Exploited in Aix

This picture is of me as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne in the summer of 1988. I was in the middle of the run when I started my next contract at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in southern France.  This was for the title role in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, a new production directed by the Greek film maker Michael Kakoyannis, famous for his film Zorba the Greek.  Michael was a truly wonderful director. He saw everything as if through a camera lens, pulling focus to where the important things were going on, thereby not allowing the audience to be distracted by other things happening on stage.  It was a really great time to be in Aix, for both the rehearsals and the performances.  The whole team became more of a family, and that included the wonderful chorus called The Sixteen.

During the rehearsal period, I had to return to Glyndebourne for my last contracted performance of Die Entführung.  I returned to Aix by car via Dover and Calais, where I put the car on a train, travelling through the night to Lyon and then by road again to my destination.

After a few performances of Tito, I had a five day gap, and so decided to drive to Salzburg to be with Diana Montague, my soon-to-be wife.  Diana was there to perform the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. I left Aix immediately after the final curtain (which was at about 12.30am) and drove through the night. Across Italy, up through the Dolomites and into Austria, passing Innsbruck, finally arriving completely exhausted at Diana’s rented house in Salzburg at just after 10.00am.

During these five days I contracted a bad laryngeal infection, which needed treatment with antibiotics. It was probably brought on by being sat in a car with no fresh air for almost ten hours, and by being over tired.  Unfortunately it didn’t get better as quickly as I had hoped, so I put Aix on warning that I may have to cancel.

I was going to fly back to Aix but hadn’t yet booked my flight, not knowing if I would be fit enough to return.  As I wasn’t improving quickly enough, I called my agent in England for her to confirm my cancellation, which would give them two days (the day before and the day of the performance) to find a replacement.  The theatre management refused to accept this, and demanded that I return to be examined by their own throat doctor, even though I had faxed them a letter from the ENT specialist in Salzburg.  Their insistence continued, so I said that I would return but that I was unable – as they themselves had been – to get a flight reservation.  I tried again the next morning, but there were no flights until the evening of the performance day, and they were via Paris.  I could do no more.

At about midday I received a call from the theatre to say that they were sending a private plane, which would arrive at 4.00pm. It would get me back to Marseille at 6.00pm, from where I would be taken by car onto Aix. I waited at the airport from 3.00pm. 4.00pm came and so did 5.00pm. At about 5.30pm the plane arrived, having been delayed by bad weather.  A quick turn around and off we went, arriving at the theatre in Aix at 8.15pm for a 9.00pm curtain.

Aix-Titus-1I was in fact forced, by the theatre, to sing the performance. By saying that the performance cancellation costs would be my responsibility if I did not sing, the pressure they put on me was intolerable.  Of course, I was extremely concerned that singing unwell could cause damage to my vocal chords, thereby lengthening my recovery period.  What was I to do? Sing without putting excess pressure on the vocal mechanism, or cancel and pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs?  I hated the management for this, so put my body on the stage and gave as little vocal effort as I could, singing the performance, under protest, in no more than a mezzo-piano voice.  Fortunately I did no damage. I recovered completely over the next three days, ready for the following performances.

To my knowledge, no recordings of those performances exist, but here are a couple of arias from the previous year, when I performed the role in New York, under the baton of James Levine. This was the live radio broadcast.

Del più sublime soglio
Se fosse intorno al trono

I also had a contract with Radio France in conjunction with the festival for their recital series called Une heure avec, which took place in the cloisters of Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence which was close to the theatre. The quality of this recording is not the best, as I was positioned with the piano in the centre of the quadrangle in the cloisters, with a standing audience, under cover, on all four sides.


Naturally I did not want to sing to just one side of the square, thereby losing contact with the other three, so I tried to pivot myself around the microphone (used for the Radio France recording only) so that all would have a frontal view of my performance.   The copy of the recital given to me by Radio France was a little lacking in acoustical enhancement with a somewhat veiled sound.  I have therefore had this selection of songs from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin re-mastered to a certain extent, thereby bringing the voice in line with the piano.

Aix-Titus-4Das Wandern
Dankgesang an den Bach
Am Feierabend
Der Neugierige

On the free days between performances we would have parties, travel around the Parc du Luberon and generally relax.  We had gambling sessions but not in the conventional sense; they were in the form of scorpion fights, and they were very entertaining to watch. Out of rocks, we would build a small arena, inside which two scorpions were placed. We then observed intently as they duelled.

At the end of the performance run of La cemenza, I went to the Comptabilité (payment office) to get my fees, only to find that they had deducted the cost of the private plane, which totalled 40,000 French Francs, which was about £4,000.  I was furious, and tried to fight this through solicitors, but to no avail.  I had been forced to sing whilst unwell and forced to pay four grand for the privilege of doing so!

I returned to England to collect my daughter Elizabeth from my ex-wife, and took her with me to Salzburg for a holiday, returning her some two weeks later to Paris, where her mother was holidaying with my son Alexander and her live-in lover (you’ll hear more about him in another blog). Whilst waiting for my return flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Salzburg, I bumped into Daniel Barenboim, Peter Diamond (Artistic Director of the Orchestre de Paris), Dagmar Ponnelle and some others who were just returning from the funeral of stage director Jean Pierre Ponnelle, who had tragically died on August 11th, after falling into an unsecured orchestral pit at the Tel Aviv Opera.  I was fortunate to have worked with Ponnelle in Paris for the Festival Mozart at the Met and at Glyndebourne. It was his production (though rehearsed by one of his assistants) of Le nozze di Figaro, in which Diana was performing in Salzburg.  We attended a memorial for Jean Pierre at the Festspielhaus on August 25th, and coincidently that same day, Herbert von Karajan resigned from his position on the Festival’s Directorate.  I certainly didn’t appreciate, at that time, how easy it was for a stage accident to bring a career to a premature end.


One thought on “Exploited in Aix

  1. Thank you for this, David. I would say “unbelievable!” to the story about deducting the plane cost, but it is, alas, all too believable. That whole business was crazy, how they handled it.

    I put this comment on your home page also, but I wanted to say again how marvelous Diana Montague sounds on the lovely new recording of Kern’s ROBERTA. “Yesterdays” is a favorite song of mine, and I’ve never heard it sound more beautiful. — Rinaldo

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