At this time of year, especially in an age of deep arts funding cuts, I suppose it’s normal to ask yourself if you’re a half-full or half-empty person in the glass department. Pressed for an answer, my response would be that most new years I feel like someone whose full glass has been half-emptied because the over-enthusiastic baritone next to me has just bumped my elbow as he launches into another verse of one of my least favourite opera things – The Drinking Song.
Drinking songs generally fall into two types: a) “Let’s get drunk down at Ye Olde Inn, ho ho!” and b) “Oh we’re having such a jolly party, tra-la!”; my main objection to The Drinking Song being that it usually encourages the type of dreadful acting that is normally confined to old pirate movies and South American soap operas.
The Ho-ho Drinking Song – good examples can be found in Otello and The Tales of Hoffmann – normally employs tankards and jugs of non-specific booze dispensed by cheeky, buxom wenches. Swaying and bouts of raucous laughter (carefully timed when no-one is singing) are de rigeur, as are wiping chins with the backs of hands, clunking tankards together and standing with one foot on a bench. There should be much swigging (as opposed to straightforward drinking) even though there is, in fact, not a drop of liquid on stage. It’s all mimed. As nothing appears to require proper washing up by stage management, tankards continue to be handed out rehearsal after rehearsal, show after show, without ever being properly cleaned, which creates a fabulous opportunity for any germs to spread themselves amongst the members of the cast.
The Tra-La Drinking Song, of which the Brindisi from La Traviata is the most famous example, requires everyone on stage to grin like maniacs and hold their glasses as if stuck in mid-toast. This is certainly true if you follow the Katherine Jenkins school of Popstar-to-Opera-Star acting. Waving your arms and swaying in time to the music is pretty-well compulsory, while bobbing at the knees is optional. The main function of rehearsals will be to ensure that everyone on stage at this somewhat bizarre party has a flute of Champagne. (Only it’s not Champagne, it’s ginger ale, which is provided in easy-to-open bottles bearing the name of the company that provides it in return for a credit in the programme. It’s posh product placement without the product.)
At the end of a long tour of Die Fledermaus for Opera 80 (now called English Touring Opera), we, the cast, had had enough of ginger ale, and for the final show several bottles of the real stuff were bought to supplement the stage stuff. During the second act, the butler serving ginger ale was curiously neglected while the other butler, the one with the champagne, struggled desperately to fill all our glasses. Champagne is much harder to pour than ginger ale and all the timing was thrown off. Most of the cast found themselves stranded upstage, singing vaguely over their shoulder in the direction of a rather neglected audience when we really should have been waltzing around the stage in gay abandon, while the furiously overworked butler struggled to pour us all some wine.
Bottoms up!

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