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.

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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

A Pregnant Australian Pre-Raphaelite Lesbian Fitness Guru Speaks

I used to be in a soap on the BBC World Service called Westway. I played a lesbian, Australian gym-instructor called Billie. Me and my girlfriend had a baby. In fact (after I walked out on her, fled to Oz and then returned remorseful, wanting her back and having come to terms with my future as a co-parent) we had a baby at the funeral of her ex-husband. Yes – at the funeral of her ex-husband.

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The Westway Cast

That’s soap.

When asked who my character was in this soap I would often say she was a gym-instructor. A pre-Raphaelite gym-instructor if pushed, because according to the writers, she was. I am many things but one of those is not pre-Raphaelite. Furthermore when I began the contract I couldn’t have been further from gym-instructor because I was seven-months pregnant. Lesbian I would avoid because it seemed wrong to emphasise her sexuality as her especially defining feature, and I don’t like to admit to Australian except under contract. So for me, if Billie had an adjective it implied ginger tresses and a faraway look. Which was never in the script.

It didn’t pay many of the bills and there was little kudos involved but it was a good project. Westway was openly instructive. The neatly diverse set of characters set up small businesses, coped with foreign ideologies, learned about each other’s differences and, because it was largely set in a GP’s surgery, shared news also about their diseases and psychiatric conditions. This might sound cack-handed but it was not. It was simple and direct and compassionate and useful. I was proud to be part of it.

The pin-board in our green room was peppered with letters of thanks from listeners around the world. They had strong opinions about the behaviour of some of the characters and they were also grateful that Westway was there for them each week. Their letters had a completely different tone to the fan letters I was used to seeing. There was an investment, there was some implication of a federation between the drama and its listeners, they were not service-users or licence-payers, they were people on the other end of a conversation. I especially remember hearing from a BBC journalist who had been in the refugee camps in Darfur. He returned and made a point of telling the producers that every week when Westway was broadcast, groups of refugees all over the camp would huddle around wind-up radios to listen.

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The Westway Flyover

That was it: a GP’s surgery in West London. Under a flyover. Busy with the comings and goings of all sorts of urban types: lost and slick, assertive and traumatised. All the World. Chirruping out from inside a wind-up radio in a dusty, hungry refugee camp in a part of the Sudan no-one would want to live.

And then it was axed. Axed is the word we use and I think it’s germane here because it did seem sudden and violent and utterly unreasonable.

The difficulty with a programme like Westway and dramas on the World service is that they go out in the small hours here in the UK. Although Westway had an audience of tens of millions they were mostly abroad and mostly voiceless. They were not on the end of a wind-up email address or internet connection. The foreign pleas to continue the service, though many, were not many enough and not influential enough and so in spite of the foot-stamping which would have looked like self-interested job-protecting from us, the cast, Westway went.

Gordon House, a former World Service Drama Producer describes here how when World Service listeners are asked which programmes they particularly remember they will cite dramas and documentaries. Not the news.

The World Service is now planning to axe the meagre rest of the small number of dramas they annually produce as of early next year. Here is a petition.

Please sign because although you may not tune into the World Service (if you are English) – many do and many of those are used to their half of a global conversation being, when it comes to the crunch, the unheard, listen-only half. In recent years especially, many World Service dramas are by untried writers from abroad as well as English, collaborations with people and worlds far from ours. It is about looking out and understanding something outside of ourselves, it is about people across the world looking out.

It is something we do well, it doesn’t cost us much at all and I want us to keep doing it.

TheCat@Lat

a toilet

The Latitude Festival is apparently not what it was but I wouldn’t know. I was there when it is what it is. That was a few days’ ago. I still have my bracelet because Jonathan promised he could get it off with a tool he has – then he went to Liverpool and I don’t want to chisel a hole in my wrist while he is not here to look after the kids so it is still on my wrist.

I have cleaned it.

This is the first time I have been to a Festival with no children. This is the second time I have been to a Festival.

I did not pay £120 to go – I went with the Factory. I was a Performer. (Actually I stood around taking a lot of notes.) So my wrist band was yellow and I was allowed anywhere I wanted. In theory. I found out moments before I left that the Performer’s toilets were the only toilets on the entire site that were not… what is the word? …let’s say confronting.

Although the toilets are not a headline attraction and we are a very laid back and hip band of theatre people who are happy in our bodies and everyone here at this Festival is here to let it all hang out and pursue both relaxation and stimulation on a level not possible in normal life, we are all a bit obsessed with Festival toileting issues.

The festival latrines are basically troughs with benches suspended over them. Being entirely made of metal they ring. Yes: every step, every door slam, every shift of weight, every event that occurs on or in them is accompanied by some level of chime. This adds a certain level of Wagnerian drama to the moment.

A relative of mine by marriage (I’m being coy on her behalf) tells me that where she grew up, toilet paper was rare. Let’s just say it was East of Dresden. Her grandmother would tear up strips of newspaper and hang them near the loo. When you went to the toilet you would use as few of these as you could, obviously as they were not in great supply. She describes how you would roll them into a ball and spit on them and them rub a lot, unravelling them then screwing them up again repeatedly to make the paper as soft as possible.

Another conversation I had recently, and this was quite a posh conversation, veered suddenly into the fascinating territory of the Loss of the Squat. We are designed, it is asserted by those who know, to squat. In those areas of the world where toilets require squatting (or indeed, those areas that are toiletless and therefore demand squatting) heamorrhoids are rare. As are other related bowel and digestive issues.

There is also the matter of the flush. Toilets should not require water. The world is short of water. We use an awful lot. Yet we insist on flushing rather than composting toilets, even though the composting toilet is superior, does not smell, and is also immeasurably less wasteful.

A friend of mine, let’s call him Jethro but he might also be called Jesus, was listening to a lot of us actor’s thinly disguised uptight conversation about the toilets at Latitude. He said: ‘I was at Glastonbury a few years ago. I’d done a lot of mushrooms. I don’t know how I got there but I came to one night in the latrines. I was on the floor with all this mud and poo,’ he describes great slow circles with his arms so we can see just how vast and deep was the sea in which he sat, ‘and I decided to accept it. Just become one with the poo.’

He takes a drag and when he speaks again he tries not to lose too much smoke.

‘I’ve never had a problem with it since.’

Alan Morrissey atop the Lats @ Lat

Alan Morrissey atop the Lats @ Lat

How I Learned to Love the Theatre

I grew up in a small city called Canberra. Once a year the Royal Australian Ballet would visit. Mum always wore a long dress and a mink stole. I wore whichever was my best dress at the time.

The foyer of the Canberra Theatre would be heavy with men in suits and women in slow-moving dresses. The shushed noise of hundreds of adults was low registered and calm. The excitement took place entirely behind my belly-button, crept down a little into my legs and up to my heart.

I was often prepared to be bored in the Canberra Theatre, which I didn’t mind. It was part of the specialness. Any ballet sequence involving a slowly-waking village morning with chorus members accidentally tipping inoffensive refuse out of windows onto others’ heads (the one below shakes a fist, the other above slams a shutter), girls cradling baskets of flowers smiling shyly at boys, children misbehaving and being kicked by a fat adult with an obvious profession (the blacksmith, the butcher) was intensely boring. Floral. Dull. Did the grown-ups in the audience really think this was interesting? When they laughed at the mischievous little boy in the flat cap I thought it was to encourage the little boy playing the little boy. Not many little boys dance. Polite adults can be very encouraging.

These sequences would progress to a moment in which the chorus would recede tidily for the Handsome Young Man to appear to the delight of even the bad-tempered blacksmith (or schoolmaster). The Handsome Young Man in turn would be struck by the best-dressed, most modest of the flirty girls who turns out to be the leading ballerina (her cheeks are redder, her hair is higher) – and it got even more boring. They would dance in turns and there would be a bit of low-key lifting and eventually the village would join in, in rows, using the chains of flowers which had earlier been basket decoration.

The boredom was relaxing and comfortable.

The good bits came later – when people (or swans) died.

Now that was what you would go to the ballet for. Death.

She’s dying. He doesn’t realise – he carries on dancing and showing her how after all these years he still loves her and he is sorry he had to go to war (or travel or nearly marry his social equal) but, look, he is here now and they must marry. But she is dying. Dying before him. She smiles weakly and droops a little. He misunderstands. Is she not pleased to see him? Is she not revived by his love?

Yes, yes she is, she is… how happy they might be, might be… but… he has left it too long, how long she has waited and now…

Ah.

She is dead.

He dances wildly. The orchestra thunders in despair. He spins and bounces as high as he can to bring her back to life. He places his strong arms under hers and pulls her thin body, as relaxed as a cat now she is dead, up to his chest. He tries to dance with her, but she is just a cat in a dress and she can only drag around. He caresses her face, her bun. Come back, he says. Don’t leave me. How can I live without you? She is wearing the nicest dress now it is the last Act, because she is ill and possibly also penniless, so her dresses no longer stick out, they are simple and show her body normally. She may even have bare feet. He is distraught. He rests his head on her still chest. Or he looks to the sky and you can see the lean muscles drawn from his ribs to his neck as he gestures angrily at heaven. He will never, never leave her. He will die here with her.

Or he will unsheath his sword and go in search of the fiend who did this to his love, in which case it goes on a bit longer and there will be a fight. The fiend will lose. But so will the Beautiful Man because he has lost his love and his life         is nothing         without her.

Ah.

I wish the audience did not clap. I wish the dancers would not come out to collect flowers and curtsy for ages. I wish we were allowed to just sit in our seats in the dark and cry quietly until we fell asleep.