Monthly Archives: July 2012

After the Games, what next?

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As we were watching the Olympic ceremony in our local pub, my friend Bev turned around to me and said “Why weren’t we involved too?”

I knew what she meant. This was something I’d debated about in my head a few months back, when there was a call out for musicians/performers. However, the positions were unpaid, and being a professional and also having work commitments at the weekends when most of the rehearsals were involved initially, I decided not to. Which I am not unhappy about. But as we watched the ceremony unfold, the sheer positive energy that emanated out of the screen was palpable and joyous.

I’m so glad it was thus. I had suspected that Danny Boyle would have to take the opening ceremony in the complete opposite direction to Bejing; the simple fact is that London 2012 did not have the resources, either financial or in terms of population. The British are also more individualistic and (sometimes rightly) suspicious of anything that smacks of state dogma. I also suspected that he would do something very personal and intimate and would draw on folklore embedded in the English psyche, which he did. What I didn’t foresee is how political he would be, or how humorous.

From the very beginning of the ceremony, we saw the shire of Middle “Earth”, so fabled in Tolkien. My first gasp of delight came on seeing Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Brunel; the choice of Caliban’s speech, rather than the rallying call of Henry V an indication of where the ceremony was headed. As the ceremony unfolded, the themes became even more apparent: Nature vs Industry, Male vs Female, the 99% vs the 1%. I do not believe in the way it was staged that he meant it totally as a celebration of innovation in industry, although that was there as well. It was more about how the people of Great Britain had contributed to the mass appeal of industry and were an integral, nay, indispensable part of any innovator’s vision. Lest we forget it, Caliban’s speech is the speech of a slave, a native whose island has been usurped, colonised if you will.

“………and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”

Boyle’s staged an NHS sequence, his references to CND, the Accrington Pals, the Suffragettes, the miners who had taken on Tory governments in the 1920s and 1980s. It was a gauntlet being thrown down disguised as a celebration. The message I took from it was this: If you try to colonise us economically, or tear away at the social fabric of our great institutions, be advised: there is a spirit in the people that will cause them to rise from the mines, the hills, the valleys, the cities, all four corners of Great Britain.

Apparently, Jeremy Hunt (the Culture Secretary – although that description is merely nominal, in my opinion, as the man wouldn’t know culture if it came and bit him on the backside) saw the NHS sequence a few months back and wanted it cut. The message to him, and to the billions that watched it was clear to the overlords of global finance and politics: Destroy this if you dare.

Boyle’s focus on women was also very moving, although all too briefly covered by the BBC in the opening sequence. Interestingly enough, that very day, I had a conversation with some work colleagues about how women are portrayed in the media in the UK. It is something I’ve found deplorable for some time now: the hacks on Fleet St and beyond seem to place most women either in the boxes labelled “Thatcher” (strong scary singular woman), “Kate” (virginal, slightly bland woman) or “Jordan” (Page 3). For millions of women who live in the UK and who don’t fall into anything of those categories, or who might traverse aspects of them without embracing the full box, it is deeply frustrating. His inclusion of the Suffragettes, with the nod to Emily Davison, was hugely interesting – the Suffragettes were mainly middle to upper class women who agitated for the right of women to vote, amongst other rights. They were not working class; they were ladies trapped merely by virtue of their gender. And yet they were innovators of a social movement that has seen the first time that all competing nations in this Olympics include women.

Perhaps the Mary Poppinses and NHS nurses were easier for the Beeb to stomach, putting women in the role of carers, and in any case, they were harder to sideline, given the length of the sequence; but again, I believe that Boyle was making a political point here: these women that you see in every day life are an integral part of the social fabric of Great Britain – you tear their jobs/influence away at your peril. The parallels with present times was easy to see: women have been more affected than men by the coalition cuts. Also what was interesting for me is that he set nurses in WWII outfits rather than modern-day nursing uniforms; again perhaps a nod to the fact that while the men were away fighting in the war, it was women who kept the country together.

His defence of the creative industries was also palpable. Most news desks have focussed on how he was demonstrating the punk, anti-authoritarian spirit of these isles through the music chosen, and the element of fancifulness through literature. However, what was equally interesting, though not as heavily covered, was Boyle’s love letter to British cinema, past and present. One of the interesting moments for me was when the dancing couple kissed – rather than correlating it with one of his own films, the shot that was playing at that time was Hugh Grant and Andi McDowell in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. I found it intriguing as Richard Curtis is a film maker who in spirit seems diametrically opposed to Boyle’s style of film making. Maybe Boyle’s point was that from Hitchcock to Lean to Curtis to Boyle right through to the present day, British cinema holds a unique and powerful fascination globally. Given that the UK Film Council was one of the first major casualties of coalition cutbacks, this was a reminder to the government that creativity is a unique selling point that Britain has to offer the world.

There were other moments of course: Rowan Atkinson, Her Majesty’s Bond girl moment, the stunning choreography of Akram Khan eulogising those lost in the 7/7 attacks. What Boyle’s opening ceremony showed most of all though is something I have believed all my life: that Art has the power to galvanise the spirit of a nation. It is not for nothing that dictators or oppressive regimes seek to control or silence artists, because they know that Art, and therefore artists have power that is not quantifiable or tangible, and that scares them. Although Britain has produced some great sporting men and women, it is their artists that are immortal and world-class: Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, the Brontes, Tolkien, Orwell, Barrie, Lean, the Sex Pistols, Bowie, Eurhythmics, Lean, Hitchcock, Curtis, the LSO, right through to Boyle himself. He showed how our theatre, our imaginative industries are second to none; and instead of crushing us, like industry is often wont to do, they elevate us to angelic transcendence. It is time that successive governments start respecting the great creative talent of these isles, because it is in this realm that we are world champions and London a great innovative centre, both historically and to this present day.

By the reaction to the ceremony it is also apparent that the zeitgeist of these times is the power of the collective. It is apparent that Boyle absolutely understands this, and his ceremony was a unique rallying call to the people of Great Britain, which consciously or subconsciously most people have recognised. I walked through Central London today, and saw it with fresh eyes. I saw how not only in times of danger or sadness (the Blitz, the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, the riots) how people want to be part of something positive, exciting, historic, how they wanted to show their children the power of positive endeavour, the excitement of reaching out and standing together as a nation. After the Games, it will be interesting to see which way the powers-that-be spin this for their own political ends. I suspect try as they might, they will not be able to, because one cannot spin the truth in people’s hearts. From a practical standpoint, I believe this government will not survive if they wield any further cuts to public services, including the NHS and the creative industries. From a more esoteric standpoint, I believe that people in the UK may be awakened in feeling to that old left-wing mantra: “The people united shall never be defeated”. If nothing else, that is Boyle’s and London 2012’s legacy to the world.

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You’ve come a long way, baby….

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Yesterday I watched the film “London River”. It is a beautifully crafted little film, with some stunning performances from Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyate, about how two strangers come to find their respective children in the aftermath of the 07/07 bombings. I cried the whole way through.

 

I remember that month very clearly. I’d come back from touring and was starting work as a receptionist in what was then a new media club in Covent Garden. The day before, I’d passed by Trafalgar Square and seen some of the celebrations as London was given the Olympic go-ahead. It seemed on the 6th, and indeed on the morning of the 7th July, that London, and Londoners were on top of the world.

The next morning, I went back into work for my third day on the job. The morning started uneventfully enough; I got some coffee and peanut butter toast from the cafe across the road, chatted with my work colleague, made some pleasantries to the few early bird clients. A little after 9am, a woman rushed in and asked could we put on the news on the screen in the foyer. Bemused, we did so. Another woman rushed in and asked could she make a phone call. More and more people started coming in off the street, some desperate to talk to loved ones, as the signal for mobile phones had gone down. But where it became very real was when one of our work colleagues, a girl called Lisa who seemed (in my then limited experience at the company) to be always happy-go-lucky and cheery, came rushing in, dishevelled and clearly traumatised, saying that she was in a bus behind the bus that blew up and had seen it happen. The morning was exceptionally busy, as we tried to help people by allowing them to use the phones, or helping them if they were too shell-shocked to help themselves.

 

We were advised not to go out at lunchtime. I felt immensely claustrophobic and just needed some space. I walked up to Covent Garden, around to Leicester Square. Apart from the police, the whole of Covent Garden was deserted and eerily quiet. At that time, there were bomb alerts out, and a rumour that a bomb might go off again. A friend of mine whose sister-in-law works in intelligence said that there were at least 16 other possible targets that day that the police were checking out.

 

At the end of the day, I decided to walk home. It seemed like the whole of London had made the same decision. I was living in Peckham at the time, so could have got a bus, but the thought of stepping on to public transport filled me with dread, and I needed the walk. Again, as hundreds of  us Londoners walked over Waterloo Bridge, I was struck by the quietness, the quiet dignity of my fellow Londoners. Clearly people had been affected by the events of the day, but chose to remain calm and devoid of hysteria.

In the weeks that followed, and after some of the terrible incidences thereafter (like the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting) London slowly rebuilt itself. The tubes that had been silent in that first week that followed the bombings slowly but surely became more relaxed, and people started to ignore each other on public transport once again.

I remembered all of this watching “London River”, and it got me thinking. Has any other Olympic city had a similar story? A story that went from the jubilation of the Olympic win, to the devastation of the bombings and the aftermath, to the riots of last summer, and back to its position as arguably the greatest city in the world? Other cities may have great qualities: my native New York has energy and drive, Berlin eclecticism, Paris romance, Hong Kong brashness, Tokyo industriousness; but London is a unique blend of relatively harmonious race relations, an important centre historically, a world centre economically, energy and passivity in its outlook. It is a tough city, but not unkind. Every day of the almost 13 years I have lived here I have been surprised by something; and while I do not buy into Johnson’s assertion that if one is tired of London, one is tired of life (after all, Johnson did not have to contend with TfL), I do think that if one remains immune to how this city and its inhabitants can truly move or amuse you on a daily basis then it is probably time to leave. Again, it is a tough city, but not one devoid of humanity in my experience.

 

There are all sorts of arguments about the value of the Olympics; and I understand the argument on all sides. As an artist, the sidelining of funds towards sports at the expense of the arts is short-sighted in the extreme. However, not for one minute do I think that the Olympics should not be held here. We need this opportunity, in the wake of all that has happened, to show ourselves  and the world how amazing our city can be: how vibrant, how tolerant, how friendly, how organised,or even how a bit of disorganisation is a good thing, a human quality. I don’t know what Danny Boyle & co have planned for the opening ceremony: but I do know this. It won’t be as precise or awe-inspiring perhaps as Bejing; but it will be beautiful and quietly moving, and none the less spectacular for being that. I suspect that the greatest legacy of the Olympics will be to remind us all of why we live here, how amazing we all are for living here, and what a long way we have come since July 6th 2005. To my mind, that is a legacy worth recalling.

Paddling my canoe

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So today I am in bed with the flu. This is an unusual position for me to be in – currently with the job to pay the bills I get sick pay, which is great. But I am the type of person who would rather eat my own toenails rather than give in to any sort of illness. However, with all the changes in the weather etc I have felt on the verge of sickness a few times in this past week and finally, last night, was forced by my body to take a break. In fact, my body spoke to me like the voice of God this morning: “TAKE A BREAK”. So I finally obeyed.

 

There is another reason behind this. I am singing in an opera on Friday, in a role I have wanted to do for a long time (Gertrude in Hansel and Gretel), for a company I have wanted to work with for some months as well. The opera is small scale and in a private venue, but it is this operatunity (see what I did there? Ok, I am SICK, give me a break!!) to sing this role that really excites me. I finally feel like I am becoming what I always wanted to be – an opera singer.

 

Here’s the thing: when people have said to me: “What do you do?” I have always felt a bit shy about saying “opera singer”, because for the longest time I felt like a fraud. I have been training for literally half my life as a singer, and for a long time it really seemed as if it was never going to happen for me, at least not in the way I wanted it to.  I went off to train as an actress in a bona fide drama school, and consequently have always felt more comfortable with the moniker “actress”. But not creatively satisfied. And, though the dream of singing opera professionally lay dormant for a while, it never left me.

For a number of posts I’ve talked about things outside the performing world that interest me, all with a political edge. But the arts can be the most political arena of them all, in my experience. None more so than music. I’ve had a number of false starts in this profession, which started when I was 17 and went to sing for the local conservatoire, who offered me a place on the spot. However, because life intervened, I spent a long time going from teacher to teacher, believing everything they told me. At 19 I went to a singing teacher in Dublin who recognised that I had a talent, but didn’t know how to teach me. So one week I was destined to be Maria Callas; the next week I was nothing, useless, never going to amount to much. I went from her to a teacher that was wonderful in my first year with him, but with whom I stayed about 4 years too long. I’ve gone to a couple of international opera singers, some teachers whose specialty was classical musical theatre (where I thought I was headed for some time), and even a teacher who taught in a prefab on a building site! The teachers that I remember going to before I found my current teacher total 11. And although nothing is wasted so they say, the difference between these teachers and my current teacher is like the difference between night and day.

 

Choosing the right teacher can get quite political, especially in the hot-house environment of music colleges and conservatoires. When I was attending the Cork School of Music I had the opportunity to change from my then teacher to another rival teacher in the school – and I opted not to. The fallout would have been too much for me to handle at that time, and although I regret my lack of fortitude, there was a realpolitik at work that may have affected my exam results. But even more recently, I was in a situation where I was being coached by a wonderful repetiteur who was retired, had worked in the German opera houses and was teaching me for free. At the same time, I was going, unbeknownst to him, to my current teacher. I truly felt like I was having an affair; and it came to a point that I knew I couldn’t progress with my current teacher while being influenced by the repetiteur. When I broke the news to him, it felt like the closest thing to a break-up that I have experienced, and indicates the deeply personal nature of what we do as singers, and how this is both a vocational path and a business, which can make any decision very complex indeed.

 

Which brings me on to my next point: the necessity always to have a sense of one’s own direction artistically, and how to balance that with listening to what your music director/director/colleagues say without losing your own sense of self-worth, and remaining true to what you are about as a singer. I know this more than most. You see, I am in possession of a “big voice”. The first thing people say when they hear me sing is “Wow! That’s a big voice!” The second is “Very powerful”. Not beautiful, or gorgeous, or pretty or anything like that, but “big” and “powerful”. And in my experience in the UK and Ireland, it is a rarity to find a teacher that (a) likes big voices and (b) knows how to teach one. In fact, it is a rarity to find people even in the opera world who truly love big voices – which sounds crazy, because, by necessity, in the absence of amplified sound, opera needs big voices. And so I am learning to read between the lines, and this is a very interesting part of my journey for me. There is the constant call from people to “sing quietly”. Well, my quiet is not the same as soubrette soprano’s quiet, and MDs/directors seem to be blissfully unaware of this. We can all only sing with the voice we have; and I feel strongly that although we should do our best to attain what the powers-that-be want, we should not compromise ourselves.

 

As I mentioned, prior to working as a singer, I worked (and still do to a certain extent) as an actress. I remember doing a production of The Playboy of the Western World in Ireland, in which I played Widow Quin. I was only 23 years old, but it was, and still is, a part with which I have a strong connection. The director at the time requested that we speak a lot quicker. The rest of the cast grumbled but obeyed his request. I nodded and spoke the lines as I wanted to. The review that came out in the Irish Sunday Times made note of my clarity and superb delivery. The director then said “You see? She was the only one who did what I asked of her!”

 

The moral of the story is: Courage, mes amis. It takes a lot of courage to stick to one’s guns, and you don’t have to make a song and dance about it (unless the occasion requires it) but to thine own self be true. And always paddle your own canoe.