:: News & Comment

Tenors: collecting and connecting


Enthusiasm & knowledge

I gave a talk to the Recorded Vocal Art Society last week. It operates under the wing of The Record Collector, which is required reading for anyone interested in historical singers in general and tenors in particular. Most of the Society’s members are collectors and many have an interest in the tenor voice, and it was my Tenor: History of a Voice that precipitated the invitation.  I had to confess that unlike their usual celebrity speakers I was not really an expert in the topic, and I told them the story of how the book came to be written, and something of my background (which is one of the reasons it is how it is); being an ex-choirboy with distinctly ambiguous feelings about opera I had to make quite a journey from looking at tenors dispassionately, ‘academically’ even, to finally coming to understand and appreciate the real thing.  Many people in the audience knew far more about curious corners of tenordom than I did, but I was really touched by how many of them appreciated the book, and by how they really enjoyed sharing information about their favourite singers. I must have read every one of the hundreds of tenor articles in The Record Collector, and like the audience at my talk, they all combine obsessive detail with fanatical enthusiasm.  You can’t beat knowledgeable people who really love their subject, and I’m very grateful to those of the collecting fraternity who manage to put pen to paper. My book wouldn’t be the same without them.

Criticism & knowledge

When I was doing my PhD one of the lecturers asked me what music I really liked performing. That’s always a difficult one, as I don’t really think in terms of liking or disliking a piece. It’s more a question of engaging with it, so whatever you’re currently working on is the most important piece, and you don’t need to decide whether you like it or not. That sounds like a lack of critical judgement, said the lecturer. The C word is problematic for performers – we don’t really do critical judgement, we just do the music. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to commit to new music or perform different repertoires; some of my unreconstructed modernist composer friends find it incomprehensible that I also perform minimalist music (and vice versa). But for non-performers, and academics in particular, critiquing of one sort or another is fundamental to the discipline. I’m not quite sure how this came about, but it wasn’t the case fifty years ago or so. It’s a shame it has such negative connotations – we could have called it ‘analytical theory’ or something more neutral, and maybe more academics might appear to enjoy their topics.


The day draws nigh. Not quite sure why it’s quite such a source of mirth to some of my friends – after all, in days of yore I used to mount ye olde warhorse several times a year just like a proper singer. But if you want to share your amazement in public, come along to Great St Mary’s in Cambridge next Sunday (26th) at 6.00. It’s for a very good cause (the Clifford Bartlett Appeal) and will have proper singers too (Emma Kirkby, Clare Wilkinson & Stephen Varcoe, with Peter Holman conducting The Parley). We’re going to have a lot of fun (and there definitely won’t be any more!).  Tickets can be had from the Suffolk Villages Festival box office.


Cardiff singer of a very small number of roles

I tried to watch Cardiff Singer of the World. So much wonderful talent being squandered on such a tiny corner of a repertoire that we all know all too well. Were there any tunes that most of the audience hadn’t heard before? It wasn’t so different from hearing autotuned club music – you just knew what was coming next.  I caught Mary King, who’s a lovely person, great teacher and very experienced singer, saying that Fiordiligi was going to be bread and butter for some successful soprano for years to come. How sad to live on  bread and butter (even though more like brioche in this case) when there’s such a rich diet available to those who have the will to seek it out.  It was a snap shot of all that is awesome and awful about the opera scene at the moment. In a few years time many of those with such glittering prospects are going to find themselves up against the Cardiff Singers of the future who’ll be even more brilliant. And cheaper.

Leave a Reply