A very famous pianist once said to me of an incredibly famous singer “The trouble with Incredibly Famous-Singer is that she actually believes her own publicity.”

A man from North Carolina recently bought a copy of my book Who’s My Bottom? and it caused him great offence. He said so on the online opera forum he runs. That’s his prerogative. After all he paid good money for it and he can say what he likes. I’d give him back the one dollar I earned from his purchase if it would calm his rage.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend this post begging for positive reinforcement or making excuses, but he did set me thinking about the ferocity of his loathing, as if I had done the equivalent of spitting on a Titian by talking about the underbelly of the opera business in a way that isn’t reverential and which – shock, horror – uses the odd naughty word. I’m not going to defend my work by taking his comments to pieces or by explaining myself at length.
Except for two things, very quickly. Indulge me.
I’m not “bitter” (as he says) about anything, but there have been times when I have been (haven’t we all?) and I would be writing dishonestly if I didn’t say so. Second, as he speculates, if I do “have a personality disorder” (and I quite possibly do – don’t we all to some extent?) that may go some way to explaining why I stick with doing this job. Any sane person would have quit years ago.
There. Done. I told you it would be quick.
Moving swiftly on. I recognise there’s a risk that telling the truth about being an opera singer is not what some people want to hear. They desperately want to believe the publicity; that we live in an opera bubble, free from the burdens of ordinary mortals, such as having mouths to feed and bills to pay, and in which we focus on nothing but singing technique and lovely photo-shoots.
I also think it’s very unfair that we opera singers are expected to behave like the heroes and heroines we so often have to portray on stage. Actors don’t seem to be lumbered with this responsibility. If an actor says “fuck” on the telly everyone treats it as perfectly normal. I just watched the film Sexy Beast, in which Sir Ben Kingsley empties a massive verbal potty from his mouth. I’m not sure anyone thought that it was somehow beneath him, that he was sullying his craft. But heaven forbid that an opera singer should sink so low as to swear or, say, admit to doing what pretty-well every singer I know does before heading to the stage: check his flies and have a good fart. We’re just human beings, not angels, who happen to do a rather weird, wonderful and difficult thing. So why on earth, as one of their number, shouldn’t I actually say so?
Suffice it to say that as I wrestle with a second book and continue to post blogs which may not flatter the institutions that employ me, I am resolutely not changing my tack. My suggestion to the gentleman from North Carolina and anyone else of his ilk is this: if you want a crispy sugar-coating on your opera puffs, don’t read my stuff; buy a PR-funded glossy magazine instead.
And please don’t confuse having a humorous rant with being bitter. They’re really, really not the same thing.

Comments (11)

  1. Reply

    I know the man from North Carolina and you know, I reckon it’s a question of cultural difference. I’ve just finished your book and enjoyed it immensely, but to me the humour seems very English, self-deprecating in a “the Blitz was the best time of my life” kind of way, which Americans just don’t get.

    I’m just off now to say that on the forum.

  2. Reply

    The book was fabulous, funny, and painfully true – I would give a copy to every aspiring singer I know who has their head filled up with ideas about this “glamorous” career.

  3. Reply

    Ooh..which blog? The man form North Carolina sounds like a title of a book/film/song.
    Here here Chris, another excellent observation and good luck with the sequel.
    Perhaps the man from NC would also like to know what it is like to sing at 5 months pregnant (or more); when trapped wind feels makes you want to jacknife with pain in the middle of an aria, the fear of falling or bumping into something, when an over-zealous inexperienced colleague grabs and pushes you way too forcefully (despite being asked not to). Not much glamour there, oh and one more thing, when your mother died the week before opening night. Why should people not know this kind of thing? We attempt to make magic on stage and I try my best to deal with all of the above, but I couldn’t retire to a pink fluffy room with servants to wipe my brow or tactfully retire when the wind finally made a bid for freedom. I had a job to do, I was contracted, just like anyone else. Sarah Connolly

  4. Reply

    every singer I know does before heading to the stage: check his flies and have a good fart.

    But surely… they don’t stink, right?

  5. Reply

    that was from me – not sure why it says ‘unknown’ though. I get muddled with all these password things

  6. Reply

    I must have a personality disorder too, because, after reading your book showing the grim reality of a life in the opera, I still desperately want to be an opera singer. Maybe even more now, because I love working with raunchy, funny, smart, self-deprecating people, that is to say, with opera singers.

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