Last time I wrote about the show in Buenos Aires that really shouldn’t have gone on, but amazingly did. It reminded me of the time when the World’s press were waiting to review Luciano Berio’s new opera Outis, and the show certainly didn’t go on.
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It was 1996 and the Swingle Singers had been invited to return to La Scala, Milan to take part in a brand new opera by Luciano Berio. As a group, we had taken part in the opera Blimunda by Azio Corghi in 1990. This was produced by La Scala, but the performances took place in the Teatro Lirico.
This time we would be performing on the actual stage, where legendary singers like Luciano Pavarotti and Maria Callas made operatic history. Of course, the music we would sing would be very different from the romantic soaring melodies that made the great composers and singers famous.
The Swingle Singers had been associated with Luciano Berio since 1968 when he wrote his epic orchestral work Sinfonia for the group. I have been fortunate enough to sing that piece many times. By some strange twist of fate, I was asked to learn it when I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music.
Eight singers were coached by the fantastic high soprano and French language coach Nicole Tibbels, herself a former Swingle. We sang it with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall with Jeremy Lubbock conducting (himself a former Swingle Singer Bass). Two years later I joined the group and sang Sinfonia many times with them, most memorably with Berio himself conducting a VERY fast version with the Concertgebouw orchestra. These days, I perform Sinfonia as a member of Synergy Vocals. In 2013 we have performances in Paris and the Edinburgh Festival and the group have a new recording of Sinfonia coming out soon on Harmonia Mundi, recorded with the BBCSO.
Back to 1996, and the Swingles Singers ‘giving’ their gruppo vocale were contracted for four performances with the option of another two. It was always understood there would be six performances and our total fee would be based on that.
They insisted that we come to Milan for a minimum of five weeks of rehearsals. This seemed excessive as we probably only had about fifteen minutes of music in total! The group had to provide money up front for nine flights, hotel rooms and per diems (daily living expenses), without any advance payment from the opera house. I don’t think many groups would agree to such a risky contract without an advance in today’s financial climate.
“It’s EEEEtaly……It’s La Scala daaaahling……it’s uuuusual” our glamorous Italian agent assured us.
The opera was called Outis and the title role – which means ‘nobody’ – was sung by Alan Opie, a Welsh baritone who turned out to be great fun to work with. In the story, his character would be killed in various ways at the beginning of each of the five scenes and he would just get up and carry on with his business, whether in a supermarket, on a cruise ship, at the stock exchange or in a Brothel.
The director was Graham Vick and Ron Howell was the choreographer. Our Maestro was the American conductor, David Robertson. We had worked with him before and he was later to prove the catalyst for Synergy’s genesis, our introduction to the composer Steve Reich and he has become a long time collaborator with the group.
Right from the outset, things seemed very Italian.
There was no printed schedule. Every evening, we were telephoned with our call times for the next day. This meant that we couldn’t plan to travel home for a weekend if we weren’t needed on a Friday, as we wouldn’t know that until the Thursday evening.
David Robertson confided in us, that he had sent the La Scala management a schedule by fax before he arrived. He had assured them that it would probably remain the same. Every day the company manager would telephone and ask him whom he needed for the next day’s music call. Every day he would reply in his excellent Italian with the same words, ‘The same as my schedule, thank you”.
The day we arrived, we had our first costume fitting. A comprehensive list of every conceivable measurement on our body had been sent a month or two earlier. Our costumes were a set of outfits that wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Mad Men. We had fitted, bouclé, wool dresses with a white peter pan collar and red scarfs tied in a bow. The boys were smart in slim fitting business suits.
The best costume was a white polka-dot lace evening dress with a full circular skirt reaching to the floor.
The following week we were paraded in front of the director Graham Vick, who declared that we all looked far too attractive in our lovely frocks and ordered the poor costume ladies to cut off the skirts at an unflattering mid-knew level. Those of you with any dressmaking (or mathematical) knowledge will gasp at the terrible waste of fabric, as most of the material in a circular skirt is in the bottom half. I often wonder if the fabric ended up as one of the seamstresses’ christening gowns.
Money seemed no object on this production, although you can see in my pictures that like many opera houses, the backstage facilities were something quite different from the spectacular front of house.
The main feature of the set was described to us as a moveable Trojan Horse constructed from 70 TV monitors which, by some miracle of technology, (ahhhhh – how times have changed) would be able to display many individual disturbing images. They could also combine together to display just one huge one. This fabled wonder would arrive at some time nearer the performances and meanwhile, tape on the floor would represent it and we would reverentially tiptoe around it’s void of promise.
Ron the choreographer had the ‘brilliant’ idea of choreographing all eight Swingles as a fifties style doo wap pop group. The box step featured a lot and he did that baffling thing which dancers do, of counting everything in groups of eight. Unfortunately the very difficult music was written in anything but regular lengths of bars or even beats. We all struggled to marry the complicated music of Berio with a dance routine akin to The Shadows.
No matter, we had five whole weeks to perfect our steps.
The other enormous expense was to build a ‘revolve’ onto the La Scala stage. This was a completely raised floor with a mechanism that could turn the stage scenery completely. Quite standard practice nowadays but a big, brave plan in those days.
Unfortunately the engineers building the false floor and the enormously heavy TV Trojan Horse hadn’t consulted each other.
The day finally arrived when they would unveil this wondrous creature and it was wheeled ceremoniously onto stage. Just as the disturbing images started to flash before our eyes there was the sickening sound of splintering wood and the beast crashed through the false floor onto the turning mechanism below.
The up-side was that we were all sent back to the hotel for a couple of days while repairs and reinforcements were made.
One of the big ensemble scenes was set in a sort of hideous bordello. Glass doorways, similar to those found in the red light district in Amsterdam were wheeled on and naked, oiled dancers repeatedly threw themselves against the glass and slid slowly down to the floor, quickly jumping up to do the same disturbing thing over and over again. Funnily enough, there were always a great deal of safety firemen backstage for that scene. Other dancers simulated violent sexual acts around the poor, bewildered mister Outis.
The Swingles were to make an ironic conga-line and snake our way through the scene of debauchery, singing a rhythmic chant of ‘ooh ah, ooh ah, ooh ooh ooh ooh, ooh ah’ into our radio microphones.
When he saw the fruits our dance calls, the director Mr Vick thought we weren’t quite bizarre enough and had words with the designer. The next rehearsal we were all handed large red pants in the style of Bridget Jones and just before we entered stage-left we were to drop the attractive garments to our mid-calf and perform our snake dance with this delightful added nuance.
Well, it was La Scala, after all daaaaaaahling!
On Sundays a lot of restaurants were closed and we asked one of the opera cast for a recommendation for a special place. It was one of the group’s birthdays. He sent us to a restaurant which mainly served meat, which you cooked for yourself on a fire in a nook set into the wall next to each table. The interesting thing about the menu was that you could choose the type of wood you wanted your fire to be made from. Different wood imparted a different flavour to the meat. We ate at that restaurant whenever we could think of any tenuous excuse for celebration. We had learnt our music before we arrived, so five weeks to perfect our box step was wearing a little thin and it didn’t take much to persuade us. There was a lot of time spent sitting in the backstage bar sitting in our civvies but with our hair backcombed to death.
Time dragged on and we were all looking forward to the performances and the chance to go home. On the technical rehearsal it became clear that some things in the production were just too complicated especially when the opera chorus arrived and the big ensemble scenes had to be drastically simplified. We really might as well have come for the final week and slotted into the now almost static scenes.
The four girls were sent to make-up and hair and emerged with a back-combed confection on our heads and make up of white faces, Cleopatra eyeliner and red lipstick. As we left wardrobe, we were handed the pièce de résistance to complete our outfits – a set of glasses which Dame Edna would have been proud of.
During the pre-general, rumours started to circulate that the full time chorus were not happy with their new contracts. We were sent home while they had a meeting. By the dress rehearsal, the atmosphere seemed strained and on the morning of the World Première we were telephoned at the hotel to tell us that they had gone on strike and there would be no performance at all. The next day was always going to be a free day and we spent it trying to find out about the implications for our 4 performance contract and if we would lose one of our performance fees if all six didn’t go ahead. We met a couple of the dancers in the street who told us they had been there for ten weeks with only their hotels provided so were in a worse state than we were.
The day of the second performance arrived and still the chorus were in deadlock. We got a call telling us that the show was cancelled again. The reviewers had left town and the hype surrounding this important new composition by Luciano Berio was dissolving fast.
We spent the evening drowning out sorrows in our favourite haunt and calculating that once all our expenses and Ward Swingle’s percentage were deducted from only four performance fees, the split for the singers would be almost nothing. A six and a half week jaunt to Milan with no wages to pay the bills at home.
There were two days between the second and third performances and on the evening of the first day we received the good news that the première would happen the next day. The other performance would be slotted into another gap and there would be six nights after all. We had a short tech rehearsal in the morning…… just in case we’d forgotten the reset moves and happily made our way to make-up to get our beehives quiffed and our red pants ready for dropping. You might wonder if there would be an audience, and we did too, but notices were posted on the doors of the theatre telling everyone that the show was moved and to come back tomorrow – which amazingly they did! Only in Italy…….
Bernard Holland from the NY Times was obviously happy to be delayed in Milan for a few more days. He described the production in his review which I found archived on their website:
”Outis” makes hamburger of the sequential event. Our hero is killed at the beginning of each of five scenes, but whether strangled, stomped, shot or stabbed, he gets up and goes about his business. The fatal blows, it would seem, are aimed as much at our watches as anything else. The composer’s explanatory essays, a version of the operatic overture, identify the elements of danger, conflict, journey and return — all of which pretty much sum up ”The Odyssey.” They are reordered in every scene, put in different places and given new clothes to wear.
Hectic carnival alternates with colorless simplicity, in particular a rotating monolithic wall against which characters lean as they sing. Elsewhere, an auctioneer inflates himself into a giant balloon. Dangling television screens report from the stock market or leer at us with one blinking, shifting eye. We visit a supermarket checkout counter. A dubious surgeon, saw in hand, removes a leg. A cruise ship, all in white, rocks in a storm; its passengers engage in fistfights.”
Once the run had finally started, we had another particularly nice Sunday off. All the foreign members of the cast went on a day trip to Lake Como and we discovered that it would be Alan Opie’s birthday on the day of the next performance.
One of his big vocal ‘arias’ was sung cowering against a large monolithic wall, which bisected the repaired revolve. As the music went on, the stage slowly turned and he staggered his way along the length of the wall. Just as he reached the end of it, he faced the stage wings where we were awaiting our entrance. The Swingle ladies decided to surprise him on his birthday by making the letters of his name in white fabric and sewing them onto our pants. (In our defense we had a lot of time on our hands). We stood ready in the wings, giggling like schoolgirls as he made his tortured way along the wall. Just as he reached us, we turned our backs to him and on the count of four, simultaneously lifted out polka-dot circular skirts, showing him our huge red knickers sporting the word A L A N, written in white across our four, red-clad bottoms. The truly professional opera star that he was, he managed to hold the pained expression on his face, as the revolve carried him slowly towards the back of the stage, ready for his next gruesome death.
Somehow Robert Kearley, Second Tenor at the time of this adventure, does not feature in my photos – apart from the one sitting in the bar, in which I chose to crop him off, as he’d hate me forever if I posted an unflattering image. Rob went on to be a very successful opera director and I wonder how much this experience shaped him – or at least gave him an inkling that long holidays in foreign places with endless budgets for indulging one’s directorial whims were a better choice than the itinerant life of a singer.
Click on his gorgeous picture to hear him waxing lyrical about his production of Faust for Opera North, which I found on his Agent, Rayfield Allied’s website (and who spookily also represent Steve Reich – it’s a small word).
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