In the early 90s I was working at the Vlaamse Opera, based in Antwerp, singing Pisandro, one of the three suitors in Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria by Monteverdi. I can’t remember who the counter-tenor was. The first one was fired after three weeks of rehearsals. I can remember that. And as for his replacement, all I can recall is that he was busy doing something else at the same time, so for a few of the main rehearsals on stage there were just two suitors, which is quite a problem when you’re trying to sing lots and lots of trios.
I have absolutely no idea who directed it – a German I think, or was he Greek? – or who conducted. Not a clue.
Does this have all the makings of a good anecdote or what?
Of the other singers I can remember only a couple. I suspect the feeling (or amnesia) is mutual.
The bass of our trio, however, I do remember; a Pole by the name of Piotr Nowacki. Surprisingly, Piotr and I got on famously. I think we recognised in each other a mutual streak of cynicism as well as a slight alienation from the “baroque lot”.
Now I adore baroque music. Handel is probably my favourite composer. Equally, I love fish. To eat that is. I’m not suddenly confessing to some bizarre fetish. But a diet of fish alone would drive me round the bend. Variety is the spice and all that. Which is why I just don’t get some (but not all) baroque “specialists”. The pursuit of authenticity is all very commendable but, come on chaps, there’s more to life and music than moaning about vibrato. I say that with all due respect and in the same vein I would say to another group of people I don’t get: there’s more to life than just football.
I have worked with many baroque musicians whom I love to blazes, but sometimes, unfortunately, you can find yourself in a group of people who know no music-making post the 18th century; for whom the next centuries were a descent into vulgar romanticism and overheated expression.
And it can be a bit weird.
You mention musicians and singers whom you revere – Tennstedt, Britten, Domingo, Callas… – and they look either blank or a bit pained. Yes, I’ve worked with musicians who have never even heard of Carlos Kleiber.
Now I should emphasise that this was a good twenty years ago and these days the lines of demarcation are less severe; expect possibly in France where the authentic movement has established itself into institutions as chic as any fashion house. “Arts Florrisants?! Oh daahling, that’s soo last year! I simply refuse to listen to anything that isn’t Lully and Les Talents Lyriques! Just divine!!” Back in the day, the Flemish were possibly the worst of the lot for cliqueyness and in Antwerp we were in the thick of it.
Piotr’s background was definitely not in the authentic movement – he was on first name terms with Penderecki – and he greeted most of the conductor’s commands with a degree of wry bemusement. He bored quickly and in a production as inept as this one (it was, frankly, risible) he liked nothing more than try to get his colleagues to corpse. In some colleagues this is infantile and tedious but with him, a bear of a man, it was endearing and infectious.
Piotr also had a car, and this was significant because, despite having arranged my digs in Antwerp, it turned out that most of our rehearsals were taking place in Ghent, where the show would open, a good forty minute drive away. It was a bit like commuting between London and Reading every day. Piotr offered me a lift and for several weeks we drove back and forth between the two towns making conversation as best we could. On one stretch of the dreary motorway there was some dingy woodland and Piotr would always slow down and peer into the trees. “I think good mushrooms in there!”
One day it was raining. I lie. It was Belgium. It rained most of the time.
Anyway, Piotr put on his windscreen wipers. The car filled with a heady and powerful aroma and I said “what’s that smell?”
“Windscreen wash”.
“Oh! Of course! Wow, it’s very powerful.”
“In Poland, after end of communism, they make big big tax on two thing – wodka and windscreen wash.”
“Oh yes. No money in Poland. Many peoples cannot buy wodka and so many, many peoples is drinking windscreen wash.”I flew home for a weekend and on my way back bought for Piotr in Duty Free a bottle of single malt Scotch as a thank you for all his driving. Laphroaig I think it was.
The morning after I gave it to him we were in the car again.
“Thank you so much for beeeoootiful whisky.”
“Oh Piotr, it was the least I could do.”
“Last night I drink glass of whisky and say to my wife, “this is beeeoootiful, have some” but she doesn’t like and so I drink whole bottle on my own.”
“You drank the whole bottle?”
“Oh yes. Beeeoootiful. Thank you very much.”
I think that’s what you call old school.

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