A Classical Style (Part 2)
Part two of our interview/investigation into the differences between classical and rock
More horror stories from an artist of the other persuasion (classical, that is). Adrian Legg completes his comparison of our world and theirs.
IN SPITE of the different field, I got a real sense of deja vu from the next bit of our anonymous mezzo's story — duff gigs are not exclusive to the rock scene, nor are duff hotels. Read on and weep.
It came in in the normal way?
"Yes, phone call, contract, Belgium. This was the pits, the worst I've ever done. Basically, the people who booked us, not the fixer, but our Belgian employers, couldn't afford us. First they haggled over the subsistence and wanted to pay below the going rate. So the fixer came over and sorted them out, and they said they'd pay the rate for the second week. We got there, and they backtracked.
"I don't know if the fixer and partner ever got the money out of them, but they paid us out of their own pockets to make up the difference. The Belgians must have booked us on the cheapest flights they could find — 7.30 am out of Gatwick on a Sunday morning. We got to the hotel and that was embarrassing to be seen going into. The smell of drains hit you as you opened the door. One afternoon there was some drunk in the room next door. He was in his bathroom heaving and retching, and I think he eventually passed out on the floor, because when I went in my bathroom later for a shower, there was a terrible groan of 'Oh God' through the wall. The next time I was there, a couple were having it away on the other side. I don't know how long they went on for, but it was a real marathon.
"The job was two Messiahs a night in Brussels. The Messiah itself is a hell of a sing for chorus. You really have to pace yourself carefully or you run out of steam by the biggest bit. The concert didn't come down till well after 11, and these people wouldn't lay on a coach between the hotel and the hall. It was actually about half an hour's walk each way, and the first week they didn't lay on changing facilities, so people had to walk to the hall in dress.
"Fixer protested, and they begrudgingly laid on a sort of bus meant for 12 that a million people crammed into. Then the second week, they went back on it and said they would lay on a changing room. The room turned out to be a great barn of a place, no mirrors, nothing — the pits. There were a few bottles of Perrier laid out, which vanished if you didn't get off stage quick.
"What's more, we were far better than the soloists, and the Belgian orchestra was a joke, I've heard county youth orchestras that were better. It was hard not to laugh, sometimes. The chorus got a standing ovation every night — soloists on, clap, clap — orchestra, clap, clap, then we stood up they all roared, and shouted, and jumped to their feet. We were probably getting paid less than anyone else.
The pay for this sort of thing is worked out in sessions isn't it?
"This one was 20 quid a rehearsal and 30 quid a concert. Travelling is paid as a normal three hour session so you'd get 20 quid for that.
How did the Berlin trip compare?
It wasn't bad. We were put up in the Hotel Steinberger, which was great, real luxury, and just as well because we were working flat out — rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. I enjoyed Berlin because the music was fabulous, Messiaen's St Francis, conducted by Ozawa, who was wonderful — magic. He really put everyone else to shame, and made you realise what second rate conductors there are... I'd better not say that. He was really inspiring to work for."
Were the fees the same?
"It might have been slightly less because it was BBC rates, I think £18 a rehearsal rather than £20."
And the concert?
"That was different because it was broadcast, something like £35."
"It is, really, especially for that. It's a hell of a work, really, another scream-your-head-off job. Most of them are.
"I sprained my diaphragm in the same piece a year ago. Apparently it's an injury common to weight-lifters and singers — so I was told by the osteopath. It was actually because I was put on a part too high for me, and we had to sit down, so I had to scream top Fs with no support at all. Suddenly I got a splitting pain that felt as if I was having a heart attack, and I staggered back — from Leeds I think — in agony every time I breathed out. I was off singing for a month after that, and seeing the osteo every other day."
Did you lose money?
"Oh yes, plus 10 quid a shot to the osteo — pretty frightening. If I'd been on the staff that time I'd have got sick pay. I thought about suing, but my solicitor said it was up to me to say no if I couldn't manage something. In theory, you can say no, in practice you can't or you don't get booked again, but legally you haven't a leg to stand on.
"That often happens, when, like me, you're a low voice. You often find, particularly with French writers, that they don't understand the alto voice at all. They think you're a sort of glorified second soprano, so you end up stuck on these things that you really shouldn't be singing, absolutely impossible things that you just have to do somehow because you turn up and there's your score marked up to do that part, and unless you can find someone to swap with, you've had it.
"I resent it very much. A lot of contemporary composers and people who book you wouldn't expect the sopranos to sing right down the bottom of their voice then right up at the top, but they think an alto is a jack of all trades — one minute they want you belting out bottom Fs in a good heavy chest voice, and suddenly three bars later they want you to sing a top G. It's just physically impossible, and really quite dangerous."
As you demonstrated.
"Yes. I don't think my technique is bad, it's got me through a lot, but my diaphragm packed up on me."
You did a job for James Galway.
"Oh yeah, the Christmas concert. That was great, he was nice, and fortunately didn't pretend to be a conductor — for some people choral conducting is considered to be the pits, it stems back to the big divide at college between musicians and singers."
Like the rock scene has musicians and drummers?
"Yes, incredible. Because of that some conductors consider they're demeaning themselves a bit doing choral. Galway was great, he said 'I've no idea how to conduct you, I've never conducted a choir before', and we said 'don't worry, just wave your arms and we'll do it.' Every time he lifted his arms and we started, he'd look at his hands in amazement. He was hilarious."
Feature by Adrian Legg
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