What are you listening to?

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Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I came across a post which suggested that opera singers feign a preference for popular music over classical music in order to appear cool.

This immediately caught my interest, not least because the post was in response to a newspaper interview in which a good friend of mine expressed his love for rock music.

As it happens, I know many colleagues who rarely listen to opera in their spare time, and yet it must also be said that there are more than a few folk in this business who’ll say any old rubbish to make themselves appear “accessible” in the eyes of the public, so I can understand where the comment came from.

Professional opera singers spend their lives making music with others. Speaking for myself, simply listening to opera on my own holds no interest for me.

So what exactly DO opera singers listen to in their spare time?

Well, I think that’s a bit like asking “how long is a piece of string?”, as each of us has very different musical tastes, but I can certainly tell you what I listen to.

Not very much at all, is the answer. By way of explanation, let me give you a wee peek into my life as an opera singer.

Of the last 12 months, I have spent nearly ten of them on the road. For the last two years, my opera repertoire has consisted solely of Wagner and Strauss, mostly performed outside the UK.

Consequently, I have very little “downtime” when I can get away from opera. If I’m not rehearsing one opera, I’m preparing another. At one point, in June this year, I was engaged in five different operas/productions at the same time. I was performing Wotan in Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried in cycles at Staatsoper Berlin, and on my “days off” I was rehearsing Tristan and Rheingold in a different production at Bayreuth. I had four non-singing days in five weeks.

An average rehearsal week will consist of six hours of production rehearsals per day for five, sometimes six days a week, with music calls dropped in whenever circumstances permit. When I did Meistersinger at ENO I spent six weeks rehearsing six hours a day, six days a week, and re-translating the whole role of Hans Sachs into English late into the evenings, on my daily train commute, and on Sundays.

When preparing a new role at home, I will spend two to three hours a day working on preparation, familiarising myself with the role, translation and text memorising, with another two to three hours spent singing through the role. When I’m preparing one role at the same time as rehearsing another, I do what I can until my brain gives up.

Consequently, with so much (loud!) music in my daily life, I’m rather fond of a bit of peace and quiet. A good book, the newspaper, and watching television are much more appealing than playing music. A box set of Game of Thrones (books or TV series) beats a box set of Wagner any day.

That’s today. It wasn’t always this way. As a student, I spent hours in the college library, listening to every recording of great opera singers I could get my hands on. As young chorus member at Opera North I spent most of my wages building up a library of recordings that would serve me well in years to come. As a young journeyman singer, I spent days/weeks/months of my life listening to other singers and analysing how they negotiated the roles in my repertoire. I can tell you which singer breathes where on which recording, which notes they cover, which they don’t, which mistakes each makes with text and notation, and appreciate, as only another opera singer can, the moments of pure technical genius they display.

In short, I listen (and have done since I was 18) to opera as a means of learning and improving upon my own craft, not as relaxation.

As a teenager, like most people my age, it was popular music that was of greater interest to me. I played the violin to a pretty decent standard, but I never listened to classical recordings. You would be much more likely to find me in a record shop on Byres Road in Glasgow, flipping through records in the heavy metal section.

Much as it might amuse me to tell an imaginary interviewer, in the most prententious way possible, “the recordings of the great bel-cantists held me spellbound throughout my formative years”, I’m afraid it just wouldn’t be true. For much of my teenage life I wore a leather jacket under a patched denim waistcoat (like the one above) bearing the logos of all my favourite heavy rock bands – AC/DC, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple.

My first album was AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock, my first concert was Alice Cooper. Over the years, I came to love Motörhead and Metallica, Aerosmith, Kiss, Guns’n’Roses, and, as my tastes softened, Hendrix and Dylan. In more mainstream stuff, I like Dire Straits and Queen. Billy Joel, yes, Elton John, no. I’d like to love Bowie, but I don’t. Madness and Ska always make me smile. Punk doesn’t. I love Motown and soul. I hate the New Romantics. You can keep Blur and Oasis, The Smiths, and pretty much any pop from the 80s onwards. Except Radiohead. And Ben Folds, whose cover version of Pulp’s Common People with William Shatner is a work of genius, guaranteed to cheer up even the grumpiest of old farts.

But I rarely listen to anything anymore. Popular or classical. My car radio sits permanently tuned to MagicFM for the five-minute supermarket run, but that’s about it.

I can tell you this, though – on the rare occasions that I do feel like putting some music on, it’s never Wagner. Or Strauss. Or anything classical.

That’s too much like work.


4 thoughts on “What are you listening to?

  1. It perhaps says something about the randomness of the gift of a great operatic voice (which to me is a strong counter to the common charge of opera as ‘elite’), that many of you seem to have been led onto the stage by that voice rather than an early love for the artform. By the way, I guess you are aware that Billy Joel’s half-brother, Alexander, is a highly-regarded opera conductor? Fine music is fine music, and fine musicians are fine musicians, whatever the genre.

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