Finding Mabel Ritchie

There are many operas and plays based on real events or people who really lived: Don Carlo and Kròl Roger; Oppenheimer and Masterclass (about Maria Callas) to name a few. Any performer playing someone who died within the last 100 years probably has the benefit of archival information in the form of photos, recordings and film, or in the memories of those still living.

Margaret Ritchie, soprano

Photo: Derek Allen

I’m currently researching the English soprano Margaret (or “Mabel”) Ritchie as I am playing her in a theatre production later this year.

Mabel had a walk-on part in several important musical moments in history – Benjamin Britten was fond of her and cast her as the first Lucia in The Rape of Lucretia (with Ferrier as Lucretia), the first Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring, and the first soloist in A Ceremony of Carols. She also appeared in a couple of films: as the wordless soloist in Vaughan-Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (based on his soundtrack for the 1953 film Scott of the Antarctic) and as Adelina Patti in the film Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945).

Mabel also sang at a soirée in Oxford in 1958 on the evening of Shostakovich’s receipt of his honorary degree from the University. Quite how she found herself there isn’t clear but it may have been through Alexandra Trevor-Roper, wife of a prominent academic, who was a keen amateur singer and music-lover. The events surrounding Shostakovich’s visit are now the subject of a new play by Lewis Owens, entitled Like a Chemist from Canada.

We know that Mabel was born in Grimsby but I haven’t yet been able to find out whether she spoke with an accent (as Kathleen Ferrier did) or whether she was rather more RP.

Luckily a letter from Britten to Peter Pears has yielded some character clues:

Mabel is being awfully sweet. She is a very sensitive good artist – sometimes as a person that funny Christian Scientist streak appears, a sort of solemn obstinacy – but she is very serious and understanding“. (November 1946)

We know from a letter written by Sir Isaiah Berlin after that evening in Oxford that Mabel sang some Poulenc songs, but not which ones. He is rather ungenerous about her performance, writing that she sang “absurdly, in the ludicrous Victorian English fashion, Shostakovich writhed a little but Poulenc, very polite, very mundane, congratulated her and made grimaces to others behind her back“.

It’s interesting to read such judgements of her singing; as so often, it says as much about the critic as the singer. Her delivery does indeed sound slightly old-fashioned to modern ears but she was known for her silvery sound and purity of tone. Britten describes her as “a very light coloratura soprano” (I will therefore be playing her with a certain licence!) and was clearly fond of her professionally as well as personally. She was also rated highly by the critics of the day and sang alongside other great British singers such as Joan Cross, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Alfred Deller and Constance Shacklock.

You can form your own opinion from her various recordings on You Tube and here she is singing Mozart’s Ridente la calma:

Like a Chemist from Canada is at Sadlers Well on June 13, the Royal Academy of Music on June 14 and the Sheldonian, Oxford on July 3. If you want to know what the play’s title refers to, you will need to come and see the show!


“Notes from the Asylum” CD recording sessions

Clare McCaldin & Libby BurgessRecording a substantial recital disc of wildly-different repertoire was always going to be an exciting challenge. That was the point. Knowing that we had the support of Champs Hill Records, and some fantastic technical assistance in the form of producer Matthew Bennett, engineer Dave Rowell and my singing teacher Paula Anglin, it was up to Libby Burgess and me to go into the studio and take some calculated risks. It can be tricky, though, to calibrate how much energy is still available, even with a seemingly endless supply of tea and Kit Kats on offer.

Three solid days of work requires some serious tactics; how to structure the sessions in order to get the best results and still leave room for experimentation, knowing the distance we needed to cover from Purcell to Stephen McNeff via Wolf, Brahms and Rorem. Even in the best of health, with high levels of preparation, sleep and hydration, a tessitura ranging from low G flat to high C is demanding on the voice. Switching from one style to another also subtly changes how we use our voice and this can throw up extra challenges when something that was working brilliantly yesterday starts misbehaving today. We learn to anticipate and deal with these moments through experience but it’s when it’s starting to get tough that we discover how well we really understand our own technique and instrument. That’s also when we need to know we can trust the people in the producer’s box, as it’s surprising how different things can sound in there.

Clare McCaldin & Libby Burgess at Champs Hill RecordsI’m happy to say that we did everything we wanted to and more. There will undoubtedly be a moment of hesitation before I press PLAY to listen to the first edit, in which I will remember all the things that could have been different, but I am really looking forward to hearing it all from the other side of the mike. For me, one of the great pleasures of recording is tweaking each song for greater expressive detail. A CD-full of unruly female characters gave us plenty of room for creativity on that front and I’ll be really excited to hear how they come across as a group of musical personalities.

Oh show us the way to the next whisky bar!

Next Monday I am performing a concert in the Royal Opera House’s lunchtime concert series with my colleague from the chorus there, Katy Batho, and pianist Stephen Higgins. We chose our programme to coincide with a new production by the Royal Opera of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which opened on March 10. Our programme features several of the main contributors to popular music during those inter-war years; in particular Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky and, of course, Kurt Weill.

Marlene Dietrich in the Blue AngelDissent and difference thrived under the more relaxed social attitudes of Weimar; where entertainment and social activities had been highly regulated under previous authoritarian governments, it was suddenly possible to explore alternative sexuality, and to satirise and openly criticise the Establishment. Cabaret soon became dominated by two subjects in particular – sex and politics – and a certain wild democracy was evident in the wide range of its targets. No person or subject was safe from parody and satire, even the increasingly powerful Adolf Hitler.

Of course not everyone approved. Cabaret was seen by some as emblematic of capitalism’s wastefulness (its rise coincided with catastrophic hyper-inflation in Germany); to others it demonstrated a lack of social authority, leading inexorably to moral corruption and decadence. Stefan Zweig wrote in his autobiography:

“Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order. Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin.”

Musically the songs of the time seem to fall into two types. Timeless tunes such as Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt (Falling in Love Again) and wordy comic songs that often seem more closely bound to time and place; Zieh Dich aus Petronella (Petronella, get your kit off) pokes fun at Cabaret’s fondness for striptease and nudity. There’s some silly stuff too: in this clip from the 1961 Billy Wilder film One, Two, Three, Hollaender himself appears as the band-leader, singing Ausgerechnet Bananen.

Alabama Song combines both in classic Brecht/Weill style – a memorable chorus melody and biting words about the collapse of social order in Mahagonny, holding up a mirror to Germany itself in the late 1920s. Whether bleak or optimistic, cynical or charming, there is still always a subtext in this music. Sometimes it’s just smut and sometimes it’s harsh social or political satire, acting as a kind of pressure valve, perhaps, for what Zweig describes:

“everywhere it was unmistakeable that this over-excitation was unbearable for people…the whole nation…actually only longed for order, quiet and a little security…the German people, a disciplined folk, did not know what to do with their freedom.”

Other writers such as Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin point to Weimar society seeming to accelerate, as if sensing that the end of the world was imminent and embracing the headlong rush towards destruction. Even after Weill had left Germany and was living in New York with his wife Lotte Lenya, there are still echoes of this earlier life – in 1939 he presented her with a setting of Nanna’s Lied, a fierce Hans Eisler text with an elegiac refrain. The story goes that Lenya never sang it in public – who knows? Perhaps it was all still just too close.

Take Two

Champs HIll Records Clare McCaldin Libby BurgessLast week I returned to Champs Hill to record my second solo CD for Champs Hill Records. It hardly seems possible that I was last there two and half years ago, as so much has happened since, including the label’s well-deserved winning of the RPS Award for Chamber Music and Song 2014.

Champs Hill is a remarkable phenomenon; a house of moderate size that acquired a purpose-built concert hall next-door (modestly known as the Music Room), through the enthusiasm of its owners for live music. A few recordings of performances followed and the idea of bespoke recording projects was quickly born. It soon blossomed into a large-scale project and there are now over 80 CDs in the catalogue, with many more to come.

Recording at Champs Hill Clare McCaldinSince my last visit, it seems that the level of activity has considerably increased. Ours is the first recording of 2015 but a whole series of projects is stacked up behind us in a carefully-arranged constellation that includes not just the recordings, but all the live concerts, talks and other activities that take place in the Barn as well. And that’s without all the planning required to maintain the beautiful gardens and open them to the public.

Making music in a supportive environment is wonderful in itself and the experience is enhanced still further by the ever-changing display of artworks on the walls of the Music Room. Clare McCaldin and Augustus JohnI loved being able to potter off between takes to look at a painting or a bust (I encountered Augustus John, who gets a name-check in Vivienne: “of all philanderers who might want to try it on…I might mention Casanova and Augustus John”).

It would be easy to delegate a lot of this to other people but the notable thing about Champs Hill is that Mary and David Bowerman remain in such close contact with every aspect of every project; the cover image for a CD, the placement of a piece of garden sculpture and the choice of recording artists all get careful attention. That they make time for each of us and make us feel so welcome in their house is the greatest compliment.


Multiple personalities

Clare McCaldin as Vivienne (photo: Claire Shovelton)My recent performance in Somerset was the second time that Libby Burgess and I have done Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne as a concert work rather than in its staged form. Alexandra Coghlan’s kind words in her review of the original production have proved to be correct and the power of the songs in their own right is undeniable.

The piece was conceived with the intention to stage it and is magnificent in a brilliant production by Joe Austin, designed by Simon Kenny. Having given four staged performances in 2013, there is now a rich hinterland of character and movement which informs the piece in concert. There are also interesting differences – not just the different micro-decisions one makes mid-performance, but also the way in which the relationship with the audience in a concert situation changes things. Vivienne in her staged world is isolated and genuinely alone: she makes contact with an audience but it is in her imagination, conjured from memory by her own need for comfort in the asylum. The actual audience in the space sometimes doubles as her imaginary audience but for me, as Vivienne, there is a distinct separation between them.

The composer’s sub-title for Vivienne is “six cabaret songs” and in a concert presentation they irresistibly lean toward this model, in a much more direct dialogue with a ‘real’ audience. Different aspects of Vivienne’s character emerge. She is still undeniably herself, but I find more of what I imagine her to have been in real-life social situations – by turns charming and coquettish, attention-seeking and sulky, as well as confronting painful self-revelation in the extraordinary ending. Words in Andy Rashleigh’s magnificent libretto acquire additional nuance and in concert Vivienne reacts to the audience’s response in a way which feels wrong in the isolation of her staged environment.

I love the flexibility of the piece in these two situations, and the various aspects of Vivienne that emerge in the deepening relationship Libby and I continue to develop with her. This week we record the cycle at Champs Hill, which will require us to commit to an interpretation of it for posterity. Hopefully a third version will emerge that captures her infinite variety even more vividly for the aural experience.

A hasty retreat

Champs Hill CD dry run at The Old RectoryOne of the most useful things for me before an important performance is to give the programme a dry-run. There’s no substitute for the energy and intensity of delivering to even the smallest audience and surprising “pressure points” emerge, which are only discoverable in this way.

In anticipation of next week’s recording sessions at Champs Hill, I spent the last two days in Somerset, rehearsing with Libby Burgess and Catriona Scott, culminating in a concert for an invited audience. Initially it felt like a long way to go for two days and, possibly, a bit of an indulgence. This in spite of the fact that performing (and therefore rehearsing) is my job! I couldn’t have been more wrong about the value of taking this focussed time away. Admittedly it helped that we were spoiled rotten by our hosts, whose enlightened patronage through the provision of a beautiful working environment, great food and an intuitive understanding of what performers need, is the key to serious productivity.

Taking a sabbatical from ‘normal’ life isn’t a new idea – it’s at the heart of the Leighton Artists’ Colony at Banff and similar creative retreats. I was reminded again of the powerful effect of leaving my normal routine for one in which my sole purpose was to give my attention to my work. Being extremely good at multi-tasking, I tend not to make this a priority but it’s something I’ll be finding more opportunities for in the future. There’s no question that it works.

At the end of our ‘retreat’ we tested our audience and ourselves with an intense programme of songs about madness – Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam, Wolf’s settings of Mörike’s Agnes songs, Rorem’s Ariel Songs (poems by Sylvia Plath) and our starting place for the project, Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne. Blessed with a sophisticated and appreciative audience (including the local builder, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of C20th music), we were gratified by one man who simply said “that was one of the most astonishing evenings I’ve ever spent”.

That’ll do for me.

Return to Champs Hill

Garden sculpture at Champs HillI’m delighted to announce that I will be returning in March to Champs Hill to make a new solo recording.

Since I was last there to make my all-McNeff CD, Madrigali dell’Estate, Champs Hill Records won the RPS 2014 Award for Chamber Music and Song:

“This award celebrates a unique venture in West Sussex which offers holistic support for chamber music and song: promoting excellence in performance, and through its own record label, nurturing young talent and exploring unusual repertoire in a calm and supportive environment”.

It is therefore a great compliment to be invited back there and to be working with a wonderful accompanist, Libby Burgess. Libby is also a familiar face at Champs Hill, having previously recorded there with the oboist James Turnbull.

alt_flyer01For the new CD I wanted to build on my work with Stephen McNeff and, in particular, to record his song-cycle written for me and Libby Burgess in 2013, Vivienne. This work met with critical acclaim when performed in a staged version and will be presented again in June 2015 to mark the 100th anniversary of the marriage of TS Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

I also wanted to develop a thematic programme that complimented the content of Vivienne. This took me down twin paths:

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was a real person, married to a famous poet but with her own artistic aspirations, who suffered mental illness and an early death. Sylvia Plath followed a remarkably similar personal arc (although her artistic achievements are unquestionably greater than Vivienne’s). The American composer Ned Rorem has set a group of five of Plath’s magnificent poems from her Ariel collection, which seemed an obvious pendant to McNeff’s song-cycle. The Rorem songs also offered me the chance to involve clarinettist Catriona Scott, whose instrumental line provides a powerful other voice in the cycle.

Mary Catherine Bolton as Ophelia in 1813The second path I explored is that of fictitious literary women who experience madness and death, of whom there are many examples. This led me to the austere beauty of Brahms’s Ophelia Lieder (settings of her texts from the Shakespeare in German translation), and also to Wolf’s Mörike Lieder. A particular group of his texts appear as songs within Mörike’s early novel, Maler Nolten, in which Agnes, a sheltered young woman like Ophelia, is disappointed in love, goes mad and drowns herself. Several of her songs are well-known but they are not always performed together and it is satisfying to re-unite them as a companion group to the Brahms songs, whose heroine suffers a similar fate.

To open the programme we will perform Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s Mad Bess, setting an anonymous Bedlam text from the seventeenth-century that typifies the fascination of the time for lunacy and asylum-dwellers. Bess’s humour and self-awareness provide a wonderful departure-point for the rest of the programme, in which dark comedy and sharp truths abound.

Madness may seem at first to be a depressing subject for a recording, but the quality of the repertoire we will be exploring makes this a very exciting and thought-provoking project. Watch this space for news of the release date and the commemorative performance of Vivienne in June.

Messiah, St David’s Hall in Cardiff

B42U3kbIcAA3wfS.jpg-largeFor my second Messiah of the season I made the trip to Cardiff, to sing with the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir at its farewell concert under conductor Neil Ferris.

St David’s Hall was packed with an attentive and enthusiastic audience which roared its approval at the end for the brilliant work by all my colleagues. A great treat to be singing alongside international stars (and local heroes) Rebecca Evans and Matthew Brook, and to be part of tenor Trystan Griffiths‘ first performance of the piece. Baroque period instrument ensemble Réjouissance played wonderfully under its leader Simon Jones and it was a nice surprise to find the leader from last week’s concert in Worcester leading the second violins.

The choir sang fantastically well and I was able to ask a few of them about the fact that they weren’t grouped in voice parts but, unusually, were all mixed up. Everyone admitted that it was more challenging that way, but that for a work that they knew well such as Messiah, it was a great way to raise the stakes for each individual’s contribution. I don’t know that it would work for every choir, but for the Polys it clearly contributed to their excellent, committed performance and it was a great pleasure to be sharing the stage with them.

What a pity, then, to discover that St David’s Hall and the New Theatre are threatened with a withdrawal of subsidy by Cardiff Council, which is seeking to make savings on its budget. In a situation reminiscent of the one Grimsby Bach Choir is in, the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir may find itself without a large-scale performance venue if the hall passes into commercial hands and becomes prohibitively expensive to hire, as seems likely.

A final decision seems to be pending, but it doesn’t bode well for the breadth of cultural activity in Cardiff.


Messiah with Worcester Festival Choral Society

2014-12-06 15.40.16The first Messiah of the year is always a great moment and I had to wait until December 6 this year to get my fix. It’s one of those works that I look forward to singing, whether as a soloist or as a member of the ensemble.

This performance was in Worcester cathedral (seen right, with me and Janet Coxwell, soprano) conducted by the cathedral’s Organist & Director of Music, Dr Peter Nardone. The other two soloists were Nathan Vale (tenor) and Stuart Young (bass).

It’s always a pleasure to come onstage and find a full auditorium. It was especially lovely at this concert to see the illuminated cathedral nave stretch off into the distance and almost fade into the darkness. It’s fairly remarkable that there’s so much of it left given how fought over Worcester was during the Civil War and the remains of a Christ in Glory on the wall of the College Hall testify to how much damage was done. Last time I sang at the cathedral the Chapter House was being restored, so I was very pleased that it was back in business offering a warming cup of tea in the interval so that I could take a look at it.

Nice, too, to mingle with members of the audience and hear what the Messiah means to them. Christmas wouldn’t really be Christmas without it, one man said to me. I agree.

Sylvia and Vivienne

About nine months ago, I decided that I would like to record Vivienne, my most recent collaboration with Stephen McNeff. The piece is rich in emotional colours and historical context, so I thought it would be interesting to make it the centrepiece of a programme of works related by subject rather than musical lineage.

The narrative of Vivienne is fascinating to me not least because Vivienne Haigh-Wood was a real person, to whom lyricist Andy Rashleigh has given wonderfully sharp thoughts and feelings. She was highly creative and highly-strung. Considered not only troublesome but ‘morally insane’ by her own mother, she was consigned to an asylum for the final nine years of her life, unvisited by her husband TS Eliot (whom she had married without her family’s permission).

If this sounds like a depressing subject for a CD, the sheer quality of songs about madness in the repertoire suggest that it can also strike some kind of a chord. Mental instability is not only a well-worn subject for literary storylines but has often been closely associated with the creative mind itself, in artists as various as Virginia Woolf and Mark Gertler. The majority of the lyrics for such songs are presented ‘in character’ – Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Agnes in Mörike’s Maler Nolten, Rashleigh’s Vivienne – but there is one exception in my programme.

Ned Rorem’s cycle Ariel sets a group of five poems by American poet Sylvia Plath from her collection of the same name. We are closer to the reality of mental distress here than in any of the other texts, but there is still room for dark humour. Not only is Plath’s use of language virtuosic, but our knowledge that she is writing directly from her own experience sharpens every word. Like Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Plath was treated according to the best practice of the day, which was not always pleasant or even successful. Plath was able to distil this experience into poetry in a truly extraordinary way.

In the course of my research I discovered that Plath once dined with TS Eliot and his wife. It would have been wonderfully tidy if that had been Vivienne, but by that evening in 1960 Vivienne was dead and Eliot was married to Valerie.

I wonder what Sylvia and Vivienne would have made of each other.