Living with Covid-19

Reproduced here is a series of Tweets I sent out on April 19th, soon after recovering from the main symptoms of Covid-19. Day 1 was March 30th – I’m now exactly two months in, and the symptoms have all cleared except for the shortness of breath, which reappeared a couple of weeks ago. Doctors seem to think that should improve slowly, although as they point out there’s no way of knowing for certain, since at this stage no-one in the world has had this disease for more than six months.

1. Since many of you have been asking – here’s a brief rundown of my experience of life with “mild” #COVID19. Firstly – I’m alive and feeling almost like myself for the first time in over 2 weeks. I just had a cup of coffee and it was great.

2. Because I avoided hospital and pneumonia, technically my case was mild. In reality, it was anything but. I’ve had shellfish poisoning a couple of times, and the closest analogy is that it was as bad as that, but in slow motion over a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days.

3. Days 1-3 were a mild cough. Day 4 I made chicken soup at lunchtime and then collapsed into bed just feeling hot and exhausted. Day 5 I perked up again.

4. Day 6 was when it really hit – a proper fever (38-39 degrees), extreme fatigue, cough deepening causing an inability to breathe properly.

5. Day 7 those symptoms worsened, and on Day 8 I was in trouble – my breathing had quickened and shallowed, the fever wouldn’t shift and I was alternating between shivering and sweating uncontrollably. Extreme fatigue and drowsiness, and almost complete loss of appetite.

6. My heartbeat was rapid and erratic, and blood oxygen levels getting towards dangerously low levels. I had a bag packed for hospital at this point.

7. I got some antibiotics for the cough – to cover any possible bacterial infection – via NHS-111. Hard to know whether they helped – I did seem to produce a bit of gunk once they kicked in, but the fever remained persistent.

8. Day 9 was a bit better and just enough to keep me out of hospital. I was still struggling with fever, extreme fatigue and drowsiness – sleeping 18-20 hours a day – diarrhoea, nausea, tingly skin, and more than anything with breathing – it felt impossible to get enough oxygen.

9. Day 10 – 14 were very similar, with the symptoms seeming to take it in turns to give me a proper going-over. As soon as one aspect improved, another would kick in. The impossibility of getting into a rhythm of being ill was one of the things which made it so exhausting.

10. At this point my partner was also down with Covid, and with two kids at home we were grateful for the stockpiling – and the emergency supply package from the amazing Melinda Hughes. 

11. Day 12 (Good Friday) I got seen by a GP at a special Covid hub centre – the effort of getting dressed and driving over there made me feel like I was going to collapse. But my oxygen levels seemed good – and improved with mild activity – and my chest sounded ok. Reassuring. 

12. I’d had a constant fever for over a week by now, and I was beginning to have trouble working out what was going on. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, and kept waking up thinking the house was surrounded by police and worrying about where all my illicit dollars were stashed etc. 

13. From around Day 16 onwards things began slowly to pick up. The diarrhoea had eased, although my appetite was still non-existent, & there were periods where my temperature dropped to near-normal. I began to go for short walks around the block after dark, which felt like marathons.

14. That gradual improvement continued. This is now Day 21, and I’ve been more or less fever-free without paracetamol for three or four days now. My breathing feels almost normal, the cough is a lot better, and I’m only sleeping for 12 hours a day or so. 

15. So I’m almost feeling myself again. Hope that’s useful and answers a lot of your questions. 

16. Bear in mind, all this comes under “mild symptoms”. In reality it completely wiped me out for two weeks and more. Worth considering when we’re thinking about the practicalities of  lifting lockdowns etc.

17. PS advice re preparing for getting hit: do stockpile! Think about a week or two where you really can’t go out, how would you cope? Especially if you’ve got kids, pets, dependents etc.

18. You’ll need paracetamol – two weeks’ worth is 7 packs of 16. (Bear in mind you can only buy two packs of pain killers at a time.) Think about where you’re going to ride this out. You’ll need a lot of comfortable, loose clothing – because of fever sweats I was having to change clothes 2 or 3 times a day at some points. Get a desk fan.

19. You’ll also need lots of fluids – 2-3 litres a day, and you probably won’t feel like eating or drinking anything. Keep track of how much you’re drinking. Get a reliable thermometer and a blood oxygen monitor if you can.

20. Most importantly, do NOT get sucked into the nonsense of “battling” the illness, carrying on as normal, stiff upper lip and plough through it etc. This isn’t a war. Get yourself organised, cancel everything and go to bed. You fight a virus lying down.

21. For some context – because I avoided hospital I haven’t been tested, but my partner tested positive on Day 4 of my symptoms, so in my case we’re 99% certain.

22. I’m mid-40s and otherwise fit and healthy, and I do breath control for a living. Those breathing exercises really do help and I can’t see any harm in starting now if you can stand it.

I hope that proves useful to someone. If anyone has any further questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Singers in particular may find this excellent article by Molly Noori of interest for further reading – the pattern of her symptoms is remarkably similar to mine: Can I Sing Yet? 

 

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A1

When I was learning to drive in my mother’s 950cc Fiesta, there were four gears and life was a lot simpler. You knew where you stood with four gears. First was for starting off, second was for going slow, fourth was for going fast, and third was for getting from slow to fast. The best gear was third, because the most fun thing about driving isn’t going fast, it’s accelerating, by which I mean the Physics definition of accelerating, which includes going round corners. Which you did in third. The thing is, at the time, when you were in third, you always thought you wanted to be in fourth sometime very soon, so you never really appreciated third gear while you were in it.

At some point soon after that they made a fifth gear, which was sort of fine because you just got to fourth and then eventually remembered there was another one up and across and so that was fifth.

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This is an Audi A1 Sportback S-Line and it has six gears. On paper I thought this would be a good thing on the basis of more-is-more. In practice and with hindsight I think five is plenty if you’re not planning on driving at 100mph+. What six gears means is that whichever gear you’re in, it never feels like the right one – a feeling which is exacerbated by the car, like most modern cars, constantly nagging you about which gear it thinks you should be in. They should just admit what they’re up to and have Patricia Routledge do voice recordings of the whole range of carps. I took fourth as a test case and tried to find a speed at which Hyacinth was happy with me staying in this gear for more than fifty yards. I can report back that fourth gear on an Audi A1 is designed for going at a constant 43mph.

There is also an Audi thing called Drive Select (or that’s what the button said), which allows you to choose between two modes called ‘Dynamic’, which is fun but burns a lot of fuel, correction, which is fun because it burns a lot of fuel, and ‘Efficiency’, which is a lot cheaper but should really be called ‘950cc Fiesta emulator’. The point of shelling out for the sporty model is presumably that it’s more entertaining than the cheaper versions, an experience almost immediately ruined by having one’s inner Hyacinth querying whether we should really be burning this much petrol when there’s a perfectly good and much more economical alternative available at the press of a button.

In S-Line version the handling is very good, at the expense of having a ride quality which feels like when you used to go sledging but only had one sledge between three of you which your big brother would hog so you’d end up having to go down the solid-ice rock-studded sledge slope in a bin bag.

Also it had a built-in Sat Nav with the world’s stupidest route planner, meaning that when I was looking for the Celtic Manor I ended up in McDonald’s. Although perhaps that was just another manifestation of Efficiency mode.

So look, this car popped up on the Avis website as a guaranteed-model option (for an extra twenty quid or so) – that’s worth looking out for if you’re hiring and you like cars. I was quite excited at the prospect of having it for a weekend, and in the end if it wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d hoped then that’s probably my fault more than the car’s (including the fact that it turned out to be a colour which I’ve always reserved exclusively for my first Ferrari). And when I had to hand the keys back I was genuinely sad for a moment.

The thing is, if it came to buying one, I’m not sure who this car is for. If I had been born female I would have been called Jennifer, so my parents tell me. Jennifer Jones would have felt that the A1 Sportback is cute but not as stylish as a Fiat 500 or Mini, not as tidily efficient as a Polo, and not as much fun as one of those mental Fiestas like off the remake of The Sweeney.

As for male manifestations of current selves, what blokes, unless they’re undertakers or harpists, really want in a car is a boot. That’s because the boot is the automotive equivalent of the shed – it’s a place down the end of the thing where a bloke can put Stuff and forget about it for six months. Show me a man in a hatchback and I’ll show you a man who feels there’s something missing in his life but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Unless he owns a shed.

Rented from: Avis Birmingham Airport
Country of origin: Germany
Country of use: UK

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1400cc
Power: 77/100
Performance: 82/100
Handling: 88/100
Style: 75/100
Comfort: 46/100
Luggage: 60/100
Max passengers: 3
Drivetrain: FWD
Value For Money: 8/10

Written and originally published February 2016

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Fine Dining at Fast Food Prices

A pair of photos has been doing the rounds this week. One shows the interior of a crowded plane. The other shows a theatre in Germany, with an audience of 200 sitting socially-distanced in a 1000-seat auditorium.

Several singers have shared the diptych, most seemingly under the impression that it provides a watertight case for re-opening theatres immediately.

Meanwhile, the first results of Indigo’s After The Interval survey of UK audiences were published, and the report makes fascinating reading. In particular, two figures caught my eye. In response to the question “Would any of the following help you to feel safe and comfortable going to an event at a venue again?”, the most popular answer was “Limits on the number who can attend” at 76%. Later in the survey, the same audience was asked how, if at all, they’d be willing to contribute financially in order to help companies ensure a successful re-opening after the economic challenges of lockdown. The least popular answer by some distance was “Increasing ticket prices”, a mere 18% replying that they’d be up for that.

The two photos were originally posted by my fellow bass-baritone Michael Volle, and the flight seems to have been from Berlin to Wiesbaden (or nearby), where the concert was taking place. It’s a short trip, and Germany appears to have its epidemic pretty well under control. Leaving aside the question of why so many people chose to fly a 500km journey (are we really still doing that in 2020?), the implied question of most of the re-posters is: if the plane is safe, how come the theatre isn’t?

A more fundamental question might well be: is that plane really safe? Believe me, this is the first time I’ve ever seen singers point at a photo of a crowded plane cabin and tell us how perfectly healthy it looks. Furthermore, with two-thirds of commercial airlines’ fleets reportedly grounded, the idea that it’s business as usual for them seems a little tenuous.

(A more pertinent question might be whether bailing out airlines is the best use of public money, when, for example, arts organisations and individual artists could be financially protected for a fraction of the cost.)

As for the sparsely-populated theatre, you’d want to know whether the audience enjoyed it (although since the excellent Mr Volle was singing I’d imagine they very much did), and would they be willing to come back regularly under the same circumstances? Did they maintain social distancing on the way in and out, and would they have been able to do so had there been an emergency evacuation? Does a magic distance of 2 metres really give you indefinite protection from an infected neighbour, even over the course of two or three hours?

And, the bottom line, did they pay five times the price of a regular ticket in order to be part of an audience one-fifth the size? Everything else aside, you’d assume that at least the airline made a tidy profit on that crowded flight.

The Indigo results suggest that the answer to that last question would be, for most of the UK public at least, an emphatic: No. Even if, courtesy of some Houdini-level contortionism, you could squeeze half the usual audience in and maintain safe distancing, mere double-price tickets wouldn’t cut the mustard: for 82% of respondents any increase at all in prices would be unmanageable or unacceptable, despite the fact that almost as great a majority want to see a substantial decrease in audience numbers.

It seems a huge contradiction in terms. Of course we’re being a little unfair – we don’t know that exactly the same people answered both questions, and even if they did, were the two factors to be linked more closely in a different survey, the numbers would almost certainly shift closer.

Even so, there’s the problem in a nutshell: people want an improved product, but they don’t want to pay for it. In the UK it’s a particular issue, and not just with the arts. It’s at the core of British politicians’ problems over the National Health Service, which is free at the point of delivery, funded directly from tax. But for at least a quarter of a century the idea of raising income tax, for example, has been off the table. Even the last Labour leadership, the most left-wing for a generation, was only able to suggest tinkering a little at the upper margins for fear of making themselves electorally untouchable.

As with the British taxpayer, our average British theatre- or concert-goer seems to want a top quality service at bargain basement prices.

How do we in the arts get around this? Within living memory our answer in the UK has almost always been to cut costs, to make the product cheaper and more efficient. But even before this crisis hit, organisations had already cut away most of the flesh, and many had been hacking away at the bare bones for a while too. And the important thing to realise about highly efficient systems is that they are, for the very same reasons, also highly fragile – as the last couple of months have surely proven beyond any doubt.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. In the year I was born, Britain had precisely no Michelin-starred restaurants. Now there are 67 in London alone. Within a generation, a fair number of the British public have been persuaded that an exceptionally good dining experience is worth splashing out on. Not every night or every week perhaps, but once in a while on a special occasion, or to make an occasion in itself. That’s hardly come at the expense of cheaper restaurants or fast food outlets: it’s a different product, quite clearly a different concept entirely, and therefore people’s expectation of what a reasonable price for it is also instinctively different, without there being a contradiction.

Over the same period, budget airlines have been one of the travel industry’s major success stories, and their premium-price competitors have struggled in their wake. Many have taken our approach of attempting to slash their costs, as a result often ending up providing the same sort of experience as their budget competitors, only less well done and still at a higher price. Neither one thing nor the other.

So the rules are different for different products. Consumers view air travel differently from buying food, and buying fast food differently from paying for a fine dining experience. If you saw a fine dining restaurant had cut their costs so drastically that they were charging fast food prices, you might quite justifiably have doubts over the quality of the meal. And whereas you can probably forgive Five Guys for occasionally forgetting the jalapeños, a sub-par fine dining dish misses the point completely.

Let’s look again at those two photos. Health risks aside, the plane passengers realised quite some time ago that air travel is not really much fun, and you may as well grit your teeth, get it over with and do it as cheaply as possible. The fun starts when you arrive at your destination.

That’s where we come in. In another part of the Indigo survey, respondents were asked how they’re currently feeling about the possibility of going to live events again. Only 19% said they’d be comfortable attending as soon as venues are allowed to reopen. It reveals a dangerous gap between our instincts as performers and those of our audiences. I filled in the survey myself – thinking as a potential ticket buyer rather than a professional artist – and was surprised at how cautious most of my answers were. We might do well to bear in mind that a low probability of individual consequences still translates, given a large enough population, to a near-certainty of a number of infections and deaths.

And so we might also do well to take a little time, have a little patience. Our desire as performers to get back on stage, share our art, and make some money is perfectly natural. But we need to make it clear to the public that none of this is worth a moment of risk to their health and lives.

That aside, high art needs to be exceptional, unforgettable, or at least aspire to that. Popular culture aims to entertain you for an evening; we should be aiming to transcend your physical world and change your lives. Fast food versus fine dining. A packed auditorium, under safe conditions so that those present can fully engage in the moment, is no guarantee of that miraculous transformation, but it’s surely a key part of a genuine theatrical experience.

So for the time being we need to take every care not to risk infecting our audiences with a deadly disease; and by the same token not to infect the very qualities that make our art worth sharing in the first place.

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Spinning the Wheel

“Leicester were 5,000-1 to win the league but ended up as champions. What are the odds of that happening?” – Neil Lennon

Les Croupiers Casino, Cardiff, June 1998. For the previous three years I’ve been working as a schoolteacher, but I’m about to head off to music college, so tonight I’m keeping my cash in my pocket: I’m going to need every penny of it. My colleagues Dave and Iwan, by contrast, are on a roll. Come to think of it I never saw them lose, but I suspect they did so in private, or perhaps my memory has become selective. 

Either way, for once they’ve decided to quit while they’re ahead. Having cashed in, Iwan finds a £10 chip in his breast pocket – “for emergencies”. Rather than bother the cashier again, he gives it to me and tells me to see what I can do. 

I’m a cautious gambler when it comes to my own money, but this is a free hit, so rather than hedge my bets I saunter up to the nearest Roulette wheel and place it boldly on Zero. 

Someone else’s money, someone else’s winnings.* It was worth it for the reaction when I returned only a couple of minutes after setting out, carrying £360 worth of chips. What were the odds of that happening? Well, that’s an easy one – assuming a fair wheel, precisely 36 to 1, or a smidgen over 2.7%.

Watching how people decide to grapple with numbers, and how they apply to our everyday lives, is endlessly fascinating, and the reams of statistics being spewed out during the Coronavirus era so far has provided plenty of opportunity for doing just that. What’s the fatality rate of Covid-19, and how might that compare to the chances of dying from other causes, we all want to know? Reading between the lines, I guess we mean, what are my chances of dying from it?

It’s really the wrong question. The probability of me dying eventually from some cause or other is 100%. Beyond that, the application of population-wide statistics and probabilities to individual lives is a tenuous affair at best: it’s simply not what they’re designed for. The half-life of an element can tell you pretty much bang-on what proportion of a large sample of its atoms will have decayed during a certain period. But if you’re sat there looking at any particular atom on its own, you’re back at the Roulette wheel. 

Let’s say you’re facing a serious medical operation and the surgeon – as they are wont to do these days – informs you that it has a 99% survival rate. That sounds good, you think. 99 out of every 100 patients make it through. But it’s hardly any consolation if you’re the 1 who doesn’t – in fact, it’s probably even more annoying knowing how improbable your death was.

A newspaper columnist this week, as part of an argument to send children back to school, quoted 0.03% as the likelihood of dying of Covid-19 for under-18s. Let’s for the moment assume that’s roughly right. As an individual parent you might think that sounds fine, a chance worth taking. But the only concrete meaning of that number is that, given 10 million or so children of school age nationwide, it translates to the racing certainty of 3,000 deaths (and that’s without factoring in the health risk to their teachers). So as a national decision-maker, you might well view that percentage quite differently. Grieving parents would hardly be consoled by the reassurance that their child’s death was statistically exceedingly unlikely.

But hang on, I hear you cry – around 15,000 children are killed or injured in road accidents in the UK each year. We don’t re-organise our entire lives around that, do we? 

Putting aside the question of whether we should look again at the idea that this is a price worth paying for the freedom to drive our own cars, the suggestion that we make no allowance for road safety in our everyday lives is clearly nonsensical. In fact the layouts of our cities are in huge part devoted to allowing for and containing the risk from human-operated vehicles. Imagine for a moment what a town centre without traffic would look like; or perhaps as a more realistic exercise, visualise what a city without human-operated, individually-owned traffic could look like. No need for car parks or parking spaces, far safer junctions and crossings, cleaner air. If we invented the modern automobile today, I wager no-one would dream of putting one under the fallible, volatile control of anyone who could pass a short test, and allowing them to plough through our midst largely unsupervised.

So we’ve made about as many concessions to road safety as we’re willing to make, and presumably we’ve decided that 15,000 dead or injured children a year is something we’re happy to live with as a result.

Terrorism? The Daily Telegraph recently claimed that “over the last decade, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on British soil was about one in 11.4 million per year.” I suppose that gives us an average of six deaths a year, and a significant degree of disruption to our way of life.

What about flu, you ask. An average of around 17,000 people in England and Wales have died from influenza in recent years – it’s worth noting that this has varied greatly from 2,000 to 28,000 (during the particularly deadly season in 2016). Why are we fretting so much more about the Coronavirus? 

In fact, if and (let’s all pray) when there’s a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the precautions against it may well end up looking very similar to our current regime for flu: free vaccines for the most vulnerable, and available to all, and the NHS geared up for a huge increase in hospital admissions in the event of a bad season. Of course, that might change as our medical scientists gather more data and come to a better understanding of how this new virus operates.

That latter point is crucial, and should underpin every discussion currently taking place on the topic. If you hear anyone speaking with anything resembling absolute certainty regarding any aspect of the current science around Covid-19, please approach with care. The point about all these numbers – overall mortality rates, probability of dying from it, “R0” and so on – is that they require an awful lot of data to establish to any great degree of accuracy, and the gathering of that data in this case is still in its early stages. Plus, they’re still strictly speaking only a measure of what’s happened in the past, not necessarily an accurate prediction of what may come next.** Science is the process of establishing and quantifying the degree to which we don’t know things. The upshot of that is that there is no such thing as a “scientific fact”.

I’ve left air travel till last. There hasn’t been a fatal commercial air accident in the UK since 1989 – so to put it another way, the probability of you dying in a plane crash in this country is currently my lucky Roulette number: zero. The number and complexity of precautions we take when it comes to commercial air travel is immense compared to most other forms of travel.***

Grasping the connection between these two statements is the key to understanding the dilemmas surrounding our current crisis.

 

 

* – In fairness to Iwan, he bought us all dinner at Charleston’s afterwards. This was the occasion on which I invented the rare fillet steak with onions, mushrooms, peppercorn sauce and a pineapple slice on top. It didn’t catch on.

** – I’ve heard researchers suggest that one of the effects of SARS-CoV-2 might be to turn every carrier into a zombie after 12 months. Presumably it’s a reminder that as yet they, and consequently we, have little idea what might be around the corner. 

*** – This article provides a lot of food for thought on how we respond to air and road accidents.

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Missing You

You don’t get to choose what you’re remembered for. We were sitting listening to Tim Pigott-Smith at the end of an acting class. He’d come in as a last-minute replacement, and had worked through some exercises, leaving the final half hour or so for a relaxed Q&A. 

In the nicest possible way he was name-dropping a little, giving examples of memorable performances he’d witnessed by great actors. Somehow the topic got around to acting drunk, and he cited Michael Caine in Educating Rita as the best he’d seen. It was Thursday afternoon towards the end of a gruelling week, and despite our enthusiasm, our body language was distinctly low-energy. He mentioned that he’d worked with Caine on one of the worst movies he’d ever made, set in a World War 2 prison camp. Cogs in the brains of Robert Murray and myself – the two football fans in the class – began slowly to turn, and then more rapidly to whirr and whizz. “You’re talking about to Escape To Victory!” He was talking about Escape To Victory. From that point on the remainder of the session was hijacked, and a first-rate actor with a career spanning decades was obliged to answer questions about Pelé and Ossie Ardiles and John Wark and Sylvester Stallone, to the exclusion of the entirety of his other work. 

There’s a lesson for young performers I suppose. You should always be careful about signing a contract, since once you’ve done so and you’re out there doing it, people will assume that this is what you do, what you’re happy doing, and it may well be what they end up remembering you for, whether you like it or not.

That week of National Opera Studio classes at the National Theatre was unforgettable, and I still lean on many of the lessons learned there today – as well as Pelé’s friend, we had sessions with Toby Jones, Erica Whyman, Nigel Planer* and several others. (In one of those situations you’d never foresee before you start out in this odd career, I was called out of Planer’s session by a phone call for me at reception, which in fact turned out to be a fake message from the real Harrison Birtwistle who was auditioning upstairs and wanted to hear me. The audition turned out to consist mainly of being photographed beside a table. It’s a long story for another time.)

Tim Pigott-Smith, best-remembered for his work with Mike Summerbee, was on hand because he was appearing in Eugene O’Neill’s three-play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra at the NT. I must have been impressed with his session since I went along to see it the following weekend. Tim’s character Ezra Mannon died halfway through the second play. Oh, sorry – Spoiler Warning. In opera, he’d have been allowed to take a solo curtain call at the next interval and go home for his tea. The last thing I expected to see was him hanging around for the curtain call several hours later, but sure enough there he was – not even for a solo call, but a regular team-effort company bow. I loved him for it.

Theatre curtain calls always strike me as an affair for grown-ups, although they tie themselves up in as many knots as we do worrying about them. What are they for? Why are they so variable and capricious? Since when and why have audiences started booing the antagonist, and do we ignore it or play up to it or what? Why can’t we all just go home? Do any of these people even remember which character I played?

The most extreme example of the latter question came in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Nose at Covent Garden in 2016. The entire huge cast, bar the lead, had (almost) identical prosthetic noses fitted, and so we paraded onto the stage at the end in our threes and fours to receive the baffled approval of a squinting public. In fact, after make-up none of us in the cast had much idea who any of the others was either, which was quite a liberating feeling backstage, in the manner of the story about Brian Clough and the Nottingham Forest trainee. **

Singers in the time of Coronavirus seem to have divided into two distinct groups. Those who are bombarding their social media friends and followers with daily online performances from their front rooms. And the others who are seemingly struggling to summon the motivation even to maintain their usual practice routine. Extroverts and introverts? There are plenty of performers who fall into both categories, or a combination of each at various times. I wonder how they correlate with those who enjoy curtain calls and those for whom they’re an ordeal.

I’m definitely in the latter category. I’m always very clear in my own mind how well or otherwise I’ve performed, and while I’m glad if I sense an audience has had a good time, it doesn’t change how I feel about it. I’d much rather have a one-to-one chat with audience members in the foyer bar afterwards – that’s when you get the real feedback. Like any crowd, an audience can’t really begin to make sense to you or itself until viewed as a hugely disparate collection of individuals.

But don’t go away thinking I don’t miss you. Just that it’s more about what’s happened to us all, the slice of life we’ve shared together during the performance: it’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simon Callow typically puts this far more eloquently than I ever could: “What matters much more is what has passed between us and the audience over the course of the evening. Of course that may involve applause – especially if it’s a musical – but even then, it’s the minute-by-minute interplay (as often as not silent) that really counts; the sense of communication, the engagement with an audience.” 

That’s exactly what I miss. And, introvert or not, what I’d love to be part of again someday soon.

 

 

* – Nigel Planer’s session was the day after Russell Osman’s friend Tim’s, and upon being told we’d been working with him, Planer described how he’d had to apologise to Pigott-Smith for photo-bombing him at stage door in character as Nicholas Craig. The latter’s book ‘I, An Actor’ is one of the greatest works of theatrical insight ever published, and for one thing coins the term “actoplasm” for the oral emissions of a stage performer – the physical range of which is currently a hot scientific topic.

** – Clough phoned the training ground and asked to speak to one of the coaches. The teenage trainee who had picked up told him, “You can f*** off.” Clough, justifiably incensed, demanded, “Young man, do you know who this is?” The trainee replied, “Yes. Do you know who this is?” Clough told him he did not. Trainee: “In that case you can definitely f*** off.”

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Keeping Going

There’s a story about the first shadow cabinet meeting after the 1997 UK General Election which has popped into my mind a few times over recent weeks. After eighteen years in office, the Conservatives had just been dealt a thorough drubbing at the hands of the electorate, and met to discuss their strategy options against the newly-formed Labour government. There were a few new faces around the table, brimming with ideas and urgent enthusiasm about how to cut Tony Blair’s lot down to size. After a few of them had finished breathlessly brainstorming, Michael Heseltine stretched out his veteran legs under the table, leant back and crooned “Ladies and gentlemen – I suggest we all calm down and pace ourselves. We’re going to be here a long time.” *

Several articles this week have bravely grappled with the concept of socially-distanced theatrical performances, and how they might work. There’s particularly good back-of-the-envelope work from Zach Finkelstein here, and others have reached roughly similar conclusions via various configurations. To sum up, you would probably do well to get anywhere near 50% of a regular audience into the usual auditorium space – in reality, something closer to 25% is much more realistic. 

That means you’d need to quadruple your ticket prices to hit the same break-even as before – or perhaps you’d only need to double them if you could halve your costs, somehow. If you found yourself in optimistic mood, you might approach the relevant authorities, or a sympathetic sponsor, to subsidise the shortfall. 

Even then, for most venues, serious health and safety issues would remain. However successfully we configured the performing and listening space, you’d still need to be able to evacuate people safely in the event of a fire, and show that even without such an emergency, the normal process of getting in and out wouldn’t cause any dangerous sub-2m bottlenecks. 

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra have just bitten the bullet and given their first post-lockdown socially-distanced performance – but note that there was no live audience. One of the things that makes this possible for the BPO is that they have a well-established paid subscription channel, which taps into last week’s discussion.

There remains the question of what is a safe distance, and as we learn more about how this virus transmits itself, the news seems to be anything but good, especially for singers and wind players, with revised estimates of safe distancing ranging from 3m to 5m to there being no safe distance at all. The German approach to re-opening churches made particularly sobering reading for my lot, involving an effective ban on singing altogether.

I have no desire to pull the rug from under the huge amount of innovative thinking that’s going on – a blank canvas approach to our current challenges can only lead to good things in the long run. But we need to be realistic. As Michael Volpe of Opera Holland Park this week put it with characteristic directness: “Whatever it does, opera (and other art forms) would be best advised not to try to find a way to continue doing the same things in the same way based on half the audience. I guarantee that won’t work.”

In other words, for all their invention and ingenuity, the various responses to socially-distanced performance are short term solutions at best. Even if they could be made to work financially, under current conditions there would remain a fully justifiable reluctance among many of our audience members to put themselves at risk. What live performance art needs in order to get back to normal lies largely on the medical side of things: better treatments, a reliable system of testing for immunity, and ideally and most importantly, an effective and widely available vaccine.

Now the good news, or grounds for cautious optimism at least. There are signs that even the most sluggish governments are grasping the urgent necessity for widespread testing, and that the technology for reliably doing so is developing quickly. The understanding of effective treatments is deepening all the time. The evidence seems to be moving away from the idea that the virus mutates rapidly, at least to any significant extent (bad news if we were hoping for a miraculously benign mutation, but good news in the hunt for a vaccine), and South Korean researchers seem to have found an explanation for repeated positive tests which doesn’t involve the possibility of contracting the illness more than once.

While progress is being made on vaccines at a historically unprecedented rate, we do need a dose of realism about the timescale. Even if an effective vaccine were developed tomorrow, some aspects of the research into potential side effects can’t be rushed – for example, there’s no way of knowing how it might affect pregnant women in under 9 months – and the process of manufacturing and distributing a vaccine to billions of people in a short space of time has simply never been tried before.**

What the medical scientists have already achieved is staggering, but we need to take on board that they need time, and that is what our lockdowns are for. The sacrifices we as professional performing artists, as with many other walks of life, are being asked to make are huge. On an emotional level we’re being denied the activity which keeps many of us sane, and the financial safety net for most of us is minimal, or in many cases non-existent. 

But spend ten minutes talking to any healthcare professional working on a Covid ward and you’ll know why we’re doing it. Every day they watch their patients – not to mention their colleagues – suffer and die, trying desperately to work out why. They come home every night broken. And every morning they put themselves back together and return to the front line. 

Every day we can keep going through this buys them the time to save lives. It might well be a while yet. But let’s keep going.

Originally published 3rd May 2020

 

* – Admittedly a paraphrase rather than a direct quotation. I’m also deducing it was Heseltine, since the account I read didn’t name him – but I distinctly recall him sitting directly facing me in the front row of a Nelson Mass I once sang at the Houses of Parliament, and he adopted that exact pose. He has very long legs.

**- Consider also the question of universal uptake of a vaccine. Let’s say we establish the infection mortality rate of the virus at around 1% for most groups, as currently seems likely – that’s 1% if you catch it. You’re then asked to weigh that risk against a yet-to-be-established level of risk of as-yet-unknown side-effects from a rapidly-developed vaccine, for you and your family. It could well be a far from a straightforward decision.

 

Posted in Art, Coronavirus, Opera, Politics, Science, singing, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giving It Away

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear – they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

What Disney in fact did was to keep producing their new content, increased their marketing, and heavily promoted an attractive offer of around 12% off for early subscribers. Speaking anecdotally, it was more than enough to make me sign up, with the prospect of several weeks at home and a lot of spare time suddenly looming.

Disney already had a viable business model for home entertainment set up, and so they were well-placed to cash in on a newly captive audience. And it’s to mutual advantage: subscribers can stump up £5 a week or so, knowing that their contribution will lead to more of the content that they enjoy. It really doesn’t take much – one or two flagship shows in most cases. I’m happy that my contribution to Netflix will help finish Better Call Saul, and similarly with NOW TV and Westworld.

So where did I get that nonsensical example in paragraph one? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

I’m combining separate examples for dramatic effect of course, although there are a few companies who have reacted in pretty much all of these ways. Elements of this response are apparent across the industry – freelance artists have been instantly laid off with minimal or no compensation, the cap has been passed round to the usual long-suffering and endlessly generous supporters, and most bizarrely, vast archives of digital content have been put online for free.

Now, if we are to assume that the current crisis will last a matter of a few weeks, and that we’ll all be back to normal by the beginning of the autumn season, this approach might make some sense. With strong hints over the last few days from the UK and Scottish governments, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and others, that realistically we need to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks – in other words, well into 2021 if not beyond – the penny should be beginning to drop that the wait to get back to “normal” may be a far longer one. There is even a non-negligible chance that this could be a permanent new “normal”.

For companies, a theatrical lockdown which reaches into next year means a long time to go without ticket income, or to rely on audience generosity with nothing to offer in return. For individual artists, it would take most of us beyond the period for which we had confirmed contracts, leaving us without even the support those might have offered, and truly out on a limb.

What then for an industry which has over the last few decades, rightly or wrongly, put all its eggs in the basket of live performance?

This business of releasing digital content free of charge was not without a certain logic, after all. The idea (I infer) was to treat it as a loss leader, to drum up interest (albeit often via a mechanism which was so vague that one suspected it didn’t necessarily exist in any genuine detail at all) in buying tickets for live performances – some of which might, with a bit of luck, turn out to be profitable.

But there was always a flaw in the reasoning here. A video recording of a live performance is, in itself, an artistic product, and there was really never any reason why, with some marketing legwork, a viable paying audience couldn’t have been built up for it over time. The era when people were used to getting movies and TV shows (as opposed to music – that’s a separate set of problems) online for nothing is very much over. If you’re not a Disney+ subscriber, and decide you want to watch Return of the Jedi on YouTube this evening, it’ll set you back £6.99. Would it really take much for classical music audiences to undergo the same paradigm shift? Almost all of the freelance artists we’re watching in those classical broadcasts are currently unemployed and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the next couple of years. Most of them will not be being paid for these broadcasts, and many would have received next to nothing for them in the first place. Would it be too much to ask that we take the opportunity to invite current viewers to contribute to their livelihoods? In fact, had we already done the work to establish the principle of paying for getting classical music on your TV screen, this could have been a genuine boom time for the industry.

Let me give you a concrete example. My YouTube channel contains a song recital playlist, which I made at my own expense a couple of years ago and which, between the various tracks, now has over 10,000 views. While I make no comment on the singer’s performance, the quality of audio and video is high, and at, say, 49p a view I could not only make a decent profit, but more to the point have the financial capacity to produce similar content once or twice a year at least – even under the current restrictions on social distancing and so on. However, the reality is that my huge, and in many cases hugely subsidised, competitors have set the going rate for viewing online classical music content at precisely zero. So I make a loss, and viewers are denied the ongoing production of new high-quality content. It’s the artistic equivalent of burning fossil fuel. And as with the boar seller in Asterix and the Cauldron, everybody loses.

asterix1

This moment in history could be an opportunity to think about the most fundamental basis of how our industry works. Without going into the personal details of the Placido Domingo affair and similar recent scandals, a business which sets itself up such that it relies on huge corporate and individual donations, and therefore needs to give them in return, among other things, some special sort of privileged access to “stars” which it is then obliged to create and place in positions of unassailable power, has created an almost-inevitable problem for itself. We lean on subsidies so that a proportion of our tickets can be sold below cost price, allowing the entire industry to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude to the fact that ours is an expensive product to make. At some point it’s surely not a moral outrage to ask those who consume it to pay for it. What might a truly egalitarian opera industry – where audiences are invited to make a grown-up decision to pay for what they’re getting – look like? 

And let’s think again about that expense. Our productions are expensive – but on the scale of television and cinema budgets, not impossibly so, especially if we begin to apply ourselves seriously to the idea of a potential global, at-home paying audience.

When we come to live theatrical performance, there’s no getting away from the challenges presented. If we’re honest, theatre was already approaching something of a watershed regarding audience expectations of mutually acceptable behaviour and how to share a space in the modern world. Will we need to rethink venues entirely – around a comfort-based individual experience, rather than cramming ‘em in? Will theatrical boxes make a serious comeback? Stuart Murphy’s latest brainstorm for ENO, touting the idea of drive-in opera, raises more questions than it answers. But at least it’s a sign that the industry may be willing to go back to first principles, which is surely the least the situation will demand – and this is not to mention how we might configure our singers and orchestra members at a safe distance from each other. Perhaps it’ll be like the post-AIDS porn industry, and we’ll need medical certificates before we can perform together without protection.

Let’s take the worst-case scenario, and say that the idea of staging a show in front of a live audience of thousands is a thing of the past. We’d all take a moment to mourn that loss. But as grown-up professional artists, our job is to imagine these scenarios, and prepare to meet these challenges. Opera and classical music on video has almost always been hamstrung by the limitations of pointing cameras at a stage, filming something with the pace and scale of theatre and concert hall rather than cinema or TV. It may be time to revisit seriously what we might be able to achieve by designing pieces from the ground up for screen rather than stage. 

Being restricted by the parameters of works designed for theatrical audiences two centuries ago is a choice we make, and other routes are available. If the ideal material to take advantage of a home broadcast format is limited or unavailable, we have a vast number of hugely talented composers, librettists, directors and designers who could produce it afresh. Acting styles might need to adapt, but they always have done in response to the dramatic tastes of the day. In addition, the quality of video and audio equipment people have at home is, in general, unrecognisably superior to what was available when these questions were first being addressed half a century ago. How do we make opera relevant to now? Making it now, for now, is always a good start.

This thing caught us all unawares. We’ve had a chance to grieve for the art that we’ve already lost. Take another moment to do so if you need it. But at some point we either choose to give up, or to get our thinking caps on and embrace this grimly terrifying, weird, and yet potentially wonderful new world, and ask whether it holds a place for those who seek to make viable, sustainable, profitable art. Are we up for it?

Posted in Art, Cinema, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Theatre | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment