Grief and cuddly toys

My father died on June 4th, 1993.  21 years ago.  I could write about that, or the sort of man he was, or not write anything.  I wasn’t going to write anything.  But today I read a piece by Justin Webb (journalist, Today programme, Radio 4) about his daughter losing her beloved blue donkey in Switzerland, and how they eventually got it back.

My father died in the early hours of the morning.  When we all got back to the family house, I sat up for the rest of the night holding a stuffed toy, a ring-tailed lemur handpuppet that he’d bought me because I love lemurs.  Poppy the lemur became a sort of talisman from that night on, went with me everywhere, even around the world for a year, in tents and on trains, through a car crash, being chased by a hippo and getting malaria.  Poppy was always there, stuffed in my backpack or down inside my sleeping bag.

And then I lost him, on a tour to Sydney with the London Symphony Chorus.  We were there for New Year, it was brilliant.  New Year’s Day on Bondi Beach, New Year’s Eve watching the fireworks from the Opera House after our concert.  A couple of days later, I left Poppy on the hotel bed, instead of putting him in my bag as I usually did.  When I got back that evening, he was gone.  The sheets had been taken away and washed and Poppy with them.

I collapsed, hysterical.  That’s not an exaggeration.  My great friend and roomie totally understood what had happened – I’d lost my father all over again.  Some of my other friends got it, some were embarrassed, awkward, lots of raised eyebrows.  I begged the lovely hotel staff to check the laundry, the washing machines, anything.  No sign of him.  The rest of the trip was blurred and painful.  My friend came back to our room one day with a furry opossum, which I still have.  He wasn’t Poppy, but he represented kindness and care.

I was staying on for a week after the tour ended, and I left the phone number of my new guesthouse with the hotel, just in case.  And they found Poppy.  The manager phoned and said she was so pleased that she’d wanted to tell me herself.  I rushed back to the hotel and there he was, looking a bit thinned out and very clean.  I burst into tears again and the manager sort of did as well.

I’m delighted that Justin Webb’s little girl got her blue donkey back.  In the article, he also talked about a charity called SAFE (Stuffed Animals for Emergencies), whose purpose is to bring soft toys to children who have seen trauma.  He says this: “There is a big relief effort to help the millions of Syrians now living in refugee camps but I doubt that soft toys are at the top of anyone’s agenda.  Perhaps they should be; if not at the top, then at least on it somewhere.  Let us not be sentimental: Syrian children need all manner of things before they need stuffed animals, but still, to a child who has lost everything, a stuffed toy can be a step back from the brink of total despair.”

I still have Poppy and I still take him all over the place.  I don’t know what I’d do if I lost him again; it’s not something I want to consider. I’m sure there will be people reading this who think ‘how ridiculous,’.  Perhaps it is.  Responses to grief are not quantifiable.  Until I lost Poppy, I had no idea how I would react, or even if I would.  I no longer question it, and I certainly don’t care that other people may indeed think it’s ridiculous. (If I did, I wouldn’t be blogging about it now, would I?)  Soft toy, photos, letters, gifts.  Doesn’t matter.  They mean what they mean.  And I know what Poppy means.

What is the difference between an opera and a musical?

I’ve had three singing teachers.  The first was a Bel Canto specialist, an opera term meaning ‘beautiful singing’ in Italian.  I stopped going to him after he stuck his fingers down my trousers and told me it was a secret technique to help me access my emotions and therefore I wasn’t to tell anyone.

My second teacher was a woman at drama school who ruined my voice for years until I found the wonderful Penni Harvey-Piper who completely changed the way I sang by basically teaching me American music theatre singing crossed with opera technique.  Never looked back from there.

In the Indie on Saturday, David Lister’s column contained a piece about the head of English National Opera’s announcement that ENO will be staging some musicals alongside operas.  David Lister largely approves of this, but says: “It’s a move always certain to have detractors among opera-goers.”  It’s also got one detractor here and I say this having spent much of my career to date in musical theatre, but also singing opera for odd recordings and in workshops.  I am very fortunate that I can do a pretty good cross-over, but in no way would I consider myself an opera singer.

Which brings me to the problem of opera houses doing musicals.  I love ENO and I’ve seen some of the best opera productions there – Peter Grimes, Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon in China, Rodelinda, etc etc.  I will draw a veil over The Passenger, but kudos to them for giving it a go.

Some musicals work well in opera, which is David Lister’s point.  Bernstein’s fabulous Candide, for example, is pretty much an opera anyway.  But I’ve seen two opera houses have a crack at Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd.  Opera North was acclaimed by many, but not by me.  The difference between the musical theatre performers (Beverley Klein as Mrs Lovett for example) and the pure opera singers was jarring.  It didn’t work.  Imagine Sir Donald Wolfit trying to do a sitcom.  Worlds not so much colliding as passing one another in bemusement.

And as for the Royal Opera House’s execrable attempt… well, those of us who were there still speak of it in  hushed tones.

The best Sweeney I ever saw was at the National Theatre, with Alun Armstrong and Julia Mackenzie.  Not everyone in the cast was the best singer, but god did they know how to perform Sondheim.  And it’s not about how well you sing.  It’s not about making a lovely noise.

The ROH production pointed this up perfectly.  You could see them thinking ‘oh how hard can this be?  It’s not exactly Wagner, is it?’  Well, guys, let me tell you, musical theatre is bloody hard work – yes I know, so is opera, but at least you don’t have to do it 8 shows a week, every week.   And it’s not just the stamina required, it’s the stylistic understanding of another genre – and most importantly, respect for that genre.  If you think you’re slumming it by singing one of the greatest musicals ever written then perhaps you should put a dep in.

Having said all that, I was fortunate enough to be standing directly behind Bryn Terfel in the opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd at the Royal Festival Hall concert performances of the musical.  He had his back to the audience, head down right next to me as we’re sending our terrifying top Cs into the stratosphere.  And then he turned round and that voice belted out ‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…’ It was stunning, not only because he can sing like a god, but because of his total commitment to the piece.

So – good luck ENO.  I have no objections to your doing musicals, and even less objection to being in one of them, so long as it’s done with the respect that it deserves from all concerned.


Music as transformation

A close family friend died today, very unexpectedly.  I’d known her for years, and music was a shared part of our knowing, as her husband sang with the Zemel Choir, a mixed-voice Jewish choir that has been part of my life since I really knew what music was.  My father was Concert Manager for 25 years, and the whole Eckman clan (Jewish Von Trapp Family Singers) have sung with Zemel.  My mother and niece still do.  My father died 21 years ago.  It hurts to write that, even now.

This afternoon, I went off to run a workshop at a homeless centre.  I wasn’t looking forward to this at all, partly because I wasn’t in the singing zone and partly because last week’s session had been a shambles.  Fortunately, following a – shall we say stern – email from me, things were different this week.  Chairs set out, heating on, floor cleaned, Clavinova back in place,  support staff member present and, most importantly, participants who were up for anything, including a rhythm lesson, lots of improvisation and some harnessing of their inner hippie.

I’d chosen the music carefully (i.e. planned a whole two hours in advance instead of as often happens, in the car or the train down when I haven’t had time to think about it.  Honestly, it’s always fine.  Really it is.)  I wanted to cheer myself up.  We’d been doing some work on Ravel’s gorgeous, magical opera L’Enfant Et Les Sortileges, but I wasn’t in the mood  for it today, so I went for the sunny, flowers-in-your-hair Aquarius from Hair  and Gershwin’s equally sunny, joyous, I Got Rhythm.  They both went down a treat, and at the end of the session I was dreading, I went home buzzing with its success, but more importantly, with music.

Music is so much a part of my life that I don’t often listen at home.  When I do listen, I try to do so with attention, not as an adjunct to something else. Unless it’s baking, since nothing says chocolate brownie like Seth Lakeman.  Next month, I perform my first gig with the inspirational charity Lost Chord, which sends musicians and singers into dementia care homes.  The training day for this was in a Jewish care home in South London and was gut-wrenchingly, heart-breakingly hard and also beautiful.  Any of the residents could have been members of my family.  I sat with a lovely man who actually remembered our family bakery in Edgware, although he couldn’t remember that he was 91 that day.  “How old am I?” he asked.  “How old do you want to be?” I replied.  “21.”  So he was 21 every time he asked the question.

The residents loved the concert – they recognised songs, they danced, they laughed, wept and clapped.  As part of our induction day, we had to come up with a ten-minute performance.  I’d chosen Jewish songs, ones that I’d sung with Zemel, that are part of my history, and theirs.  They joined in and cried and danced.  It was lovely, apart from the mortifying  moment when I said: “I’m sure you’ll all remember this one…”

The more time I spend running workshops, the more I realise how astonishing music is.  It bonds people in different ways.  It is memory and emotion and feeling.  It can lift you out of sorrow, it can take you away from the fact that last night you slept on the streets and will do again tonight.  For a couple of hours, you can be somewhere else, with jazz, opera and musicals.  I’ve done Britten and Sondheim, Gershwin and Elvis.  I’ve watched people sob as I sing something that reminds them of who knows what?

It’s not the same as doing a musical, a play or a gig.  It’s endless challenge and thinking ahead all the time in case something’s a bit shit and you need to change it before they get bored/fall asleep/go for a fag. But the music glues it all together.

There are people in the world who never listen to music, don’t get it, don’t like it.  Too bad for them.


On friendship (in 667 words)

Apparently, the optimum length of a blog is 500 words – any more and people can’t be bothered to read it straight away and then forget it’s there. I’ve just wasted 35 words telling you this.
Last week, I introduced the song ‘Lean On Me’ into a workshop. One of the participants said it didn’t do it for him and anyway ‘what does it mean?’ You tell me, I said. ‘That friends are always there for you,’ he answered with a certain amount of disdain. ‘ I don’t have any friends, just people I use. I’m using you now.’ The participant taught me the Polish word for friend (male) – ‘przyjaciel’. ‘This isn’t facebook friend, this is real friend’ he said, again with disdain. I then put him straight on the idea of a friend as I see it. There are the closest of friends (Level 1), who I can tell pretty much anything. Level 2, also close but not the ones you’d ring at 3 in the morning. Level 3 is what you might call work-related friends, who you really like but wouldn’t see outside work. Level 4 are those on facebook who you are genuinely fond of. Level 5 are those on facebook that you don’t really want to be friends with but are too embarrassed to cull. Level 6 is Twitter.
I have known most of my Level 1 friends for several decades and my oldest friend since I was three. Some of my Level 1s are around the same age as me, some are younger. Some are male, some are female. Some aren’t in this country.
What do you expect from a friend? Is a true friend someone who constantly tells you how marvellous you are? Who treats your every post on facebook with ‘oh you’re amazing, inspirational, I wish I was like you.’ Sometimes that’s nice to hear – who doesn’t want to be told they’re amazing? But every time? Really? No-one’s that fabulous. Not even me.
I think you also find out who your real friends are when shit happens. Shit happened to me last year, and will no doubt happen again. One of my dearest friends was overwhelmed when I told her I’d been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer (or not – see Blog No. 1). She said ‘I don’t know how to process this for you.’ I couldn’t deal with that and told her so. She is still one of my dearest friends, because she totally understood, and was there every time I called, whether she could think of anything useful to say or not. Another one gave me a bollocking. ‘I know you. You hate asking for help. Well if you don’t fucking tell me how you feel, how am I meant to know?’ She’s done this before and it worked then too. She told me what I needed to hear, not what I might have thought I needed. That’s what I think being a friend is about. Not constant validation of all one’s choices, but clear-eyed support and love and a kick up the arse if needed.
You find out who your real friends are, and sometimes they are not the ones you expected. Unfortunately, you sometimes also find that the ones you thought were, are not. Are not there, for whatever reason (and yes, you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life when you are utterly wrapped up in the shit that you are going through), but still not there, not with a text or an email or a phone call. And then you go ‘actually, you are not important in my life and I no longer feel the inclination to add anything to yours.’ These friends have gone from probably Level 2 to Level 5. They were never really Level 1, even if you thought they were.
My friends are amazing. I would do pretty much anything for them, including give them a kick up the arse if necessary. I would be there at 3am (depending on time zones), though it’s not my best time. They are my inspiration and I love them. In Polish or English or any language.