I met Jon Dryden Taylor on Twitter. Then I saw him in two productions at the National Theatre – Othello and King Lear – and in Journey’s End in Newbury. As well as “doing acting” he “does writing”, notably for “That Mitchell and Webb Look” and has his own excellent blog. He likes opera. A lot.
So, Jon, how would you describe yourself? Opera obsessive? Canary fancier? Train spotter? Admirer of the lyric art?
Probably none of the above- they all make me sound a bit as if I smelled of yeast. Canary-fancier in particular just sounds sinister- something that could get you put on a register. Plus the implication is that you’ll listen to any old rubbish if it’s got enough semiquavers in. But then there aren’t really any alternatives. ‘Opera buff’ is a bit too retired-colonel and ‘opera queen’ is a little, well, categorical. I usually fall back on ‘opera nerd’.
We’ll examine the full fundament of your nerdity later, but first, how did this happen? Did it creep up on you or were you a T-Rex fan who had an epiphany on the road to Damascus?
Well, like most opera lovers, the first opera I saw live was Catalani’s DEJANICE. I can’t say that I was blown away by it, but I remember thinking that all that loud singing was quite fun. Then I was left a load of opera records by my grandfather- who wasn’t any kind of expert but just loved music. More out of a sense of duty than anything else, I put one of them on one day- it was Renata Tebaldi singing Butterfly- and that was it. The Sade and Fun Boy Three albums were a bit neglected after that.
Ah, Catalani’s DEJANICE… Who can fail to fall under its spell? How old were you at the time?
Twelve. Which I think is the prime age for DEJANICE.
I think we’d all agree. So this was five years before The Covent Garden Incident you once described to me. Would you care to share that? In full?
Ah yes. When I was seventeen, my friends and I suddenly realised that we lived in London and that the world didn’t stop at Hammersmith. So we took to going into town of a Friday night. There used to be a pretty grim little bar on Wellington St called The Brahms and Liszt and we’d head there. My friends Nicola and Amanda would flutter their eyelashes at the red-braces wearing, 80s business types that were in there and persuade them to buy us pitchers of Kir Royale. No pints of lager for me as a teenager, oh no- sickly glass after sickly glass of ‘bubbly’ and kir. Anyway, one night I fell out of B&L significantly the worse for wear and my inner opera nerd kicked in. I was going to be passing the stage door of the Royal Opera House, so I might as well stop for some autographs. I used to do this every time I saw an opera there, and didn’t see why a little thing like not having seen the performance should stop me. The only problem was, I didn’t have anything for the singers to sign- no opera meant no programme. But I had a perfect solution to that. To this day, I wonder what James Morris and Gabriele Schnaut thought, coming downstairs after a performance of “Die Walküre” and being asked by a blind drunk teenager if they’d sign his bus ticket.
Do you still have the bus ticket? In an album? Would you ask Nina Stemme to sign your Oyster Card?
I do still have the bus ticket. It’s the closest I’ve ever got to seeing any Wagner.
So, is your fascination with voices rather than the operas? Are you the sort of opera nerd who “collects” offbeat operas? Would you rather hear something by Cherubini than Wagner?
I’d certainly rather go to Cherubini than Wagner, in the sense that I’d rather pull my fingernails out with tweezers than go to see Wagner. He’s a definite blind spot. As to voices versus operas, I think that the live experience and the home experience are two utterly different things. If I’m in an opera house I need theatre. I can’t think of anything more boring than three hours of perfect vocalism with no drama going on at all. There are usually early signs for that kind of production. For example, if you’re at a COSI and the two women start their first scene standing back to back, holding lockets at full arm’s length, you know that nothing interesting will happen that night and that Despina will wear comedy glasses as the notary. On the other hand, if you put on a CD sometimes beautiful singing is all you need. I don’t tend to put on JENUFA or ELEKTRA when I’m washing up.
Oh, I do. No, I tell a lie. The Archers.
The collector’s impulse is an interesting one, and for me that does tend to be more guided by singers than works. I’ll probably get more excited by a singer I’ve not heard before than by a work that’s new to me. Recently I saw that Decca had re-released a 60s recital disc by a soprano I’d never heard of- literally had never heard the name. I had to buy it, even though I knew it probably wouldn’t be very good. It turned out to not be very good. And not even in the fun way- just some grimly competent singing. This is a woman who was booed on her one and only Met appearance, for goodness’ sake! The least she could have done was be brilliant or useless.
I was going to bring her up. This is a particularly interesting area of the opera fan psyche. Some fans have a devotional attachment to a few particular singers, at the expense of rivals. Some think that singers will never be as good as the old days. Others are on the lookout for the rarity, the diva no-one remembers, only known to a select few, but highly-revered by, um, specialists. What I’m getting at is that you seem to have one foot in the last camp. Or am I missing the point? Do you secretly listen to the infamous Callas live Aida (from Mexico was it? I don’t know) with the added high something-or-other, that makes grown men cry? (I’m testing your nerdiness here. I’m waiting to see if you’re going to correct me!)
Well, I have to hand back the badge there because I really hate that E flat (ha!)
It just doesn’t suit the moment at all- to top the ensemble all triumphantly when the character is at her most despairing. I’m probably just jealous- we actors don’t really have the equivalent of a top E flat. Or, if we do, only Mark Rylance knows what it is.
Ah, but you know about it! Though I suppose that is probably Grade 1 Opera Nerd, isn’t it?
Yes, and as a certain kind of camp theatre it’s a bit wonderful. But a little camp goes a long way for me. I’d much rather have some truth, which Callas of course was capable of delivering by the bucketload.
I do hate the necrophiles who tell you that nobody will ever be as good as Tebaldi or Rysanek or Nilsson- always Nilsson. Even if it were true it’s pretty bloody unhelpful. ‘Oh well, I won’t bother then. Silly of me not to have caught this opera before I was born’.
Some of them go so far as to say that even the lesser-ranking singers of the past- solid but unspectacular singers like Amara or Tucci- are vastly superior to ANYONE singing today, which is just bananas. Someone once told me, in all seriousness, that if Renee Fleming had been around in the 60s she’d have been a comprimaria, which is always a Code Red of a word in the first place. Along with ‘innigkeit’. These are words used by the kind of people who pretend to enjoy “Gurrelieder.”
Which brings me to ask: as an actor, someone who “shouts in the evenings” for a living, do you pine to “belt in the evenings” instead. You’re singing in a musical right now (“But First This” at the Watermill Newbury). Do you stand in front of a mirror and, much as some people play air guitar, sing along to the occasional Iago’s Credo? Or are you a tenor? Sorry, I don’t know!
I’m a lazy tenor. I have a relatively secure A and a fingers-crossed top B. Not much call for either note in music theatre though so I tend to spend a lot of time singing right on my break, which is annoying. As a kid I thought I was going to be an opera singer- I had music minus one baritone and did indeed stand in front of the mirror belting out ‘Eri Tu’ and Pizarro’s aria and the aforementioned Credo. But the one time I’ve had to sing opera on stage- the “Don Carlo” duet in a production of “Lend Me a Tenor”- was so terrifying that I knew I’d made the right decision. And it’s only about 4 minutes long!
Oh yes. I forgot you had done “Lend Me A Tenor.” Sorry!
One thing I have to get off my chest about opera fans, by the way, is the cruelty. The things you read, especially online, about people like Fleming, Voigt, De Niese and Gheorghiu in particular (four very different singers about whom I have an interesting range of opinions) are just vicious. Netrebko used to get a lot of abuse too, but she’s so good these days she’s become pretty much untouchable.
You see it in comedy too – I steer clear of the comedy forums because nobody is nastier about any endeavour than its superfans. There’s an ownership there which stops people from noticing that they spend their whole time yelling abuse at something they’re supposed to love. It’s not unlike the terraces at Fulham FC in that regard.
Ah, the “bottom half of the internet…” Some quickfire questions. What’s the furthest you’ve travelled to see an opera?
Ah, this is cheating- can I say Barcelona? I was going there on holiday anyway, then I noticed that the remains of Edita Gruberova were singing Anna Bolena so I booked. She was amazing, bt the way. Other than that, only as far as Edinburgh I’m afraid. Although I always go to the Met if I’m in New York. I’d love to be the kind of person who said ‘Oooh, Mme X is singing Esclarmonde at the Grand Opera of Kazakhstan, I just HAVE to be there’ but I have this whole thing where I need to be able to afford goods and services.
OK, that’s pretty mild in the opera nerd stakes. What’s the most you’ve ever spent to see an opera?
I’m a cheapskate! Never three figures, but then it’s kind of madness that people pay three figures for anything. Top impoverished tip: at the Met, the acoustic in Family Circle standing is WAY better than downstairs.
The most I’ve spent is about 80 quid for the recent ROH “Elektra” – then I managed to leave home without my wallet so ended up missing the bloody show. But- and this is the world we live in now- I got very nice messages of consolation on twitter from Christine Goerke and Adrianne Pieczonka, the singers I would have been seeing.
Impoverished luvvy with poor wallet-management skills. That’s a first. How many opera-ish CDs do you own?
Oooh, several hundred. I have a trunk full of vinyl which I lug around every time I move house, despite no longer having a record player. NB: my most treasured CD is of course Catalani’s DEJANICE. And yes, it’s the production I saw. Because heaven forbid any opera should be performed anywhere ever without someone recording it.
A few. More signed programmes than discs. DEJANICE isn’t signed, sadly. Although I could probably forge the signatures and nobody would know. Listening back, it wasn’t a Rolls Royce evening. Not even a Reliant Robin evening.
Go on then, spill, how many programmes?
I keep programmes for everything I’ve seen, so that’ll also be in the several hundreds. And anything I saw between the ages of about 13 and 20 will be signed. Domingo, Freni, Cotrubas, Ludwig, Janowitz, Bruson, Vaness, Mattila, Ricciarelli, Baltsa…
Vaness gave me a hug and called me ‘honey’. Cue one furiously blushing 15 year old.
Do you hang out with other actor opera nerds? Are there many? Simon Russell Beale sang in the chorus of “Stiffelio” when I sang it at university. Did you swap opera stories when you were doing “Lear” at the NT? Or is he more choral and orchestral in his taste?
Yes, SRB isn’t really that into opera as much as he is into all the clever cerebral instrumental stuff. In Pitlochry I shared digs with an actor called Darrell Brockis. I was listening to my iPod one day when he was out, and when he got back I rushed to turn it off and prepared all the usual ‘oh, don’t mind me, I like opera, I promise I’m not weird’ stuff. But he just said ‘Es gibt ein Reich, isn’t it? Is that Janowitz?’ and we spent the rest of the season clandestinely watching opera DVDs when nobody else was looking.
Your dirty little secret. I’ve one last question. You’re on the way to the gallows. Rather than a final meal you can choose between two live performances: Kleiber/Domingo “Otello” or Laurence Olivier “Othello”. Which is it?
The Adrian Lester “Othello”. I’ve heard the Gratiano was something special.
(I’d take the Kleiber. But only because I’m not wild about Olivier’s Othello.)
It was a trick question.
Plus I’ve heard the Roderigo was etc etc