Scribblings of a Mad Soprano

A life in opera: a confession

I have a confession to make. I once did a very naughty thing on tour. (No, not THAT. You think I’d be telling you THAT??)

Now, bear in mind this was a long, long time ago, back when I was an apprentice/young artist and didn’t know any better. Well, maybe I did know better, but I did it anyway. Please don’t judge me. Besides, it was irresistible at the time.

Where to begin? Well. The tour was an educational outreach type thing. The opera company in question (which shall remain nameless) hired four young singers, fresh out of graduate music programmes, to sing two school shows (one for primary schools and one for secondary schools) plus various fundraising events, opera galas, concerts with orchestra, etc. A soprano (me), a mezzo, a tenor, and a bass. We rehearsed for a few days, and then toured all over the region presenting opera to children. Four singers, a pianist (with his very own electric keyboard) and a driver/stagehand/admin/general overseer. In a van. For over two months.

Now, when you are thrown together with a small group of people, for whatever reason, and asked to work together intensely for several weeks, things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. You can have affairs, you can end up hating each other, or driving each other crazy. Or, as happened for me and the bass, you can bond through adversity and forge a life-long friendship. Friendship encompasses many things: confiding in each other, spending time together, building each other’s confidence, offering a shoulder to cry on when needed…and behaving like tiny children in a sandbox.

We had fun. We discovered that the ‘only gay bar in the village’ was affectionately known as ‘the wrinkle room’ because the clientele were…greatly blessed in years, shall we say. (We certainly stood out.) My friend read aloud to us in the van and we all enjoyed hearing novels in his marvellously soothing rumble. In one very, very small town, we walked into a local tavern and were immediately picked out as strangers and had to buy everyone in the bar a drink to avoid being burned as witches (well, almost; luckily beer was cheap and the crowd was small.) We got up the noses of patrons at a motel (who all seemed to know one another; I can only think they were travelling salesmen and frequently stayed at this particular motel) while watching TV in the lobby, by shouting out the answers on Wheel of Fortune before everyone else. Apparently they weren’t used to people who were (ahem) slightly faster than them. Oh, and the first to guess the right answers got free beer, so I guess we were stealing their drinks. (Hey, we’re opera singers. Over educated and very good with languages. And often in need of beer money. But even we couldn’t drink THAT much beer…we were happy to share with the disgruntled salesmen.) 

But, despite all the bars and beer (quite a lot of that, wasn’t there?) none of that makes me feel guilty. How to explain my dreadful sin?

More background: while the tour went on, we began rehearsing for a finale concert with orchestra, and each of us had a big show-off aria to sing. The other piece of backstory you should know is that at one of our promotional appearances, the caterers provided large tins of alphabet biscuits – a bit like party rings or animal crackers, but shaped as different letters of the alphabet. It may have been at a school where we were being filmed for local television, but the food was for the adults involved so it seemed rather incongruous at the time. Anyway, nobody ate the cookies and, knowing we were all starving artists and probably getting bored on our long tour, the hosts of this little tea party gave us the left over tins to carry around in the van and snack on as we pleased. There were a lot of biscuits: as I said, nobody really wanted to eat them at the reception.

OK, so, four singers, a pianist, and our long-suffering driver/stage manager/minder in a van. School show, lunch, rehearsal, back to the digs. Big tins of alphabet cookies under the seats of the van. I’m rehearsing Lucia’s mad scene, the mezzo is going to sing Cenerentola’s aria, my bff the bass is doing the catalogue aria from Don Giovanni, and the tenor…Daughter of the Regiment. 

Now, that aria is a challenge at the best of times. 14 high C’s. When Covent Garden did a new production of Fille du Regiment after 40 years it was front page news. Everyone thought that NOBODY could sing that role except Pavarotti, and, until Juan Diego Flórez came along, they were right. This tour was many, many years before the Covent Garden revival. I will not reveal the name of our tenor in this story, but I will tell you one thing:

He wasn’t Juan Diego Flórez.

(Even typing that makes me feel guilty, so I won’t say any more about it…I will leave it to your catty imaginations. Meow.) (Seriously, I have a thing about not bad-mouthing colleagues. Karma, and all that. This is a confession, people!)

Anyway, we were tired, we were overworked, we were underpaid, and we were in need of a laugh. And nobody wanted to eat those damn cookies.

I can’t remember whose idea it was. (I’d like to think it was mine: I’m a big fan of crossword puzzles and, as noted above, a wiz at Wheel of Fortune. But it was probably Monsieur Bass, who was far funnier than I can ever hope to be.) Somehow, the thought came over us that we should ‘help out’ our friend the tenor. We dug the cookies out from under the seats. Our giggling – which we really did try to suppress so as not to spoil the surprise – became so noticeable that the driver wanted to know what was going on. (‘What is so flipping funny? Don’t make me stop this van you kids!’) 
It took quite a while to fish out all the letters ‘C’ from those cookie tins.
We presented them to our colleague in (what we hoped was) a spirit of supportive fun. Everyone, even the tenor, laughed.

To tenors everywhere, and especially my colleague from that tour, sincere apologies. I know it’s not easy. (I really hope he’s forgiven us by now.)


For MDJ, with love forever.

Enjoying the journey 

I am writing this in the middle of a ridiculously complicated logistical funfair of a trip. (A not uncommon occurrence in the life of an opera singer.)Offered a hearing at a decent mid-level European opera house the DAY AFTER a performance in one of the western-most corners of the U.K., I said, well yes, of course I’ll be there!!

One advantage of this kind of impossible scheduling is that I can focus my nerves on actually GETTING there rather than on the performance or the audition. Audience rather small? Nobody bought my CD? So what! I did it, I got there, sang the blummin’ thing, AND made it to the station in time for my train to the airport! Success!

Another (slightly less cynical) positive is that I can choose to treat the whole thing as a mini adventure. For three days, I am the mad diva, dropping in on audiences far and wide and moving on. Also, that wild western corner of Britain is very pretty, the people were friendly, my hosts picked me up from the station, fed me, and generally treated me like an honoured guest. A lovely couple in the audience once lived in the European city I am flitting off to, and tell me all the beautiful sights that await me there. 

And, no matter what goes right or wrong musically, I will eventually get to stumble home to my family (and with some good stories to tell.)

p.s. Edited after I arrived safely home…

From Lincoln Center to the Kennedy (Space) Center (or, how I really wanted to be an astronaut instead of Astrofiammante)

I’ve always felt a bit of an odd one amongst my opera-singing colleagues. Of course, many singers can point to an earlier dream or vocation: there are famous examples of those who were on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers, and scientists when they were ‘discovered’ to have an amazing singing voice, or started out playing an instrument before deciding to pursue a vocal career. But the majority have wanted to be opera singers since early childhood. Not me. I didn’t decide I wanted to study singing until my late teens, and didn’t start to specialise as a classical singer until part way through my bachelor’s degree.

What I really wanted to be when I grew up was an astronaut. Star Trek reruns (I’m too young *ahem* to have watched the original series when it first aired) and the Space Shuttle programme fired my pre-adolescent imagination…wow, I want to go to outer space! 


I was reminded of those old dreams recently, taking my youngest son to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We got to meet an actual astronaut, Anna Fisher, who was among the first American women (and the first mother) to go into space, and I remembered how exciting it was to learn that girls could grow up to be astronauts in real life, not just on TV.

Somehow music took over from studying the science or engineering I would have needed to apply to the space programme. I started aiming for the ‘star-flaming queen of night’ instead of for the stars. A few years ago, however, I did get to add a tiny contribution to NASA history, providing the solo vocal line in the background music (scored by British composer Richard Blair-Oliphant) for the documentary RocketMen, a joint BBC/Sony Pictures depiction of the first 50 years of the American space programme. The film had its initial cinematic release in Japan, and is now available on Netflix in the US. (Not, sadly, in the UK however.) 


Perhaps that will be the closest I ever get to participating in the space programme; at least I’ve been able to wear some suspiciously Star Trekkish costumes over the years…


RocketMen can be seen in the USA on Netflix.

A short preview is available here on YouTube:

Cognitive dissonance: feminism and opera

Can I be both an opera singer and a good feminist? How do we reconcile participating in a sexist art form while promoting equality in our personal and political lives?

Many opera singers have come forward in the #MeToo campaign to say that sexually predatory men are not just to be found in Hollywood. No surprise there: sadly it seems to occur throughout most if not all workplaces. Beyond this despicable real life behaviour, the art form itself is sexist, both in plot (damsel in distress needing rescue, wanton woman being punished, powerful women being depicted as evil, etc.) and in practice (fewer roles for women compared to roles for men in most of the opera repertoire, most women’s roles falling within a very narrow stereotype.) It could (and often is) argued that this is as a result of most of the ‘standard’ repertoire being written in a less enlightened time than our own: the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t exactly a golden age of feminism. But even in the 20th and 21st centuries, few operas were, or are being, written with balanced casting and storylines. And in 2018 we’re still talking about how few women are taken seriously as conductors and composers (there has been some progress in the number of female stage directors. Some.) 

My feelings of unease also stem from an uncomfortable suspicion that many opera fans – my audience, the people I’m supposed to be doing all this hard work for – are supporting these attitudes. Or at least they don’t notice, or don’t care about, the sexism endemic to the artform. It’s a bit disconcerting to think that someone applauding my singing may at the same time not believe in my rights as an individual.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Opera is meant to be about telling stories in the most heightened, passionate, and virtuosic means possible. Taking the human voice to its extremes. What has gender got to do with that? Making art at the very highest level: that’s not sexist at it’s core. So opera doesn’t have to be sexist, but what can we do? 

As a start: Support other women as composers, librettists, directors, conductors, and impresarios; Treat other female singers as collaborators rather than competitors; ‘Come out’ as feminists and speak out when we see mistakes of the past being repeated and reinforced. 

So, can I be both an opera singer and a good feminist? 

I’m doing my best.