On the Side of the Angels 1

An occassional dip into the early medieval paintings in the National Gallery, London, prompted by a four-hour longeur at a conference and proximity to beauty – and my inability to resist putting words into the mouths of painted faces, and motives into painted attitudes.
Wilton Diptych 1390’s anonymous.
richard IIKing Richard II kneels on the left, gazing towards the Virgin, his hands raised but slightly apart as though waiting to catch something.

On the right, Heaven looks crowded, the sky golden and figured, more like a great gate than the firmament, pressing up against the regiments of cobalt clad angels.

The back row are there under protest, even though they all wear the white hart brooch as Richard does.  Their arms are crossed or interlinked, as they tug at each other.
Come away, they say, he’s not dead yet, and he’s not at all good, so why would we be interested in his prayers?
The kneeling,shrugging angel rose-bedecked angel, who perhaps should be interceding with the virgin, raises a hand indicating lost causes, it will shrug in a moment.
Lady, it says, there’s nothing here for you.
On the far side of the virgin, an angel points derisively, and its companion sniggers.
You aren’t going to listen to him are you?

It seems that despite the heavenly chorus, the virgin will listen.
To Richard’s benefit, he has on his team Edward the confessor and St Edmund, both English kings, like himself, and both venerated as saints – and the Baptist.

Is Richard implying that all it takes is for the Baptist (his patron saint) to give the word, and this callow youth will also be sainted? There is something of hubris here.
The only angel notionally fighting Richard’s corner carries a St George pennant, but can only bring itself to point him out to the Christ child with a furtive finger, embarrassed at the scorn of its fellows.
welcoming childThe child stands out against the heavenly blue in his golden blanket, his feet press against his mother upper arm and hand, and leaning vigorous and gurgling towards Richard, he crooks a welcoming hand.
Come on in, he says, you get used to the laughter, and it’s a great deal better than weeping – your choice, obviously.
The angels sneer discreetly and waft off, no doubt to ensure good seats at the latest harp concert.

Go and see the real thing at the National Gallery, make up your own story…

© Cherry Potts 2013

Eugene Onegin – final performance 17th July 2011

reading the review copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I am in a really bad mood when we arrive at the Halls, seriously grumpy, even another review isn’t enough to cheer me up. But by the time I’ve got into my costume for act I, been re-introduced to the man who taught me maths when I was 12, and helped wrap a dozen bottles of wine as thank-you’s for various of the team, I’m back in the Onegin groove.  We spend some time getting the dressing room windows just right so that we get enough air without letting in the torrential rain to spoil the Act III ball gowns, which are hanging under the open windows.  Everyone is taking pictures of each other in costume, and eating chocolates.  Nick comes up for a final warm up and to get the rhythm of one of the choruses just right.  There seem to be fewer children this afternoon, we wonder whether, as it’s the first weekend of the school holidays (that’s why its raining!), some of them have been hauled off on holiday.  Fortunately the garland carriers are in attendance.

Our first chorus, sung in the corridor and on the stairs, is accompanied by leaking roof and rumbles of thunder. Our basket of cobs is even heavier than usual, and I can barely carry it.  Harriet Williams is still struck with laryngitis and her voice has dropped an octave, I hope she’s not doing herself permanent damage singing with it in that state.

Act I is punctuated by thunder and we are beginning to wonder just how wet we are going to get juggling chairs and umbrellas in midge alley waiting for our entrance for act II.  Astonishingly the rain stops in time and we don’t get wet at all.

Damian (with 2 A's) telling tales Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The lemonade has run out!  We are reduced to water for the party.  Our entrances are all pretty fine, no hesitations, and we all act our socks off.  Damian later tells me that a friend of his in the audience commented on me and A ‘giving it large’.  I think that’s a compliment? he also commented I have spelt his name wrong consistently.  Oops.  (Rest assured, Mr Thantrey, I will go back and correct it…  )  The rain is just starting again as we race up the alley to the back stairs.  I’ve been bitten by those midges again, just below my mouth, and my lip is swelling up.  I know they must serve some crucial ecological purpose… um… feeding swallows?  But do they have to bite me?

Greeting the Gremins copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Suzanne and I manage to wriggle our way to near the front for our Act III entrance which means I get a glass of ‘champagne’ for the first time, but in order to stay in character, I give it to her.  Those Gremin’s, they are seriously mean with the alcohol, I won’t be going to another of their parties. We get all our cues right and sound really good, and as its the last show, and we don’t have to sing again, I for one, allow Andrew Greenan’s Gremin to affect me and have to wipe away a tear.

And then it’s over.

So now I can’t spoil it for anyone, those Harry Fehr Duel innovations:

I loved Onegin’s ‘second’ being the doll he had given Tatiana, left abandoned on the verandah.  It worked perfectly, a non-speaking part given an additional twist by enabling Onegin to reuse his insult to Tatiana to further infuriate Lensky, at the same time as indicating that he either doesn’t believe they will fight, still thinking the whole thing is ludicrous; or that he wants to depersonalise the process- maybe he even believes he can laugh Lensky out of it- he is, after all, a lousy judge of character.

Lensky’s death.  My goodness, there was a lot of discussion about this in the chorus and with friends in the audience.  If Harry wanted this production talked about, he certainly succeeded.  What with the unobservant who thought Onegin had shot Lensky in the back (really, even Onegin isn’t as amoral as that), and the people who didn’t understand how it squared with Onegin’s Act III I killed the only friend I ever valued, I found myself engaged in vigorous argument on several occasions.  My take (until I talked to Nick Sharratt about it)  was that Onegin feels he pushed Lensky into it, and was therefore just as culpable as if he fired the shot himself, and might actually feel even worse as a result.  Fell into the trap there, of thinking its all about Onegin.  Nick, however, who says he never understood Lensky until singing it, gave me Lensky’s perspective.

Nick Sharratt's tortured Lensky copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Nick Sharratt and Harry Fehr have developed a whole back story for Lensky: Drunken abusive father, cowed mother; sees the Larin household as the family he longs to be part of, and he has invested all his energy and belief in them.  He is trying to embed himself in their lives, hence his engagement to Olga, whom he doesn’t believe really loves him (because no one could really love him, could they?)  This fits perfectly with the here in your house aria, which for my money is one of the loveliest bits in the opera (mind you there are lots).  Nick also says that Lensky is in search of perfection and doomed never to find it (I loved what I thought was perfection) which is why he is so demanding and turns on Olga so quickly – she has confirmed his worst fears, everyone is just as bad as his father really, and his fragile new life is falling apart around him; this is genuine despair, not just ‘foolish jealousy’.

When it comes to the duel, Lensky can’t bring himself to fire on Onegin, and while he feels he has nothing to live for, letting Onegin kill him is just too passive- so he is left with nowhere else to go, and shoots himself.

strangers becoming a community Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

All this is divulged during the post production party, hosted by the wonderful Rose Ballantyne, without whom the Blackheath Operas would not happen.  We spend a lot of time at the party talking about how the chorus, although made up of anyone who wants to come along, without so much as an audition, turns into a community so fast.  One new singing colleague this year says how welcoming she found everyone.  We talk about how the voice groups form tribes, and you get to know each other surprisingly well, considering how little time there is for anything other than in-character banter.  And how you talk to people week in week out without ever asking their name, carried away with enthusiasm for the project.  It doesn’t matter who they are, they’re one of us; which leads on to how the production team know everyone’s name, in a positively supernatural way.  Several people say wistfully how it’s a long time to next year, and we discuss other projects people are involved in and invitations are extended, email addresses and Facebook details exchanged.

And, of course, discussion turns to next year, and what we might perform.  I mention casually to Damian and Kate that I think Aida would be fun, and there’s a painful pause and they both look terribly disappointed; “There’s nothing for me, in that”, Damian says, “and Kate will have to wait a few years to do that Soprano role.”

I don’t think I could have a clearer indication of how much our principals enjoy working with Blackheath Halls.  I mean, Kate’s going to be a world famous star any minute now, and she’s worried we won’t do something with a suitable role for her!  Well don’t worry, either of you, I don’t have that sort of influence, I just throw ideas into the pot at the party and stand back.  We might want something less ambitious anyway, especially as we don’t know whether there will be any funding.

It isn’t cheap, putting on an opera, even if the cast do pay a subscription and provide props and costumes, and the ratio of cast to audience is about 1:4 which isn’t great for maximising box office.  But I think about when I was eight, and started showing an interest in music.  My Dad took me to the Southbank to 3 separate things in quick succession: Der Rosencavalier (which I found confusing and loud and unattractive, and put me off opera for about 20 years) Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau doing leider (which I loathed, and still don’t enjoy) and the Brandenburg concertos which I loved.   However, if I had been given the opportunity to be involved in a community opera, I think my relationship to music would have been entirely different; I might have been singing in opera choruses for years, and retained my ability to read music, instead of (or hopefully as well as) being in a punk band (yes, I really was. Briefly!).  All those children who have been involved in this project: introduced to the adult world of performance, the excitement of story telling on stage through music, and the confidence that singing gives you; lucky, lucky things.

So we need to make sure there is funding:  all you chorus members with high-powered jobs, ask your company if they’ll sponsor; anyone with any bright ideas for fundraising talk to Rose or Helma; and buy a copy of the BOOK!  it’s our Opera, let’s not lose it.

Nick Sharratt: a perfect Richard II? copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Oh, by the way, production team, if you’re reading; in the spirit of of course there will  be funding, let’s be really ambitious; A and I were running a little fantasy about commissioning Sir Peter Maxwell Davis to write us something based on the peasants revolt… after all there’s lots of source material, we’re right there on Blackheath, John Ball school are involved, and nick even looks a bit like Richard II … I’m up for the libretto…!

Or as it will be slap on the start of the Olympics (Cultural Olympiad funding??),  and the equestrian events are up the road, something about horses… Troy maybe? And if Max is unavailable what about John Barber?  Just throwing ideas into the pot!

This isn’t the last post on Onegin, I will do some photo galleries later, of all the pictures I haven’t used to illustrate what I’m talking about.  Please don’t download them- if you would like copies ask, and for a contribution to the funding for next year, you can have a CD. And don’t forget you can buy fantastic photos of the dress rehearsal from Tony Stewart.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Eugene Onegin – 2nd Dress Rehearsal

Two-cameras Tony copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Sunday: It’s interesting, having looked at Tony’s photos I’m more aware of how our ‘acting’ looks from the outside: who is doing a really good job, who relies on eye rolling and mugging, who doesn’t seem to be acting at all. Adapt our output regulators accordingly.

A and I spend quite a lot of time (usually in the car on the way home) discussing the lead characters:

  • How long do you think Olga mourns Lensky?
    Not long.
  • Was he a good poet?
    Probably not, yet; if only he had lived…
  • Why does Tatyana write that stupid letter?
    She’s a teenager. She’s ‘very fond of reading’; but she can’t have read any of the great Russian novels, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were children and Chekov not born when Pushkin published this; her only reading is trashy novels. She’s a bit like Katherine in Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen again) she’s probably read Maria Edgeworth’s Udolpho. Whatever it is she’s reading, her frame of reference is suspect; and we also have to remember she has no close male relatives so she’s not used to spotting b.s. And she’s the elder sister, and there’s Olga already engaged, she might feel that she has to keep her end up, and not get left behind in the romance stakes…

Anyway, rehearsing is a bit like living inside a soap opera on a loop.

coffee break copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Before we get started A and I go out front for some air and a bit of sun, along with several other members of the chorus, some of whom skip off down the high street in our costumes.  I can’t help wondering what the burghers of Blackheath make of it; we should take fliers!

We meet Rose who is having one of those phone conversations where you give directions by waving your arms about. It turns out the harpist, who wasn’t there at all yesterday, is late and a bit lost. Rose asks us to keep an eye out for her, and rushes off to some other crisis. How do you tell whether a car has a harpist in it? We decide it would need to be a big car, and smile hopefully at a lot of strangers, before Rose reappears and lets us off to get our notes from Harry and Duncan.

Nicky helping Natasha with Act III makeup. copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Nicky has arrived to help with hair and makeup and does a fantastic job, aided by one of the ushers, who is a dab hand with a comb and kirby grip.

Jonathon's locks tamed copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Act I goes very well, although clearly eleven is the maximum cobs David can shuck! Jonathon has tamed his locks, with help from Simon Dyer, Nicky and our Brycreem, and it rather suits him slicked down with curls at the back of his neck; unfortunately this means he is late for his cue as postman, and isn’t given his bag which is rather crucial to the action.

Interval: Cup of tea with Tony and he is very excited because having seen the opera through once yesterday, he is getting into the best place for some really great shots this time. Photos will be available for viewing on his web site soon, and will be available on DVD there are fliers in the dressing room.

Peter, from the orchestra, gives me a cheque for 5 copies of the book, that means we are up to 19 paid for-orders. Bring your chequebooks with you folks, it’s all to support next year’s opera and (I hope) a great souvenir. I want to get up to 50 orders, as although you will, of course, be able to purchase individually from the printers website, that will cost you more, and get the Halls less.

2 Davids ready for act II copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Act II: there are problems with the musical chairs again; the right number of chairs are put out, but the game takes too long, partly this is because there seem to be an awful lot of children on the floor by our table so we are slower putting out the chairs as we are in danger of clonking someone on the head, but the main problem is that people have been told which round to go out in, so they rush round to chairs on the other side of the row because they are still ‘in’, and it slows it all down. They should just be told that if they are competing with Onegin or Olga (or the crucial child) for a chair to give it up to them.

Duncan takes us through Act III about four times at the piano,and as a result we get pretty much all of it right on stage, It is certainly more forceful.

Sarah's amazing dress copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Bryony and co are still trying out different gowns on some members of the chorus, and Mona is a vision in turquoise today. Sarah has an astonishing black and gold number with a train, that made me almost wish I’d gone for a dress after all, though it wouldn’t have the same effect with me wearing it !  The dancers have sprouted little white rose buds on the neckline on their bodices.

If I could have one thing different, it would be to have a monitor in the remaining un-monitored corner- it would be in my line of vision most of the time. Act III is a particular problem because my peripheral vision isn’t great, and I have to screw my head right round to see a monitor and loosely appear to be looking at Onegin,as I just can’t see Nick through the wall of basses standing between us.

We practice our curtain calls, and then we have to do the musical chairs a few more times, but something always goes awry. Eventually Harry decides the best thing is to drop the first round, so now we have to remember to bring only six chairs from our table.

We're ready: Jay, Leslee, Cherry(in the bowtie), and Sarah copyright Alix Adams 2011

I think we’re ready.  First night, here we come!

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

My Life in Fairytales

photo of Cherry Potts aged about seven

Cherry at about the time of writing "the Prince the Princess and the Goatherd" copyright RR Potts

I told stories before I could write.  I mean proper stories, not fibs.  My Mum is a writer and she told us stories every night to get us to go to sleep, she usually had characters who were a bit grumpy, I have vivid memories of lying in the lower bunk aged 3 or 4, staring up at the slump made by my older sister as Mum told us  ‘The VERY Cross King’ which was a particular favourite; another was ‘The Old Woman From Friuli’ and I think her style rubbed off on me.

By the time I was six I was telling my younger sister stories, heavily influenced by Cinderella and ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ and ‘Flashing Blades’ which were on television at the time.  I recall having very rigid and Teutonic ideas of beauty: (very) long blonde hair, blue eyes, and red lips. It didn’t bother me in the slightest that I didn’t conform to this stereotype, although I can remember thinking a friend’s mother the picture of perfection… it is only now I recall the immense height of her peroxide beehive – which she covered with a chiffon scarf that barely met under her chin – Marge Simpson would have been proud of that barnet.

The tales I told were pretty blood bolted and full of danger; I was always more in favour of the Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen, who (once I could read) I rejected as prissy.

And once I could read, I was a happy devourer of re-tellings of the Thousand and One Nights, Greek and Norse myth, and all kinds of British and European folk tales, especially the French and Russian ones.

Our local library had a good collection in the literature studies section, it might even have been a series, and I got these out again and again, although they were from the adult shelves and my junior ticket didn’t entitle me to them. The Librarians indulged me, and so did my primary school teacher, Miss Woodward, who lent me her own books to feed my voracious appetite.

I have affectionate memories of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Greek and Egyptian re-tellings, William Mayne’s Book of Heroes and Andrew Lang’s Blue, Yellow etc. fairy books, one of which I recall colouring in the illustrations without realising it was a library book.  In my defence I had mumps at the time and wasn’t thinking very straight.

being read to at a very early age

Being read to at a very early age - I'm the baby. Copyright R R Potts

But … so many of these books I remember reading with a kind of transfixed horror, not for the gore (I’m a sucker for a werewolf) but for the matter-of-fact-ness and inevitability of the way things go wrong.    I read the Mabinogion when I was ten, and had nightmares for weeks.  There are an awful lot of severed heads that go on talking in folk tales if you stop to count them, and some of them aren’t even people.

I suspect that if I were to read them again now I would find these stories tedious or disturbing, but they were a great grounding in story telling.

I wrote my first fairy story when I was six or seven, I think.  It was called ‘The Prince, the Princess and the Goatherd.’  I don’t know why the Prince got top billing as he had very little to do or say but the rhythm of the title wouldn’t be nearly so good if it was a different order.

It went (minus the grammar) something like this.

Once upon a time there was a very pretty Princess (by which I meant blond blue-eyed and red-lipped of course) who lived in a castle with the Queen and the King.

The King was very cross all the time, (homage to Mum’s V.C.K) and didn’t like the Princess.

The Princess had a friend who was a Prince and she wanted to marry him (actually I’m not sure she did, but there was something going on with them, and she was a bossy young madam who liked to get her way.)

So the Princess told the Queen.  And the Queen said

“Oh dear! The King isn’t going to like that at all.  I think you two had better run away.”  So the Princess packed her suitcase (it was a small brown cardboard one, with a lovely striped paper lining and a plastic handle, and I kept my doll’s clothes in it) and said to the Prince

“Come on, we are running away.”

And they did.

Not long after they had started to run away they met a goatherd.

“Hello goatherd,” said the Princess.

“Hello you two, where are you running off to?” Said the goatherd

“We are running away,” said the Princess.

“Quite right too,” said the goatherd.

So the Prince and Prince went on their way and soon they came to a river without a bridge. (Not a big river, they could probably have jumped it but they were much too genteelly brought up for that to occur to them.)

“Oh dear” said the Princess (although it might have been the Prince, I’m sure he had an opportunity to speak once in a while) “how will we get across?”

“I will help you,” said the goatherd.

“Where did you come from?”  Said the Princess.

“I was following you, I knew you would need help.”  Said the goatherd.  And (got them over the river somehow.  Can’t remember, maybe the goats carried them, or he just ‘Magicked’ them over, my memory fails me).

“Thank you goatherd,” said the Prince and Princess and went on their way.

By now they were quite hungry, but it was all right because they were just coming up to the Princess’ uncle’s house. (I remember this house vividly, it was a lighthouse keeper’s cottage with whitewashed walls and a thick waist height whitewashed wall around the garden, with wallflowers and aubrietia growing in the top.  It was set on a low cliff and surrounded by neat green turf. I can’t think where I had seen this house or a picture of it, but that’s what it was. Interestingly there was no lighthouse. My partner says this is a ‘Topsy & Tim’ house, she may be right.)

The Princess’ nasty uncle was in his garden pruning his roses (I think he must have been based on a neighbour)

“Well hello, you two,” said P.N.U, “where are you two running off to?”

“We’re running away,” said the Princess.

“Well you must stop for tea,” said the P.N.U.

“Thank you,” said the Princess “we are very hungry,” and they went in and sat down for buns and squash.  (I’m sure I thought about poisoning them at this point, but I restrained myself).

As soon as they were inside the P.N.U slammed the door and locked them in. Then he rushed off to tell the King where the Princess was.  He was a very nasty uncle.

As soon as the P.N.U. had gone, there was a knock on the door.

“I’m very sorry,” said the Princess, “I can’t let you in, the door is locked.”

“That’s alright,” said the goatherd, “I have the key,” and he let them out.

“How lucky you came along,” said the Prince.

“Just passing,” said the goatherd.

Just then they saw the P.N.U. and the King running along towards them.

“You two had better run off,” said the goatherd so they did.

By now they were very tired.

“I’m tired,” said the Princess.

“So am I” said the Prince “Shall we go home?”

“Yes let’s,” said the Princess, “but the King will be very cross.”

But they went home anyway.

“Hello you two,” said the Queen, “where did you two run off to?”

So the Princess told her all about the goatherd and the river and the nasty uncle.

“Oh, the goatherd isn’t really a goatherd,” said the Queen, “that was your other uncle, he’s a very clever magician.  I sent him to keep an eye on you.  Well, I think you should go to bed very quickly, and by the time the King wakes up in the morning I’m sure he will have forgotten all about it.”

So the Princess went to bed, and in the morning, the King was very cross, but not with her.

(Some poetic licence here, I can’t remember how it ended!)

There were many other fairy tales, but I don’t recall them.  My mum uncovered the original manuscript of this one shortly after my first collection was published and sent a typed up version to me as my Christmas card.  I have since lost it and I don’t know if she still has the manuscript. I recall she said the final sentence was unintelligible, my handwriting has never been good, something to do with the effort of keeping up with the speed of thought.

So reflecting on this first effort, what I notice is that I have picked up on the plot twist of the mysterious and apparently humble stranger who is actually someone entirely different from whom they seem to be, the antagonism between the family members, the journey, and the use of repetition both in words and homonyms, much loved by the traditional story tellers. There’s even an overlay of The Billy Goats Gruff with the (lack of) bridge and the goats, although they are invisible throughout.

And I didn’t stop there.

My partner mishearing me sparked my first ‘adult’ story, I was talking about an author Sheila Ortiz Taylor, and she heard this as ‘The She-lord and her Tailor.’  A couple of hours later I had the beginnings of a retelling of the emperor’s new clothes, with a murderous cat as the She-lord in the Emperor role.

My first published story (In ‘In and Out of Time’ Onlywomen Press 1986) was a retelling of the end of the Odyssey, called ‘Penelope is no longer waiting’, in which Odysseus does not get the welcome he expects.

Twenty years later The She-lord finally got published in ‘Tales Told Before Cockcrow – fairytales for adults’ (Onlywomen Press 2008) my collection of stories inspired by the fairytale tradition.  Each story is a retelling of a traditional tale or is told in the style of a fairy tale.

I draw on Eurydice, Tithonos, Pandora, Sleeping Beauty, Rip Van Winkle, Snow White, The Red Shoes, the emperors new clothes, Arthurian Myth, the Mabinogion, Homer, the bible and many other folk tales and indeed folk songs of eerie landscapes, cold clay and strange destinies that I took in with my mother’s milk, almost literally.

So have I done with fairytales?  Well, no, I think probably not.

Being a precocious reader meant that I was exploring my parent’s bookshelves at a very early age, and initially got the impression that all adult fiction was crime and thrillers.  Then I read Peter S Beagle’s‘The Last Unicorn’, and with relief discovered that I was going to be able to read fairy tales for the rest of my life.  Twelve was undoubtedly too young for this book, I didn’t realise it was funny until I re-read it at about the age of thirty.

So I’ve just  finished writing a Lesbian Fantasy Epic in which that impassable river re-occurs, this time with tragic consequences, unlike that little trickle that a goat could jump.

So is this the magic of fairy tales? That they grow with you and can be turned to any use you care to put them?

Or are they the apparently humble stranger who turns up when they are needed, and is not who they seem to be?

copyright Cherry Potts 2010