A weekend featuring various artists

I don't often write diary posts but sometimes a weekend is so full on, it's a way to offload stuff and think about them later. So here's the rather strange collection of activities and oddities that Birmingham presented this weekend.

FRIDAY: Trampolines and New Romantics

1. The 28th Trampoline and Tumbling World Championship, NIA
I've never paid to go to a sporting event before but I was fascinated to see what the world's best offered in terms of sports that basically involved jumping, bouncing and general boinging.

Continue reading "A weekend featuring various artists"

The day I was on the telly

So the premiere of Birmingham Opera Company's Othello on BBC2 today went well (see previous post for the lowdown on me running away to join the opera).

But while Pete seemed to be on camera loads – he's also posted about being on the telly – the sopranos always seemed to be just out of shot, and many of my finest tra-la-la moments have also ended up on the cutting room floor. I should have bunged the cameraman a fiver – or maybe even a tenor (geddit?).

Anyway, while Pete was grabbing his screenshots from BBC iPlayer, I thought I'd do the same – mine didn't take long. I think I appeared just three times in the opera, and once in the doco.

With Annabel in the audience participation dance number


I'm ready for my evil-eyed close-up behind Rodrigo


Running to get that applause!


Remember when I was blonde? (So 2009.)


Now go read Pete's post (that's him above) to read about how great we sounded. I totally second the goosebumps we felt at hearing the soaring sound of the chorus, even with the occasional Brummie twang.

The performance and documentary will be on BBC iPlayer for a few days yet. Here's Verdi: The Director's Cut and Verdi's Othello.

Birmingham Opera – my Othello diary


Some people run away and join the circus. Others drop out for a year-long 'gap' or a sabbatical. But many more of us have to fit in our dreams around our daily grind when an apposite opportunity presents itself.

And so it was that 18 months ago, I signed up to sing in an opera, put on by the controversial and ground-breaking Birmingham Opera Company. This quite amazing arts organisation (now facing cuts) not only opens up the doors of a musical artform that is traditionally the preserve of the rich, but opens it with wide, welcoming, inclusive arms to anyone prepared to put in the hard work and commitment to learn, sing and act their part.

For part of the rehearsal run-up, until it became insane and took over my life, I kept a diary. Yesterday I remembered I had written some of it up and thought it might add to the commentary and memories being collected on Twitter via the #tellyothello hashtag.

So the diary is below – feel free to skip ahead and read it. Or here is a bit more background…

When Birmingham Opera Company held open auditions at venues around the city, it felt a little like a ringmaster asking you to join the circus – a little scary but don't worry, there would be training. Plus, they made it a lot of fun.

But there was no getting away from the fact that within three months, 150 or so amateur singers, plus another 100 or so amateur actors and dancers, would be appearing in a full-scale opera headed by an internationally renowned director, Graham Vick.

What a risky business. It could so easily have gone very, very wrong.

Thankfully, though, their – and our –contemporary production of Verdi's Othello surpassed all expectations. It won national acclaim, five-star reviews, a spot on The Culture Show and was recognised in the classical oscars, the RPS Awards, as one of the top three shows of 2009.

In addition, it was filmed by the BBC, alongside a documentary on Graham Vick and featuring rehearsal footage and behind-the-scenes preparation. Filming must have been a particular challenge because the professional cast, performers and audience all shared the same seatless, carpeted space.

Anyway… finally, later today, Saturday 19 February 2011, our performance is getting an airing on the tellybox: the documentary is at 3.25pm; the opera at 4.25 until 7.30pm (it's an epic), on BBC2.

That will be the finished performance.

But here is the view from the sopranos, one month into rehearsals.

24 October 2009

'Does that make sense?'

For the last three weeks, choirmaster Jon Laird (pictured above) has been note-bashing Birmingham Opera Company’s version of Othello with 150 amateur singers recruited from the streets of Birmingham. It’s a big deal apparently. This is the first UK production to feature a black Othello, more than 30 years after Paul Robeson broke the race barrier in the film version and Hollywood stopped blacking up its actors for the role.

It’s also my first-ever opera and I’ve sited myself in the highest singing section of the chorus: the Soprano Ones. Which may turn out to be a mistake: I have a low speaking voice but a high thin singing voice. I’ve also sung in a university gospel choir in Birmingham too – which was 99% white – but the callout for members of the public to join such a ‘high art form’ as the opera was intriguing.

So far we’ve rehearsed once a week in a girl guide’s hall and in the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre but today we finally see the actual performance space. Typically of the Birmingham Opera Company, we’re in an old industrial warehouse, a rubber plant and chemical factory to be precise – it’s filthy but absolutely vast and the acoustics are incredible (and forgiving). Here is it:




Today is also our first chance to meet the director, Graham Vick (in the red jumper above). He opens with a bit of background on Verdi’s opera – how Verdi was forced out of his 18-year retirement to write a modern opera at the age of 78.

‘Race has always been the elephant in the room,’ says Vick. ‘It is difficult to explore these issues with an audience of rich, white Italians.’ But now with both a black Othello (Ronald Samm) AND a black Iago (Keel Watson), and us, a chorus recruited from one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK, Vick hopes to get stuck right in to the race issue.

Indeed we are a very representative chorus – we are both old (pensioners) and young (there's a 30-strong children's chorus). We are black, white, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, able-bodied, unable to stand or walk easily. Some of us are even ginger. 😉


But still we are universally shocked – there are gasps – when Vick reveals some of the details of his radical production: a carpeted Mosque-style set where the audience leaves their shoes at the door, and (he thinks he will go with this one) suicide bombers brandishing grenades or strapped with sticks of dynamite beneath their coats.

‘Othello’s opening line is about drowning the Moslems and leaving them to rot at the bottom of the sea,’ says Vick. He seems to relish in being provocative. I’m imagining mass panic.

Then Othello and Desdemona sing their love duet, and we are enraptured, the suicide bombers temporarily forgotten in the beauty and strength of the two lead voices.

27 October 2009

Eviva Othello Eviva!

There are up to eight chorus parts running simultaneously in Verdi’s score. Jon is running us through a particulary difficult, multi-layered section. It only lasts a minute but the sopranos must scream ‘Away! Away! Stop them! They’re desperate! A rescue! A rescue! A rescue!’ while very precisely fitting between tenors, basses and altos shouting similar things all at different times. Not easy as most of us don’t read music and have learnt our individual parts only from a CD recording.

‘Ladies, can I have less chickens exploding and more melody on “they’re desperate” please.’

‘Hold it in, puddle on the floor, hold it in, puddle on the floor!’ – now he is referring us to use our peeing muscles in order to attain a more precise note. At this point we have been moulded into super-compliant robots carrying out every whim of our musical overlord.

Jon says, ‘Something tells me we are never going to sing this right in performance.’

31 October 2009

As we’re an ‘acting’ singing chorus, every week Ron and Jen the choreographers attempt to loosen up our stiff singers joints with some movement warm-ups. This is on top of taking our shoes on and off all the time – the carpeted performance space is a shoe-free zone.


Last week the warm-up involved a tongue-flicking hakka face-off and spelling out our name with out hips. This week, it’s a Hallowe’en-inspired section of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in which we must dance like staring zombies for the BBC cameras that are here to film for The Culture Show. A rumour goes round that it’ll be posted up on the company’s YouTube channel, where the awfulness will no doubt go viral.

Our other big task is to learn to walk at different speeds among each other, shake hands, hug vigorously and say ‘HI!’ like Italians, ie, effusively. Negotiating crowds of people will be vital – 300 of us will be in the space with 450 members of the audience and will have to negotiate around them – sometimes at a running pace in order to reach our cue.

Musicwise, Jon concentrates on ironing out the Brummie twang that occasionally creeps into lines like ‘Victorious!’ and ‘Oh save us’. Apparently it’s not ‘Oh save uz’, it’s ‘Save ahhs’. Or as John says, ‘Save arse, save arse, save arse.’

7 November 2009

The vocal warm-ups are entertaining. There’s nothing quite like seeing 150 people stick out their tongue and spell their names with it in mid-air. Or singing scales to a tongue twister –‘To begin to toboggan first buy a toboggan but don’t buy too big a toboggan. Too big a toboggan is not a toboggan to buy to begin to toboggan.’

Today Jon orders the basses to sing like ‘aggressive ducks’ to help them enunciate and get the sound he after. The rest of us are told to sound less like Daleks and to to do a bit of letter substitution for a softer sound. ‘When you hear a T in Italian opera, use a d, so there is less air on it,’ says Graham Vick, who is starting to join in our singing rehearsals and give us production instructions.



At this point I gave up on typing up my notes – it's on my to do list (the one that will never get done). Rehearsals were stepped up to three or four times a week, with 8-10 hours spent in the factory space at weekends. Life began to revolve around the opera. My partner was in the tenors so it also bled into homelife too, with singing warmups taking place in the car on the way to the 'theatre'. The excitement was building and we began to see what the actors had been working on, as well as seeing anyone from breakdancers to Morris Men to 'suicide bombers' wandering the green room and performance space.


The orchestra were installed on their gantry…


…and we were introduced to our new conductor, Stephen Barlow, who would conduct us by means of televisions placed around the factory space. Here he is:


Tickets were released and quickly sold out. We had the sense that this was a BIG production, the biggest yet for BOC. When Graham or Jon said jump, we jumped; despite the tiredness. The component parts were glimpsed and the costumes fitted and hung on name-tagged hangers. Just like a proper show, I remember thinking. It was when I saw the wardrobe rails and sign-in sheets that it became real for me.



But it was only at the dress rehearsal that we finally saw what BOC had created.





And it was good. Very good. So, even if you're not an opera fan normally, please watch it on BBC2, or iPlayer, or set the video, or catch the repear next Saturday, or see it on the Big Screen in Birmingham's Victoria Square.

And think of us lucky people who got to take part in the experience of being in a major opera. We'll be breaking open the bubbly on this Saturday afternoon for our TV premiere, singing along no doubt and trying to spot ourselves on the telly.


IN OTHER OPERA NEWS… since then I signed up for another BOC opera: Stravinsky's The Wedding, which took place in 2010 – more on that here in My big fat fake wedding.

My big fat fake wedding

I never thought I would see the day that I put on a brocaded wedding gown (with train, tiara and veil) but somehow it finally happened last weekend. Here I am…

Fiona The Bride 1

This is why I've been absent from my blog (and social life) for so long. There are few things in life that involve such commitment. Two whole months of preparation every Tuesday evening, every Saturday afternoon, then every Sunday too, and finally every day leading up to the big day, or rather weekend. But at least I wasn't alone.

Wedding © Nicola Duke/Bham Opera

It all started a year ago when I fell in love with Birmingham Opera Company after joining the cast of Othello, their nationally lauded contemporary version of Verdi's Otello, set in a warehouse in Digbeth, carpeted like a mosque and featuring a community chorus of volunteer amateur singers. When they started rehearsals in September 2010 for Stravinsky's Les Noces – aka the Wedding – I was there like a shot for another season of 'tra la la'…

Wedding © Nicola Duke/Bham Opera

Stravinsky's ballet was a far more difficult piece to learn, though, despite two months of rehearsing and note-bashing with choirmaster Jon Laird and despite having a CD with our parts sung for us.

As the publicity reads: "The Wedding is a screaming, shrieking, flat out masterpiece with its rhythmic drive and unique sound world- 4 virtuoso pianists on grand pianos, a dazzling array of percussion, 4 soloists and a chorus. Written as a ballet in 1923 for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, Stravinsky drew on Russian traditions to conjure up a vivid and intense depiction of the old ways, and the not so old!"

I suspect most of the chorus found the musical soundscape of Les Noces quite anarchic with every part seemingly at odds or out of sync with each other. But since Birmingham Opera's director Graham Vick had said that he wanted space to play and experiment (more so than usual), it seemed the perfect piece. Here are the tenors and basses, by the way, instructed by Graham to act like baboons behind a cage sign saying "Please do not feed the grooms"…


The setting was the AE Harris factory in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter – home of Stan's Cafe theatre company. 'Just Married' was daubed in giant red letters across one wall, the paint dripping like blood. Bouquets and wedding photography were poked into factory fittings. The grooms were in their cage, the brides prepping in one of the four main performance spaces (it's a walkabout opera). In the centre were the percussion instruments and four grand pianos. Meanwhile, Frankincense filled the air scenting it like a church.

pianos © Judith Holt

The performances went off differently each time – some electric, some a bit lacklustre, some more musically correct, some all over the shop. As Jon Laird, conductor and choirmaster, said: "We're riding the wave of uncertainty – again." It's the nature of working with enthusiastic amateurs I expect, and part of the challenge to all those involved.

(Jon also said a few other things during note-bashing – his entertaining approach to learning is one of the main reasons the amateurs show up again and again despite all the hard work. His encouragements veer between backhanded compliments, screeching impressions of the sopranos, perfect analogies and random metaphors: "It's hell – and then it suddenly makes sense"; "Good. Good and terrible"; "You're flailing around in a sea of pain"; "Can we have less wicked witch of the west and more heavenly angels please ladies"; "This is a beautiful tapestry of joyous Russian STUFF"; and so on.)

Here are the sopranos being obedient while trying to read the repetitively rhythmic words and also watch Jon for cues.

© Nicola Duke/Bham Opera

Apart from feeling like you're in a real-life version of Faking It, joining the Birmingham Opera Company is a real social event for the participants. The Wedding had 120 in the company; Othello more than double that. Here are my fellow brides and I milling about ahead of the opening scene.

The Wedding

The after-parties are pretty great too… it's where the temporary bar gets drunk dry.

Wedding party -3

I did keep a diary during the making of Othello until it got too busy and manic. I must get around to posting that here or somewhere because I really would encourage anyone who enjoys singing to get involved (next production is in spring 2012). It's a long time to wait though. And at the moment I am full of post-performance MEH! So until then I may as well wallow in these photos of my big fat fake mass wedding and my lovely Sop 1 bridezillas, such as Annabel and Judith pictured here, who got the best dresses by far. Sadly for us the honeymoon is now over.

© Judith Holt

Pictures: © Pete Ashton, Nicola Duke, Birmingham Opera Company and Judith Holt.