrate the lives and work of Jessie and Elisabeth. Tales of romantic scandal, tragedy, falls from grace and triumphant come-backs are inseparable from the remarkable artistic contribution of these two women.
The performance includes music by Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Johannes Brahms, Otto Klemperer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Noël Coward, Harry Woods and Rodgers & Hart.
15th February 2018, 7.30pm St Paul’s Church, 32a Wilton Place, London, SW1X 8SH
Tickets £25, £15, £10. Interval drinks will be served (donation requested). Click here to book in advance or buy a ticket on the door.
This morning we were given a special short tour of the Life on the London Stage exhibition at the City of London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell. We’re grateful to the Knowledge Quarter for organising the morning, which gave us a chance to be led through a part of the City of London’s resources that can often be overlooked.
The single floor exhibition uses material from the Archives and some specially donated items (some correspondence with Kenneth Williams) to mark out a history of theatre in London. Highlights included: documents registering the movements of William Shakespeare’s son Edmond and his short-lived son Edward; audio and video educational arts recordings, from hyper-local TV reports to study-readings of Shakespeare plays; photographs of actresses notable for their relationships with the monarchy; and various displays with photographs and potted histories of figures familiar (Burbage, Garrick) and unfamiliar – the likes of Ethel Barrymore, an actor reputed to have rejected a proposal from an admiring Churchill (and some relative of contemporary Hollywood actor-producer Drew) and Ira Aldridge, a black actor famous for taking on Othello in the 19th century (whose life and work was also the subject of the Tricycle Theatre’s Red Velvet in 2014).
This is an interesting exhibition in its own right. It also tiptoes around the subject that we at McCaldin Arts find so absorbing, that of the richesse of the biographical narrative as a way of framing & illuminating both contemporaneous and today’s works of art.
More to the point, the Archive stages exhibitions such as these as showpiece events to draw people to the Archive itself. The building has a hundred kilometres of shelving for its collection, which can be accessed in a light-filled reading room separated from the exhibition simply by a glass wall. It is free to register and access the collection.
It is a strong period for theatrical exhibitions in London at the moment. In addition to Life on the London Stage, the V&A’s Opera: Passion, Power & Politics exhibition works as a strong counterpart to its own Theatre Collection (and Opera Collection). It’s a good time to take stock of the heritage of the artform in the crucible of the capital as the popularity and diversity of theatre in London continues to expand.
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.