THIS EVENING’S PERFORMANCE HAS NOT BEEN CANCELLED
The rubber keys on my cordless landline handset make piercing tones as I press in the code for tonight’s performance. I make myself as comfortable as possible in front of my notepad in my small empty room. Take a breath, hit the green call button and wait while the dial sequence runs down the phone line.
An automated female operator answers: “Welcome to this evening’s performance has not been cancelled. For Bergen National Opera in Norway press 1. For Dutch National Opera press 2. For Garsington Opera Wormsley in the UK press 3. Grand Théâtre de Genève
in Switzerland press – On impulse I press 3.
[tinkling piano hold music]
A voice answers, self-assured but lacking the slight edge of slick authority that usually gives away a pre-recorded automaton: “Hello, Garsington Hotline.” I embark on a mental scrabble to search for information to bridge the distance between us: “Hello, I’m calling from Scotland”. The line sounds distant. “Very good yes, It’s a weird thing we’re doing but none the less. You’ve called other numbers before?” I wish that I had, but ignoring my strong desire to brush over the awkwardness of my inexperience I say: “No. I thought I’d start at home to begin with and journey out from there.”
“Brilliant. Well the story is…”
I’m introduced to a vivid description of a bucolic English estate in Buckinghamshire. Rolling green hills populated with roaming deer, sheep, cows and foals grazing contentedly in their paddocks. The open air theatre allows sunlight to stream in. The first half of the performance takes place in daylight, followed by a long interval offering ample time for picnicking on the grass or enjoying dinner from the set menu. The alcohol flows freely as the sun goes down and the stage lighting is turned up for the second half.
“I must say it’s a very nice way to spend an evening.”
“It sounds like paradise,” I answer.
I wonder about the man’s deep smooth confident voice as he reassuringly sails over the glossy brochure-like sales pitch of the production. He has an accent that exudes confidence and a genial full-bodied warmth which he uses to glide over life’s problems buoyed up by a well-mannered habit which he deploys to sidestep unpredictable crosswinds in the flow of conversation. He embodies his work as a singer completely. I wonder if he is real or if this conversation is an extension of his professional persona. As he talks I can hear the practiced muscles of his face forming into the mask he adopts when looking out at audiences. Audiences whose rapture, boredom, confusion, ecstasy, self-absorbed distraction are for now mirrored in his mind’s eye; a light rustle and occasional cough puncture the barely perceptible rhythm of six hundred people breathing together in a packed auditorium.
“…So the choices I can give you are: Deh vieni Susanna’s aria – full aria, the Countess and Susanna – the Sull’aria duet, Voi che sapete Cherubino’s aria, or the opening duet between Figaro and Susanna.”
“I think the opening duet,” I say, hopefully giving the impression that tonight’s menu of delectable items simply offers too much choice to the discerning palate; though secretly I have no idea what any of the options on offer might be.
“Very good choice, you get me then.”
“Ah, I look forward to it.”
“It’s been lovely talking to you. Best of luck.”
“Thank you, same to you.”
“Not at all, I’m going to try and transfer you now. I hope I don’t cut you off.”
[Loud sustained digital tone of an unbearable pitch]
I cut the call and dial again.
“your hold music for this evening is from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. One of the operas which was broadcast by the Paris Théâtrophone service in the early 1900’s and forms the inspiration for this evenings performance.” Declining bass notes slow to a standstill, soprano female voice. “Thank you for continuing to hold –
“Good evening you’re at Rusalka from the Dutch National Opera in Holland.”
The man draws breath as though he’s been speaking for some time. He is disarmingly direct and efficient in conversation; informing me that his production was due to be screened to an open air audience of up to 5000 people at a festival, continuing a 20-year tradition. He asks me whether I’m interested in Opera and I reply over enthusiastically for fear of alienating him, telling him that I inherited a collection of antique opera records from behind the iron curtain that once belonged to an elderly relative. He catches me off guard, saying:
“actually the opera is not one of my favourite performing-art forms. Sometimes I really love the music and listening, but to see what’s going on stage, it’s sometimes so artificial. Sometimes people say that opera is the ultimate art form but I don’t agree about that.”
I’m caught off guard by his unexpected candour, and try to tread water while working out what tack to take next. Perhaps unadvisedly I continue on my original trajectory:
“Yes, it’s very full. The senses are completely filled. I often think about this older man alone in his house listening to records over and over again. He had dementia and as his mind disappeared the music became more and more important to him. I don’t know why he was so interested in that one art form, because he was not interested in very much else. Just opera.”
“Very interesting I think it’s a challenge for you to dive into the whole story of opera and his music. I think we could talk very long about this but it’s not the ideal project because there are some callers waiting.”
We do a brief conversational dance where each reassures the other no inconvenience has been incurred before I select a fragment of a recording of The Dutch National Opera from 1976.
[Beep beep…. beep beep…. beep beep…. beep beep…. beep beep…. beep beep…. beep]
No music arrives. I cut the call and dial again.
“Hello … Theatro Royale Madrid.”
“Hello” Already I have noticed the woman speaking has an unselfconscious warmth to her voice. “Nice to meet you, you’re my first call,” she says. “I think it’s a technical thing maybe. Are you interested in Opera?” I answer “Yes.” Making sure my internal reservations are well camouflaged I follow up with: “it’s unusual to speak direct to the people involved in production.” She answers: “It’s the same for us. We do prepare the whole show two years in advance and work quite a lot to bring this on stage, and then we don’t really have contact with the public. Have you chosen especially our production?”
“I did choose you especially.” I answer. She talks with energy and enthusiasm about her work as a set designer and the opera she has been working on; a baroque piece from 250 years ago. Composed for the wedding of a Spanish princess to the French Dauphin, its theme is a surprisingly contemporary comic-tragedy of love mixed with divided loyalties and obscured identities. The hero Achilles is hiding from the Trojan War. His mother has disguised him as a woman and put him safely out of harm’s way on an island where he/she falls in love with a princess and receives unwanted romantic attention from a prince.
“What is the tragedy in the story? I ask, “I don’t mind if you spoil it for me.” She answers that “the tragedy is, as in all mythologies that the men have to choose between love and war and he cannot have both. He has to go with the other men to the war, and we know because of the story, the public knows he will never come back because he will die in the war.” We consider together for a moment why the men always have to choose between love and war, why the women have to stay home and just have love, and why this opera about miserable life and love would have been commissioned for a marriage.
I can hear in the intensity of her explanation how much she cares about this production. So I ask: “When you’ve worked on an Opera for two years do you find it hard to let go when it’s finished? How do you say goodbye to a piece?” She seems to genuinely appreciate this question and describes how everything starts from an intimate relationship with the director and making a model and how this is given to the theatre and they say “ok, we do it.” I can hear the excitement building in her voice as she says: “…and then you discover it grow and it grows, and then you come on stage and rehearse with the singers and you see it as the baby grows. Its growing and growing and suddenly it’s out of your hands because the orchestra comes, the singers come, the prop people, technicians and the last week for example, you sit in the audience and you have just some corrections, some light changes and you see its growing and it’s gone. It’s an adult. You can let it go. Two days before the opening it’s a bit sad because it’s done and that’s what you could do, no more. After the opening its out, and I don’t think about it anymore, it’s gone. And its ok.”
From here there is nowhere to go in the conversation that can avoid the emptiness of theatres unoccupied, costumes unworn, voices no longer reverberating. To compensate for this lack all I can offer is my heartfelt commiseration one creative person to another: “…let’s hope so. Let’s hope you can see it finished.”
“It was so nice talking to you.” She says. I sense the end of our conversation and quickly jump in to say: “Actually, I’m having a problem because people are forwarding me to the piece of music but I never hear anything.’
“Oh do you want to try again. What would you like to hear? Let me see if I can do it.”
“Third time lucky…” I say.
[Beep beep… beep beep… beep beep… beep]
Suddenly music breaks through: a male soprano’s fluttering vocals jumping octaves with a staccato underlying instrumental. A high trill ends with a rolling rrrrrrrrrr but the words are not discernible. It is a tempestuous moment, and exhausting like being jabbed all over the body with small pins. A brief pause, but just when I’m thinking it’s all over it starts up again for a final brief gallop as though the horse has bolted the stable with the still-singing soprano saddled on its back.
I hang up the receiver and look up out of the window to see grey clouds hanging listlessly in the sky. The rustle and murmur of the auditorium waking up, busying itself gathering jackets and pouring out of aisles is a distant memory quickly displaced by the sharp solitude of my sparsely furnished room. I have been sitting phone-to-ear for nearly two hours. Only now I discover my body has limbs. Unfolding myself, I get up to put the kettle on.