Wednesday 27 November 2013

Scraping the Bottom

Christopher Gillett - Scraping the Bottom
Scraping the Bottom is a follow up to Christopher Gillett's previous book Who's My Bottom, charting the further adventures in the life of an itinerant operatic tenor. Gillett has a nice eye for the telling anecdote, and the book combines reportage on various engagements in Montpelier, Paris, Amsterdam and Milan. Part of the joy of the book is that Gillett reveals the everyday tedium and anxieties of life as a singer, working in opera houses away from home, struggling with rented flats, foreign cultural habits, recalcitrant coffee makers, operatic managements and conductors. Whilst we might suspect him of exaggeration for effect, in fact that rather Eeyore-like view of things tallies which what I have heard from other singers. Spending your life in foreign climes, struggling with the vagaries of operatic managements and transport arrangements just isn't particularly fun.

Like his previous book, the story is written as a patch work of anecdotes, threaded together on a narrative. This time the narrative concerns the imagined glamour of an opera singers life, which Gillett seeks to puncture, but the second half develops further as he gets asked back to La Scala, Milan of Peter Grimes and rehearsals turn eventful. But the book isn't just about what happens on stage, there is a great deal of mooching about and dealing with life on the road. Gillett is able to be amusing about this, but he makes sure that we never take this for granted, pain is often round the corner: when working in Montpelier, Gillett has to deal remotely with his teenage son having an accident.

One of the delights of Gillett's writing is the way that he is completely unphased by authority, so that the various directors and conductors and other management figures that pass through the book are, with one exception, unnamed and described in a devastating, but hilarious manner. (The one exception is Richard Jones who directs the Peter Grimes.) He is particularly scathing about the bizarrely hierarchical arrangements at La Scala, and what it feels like to be working in such an entrenched and bureaucratic organisation, full of people like The Shoe Lady.

One of the longest episodes in the book is Gillett's period in Amsterdam performing in the revival of Pierre Audi's production of Les Troyens (doubly fascinating as we attended one of the performances). Here in addition to struggling with management, travel arrangements and the like, he has to deal with the problems arising from the Icelandic volcanic eruption. One incident Gillett reports which makes you realise why managements are so jumpy, a singer was phoned up to find out why he wasn't in the theatre and it turned out he was still at home in Berlin, wrong date in the diary. So Gillett has to get there the night before each engagement, cue a lot of mooching about in Amsterdam. Health is another issue, dealing with minor irritations such as throat problems which loom rather larger in a singer's life than they would for other professions.

Whilst in Amsterdam he makes a trip to Berlin to sing Holst's Savitri in a pair of performances in a club. Dressed in biker leather with a chain saw, his description of the first night is a typically brilliant Gillett combination of humour and anger. You'll never watch an opera staged in an alternative venue again without wondering what problems the performers had to put up with.

When it comes to Peter Grimes at La Scala, a new production from Richard Jones, then it is the performers themselves who come under Gillett's scrutiny. After a bit of byplay related to the complexities of finding somewhere to stay for the duration, Gillett lays out in full detail the process that the production goes through to try and transform the chorus of La Scala into the villagers from The Borough. Essentially we get a ring-side seat as Gillett sits in rehearsals watching Richard Jones's daily struggle with the chorus. It makes a great set piece for the conclusion of the book, and again sheds illumination on areas of the rehearsal process that we don't normally see. And it is very funny.

One final anecdote. Gillett is performing in the performance of Harrison Birtwistle's The Masque of Orpheus at the Proms. The singers are miked, but someone forgets to switch off the microphones when they leave the stage. So the audience at the BBC Proms and on Radio 3 are treated to Gillett and two other singers talking in the dressing-room corridors about some of the pictures on the wall!

The book is a great read and highly recommended. Gillett has a nice ear for an anecdote, but combines this with a more savage edge. I thought perhaps that the book was a little angrier, more eeyore-ish than his previous book. But it is no less entertaining.

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