The French connection

FishyPizzaAfter my sojourn in Paris for Idomeneo, I had quite a lot of contracts in France. These included Così fan Tutte in Strasbourg, plus the recording of that same opera with Kiri, which I mentioned in a previous post (‘Salzburg, surgery and setbacks’).  One of my next engagements was in Marseille, as Jaquino in Beethoven’s Fidelio.  A German soprano, Rose Wagemann sang Leonora, and a Dutch tenor, whose name I really can’t remember was Florestan.  He always greeted me with ‘Hey, tenorino!’ (This really annoyed me.) Little did he know what the press would say about him later!

The chorus in Fidelio needs to be quite substantial, so the Marseille Opera Chorus was augmented with a chorus from Montpellier.  During the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ in the finale to Act 1, the French seemed to find it difficult to sing the German  words, ‘Sprecht leise’; they came out as ‘Fresh leise’.  I found this quite amusing, and, later that day, I bought some chalk and wrote on the wall behind the stage the following…… ‘Frisch Leise, eine neue Zahnpasta mit Florestan’.

When the set was erected on stage, I noticed a mistake in the arch leading to the prison.  Having studied brick laying at school, I had an eye for such things.  The keystone (the central stone that supports the arch) was upside down, and would not be able to hold the arch together.  However, there was no danger of it falling down in this case, as it was made of polystyrene.  I mentioned this to the designer, and somehow word got round to the people who made the set that I had criticised their workmanship. A short time later, I was threatened by the father of the man who had made the arch, and was told to keep my mouth shut … or else!

In the late 1970’s, the opera in Marseille gave me many opportunities.  In addition to Fidelio, I sang Così fan Tutte and Don Giovanni.  During a performance of the latter, the theatre’s director, Jacques Carpo, came running up to me in the wings immediately after my big second-act aria, ‘Il mio tesoro’.

“I’ve just got you a contract at the Met in New York!”

I was astounded and asked how on earth it had happened.  He told me that he was on a transatlantic telephone call with the Met’s casting director, who asked who was singing in the background.  Well, it was me, live from the stage over the tannoy system, to Jacques Carpo’s office, and then via telephone to New York.  What an audition!  I later received a contract, through my agent in London, to sing Ferrando in Così fan Tutte.  More on that in a later post.

'Il mio tesoro' from Don Giovanni.
 A 1985 recital for Cyprus TV, with pianist Marios Papadopoulos

The food in Marseille was amazing.  I became addicted to bouillabaisse, and had it as often as I could at one restaurant on the Corniche (far too expensive) and one on Vieux Port.  On one occasion I was emerging from an Italian Pizzeria a few streets away from the opera house, when I heard gun fire.  Down the street was a night club, and a man came running out followed by others, who shot him. I ran back into the restaurant to hide.  I had never been so frightened, but the owner, a tiny man from Naples, was very calm and said that it happened all the time.  His food was great too, but there was a spelling mistake on his menu: one of his Pizzas was listed as ‘Pizza Cazzone’ (a little rude), rather than ‘Pizza Calzone’.

I performed a great deal in France over the following years, especially in Paris with Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris.  There were a lot of concerts at the Salle Pleyel with Daniel  – as well as other guest conductors – but we also performed Mozart’s da Ponte operas:  Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro (yes, I sang Basilio) and Così fan tutte. These were all productions by the great stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.  If memory serves me right we did one opera a year and then all three on the trot, with multiple performances of each.  These were all performed at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Avenue Montaigne, under the title of ‘Festival Mozart’.

After the last performance of the run in 1983, I had to take a plane from Le Bourget airport to Gatwick, where I would meet my wife and children, with my parents, and fly to Ottawa in Canada for Eugene Onegin.  In those days one was paid in cash during the interval of the opera, so I had a bag full of money when I left, hoping to bank it at Gatwick before my onward flight.  However, a few days before this flight, French law changed, as a result of which all nationals were only permitted to take a certain amount of currency out of the country.  Being a non-national, I didn’t think that it would affect me, but the French border police thought differently and assumed that I was taking the cash out of the country for a French citizen.  I had all my tax papers from the theatre to prove that it was my money, but try to tell a French cop that he is wrong, and you are in a worse position. The police took all the money out of my bag, put it on the table, removed the elastic bands holding them together, and started counting.  Cinq cent, une mille, une mille cinq cent, and so on.  At one point, a large number of the 500 franc notes fell to the floor. I moved to pick them up, and was physically restrained by two other officers.  My fees were confiscated by the authorities, and it took six months with the help of lawyers and the administration of the Orchestre de Paris to be re-imbursed.  I had to take a later plane to Gatwick, but still made my connection to Canada.

Daniel Barenboim

I performed many other roles and concerts in Paris over the following years, but I especially remember Die Zauberflöte – with Barenboim again – at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1987.  It was a strange set, incorporating a semi-circular walkway into the audience and around the orchestra pit.  During one of the final stage and orchestra rehearsals, at the point where Tamino is confronted by the two armoured men (the fire and water scene), Danny leapt out of the pit, gave me his baton and said, “Carry on, I want to hear how it sounds at the back.”  I continued with aplomb and was complemented by the Maestro on my conducting ability. I had, after all, been studying him for a number of years.  Before the final two performances Barenboim withdrew, as his wife – Jacqueline du Pré – was dying, after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis.  He returned to London, and the performances were taken over by Lawrence Foster, who was then Musical Director of the opera in Nice.

The following year, 1988, I was engaged at the Aix-en-Provence Festival to sing

the title role in La clemenza di Tito.  We had four or five days between some performances, so I decided to drive through the night to Salzburg, where my new girlfriend, the mezzo-soprano Diana Montague, was performing. (I should point out that I had been in divorce proceedings since 1986). I arrived the next morning at about 9.00am, looking forward to a few days with my new love.  Unfortunately, I became ill with a throat and chest infection, was put on antibiotics, and had no choice other than to cancel my next performance in Aix. Unable to find a replacement at such short notice, the festival organisers insisted that I returned to sing. As there were no flights to make that possible, they provided a private charter plane to get me back. I arrived in Marseille airport at about 6.00pm, and was driven to Aix for the performance at 9.00.  I could hardly speak, let alone sing, but did so – very quietly.  I am still unsure whether the audience could hear me at all.  When the performances finally came to an end and it was time to collect my money, I noticed that it was almost 50,000 francs short.  They had deducted that amount (about £5,000) to cover the cost of the private jet!

My beautiful pictureI had met Diana in 1987, in New York, where we sang La clemenza di Tito and Idomeneo together at the Metropolitan Opera. I was so smitten that, when the contracts finished, I wrote and called her for about a year, but to no avail; she didn’t respond at all. I didn’t give up though, and there will be more about that in a future post.  Our first child together, Eleanor, was born in 1989, out of wedlock due to the fact that my estranged wife refused to give me a Decree Absolute, and thereby not allowing me to re-marry.  I went to court yet again for permission to marry, and we finally did so on 24th, February 1990, with a one year old child in our arms.  Wonderful!!!


6 thoughts on “The French connection

  1. fun to read and revealing but ‘a dutch tenor’ alone won’t do, a ‘german’ soprano won’t do, in for a penny in for a pound, so give the names please as well, in other words tell it ALL

  2. Hi Suzanne,
    Thank you so much for reading my blog and above all posting a comment. Please continue reading as there is so much more about my years at the MET. I am just about to post another blog called ‘New York, New York and Cleveland too’. Please keep reading and make comments.

    Thanks again,


  3. Hello, Mr. Rendall:
    It’s a pleasure to encounter your blog and to read your wonderful stories. I was an usher at the Met for many years and recall your performances there with great admiration and happiness.

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