Hard Day's Night
Account of standing in for a first night at the Holland Park Opera
June 21 2000
Published in Classical Music Magazine - July 2000
21 June 2000 The Longest Day of the Year
I had just come back from Paris the night before. It had been a
long day. In the stifling heat, I had walked to a studio to warm
up the voice, trekked across Paris for an audition, trekked back
to lodgings, and finally crossed Paris again to catch the (hour
delayed) Eurostar home.
The next day, I was up at a reasonable hour to teach at St Pauls
Girls School. At 11.30am, there was a call on the mobile.
What was I up to at the moment? There was an emergency at the Holland
Park Festival. They were opening that night with a revival of an
unknown Classical, Portuguese opera, written in Italian - LAmore
Industrioso (by João de Sousa Carvalho). The lead soprano
had lost her voice and they had rung several agencies to try to
find someone who would be prepared to sight-read the role from the
side of the stage as they knew no-one would know it. The role was
similar to Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. My name
had been put forward. Was I prepared to do it?
I thought of yesterdays gruelling audition - both Queen
of the Night arias and the Lakmé Bell Song.
This role was not exactly my voice type and I might be tired from
the day before. Still - at least I had the notes and it wasnt
Was the score in a modern edition? - Yes
How much is there? - 3 arias, 5 duets, 3 finales (a three-act opera)
and one opening quartet, plus mountains of recitative.
Gulp! Let me talk to my agent - I played for time.
Two phone calls later and the deal was done.
12.00 midday: leave post - it note on timetable
board for stranded singing pupils and grab quick (free) lunch from
school canteen. I guessed (rightly) that this would probably be
the last decent food I would have today.
12.15: fighting through Hammersmith traffic to get to Streatham.
1.15: after six phone calls, finally found taxi to take
me to the conductors house in Hackney. 10 minutes to grab
three (!) black concert outfits and make-up (plus pashmina scarf
- the opera is in the open air and it is very windy) and I am on
1.30: make several phone calls to cancel private singing
pupil and dinner party engagement.
2.30: arrive in Hackney. Conductor seems cool and we get
4.30: have only got through two acts out of three and still
have recitative to work through. I grab a highlighter pen and we
jump in a taxi to the theatre. I am still trying to highlight and
speak through my recits. The driver has strong Indian accent and
drives as if in Calcutta! My highlighting is a little wonky!
5.00: the recit call with the rest of the cast has started
but we are still stuck on the Marylebone Road. I get a phone call
from my friend over from Germany who wants to meet up for breakfast
before her flight back tomorrow. In the stationery cab, I catch
the conductors eye. We are thinking the inconceivable. I just
might have to do all this again tomorrow! Sadly, the breakfast is
5.30: walk into the end of the recit call. People are grateful
and pleased to see me but the tension is palpable. It is an opening
night, the critics are in and while they know I will do my best,
everyone is clearly unnerved and concentrating hard on what they
have to do.
6.45: I am working with the continuo player (happily an
old friend), still trying to get through all the recits. We both
know that we will be working through the interval.
7.00: conductor puts a sandwich and bottle of water in front
of me. I have a quarter of an hour to select my outfit (the sexy,
backless, chiffon number will have to go - too cold), roughly tie
my hair back out of the wind and make a last phone call.
7.15: the producer of the festival makes the announcement
...couldnt find anyone who knew the role, this opera
hasnt been sung for 200 years, but we didnt want to
cancel ...etc. Very lucky to find ... and were off!
I lose track of time. Every moment between singing, I am scouring
the score. What was that tricky bit? Where was that impossible recit?
I have made hasty pencil markings...shes fast and angry...slow
and sarcastic ...sweet ...cute ... bruising for a fight...breathless
etc. I pray that I will remember them.
8.15: first interval. My continuo friend brings me a cup
of hot water. I have been singing almost non-stop since 2.30 and
I am now vocally very tired but I still have the heaviest sing ahead.
We hastily scramble through the remaining recits and I check that
I have them all highlighted. We can do a final check in the next
interval, between Acts 2 and 3.
8.30: Act 2 begins. The audience seems warm and receptive.
They are laughing at the jokes - thank goodness for the surtitles.
I make slightly more fluffs - mainly in the Italian - that recit
goes so fast, I dont have time to think. I realise as the
light fades that the score is more difficult to read and that I
am very cold. The wind blows in my face, my eyes are watering and
the pages are blowing over. Concentrate, concentrate
I repeat to myself - nearly through the next act.
9.45: end of Act 2. To my horror, the orchestra stays in
their seats and it is apparent that there is no further interval.
In the rapidly deepening gloom, I realise that I havent yet
read through the Act 3 finale. I use the only available blue stage
light and hastily scrabble through the enormous score to squint
at text and dots I havent yet read. I remember my continuo
friends soothing advice. Dont worry she
cooed Its all fairly predictable. There are no surprises.
This act goes much faster and before I know it, I am reading the
unknown dots. I am on the top line and there can be no mistakes.
I am flying by instinct - no time to think. End of the opera and
10.30: somehow I am up on stage taking applause with the
cast. I am dazed and relieved that it is all over. Backstage the
cast is grateful and exhausted. Two of them are old friends but
we have little time or energy for more than an exchange of new telephone
numbers and promises to be in touch. The production team brings
out the champagne. It goes straight to my head. I am promised a
taxi home but by now, the park is shut. I am led through the park
and to the final "cadenza" - climbing over the park gates
to get out to the main road. As one well known middle-aged director
was quoted as saying when he had had to follow the same routine
a few weeks earlier - "They dont expect us to do this at Glyndebourne!"