Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Gyppo Byard snatched an Oxford degree from the butter-stained fingers of a punt-bound Classicist, and has since supplemented his career as a heather merchant with some musical freelancing. He smacks a dismantled, unlicensed Austin A30 with badger bones and passes it off as a gamelan to the credulous secondary schools of Berkshire.

In order to confirm his status as Twyford's top troubadour, Gyppo has listed his 12 favourite operas and challenged the rest of the world to do the same.

My view of opera is similar to that of Kaiser-i-Hind George V, who told Sir Thomas Beecham that he liked La Traviata best as it was the shortest he could think of. His Imperial Majesty also thought "people as write books otter be shot", an understandable sentiment given that his reign spanned the careers of Galsworthy and Virginia Woolf.

So, if you can't sing it in a couple of acts, preferably in a wig and/or Polari, then you need to go back to composer school or whatever.

Having said that, I have more than a passing fondness for chunks of the most meandering atonal nonsense ever to stagger around a stage in predictably daring costumes.

I have some common ground with Gyppo apart from the clods of earth he frees from my lawn in an attempt to establish a Rrom Rrepublic by land reclamation. I too like Philip Glass's Akhnaten.

It fits the bill of being at least partly sung in a foreign language - in this case the Victorian gentleman scholar's impression of what Middle Egyptian might have sounded like. It is also quite short if you play it without repeating the arpeggios and ostinati - about 20 minutes in total.

Here's my favourite bit, performed by clay rodents:

I'm partial to the slabs of Wagner that involve little or no singing. The overtures, preludes and ballet sequences to his operas are genuinely musical, and help you forget the Lara Croft stuff about dragons and bosomy ladies. The prelude to Tristan and Isolde, the Venusberg music from Tannhäuser and the Ride of the Valkyries bring back happy memories:

  • Tristan is based a Welsh story of ambling around damp castles in search of someone with a candle and some shoes;

  • Venusberg is a mercifully short novel by Welsh toff Anthony Powell, written before he wasted his life on a Dance to the Music of Time; and

  • The Valkyries recall a night of drunken misbehaviour with a secretary from Turku in a Russell Square hotel. She shared her duty-free with me - an act of stunning sacrifice for a Finn.

Here's some Tristan:

Alban Berg's Wozzeck is short and has an excellent aria "Eia Popeia", which I sing to lull our daughter Arianrhod to sleep as she roosts gently above the hearth. It also has a series of long sustained notes that impressed Benjamin Britten, which is odd given his fondness for tunes.

Berg attended a performance of Wozzeck in Leningrad in the pre-Stalin days when Soviet music included factory whistles and choirs of alarmed county gals in workers' smocks. He spent most of his time there in fear of assassination - possibly by the armed wing of the musicians' union whose members had to play it.

Here's the lullaby sung by Merav Barnea:

Berg went one better with Lulu. Let's face it, I was going to like anything named after my favourite russet Scottish songbird. It's long but unfinished, so I cherish the thought that Alban would have cut it down to about an hour if he hadn't died of toothache on Christmas Day in an act of excessive pathos.

Lulu has everything an opera ought to have - lesbians, stockings and top hats - including Jack the Ripper. Here's Saucy Jack, cleaning the streets:

"Peter Pears

Need put on no airs

He's had them written

By Benjamin Britten.

So fuck off, Tippet!"

That's what our claque of opera thugs used to chant at premieres of Sir Michael Tippet's latest sack of clomping, brass-laden whimsy, and we weren't wrong. Britten unravelled a skein of tenor roles just for our Pete, but I find them reedy. It's only now that they are getting adequately butched up by other singers.

The English tweedy sense of the absurd is uneasy with opera, and Britten was the first to write stage works that weren't Celtic or hilarious - intentionally or otherwise. The Turn of the Screw is an eerie chamber work, with a libretto by exquisite, Welsh Myfanwy Piper that draws out themes from the story with malign delicacy. It also has a mercifully small tenor role.

Here's Miles's queasy aria "Malo" from a fine film version (with Dutch subtitles for the Flemings among you):

Sweet dreams.


Gyppo Byard said...

Sound choices, Boyo. One can conclude that Berg was actually able to write some stunningly lovely stuff - especially in the violin concerto and the Lyric Suite - until you analyse it further and find the good bits were all nicked from Bach, Wagner or Zemlinsky (the Lyric Suite actually rips off - or pays affectionate homage to, depending whose side you're on - Wagner's Tristan Prelude, natch.

Britten I just find annoying. There was a time when the only tenor solos I was getting offered were Britten, as I sounded unintentionally and disturbingly like Peter Pears until I learned to bulk up my chest voice a bit. I find him the opposite of Puccini - stuff that sounds disarmingly lyrical but is a total pig to sing and knackers your throat by tightening it right up.

Why Britten wanted Pears's throat tightened is a matter upon which I would not like to speculate. I met Sir Michael Tippett once. But more of that anon in my next opera list instalment.

Francis Sedgemore said...

You no good barsteward. Over the years I've spent many guineas and umpteen sleepless nights by a reading lamp attempting to understand Tristan und Isolde. And now you go and précis it in 21 words. It's not right.

Gorilla Bananas said...

My favourite opera is the one in which the fattest fat lady sings. Les Dawson in drag would be an acceptable substitute. My only other remotely relevant remark is that 'The Habanera' in Carmen was actually written by Sebastien Iradier.

No Good Boyo said...

Yeah, and Enoch Powell actually wrote Shakespeare, GB. Giddoudahere, you dirty revisionist!

Francis, the root causes of all good music are Welsh, and these are the only root causes that I will acknowledge. Like Hemingway, Waugh, Verlaine and fine journalists such as yourself, I try to keep it short and snappy. Which doesn't account for Brideshead Revisited, I know.

Gyppo, I wrote a poem about Zemlinsky while at college, so beat that. I do agree that all other Britten operas suffer from wobbly tenor roles. Remind me to recount my Ian Bostridge anecdote some time.

Gyppo Byard said...

So Boyo, what was it you said to Ian Bostridge [/feedline]?

M C Ward said...

George V clearly inspired the Big Yin.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Excellent stuff Boyo, I've always wanted to see Berg's operas but for some reason I never have. Thankfully have still just about left me what I'd like to present as my own choices :-) As an amateur flamenco dancer I'd have to say that Carmen's Habanera is a mockery of the genre. What did you say to Ian Bostrige?? I'd have said "I love your interpretation of Schumann's Dichterliebe", but then I'm a grovelling little bastard.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Suitably impressed and awed.

I quite like the dragons and bosomly ladies, though I tend to conflate the two due to experience.

And thanks for Akhanaten. That had passed me by and I'm quite taken with it.

No Good Boyo said...

I once stepped out with a young lady who knew Ian Bostridge, and we went backstage after his Peter Grimes at the ENO (darling).

I'd refreshed myself adequately before, during and after the performance, and told him candidly "Thash was eshellent. You piss on Peter Pears, mun."

Bostridge looked at me in horror, unsure of whether I was accusing him of desacrating Pears's grave or perhaps assisting with some Hunnish practice the old boy had been fond of.

My companion thought it droll, as I was her piece of rough.

Bostridge is five days younger than me, being born on Christmas Day 1964. Mrs Boyo assures me there is distinct possibility of his become a vampire for daring to emerge on The Day of The Lord, so I hope he's forgiven me.

Glad you liked Akhnaten, Kevin. Glass has his moments, and they are best interpreted by toy mustalids.

MC - George V inspired us all.

Gyppo Byard said...

"Bostridge looked at me in horror, unsure of whether I was accusing him of desacrating Pears's grave or perhaps assisting with some Hunnish practice the old boy had been fond of."

It's what he would have wanted.

If I ever have a grave, I wish to point out that any oriental ladies who feel driven to writhe on it in kinky underwear will not count as desecrating it...

No Good Boyo said...

Mrs Boyo's grandfather Sadoslav was dismembered by the usual angry crowd of torch-wielding peasants, prompting the family at last to move to a less mob-centric part of Ruthenia. As a result he has four graves, all of which have to be visited on All Hallows for the performance of the usual rituals.

Can Bass 1 said...

My dear sir, I fear you have got 'the wrong end of the stick' as we English say.