Stories out loud

I’ve been so busy over at Arachne Press that I’ve been neglecting my own blog.

SO a few things have happened, and will be happening.

TONIGHT (Friday 8/12/17)

I am reading part of The Midwinter Wife (from Shortest Day Longest Night at London Writers’ Eclective at Tottenham Court Road Waterstones. It’s in the cafe basement, 6.30-8.30

Hope to see some familiar faces!

Solstice Shorts is coming up, 21st December, 52 authors on 12 sites across the UK at DUSK That’s why I’ve been so busy! That, and launching Spellbinder, the second book in my mum’s trilogy of YA fantasy, The Naming of Brook Storyteller.

Recently I was interviewed on podcasting site Time for Cakes and Ale – have a listen.

Back in October, we were in Shoreham for their Word Fest, with Liberty Tales and Songs of Protest, which meant I was hosting, reading and singing alongside a sliver of Vocal Chords Choir.

And also in October, at Archway  With Words, I read Mirror. (from Lovers’ Lies) It’s the first time I’ve read it myself, usually I get an actor to read it for me.


World Premier… my very first tune

Organising Longest Night kept me away from my own blog for a while, but it was completely worth it, not least because it gave me an opportunity to share my first ever musical composition with musicians who would do it justice. Here are Ian Kennedy and Sarah Lloyd singing The Cold Time.

This is a Trobairitz song from the late 12th Century, written by Azalaïs de Porcairagues, in what is now Languedoc. It is written in a form of Provençal known now as Occitan. The tune is lost, and I came across it in Meg Bogin’s book The Women Troubadours, while researching my historical novel about Cathars and Trobairitz, The Cold Time, which I may eventually finish.

I actually wrote the melody a very long time ago, but coming up with harmonies has been a slower process. Ian & Sarah were incredibly patient with me!

I learnt Provençal, and tweaked Bogin’s translation for poetic rhythm and sense. The original song is a much longer work, but only this first section stands alone without understanding the social mores of the time and the geography and architecture of the city of Aurenga (Orange) – it was only when I went there and visited the museum that I understood a reference later in the song to the ‘Arch with the Triumphs’. A Roman triumphal arch, which for several centuries was built into the castle, effectively forming the front door. This was certainly the case when Azalaïs knew the then count,  Raimbaut d’Aurenga. These days the arch sits on a roundabout to the north of the city centre, and getting to it is a death defying race across, dodging massed lorries.

Roman triumphal arch, Orange, Provence

Raimbaut d’Aurenga’s Front Door

Notionally the section here is a typical Troubadour song of the seasons, although Spring was a more popular subject than Winter. However, the song is in fact an extended metaphor and a farewell to Raimbaut, Azalaïs’ ‘Nightingale’. She does not say so, but he had died.

Join In: Folk Song Workshop for Winter






12:45- 17:15



bus routes 122, P4, 171, 172 stop on the corner.

train to Crofton Park or Honor Oak Park 10 minute walk.

advanced booking required

Book Here



all abilities welcome.


Orchestral Manoeuvres

One of the delights of being involved in the community opera at Blackheath Halls is working with the Blackheath Halls Community Orchestra. We don’t get to hear what they are up to until the sitz probe, when we run through the entire opera and work out the corners. This is one of my favourite sessions, because we rarely hear the whole work. Then we get two stage & orchestra rehearsals and a couple of dress rehearsals (two of everything because of the split between the schools we are working with) to get used to what the music sounds like full on, before the first night.

Sitz Probe

Sitz Probe

And very necessary it is too, when we’ve been working with a piano accompaniment up until then. Jeremy, our assistant musical director plays a cut down version of the orchestral score magnificently, and it doesn’t always seem possible that he has enough fingers.

I wonder how much attention the audience pay to the orchestra, there is so much going on in an opera, although they are at least visible in our production.

I know I listen differently as a performer to how I would as an audience member – ear tuned to the instrument that will play the note I need a bar and a half before I have to sing it, that sort of thing; making it hard to take in the whole, but two things really struck me last night during the first performance of Idomeneo.

One was how very full and brassy the sound is considering how little brass there is playing – Mozart makes fantastic use of horns, but that’s about it.

The other was during a brief interlude when the tenors & basses are up with the orchestra for our ‘off stage’ chorus of drowning mariners during the storm. We all creep on and lurk at the side and wait for our cue. This gives us an unusual ‘conductor’s eye view’ of the orchestra. I can’t imagine the concentration and eye for detail it takes to conduct an opera, with orchestra soloists and chorus to pay attention to – I couldn’t even begin to make sense of the full score. Nick Jenkins, I salute you! Anyway while waiting for the music to cue us in,  I noticed these waves of movement going through; not the documentary film cliché of the bows all moving at the same time (although of course they do), but for example, a point at which all the violins put down their bows as one, and plucked the strings instead. It was an incredibly elegant little movement, which delighted me – and then I had to get on with singing and had no thought for anything but coming in correctly on the tricky bit…


Who are all these people?

We are a reading household (there’s a surprise) and an oft-quoted  exclamation, when one of us, uninvited, reads an extract from the current book to the other is ‘Who are all these people?’ I think it’s from a Peter Nichols play but I could be wrong – we are also very poor on attribution.

So it is something I’ve been thinking whilst we’ve been rehearsing Mozart’s Idomeneo. Assiduous readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to plundering Homer myself, and Idomeneo is set in the aftermath of the Trojan war, so naturally I’m curious as to the source of the story.

This opera was first performed in 1781, and Mozart’s librettist Giambattista Varesco seems to have borrowed heavily from an earlier 1712 opera Idomenée by André Campra (I’m listening to it as I write) libretto by Antoine Danchet, who in turn borrowed from a stage play of the same name by Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon performed in 1707.

Idomeneo (Idomeneus) King of Crete (Grandson of Minos in case you are wondering) does appear in The Iliad occasionally, and comment is made on the vast size of his fleet (relevent to the plot!). He has a tricky journey home like so many of the Greek allies, and in order to be saved from drowning promises to sacrifice the first person he sees, who is, of course, his son – it wouldn’t be a Greek tragedy otherwise.

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Rehearsals: Preparing for a sacrifice

I’m not sure this is in The Iliad, but in all the other versions of the story I can trace he does  kill his son (Idamante in this version) either as a sacrifice, or by accident, and is then banished either by the Cretan’s themselves as a murderer, or driven mad by Poseidon.

So where do the women come in? Neither Ilia not Electra appear in Crébillon’s play, and Ilia seems to be a completely 18th Century invention, she is not mentioned in the Iliad, and the only person of that name I can find is a daughter of Aeneas who would presumably not have been born at this stage in events (hark at me going on like it was real…) In this version she is one of Priam’s many children, shipwrecked from one Idomeneo’s many ships, along with the rest of the Trojan captives. As for Electra – daughter of  possibly the unluckiest family in the history of time…

In case you don’t know, she was the daughter of Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus whose wife was Helen, married to Clytemnestra, sister of Helen – keep up!). He sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia (Electra’s sister) to get favourable winds to get to Troy in the first place. When he got home from the war, Clytemnestra killed him, and then Orestes, their son (Electra’s brother) killed Clytemnestra.  (according to Sophocles and Euripides, since you ask) After that it gets murky as to what goes on with Electra, but various options are open including her becoming a kidnapper, or a quiet marriage to a cousin, but in none of them does she end up in Crete in a jealous fit of pique at Idamante’s adoration of ‘Trojan Slave-girl’ Ilia, as she does here, and in the Campra version. Hey ho, that’s Opera for you, as if there isn’t enough going on already, there has to be someone driven mad by jealousy!

There are several editions of the Mozart opera in any case, with varying inclusions and omissions so I shan’t give you clues as to the ultimate fate of poor Electra.

Come along and find out what happens in our version, under the direction of James Hurley, and how we manage the sea monster (did I not mention the monster??)… tickets here

It’s about to get loud…

If you’ve been thinking I’ve been a bit quiet lately it’s because I’ve been so busy.

One of the things I’ve been busy with is the Blackheath Halls Community Opera. We are doing Idomeneo [Mozart] this year and it is tremendously singable – lush baroque music to make you weep with joy at the cleverness of the harmonies. But Idomeneo is a pretty bleak tale of ill thought out promises and monsters (some of whom are human) and sacrifice. Our production is blood drench and stark, a bit of a shock after last year’s gloriously silly Count Ory.

Normally I do a blog through out the process but it’s not been possible this year – too much else happening. So this is it, really. First night is TOMORROW. tickets are going fast – especially this morning apparently the phones at the halls were red-hot, possibly down to being previewed in the Sunday Times & the Telegraph, though modestly(!) I’d like to think its down to us flash-mobbing Blackheath Village yesterday during our lunch hour from dress rehearsals.) You can buy tickets (unless we’ve sold out already…) online here or by phone on +44 (0)20 8463 0100.

There’s a thunderclap with about 15 mins left to run to hit the target, JOIN IN NOW!!!

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Singing in a veil

sisters2A new experience, singing whilst dressed as a nun. Apparently the costumes are borrowed from a production of Sister Act, and fit where they touch – A’s ‘cutty sark’ needs letting down about a foot so we don’t see her stripey socks until we are meant to. (I like the strategically placed light, it gives me a halo!)

The thing is, the veil makes it difficult to use your peripheral vision to sneak a look at Nick or the monitor for the beat. (It is also seriously HOT.)

The wimples have holes cut in to give our ears a bit of clearance,  and although I thought I could hear fine, I was complaining that hardly anyone was singing at one point – I now realise that the veil funnels your hearing so what’s in front of you is fine and you can hear yourself awfully well (not always a good thing!) but the rest is decidedly muffled. It was very trying getting notes from Harry and Jack against the orchestra running through something, I had no idea what was going on!

sister alexis

Sister Alix

It’s a bit scary how well a wimple suits almost everyone in the tenors and basses. Especially when they pull THAT face.

sister antonia

Sister Antonia

Songs of the Sea

Well, for a writing blog there’s a heck of a lot about singing on here. This post is no exception.

vocal chords July 19th FlyerVocal Chords, my regular choir, are splashing out in Forest Hill on Saturday July 19th (The only day that week that I’m not rehearsing or performing in Count Ory at Blackheath.

3pm St Saviour’s Church, Brockley Rise, SE23.

£5. Proceeds to Seaman’s Mission and St Saviour’s.

I will also be selling books, though not at the same time as I’m singing (as far as I know!)

There’s a bit of everything, from passionate (Ready for the Storm, Crossing the Bar) to bonkers (Sailor with the Navy Blue Eyes, Under the Sea), by way of traditional (Sea Coal, Haul Away Joe) and lots more.

A fun afternoon out, pretty much guaranteed.

King Priam, ETO, Linbury Studio

Alix’s birthday treat – Tippett’s King Priam by English Touring Opera at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House.

This is what happens when you get involved in community opera – you get friends with the professionals, and you go to see something because someone you know is in it, (four someones in this instance – Grant Doyle, Nick Sharratt, Charne Rochford and Clarissa Meek) and you expand your musical horizons.

Pertinent in the centenary of WWI to be at an explicitly pacifist opera, and pertinent also in LGBT history month to be at a work by an openly gay composer, and a gay relationship depicted in Achilles and Patroclus. And anyone who knows me will know I will take an interest in anything based on the Iliad. A useful pre-performance talk involved a climb to the top of the building and then a rush back down to the bowels of the sub-sub-basement that is the Linbury.

I did find myself wondering whether it is possible to write a drama about pacificism without writing about war, but then I got caught up in the action and the music and forgot about it. Tippett’s work is clever and thought provoking, allowing us inside the head of the title role as Priam speaks to both Hermes (Adrian Dwyer – excellent) and the key players in the fateful decision to condemn and then save Paris as a child.

As a chorus member I pay a lot of attention to choral work, and Tippett is generous to his chorus, giving them first shot at scaring the audience, with a stunning bit of orchestrated screaming at the beginning (which is echoed at the end), that had me sitting up and thinking, oh-ho, this is going to be fun. In the confined space (and fourth row seats) the sound absolutely battered me.  The chorus for the Trojan slaves in act three was excellent too and the chorus were well choreographed, making good use of the limited space, and very comfortable with standing stock still but still acting, particularly when they glare out into the audience as they follow the imagined course of Hector’s corpse dragged behind Achilles’ chariot.

The opera relies on trios both dramatically and musically and they work magnificently; three goddesses, three commentators – Old Man, Nurse, Young Guard), Hecuba, Helen and Andromache, Priam and his two sons, and in this production the battle scenes resolve into threes regularly too. The music for the trios was the most interesting for me – the solo instrument accompaniment for the solos I found a bit obvious and contrary after the first few times, and lacking subtlety, but then I don’t think Tippett was after subtlety.

I absolutely cannot fault anyone on their singing, the whole evening was a feast for the ears, from the piping of choral scholar Thomas Delgado-Little as young Paris, and Clarissa Meek‘s stern Nurse, right through to Grant Doyle‘s cheerfully pugnacious Hector.   Dramatically speaking Laure Meloy is a ferocious Hecuba, while Camilla Roberts is a rather sulky Andromache – Tippett’s fault not Camilla’s, Andromache is more Roman matron than Trojan widow – the implied entitlement to her position and her grief at the death her husband (ranting about whose grief is more important), is rather unappealing. I’ve always had a soft spot for Andromache and it pained me to see her characterised like this.

Much is made in the programme and the pre-performance talk of the third act scene between Helen and Andromache and Hecuba, but I found it a bit expositional (if that’s a word), and I found Helen herself profoundly irritating, I did not feel Niamh Kelly‘s sultry temptress (all Theda Bara) got close to the required demi-goddess we are meant to see, and Helen is meant to present in herself (‘I am Helen’ she sings regularly, as though excusing herself and everyone else for bad behaviour) she has a fabulous voice however.

Interestingly, the characters which Tippett more or less invents – Old Man (Andrew Slater), Young Guard (Adam Tunnicliffe) and Nurse (Clarissa Meek) get some of the best moments, perhaps because Tippett didn’t feel the need to stick to the Iliad.

The design got in the way occasionally, the metal shape mid-stage which acts as throne room, natural rock outcrop and temple, occasionally blocked the chorus and indeed the orchestra – although in seat higher up it might not have been a problem. Although the women’s costumes were mostly exquisite (especially Hecuba), and the use of bone, antler and feather, whilst illogical, was rather entertaining, I was bewildered by the thrown-together look of the male cast – nothing seemed to fit, and the less said about the Japanese style eiderdown skirt for Priam, and curtains (no really, they were definitely curtains) for Paris’ trousers the better; both Roderick Earle and Nicholas Sharratt rose above these impediments, in particular in the scene when they sing a trio on the walls, as Grant Doyle’s Hector prepares to go out to face Achilles, his bravado undermined by dread, and silly Paris still not getting it that this is all his fault. Nick also got the silliest helmet award – the only men comfortable in their armour were Patroclus (ironic since it was meant to be borrowed)  and the Young Guard.

I was disappointed that I occasionally needed the screens with the words (inconveniently to either side of the stage) Mostly the diction was crystal clear but with Charne Rochford I struggled, which was a pity as his scene with Patroclus (an excellent Piotr Lempa) was beautiful, having to glance away to work out what he was singing was a shame.

It is a bleak work, but there are flashes of bitter humour – Paris, suggesting he, Helen and Priam escape and found a new Troy (foreshadowing the Aeneid) is rebutted by Priam with you aren’t the founding sort; the chorus of slaves not caring who owns them – it’s just a change of ownership.

Tippett constantly contrasts cruelty and compassion, and a complexity of what-ifs leading from the first prophesy of Paris’ life meaning Priam’s death (but not Hector’s, as his stricken father weeps) to perhaps generations of retribution; Roderick Earle absolutely convinces as Priam in these later scenes.And it is, appropriately, the grief in the opera is the most convincingly played, with Achilles’ war cry, sung on stage by Charne Rochford, a wordless ullulation of anguish and anger, like a baying hound, fatal and threatening and despairing.

I’m sure the rest of the run is sold out, but it would be worth checking for returns, despite my minor quibbles, an exciting evening of first class music.