I left the Royal Academy of Music in June 1973, having already auditioned successfully for Glyndebourne Festival Opera. In addition to securing a contract to sing in the chorus during the forthcoming season, I was asked to understudy the role of Idamante in Mozart’s opera, Idomeneo.But first, it was off to Salzburg for the Opera Course that summer. Whilst there, I was selected to help on the conductor’s course, which was led by none other than the great Herbert Von Karajan.
(This was five years before my first professional encounter with him, which I’ve related in a previous post.) I was required to participate in an elimination contest of the conductors on the course, in which I had to sing a section of accompanied recitative from Die Zauberflöte. It was the scene between Tamino and the High Priest that begins, ‘Die Weisheitslehre dieser Knaben’ – a passage that is notoriously difficult to conduct. I was asked to vary my tempi so as to catch the conductors off guard; if they couldn’t follow me, they were out of the running, and wouldn’t go on to work with the Maestro himself. It worked, and gave me a more complete understanding of how to give a conductor an idea of where I was leading him. You can hear me performing this passage at the Festival Ottawa in 1977 (sung in English), under the baton of Mario Bernardi by clicking on the link below.
I returned to England, looking forward to fulfilling my contract with Glyndebourne the following summer. Fate had other ideas. For a while, I had been feeling increasingly unwell with pain and constant nausea. Eventually, it became so bad that I went to see my GP, only to be told that there was nothing wrong with me, and that I shouldn’t be so pathetic: “All you theatrical people are hypochondriacs, so just pull yourself together.” Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t satisfied with this diagnosis, and I took myself to the nearest hospital – which was just as well because, by this time, I was completely yellow with jaundice. A barium meal and some x-rays led to my being admitted immediately for emergency surgery. My gall bladder was about to erupt. Apparently, it was deformed in some way and could not produce the bile required by the digestive system. This had caused it to become larger and larger, and it was now ready to explode. I really did get there just in time.
The anaesthetist gave me a pre-med and then, through a canula, the anaesthetic that would put me under. He asked me to count backwards from a hundred, and then had to give me another dose because I got all the way to zero. This time I went out. However, during the operation, I awoke and saw all sorts of internal plumbing on my chest. I was quickly put out again. I had told the surgeon (an Australian butcher as it turned out) that I was a singer, so instead of cutting across the muscles in the area of the diaphragm, he made a vertical incision down the centre of my torso. This made it more difficult for him as he had to move my intestines out of the way to get to the liver area.
With that out of the way, I expected things to start looking up. However, when I started singing again I found it rather difficult; my voice kept catching. Something wasn’t right, so I took myself to the ENT specialist that the RAM used. He told me that there was a lesion on one of the vocal folds; the anaesthetist had nicked my cords while intubating me. He said that it would probably settle itself, but that I shouldn’t sing in order to avoid aggravating matters. I didn’t sing for five months, and then took lessons with Helga Mott, at first taking my voice no louder than pianissimo to build up strength. It was a terrible time. Thanks to the clumsy intubation, I was unable to sing properly for about nine months, I had missed my first Glyndebourne summer festival, and I was worried that my career might be over before it had begun. In the long run though, I feel it did me a great favour – I really had to learn how to sing, rather than just rely on raw talent.
I was unable to return to full time work until 1974, when I finally joined Glyndebourne for the tour in October. Again I was in the chorus but, the following season, I was asked to understudy Ferrando in Così fan tutte. During this time, I had numerous coaching sessions with the Glyndebourne music and language staff to make sure that my ability was up to standard, just in case I was called upon to perform.
Being the ‘cover’ (understudy) meant that I was on call all the time, and, as it turned out, the main tenor protagonist cancelled the ‘Sitzprobe’ (a seated orchestral rehearsal). The conductor, John Pritchard (later to become Sir John) introduced us by name to the orchestra and broke the ice by saying, with a knowing look, “They all have lovely parts you know”.
I went on to sing several performances in that season, and was given a contract for
the main role on tour and in the season the following year.
A few years later, in 1977, Ferrando would be my first commercially-recorded role, in a Così fan tutte for Erato alongside Kiri Te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade. My ‘Un’aura amorosa’ from that recording is below. I had to do it in a single take, as time was running out and there was no chance of re-recording it.
Un’aura amorosa – Così fan tutte
cond. Alain Lombard
Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg
In 1975 the Glyndebourne Chorus was employed for a tour of Idomeneo in France. As well as singing in the chorus, I was given the role of the High Priest. We rehearsed in Paris, and went to Angers, Grenoble and Orleans for the performances. The following year, I was invited to sing the title role of Idomeneo in the same production at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. At first it looked as though this would clash with a contract – to which I was already committed – with Covent Garden for Don Giovanni. However, by a stroke of good fortune, the performances dovetailed beautifully: one night in Paris, the next in London, and so on. It took a lot of planning but I was able to fulfil both contracts. Yes, it was extremely exhausting, but youth was on my side and Paris wasn’t that far away.
At my final performance of Idomeneo, having sung Don Giovanni the night before, all was going well until the final scene. On hearing a familiar chord progression during a recitative, I left Idomeneo completely and wandered straight into a Don Giovanni recit. It was panic stations at the time and I just had to carry on, hoping that I would be helped. It seemed an eternity, but panic doesn’t help in situations like that. One has to remain calm and collected. Fortunately, the chorus master – Julian Dawson – was in the wings and, with much more than a prompter’s whispered tone, he got me back on the right path.
This brings to mind an ‘in the event of …’ notice on the back of an hotel door in Paris; it was written in French, German, English and Italian.
The French (translated into English) said, ‘Keep your cold blood, go to the window and manifest your presence’. The English said, ‘Remain calm, go to the window and summon help’. However, the Italian said ‘Don’t panic, Go to the window and scream’ (gridare).
It was fortunate that I am English.