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.


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.

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.

Come on 2016!

2016 is starting with a buzz of activity, dusting off existing projects for performance and preparing the ground for new work.

My podcasting project features new conversations with Stephen McNeff, composer of Vivienne, and Liz Smith, film-maker and documenter of the O Antiphons. Click on the name to listen to the podcasts or go to my blog feed to view all podcasts. Watch Liz’s short films of the O Antiphons here.

Haydn’s London Ladies has grown from an hour-long to a two-part presentation with interval and is getting a first performance in this new version at the Swindon Recital Series on 7 Feb. Enlarging the recital has enabled us to bring in a fifth Lady, Emma Hamilton, whose story justifies a whole show in itself, and to introduce some extra music. As well as excerpts from less-known pieces such as The Battle of the Nile, we will also perform the cantata Arianna a Naxos, a piece of which Emma Hamilton sang with Haydn at the keyboard.

My new solo CD with Libby BurgessNotes from the Asylum – is due out any day now. Read more about the project here.

New songs are in the pipeline from Rob Keeley and Toby Young, as well as longer-term projects in development with Martin Ward and Martin Bussey.

I’m also pleased to announce my involvement with a new charitable organisation – New Notes & Noises – whose brief is to help the development and presentation of new work in the future. There will be more information on this over the next few weeks.

Happy Christmas


clare mccaldin

Clare performing at a Christmas concert at Leighton House earlier this month

Thank you for following me and my work both here and through my production company, McCaldin Arts. It’s been a busy year of new and exciting work. The promise of 2016 is, if anything, even exotic and demanding.

You can read back over my previous Newsletters by going to the dedicated page on this website (it’s also to be found as a drop-down link, if you hover over the Blog link in the menu).

Have a peaceful Christmas break and a prosperous New Year.

O Veni

clare mccaldinThe Church of England traditionally marks the beginning of Advent with a service on the eve of the season and this year at St Paul’s Knightsbridge we observed the date in a decidedly non-traditional way. Since the summer a group of us has been discussing the meanings of the O Antiphon texts and making creative decisions about how to express them in a combination of new music and dance. The process has been documented along the way in a series of short films and culminated in a performance in the church on Sunday night.


antiphon4For parishioners who had been expecting the usual readings and carols it might have come as something of a surprise, but the films and blogposts around the project have been designed to bring the congregation with us on the creative journey. For those who hadn’t seen any of the online materials, Father Alan Gyle gave two short meditations providing context and ideas for reflection. An openness to experience something a bit different is all that was requested of anyone in the pews last night and, from the responses shared with us afterwards, we succeeded in touching people and provoking thought.

Gaia Cicolani, Hubert Essakow & Clare McCaldinThe performance was also a remarkable example of what is possible in a short time. Composer Thomas Hyde had, necessarily, finished writing the score some weeks ago in order that it could be recorded in sketch form for the dancers to work with. Three chorus movements were, as is normal for professional church choirs, rehearsed on the day and fitted together with the dance at the general run-through before the performance. Half an hour of music is a substantial amount of time to fill with movement on just a week’s rehearsal. In the end, choreographer Hubert Essakow‘s decision to leave one of the choral movements un-danced proved a good instinct, as it briefly re-directed the focus to the relationship between the music and the space itself. The church’s High Victorian interior and generous acoustic were a sumptuous canvas on which the movement and music could meet.




CHROMAtic music

Yesterday I joined members of CHROMA to workshop new compositions by students of the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, where CHROMA is currently resident. Apart from the pleasure of seeing old friends whom I bump into surprisingly rarely in the course of our work, it’s always interesting to discuss how and why music works. Mark Bowden, Director of Composition at RHUL, had split his group of students into groups to write for one of two combinations: mezzo, violin and clarinet, or baritone, flute and cello. They had not heard their compositions before, other than in a synthesised version, so this was an essential experience to discover how different the reality can be from the performance in their inner ear.

We worked in the lovely Victorian chapel, whose generous acoustic helped those pieces which contained plenty of space and fogged those with lots of texture and detail. In a dryer acoustic we would have had a very different experience of each work and this in itself generated a useful discussion about the advantages of giving the listener’s ear a rest (and the musicians an occasional breather).

Stuart King (clarinet) CHROMAMy partners for the afternoon were CHROMA Artistic Director Stuart King (clarinet, Right) and Alexandra Wood (violin), and these are some of the things we discussed:

Like any language, music has grammar that can be correctly or wrongly notated, including the spelling. If it’s wrong it’s still possible for players to work out what the composer means, but doing so takes time and effort. For a performer, it jolts the attention, even in a piece that one already knows well, to see something that momentarily makes no sense. In a sight-reading situation it can be really tiring to keep having to decipher the way the score is presented. Clearly the fun bit of composing is writing the music. The more boring but totally essential bit is then to go through every part in the score and check for these spelling and music-grammar errors. Many publishers no longer offer proof-reading as a matter of course, so we rely even more on the composer to supply an accurate edition.

All instruments have a finite range and most singers and instrumentalists will say that it’s not great to spend lots of time at either extreme. I am often asked what my vocal range is. In explaining that it’s less about the absolute extremes and more about context, it can sound as if I am weaselling around the subject. But, as I said to our students yesterday, the four things that combine to affect accuracy and quality of sound for a singer are: the speed of the music, the distance between the notes, the degree to which the intervals in a phrase are tonic or augmented and the complexity of the text. I once heard an actor talking on the radio about the correct speed to speak a certain text. He said that if all the consonants were sounded correctly, that would dictate the tempo at which the text could best be understood. I’m not suggesting this is something that should be imposed on a finished composition but speaking text aloud in this way reveals the time required to articulate words full of consonant clusters or dipthongs. It’s a very useful thing for composers to be aware of.

I think it’s fine for a composer not always to be able to articulate why a phrase or piece of music is written a certain way. Sometimes the musical idea comes without being preceded by a definitive thought or image. However, performers do want to know how to phrase what is on the page and what kind of colour or emotion might be attached to it. This is often so much more useful than a tempo marking. I often have questions about why a word is set a certain way or what’s going on with a particular kind of articulation. Stuart’s pet hate is when the first marking in his part is mezzo-forte – it’s a kind of “half-way” volume but half-way between what, when it’s the first phrase of the piece? It’s really helpful to have descriptive markings. We had a lovely one yesterday: dancing, without weight.

Word-setting. I feel strongly about this one because I love words and feel they often provide initial inspiration but then somehow lose out to the music after that. Stravinsky got away with all kinds of crimes against word-setting but that was because he was Stravinsky. Citing him as an example of why it’s ok to ignore the scansion and weight of words in a phrase is, in my humble opinion, a sign of not having given it enough thought. Of course there are works in which the whole point is that the words are chopped up and treated as sound rather than meaning; Berio did a lot of this and it can sound amazing. However, the fact that a composer has chosen to set words in the first place would generally seem to imply that the words have some meaning worth sharing. Setting them in a way that makes the singer’s and audience’s experience harder begs the question of why the composer set the text at all.

We did have one great moment when we started a new piece and it sounded pretty cacophonous. Looking over at the composer’s horrified face, we realised that it perhaps wasn’t quite what she had expected. It was only after several more false starts that we realised she had forgotten to transpose the clarinet part. Sibelius and other music-processing software programmes are wonderful but in the end someone still has to remember to press the right button!


Hubert Essakow, Tom Hyde, Clare McCaldinRecently we had our first creative “brainstorm” for the O Antiphons project at St Paul’s Knightsbridge. I’m reasonably good at staring reflectively into space (see left) but the business of capturing flashes of possible inspiration so as to examine them with a collective critical eye is fascinating.

Choreographer Hubert Essakow (far left) and composer Tom Hyde (centre) are old hands at making something ex nihilo; their respective roles demand that they make decisions in order to begin to create. But as a singer I am more accustomed to being an interpreter than a creator. Generally I am handed the finished product, at which point my creative process begins, which is to lift the song off the page and breathe life and individuality into it. One of the things composers learn early on is that they have to be able to release their creation to this process and trust that the performer will make something of it that is good, even if it is also different from what they had imagined or expected.

So being involved at the very beginning of this creating is already a challenge for me. How to talk about something that doesn’t exist yet? How to describe what qualities it might have, physically or musically? Are any of my ideas any good and do I feel brave enough to try to articulate them?

Tom Hyde and Clare McCaldinWe do at least have the texts to respond to (particularly attractive to me with my fondness for words) and they offer a useful starting point. As a group, the texts have a general theme, but individual texts are of different temperatures and contain images that may be concrete or abstract. The O from which the Antiphons take their name is a call, an address – O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O King of the Nations – and the O shape is both a graphic image with a rich symbology, and a sung/spoken vowel. Possibilities start to open up from those starting-points, before we even begin looking at the broader Advent themes of light out of darkness and anticipation. The history of ritual and the circle of the liturgical year offer still more possible points of contact for the creative team.

Tom Hyde, Hubert Essakow, Clare McCaldinWith so many ways in, the need for some early structural decisions is quickly apparent. Hubert could suddenly decide up to the last moment (budget permitting) that an extra dancer is required, but for Tom to get on and write much, he needs to know what he’s writing for. Our O Antiphons will contain sections for eight-part choir, organ and a couple of soloists. Different texts suggest themselves for different combinations. Questions of spoken vs sung text are relevent here too; in an operatic situation I feel strongly that to come out of singing into speech has to be properly justified but in a liturgical setting where we regularly toggle between the two, the transition feels much more natural, with and without accompanying harmony.

We’ve also decided to let the music lead a certain amount of the process but to elect one movement in which the dance will come first. The music will, therefore, be created in response to this. It’ll be interesting to discover what, if any, difference it makes to do it this way round.

Read more from me about the O Antiphons project or watch the video introduction on the St Paul’s Knightsbridge website.

Photo credits: James Bellorini