How I Learned to Love Opera

I was taken to the opera in 1987 by a friend. We were in Berlin. We had tickets to see La Boheme at the Komische Oper. I had never seen La Boheme, I didn’t even know the story (though I could have a guess, it was an opera, after all.) I hated opera.

My friend and I had a row at the interval. It was rubbish, could he not see that? Of course he could. No he couldn’t. What? Give me a break. No, give him. Those scenes in which we are expected to believe that they are all having a great time in the cafe. Because real people ALWAYS swing their drinking cups in time with one another, all facing in the same direction, some with one foot up on a stool to show they are having a good time in a cafe, don’t they? Don’t they? That is hardly the point. No you get over YOURself.

There were other travesties, mainly opera singers in love with their opera singing. My friend denied it. I was looking for these sins. Hard to avoid them when you’re facing a stage full of people tripping all over them. Didn’t I even like the music? Yes of course, some of it was even famous, big deal, but I had a walkman – the visuals were less distracting. I wasn’t going back in. I was. No I wasn’t, I’d sit in the bar. I bloody was. I bloody wasn’t.

And that was where my friend took the wheel. You do not sit through HALF of La Boheme. There was no argument because if I did not see it all there would be no argument. I was kind of loving the argument.

So we went back in. Rhetorical folding of arms.

I can’t remember the Third Act, but this is how I remember the Fourth Act. I don’t speak German so this is what I understood and remember.

In the Fourth Act, they, the couple we hope for, are reunited. Mimi and Rodolpho.

They have been apart, now here they are. She has consumption. He has betrayed her, he was frightened by her illness, her fragility. She is very unwell. They are together. Everything will be all right. Now at last it really will.

Their friends leave to sell something precious to buy her medicine. It is cold in the bare room where Rodolpho and Mimi are left with each other.

He loves her. They love each other and they can’t help but say it together. They want nothing now but to be together saying that simple thing again and again in a bare room forever. She is tired. He is not. He is full of life and full of her and everything will be all right. They are in love. Nothing has ever made so much sense. He says this. It makes a lot of sense to him. She smiles.

She is very still but he is almost dancing for the joy of being with her again. Maybe she smiles again. She will get better and they have the rest of time. The friends return, for some reason a muff is placed in Mimi’s lap. At least her hands can be warm.

And Rodolpho approaches her but even when he touches her she does not move. She is gone.

He screams her name. The orchestra goes mad. He screams again but she does not move. He does not sob and quiver, he just drops, screaming and the orchestra tells the rest.

She is dead. That was their time.

I was a mess. When we finally got there, to the last Act, I was him. She would not die. Because she would not. Because happiness. Surely. I couldn’t even clap.

I think we went for a drink. I don’t think we talked about it much at all. Since then I have tried to listen to La Boheme but there is not a recording in which the last Act is not a mess of consumptive coughing and operatic sobs. What we saw at the Komische Oper (and Barrie knew this, he insisted Harry Kupfer was the director to trust) was clean of all that acting. There is no need to help Puccini, of all people, along.

I daren’t see it again. I may never.


Unused to Film

I am on a film set today. My dressing room contains two enormous bean bags and a desk with a kettle and tea-making facilities, wifi and three bottles of water. I stayed in a four-star hotel last night and enjoyed a long bath. I could also have enjoyed a sauna and a swim but the bath was plenty. I was picked up early this morning by a driver and delivered to the make up van where I was made up by a lovely young woman who also plucked my eyebrows. I was given a brand new costume to wear and brought cups of tea, snacks and lunch in my dressing room. Continue reading

French Letterbox: Rue du Bac, Rouen

I am walking on a street in Rouen not speaking French.140.jpg

On glass I hear tapping. I am walking. There is yet tapping on glass. I am not walking yet now.

There is the voice of a woman to me speaking. There is a place for letters in a glass door and the voice of a woman is in this place for the letters in the glass door. It is she who had tapped.

I cannot see the woman. I can only see the eyes of the woman because the place for the letters is a fine rectangle. She is shouting the door is shut. The door is shut. The door is shut. She says this many times well. Continue reading

Headache: Birling Gap

Birling Gap yesterday. I left my camera in the car so I will tell you. I carried a washbasket (containing wetsuits, towels and dry clothes: a selection), a picnic bag, an additional picnic bag, two net-on-sticks and a large bag of wood down to the beach. This is a climb. Fortunately there are stairs. We found a hole in the bottom of the cliff and we distributed blankets and I made a fire with the wood. The kids went down to the water with their nets. The sea is milky with churned chalk at Birling Gap. Strangely, this makes it appear warm. We cooked our lunch which included asparagus from our friends’ garden and strawberries from a shop.


Winter at Birling Gap. Not yesterday.

Continue reading

Packing Tape and Cardyboard

And for family and those interested: here are pictures of Pascal’s latest creations. Until the other day, for a month, his room had been unnegotiable because there was a very complex airport and shipping arrangement everywhere. We had to kiss him goodnight in the hallway because only he could pick his way to his bed without destroying some delicate crane mechanism or precarious tower of tiny crates ready for loading on some paper, cotton and blu-tak vehicle.

And then one morning it was all gone, packed tidily into boxes outside his room. And very soon this took its place:


This was before the roof was completed, after which there was no adult access. I wish I could show you inside. It was a home for the Teletubbies. There were beds and internal walls and all kinds of detail. You could only get in on your tummy. It was rather wonderful.

Meanwhile the trains continued to be assembled, many at a time, until we had this many:


And then they went on a fire.

Friends were invited, marshmallows, sticks, logs gathered and so on but the point was that they had to be burned. And soon after, the Teletubby house was burnt in a similar ceremony. Internal walls with pictures and light switches and decorative shelves which no-one had really seen except Pascal himself and his fleet of soft toys – all gone. There was dancing, screeching and a large cardboard structure alive with flame toppling where it shouldn’t.

And now Pascal is building a go-kart, (we bought some plans) and planning also maybe to tackle a steam engine for his school project on the Life and Works of the Rev. W. Awdry.

Jonathan says: “If you want to get a small child’s attention, start sawing a piece of wood.” All three boys have got involved and the kitchen is a shed.

Even though I worry about where we are going to put six-foot rockets and the nine-foot dragons (really) and it is on some level a relief that Pascal has built into his building routine a little light immolation, I am sad about these things as they are carried down the garden to the bonfire. A friend of mine who is a photographer was pretty horrified about the sacrificing of all this artwork. She blogged some of his Dakotas here. Pascal is patiently building the entire vehicular cast from the Duxford Air Show in stiff card and sellotape.

At The Factory we are working on an adaptation of The Odyssey, I am loving it and confused by it. How do I process that story through my Western, contemporary, feminist, Judeo-Christian story-telling filter? What do I make of it and how do we tell it without telling things about it? I am also nearing the end of a book I am writing and as I get closer to the end I find myself increasingly caught up in how good it should be. I want it to be really, really good. I want it to be admirable. This is about as constipating a position as it is possible to find. Could I write an entire book, admire it for a bit, then throw it on a fire to clear space for the next one? Could I give it away without my name on it and never know how it was received?

By coincidence, not long ago, Pascal was also learning about Greek Myths. I didn’t really believe Greek Myths could possibly take his fancy. I was thinking what does the autistic mind do with a story like the Odyssey, when he came home with his own version – a cartoon about Agamemnon. I have to find it and scan it but until I do you have to know it was rather wonderful series of photographs of a clay Agamemnon and a ship and assorted Greek characters. The final frame was Agamemnon lying on the ground at the foot of a sticky, plasticine cliff.

And after we read his Agamemnon story through and he had showed it around proudly he went back to putting windows on his GNER 225 HST and he said: ‘I don’t want to die. I want to be alive. I don’t want to be like Theseus’ Dad. I would get dead. If I jumped off the cliff I would get dead. I want to be… (and he looks at me very cheerfully with his eyebrows raised) Yes? I am just alive.’

I thought it was a great speech.