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This blog is a combination of new material and previously published archives... Mostly about singing, music, opera and the life of an artist. Thanks for reading!


Monday, 31 October 2011

I Turned Down La Scala (…hope they’ve forgiven me by now…)

Sometimes, the best stories aren’t about what happened, but what didn’t. I recently put together a CD of opera arias, and one piece in particular is prompting some comment: a little-known showpiece of wild coloratura from Salieri’s opera Europa riconosciuta, Semele’s aria ‘Quando più irato freme.’ Mainly known these days as the jealous rival of Mozart, as depicted in the stage play and film ‘Amadeus,’ in his lifetime Antonio Salieri was a highly respected opera composer. So much so that he was commissioned to write Europa riconosciuta for the inaugural production of the new La Scala opera house in Milan in 1778. And it is because of this bit of opera trivia that I came to add this aria to my repertoire.

In 2004 I was working at Welsh National Opera. This was the year the renovated La Scala opera house was celebrating its re-opening, and the very first opera performed in the house was being revived for the occasion. A staff member of La Scala was involved in the same production at WNO, and after returning to Italy, he recommended me to La Scala’s artistic director.  I was asked to come to Milan to audition, and specifically to prepare Quando più irato freme.

Now, auditions vary greatly in style and substance: everything from ‘cattle-calls’ in rented, drafty rehearsal spaces on the wrong side of town, to glam on-the-main-stage affairs with my own dressing room and a rehearsal with a top-notch accompanist beforehand. Singers have to be ready for anything. Similarly, audition feedback can vary greatly: never hearing anything, getting a rejection letter eventually, being hired a few days, weeks, or months later…being offered the job on the spot is almost unheard of. Almost. In Milan, in November 2004, for a production opening the 7th December 2004, this is what happened:

Several sopranos auditioned for the role of Semele in Europa Riconosciuta. A couple of hours later, four of us were asked to sing again, this time on the stage of the theatre. After singing that round, we waited in the foyer, and were called in one at a time. When it was my turn, they offered me the engagement. They informed me I would need to start rehearsals the following day. Considering I was booked on a flight home that afternoon, and was at the time a widowed mother of a 5-year-old, I said that really wasn’t possible, and could we see about giving me a little time to arrange accommodation, childcare, ummm, pack a suitcase with a few more clothes, etc.

It was agreed that I had until the end of the week to sort myself out, and I phoned my agent in a daze to tell her what had happened. She immediately set about helping me sort out the two problems facing me: 1) finding some local childcare during the rehearsal period, and 2) clearing things with Welsh National Opera, where I was still under contract. Several days and several frantic phone calls later, it became clear that finding childcare was going to be the easier of the two tasks. While WNO bent over backwards to make it possible for me to go to Milan while still fulfilling my obligations to them, La Scala could not release me to WNO on a crucial date clash. So….rather than break a promise, and ruin my reputation as a reliable, ethical, and honest soprano (oh yes, we do exist), I said ‘no.’ To La Scala. To the oldest, most historically saturated, famous opera house in the world. But, hey, what makes better dinner-party conversation: ‘I once sang at La Scala,’ or ‘I once turned down La Scala’? And I’ve got a unique audition piece up my sleeve.

p.s. If anyone from Milan is reading this…I would love to be able to say ‘Yes!’ Call me. L x

‘Quando piu irate freme’ from Europa Riconosciuta by Antoio Salieri is included on the recently released CD, ‘Virgins & Queens’ available for purchase at www.lauremeloy.co.uk

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Exquisite Decadence

La lune blanche luit dans les bois.
De chaque branche part une voix
sous la ramée…
O bien aimée.
L’étang reflète, profond miroir,
la silhouette du saule noir
où le vent pleure…
Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
Un vaste et tendre apaisement
semble descendre du firmament
que l’astre irise.
C’est l’heure exquise.
- Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)
When a friend and colleague suggested we program a song recital together based not on a particular composer or period, but on a particular poet, I was intrigued. We chose Paul Verlaine, not only because there is a lot of song repertoire to choose from, but because his poems are particularly beautiful as well.
 In 1870, he married 17-year-old Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville in the hope that her purity and innocent love would cure both his alcoholism and his attraction to other men…
While researching his life, I came to realise that there is a dichotomy in the life of many (if not all) great artists in that exquisite beauty can often be created in an environment of extreme ugliness, moral and physical. Paul Verlaine is a case in point.
…Unfortunately, Mathilde’s love did not have the desired effect. Barely a year into his marriage, Verlaine encountered the then 16-year-old poet Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine abandoned his wife and baby, both of whom had suffered from his violent rages, and he and Rimbaud began a highly volatile relationship that destroyed Verlaine’s marriage, estranged him from his family (Verlaine's brother-in-law described Rimbaud as "a vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy", but Verlaine found him an "exquisite creature"), and hastened his descent into poverty, alcoholism and addiction…
How many beginning voice students, genteel ladies at Thursday Musicales, and dignified Song Recital audiences realise what kind of man really wrote those ‘pretty’ poems? Verlaine was variously a: wife-beater, drug user, alcoholic, child abuser, and above all, a truly tortured soul.
…Their heavy drinking, however, took its toll on their relationship: one day as Verlaine came home with a fish and a bottle of oil, Rimbaud ridiculed him. Furious, Verlaine slapped him with the fish, then ran back to Brussels and threatened suicide. Rimbaud followed him and, in a Brussels hotel, they had their final row. With the gun he'd planned to use to kill himself, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm, and was jailed for two years. ‘Romances sans paroles,’ which looks back nostalgically on his relationships with both his wife and his lover, was published while he was serving his sentence …
He spent time in prison, lived with prostitutes, left his wife for a teenage boy, and died prematurely of various ailments brought on by prolonged drug and alcohol abuse. His lover, Rimbaud, has become more famous in popular culture, but Verlaine’s poems predominate in the world of classical art song.
…He taught English for a while, fell in love with a pupil, Lucien Létinois, who later died of typhus, made two dismal attempts at life as a gentleman farmer, and finally settled in Paris, where he survived by living alternately with two female prostitutes, who would charge visitors a modest fee for an audience with the great poet. Although the last ten years of his life were spent suffering from multiple health problems, not least alcoholism and drug addiction, his fame and popularity were growing. In 1894 he was elected ‘Prince of Poets’ by his peers, who had once shunned him and prevented some of his ‘obscene’ poetry from being published. He never forgot Rimbaud, and is quoted as saying ‘For me, Rimbaud is an ever-living reality, a sun that burns inside me that does not want to be put out.’ Verlaine died at the age of 52, on January 8, 1896. His funeral was a public event, and thousands of Parisians followed his casket to the Batignolles cemetery.
Our goal is to perform these songs with vocal and musical beauty, while at the same time making our audience (and ourselves) aware of the raw, messy, destructive passions that helped to create them. Above are some extracts from the programme notes, arranged the way they are in the programme, in between the translations of the poems, so that the audience will be more likely to read them, and imagine the life and struggles of the poet while they listen to his poems.
Verlaine is dead. The last shred of that ruined soul which has for years been rotting away in chance Parisian brasseries, has loosened its hold upon life and slipped into the unknown; but the poetry he has left behind him, with its sighs and bitter sobbings, and its few gleams of beauty and of joy, contains the essence of his strange nature. Half faun, half satyr, his nature was allied to baseness and brutal animalism, but possessed a strange and childish naïveté which remained with him to the last, and a spirit remotely intact in the chaos of his wayward senses, whence issued songs of matchless purity and inimitable music.
- Verlaine: A Feminine Appreciation, by Mrs. Reginald de Koven (1896)
We are performing Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson and Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, among individual Verlaine settings by six other composers, including a total of four settings of ‘L’Heure Exquise.’ Interspersed with the music, we are reading extracts of essays and article written by Verlaine enthusiasts of his own time, and translations of letters between Verlaine and Rimbaud.
At the end of his life hardly anything but the naïveté was left, and the poems become mere outcries and gestures. There is no part of his work which is not the expression of some form of love, human or divine, grotesque or heroic, but always insatiable.
- Some Unpublished Letters of Verlaine, by Arthur Symons
Myself, Philip Eve, and Christopher Gould perform Exquisite Decadence, Verlaine’s Absinthe-Tinted Songs, at the Canterbury Festival on 15 October at 7:30 p.m. www.canterburyfestival.co.uk