March 1996. I’m a trainee physics teacher and we’re on a Maths and Science department outing to London, ostensibly to assess various venues for their suitability for school trips. It’s also an excuse for a bit of a party (hard-earned over the course of a tough year), and at an early stage of the evening we find ourselves in the Nag’s Head, opposite the back of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Through the fog of hindsight I’m never quite sure when I decided I wanted to be a professional singer. It can’t have been earlier than when I was 13, when I first started singing solos as a baritone, and was certainly no later than 23, when I applied to music colleges. What’s clear is that the idea must have been quite well-formed in my mind by this point, at the age of 21, because I shove a pound in the Nag’s Head fruit machine and tell myself that if I win anything, it means I’m going to sing in the opera house across the road one day.
On the fifth spin the reels stop on three bunches of purple grapes. The machine pays out.
I finally bit the bullet and started music college in the autumn of 1998, and if you’d asked me then to estimate when I would be ready for my Covent Garden debut, I’d have said, with absolute certainty, that it should come as soon as possible, since I was ready right now, or would be very shortly. In those days I wasn’t shy of backing my ability, even though that (usually misplaced) confidence would frequently get me into trouble.
Andy Warhol once said that no-one gets anything until they stop wanting it. And things tend to come along, if you’re fortunate, when you’re actually ready for them, rather than when you think you deserve them.
11am, Tuesday 4th October 2016. I set foot on the stage of The Royal Opera House for the first time, as a Guest Artist in their new production of The Nose. It feels like a significant milestone – I walked past the Nag’s Head on the way to the stage door, and I’d thought of those three grapes. I look around for a colleague to share the moment with. Perhaps I could tell John Tomlinson, since I’m pretty sure he’d at least feign interest, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Everyone is – understandably – preoccupied with their own tasks. I try to take the auditorium in, and check a few basic sight lines, and I put the milestone to one side. In actual fact, perhaps I’m a little disappointed at the lack of thrill inside me; reputation and history aside, it’s just another theatre, albeit a very pretty one; by now I’ve seen a lot of them, and most of them work the same way.
11.05am. I’m standing centre stage. We’re in the middle of Act 2 Scene 9, at the beginning of which I have a short solo. The rehearsal has stopped just after my solo ends. The director is shouting at me through a microphone. I’m not in the light. I need to get further downstage. It means reworking my positions completely, ditching what we’ve been doing for the last four weeks on the dummy set in the rehearsal room. Fine, I’m sure I can deal with that. Thumbs up. Now the conductor is shouting at me. He has a microphone too. I’m singing too fast and not following his beat. I was looking straight at him but there are bright lights shining in my eyes, I’m wearing a prosthetic nose which is slightly too big and a peaked cap which is slightly too small, and it’s hard to argue when everyone has a microphone except you. There are ten of my colleagues on stage with me, others in the wings, and an auditorium dotted with people. All of them are very good at their jobs. This is Covent Garden. If you’re screwing it up, the chances are it’s not someone else’s fault.
We start the scene again. I stand in the light and manage to sing at something resembling the right speed. This time we don’t stop after my bit and the scene continues. This means it wasn’t a total disaster the second time. I think. I go up to my dressing room and sit down. I’ve worked for eighteen years for this, I’m good at my job and I know my role backwards, and I wanted it to be perfect. I feel like crying but I don’t. I pick up the score, look at the awkward corners – frankly, the whole damn piece is an awkward corner – and get to work.
When you’re young you tend to undervalue experience, since it’s something you don’t have and there’s no shortcut to obtaining it. You can sing, you can act, you’re pretty, you’re working on your languages, you know your way around a stage. The operatic world is crying out for a talent like yours. What more could experience bring, other than grey hair and wrinkles and cynicism? I guess what I’m saying is that what experience brings is the capacity to get shouted at by men with microphones and carry on doing your work, screwing it up a little less each time. Or at the very least, screwing it up in more interesting ways.
The Nose opens tonight. It’s a very special show, in a very special place, and I’m very proud to be a small part of it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, and have a moment to spare beforehand, feel free to put a pound in the Nag’s Head fruit machine for me.