I met my old lover
On the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me
I just smiled
And we talked about some old times
And we drank ourselves some beers
Still crazy after all these years
Oh, still crazy after all these years
This time tomorrow I’ll be in an opera rehearsal room. The last time I could say that was 11th November 2021, nearly five months ago. Talking to colleagues, these accidental sabbaticals seem to be a feature of post-pandemic life for singers, as the opera industry lurches asymmetrically into some sort of reanimation.
Opera. Sometimes it can’t live without you, and sometimes you’re a spare part. For singers it’s always been that way, and a long stretch of neglect like this current one is merely one extreme. I’ve done other things in the meantime, some of them I’ve enjoyed, some of them have been well paid, some of them have been sincerely appreciated; sometimes even all three. And then, just when you’re feeling it might be time to move on, the old seducer comes calling, and you find yourself falling for his old routine. He needs you. You’re special. Only you can make him feel this way.
Many singers have described the last two years as traumatic. Deep down I think it’s the trauma of realising your entire career has been a relationship with a narcissistic psychopath, who wooed you with flattery and love-bombing, made you feel like the centre of his universe; he inspired you to neglect friends, family, the chance of a normal life to focus on him and him alone. Only now does the penny drop that he doesn’t give a shit about you, about anyone other than himself. And yet here we are, together again at the last chance saloon.
Still crazy after all these years.
Machynlleth, August 2015. I’m sitting in the bar of The Wynnstay hotel, having a drink with John Tomlinson. He’s just sung Winterreise at Julius Drake’s festival up the road. Julius had the Steinway lid open on the full stick that day. Other patrons are recognising John – it’s hard not to – and approaching him, tentatively. John has that effect on people. What’s fascinating is that by and large they aren’t asking him questions, this endless mine of knowledge and legends. No, they’re telling him things, sharing stories of times he’s entered their lives, in an almost confessional manner. I imagine it’s how they might react if they were granted a five minute audience with God. John, as I say, has that effect on people. He is listening politely and sympathetically, occasionally being allowed to interject with appreciation and gratitude: very much as his audience may well hope the Almighty Himself might listen to their intercessions. It’s easy to see why people love John Tomlinson.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be taking my first steps as Wotan in his third incarnation, rebranding himself in Siegfried as “The Wanderer” as a result of trauma-induced Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Maybe. I’m not a trained psychiatrist.) It’s a thrilling and terrifying prospect. A fellow cast member messaged me last night asking how it is that he’s been working on his role for several years and still feels woefully underprepared.
I tell him that’s a good feeling, the time to start worrying is the moment when you start to feel you know it. The goal is to survive, to reach the top of the mountain; the nuances and polish can wait till the next time. You can have it all planned out, but everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, as Mike Tyson succinctly pointed out. The first time you put it under fire with live ammunition, Wagner punches you in all sorts of places; and the first time it happens, it comes as a shock.
So, never do anything for the first time. That’s especially true of big Wagner roles. Last year I was one of several singers around the world making their debut as Wotan in Die Walküre. There’s a shared bond between those who have climbed that mountain – you can’t really understand the burden that comes with it until you’ve carried it yourself. All you can do is set your own targets and judge for yourself how close you’ve come to hitting them. Some people will love what you do with the role and hail you as the saviour of mankind and the Next Big Thing; others will feel you weren’t what they were expecting at all and question your choice of career.
Everyone creates God in their own image. Or at the very least, has their own idea of what God looks like, sounds like, how God should make them feel. Any iconic role carries with it a weight of prior incarnations and the preconceptions that audiences and critics build around those. But Wotan is different: those preconceptions carry a far heavier load. People want God to exist, and they want Him to fill a void in a particular way. You, as a pale earthly imitation, either will or you won’t, but there’s not a lot you can do about it, other than walk your own path up the mountain.
I’ve been reading some of the reviews from last summer, now that I’m allowed to and haven’t had anything much better to do. You can find the shiny ones on my website, because that’s where the shiny ones belong. Down here we can take more time to look at three which aren’t so pluggable but which struck a chord nonetheless.
Richard Morrison in The Times was a bit so-so about my Wotan, although he liked the singing side of things (singers will forgive critics a lot if they’re nice about the singing). He wrote that he found the interpretation “a bit professorial”. I quite like this as a comment – it’s absolutely what I was going for, that Wotan is a driven intellectual, a self-made man and the smartest guy in the room at Walhall when we first meet him in Rheingold. The idea is to make his descent into blind post-traumatic grief-driven rage far steeper and more acutely tragic, and that should continue to pay dividends in this next instalment. It’s interesting to read a response which essentially says “I understood what he was setting out to do, and I didn’t like it”. That’s totally fine by me, and comes with the territory.
Next here’s Katie Barnes writing for Harmony magazine: “His nervous gesture as she (Fricka) bore down upon him, realising that he was not wearing a tie and knowing that she was going to nag him for it, said everything about the state of their marriage.” I think this is my all-time favourite observation from a critic. In that confrontation with his wife in Act 2 of Walküre, Fricka must be the audience’s focus for it to work – if the singer playing Wotan undermines that, he’ll suffer later on since he needs a whole procession of Fricka’s arguments to hit home for his overall journey to make sense. So whatever Wotan does, it has to be theatrically quite underplayed. This was made harder for us because of the pandemic-induced straitjacket in which we were working: Fricka was centre stage, but a long way back with the full string section between her and the auditorium. Wotan meanwhile was socially distanced all the way downstage right. Covid safety regulations meant that neither of us was allowed to move from our mark. For those sitting in the left hand side of the stalls in particular, I was several metres closer to them, and for a few even eclipsing their view of the brilliant Madeleine Shaw (whose performance was so powerful that I woke up a few mornings during rehearsals from cold sweat dreams about my ex-wife). On the other hand, you can’t just stand there, and Wotan realising, too late, that he was underdressed for this summit meeting was a detail that we built in, small enough that it wouldn’t upstage the central figure in that scene, but hopefully clear enough that it painted a picture if anyone happened to be looking my way at that point. One person was, so full marks and a bullseye to Katie Barnes, who is now my favourite critic and the rest will just have to live with that.
Finally here’s a post from Japan by a YouTube viewer who saw Longborough’s broadcast of one of our performances. I’ll leave you to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of how Google Translate deals with the Japanese language, but here’s their description of my singing: “There is also a part that sounds like incorporating old musical instrument technology. Instead of adding an accent to the beginning, it’s a way to enter a little lightly and inflate your voice. How to make the sound melt into the space instead of making the outline of the outline stand out.” Even with what’s lost in translation, that’s such an elegant description of how Wagnerian legato is supposed to work. So often singers get misled by Wagner’s great big fortissimo chords at the start of a phrase, get sucked into trying to compete with the sheer volume of sound, not noticing that Wagner has also brought the orchestra down to a lucid pianissimo by the second or third beat of the phrase. Assuming that you have a skilful conductor in charge, that’s where the singer does their stuff, but for that to happen they mustn’t have blown their whole wad on the downbeat.
So here we go again. I’m packing my work bag for rehearsal, trying to remember what goes in there, trying to remember what and when I need to eat and drink and stretch and rest today. During lockdown, we all had to face the question of who we are when we’re not opera singers; what’s the point of opera singers when there’s no opera to sing? Today I’m trying to remember who I am, how to find that person, whether that person even still exists any more.
She said why don’t we both
Just sleep on it tonight
And I believe in the morning
You’ll begin to see the light
And then she kissed me
And I realized she probably was right
There must be fifty ways
To leave your lover
Still crazy after all these years. See you in the morning.
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine
“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine