Sunday, 8 February 2009


8/2/09, Channing School, Highgate
A fund-raiser for the Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution, 170 years old this year. A school assembly hall, four performers from the Royal Opera Young Artists Programme (a tenor and a baritone, both from Korea; a soprano from Romania; a pianist from Queensland), the bass Robert Lloyd, now retired and a member of the Highgate Lit, and a dozen famous and familiar operatic arias.

S (also a member of the Lit) invited us to lunch beforehand with A and the Lit's president, plus the president's husband and the president's oldest friend, a nice lady who moved ten years ago from the Yorkshire Dales to the Pyrenees where she practices alternative therapies and counselling and such like. She offered me a head massage.

It was semi-staged (the singing, not the head massage); Lloyd did the introductions (with considerable wit); and they sang their socks off. The audience (average age about 80) lapped it up.

The soprano (Simona Mihai) struggled a bit with the gavotte from Act 3 of Manon, which has some very loud and very high top notes, but was generally pleasing in a long dark red evening dress. The baritone's acting wasn't up to much - his woodenness accentuated in the finale, a rousing martial duet with Lloyd from I Puritani by Bellini, in which Lloyd acted him off the stage - but he had the most wonderfully resonant voice; he was called Changham Lim. The tenor (Ji-Min Park) was a better actor and after a slightly under-powered start came into his own in Edgardo's graveyard aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, much of which is unaccompanied and which is punctuated by silences which really were silent -- he even managed to still the lady down at the front who kept taking photographs on her new camera (she had the manual open on her lap). His rendering of Your Tiny Hand Ain't 'Arf Froze from La Boheme made the hairs stand on end - but maybe that's just because it's so familiar.

In the first half Lloyd sang Osmin's aria from the Seraglio with tremendous vigour -- but was so breathless at the end he could barely speak to introduce the next piece and had to go and sit in a corner looking a smidge peaky while he recovered. It was a reminder that singing opera must be bloody hard work. The young do it with greater ease, but for the most part lack the stagecraft and experience to carry it off at the very highest level. Which is a shame: as Lloyd said, it was nice to hear the Act 4 duet for Rodolfo and Marcello from La Boheme sung by chaps of the right age for once. (Later: turns out the soprano and the baritone are both 30, so not that young; not sure how old the tenor is.)

Worrying about Lloyd's health rather distracted from the baritone aria from Puccini's Edgar (no, I hadn't heard of it either) which featured an extraordinarily long note. And there was a second very long note when Lloyd and the baritone sang the duet for Rigoletto and Sparafucile from Act 1 of Rigoletto, which ends with the bass singing a very deep "Sparafuceeeel..." as he exits. Lloyd had no problem with that. He told us afterwards that it is the custom in Italian opera houses to pay the singers before their last entrance, a legacy of the time when opera house managers were apt to do a runner with the night's takings before cast and crew could be paid, and the Met in New York does the same. After exiting in Act 1 Sparafucile makes only one other appearance in the final act, so the exiting bass walks off stage in New York to be met by the stage manager with a cheque. "It really does fell like you're being paid especially for that note," he said.

He also introduced a duet from The Merry Widow by claiming he knew little of the opera because it had no role for a bass and cited the Australian baritone John Shore, once principal baritone at Covent Garden. Lloyd encountered him once in the recording studio when he, Lloyd, was a young man. Shore asked him what he was recording and when Lloyd told him asked what the baritone part in the opera was like. "There isn't one," said Lloyd. "What kind of bloody opera is that?" said Shore.

Maybe they were funnier the way Lloyd told 'em.

They gave us fruit juice and home-made biscuits in the interval and two encores, O mio bambino and the duet from The Pearl Fishers, a pair of Classic FM crowd-pleasers. Walking back afterwards S likened the Lit's role in Highgate society to that of the church in a country village, a focus for community life kept going by volunteers and donations, meeting regularly with occasional special events, like today's.

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