What’s it like being a singer? A lot of it is impossible to explain. If you happen to be reading this on crowded public transport, in a state of mild paranoia about contracting COVID-19, bear in mind that this is how it feels for us all the time. And you wondered why we’re all a bit loopy.
Two weeks ago, back in the days when Coronavirus was still a distant problem on the other side of the world, two of my bags were stolen in London – one where I keep my laptop and most of my other electronic equipment, and another where I keep the day’s music, usually including my iPad, which is I assume what caught this thief’s eye.
The remarkable thing about modern electronics is how instantly replaceable they all are, the cost being almost purely financial. When I spilled an entire cup of steaming hot coffee over my previous laptop, the swift migration of its brain to its replacement (the memory chips having by some miracle survived the 100% Arabica deluge) was so comprehensive that, when I switched it on, its first question was: Your last session was interrupted. Would you like to continue where you left off? (Nice of it to leave out “you clumsy oaf”.) Even more seamlessly, my new iPad only required me to place my iPhone beside it to get up and running as if it had been a family member for years. 21st Century computers are Ships of Theseus (or, according to taste, Brooms of Trigger), but even more so, being replaceable in their entirety at one stroke and yet within moments becoming indistinguishable from their instantly-unlamented predecessors.
That’s less the case with some other things. A couple of items (including the music bag itself) were gifts from dear friends. And the three vocal scores… perhaps only a singer can really understand what they contained: not so much the printed content, but what had been painstakingly added to them. A Rake’s Progress with notes from the first outing of the David McVicar production. Stephen McNeff’s The Burning Boy, with personal contributions from the composer ahead of its world premiere. And most painfully of all, my bog-standard, dog-eared Schirmer economy edition Rheingold. Notes from when I first dabbled in some casual Donner over a decade ago, through to some far-more-serious Wotanning over the last couple of years. Insights and anecdotes from John Tomlinson and Willard White. Tempi and dynamics from Tony Pappano and Anthony Negus. Thoughts and interpretations from Keith Warner and Julia Burbach. Language notes, performance advice, stylistic tips, advice, input, support from hundreds of hours of rehearsals and coaching sessions with world-class colleagues, many of them among the greatest living experts on this repertoire. Worthless to pretty much anyone else; priceless to me.
It makes me wish my burglars had been smarter, realised this and contacted me with a ransom note. I can’t even imagine what my bottom line would be, but it’s almost certainly more than they got for the iPad at least. Only a few months ago I’d had my four Ring scores hardbound, with the idea that they should last me another twenty years at least. As I relinquished them, the bookbinder noticed me getting slightly dewy-eyed, and she said “Don’t worry – we’ll look after them. We understand better than anyone how much they must mean to you.”
I suppose that if the Ring cycle teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get too attached to things: however precious an object might seem to us, when our time with it is done, we need to let it go. When I was still training as a singer, a director once challenged me about the fact that I don’t take notes in rehearsal. I replied that, since I can’t take a notebook out on stage with me, if I can’t remember a note then it’s no use to me, and if I can remember it there’s no point writing it down. (I often miss that younger version of me, with his much more elastic brain, not to mention his largely unfounded overconfidence.) And having now performed the role of Rheingold Wotan, the important, the useful stuff is in my head, and anything I’ve forgotten, by implication, wasn’t worth retaining. If it had been my score of Walküre, which I start rehearsing for the first time in a full production just over a month from now, I’d have been in much deeper trouble. And I’m physically unharmed and healthy, I still have a roof over my head and a dry floor under my feet. There are people with far worse problems, coping with losses infinitely greater than mine.
A further silver lining came in the shape of a Rheingold score from a second-hand bookshop. The advertised description bore so many uncanny similarities to mine that I thought and hoped it might turn out to be the same one. In fact, it’s a distinctly superior version: a beautiful vintage Schott edition, bound in an almost identical way to mine, with unmarked, pristine pages. (It seems originally to have been the property of James W Marshall, organist of St Cuthbert’s Church in Darlington and founder of Darlington Choral Society. But rather intriguingly the edition was first published in 1899, three years after his death.) I’m very happy to have made its acquaintance, and at a bargain price.
There’s also an argument that leaving some (literal and figurative) baggage behind isn’t an entirely negative process, especially with a character who gets under your skin and inside your head as insidiously as this one inevitably does. At the end of Scene 2 of Rheingold, Wotan (the way I play it at least) comes to realise that he didn’t need Freia’s apples after all – his strength and energy come from elsewhere, from within. Sometimes it’s only by losing something that we learn how much we can do on our own.
But having said all that, I would love that old score back. Here’s a picture of it, at the bottom of the now-lopsided pile of four. If you could keep an eye out for it in charity shops and second-hand bookstores while you’re out and about, I’d be very grateful. And if you could remember to sneeze into a hanky and wash your hands regularly while you’re at it, that would be even better.