IT CAN ALL be blamed on the year we got my dad a karaoke machine for Christmas. Belting out ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, memories were rekindled of performances in the annual school musical — cowboy gear for Oklahoma, Cockney accent for Oliver!. A family gathering, a little too much to drink, and I get ideas above my vocal station.
But the thought of doing Tchaikovsky’s Queen OfSpades, surrounded by the country’s top professionals at Scottish Opera? lt’s enough to put Pavarotti off his pasta.
l’m assured by the company that I‘ll be looked after, so with hopes of being cradled in a heaving Wagnerian bosom. I join them for an early rehearsal in Glasgow. My first nervous introduction is to the show’s Greek director, Yannis Kokkos. who greets me in French: ‘Enchanté.’ Truly cosmopolitan, this opera lark.
Later on. I’ll be joining in as the cast tackle the opening scene for the first time, but before then, chorus member Frances Morrison gamely offers to give me a ‘vocal warm-up’. Off we go to a small private room furnished with a grand piano and — I hope, for the sake of the neighbours today — completely sound- proofed.
As anyone who’s ever studied music will tell you, scales and arpeggios are the easy bit. Today, climbing up a ‘fa-soh-lah-ti’ range is like facing Everest. Talk about being up to high-doh. We try out different vowel sounds designed to stretch the vocal cords and slacken facial muscles. The sound coming out is better than I’d anticipated, but that warbling vibrato in my voice isn’t technique — it’s fear.
‘We all do this before starting,’ says Frances. ‘You’ve got to limber up just like you’d do before physical exercise. Breathe in until you feel your ribs stick out, and make the sound resonate round your head, not come out through your nose.’
About ten minutes later, we’re finished, and I’m glad I kept to water at lunchtime, avoiding an untimely lrn Bru burp mid- phrase. Now it’s time to go down to the large rehearsal space which contains a full mock-up of the St Petersburg set.
Am I to be the handsome hero, seren- ading his lover under The moonlight? Nope, the male chorus isn’t going to arrive for a few hours yet. However, I can join the ladies and sing the part of a wet nurse amidst the nannies and governesses. Perhaps slipping into an ankle-length skirt and holding a plastic doll will help me get into the part. Hmm. I’m sure ritual humiliation was never part of Marlon Brando’s ‘method’ preparation.
Eventually the director starts placing bodies around the stage. A group of children are playing in the ‘street’, and the women are milling around. The first notes begin on the
Perhaps slipping into an ankle-length skirt and holding a plastic doll will help me get into the part. Hmm. I’m sure ritual humiliation was never part of Marlon Brando‘s ‘method' preparation.
piano, and I’m ready to discover whether or not I can still read music from the miniature score l‘ve borrowed from the library.
And then, disaster. A wonderful crescendo of sound begins around me as the chorus bursts into voice — in Russian. Scottish Opera always perform in the work’s original language, so this is the steppes rather than, ehm. Stepps.
Feeling like a lone Tsarist at a Communist Party convention, I shuffle over to a group of nannies and try to read their score from over their shoulders. The notes on the page are the same as my version, but they’ve got the Russian pronounciation of the words written phonetically above. In fact. about two centimetres above the lines of music. I’d need to have a unique vertical squint to read both at the same time. Frantically, my brain tosses a coin: hum along to the music or recite the proper words tunelessly? I take the coward’s third option — I’ll just mime.
Conspiring with my fellow nurses while the director is working with the children, I manage to memorise a couple of bars that seem musically and linguistically simple enough. When this passage comes up during the next run-through, I sing along with pride. Maybe I won’t be booked for Covent Garden just yet, but I’ve mastered at least one section of Tchaikovsky’s repertoire and kept in tune with a bunch of professionals.
Later, on the train home, I check my translated score and discover what the lines
I’ve been singing really mean. ‘Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye/Hush my baby from the light/Keep those pretty eyes shut tight.’ Ah well, it’s not as useful as ‘Two beers, please’ or ‘Could you direct me to the railway station, my aunt’s carriage has broken down’, but it will do for the time being.
Scottish Opera's production of Queen Of Spades opens on Tuesday 5 May at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.
16-30 Apr 1998 THE LIST 21