View from the stalls

Mary Lucille Hindmarch

Some of you may remember an ad for Guinness along the lines: I know I don’t like it, that’s why I’ve never tried it.

All too often that’s the response I get if I invite friends to join me to see a Puccini or a Mozart or a Bizet (they’re always too Bizet!). And as for Benjamin Britten… All of which is a very great shame as I reckon that they’re missing out on some of the most thrilling, moving and complete theatre they can ever hope to experience.

The wonderful St Paul’s Opera has performed a range of operas for the past four summers in Rectory Grove in the heart of Clapham, at its oldest parish church. Preaching to the converted? Or is SPO also doing a little missionary work for that troublesome thing opera?

No conversion necessary for this Clapham-dweller, though I would be more than delighted if this initiative by several first rate, locally-based singers and musicians (among them founding principal soprano, Tricia Ninian, and founding director, soprano Jennifer McGregor) led to folk who previously have had no interest in opera, imagining it would not be their ‘thing’, to give it a go.

I am sad that, in this country at least, so many folk who are otherwise delighted to be entertained by all types of music and drama, see opera as worship in some inaccessible temple of high art. Happily here it’s open to any of us in SW4 to enjoy annual imaginative staged opera performances of high quality at very reasonable cost – £25 a ticket.

At risk of sounding like a poor woman’s Alan Bennett (he was so excited by his first opera – ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ at Leeds – that he clutched the gold safety rail so hard he had gilt over his hands when he emerged), I got my first taste of song, music-theatre and opera itself in my local community in the north of England and at home via the ‘wireless’ and TV. Hard to remember how few radio programmes and channels there were then so that we experienced homogenised exposure to arts and entertainment.

But we also had many talented musicians in our midst, singing oratorio (and what are oratorio essentially but opera in plainclothes?) in church or at the Newcastle City Hall and, of course, in the local operatic societies ‘rocking’ Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Gilbert and Sullivan. St Paul’s Opera, I feel obliged to point out, in no obvious way resembles any local operatic society I’ve come across…

These performances were full of delights which truly demanded suspension of disbelief: surely Mrs E, at almost 58, was a tad, er, mature to be singing Little Buttercup in Pirates? How was it that the nervous, tongue-tied youth from the haberdashers (one of nature’s Albert Herrings?) proved unaccountably a whizz at the G&S patter-songs? If ‘Uncle’ G carried on at the same rate with the Scotch would he become the same colour and girth as his stately double bass?

From this fertile Northumberland ground (not least from our state schools which in the ‘50s and ‘60s sponsored arts education in every manifestation) emerged some impressive professional singers, including sopranos Sheila Armstrong, Janice Cairns and Maria Moll; tenor Andrew Kennedy; and the late, great bass Owen Brannigan, whose funeral procession in 1973 brought the pit villages of south east Northumberland to a standstill.

My own first experience of ‘proper’ opera – possibly improper opera – came one soaking wet evening c. 1966 at the Ashington Technical College when I heard The Marriage of Figaro performed by Opera for All – paid, I imagine, by the Arts Council to take opera to any community that welcomed the chance to hear it. In my fantasy memory Cherubino was sung by Janet Baker, though I have no hard evidence of this.

Thus began a literal enchantment with opera that has taken me to several of the ‘high temples’, including Glyndebourne and Bayreuth; to the Clapham Picture House – hurrah for live streaming; to the modest-sized parish church of St Endelion in Cornwall to hear, of all things, Die Walkurie with the incomparable John Tomlinson, who was deputising – gratis – for Wotan, who had a cold.

And meantime here is our very own St Paul’s Opera which brings together fine singers, who happen to live locally, with fledgling, professional newcomers nestling in the nearby London conservatoires. No running for that last bus home in the midst of a November Northumberland sea fret; no attaching crampons to reach the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House; no fretting about whether the salad will survive the journey to Sussex on the hottest afternoon of the year.

Just a stroll around the corner from home (with any luck accompanied by a sceptical friend newly ripe for total immersion in the operatic font). What’s not to like?

Mary Lucille Hindmarch

About Mary Lucille ...

Mary Lucille Hindmarch is an exiled Geordie but a Londoner by adoption and a semi-detached member of St Paul’s Church, a building and church yard that she loves.

She was brought up in a busy industrial town in S E Northumberland and heard her all her first music on the wireless and the local Presbyterian church, two members of which went on to pursue singing careers with the Royal Opera. Her own ‘career’ as a singer reached its zenith at University when she sang Second Witch (typecast?) in Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas; she was also cast as Juno in Offenbach’s La Belle Helene and a harridan of a wife in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. In London, she sang in various choirs, large and small, but came rapidly to the conclusion that her contribution to music was almost certainly greater as a bum on a seat (or pew), an enthusiasm that she enjoys sharing with sceptical friends.