Près des ramparts de Séville

image1A brief trip to Seville recently reminded me of how many operatic connections the city has. My companion and I set out to track down what traces remain of the real people and locations that inspired operatic treatment, as well as observing the marketing advantages to be wrung from these associations. Apart from famous locations such as the Bullring and the Alcàzar, which make appearances in operas ranging from Carmen to La Favorita, there are lots of smaller places to be discovered.

Seville’s own municipal signage (sub-branded Ciudad de Opera) helpfully directed us to Rosina’s balcony and Basilio’s house (Il Barbiere di Siviglia). lilas_pastia_cafePlaza and Calle Doña Elvira are nearby, with the estate said to be the home of the original Don Juan (Don Giovanni) a couple of hours drive into the surrounding countryside.

Calle Maria de Padilla runs down the side of the grand University building that began life as the Royal tobacco factory where Carmen and friends would have worked. Assorted plaques (above) identify other sights such as the tavern where Carmen, Escamillo and Don José met, although surely a trick was missed by not just calling the place Lilas Pastia’s?


There was no such bashfulness from the hairdresser El Barbero di Sevilla, although the staff there drew the line at actual singing. Our twenty-year old guidebook had suggested a rival barbershop over the river in Triana borough as the premises occupied by the original Figaro, but when we went looking we were told that it was long gone. On a bus heading for Triana in search of Figaro, someone behind us was whistling. Not, as you might have imagined, hits from Carmen but Suzanna’s duet with the Countess, “Sull’aria”, from Le Nozze di Figaro.

Other less direct operatic associations also suggest themselves. Although Verdi’s auto da fe scene in Don Carlos takes place in the city of Valladolid, the Spanish Inquisition was very active in Seville and its very first auto da fe took place there on 6 February 1481. Plastic figurines of penitents in pointed hoods are widely available but disappointingly there were no models of Biggles, Jimenez and Fang.

With the Finzis in Ashmansworth

Gerald and joy FinziLast weekend I visited the village of Ashmansworth to take part in the Finzi Friends‘ day of activity commemorating the 60th anniversary of Finzi’s death. The tiny church outside which Gerald and his wife Joy are buried (left) is just big enough to cram a baby grand in next to the font and still leave room for a select audience. Accompanying me in recital was Libby Burgess, and we were joined by composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, who spoke to the assembled Friends about the skill of word-setting and the treatment of text in sung works.

I always like to include work by living composers in recital programmes when I can, and Cheryl had transposed her Two Shakespeare Songs into a mezzo-friendly key for us to perform. The current Chairman of the Finzi Friends is another composer, Martin Bussey, whose setting of Church Romance by Thomas Hardy is a favourite of mine – its narrative about the meeting and courtship of the poets’ own parents formed a perfect programming bridge into the jazzier idiom of Richard Rodney Bennett’s A History of the Thé Dansant, whose texts are also about the romance of the composer’s (and poet’s) parents in the 1920s. Our programme therefore not only included songs by Finzi and Gurney (whose music Finzi championed), but nodded to the World War I centenary via Gurney, and marked this year’s Shakespeare anniversary.

McCaldin, Frances-Hoad & BurgessHowever, the most intimate programming link to Ashmansworth was via our first Finzi song in his cycle To a Poet. James Elroy Flecker’s poem of the same name was felt by Finzi as a sort of personal artistic statement and he buried an early draft of the song under the porch of Church Farm, the house he built at Ashmansworth. The current owners allowed us into the orchard and here am I with Libby and Cheryl, in her magnificent apple-print dress, marking the fact that Finzi was also a keen apple-grower and saved a number of rare English varieties from extinction.


Fresh Ayres

fresh ayres artemesiaI love working with strings and so jumped at the chance to give the first performance on 11 June of Artemisia, a cycle of songs by Paul Ayres about the life of ground-breaking Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentilleschi. Sharing the performance with me were Daniel Pioro (violin) and two members of the Castalian Quartet, Charlotte Bonneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).

Paul initially set four of Sue Powell’s Artemisia poems in 2006 and was persuaded by Sue to complete the remaining cycle with three more songs in 2014. The texts touch on dramatic and emotional events surrounding Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist in her father’s studio, against whom her father subsequently brought a legal case. Artemisia herself testified at the trial and endured an internal examination and torture with thumbscrews to ‘verify’ her story.

Judith slaying Holofernes - Artemisia GentilleschiArtemisia’s work often portrays mythical and biblical women, both as victims and warriors. One of the most famous of these is Judith slaying Holofernes (right), whose striking violence it is tempting to link directly to the artist’s real-life experience. This painting and the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting are perhaps Artemisia’s best-known works and are each the subject of a song in the cycle.

The movements in the cycle portraying the rape itself and the painting of the Judith canvas share driving rhythmic motifs and a relentless forward momentum suggesting two different kinds of emotional and physical frenzy. By contrast the trial scene is starkly atmospheric and empty, with the strings only briefly cutting across the vocal line like the shafts of light described in the text.

The concert was recorded and I hope to be able to post a link to some of the music here soon.


Rob Keeley on songwriting

clare mccaldin podcastIn my line of work I bump into all kinds of interesting people with great stories to tell. However, because they work behind the scenes you won’t always get to hear them. I asked them if they’d like to talk to me (and my iPhone!) about what they do, so that I could share it with you here.

In this podcast I talk to another composer, Rob Keeley, with whom I am currently working on some of his song repertoire. He talks about the importance of finding the right kind of poetry for song lyrics, the musicality of Shakespeare and why setting a libretto for the operatic stage is not the same as setting a poem to music for a song.


Stevie Smith and Artemisia Gentileschi

This month I am getting inside the minds of two very different female artists, the English poet Stevie Smith and the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

stevie-smith-6Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a novelist and poet, perhaps best known for her poem Not Waving But Drowning, and for her novel The Holiday. A quirky and sometimes difficult personality, sensitive to the illnesses and bereavements that shaped her whole life, her naivety and sharp intelligence combine to create a distinctive authorial voice.

“She always suggested some kind of mildly discommoded bird, perhaps a jackdaw with a touch of weltanschauungangst,”wrote a friend of hers. She herself likened her fictional writing to the sea: on the surface sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”.

I’m performing Rob Keeley’s settings of five of Stevie Smith’s poems – Avondale, La Gretchen de nos jours, Le singe qui swing, Tender only to one and Will Ever? – with Rob at the piano on June 5th.



artemisiapittura72-1On June 11th I’ll be singing the first complete performance of Paul Ayre’s Artemisia, an exploration of the artistic and personal life of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c1656). The work is for mezzo and string trio and sets seven poems by Sue Powell.

Gentileschi spent time in England between 1638 and 1639 and one of her most famous works, the Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (left), was probably painted here. It was considered a bold statement at a time when women had little status as artists. Artemisia’s rape by Agostino Tassi – a fellow artist in her father’s workshop – is thought to have been reflected in her subsequent work, which often shows subjects such as Judith Slaying Holofernes and Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist. Sue Powell’s poems narrate these central events in Artemisia’s life and reflect on the artist’s pioneering role, not only as one of the first female painters, but also as one of the most progressive artists of her generation.

Watch the video of La Giuditta, the song from the cycle about the making of this picture.

Libby Burgess’s New Paths

clare mccaldin podcastIn my line of work I bump into all kinds of interesting people with great stories to tell. However, because they work behind the scenes you won’t always get to hear them. I asked them if they’d like to talk to me (and my iPhone!) about what they do, so that I could share it with you here.

In this podcast I talk (in a rather noisy cafe) to pianist Libby Burgess about New Paths, the festival of chamber music and song that she and Roland Deller have established in Beverley, Yorkshire. It’s no mean feat setting up a festival from scratch, even if you do have a few local connections, and we talk about what makes for success, ideas for programming and the thrill of finding your concert is sold-out.

April 29 launch of Notes from the Asylum

notes from the asylum cdI’m delighted to announce that 29th April is the confirmed date for the release of my second CD, Notes from the Asylum, by Champs Hill Records. Pianist Libby Burgess and clarinettist Catriona Scott join me on the CD, which features songs by Purcell, Abrams, Brahms, Wolf and  Rorem, chosen to complement the central themes in Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne, recorded here for the first time.

To read more about the recording project and watch the introductory video, follow this link.

The CD will be available from 29th April on Amazon and the Champs Hill Records website.

Ivor and Peggy

clare mccaldin podcastIn my line of work I bump into all kinds of interesting people with great stories to tell. However, because they work behind the scenes you won’t always get to hear them. I asked them if they’d like to talk to me (and my iPhone!) about what they do, so that I could share it with you here.

This is my second chat with Rosy Sanders in which we talk about the performing careers of her parents, Ivor Ingham – baritone in the Sadlers Wells Opera Company, communist and founder Equity committee member – and Peggy Law, variety artist and Tiller Girl.

The careers of Rosy Sanders

clare mccaldin podcastIn my line of work I bump into all kinds of interesting people with great stories to tell. However, because they work behind the scenes you won’t always get to hear them. I asked them if they’d like to talk to me (and my iPhone!) about what they do, so that I could share it with you here.

This is the first of two chats with Rosy Sanders. Her story of pursuing her childhood dream of being a dancer is not only entertaining, but illustrates the way in which many performers have to acquire all kinds of other skills to protect their principal passion. Now in her 70s, Rosy is as busy as ever, combining teaching, acting, modelling and dancing.

Tales from Backstage

clare mccaldin podcastThis week I posted my eighth podcast episode – the second part of an extended conversation with composer Stephen McNeff in which we talk about writing for singers, what makes for successful collaboration and what else he has in the compositional pipeline.

I’ve called the podcasting strand of my activity Tales from Backstage because I want it to be a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, not just in my own work but also in the lives and work of my colleagues. Sometimes this is the story of how their path has literally crossed mine backstage in a particular performance such as the Royal Opera’s Carmen, where I met Kay, Anita, Sharon and Sam. Other conversations – with Sandy, Stephen and Liz – take place in a more metaphorical backstage area, where we discuss how and why we do what we do.

Hopefully all of these podcasts reveal interesting truths about life in the performing arts – many of my conversation partners reveal themselves as multi-talented multi-taskers, juggling roles as teachers, writers, producers and creators, which is the reality for most performers rather than a single-focussed occupation.

What kind of people would you like to hear about? Let me know and perhaps there’s one near me and my iPhone, ready to chat.