Monday, 19 December 2011

Singers Who Changed My Life

This week I would like to write about something that is a very close to my heart, but has, alas, become something of a minority pastime. Classical music, and more particularly classical singers. Earlier this year, John Steane, an expert on voices and an eminent critic, died at the age of 83. He had his favourites of course (who doesn’t?), but I learned a lot from old John over the years, and I will miss his wonderfully constructive musical criticism. Some years ago, the editor of Gramophone Magazine asked him to write an article detailing the 12 singers who had changed his life, the one injunction being that one of them should still be active as a singer. For someone who knew his writing, his choices didn’t come as much of a surprise. I recently re-read this article and it got me to thinking of who mine would be. Having decided to restrict my list to 10, I then got round to deciding on those that have said something personal to me, the voices that have spoken to me down the years, from when I first started to enjoy opera and lieder as an impressionable teenager, up until now. 

Maria Callas
Anyone who knows me won’t be in the least surprised by my first choice.  I first heard the voice of Maria Callas on an LP reissue of her first recordings, originally issued on 78s. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani was coupled with the Liebestod (in Italian) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from her early Cetra recordings of La Traviata and La Gioconda. This was a voice like none I’d ever heard. It was a large voice, with dazzling flexibility, a rarity in itself, but it was the way that voice penetrated your very soul, a voice bursting with emotion. I may not have appreciated then her amazing musicality, but I certainly recognised the work of a genius. Callas made you feel that the music sprang from her throat newly minted, that she meant every word, every note. More than that, it was the way the voice could change from the sweet innocent Elvra to the womanly Isolde, from the passion of the courtesan Violetta, to the almost primeval sounds of her Gioconda. It hardly seems believable now, given that Callas’s recordings have formed the backbone of EMI’s Italian opera catalogue for years, but most of them were unavailable at the time. I slowly built up my collection by scouring second hand shops and pouncing on any imported issues that made their way into specialist record shops.  As I slowly built up my collection, Callas introduced me to the world of Italian opera. Nowadays I can be aware of some of the vocal faults, especially in the later recordings, but nobody has ever come within a mile of her fantastic musicality. For evidence of her musical skills, no better example could exist than her Leonora in Il Trovatore, full of aristocratic phrasing and almost Mozartian delicacy. She was also an amazing vocal actor, and though she has a voice that is instantly recognisable, she continually changes the weight of that voice to suit the character. It is not, though, merely a change in vocal weight. For instance, she may use the same lightness of touch for Amina in La Sonnambula as she does for Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but they are still two completely different voice characters, and she can make us see that happiness, for instance, is quite a different thing for Amina from what it is for Rosina. Callas is still my touchstone for all the roles she sang (I can almost hear her in my mind’s ear in some of the ones she didn’t), and, though I recognise that some have made prettier sounds, there will always be a moment, maybe a single word, where Callas’s unique colouration will suddenly do something to nail the character as no other singer does. No doubt her glamour and tempestuous personal life did much to fuel my youthful ardour, but now she has been dead for over 40 years, the dust has settled, and it is her musical gifts for which she will be remembered.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
My next choice might seem a little more surprising, a singer as far away from Callas as it might seem possible to be. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who introduced me to Mozart, Richard Strauss and lieder. Her recordings of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and of the Vier letzte Lieder were my first exposure to these works, and have remained in my collection ever since. A voice shot  through with laughter, she also made many great recordings of lighter works, and her disc of Operetta Arias can lighten the spirits like no other. She and Callas admired each other enormously (their repertoires were very different of course), and though they only made one recording together (Puccini’s Turandot), they met often, as Schwarzkopf was the wife of Callas’s record producer, Walter Legge, on one occasion Schwarzkopf giving Callas an impromptu singing lesson in the middle of the restaurant at Biffi Scala. Schwarzkopf was a good person to ask. She rarely put a foot wrong, and it is this attention to detail, that some find gets in the way of the music. There can be a lack of spontaneity, it is true, and, where Callas is able to conceal the huge amount of work that goes into each of her musical recreations, Schwarzkopf can be accused of artifice. Her Liu in the above mentioned Turandot may not sound for one moment like a slave girl, but I love her singing of the role, so beautiful and so richly nuanced.  

Dame Janet Baker
Sifting through my memories now, I come to a singer I heard live before I heard on record. I first heard Dame Janet Baker in a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst I was at college. Unfortunately I never got to see her in opera, but I did hear her live in concert on many occasions. In a very different repertoire, she had an almost Callas like intensity and an ability to sing pianissimi  that somehow reached the furthest recesses of the hall. Dame Janet introduced me to the music of Monteverdi and Handel, Bach and, of course, Elgar’s Sea Pictures (memorably coupled to Jacqueline Du Pre’s seminal recording of the Cello Concerto). She was also a great Berlioz singer. I actually prefer her recording of Les Nuits d’Ete to Crespin’s famous one, and I doubt her recording of the closing scenes of Les Troyens has ever been bettered. 

Placido Domingo
Fritz Wunderlich
Placido Domingo’s was a voice I first heard on record in an early recital of arias, but I will never forget the thrill of first hearing him live at the Royal Opera House, in La Fanciulla del West, if memory serves me right. Domingo certainly had presence and a glamorous voice to go with it. A real singing actor, he seemed to improve as a performer every time I saw him. Incredibly, he is still singing today, though he has moved over to the baritone repertoire recently, taking on such roles as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto. He may not have introduced me to any new repertoire (though many of his recital records took him refreshingly off the beaten track), but he did instil in me a love of the tenor voice, which led me to investigate the work of other tenors, two of which also make it onto my list. Firstly there was Fritz Wunderlich, who had a voice of overwhelming heady beauty. He died at a time when his interpretative artistry would have been reaching its maturity, his final concert in Edinburgh being testament to that, but if you ever want to hear someone revelling in the sheer joy of singing, just listen to his DG performance of Lara’s Granada. Admittedly it is in German and the splashy arrangement is pretty vulgar, but he sings with a freedom and passion that would be the envy of any Latin tenor – and what about that final top C? Phew!

Jon Vickers
Then there was Jon Vickers, who had a voice and manner of startling individuality, and an intensity of performance that could almost be too painful to listen to. Starting in Italian opera (he sang Giasone to Callas’s Medea), he progressed to Wagner, singing towering performances of Tristan and Siegmund. His Otello suffered like no other and his Peter Grimes, mercifully preserved on film, is one of the greatest creations of all time.

Maggie Teyte
Next on my list are two more ladies, one from well before my time and one who died only recently. I first heard the voice of Maggie Teyte in a performance of Duparc’s Chanson Triste and was totally captivated. Her records were not easy to get hold of, but I finally managed to track down a copy of EMI’s “L’Exquise Maggie Teyte”, whilst a friend gave me a copy of a Decca recital, which included her wondrous rendering of ‘Tu n’es pas beau’ from La PĂ©richole, which shows off to advantage her gloriously individual chest tones, and a twinkle in the eye.
Victoria De Los Angeles

If Teyte lead me to explore more French song, then Victoria De Los Angeles helped and then added to it a new world of Spanish music. Truth to tell, I hadn’t much liked her when I first heard her as a rather insecure and out of sorts Hoffmann Antonia, and I think it was probably her record of the Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne that first led me to reassess. That Antonia was misleading and other operatic roles, not least her Manon, Marguerite (Faust), Butterfly and Mimi display a golden voice allied to a winning personality. I also had on LP a live performance of her singing a wonderfully touching and trusting Desdemona to Del Monaco’s Otello at the Met, which remains in my memory far more than many of the assumptions by singers we might think more suited to the role.

Tito Gobbi with Callas in Tosca
So far the list is rather top heavy with female singers, so I am happy to include as my next choice a baritone, colleague of Callas’s and one who encompassed many of her qualities. Like Callas, Tito Gobbi had an immediately recognisable voice and always sang with a wealth of colour and understanding. I can still remember the shattering effect of my first listen through Rigoletto, actually the first ever time I’d heard the opera. His cries of “Gilda” at the end of Act 2 after she has been abducted went straight to the heart. He may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world, but, like Callas’s, it had a myriad of different colours. And like her, though always recognizably himself, he was always able to change his timbre to suit the role he was playing. 

David Daniels
Looking back at this list of singers, I realise that they all have certain things in common; the individuality of their voices (you only have to hear a few notes to know who it is) and their ability to make the listener see as well as hear. This is no less true of my final choice, a singer still very much before the public today. Some years ago, I was more or less dragged to a concert of Vivaldi sung by David Daniels and accompanied by Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Till then, apart from the Four Seasons and the Gloria, I had had little enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s music and had a total antipathy for countertenors in general. Daniels changed all that. Here was a voice of surpassing beauty, coupled to a marvellously natural personality. It was a total conversion and Daniels has now opened the door on a whole world of music I had previously ignored, which shows it is never too late to expand one’s horizons. I have hardly missed any of his appearances in this country, and, like all the singers on this list, he has a gift for communication vouchsafed to just a few.

Of course, apart from these, there have been many memorable performances. I recall the excitement of Agnes Baltsa’s Carmen with the no less memorable Don Jose of Jose Carreras; the superb Dejanira of Joyce Di Donato; Angela Gheorgiu’s first Violetta, and RobertoAlagna’s Romeo; Kiri Te Kanawa’s exquisitely, if placidly, sung Fiordiligi (with Baltsa again, as an adorably funny Dorabella); Renee Fleming in Previn’s AStreetcar Named Desire. These too will always stay in the memory, but I send my gratitude to the ten on my original list, for through them I have discovered a whole world of great music. They may not necessarily be the ten greatest singers of all time but they have enriched and enlightened and can truly be called singers who have changed my life.

Selections from some of their recordings here

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Storm in a teacup?

Is it just me, or are the bible bashers and bigots getting just a little bit more crazy in their attempts to stop progress? 

Only last month the leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance, Alan Craig, writing in the Church of
England Newspaper, was comparing gay activists to Nazis. In an article entitled Confronting the Gaystapo, he compares recent gay rights advances to the political battles won by the Nazi movement before the outbreak of World War 2, and David Cameron’s backing of gay marriage to the 1938 Munich Agreement, where Neville Chamberlain attempted to appease Hitler by allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. His evident ignorance of history in no way makes up for the offensiveness of his comments. Does he not know what happened to gay men in the concentration camps during Hitler’s reign of terror? Does he not know that it was a gay man, Alan Turing, who was largely responsible for Britain’s defeat of Germany (a fact also conveniently forgotten by the post war British Establishment, who pretty much hounded him to his death, but that is a different matter). Craig didn’t make himself seem any saner when he later backed up his “pertinent” arguments, saying that he wasn’t referring to “ordinary gay people, but the leadership”, whatever that may mean. Fortunately nobody took him very seriously and the whole affair soon fizzled out. 

But he is not the only one.  Religious leaders are still getting very hot under the collar about the whole marriage issue. Only the other day, the Rev James Gracie was comparing homosexuals to paedophiles and thieves. He’s not homophobic, you understand. He just thinks that it’s a lifestyle choice (like paedophilia and burglary), and we can choose not to be gay. Mind you he also believes that women must not preach in church and that their primary role is in the home. Presumably he’s not sexist either.

I’ve already written a piece on the gay marriage issue and, as I’m already on record as saying, I do think that the words we use matter. That said, please don’t shoot me down in flames when I say I agree that religious establishments should not be forced to conduct same sex marriages. Religion is surely a matter for personal conscience or belief, and should be completely separate from the state. It isn’t, but it should be. The only legally binding marriage (whether it be that between a man and a woman or two people of the same sex) should be a civil one. If people should then want to go through some sort of religious ceremony, then that should be a matter for them and their consciences. It should carry no legal weight whatsoever. That way, individual churches would be able to choose what path they would prefer to take. This is nothing new. I know of at least one Church of England minister who would marry divorced people in church and who, long before the introduction of civil partnerships, would also bless gay unions. Clearly there has always been room for manoeuvre. You just had to shop around. 

So why are religious leaders so quick to turn down this extra source of income? Let’s face it marriage ceremonies bring in a lot of money. The majority of couples who marry in church have hardly ever been in a church in their lives and probably don’t go again once they are wed. Does the church question them closely about their religious beliefs? In most cases, probably not. They are quite happy to take the money, knowing full well that the only thing on the bride’s mind is how pretty she will look in that nice white dress. For most the only significance of a church wedding is that the bride can, for one day, believe she is Kate Middleton. Given that the new law does not force faiths to conduct same sex marriages, but allows those faiths that have no objection, to conduct civil partnership ceremonies on their premises, I can’t see why so many religious leaders get so het up. Isn't it better just to put up and shut up, and of course look forward to all that extra revenue?

It would seem so, Baroness O'Cathain who put forward a motion in the Lords to annul the new regulations, that came into force on 5 December, withdrew it at the last minute, before it could be voted on. Finally common sense prevailed and the bill went through unchallenged. All just a storm in a teacup then.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Personal Responsibilty

Today (December 1st) is World Aids Day. Facebook is of course full of posts about it. There are posts commemorating friends who have died, posts about the increase in the numbers of people with HIV, the numbers who don’t know they have the disease, the benefits of early diagnosis, the lack of visibility (nobody at the BBC wears a red ribbon these days), but one piece posted by my friend Brent Nicholls caught my eye. I hope he won’t mind if I reproduce it here.

Can you believe this guy? 
  • hunk 1: see that guy over there, he gave me HIV
  • hunk 2: what? How? When?
  • hunk 1: he fucked me without a condom...last year
  • hunk 2: why did u let him do that?
  • hunk 1: I didn't
  • hunk 2: (suddenly looking angry) HE RAPED U?
  • hunk 1: no, no...
  • hunk 2: huh? then how did it happen?
  • hunk 1: met him on Manhunt, so i went over and he wanted to fuck I let him...
  • hunk 2: you didn't take any condoms with you?
  • hunk 1: i ran out and it was late...anyway, he didn't tell me he was positive.
  • hunk 2: (looking confused). U went for sex and didn't take any condoms? Ur an idiot...he didn't have any.....?
  • hunk 1: don't know
  • hunk 2: u didn't ask?
  • hunk 1: (kind of fidgeting) no, but if he wanted to fuck me bareback he should of mentioned he was positive...
  • hunk 2: let me get this right...u go to a guys house with no rubbers, don't ask him if he had any, then let him fuck u raw and blame him for not telling you he was positive? You do know how u can get HIV right?
  • hunk 1: yeah....but he should...
  • hunk 2: did u tell him u were negative?
  • hunk 1: no why should I?
  • hunk 2: because u let him fuck u raw u dick, what do u think was going through his mind...'oh this guy is HIV neg because he is allowing to fuck me raw...'
  • hunk 1: well, no....yes ...he should say.....
  • hunk 2: name one guy who barebacks that isn't positive...
  • hunk 1: I wasn't...
  • hunk 2: really? How does offering your arse raw say to someone...say i'm negative'...and guess what, your not! Barebacking only leads down one road...the only difference is time! (getting angry)
  • hunk 1: why the fuck you getting pissed off at me....he's the one who infected me.
  • hunk 2: look, if you haven't got enough respect for yourself to have safe sex and take responsibility for yourself....why do u think a stranger from Manhunt should give a fuck. Ur just another hole to fuck to him, a willing barebacking hole.
  • twat 1: why are you saying that....
  • hunk 2: don't mean to offend, in this day and age we all know how HIV didn't get HIV, you asked for it. People who are HIV negative have safe sex, that is why they are negative. It's not rocket science...
  • twat 1: but I was negative....
  • hunk 2: no, you weren' were just standing in the HIV queue with all those others...and finally got to the's no big deal, your choice....but blaming someone else for something that you consented to knowing all the risks....
  • twat 1: but....
  • hunk 2: look...MAN UP. Accept responsibility for yourself and stop blaming others for your own stupidity.
  • (and with that hunk 2 made a bee line for the guy hunk1/twat1 was talking about. The other guy totally freaked out and scurried off to the back of bar somewhere...)
  • Parts of this conversation has had creative license added to fill in the gaps...but I am sure you get the message......
When another friend posted this on his facebook wall, it engendered quite a bit of heated debate, with someone saying that this was quite offensive to all those who had contracted HIV through no fault of their own, whether it be because of a blood transfusion, or they had been raped, or because someone they trusted was lying to them. But these are not the people we are talking about. We are talking about those who do not take resposnibilty for their own actions. Those who indulge in reckless behaviour and look around for someone else to blame when they suffer the consequences.

I sometimes think the fact that I am still HIV negative is more down to luck than judgement. I was sexually active before we even knew what HIV was, at a time when condoms were only for preventing pregnancy, and therefore not necessary for me. Having survived that, I took on the safe sex message, and started to use condoms. I don’t like them. Still don’t, but they became a necessary evil. Some time later, I started taking a few risks, caclculated risks (in other words we discussed the matter before having sex), but risks none the less. Maybe if I hadn’t been doing drugs I wouldn’t have taken those risks. Who knows? I’m not blaming the drugs though. It was still my decision. I then went into a relationship with someone who was positive. I was always the active partner and we never used condoms. It didn’t bother me. I was in love. I honestly remember thinking that if I got it, it would make life easier for me. It may not have bothered me, but it did begin to bother him. I realise now that my actions were quite selfish. When we split up (for a multitude of reasons, not just the HIV issue), I waited 3 months and then got tested. Miraculously I was still negative. I had had no contact with my boyfriend since we split up but I rang him to tell him and he said it was the best news he’d heard in ages. However, if I had tested positive, I would not have called him. I would not have wanted him to think he’d given me HIV. Because actually he wouldn’t have done. I’d have given it to myself. I knew full well what I was doing and I would accept the responsibility. 

Given that we should all accept responsibilty for our own actions (quite a new concept for a lot of gay men), I accept that we also need greater openness surrounding the issue of sex itself. If HIV is still stigmatised, it is because it is, for the most part, a sexually transmitted disease. While there is still shame attached to sex, while religious groups still bang on about sex being a sin, we will never come to a stage where people can be open about their sex lives. Going for a sexual health check should be no different from going to the dentist for a check up, but you just have to look around the faces of the people in the waiting room to see that nobody wants to be seen there. In the case above, both guys made assumptions about the other one without actually confirming those assumptions. We were given the gift of communication. We should use it.

On a slightly differnt point I remember meeting some years ago another young escort on a job. He invited me to fuck him raw, but I declined. Later we, that is the client who had booked us, the young escort and I, all went to a sex party. Condoms were available but I was shocked to note that my young colleague never asked anyone to use one, though he was fucked by most of the guys at the party. In the taxi home, I said that I assumed he must be positive. He just shrugged and said, “Well not yet anyway.” I was practically speechless. “But don’t you worry about the consequences?” “It’s not a death sentence anymore. If I get it, I’ll just take a pill. It’s no big deal.” “Tell that to some of my positive friends,” I said, but I obviously wasn’t getting through.

Funding for HIV prevention has been slashed recently, whilst the bill for HIV treatment is rising dramatically every year. Think on. 

With thanks to Brent Nicholls