They say you never forget your first time, and it’s absolutely true.
I was an 18-year old music student in Glasgow the first time I heard Wotan’s Farewell.
Sitting in the music library, headphones on, listening to an LP (that’s a Long-Playing vinyl recording, for those who are too young to remember, or so old they’ve forgotten) of Die Walküre with George London singing Wotan and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, I was overwhelmed.
It was, quite simply, the most incredible piece of music I’d ever heard, and last night in Houston, Texas, a mere 23 years later, I finally got a chance to sing it onstage myself.
All the usual pre-premiere jitters were in full swing – the butterflies, the dry mouth, the shaky hands – but dominating all of this was an almost unbearable excitement that something I’d been dreaming about for over twenty years would finally happen.
Whether it was an artistic triumph or an unmitigated disaster is up to others to decide, but, either way, it’s not really important to me, in terms of the bigger picture. Whatever people may think, I still experienced something I never thought possible as a naive, young teenager sitting in that library in college.
Dreams, aspirations, goals, call them whatever you like, are important for singers. Warm applause, glowing reviews, acclaim, respect, even awards are all wonderful, and have their place, but what matters most, to me at least, is what the face in the mirror thinks.
I’ve always been my own harshest critic. Impossible to satisfy and quick to condemn, that which I call my “Old Bastard” – my singer’s conscience – has kept me honest. Even when friends and colleagues whose opinions I respect have been generous with their praise, the OB has frequently waded in and trampled all over them in his hobnail boots.
I’ve often been told I’m too hard on myself, and I sometimes worry that people think I’ve got some sort of deep-seated self-esteem issue, but it’s not that at all. It’s more of a brutal self-honesty, of the sort you might imagine Alex Ferguson used to deliver to an under-performing Manchester United in a half-time team-talk.
Mostly, what the Old Bastard likes to tell me is that I can ALWAYS do better.
To keep with the footballing analogy, my Old Bastard is fond of moving the goalposts.
If I practise something I find difficult until I’m blue in the face, and then finally make some sort of a breakthrough with it, rather than pausing for self-congratulation, my Old Bastard says, “Right, if you can do that, then you should be able to do THIS.” And the whole damned process starts over again.
To illustrate, for many years I couldn’t sing quietly at the top of my vocal register. The Old Bastard nagged and nagged at me until, eventually, I managed to squeak out an unearthly, unnatural floated D. Immediately seizing upon this, admittedly, slightly underwhelming achievement, the OB said, “Right, if you can float a D, you can float an E.”
Goalposts duly moved, I persevered for many months until one day, I squeaked out a floated E. Sure as eggs is eggs, the OB said, “Right, if you can float an E, you can float an F.”
And so it goes, and, indeed, has gone throughout my entire career.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been paid a compliment about my singing and the Old Bastard has immediately whispered in my ear, “You know that’s bollocks, don’t you?”
The interesting thing, though, is that this can cut both ways. I’ve often been criticised for something I’ve done wrong, and the OB has immediately retorted, “Ignore that. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Not only that, but my OB’s penchant for moving the goalposts has led my career in ways I never dreamt possible. In my early twenties, my biggest goals were to sing Leporello and to work at Covent Garden. The moment I knew I could sing a fair Leporello, the OB spoke up. ”Right. Giovanni.”
And, of course, when I finally made my Royal Opera debut, the OB was already moving the goalposts to the Met.
Over the years, I’ve learned to trust this weird inner voice as, as I’ve said, it keeps me honest, keeping my feet firmly on the ground, and my head out of the clouds.
And the best thing about it? He’s always there. The moment I open my mouth to sing, he’s there. Notebook in hand. Ready to go at a moment’s notice.
If I were to put the Old Bastard into slightly less colourful terms, I would say simply that he represents my critical faculties.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for a singer to develop these faculties hand-in-hand and cheek-by-jowl with their singing technique. Teaching and what the Americans rather wonderfully term “vocal pedagogy” are great in the practice room, but you can’t drag your Svengali out there on the stage with you. As a singer, you have to embrace the great advice you’re given and learn how to implement it for yourself.
As a mantra for singers, “You can always improve” strikes me as a pretty good one.
As an epitaph I would suggest, “If you think you’re perfect, quit, as you have nothing left to offer.”
That’s where an Old Bastard comes in handy. He, or she, will be with you through every role, every phrase, every word, and every note that you ever sing, keeping you honest all the way.
And, once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll do something that will shut him up for a bit.
Last night, at the end of Wotan’s Farewell, I must have made it a whole ten seconds before he piped up.