The fat lady vanishes

Welcome to my new blog! I’ll be writing about topics that interest me and, I hope, my readers.
Two passions will be to the fore – books and opera, or even books about opera.  My second novel,Masque of the Gonzagas, was set in the highly operatic court of Mantua at the time of Claudio Monteverdi, the composer who wrote Orfeo, the first opera that is still produced today.
            The life of Monteverdi, which curiously mirrored that of his first opera, provided rich material for a novel, and the book, published first by Arcadia Books, was translated into several European languages. Since Masque of the Gonzagas was published, I have seen  six different productions of Orfeo as opera critic for the Sunday Express.   It is amazing how well the opera stands up to the test of time.  From the opening clarion chords of the trumpets, the music calls down the centuries to grip its listeners.  It may be presented as a pared down concert version, as by Philip Pickett and the New London Consort, or in a Javanese garden with temple dancers bearing pyramids of tropical fruit, as in Chen Shi-Zheng’s 2006 production at ENO, but the first chords, repeated thrice, still conjure up that night on 24 February 1607 when the Duke of Mantua’s court crammed into a salon in the Palazzo Ducale, eager to see the new drama per musica, which, quoting a letter from one of the courtiers before the premiere “should be most unusual, as all the actors are to sing their parts.”
            For more information about Masque of the Gonzagas, please click here.
            Much as opera is part of life in Italy, it is still often regarded with suspicion in Britain.  One point I am continually trying to get across to non-opera goers, is that it’s not about the fat lady any more.  The poem that fellow-opera lover, the biographer and poet Kathleen Jones sent me, A Night at the Opera by William Matthews, shows that times have moved on.  The monster divas of yesteryear are truly rare today.  Indeed, a few years ago Deborah Voigt had the salutary experience of being sacked by Covent Garden’s music director for being too large to wear the little black dress designed for the part of Ariadne.  A formidably talented and determined singer, she went on a gastric band diet, and returned with her voice unimpaired and her dramatic verismo strengthened.   See her in the Met Live Gotterdammerung, final part of the Ring Cycle, on Saturday 11 February.
            Today’s opera singers need to be athletic in body as well as in voice. Placido Domingo, of three Tenors fame, realised early on that more was required than a beautiful voice.  How many people nearing their seventies would leap onto a table in the middle of a sword fight?  As well as singing at the same time the demanding role of Cyrano de Bergerac?  Think of Juan Diego Florez tearing down a spiral staircase while throwing off high Cs in Rossini’s Mathilde de Chabran, or sparrow-like Nathalie Dessay still reaching the back of the amphitheatre as she is carried off in the horizontal in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment.    So don’t mention the fat lady – she’s a diminishing breed.
            Incidentally, to get a feeling of the passions that opera raises, go and see Master Class by Terence McNally, on at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, WC2.  Tyne Daly (of Cagney & Lacey fame) plays the legendary superstar Maria Callas as she tries to infuse her students with an understanding of why opera matters.
            Based on the masterclass at New York’s Juilliard School in the early seventies given by Callas after she retired from the stage, it’s a dazzling tour de force by Daly, who at 65 is ten years older than Callas when she died, yet is utterly convincing as this imperious force of nature and art.  Vissi d’arte was Callas’s creed.  At times, during the flashback scenes, Callas’s gorgeous tones from the original recordings are heard in the background – and we just long to hear more.  Visit: