Written by: Richard Nicholson
Published in the UK by Lulu
“Singing on the breadline” might be an alternative title to this brief and candid set of memoirs from an author who describes himself as a “jobbing singer”. The title of Who’s My Bottom? arises from his virtual ownership of the role of Flute in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On his website Christopher Gillett lists all the productions in which he has played Flute, from his Covent Garden debut in 1984 to 2009 (plus three in which he has sung Lysander). I know of no other singer who lists his performances in a supporting role in his PR material.
Rehearsals for the opera have consumed more than a whole year of his professional career, he notes. This must make him the oldest Flute in the business. The music clearly fits his adaptable tenor well, though the character’s music is demandingly high, and experience brings advantages: he has devised a large number of very effective gags (or “subtle nuances” as he describes them) to enhance his playing of the reluctant Thisbe. The latter came in handy in a production he describes in Madrid, where throughout the rehearsal period he received not one single direction from the producer.
However, Gillett has something of a love-hate relationship with the role. His close identification with the part exposes him to the risk of becoming pigeonholed, while the more faithfully he carries out Britten’s instructions as to how Thisbe should perform in the play-within-a-play the more he may create a perception of himself as a limited artist. There is a telling passage in the chapter about his Covent Garden debut where he confesses the fear that the audience (and perhaps even the management) may be confusing the character’s difficulties with the high-lying line Britten has written for Flute/Thisbe with the singer himself. He would like, he says, to advance to the footlights in this scene and protest “I’m not squawking because I can’t do it, I’m squawking because Britten said so.”
There is something touchingly frank about the analogy he draws between himself and Flute. A performer who wants to be the heroic lead but ends up having to dress up as a girl and be laughed at has too much resemblance to his own career for comfort.
Money worries are never far below the surface. The singer is condemned to put up with the indignities and frustrations of his peripatetic lifestyle by the fact that he cannot earn a living solely by singing in the UK. Financially he balances constantly on a knife-edge. He quotes one point in his career when things were going well and plenty of engagements were rolling in to warn against complacency. Never again would he make the mistakes of getting ahead of himself.
Any readers who think of opera as a glamorous globe-trotting profession, lavishly remunerated and peopled by Rolex-wearing superstars in chauffeur-driven limousines will be disabused. It’s a pity that the landlords of the often-wretched lodgings which the singer has to rent in foreign cities are still under that illusion: they inflate the already exorbitant price of a relatively modest apartment with extra charges for phone lines, even post-departure cleaning.
For any opera-lover who doesn’t know, there is no payment for rehearsals (he mentions one production when they lasted eight weeks) or for cancelled performances. His only leading role at Covent Garden was Tippett’s Dov (The Knot Garden) and he struggled through it with a bad cold; the critics were unsympathetic.
The procedures of opera houses and the behaviour of agents acting as go-betweens with their clients cause him much exasperation. He describes several cases where he has been called for rehearsal at an overseas opera house on a particular day, only to find the call postponed, when he could be saving money on accommodation or making use of precious time at home with his family, especially his children. Alongside insecurity as a background emotion to the narrative looms guilt: personal guilt for his enforced failure to be a good father and for the failure of his first marriage, professional guilt for his tendency to procrastinate: he habitually puts off learning a new role despite the resolution that this time will be different.
The mystique of rehearsals is thoroughly debunked. Directors who go in for improvisation and game-playing (think management-training days), inadequate rehearsal spaces, conductors storming off, singers falling ill, rows, problems with the sets when the cast at last get to see them are among the many irritants. The final stages are always particularly disagreeable, he says. Gillett is outspoken about conductors, only ten percent of whom know the score that they are directing. Some immensely famous ones can’t recognise wrong notes. He is scornful of the mysterious powers which conductors are assumed to possess. His account of how the typical opera conductor works is scurrilously entertaining; some of the more monstrous goings-on involving arbitrary dismissal of singers, he protests, come from his own experience. By contrast he verges on idolatry when describing his encounters with Carlos Kleiber.
The possession of a top C has a section to itself. Many famous tenors don’t have one but audiences can be fooled into believing that they do. The author’s own top C is short of ring but is serviceable, even if it can’t be relied upon. Non-singing personnel make few allowances for singers’ vocal difficulties or anxieties.
The two productions which are covered in greatest detail are Tan Dun’s TEA, written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and Rosa, a horse opera, by Louis Andriessen (widely known as “world famous in Holland”, he says). In the latter he plays one of two bad guys required to rape the soprano in the disembowelled carcass of a horse among other acts of extreme violence, equipped with radio microphone to allow voices to be heard above an orchestra which would have drowned even Birgit Nilsson’s voice. Naturally the director has never been engaged for an opera before. Gillett’s account of this engagement is priceless.
In Tan Dun’s opera, premiered in Tokyo, then brought to Amsterdam, Gillett is lucky to be cast in the first place, then nearly has to give up the part to a Very Famous Chinese Tenor (his capitals) for reasons of musical politics.
There is a great deal of swearing, some reported, a fair bit editorial, and much cynicism. The tenor who sees no responsibility towards young artists but now that he has made it thinks this is the time to pull up the ladder rather than to use his experience to help the coming generation is a particularly depressing example of the latter.
We learn that understudying is one of the worst functions for a singer, regarded warily by the principal whom he is understudying and resentfully by the chorus tenors who could be earning more by covering small roles, that female singers dress up for the Sitzprobe and that gifts to other cast members are de rigueur at the opening night. Many disasters are recounted, including the inevitable animal relieving itself.
A few internationally famous singers are mentioned by name. The most useful piece of advice he gets on the way up is from the late Robert Tear, who advises against ambition being fixated upon a specific target (Gillett once unwisely promised to be singing Peter Grimes by the age of thirty).
After reading of all the frustrations and humiliations one is tempted to ask “Why do it, then?” I remember the tenor Nigel Douglas speaking on the radio some thirty years ago, in which he said that he knew of no-one who possessed a voice of potentially professional calibre who hadn’t at least had a go at a singing career. Gillett is also intrigued by why he and his colleagues do it. When surveying fellow professionals on why they carry on, he receives the reply which tallies with his own experience, that every so often an offer will come along that is just well-paid and flattering enough to make a singer, even one on the verge of packing in the job, stick at it a little longer. To Gillett the greatest thrill comes not from performing or even being applauded; it’s the telephone call with the offer of a job. Starting with a clean slate you can fantasise about how it will turn out, your mind flooded with all the positives, aesthetic and pecuniary. Reality soon sets in, however.
He is quite open about the role of sex in the operatic world. The erotically over-heated environment which opera composers have created and in which singers have to simulate intense passion spills over into their relationships with colleagues. The aphrodisiac effect of romantic music allied to close-quarters physicality is something I’ve always suspected but never seen so candidly diagnosed. Gillett relates it to the high rates of marriage breakdown in his profession. He is one of the statistics himself.
He also introduces us to characters such as the technician responsible for video footage in the TEA production. He announces loftily that “digital images are organic”, an assertion that Gillett is still puzzling over. Quite a few inhabitants of the operatic world take a whipping. Among those who feel his lash are obsessive opera fans, costume designers, agents and the Dutch as a nation. I’m pretty sure that the composer whose speech at the first-night party made no mention of the singers is not on his Christmas card list either.
Gillett’s imitation of Kabuki Theatre is uproarious and not at all respectful. He has a comic talent for bringing people and objects to life through inventing pictorial titles: one stage director is referred to as the “Umber Gnome”.
In 2009 Gillett made it to La Scala in the role of … you’ve guessed it. By this stage, however, he had come to realise that what really matters is putting bread on the table, not reaching some sort of indefinable personal fulfilment. The story of how he learnt through experience to reach that conclusion makes this book instructive as well as richly entertaining.