OBITER DICTA

‘Obiter Dicta’ is the legal term for a Judge’s Comments, so it seems a good title for my Bloggy Bits. My posts are on various different subjects and the following emblems will help identify the sort of thing that I’m going to be going on about in any particular post:-

The ‘STORIES’ referred to are the true but inconsequential anecdotes that I’ve been boring people with years. So why should you escape?

 

19th March 2019

 

OPERA : ‘BEL CANTO’ OR ‘CAN BELT-O’?

The Operatic Voice is not really my cup of tea. The Operatic Voice is generally too much for me; it’s too loud and too dramatic. Opera singers are trained to produce an astonishing volume of sound while still producing a beautiful tone. They are supposed to be heard at the back of a gigantic opera house, without using a mic, and over the racket made by a large orchestra knocking seven bells of hell out of some grand climax, and this requires extraordinary sound-penetrating qualities. An operatic Tenor I knew referred to this piercing quality as ‘the blade’. You had to have ‘the blade’.

The singers who produce this operatic voice are astonishing musicians, awesome vocal athletes and dedicated, sensitive artists, but, to my coarse and uncultured ears, their performances often come over as a lot of shrieking and bellowing. I sympathize with the story of John Gielgud who was directing an opera production and wished to address the cast during a rehearsal. Advancing on the stage while the cast were still at full throttle, and failing to attract their attention, he cried, ‘Oh do stop that dreadful singing!

I find it much easier to appreciate other aspects of the formally Trained Voice. The ‘Church’ voice is a different animal from the ‘Opera’ voice, I love the quieter, sweeter tones of the singers, both male and female, who generally perform in a liturgical setting, while a soprano or contralto performing wordless music with melismatic pure sound, can be miraculous. Bachianas Brasileiras #5 by Villa Lobos, for example, features a wordless soprano in one of its various arrangements, and is a transcendent experience. In his ‘Sinfonia Antartica’, Vaughan Williams pulls the same stunt with magical results, as does Holst in ‘The Planets’. However, these are women’s voices; your Tenors and Basses, it seems, always have to be singing about something, well they’re men…

An opera is a sung play. Characters, in opera, are supposedly communicating with other characters on the stage, and are also communicating to the audience. They have to sing words, but in the operatic tradition they enunciate them in a very particular and peculiar way so as not to compromise their precious tone.

The comprehensibility of sung opera probably varies depending on the language of the text; some languages have vowels that are more compatible with operatic enunciation than others. Italians can probably understand a lot of what is being sung in Italian, and my guess is that German operatic audiences can also follow most of what’s going on. In English, however things do not work so well.

Many opera singers work admirably hard to make an English libretto as clear as possible, but when a few lines, usually of recitative, can be understood, it often sounds ridiculous because opera singers are trained to pronounce English words in the most exaggeratedly ‘posh’ or aristocratic manner imaginable. I have confessed in an earlier post that I, myself, use a slightly ‘poshed-up’ accent to perform in, because it makes our wonderful, but infuriating, language easier to sing, but Operatic diction in English makes Jacob Rees-Mogg sound common as muck. All the dramatis personae in an opera are sung in this ridiculously toffee-nosed manner, so that working class, or servant characters are sung with the cut-glass accents of members of the House of Lords circa 1850.

Sadly, this emphasis on volume and tone means that Opera sung in English is mostly unintelligible; both to me, and, it seems, to many other people. I put forward, as evidence, that fact that opera productions performed in English, in the UK, frequently have the words projected above the stage as ‘surtitles’.

I should re-state this situation, as it is so bizarre. English-speaking audiences, listening to performers singing in English, need to have the words there in front of them because no one can understand what the performers are singing.

What is wrong with this picture?

For this reason, most operas, are performed in the language in which they were composed. ‘Boris Godunov’ sung in English sounds about as intelligible as ‘Boris Godunov’ sung in Russian so what would be the point of translating it?

An opera fan would protest that it’s all about the music, not the words. Fair enough: but if opera is supposed to be experienced as a piece of Total Art, a Gesamtkunstwerk, it doesn’t help if a significant part of the kunst doesn’t werk properly.

 

19th March 2019

DID I EVER TELL YOU THE ONE ABOUT ME AND KIRK DOUGLAS?

In 1976 I was in Edinburgh as Musical Director of ‘The Kibbo Kift’, a musical at the Traverse Theatre that I had written with composer Maxwell Hutchinson. (Script and recordings are in the Archive section of this site, by the way.) I was in Princes Street Gardens one afternoon, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, listening to a pipe band, when it came on to rain. The pipers opened their packs and produced the most wonderful plastic macs I had ever seen. Long, black and silky, they had a cape instead of sleeves, an ‘Ulster’, as might be worn by Sherlock Holmes or a pre-war policeman. As well as looking super-stylish the cape enabled the pipes to be carried and played ‘under cover’.

I had to have one, and approached one piper to inquire where they came from. He asked their Quartermaster, and I was told they could be obtained from McTavishe’s ‘Heeland Ootfitters’. On my next afternoon off I located the small shop and inquired whether they had any piper’s rain capes. I was directed to the basement, which was deserted, and among the racks of clothes found a rail of the garments in question.

I found one in my size, put it on, and was admiring myself in the mirror when, without warning, a voice spoke behind me. It was a deep, resonant and American voice. ‘That’s very Holmsian’, it said. Where had he sprung from? I wondered. I turned round and there was Kirk Douglas. I goggled at him in astonishment, but it was him alright. Really tall with brilliant blue eyes, but not wearing the Valentino suit or expensive leisurewear proper to Hollywood royalty, but dressed in a rough poncho, with a six-day beard, as if he’d materialized from the set of one of his grittier Westerns, ‘Indian Fighter’ maybe, or ‘Last Train from Gun Hill’. The famous dimple on his chin looked absolutely bottomless.

I managed to gabble on a bit about Pipe bands and their rain-wear, and he was very pleasant and chatty. I asked him what he was doing in Edinburgh and he said he was competing in the Pro-Am golf tournament. I told him I had a show on at the Traverse and said I’d leave his name at the door. ‘You don’t have to come’, I said, ‘But it would be fun to leave your name at the door.’ We had a bit of a laugh and I took my cape up to the Ground Floor, leaving Spartacus alone downstairs. As I paid for my purchase, I quietly checked with the proprietor. ‘Downstairs, that is..you know?’. ‘Oh aye,’ he answered conspiratorially, ‘Mr Douglas… he’s buying a kilt!’

 

18th March 2019

SINGING IN ENGLISH

Singing in English is not easy, and singing in non-accented, non-regional, middle-of-the-road English is pretty well impossible. It’s to do with the vowels; they’re fine for the talking, but start to sing and they don’t fit in the mouth; you just can’t make them sound good, or put any power behind them. Italians can sing in regular Italian, and the French in normal French (except for their weird habit of adding an extra final syllable to any word ending in ‘e’) but to sing English at all, the singer has to adopt some form of accent. Almost any accent will work fine; Scots, Irish, Welsh, or Cockney can sound great, particularly for singers who talk like that as well (although this does not necessarily have to be the case. That great vocal stylist Bryan Ferry speaks without much of a North-eastern accent, but sings in broad Geordie). However, for singing Brits who don’t have some regional or ethnic identity to bring forward, the usual fall-back position is to adopt some form of American accent. American vowels are super-easy to sing, and though any actual American can spot the imitations a mile off, the majority of non-classical British vocalists subside into one of a weird variety of phony Yankee pronunciations. This normally has nothing to do with them wanting to sound like Elvis or Lou Reed, it’s a matter of acoustic necessity.

I have struggled with this problem myself. To me, my speaking voice sounds completely neutral, but other people hear definite Public School cadences. My parents, both from working-class Woolwich, and not the slightest bit snobbish, nonetheless deliberately lost their ‘common’ accents to ‘get on in the world’. They insisted that I did the same, and, in my teens, would often tick me off for coming-out with any of those Estuary inflections that became so fashionable in the Sixties.

My solution to the singing-in-English problem was to develop my natural accent into a sort of old-fashioned ‘posh’ voice to sing with, and I fixed on this quite early in my soi-disant ‘career’. It continues to work well for me, from the technical, acoustic point of view, to the extent that at least people can hear what I’m singing about. Thus it was, that from my late teenage years, I came to think of myself as singing in the character of some frightful, elderly clubland bore making his dreadful jokes in the Lounge Bar, and now, half a century later, God forgive me, I am that man, or something uncomfortably like him.

This vocal persona, also fits well with the fascination I have always had with the slang, the popular idioms, catch-phrases and demotic patterns of speech of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries; ways with words that have made our language incredibly rich, diverse and flexible. My anachronistic vocal avatar can sing about something being ‘top-hole’, or ‘pisspoor’, or ‘meshugge’, or ‘the bee’s knees’, or ‘fuckin-A’, or ‘peachy-keen’, or ‘downright dis-servicable’ and sound as if he means it.

 

18th March 2019

TUK-TUK

Travel in India is best accomplished, if the distances involved are not too great, by the three-wheel motorised rickshaw known as the tuk-tuk. They have a windscreen, a roof and a back, but no sides, and, as a passenger, the sights, sounds and smells of this wonderful place are up-close and personal. You are a participant, an authentic part of the spectacle of the street.

Indian drivers are bold, daring and assertive. They drive with élan and panache, slicing in front of each other with aggressive precision. (The Indian driver is highly skilled – or dead). The Indian words for ‘cutting people up’ on the road is probably just ‘driving’. The Indian driver, both male and female, sounds his or her horn continually. ‘Here I am!’, it announces. ‘Look out, I’m coming through!’ or just ‘Woopee!’ Yet all this apparently ruthless roadhoggery causes no anger or resentment. The mad traffic rushes onwards in an overwhelming atmosphere of tolerance and forbearance. We have always felt quite safe on Indian roads; the Shiva or Ganesha or Shirdi Sai Baba on the dashboard will see to that.

Tuk-tuk drivers are street-smart to an extraordinary degree, they know every inch of their town or city from boulevard to dank alleyway and, once you know where you’re going, and what the fare ought to be, you can get twenty minutes of fast, fascinating transportation for around £1.50.

The drivers come in all varieties, including plausible rogues who are extremely keen that you visit their ‘uncle’s’ emporium, or gentle, barefoot philosophers. Some drivers have excellent English and are as good as any professional guide. A recent week in Mysore was made memorable by one such paragon who organised our sightseeing with effortless professionalism. (Our thanks to Mr Lokesha, and his ‘Green City Ride’).

Over the years Fiona and I have had some remarkable tuk-tuk experiences. In Jaipur we were latched onto by a flamboyant young chancer whose routes around the city in ‘the fastest rickshaw in town’ were curiously punctuated by brief, unscheduled stops; at a chai stall, or a street corner where our driver would scurry from his cab to hold brief mysterious meetings.  When the tuk-tuk developed engine problems, he opened the fuel tank and, fishing around inside, withdrew a package wrapped in plastic, whereupon the engine was restored to life. It was only at this point did we realise that we were providing excellent cover for his drug delivery round.

At a seaside resort on the West coast another young driver, who had taken us to-and-fro a couple of times before, picked us up one night and immediately headed in the opposite direction from the way we wanted to go. ‘Doon be crass!  Doon be crass!’ he wailed. ‘You are my Mother and Father!’ We were contemplating our apparent kidnapping with some misgivings when he swerved off the road and onto the beach where crowds had gathered in the darkness for a religious festival.

Three huge temple elephants in golden armour stood guard as, lit by burning torches, Brahmin priests in loincloths repeatedly poured butter-ghee, milk and who-knows-what-else over figures of the Gods, which were then picked-up and rushed into the sea to be washed in the breakers before being returned for more anointing. Our driver was very pleased with himself as we took our darshan, and also, we realised, completely off-his-face on bhang or something similar.

On our recent trip to Madurai, we hailed a rickshaw to return to the hotel from one of the city’s many rooftop restaurants. He was already waiting for someone, but another driver he was talking to seemed eager to oblige. He was a tiny old man who waved his hands in the air and cackled at us maniacally, revealing a startling lack of teeth. We climbed aboard his rickshaw rather apprehensively, he revved his engine, and took off like a rocket. Tuk-tuks in Madurai are fueled with LPG but this one must have had nitro dragster fuel in the tank. Hunched over the handlebars, cackling loudly and occasionally waving one hand in the air, he drove at enormous speed, overtaking everything and frequently on the wrong side of the road. At times we must have been going at 70mph, when Indian traffic seldom exceeds 50mph. White knuckled, we reached our destination in exactly half the time it usually took, and the old man cackled happily over his £2.00 fare.

In all but the greatest Indian cities, cars do not predominate. The street is owned by the two and three-wheelers. In the evening, when everyone is on the move, thousands of motorbikes, scooters and tuk-tuks dance and weave around the crowded, oversized buses which are gashed, seamed and welded like something out of Mad Max. Motor rickshaws, licensed to carry two passengers plus driver, might have a dozen or more people crammed inside. Cows, wandering free and unconcerned amid the heaviest traffic, must be negotiated, and there is a sprinkling of sturdy sit-up-and-beg bicycles (which all feature eminently sensible rear-wheel stands that leave the bike firmly upright rather than balancing on a little spike).

Women and girls ride powerful scooters, and are as dashing and daring drivers as the men, who mostly ride motorbikes, including gleaming and magnificently retro Royal Enfields. So many bikes; with two-up, three-up, four-up; whole families out for the evening on the family Kawasaki, mother in jeweled sari, sitting side-saddle at the rear, the fluttering skirts of the sari perilously close to the rear wheels, then maybe eldest daughter; mother and daughter’s blue-black hair in ‘french braids’ entwined with coils of Jasmine, floating in the wind, then comes proud father, his hair styled in an immaculate quiff, then youngest son standing at the front grasping the handlebars. Helmets? Who would want to wear something so hot and uncomfortable and crushing of the hairdo?

And this whole river of blazing lights, incredible cacophony of noise, and overwhelming engine fumes is hurtling onward into the warm, soft, black-velvet Indian night, and the sound rises and echoes amid the colossal towers of the temples and becomes one great metallic, resonant ‘OM’.