:: Tenors

Captain Stefan’s Corelli

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018


This is a riot of a book. If you’re interested in tenors it’s a must, if you’re interested in Franco Corelli you’ve probably already got it. If tenors’ sex lives are your thing, then you’ll learn a lot more than you probably want to know about tenorial orgasms, il pompino bolognese (Google it) and the like. Oh, and there’s quite a lot of tenor history thrown in. Don’t expect analysis or conventional referencing – this is not an objective academic tome. Stefan Zucker, self-styled opera fanatic, former baby-sitter to Franco Corelli, only begetter of the Bel Canto Society, radio personality extraordinaire, sometime holder of the Guiness Book of Records highest known tenor note, is not a conventional biographer.

I’ve been a fan of Stefan Zucker for many years. His Bel Canto Society has produced countless recordings and articles on both the greatest and most obscure opera singers – and with the minimum outside financial help. I was very happy to acknowledge his work in my Tenor: History of  Voice, though what most appeals is his complete obsession with opera singers and his no holds barred opinions on everything from larynx position and falsetto to sex and squillo.

It’s a maddening book – stuffed full of anecdote and facts that you won’t find anywhere else, but devilishly difficult to find your way around. The first volume is more coherent (and less salacious) and there’s a third one to come which will focus on singers who aren’t Corelli. Stefan and I have exchanged books in the past but we haven’t corresponded for a while, so I was astonished to discover that one of his chapters is devoted to my tenor book – which he basically seems to have enjoyed apart from the falsetto question. He calls what pre-chested top C tenors do at the top head voice, whereas my interpretation of the sources suggests falsetto (though I have to confess that as a tenor myself I don’t have a real falsetto and if I could sing a top C it would be in head voice). It’s possible we’re both guilty of over-insistence on our beliefs, and tenors are never if not opinionated. He points out a few inaccuracies and mis-attributions in my effort (but tactfully ignores the main howler which I corrected in the paperback reprint, which referred to the top Cs in  Traviata rather than Tell (I must have been asleep at the wheel there).

I can’t wait to see what Stefan has to say about Corelli’s contemporaries and successors in Volume 3. Unsurprisingly, he has a tendency to compare them unfavourably with his hero and he doesn’t pull any punches if the extract on Jonas Kaufmann published in a recent Newsletter is anything to go by.  I’m wondering what he’ll have to say about Rolando Villazon, whom I had the chance to interview for a TV programme a few years ago. When I arrived at the Covent Garden rehearsal room Villazon was sitting on the floor doing a piece to camera on  Corelli. At the end of the first take I couldn’t resist saying that he hadn’t mentioned Corelli’s legs, which were reckoned by some to be the best pair ever seen on a tenor (a bit of a risk as we hadn’t yet been introduced). He began again: …and Franco Corelli, he had it all, including two of the best pairs of legs in the business…then immediately realising what he’d said, he added…though he only used one pair at a time, of course. I can’t remember if that made the final cut, but it set the scene for a totally memorable encounter.  It was enormous fun, with Rolando fizzing away the whole time. So much energy! I’d taken the precaution of bringing along my copy of his Massenet & Gounod album and he agreed to sign it as long as I signed his copy of my book (that was a surprise). Of course, he never just signs, so I’m now the proud possessor of a Villazon cartoon of the two of us talking tenor stuff.


Some academic writing is objective to the point where you wonder if the author actually likes the topic. There’s a lot to be said for the informed fanaticism of the dedicated enthusiast. Combine this with an obsessive collecting mentality and you have another of my favourite institutions: The Record Collector. I have to own up to a certain nerdy tendency to ‘collect’ old recordings, but it’s only the singing I’m interested in and a list of serial numbers of old 78s will make my eyes glaze over. But it is exactly this attention to minute detail that drives many of the contributors to The Record Collector (don’t forget the definite article, as I did on the first printing of my tenor book – the article-less publication is a different kettle of vocal fry all together). You won’t find hundreds of footnotes, but you will find detailed, meticulous writing by collectors who love what they are writing about. The bizarre magic of the serial numbers and so on is there, but (sometimes almost incidentally) there are also wonderful insights into the singing of the early twentieth century. There’s a terrific bias towards tenors which suited me just fine, and there’s an annual CD of long forgotten singing which never fails to get the juices going.  I don’t write write about tenors these days, but I may return to the fray in the future, and if I do I don’t doubt that the Bel Canto Society and the Record Collector will be essential reading.

Both of these extraordinary resources operate on a shoestring in a world dominate by big conglomerates, so if you’re interested in the history of singing (early music students take note!) sign up for a subscription.



Puccini for pensioners

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


I should have realised why there aren’t any arias from Manon Lescaut on any of our Puccini anthologies. It’s short on killer tunes and the one recurring theme has only four chords. The RoH performance beamed to cinemas was a weird experience. By half time I was seething and wondering how on earth the state could justify supporting such a venture: it really was porn for pensioners. It may have been fine from a safe distance in the opera house, but the Act 2 close ups were excruciating. The chat in the cinema interval divided on gender lines – the old ladies thought that Manon was a trollop and the whole thing was disgusting, but the old blokes enjoyed it a lot except when their glasses steamed up and they couldn’t see interesting bits (Manon’s that is). The RoH’s periodic invitations to Tweet were completely lost on us, and the banal examples that appeared on screen certainly wouldn’t have encouraged the old folk to explore the new technology – we’ve only just learned to turn our phone off in concerts (Hello from various holiday destinations? It made it feel even more like a Saga outing).

But something magical happened in the interval. Pappano was doing one of his pieces to camera, trying to explain how the intermezzo before Act 3 works. He was playing away and was so moved by the music that he couldn’t speak. This was real emotion – Pappano playing the piano and singing the cello solo was as close to getting inside Puccini’s head as you could possibly get. As Jonas Kaufmann told us, he lives the music, and this obviously inspired the RoH band to play out of its skin. The few shots of Pappano conducting showed him reflecting every nuance the players created. It was a very sophisticated thing – them leading him almost – his real work having been done well before in rehearsals. All he had to do was reap the rewards of performance. It was stunning, sumptuous playing.

There was some wonderful singing too from the whole cast, and even the acting was passable. Christopher Maltman was especially successful at making the almost unactable seem convincing. The principals both suffered from Andy Murray syndrome (which involves opening the mouth unfeasibly wide at moments of high emotion (or pitch). I did wonder when the mega-jaw-dropping events reached double figures whether it might actually have been an ironic Wimbledon reference. Like the porn sequences it may have been fine in the theatre, but it was grotesque in tele-visual close-up. It’s hard enough to accept that people wearing more or less modern dress would behave in such a peculiar way, but when the visual dimension is reduced to tongue and tonsils all the emotion the singers are trying to generate is absurdly compromised. Both stars can sing stunningly (Kaufmann is one of my favourite tenors and he’s also one of the most articulate and intelligent of the breed) but too often they went for pointless power over vocal subtlety for me. Interestingly Benjamin Hulett summoned up a charismatic Edmondo without us  needing to examine his pharynx in any detail.

Both the RoH and the cinema need to think ahead a bit. I’m guessing the average age in my cinema was close to 80 (it’s not often I find myself among the youngest in the audience). It may be that it’s like early music – perhaps when people retire they start going to concerts – so they won’t all necessarily be dead within a decade, just replaced by more octogenarians. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it’s a very expensive way of keeping pensioners  entertained. And then there’s the white middle class thing – made even more obvious by shots of a very similar demographic in the actual theatre. Again, one feels uncomfortable about the state contributing to this – if people want to pay several hundred pounds a ticket or enjoy corporate hospitality fine – but save the state’s cash for something more inclusive. The cinema was just as blinkered – they’d canvassed their audience about the drinks and nibbles in the interval and made appropriate adjustments. Wrong questions: it’s not the existing audience you need to pander to – how about some curry or bangers or even hamburgers to attract a slightly broader and younger audience? Three sandwich triangles are never going to be cool – it’s not even a whole slice of bread. It was the smallest screen in the multiplex and it wasn’t full, so something somewhere isn’t working.

I was glad I didn’t leave at half time as the Pappano moment was well worth staying for. But if you have the choice of paying a lot of money to see bizarre plot lines ‘acted out’ in very loud in yer face singing –  or watching a half decent tv drama at home, what do you do? TV drama, especially the Scandinavian imports, has all the ingredients of opera bar the singing, and it does all of them (except the singing, obviously) better than opera. I suspect the audience the RoH really wants to reach will take a lot of persuading to get off their sofas and swop Wallander for La Wally.

The Perils of Online Discographies

Monday, January 28th, 2013

If your research involves discographies you’ll know about the hazards of the online variety; they’re a very diferent animal from the work of professional discographers (as those who subscribe to The Record Collector will know). On the other hand, every new release or re-release will be electronically identified by the major discog websites, and that means even the most obscure records needn’t remain forgotten for long.  I was reminded of the problem recently when I received a letter (a sheet of paper – or in this case several sheets –  that comes wrapped in another sheet) complaining that I’d omitted Heinz Hoppe from Tenor:History of a Voice. This was the first complaint since the online updating (and was shortly followed by another one from my friend Larry Josefovitz telling me I’d missed Yossele Rosenblatt – barely conceivable since he and I corresponded at length on the subject, but sadly true).   I always check out these omissions; it’s impossible to account for everyone’s favourite tenor but if someone’s taken the trouble to write it’s the least I can do. I then reply with whatever info I’ve found and file it away in case of a future update.

My Hoppe fan doesn’t have email, but assuming she at least had access to a computer I printed out some links to online discographies and a German Wikipedia entry and posted them off. Some weeks later a package of photocopied Hoppe discographies arrived, courtesy of an old boyfriend and a helpful Barnes & Noble person who’d downloaded them for her. She was naturally excited by the fact that there were Hoppe discographies of any sort, but disappointed to have to wade through multiple CD sets which contained only one Hoppe track, not to mention unwanted information about a bass called Fritz Hoppe (I hadn’t heard of him either).

When I was doing the online update I abandoned the format in the printed tenorography, which had separate subheadings for print and internet material and token discographies that were just there to whet the appetite. Between the print edition and the update there had been an explosion in internet material and I opted for links to online materials wherever possible. It was itself an online resource so readers just had to click on the links and could then search for print versions  if they wanted to. For most tenors I used AllMusic; at its best this has comprehensive listings, often with a brief but accurate biography – just what most people need if they’re trying to explore further.

Having had mixed results with my Hoppe exchange (over several transatlantic snail mail weeks) I thought I’d revisit AllMusic and see how the site was progressing (these sorts of programmes never stand still – see my previous post). It’s now even more comprehensive, with detailed categories of contribution ranging from performer to liner note writer. To test its accuracy I did the only thing you can do in the circumstances and tried it on myself.

Well, there was a rather flattering biography from  Patsy Morita. It was bang up to date (and even mentions the Conductus project). The list of recordings totalled 189 which must be about right (I lost count a while ago). And there were the usual re-release/re-packaged albums that I didn’t know about (including a Shakespeare anthology for EMI in which ‘Come again’ is sandwiched between readings from John Hurt and Ralph Fiennes). But  I have no recollection of playing banjo on a Kenny Ball album and trombone on one of Veljo Tormis’ Estonian Lullabies, or doing English translations for Soul Flower Union’s 90s singles anthology.  I  couldn’t remember doing the paintings for  Inanition’s  Controlled Bleeding either, or the layout design for Mortification’s Scrolls of the Megilloth. Well, at least I’m on Harmonia Mundi’s Decade of Excellence (what…???).

So…be warned – the discog algorhythm still needs work. There’s a link for corrections, but I think I’ll let it sort itself out; some of that stuff  I never knew I did…or, in fact, did… is pretty cool.


Biographical List of Tenors: the Update!

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012


It’s up and running at last. There are links from the Yale site to both the original Pdf and the Supplement here, and the two lists are themselves now linked. Thanks to Jamie Forrest at Yale for sorting it out. You can get straight there from here.

Inevitably, the Supplement is out of date, and there are bound to be omissions of people’s favourite tenors. At the moment I can’t see myself doing another update (this one took for ever, and I’m embarking on a new writing project over the winter) but I’ll keep any complaints/suggestions on file just in case I do return to it in the future. As always, many thanks to all those who contributed suggestions to both lists. If I’ve missed you off my acknowledgements lists, do let me know and please accept my apologies. It’s been a wonderful experience engaging with everybody (even those who got quite cross when they discovered I’d overlooked their main man).  The earliest work on the original ‘tenorography’ was done by my son Ned, then my unpaid research assistant at the University of York. In the meantime he’s produced his own book, so now we’re a two-author family.


August dates:

Dowland Project

The Dowland Project will be doing the final concert the Radovljica Festival on August 19th.  The concert will be taken by Radio Slovenia and we hope this may form the basis of a BBC programme about the group. The Radovljica programme will be a variation of those we did in Slovakia last month and there will be more Schubert…

Latest news on the next album from ECM is early 2013…


After that I’m doing a week’s coaching at Schloss Engers (Neuwied)  with some fantastic groups from Germany and Italy. There will be three concerts in the Rheinland-Pfalz area (it’s part of the Kutursommer) – details to follow.

Lute songs old and new…

Plans for next year are developing fast. There will be a Morales programme with Anna Maria Friman (soprano), Ariel Abramovich and Jacob  Heringman (vihuelas). This line-up will also be doing new pieces composed for us by living singer-songwriters and rock musicians, in the context of 16th entury music. Ariel and I will also be including prog-orientated pieces in our lutesong programmes – looking for parallels between Dowland and his contemporaries and modern singer-songwriters. More soon.

July update

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

The Dowland Project

While surfing the Times of Inda site recently (as you do) I came across this bit of video from our Prague concert last year. There’s also some footage of our recent Bratislava gig here with an interview (in Slovak) with Milos Valent.

I’ve replaced the photos on the DP page with some more recent ones from Milan,  Prague and Bratislava. The latest hint from ECM is that the ‘Night Sessions’ album will appear early in 2013.  It’s still difficult to get the band together for one-off dates as we’re all so busy, but if we get wind of an actual release date we’ll try to put a short tour together.

Conductus Project

The first live outing of the Conductus music went very well at All Saints Harewood (very efficiently managed by the York Early Music Festival crew). There turned out to be enough light with just candles and tiny lamps on our folders (I only had to use my phone for the first piece) and it was great to put the music to the test in an actual concert. People seemed to appreciate the film (there were gasps when at one point a horse seemed about to bite Chris O’Gorman’s head off).  Now that we’ve proved the concept we will certainly work on more gigs, though probably next year when we’ve got the next tranch of material recorded. The first CD is officially released in September, but there are full details (including the liner notes) on the Hyperion site here.

History of Singing

I’ve taken down the History of Singing page and its Prezi, partly because of problems with video but also because I feel uncomfortable promoting a book with such a high cover price. As Jeremy Nicholas put it, in his very perceptive review  in the June issue of Gramophone, the price would make even Patti’s water. One of the original stimuli for the book was a course I taught at York called ‘Sources for Singers’ (having discovered that student singers knew very little about vocal history and weren’t being taught it by their singing teachers). The substantial reference section in the book is really for the benefit of students – they can knit their own history from it or track down all our sources –  but no student is going to buy it at £75.

Tenor: History of a Voice

I really am in the process of setting up a link between the update of the Biographical List and the pdf on the Yale site. The update itself is ready to go (and will be run from my site so I can update and correct if necessary). It will go live very shortly, once it has been properly linked to the original. In practice I don’t think I’m going to be able to find time for another comprehensive update (the current one is already out of date), though I would consider a revised and expanded print edition linked to a dedicated website (as my son Ned has done with his new book on marketing libraries).


Future Musical Box?

Next year’s concerts will include recitals with Jan Walters when she’s over here in the summer. YouTube has some slightly hysterical videos of songs from our Braunschweig concert, including El tens d’iver and Ich setze minen vuoz. Ariel Abramovich and I are contemplating a lute-song anthology programme that will include some of our favourite Genesis songs. Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones has also promised us a song, so watch this space.


Biographical List of Tenors

Saturday, April 7th, 2012


Updating the tenorography is taking much longer than I expected. I told Yale they’d have it by Christmas (last Christmas, that is) but I’m still only half way through M. It’s partly laziness on my part – it’s a labour of love and I do have other things to do – but mostly that there’s a huge amount of new material to process. There are lots of new entries of course (and thanks again to those who contacted me with suggestions) but almost all of the existing entries have new info. At the very least this will usually consist of a website – often one of the many excellent Wikipedia entries. At the time of the print volume I was an academic, and like most of my colleagues was inclined to treat Wikipedia with considerable suspicion. How wrong we all were – it’s a fine resource, and for many of the more obscure singers it’s the only source of information, often researched and verified by dedicated enthusiasts who do just as good a job as an academic.  In fact, the transformation of the web as a whole since 2009 has been astonishing. Many of the original print sources (from newspapers to entire books) are now available online, and there are several sites devoted to discographies – much more useful than my original specimen discographies.  Soundfiles, video and pictures are readily available at the click of a mouse, not to mention a plethora of sites dedicated to tenordom. These sometimes fight among themselves, so users need to be a little bit careful.

My basic criteria for inclusion are still the same: reputation in the form of a serious recording, article or website, but if I do a new print edition I will organise it rather differently. There’s a risk of the whole thing looking like a list of urls as online sources replace print, so this needs some thought. Technology is now available to (in effect) convert print urls into electronic links (scanning QR codes, for example) and if print publishers want to keep pace with the web they will have to take this on board. If I were starting from scratch I’d certainly use a different model, something more like Ned’s book on library marketing (which I’ve just proof read). This has a fixed print core but an infinitely expandable interactive web presence so it will not only not date, but will continue to explore and expand. The future of publishing is actually incredibly exciting for publishers who can keep up.


Vocal Authority lives!

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

I’ve begun the process of updating the web version of the Biographical List of Tenors in my tenor history book, and have been reading Ian Bostridge’s A Singer’s Notebook.  It was quite a shock to discover that it  reprints IB’s ancient critique of Vocal Authority.  The review sounded pretty patronising first time round back in 1998, and it hasn’t improved with age.  He doesn’t really get it and gets all sorts of things wrong – and he certainly doesn’t like it.

V A  was my first book. It was based on my PhD thesis, and like many first books it’s very much of its time (as is Bostridge’s review). It still figures on university reading lists, especially in the USA, and I sometimes get asked if I would write the same book today. The answer is ‘no’ (often to the dismay of the enquirer).   I’ve come close to attempting a successor, but disillusionment with academia set in a while ago and the History of Singing that Neil Sorrell and I have just finished is definitely my last foray into anything remotely academic. I suspect poor IB won’t like that either, should he happen to stumble across it, but he can take comfort from the fact that it’s my last in this particular genre.

But having said all that, I have been touched by the reception Vocal Authority had (and still gets) in certain quarters.  Converting the thesis into a book was a long and frustrating process. In the thesis I put the theory chapter last as it was generated by the main body of material and I didn’t want readers to be distracted by my Gramscian analysis if they weren’t that way inclined.  At my viva the examiners asked me to move the theory to the front (in keeping with more usual academic practice). This was in the days when cutting and pasting meant literally that, and it took forever to make the change.  Then having finally done it, I collected the copies from the binders on my way back from a gig, fell asleep on the tube and woke up to find my bag had been nicked. Poor thief – three copies of Vocal Authority, my concert gear and the previous day’s shirt and underwear.  The upside was that my examiners – having eventually taken delivery of a second set of copies –  kindly said they thought it publishable  and suggested I sent the thesis  to CUP, who liked it but said they’d much rather the theory chapter was at the back…

It was worth the agony though. Being a performer can be a humbling experience – people being moved by what you do – but performances die even as they’re born, so their effect is confined to the moment (or the immediate memory). Writing on the other hand stays with you, right or wrong. The Cambridge UL copy of VA has been somewhat cynically (and definitely illegally) annotated in pencil by a reader of the Bostridge persuasion who thinks it’s complete rubbish, and you expect disagreement (better that than readers falling asleep). But the compensation when someone tells you that you’ve changed their life is quite something. It’s happened to me on a number of occasions in different parts of the world with Vocal Authority (not with anything else I’ve written, sadly).  I wrote it to try to explain the world of singing as I saw it then, but it clearly touched a nerve with many singers. There won’t be many bookshelves where it sits side by side with A Singer’s Notebook but both books have in common a singer’s musings on aspects of history and the sometimes rather unworldly profession that we inhabit, and the fact that we can have such differing perspectives is not such a bad thing.


Wednesday, August 31st, 2011


It’s coming up to the first anniversary of my return to freelancing.  It’s also the anniversary of my first attempts at blogging (thankyou Ned for getting me started – I’m afraid my efforts are never going to match yours).

Made it!  I was very heartened by so many people  seeming to think I was doing the right thing. Only a few said  I was brave (a polite way of saying I was stupid) and it’s been a very exciting year.

I’ve been quite pleased that the academic/pedagogical side hasn’t disappeared altogether.  I still get asked to do keynote conference papers, and the doctoral examining has branched out into Europe (really interesting).  I’ve done lots of coaching and workshops from Scandinavia to Slovenia, and  I’ve encountered some really creative students wanting more than just one-to-one singing lessons. A bit like having postgrads but without all the bureaucracy.  It’s ideal really – I  get  to do the interesting stuff and none of the boring institutional bits. Can’t help feeling a little Schadenfreude thinking of my ex-colleagues about to start a new term…

I wonder if it’s actually possible to give yourself completely to a regular job or project and still keep the freshness (maybe the naivety) that attracted you to it in the first place.  Three of the most important things in my life have been Electric Phoenix, The Hilliard Ensemble and my university job. I loved and left them all, and for the same reasons:  once I’d got the hang of them and found myself unable to think in terms of permanent revolution any more I just couldn’t knuckle down and get on with it. I never did get to love big brother (though at York I came pretty close once or twice).  A very great friend of mine once said I couldn’t cope with success, but I think it’s more a case of just not wanting to  grow up. I’m actually very lucky to be able to earn a living as a permanent adolescent – like most of the performers I know, in fact.

It’s been liberating to be able to pursue my own projects, whether in performance, writing or teaching. It hasn’t always been easy – the ECM recording sessions were a bit of a shock to the system (my mistake, and it all turned out OK in the end), and CUP took a while to understand what we had in mind for the referencing system in the history book; and telling a conference in Germany that they should all change their singing teachers when one of them was Francisco Araiza was a bit daft. But on the whole I think I’ve got away with it. There’s been lots of interest in the tenor book, and I’ve corresponded (at length in some cases) with people all over the world who know much more about the topic than I do.   My friend Larry Josefovitz, for example  – I don’t think he would object to my calling him that even though we have never met – was able to guide me through the Jewish part of the singing history as a result of his having read the tenor book. Larry’s an Orthodox Jew, an American Zionist, and I’m a heathen with a secular European take on religion and the Arab/Israeli comflict, yet in metaphysical and musical matters we have a huge amount in common. Venn Diagrams again.

The gigs have been fantastic – whether sweltering in Seville with Ariel Abramovich, going to Tampere  for jury service and Being Dufay, or  busking with Gavin Bryars at Opera North’s Howard  Assembly Rooms.  I’ve also been inspired by some amazing music throughout the year. Not just by friends and colleagues but by musicians I’ve never met. At the top must be Gianluigi Trovesi, whose ECM recording Profumo di Violetta in some ways epitomises the permanent adolescent musical life. You can’t categorise his music: there’s not a trace of the old avant-garde or of post-modernism either – along with 70s Genesis, Satie or Percy Grainger  he probably wouldn’t cut it in contemporary academia.  We’re going to miss the CD format when it’s gone – just taking the album out of its sleeve is an adventure: the Sascha Kleis  cover (typical ECM – where does that water come from? Bergamo’s on a hill…),  the Roberto Masotti photos, and the touching liner note by Trovesi himself about the town bands that he grew up with in the northern Italian valleys. Then there’s the music – an exhuberant pillaging of Italian opera from Monteverdi to Mascagni. Has ‘Pur ti miro’ ever sounded more eloquent than as a flugelhorn and saxophone duet, or the windband arrangement of the Orfeo fanfare more riotous? He even makes you wish you could play the clarinet. And it all happens in a magical acoustic representation of  the cathedral piazza in Bergamo – where I’ve been so many times with family and friends (and I’m still waiting to be paid for a gig I did in the opera house two years ago).


The coming year is also full of excitements: three CDs to record between now and Christmas, and 2012 will see the release of the new Dowland Project album (actual date to be anounced at the end of September), the first Cantum release (July at the York Early Music Festival) and several more Sound & Fury CDs. On the publishing front,  CUP will launch the history of singing and two other Cambridge Histories that I’ve contributed chapters to (page proofs for the history book are due back at the Press at the beginning of October and it should be in the shops in February). Gigs and workshops continue to materialise, and I’ll even have time to start on a new book…


Tenors: collecting and connecting

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011


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.

Academia strikes again!

Sunday, May 29th, 2011


There were many things about my 12 years as an academic that I absolutely loved, and had I gone to it straight from school (like most university lecturers) I’d probably have learned to cope with intransigent colleagues, arcane procedures and all the other banalities that form the undertow of university life (and eventually dragged me out to sea).  The great thing about being a freelance performer and researcher is that people invite you to conferences and so on, and you get parachuted in to a community of people who already know and appreciate your work. I’m really enjoying my occasional excursions into some curious academic corners, the latest of which is on the Ruhr, not far from Dortmund. I’m sitting in my room in the Katholische Akademie, Schwerte; it’s Sunday evening and I’m the only person in the building (bizarrely, Catholics in the Ruhr don’t seem to work on Sundays); conference delegates have departed and I have an early flight to Sweden in the morning.

Corinna Herr asked me here last year to give a paper at their conference on the countertenor, which I declined (it would have been a very short paper) but I couldn’t resist her invitation to this year’s conference entitled Der Tenor: Mythos, Geschichte, Gegenwart. I gave a rather rambling account of the evolution of the tenor since 1900, my brain still spinning from trying to digest about twenty excellent papers in German and a fascinating one in Italian, and I had long discussions in the bar with several experts who knew far more about my topic than I did. It was a great atmosphere, very friendly and incredibly efficiently organised – and a beautiful, very well-equipped campus.  Corinna Herr, Arnold Jacobshagen and Thomas Seedorf are a formidable team.

The highlight was a masterclass by the great tenor Francisco Araiza. He began with a sideswipe at me – having not been amused by my suggestion that any student with a singing teacher should change to a new one. I’d been answering a question after my own presentation and would certainly have been a little more circumspect if I’d known the maestro was in the audience…but his class was a stunning tour de force, and his demonstrations were absolute magic. I went to congratulate him afterwards and he kindly said how much he’d enjoyed my paper apart from the bit about teachers, but I told him that he’d proved my point – the students had in effect come to him for one lesson and it had a radical and instant effect. It also proved one of my other points (which I managed not to tell him), which was that his teaching was so effective that in almost no time at all he could turn very talented singers into versions of himself. You have to be quite strong to resist the temptation to become the next Araiza rather than the first you. But hearing him at first hand was a great experience, and made me realise that I’ll have to try harder if I ever do a revised edition of the tenor book.

Still on the academic trail, I’m off to the University of Gothenburg tomorrow to be the opponent in a PhD Defence. In English, fortunately. Sounds a bit frightening. We’ll see…