Friday 5 September 2014

Deep opera at the Frontline

25 years of loyal service and, until recently, happy collegiality at the City Literary Institute are now to be followed by something partly different, partly the same. When relations with my line manager from Visual Arts (go figure, it's a long and unedifying story) went sour, and in the bigger picture the institution betrayed its socialistic ideals by axing or severely cutting back on core courses for the deaf and unemployed, I decided enough was enough (chapter and verse in the now-open letter at the foot of the post). The prospective stress of next year wasn't an option, and so I searched around for alternative venues to teach an opera course along similar (but not, to avoid any accusations of poaching, the same) lines.

The venue I fell instantly in love with isn't cheap to hire, but it has a lecture room/theatre on the top floor which includes my vital requirements - a big screen for DVDs and an excellent sound system. The Frontline Club in Norfolk Place, several minutes' walk from Paddington station - website here, with details of the course to go on there soon - was warmly recommended by a wonderful woman at whose behest I gave a series of private lectures earlier this year, Wendy Steavenson (she and her husband David live opposite).

Earlier this summer I went to see the facilities for myself, and had quite a frisson as I sat waiting in the handsome club room, half-overhearing the other occupant on the phone about Damascus and Istanbul, and browsing through a gritty book of Syrian images just donated by the photographer, a club member.  The Frontline was set up with a very serious purpose, as a charity to help the families of those reporters who'd lost their lives in the cause of telling the truth about war zones. It's full of interesting memorabilia and clean, handsome design.

So from 6 October I'll be running a course I've called Opera in Depth, and a year dubbed War and Peace: the nature of the venue drove me back for the planned first term to a work which isn't being performed in London this season, but which should provoke plenty of interesting questions about Russia in the 19th century, the 1940s and now: Prokofiev's flawed but most encyclopedic masterpiece, Voina i Mir to the Russians. I didn't see the livescreening of Graham Vick's second production for the Mariinsky Theatre - I was there before and during the first back in 1991, when I first met and of course then very much warmed to an inspirational Valery Gergiev, shame on him now - but I hope it will be available to see. It looks very different from the oak-tree-dominated vision of 23 years ago, not to mention the more classically handsome Konchalovsky production which followed that ten years later.

Second term will be devoted entirely to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, since Richard Jones will be rethinking his original Welsh National Opera production, featuring Bryn Terfel's role debut as a Sachs to match Norman Bailey, for ENO, and the summer will feature a new one for me in terms of lecturing, Rossini's Guillaume Tell. Normally there would be six operas a year, but these are all epics which need time. Below: the fabulous collage drop-cloth lit during the Prelude for Jones's view of Meistersinger as embracing the full breadth of German, or Germanic, culture to the present day. How many creative or recreative artists can you name?

I now have enough students to run the course and cover the costs of the venue, but I'd welcome more (the space seats up to 100). I've kept the rates to City Lit standard last year - £180 per term, which works out at £9 an hour - and the day, Monday afternoon, with a slight shift in time, owing to the Frontline's schedule, to run from 2.30 to 4.30pm. You can buy drinks at the bar and bring them in, and the restaurant on the ground floor is excellent. If you fancy any or all of the terms, or simply want to know more, I'm going to do that taboo thing of giving my email here: contact me at I can also send a pdf flyer with more details.

One shame is that the 'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra' course has bitten the dust, at least temporarily. What I want to do there is run six classes over the year linked to the works I was most looking forward to talking about, the Nielsen symphonies, with contemporary Sibelius for comparison. Student numbers depending, these will be at the church around the corner, St Andrew's Fulham Fields, which has a lecture space upstairs for rent much cheaper than the Frontline (here, of course, I wouldn't need the screen). More details likewise on request.

It saddens me, of course, to say farewell to the City Lit, which initially brought me together with The One (we met at City Lit Opera  28 years ago, singing in Act One of Bohème - he as Colline, I as Schaunard - and our relationship first flourished when we went up to Edinburgh to perform Gianni Schicchi on the fringe: thank you, godfather Giacomo). Several years later, thanks to Ma(rgaret) Gibbs, who ran the opera group, I came into the orbit of the wonderful music department: how I loved working with the three successive heads, Graham Owen, Moira Hayward (where are you, Moira?) and Janet Obi-Keller, who was effectively driven out by the changes. Julia Williams was, and is, the best and most dependable co-ordinator I've ever worked with.

I've been privileged to be able to invite great musicians to both classes. I count Richard Jones as such since he was an accomplished jazz pianist for many years (in effect still is). He came twice, first to talk about Meistersinger between the production and the Prom, and then last year to discuss Gloriana. Both these events I recorded, but for private use; I need to transcribe them. He's very funny and an accomplished, light-of-hand tease. We laughed a lot and on each visit I gave him a gift for giving of his time: initially Journeying Boy, the diaries of the young Benjamin Britten, and at the time of Gloriana, tongue in cheek , the kitschy Britten and Pears cufflinks issued for the centenary. ' I don't suppose you wear such things', I said. 'I will now', he replied. Here he is looking at them in some bewilderment.

More recently we had the generous and easy Mark Wigglesworth come to talk about conducting Parsifal.

Again, too many revelations and perceptions to summarise - a full transcript is needed - but it was also a happy occasion. I like Mark so much and I hope the feeling is mutual. If the troll known as 'AndrewandJoshua' is still lurking, here's a gift of Bad English Teeth (mine, not MW's) for him/her.

The book I gave Mark was the most painfully truthful autobiography I've ever read, Behind Closed Curtains by the great Isolde of the 1980s (and, I think, one of the best of all time), Linda Esther Gray. Linda has become a good friend since moulding the diplo-mate as a Heldentenor; we love her very much. She, too, visited the class twice. I might have used this shot before - haven't looked back - but here we are at the end of term class meal, to which of course she was invited.

While I'm on the subject, a gallery of some of the many wonderful and modest players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra who've visited the Tuesday evening class seems in order. Sadly I didn't take snaps of visiting composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Judith Weir (whose visit I missed owing to illness), but many of the orchestral musicians are here. First, the only one of the four quartets I photographed - others were two sets of violas and the Merchant Quartet. The Helikon Quartet have had to put their playing on hold due to the great news that Rachel Samuel and Graham Bradshaw, to the right, got together (married? I hesitate to assume) and had a child. To the left are Patrick Wastnage and Nikos Zarb, who've visited on other occasions too.

Other string combinations were a duo, Mark Sheridan and Donald Walker with his lion-headed double bass

and a trio who gave us such rich programmes (Martinů, Dohnányi, Mozart): Anna Smith (whose grin I love in the Arts Desk photo of Elektra between Goerke's heroine and Felicity Palmer as a manically triumphant Clytemnestra), Kate Read and Michael Atkinson.

Not pictured, but no less treasured among other string players are brilliant youngster Peter Mallinson, Celia Waterhouse and Danny Meyer, who introduced me to Igudesman and Joo (don't miss their Barbican appearance on Monday week); among brass players, several visits from horn doyen Chris Larkin and trumpeter Martin Hurrell, who could have an alternative career as a standup comedian and who has often come with his lovely partner Liz Burley, the BBCSO's consummate resident pianist and celesta player; among wind, shakuhachi and flute exponent Richard Stagg, my oboe hero Richard Simpson and a wind trio of young clarinettist James Burke, Alison Teale whose cor anglais solos have been so melting a part of the concert scene and long-serving bassoonist Graham Sheen. The ones I can show you are erstwhile contrabassoon principal Clare Glenister*

and our most recent visitor Katherine Lacy, who played amazing rep on several clarinets including the solo movement from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (here she's holding the bass variety in the company of the most delightful if small class - half aren't present in the pic - I've ever had the pleasure to teach. Two, by the way, are budding composers).

Last but not least came Sioned Williams, one of the world's great harpists and also the most sincere and compelling of speakers. I've already written about her most recent visit here, and rather than repeat the images, here's another of composer Paul Patterson with Sioned trying to persuade husband Ali, her 'tecchie' for the evening, to come in to the picture. Don't miss Sioned's Southbank recital on 14 October of works she's commissioned for her big birthday. She's offered to come and talk about it/play a bit after the event at St Andrew's. If I can get the numbers for it, this could open the door to more player visits.

Those are the happy memories, as are all the classes and the countless students who have become good friends, among the departed, Trude Winik, Martin Zam, Elaine Bromwich and Naomi Weaver. The writing was on the wall about the changed City Lit when I wanted to have tributes to Elaine and Martin on the website to show what adult education was all about, and was told this would be 'sending out the wrong message to students'. Nothing has been too much trouble in honour of them and their kind (and yes, I've had a few pains, but they've always been a very small minority).

The grim note is something you don't have to bother with, but should you have the patience to read on, just for the record this is what I wrote as a letter of resignation. I see no reason why it shouldn't be public knowledge. I got a curt 'thank you for your service' reply from the offending tutor, and nothing from any of the other City Lit staff I ccd, including the principal and the acting head of music. The final death-blow to the likelihood of returning came this week when I found out from another tutor that in mid-August the music appreciation courses had  returned to their rightful home - and nobody told me. The new opera course is a done deal, but I could have reinstated the BBCSO course as I said I'd have been willing to do under these very circumstances. Too bad. Anyway, here's the resignation letter.

After 25 years, 23 of them in very happy harmony with the administration of the music department, I have come to the painful decision to leave the City Lit. In the past two months especially I have found the situation unpleasant and stressful with what from my perspective feels like bureaucratic bullying.

There is no point itemizing here why I feel I have been so badly treated. I have already responded in detail to several emails from you which in my opinion were unacceptable; if anyone ccd wishes for further chapter and verse, I am happy to provide them. Those earlier responses, like many others when I had a criticism to make in return for what I felt were unjust conclusions, were ignored – one of them not only by you, but also by your own line managers. 

It was never satisfactorily explained why the incredibly popular music appreciation courses were moved from the Music Department, where they so obviously belong, to Visual Arts. The whole thing began with a falsehood, demonstrable in the email exchanges: you claimed the superlative Head of Music, Janet Obi-Keller, needed help with the burden of the courses she was dealing with, while she strenuously fought against the change. The way she was pushed out of the City Lit, whoever may have been responsible, was a disgrace.

In my opinion these courses need to be returned to the Music Department as soon as possible, in which case I would certainly consider teaching at the City Lit again. As it is, our email correspondence has escalated from being a cause of irritation to an untenable feeling of anger on my part – hence the belated decision to withdraw.

The latest wrangle began over what I perceived as mishandling of the blurb I sent for the opera courses. What you, or the City Lit admin, came up with - composers' names, not the titles of the operas - was indeed 'nonsense' as it made no sense. But you objected to my tone.

The last straw for me was the e-mail you sent on 23 June listing points which you expected me to abide by were I to teach next academic year. There were reasonable as well as unreasonable expectations, but even the former were insulting. What do my years of service and the glowing reports of the majority of students mean if not that I am already carrying out what you expect on the quality front?

You need to treat lecturers with decades of experience more respectfully. As I wrote before, we should be working together, not as inflexible boss and humble employee.

Perhaps you should pay more attention to what the students think. Mine were very emotional yesterday when I told them I would not be returning; two were even in tears. Students' voices in general have not been sufficiently heard in the current unhappy situation. It's time to shift the focus.

Yours very regretfully,

David Nice

*From one of the many supportive emails sent by BBCSO players, I learned that Clare has just complete her UCLA Scandinavian studies (BA in Norwegian) and is writing a Nordic crime novel. And now the good news is that she's joining the Nielsen/Sibelius classes I've set up at the church round the corner - as a student..


Susan Scheid said...

Such a shame about City Lit (and that's an understatement). It's clear you've made the right decision, and I applaud your integrity and courage. Your Opera in Depth course sounds splendid, and the venue ideal. I've no doubt but that those who participate--and those who've been your students in the past, and anyone who knows what you have offered at City Lit and can offer going forward--will spread the word. Lucky students, to have you as their teacher. (I know of what I speak, for, while I've been a student only of sorts and only (mostly) from a distance, I've learned enormously, and my life has been enriched immeasurably).

David Damant said...

As Hermann Hesse wrote, "I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value"

As you have done, David

David said...

Well, Sue and David, what with your comments, the outpourings of the students when I departed (who knew then whether for good or not) and messages from Sioned, Chris and Danny of the orchestra, I feel tearfully sentimental. Thank you. It's almost a physical feeling of being buoyed up by genuine words.

The Hesse quotation is splendid (I suspect it would have struck a reef with some Holocaust survivors, but then I think of the late Alice Herz-Sommer and smile).

wanderer said...

Move on quickly. Your worth is evident enough and beyond the reach of petty bureaucrats.

Frontline looks incredibly solid and enormously stimulating. What fantastic people to be around. Good luck.

David said...

Thanks, wanderer. Have had many commiserations, but I see it as a good thing. It was time to stop working for £60 a day, the social value of the place seems to have gone up in smoke, and once I realised the people who mattered - the students - would come with me, and that I COULD organise my way out of a paper bag (the Birmingham Discovery Day taught me that), hey presto.

As the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music says, 'whenever a door closes, a window opens'. She also says, according to the debunkers, 'what is it you c**t face'. I watched it again and didn't think so, but hey, si non e vero, e ben trovato. I won't hear a word said against one of the great films of all time..

David Damant said...

It is difficult to say this, but I suggest that 90% of the reporters who risk their lives or lose their lives reporting on war zones have no reason to be there at all. If a town is being bombarded we KNOW that women and children will suffer horribly, that the hospitals will be unable to cope etc etc. Also nowadays we have satellite pictures, and smart phone pictures from those in the thick of it

So I suppose that there is a demand for actuality, on the spot reports and pictures. A very secondary reason for a primary risk, and not justified

David said...

I'm with you when it comes to the photography - that very book I mentioned was full of corpses and wounded and I almost thought it was war porn: we've seen all these kinds of images countless times and have become desensitised to them.

As for reporters, though, I'd put the figure of pointless ones slightly lower than 90 per cent. Those who bring insight about individual lives or, say, projects to alleviate suffering can enlighten us. I heard a marvellous World Service doc about Shakespeare in a refugee camp where the children were crying out for education in a way we can't imagine here. We do need to be reminded about the limitless suffering that goes on for years and years as distilled through a single person.

I'm also pleased that a higher percentage of the reporters speak the language or come from the country in question. I think that's important. Our standard image is of callow westerners staying in luxury hotels and only occasionally venturing out. Whether this is a fair picture or not I don't know.

Catriona said...

Good to be reminded of Linda Esther Gray, whose singing I remember from her Scottish Opera days.
And good luck with the new venture.

David said...

Indeed, Catriona. I've probably mentioned this before, but Gibson conducted two SNO performances of Walkure Act 1 in concert, early 1980s. This was probably the first time Wagner with singing rather than just orchestral music - when I was 12, it was the Meistersinger Prelude - blew me away. Jessye Norman was the first Sieglinde, Linda the second - and though La Norman was grand, LEG electrified. I went backstage to get her autograph (come to think of it, I got both their autographs).

Catriona said...

Ah, I missed that one - I was in exile in Newcastle then, and the Scottish Opera productions which travelled there were the Pearl Fishers and Wozzeck and, I think, Tosca.

David said...

Well, Catriona, the Walkure Act Ones I referred to were in concert with the Scottish National Orchestra. I never saw Linda with Scottish Opera, only her ENO Isolde in London, though she was of course due to sing Turandot and I witnessed Ludmil(l?)a Andrew take over in the disastrous Tony Palmer production (Calaf as Giacomo, Turandot as Elvira, Liu as the unfortunate maid Doria Manfredi). The Alfano completion was famously performed in concert, the death of Liu being rounded off by a reprise of the Act 1 curtain ensemble.

One Saturday in 1984, I think it must have been, Eng Lit students young and old piled into a bus with the great Roger Savage to see two RSC productions in Newcastle - Volpone with Richard Griffiths in Volpone and later Measure for Measure with Juliet Stevenson as the best Isabella I've seen and Daniel Massey as a deliciously ironic Duke of dark corners.