Monday, June 30, 2008

The Whispering Diva

I’ve spent three of the last seven days going to the opera. Well, going and coming back to be precise, and to only one opera at that. Glyndebourne in Sussex is just about as far South as you can get before the language turns French. It’s deep in Cameron country and, unless you have a private helicopter, the journey from Newcastle takes you a day each way. So I was relieved that the performance was just about worth the trip – Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring was a jolly romp, almost as good as the three operas I saw the previous week in Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and for which you didn’t require a mortgage to pay the train fares. I can’t tell you how lucky we are to have Opera North.

For most people the point about Glyndebourne isn’t the music, it’s the picnic you have during the 90-minute interval. Thankfully, as my host had looked at the weather forecast, we dined in the restaurant, and so had a grandstand view of the rich and pompous sitting on the drenched lawns with pink champagne and Marks and Spencer cool boxes. Most drank from plastic flutes, and dragged soggy sandwiches from Tupperware, but the lack of crystal was more than made up for by the cut glass accents. A picnic in the rain is a great English tradition, and from the comfort of the restaurant you could see overweight affluent ladies in long old-fashioned frocks, shoes as wet as their bow-tied husbands, tartan rugs round their necks struggling to keep warm. They wouldn’t survive a day in Northumberland.

The first time I went to Glyndebourne I was behind the scenes, directing an opera for the BBC. It was a fiendishly complex little piece by Ravel called L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Bewitched Child), and involved animations projected onto the set designed by the Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak. After days trying to get the animations to synchronise with the scenery, we were just about ready when disaster struck. We turned up on the day of filming to discover that the lead had completely lost her voice. Doubtless thanks to too many picnics in the Sussex rain, Cynthia Buchan’s warm mezzo-soprano voice had been reduced to an almost inaudible whisper. A performance was clearly out of the question, but we had a million pounds worth of cameras, recording equipment, scenery, and Simon Rattle and the London Philharmonic sitting waiting in the theatre.

Now the word diva has a double meaning. It’s used to describe an arrogant or temperamental woman because that’s what a distinguished opera singer is supposed to be. Not so Cynthia. She was desperately upset, obviously, but after sitting down with her, and frantic phone calls to our insurance company, we came up with a plan.

So it was that the black-tied picnickers arrived to find a little note in their programmes. The “Child” was to be played by Ms Buchan, but they weren’t actually going to hear her sing. I put a microphone inside her costume, and she whispered her way through the entire opera. Then, weeks later, when her voice had returned, we sat in a sound studio in London and added her real voice. Not a single television viewer noticed.

This rule that the “show must go on” is part of the magic of television. This week my company landed a big order with a major network. Sadly this show won’t go on in the North East because Newcastle no longer has a television studio large enough to accommodate it. It’s a tragedy: the talented technicians are still here, but there’s no studio for them to work in. That’s another thing to be added to the shopping list of the region’s facilities: along with a decent road link to the South and a Champions League-level football team. Maybe next year.

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