Sunday, 29 March 2015

Winter is dead?

“She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
"Winter is dead.”

- A.A. Milne, Daffodowndilly

“A thin grey fog hung over the city, and the streets were very cold; for summer was in England.”
- Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed

British Summer Time starts today. It is, of course, raining.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Unless you show off, you're not going to get noticed

"The great thing about rock and roll is that someone like me can be a star."

"I think performers are all show-offs anyway, especially musicians. Unless you show off, you're not going to get noticed."

Sir Elton Hercules John CBE (born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, 25th March 1947)

“Most people don’t understand performers are really sheltered and protected so much sometimes that they don’t get a chance to live their lives.”

“I can be a better me than anyone can!”

Diana Ernestine Earle Ross (born 26th March 1944)

Sunday, 22 March 2015

There is no-one else remotely as good as either of them

Two significant theatrical birthdays coincide today, as Michael Coveney observes in WhatsOnStage:
Happy Birthday to the grand old men of musical theatre, and I'm not talking Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's almost freakish that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, the transatlantic giants of the genre, share the same birth date, 22nd March, though ALW is a mere stripling at 67 years, Sondheim a justly venerated 83.

Both composers, both geniuses in their own individual ways, tread warily and respectfully around each other, but their supporters, mostly on the Sondheim side, are like rival fans of the two Manchester football teams: vociferous, bitchy and unaccommodating. Lloyd Webber, in their eyes, always wants to please the public whereas Sondheim wants to change an art form. Guess who most critics prefer.

The truth is they both seek popular approval, of course, and they have both been revolutionary innovators. Lloyd Webber's two major musicals written with lyrics by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, will remain in the repertoire for as long as Puccini's Tosca and Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow and, who knows, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Cats and Starlight Express are brilliant eclectic vaudevilles, exploring every kind of rock musical and operatic style in effervescent pastiche, while Sondheim's best shows - my favourites (not necessarily the same thing) are Company, A Little Night Music and Into the Woods - reinvent the genre as urban satire, fairy-tale, operetta; and of course he rewrites his own brilliant lyrics.

Although the first productions of Company and Night Music each ran a year here, neither was a commercial smash, nor was (or is) Assassins, for all its mordant vitality. ALW's Phantom of the Opera runs for ever because it touches a nerve about the music of seduction, the agency of love and the splendour of its rock romantic expression; and the music is on a constant switchback between that romance and the heart of darkness in the Phantom's labyrinth, while Sondheim does a similar thing in combining surface atmosphere with ghoulish revelation in Sweeney Todd.

Both write "proper" music to put it mildly. The first half of the finally disappointing Stephen Ward contained some of Lloyd Webber's best continuity, or underscoring, while Sondheim's Passion, which I can live without, has some of his finest arioso and harmonic moments. If there's a musical context for Lloyd Webber's inspiration you find it in Prokofiev as well as Puccini - it's worth remembering that when Dmitri Shostakovich, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, saw Superstar in London shortly before he died (twice, on successive evenings) he lamented that he could not have written something similar himself, admiring particularly the writing of a core rock band orchestration overlain with full symphonic strings, brass and woodwind. And Sondheim hails from the greatest days of the Broadway musical and indeed wrote lyrics for three of them - West Side Story, Gypsy and (music as well) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Both writers owe a lot to Cameron Mackintosh. Mackintosh produced Cats and Phantom and Side By Side By Sondheim, the 1976 cabaret that really put Sondheim on the map in this country. And when Cameron celebrated his 30 years in show business in 1998, ALW and "Steve" (as I called him by the end of our one and only chance encounter in a London pub, when I had the privilege of buying him two very large gin and limes) collaborated for the first and only time at a royal gala in the producer's honour.

On film at that gala, they shared the same piano and an item (devised by Sondheim) which wedded the tunes of "Send in the Clowns" and "Music of the Night": "Isn't he rich? Isn't he square? Isn't he working the room, somewhere out there? Send in the crowds... Acts on his whims, took a big chance, seeing his anagram said: Cameron, Romance. He went to France. Send in the crowds." The tune shifted to 4/4 time: "Night time falling, Cameron keeps calling. Posing questions, questions with suggestions... suddenly appearing, always interfering; but here we are, and cheering as we might, the man who flogs the music of tonight."

About the only other thing they have in common is having written an Oscar-winning film song for Madonna (ALW in Evita, with Tim Rice, and Sondheim in Dick Tracy), and both are struggling to adjust to the changing musical theatre scene. One problem they share is that there is no-one else remotely as good as either of them, nor do they have the benefit of a great musical theatre producer like Mackintosh, last of a breed, I reckon. ALW's influence has been immense in terms of the industry and side issues like sound systems and orchestration, while Sondheim has unwittingly created a more baleful legacy in his imitators and American musical theatre writers who simply can't get out from under his skin, or his shadow.

Still, with two Sweeney Todds coming up - one at the ENO with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson (semi-staged, for 13 performances only, hardly an auspicious launch for the supposedly money-making ENO deal with Michael Grade and Michael Linnitt), one in a pop-up pie and eel shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, cheekily gazumping ENO on Cameron's patch - and Gypsy soon to storm the Savoy, Steve ain't going away... nor is ALW, though I'm not the only one to worry about space songs for Sarah Brightman, his muse and inspiration on Phantom, and his unlikely-sounding collaboration with Julian "Downton Abbey" Fellowes - the Downton chief location, Highclere Castle, is handily close to ALW's country pile on the edge of Watership Down - on Jack Black's School of Rock.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim (born 22nd March 1930)

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Baron Lloyd-Webber (born 22nd March 1948)

Friday, 20 March 2015

Monday, 16 March 2015

Food for the soul

"Opera for me is music, and music is food for the soul. When I hear the music, it nourishes and enriches."

"Audiences are like lovers. There are nights when you are singing and at the beginning of the performance you get this feeling – it is not something you can see, not visible or palpable, but it is a feeling. As I begin to perform, if I have that feeling, I know that I’ve got them, they’re mine. Sometimes that comes at the beginning, sometimes it comes a little later on, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. So that’s why they’re like lovers."

The marvellous Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza is 80 years old today. Renowned for her interpretations of Mozart, Falla, Bizet and Rossini, she has sung in most of the great opera houses of the world with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti and Georg Solti.

Señora Berganza participated in the opening ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and in 1994 she became the first woman elected to the Spanish Royal Academy of Arts. To this day she teaches singing at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía, and continues to perform music of Spanish composers and gives master classes all over the world.

Here are just a couple of examples of her sublime artistry.

Habanera from Bizet's Carmen:

La tarántula é un bicho mu malo from La Tempranica by Giménez:

¡Muchas felicidades!

Teresa Berganza Vargas (born 16th March 1935)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

An icon of elegance and of Parisian refinement

“I think, in retrospect, I had a different style. Because I can’t say I was the most beautiful. It’s not a question of beauty. You have to have a personality.”

She was described as “the most photographed woman in France” by Paris Match magazine in the early Fifties. She was personally re-named "Bettina" by Jacques Fath. Givenchy called her “the very first muse of the house and an icon of elegance and of Parisian refinement".

RIP Bettina Graziani (born Simone Micheline Bodin, 8th May 1925 – 2nd March 2015) - one of the greatest models of the 1950s (and indeed the 20th century), whose elegance and style made possible the world of fashion photography as we know it today.

Monday, 9 March 2015

All that glitters...

Sydney Mardi Gras glittered its way into the World's media again this weekend, and had some special guest stars... Eddie Redmayne...


...and The Pussycat Dolls!

I think.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 2015

Monday, 2 March 2015

Gender Transgressor

From the National Portrait Gallery's description of the above painting by by Thomas Stewart (previously mistakenly held to be a portrait of an unknown woman, before being cleaned and revealing the unmistakable five o'clock shadow):
A soldier, diplomat and transvestite, the Chevalier d'Éon was one of the most colourful and celebrated characters in eighteenth-century Britain. Although born in France, he lived in London from 1762-1777 as a man, and from 1786-1810 as a woman. During both these periods he was a noted figure in international politics, high society and popular culture.

d'Éon first came to London in 1762 as part of the French Embassy and helped negotiate the Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War. Despite being awarded the Croix de St Louis, he refused to return to France when recalled. Instead, d'Éon published secret correspondence that revealed French ministerial corruption and blackmailed the French King by threatening to disclose secret information about French invasion plans. To silence him, Louis XVI offered him an official pension in 1775 but made the unprecedented condition that d'Éon should henceforth dress as a woman. This command was probably due to rumours, encouraged by d'Éon himself, that he was a woman. He reputedly attended cross-dressing balls during a previous diplomatic mission to Russia and bought corsets for himself while living as a man in London.

d'Éon’s new identity as a woman brought him even greater fame. He returned to Britain in 1785 and forged a new career performing fencing demonstrations. Popular prints show him fencing in a black dress like the one in this portrait, and, as here, he wore his Croix de St Louis during these fights. In England there was constant speculation and wagering about his sex. It was even the subject of a court trial that declared d'Éon to be a woman. Because the stereotype of a woman dressing as a man to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised, the idea of d'Éon as a woman was accepted. Despite his lack of feminine ‘delicacy’, he was upheld by pioneering feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as a shining example of ‘female fortitude’ to which British women might aspire.

The Stewart portrait is a copy of one painted by Jean-Laurent Mosnier in 1791. It shows d'Éon at the height of his fame, wearing the full cockade of a supporter of the French Revolution. In 1792, the year of this copy, d'Éon wrote to the new French National Assembly, offering to lead an army of ‘Amazon’ women against France’s enemies. This letter was widely reported in the British press and d'Éon was praised for his courage and patriotism. His sympathy for the new regime in France ended, however, with the execution of the French royal family.

d'Éon’s celebrity status was in itself a considerable achievement. He was the first openly-transvestite man in British history and no transvestite or transsexual, until the late twentieth century, has enjoyed such public recognition. The Annual Register wrote of him, "It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age ... we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents."

And so it was that I attended last Friday - as another part of the fantabulosa Camden & Islington LGBT History Month series of events - a special evening dedicated to this extraordinary creature (at St Pancras Hospital, itself host to the annual LGBT art show "Loudest Whispers", and immediately adjacent to the churchyard where the Chevalier was eventually interred). One of the speakers at the event - Chevalier d'Éon: Gender Transgressor - was artist and transman Simon Croft, whose own artwork The d'Éon Gambit is a centrepiece of the exhibition.

From Diva magazine:
Croft has carefully crafted a chess board - 'The d'Éon Gambit' (named after the sacrifice of a piece or pieces in order to gain advantage in the game overall - particularly relevant to the Chevalier's life, one might say) - where each playing piece represents a different aspect of the Chevalier's life: d'Éon is both the King and Queen symbolising his/her dual gender presentation and close relationship with the French King; the Knight is represented by the Croix de St Louis; the Rook by a sword hilt; the Bishop by St Pelagius, symbolising d'Éon's strong religious beliefs and the many references in his/her autobiography to such gender transgressing religious figures as precedents for his/her own situation; and the Pawns are represented by the Burdett-Coutts memorial in St. Pancras Old Church churchyard, where the Chevalier's name can be seen second from the top on one of the sides.

Despite using 3D printing techniques, Croft's playing pieces have remained, almost contradictorily, relatively 2D. They look both fragile and delicate hanging above a shattered board. Croft often works with this distinction between 2D and 3D, between concrete identity and variable viewpoints. A 3D object, squashed flat and restricted to one angle, may then, when hung, as these pieces are, cast literal shadows of doubt over their superficial appearance.

d'Éon left behind an autobiography, which remained unpublished until 2001. Written in French, and very much for a contemporary public, d'Éon self-refers with a mixture of masculine and feminine terms. Much of the content can be independently verified, but it is clear that some stories were invented or altered to suit the self-presentation s/he sought at different times.

In the book, d'Éon presents the life of a female-to-male transvestite (claiming to have been born a girl and raised a boy), whereas the truth seems instead to be that s/he was born and raised a boy, later choosing to live as a woman (thus, a male-to-female transgendered life). What is apparent is that d'Éon's life blurred gender binaries and we can only guess at his/her true sense of gender identity and what that might have meant at the time.
The discussion itself - chaired by art critic and writer Anna McNay, and featuring Simon Croft in conversation with LGBT sociologist Natacha Kennedy - was utterly compelling.

Mr Croft talked at length about how perceptions of gender identity shape his work and that of many other artists, ancient and modern. In particular he is keen to direct artists' attention away from the traditional "gender-bending" or "androgynous" attitudes to portraying the transgendered body, and instead to encourage more examples of abstract or unconventional representation of trans experiences and attitudes in their art.

Ms Kennedy took the discussion into another direction altogether, drawing upon the eternal paradigms of "nature vs nurture", societal attitudes, psychosexual theories (the term "Eonism" was used by Havelock Ellis to describe trans people in the nineteenth century), contrasts between cultures, and the perception of "self" in the West since the Enlightenment to draw a parallel between the conundrums in the story of the Chevalier and the difficulties faced by trans people even in today's supposedly "tolerant" times.

The audience discussion (it was very well attended for an event of its type, especially on a Friday evening) was particularly stimulating and, I felt, contributed a lot to what might otherwise have been perceived as a very "niche" topic of interest.

Having been fascinated by the fabled Chevalier d'Éon for many, many years, I was pleased to have been a participant in such an important event.

Further reading:
  • The Beaumont Society, a long standing organisation for transgender people, is named after the Chevalier d'Éon.
  • Remarkably, some of the best-kept papers left by the Chevalier are held at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.