The double-entendre in the title of this book is deliberate. Christopher Gillett has written a book which chronicles the life of a jobbing tenor in a way which is charming, illuminating and bed-wettingly funny.
Christopher Gillett is an operatic tenor who has made a strong, but relatively unspectacular, career for himself in mainly character tenor roles. More by accident than design, he has made something of a speciality of the role of Flute, the bellows-mender, in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, a role he seems to have sung all over Europe.
And it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream
which Gillett uses to give the book some structure. Chapters are short and each one is headed by a short quote from the play. The various scenes of the mechanicals are used by Gillett to shape his musings. Central to the books are a series of accounts of recent European productions of the opera, with Gillett being unsparing in his descriptions of the rehearsal process and the folies de grandeur
of most opera directors.
Amongst productions he describes is the premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea
, complete with unworkable costumes and a casting process which left Gillett nervous that the composer thought he was unsuitable for the role. Each production has its own craziness and its own amusements. There are bad episodes too: his big moment at Covent Garden as Tippett’s Dov, in The Knot Garden
; a moment sabotaged by illness. Gillett didn’t get another chance there, ‘The Garden isn’t going to be falling over itself to have me back in big roles again after this illness. Illness is not easily forgiven. It shows a lack of judgement.’
The book has a strong polemic vein. He includes some devastating deconstructions of typical directors and conductors, revealing a remarkable vein of anger. What saves it from being a rant is that Gillett has a good ear for an anecdote. Much of the book is superbly funny, but as with most humour there is an underlying vein of melancholy. In these short chapters, Gillett neatly delineates the rootless life of a gypsy; someone who rarely lives at home for long, who spends far too long in indifferent digs and whose family life suffers. He points out that the divorce rate amongst his fellow singers is 75%.
Gillett is clear-eyed about the failings of his fellow singers, but he reserves his strongest scorn for producers and conductors. In his account of the rehearsal process for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
in Spain he is truly scathing about the director (referred only by the soubriquet, the Umber Gnome); but his scorn is defused by the simple fact that his vignettes of the ups and downs (mainly downs) of the rehearsals are very funny.
Interleaved within these accounts of the present day are various memories of other stages in Gillett’s career. We really do get a feel for what it takes to become a singer on today’s operatic stage.
For anyone who is interested in opera, this is essential reading. The book makes you realise what a really crazy business staging opera is. Quite often, after reading one of Gillett’s anecdotes, you wonder why he does it - why any singer would want to put themselves through this. Gillett has an answer for that, in a rather touching comment which would seem to sum up the credo of every jobbing opera singer:-
‘I don’t stay in this business because I believe for a moment that it’s going to get better. I stay in it because every time I’m on the verge of giving up something comes along which is just well-paid and flattering enough to make me think I’ll stick at it a little bit longer.’
This is quite a short book, just 134 pages, but it is the perfect length. Apposite and to the point, Gillett is never self-indulgent. Not since Elisabeth Söderström’s ‘In my own key’ have I come across a book which enables the non-performer to understand quite what it means to go out and sing on the operatic stage; and Gillett’s book is far funnier.
Chronicles the life of a jobbing tenor in a way which is charming, illuminating and bed-wettingly funny.