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From Purity’s Drawers: Kasarova in Munich

An absolutely lovely post on Parterre Box about the fantastic Baroque Mezzo Ann Hallenberg (touring extensively all over Europe next season so plenty of chance to catch her live) reminded me of how I feel about my own Mezzo Diva – Vesselina Kasarova. In times gone by a good “friend” of mine blogged about her opera adventures under the nom de plume Purity Mccall. The blog is no more but the contents are still knocking around so it seemed a nice idea to start an occasional series of “Posts from Purity’s Drawers” (apologies non-British readers but the double entendre is an affectation Purity is much afflicted by) with this account of her experiences at a Kasarova concert given in Munich in December 2009.


Handel Lives: Kasarova in Munich

So finally a small gap in the busy Munich schedule, and sufficient time to have descended from cloud twenty-nine to cloud nine, and the promised review of Vesselina Kasarova’s Handel concert in Munich with the Freiburger Barockorchester in the Herkulessaal. The usual caveats exist – what I know about music could be written on the back of a very tiny tiny envelope and still leave enough room for a shopping list and a note reminding yourself to get the car oil changed next week. I’m not a music critic. But I am an experience junkie, and I’ve been around this planet enough times and had enough of them to know the difference between a good and a bad one. All comments are therefore written in the spirit of someone out there hunting moments of joy and appreciating deeply folks who go out there and try to provide them for us. But before we get down to the music, let’s deal with some important issues for the White Shirt Army out there:

  • ‘White Shirt’ count (female) – high, very high, even allowing for your correspondent’s natural inclination to believe that everyone is a ‘White Shirt’ (female) until proven otherwise (well hey, you gotta start somewhere). Particularly impressed by the large number of couples – VK is obviously becoming the dyke equivalent of a chick flick date night. No obvious necking going on though. Shame.
  • ‘White Shirt’ count (male) – high, very high, surprisingly so. At previous VK events I’ve noticed a fair few but this night was extremely high. Of course my observations were aided by the fact that I was on the arm of not just My Own Personal White Shirt Lady but My Future Husband – who given his role as my future husband seemed entirely too busy attracting young gay men for my liking!
  • ‘Famous Twins’ count – 2, as per usual. Yes I finally got to see the famous older lady twins who apparently are always to be seen at VK Munich events.
  • Uniform details – sadly it was a rather chilly night in Munich so the white shirts were rejected in favour of black polo neck jumper (me) and silvery fluffy jumper (MOPWSL). Future husband – as is his wont – was a vision in pastel pinky orangey suit-ey things. I did however sport the black DMs in honour of our Lady Cecilia (though with some very cute Max Mara trousers just for fun!).
  • Seating – MOPWSL and I sat on the fourth row just to the left of middle while future husband sat in the second row smack in the middle (more on that later!).

OK, enough with the White Shirt Army intelligence report. Now the important information…. how did she look? Well, as hinted at previously, I don’t think it would be too over the top to say she looked stunning. Slinky black dress with a very obliging slash right up the side. Hair slightly shorter than it has been for a while. She was simply glowing. Whatever she’s taking can I have some please! Seriously she looked unbelievably beautiful both during the concert and in her ‘civvies’ later at the signing (no – of course I didn’t – I was dragged there by my German companions who once again insisted on testing my British reserve by making me wait in the queue with them. Yes fellow Brit readers, shudder at the thought indeed!). I was rather taken aback by how amazing she looked when she first entered the stage, but what followed I think explained it… it’s hard not to look amazing when you are floating in a sea of musical joy.

So, the music. The real reason (well… mostly) we were there. First let me say I have never seen the Freiburger Barockorchester before. I will be again though, as often as I possibly can. I am now an orchestra junkie. Led by violinist of great charm Gottfried von der Goltz, they truly rocked the house. These guys love each other. These guys love the music they play. These guys love their audience: how else to explain the energy they put into their performance? that was ‘above and beyond’. They sparkled and played and had fun with each other, and with Vesselina, and she with them. If we were in the 60s I’d say this was more a love-in than a concert. And as they rocked and she scorched the air with her coloratura I suddenly knew why she was looking so incredible. She was in her element and we all knew it. The joyfulness and love was infectious. She strode out on stage with an air of ‘I think this might be a special night’ (no Mr critic… she did not look nervous). Of course, she was right.

From her first aria – Dopo notte atra e fenestra – she had the (almost sold out) audience in the palm of her hand. I was reminded at various points very strongly of being in a folk pub in Scotland after hours with the place crammed full of inebriated locals carousing while the musicians shoved in the corner belt out a reel, and then stilled completely when the slow airs are played. OK not so much reminded as dreaming. But sadly once again I felt myself bemoaning the fact that I was stuck in a row like a schoolchild at a church service, reduced to surreptitiously tapping a foot and unable to move and cry (or even howl – more on that later too!) as the mood took me. Though an older lady in the row in front seemed to see no reason not to sit there bobbing her head furiously in time to the music. But if that first aria had us all going the Scherza infida was a revelation. There were new ornaments all over the place and the voice sounded so utterly sure and secure and powerful. And sexy black dress or not, as the Abendzeitung critic didn’t quite put it she had enough testosterone in her voice to fill a football stadium on World Cup finals day. When she sang it was as if Ariodante himself was in the room.

At this point I think even the non-rabid Kasarova fans in the room were getting the message that this was a special night. The incredibly cute gay boys (she said making wild assumptions, again!) who seem to be the VK Cheerleading Squad didn’t have to work too hard to get the whole audience cheering and bravo-ing wildly. And from there on in it was joy unalloyed. And this experience junkie was fully sated. Con l’ali di costanza was like watching a world class sprinter break the 100m dash record. It was fascinating to see how she used her body and her interactions with the orchestra – especially the very sweet conductor – to build energy for her voice. I guess Handel singing makes for a pretty good workout. I have to say though that much as I love a good hair singeing now and again from a rocking Handel aria, it’s the slower arias that really take me to Baroque heaven. Caro amor, sol per momenti is my absolute favourite from her Sento Brillar CD and tonight she and the Freiburger Barockorchester took my heart, sliced it into hundreds of tiny pieces and scattered them in the air to fly around the world planting trees of joy wherever they landed. But if I thought that was good, her encore of Verdi prati revealed to me that it is possible to survive for quite some time when your heart and lungs have stopped working. I had been struggling all concert to keep the tears to a minimum, but I got seriously worried about half way through that I was going to completely humiliate myself by letting out an enormous primal howl of … what?… joy mixed with pain mixed with love mixed with some other thing that has no word but is something about the moment your heart and soul finally connect with the universe. And in the middle of all of this the orchestra kept astonishing us with yet more incredible Baroque jewels. It would be unfair to single any out for musicality, they were wonderful, but I would say I have never seen a group of people clearly have so much fun performing. And clearly enjoy VKs singing so much too. They looked every bit as overwhelmed as we did.

But of course like all good things the night had to come to an end. And there was nothing left to do – British reserve be dammed – but join the entire rest of the audience and stand and cheer and applaud till long after she finally left the stage. Needless to say at this point, so utterly drained of the ability to think clearly, my companions pounced and in my confusion lured me to join them in the autograph queue after. My Future Husband tried to distract me by seducing me into some indiscrete photographs which I trust will not surface on the interwebs in years to come and besmirch my reputation as a fine upstanding White Shirt Army foot soldier. Luckily I came to my senses and managed to escape just before they reached her at the table, whereupon My Future Husband wooed Frau Kasarova with his charm and she noted that she had indeed seen him in his second row middle seat. Well of course she did Future Husband with your shameless flirting… I saw! Meanwhile MOPWSL was so overcome by the concert (she says) and/or how cute VK looked (I say) that she entirely forgot her single task of the evening – to get a snap. So I am afraid dear reader that you will have to go now, as we did into the chilly Munich night, with nothing but a half remembered idea of how she looked to keep you warm.

But I’ll tell you this, courtesy of Vesselina Kasarova and the Freiburger Barockorchester Handel lived that night in Munich; and reminded the entire audience of reason why he, above all, (for some of us at least) is the surest way to experience heaven. And make silly comments about her voice or the orchestra if you want music critics (yes I mean you Süddeutsche Zeitung), for the audience they were perfection. And you can’t take that away from us!


And if that doesn’t make it clear what the fuss is about, this might help.

White Shirt Monday: Simply the Best

Reviving an old habit of Purity’s as inspired by the wonderful Anik Lachev’s blog Eyebags back in the ‘olden days’. Kicking off with the original and still the best white shirt – Vesselina Kasarova. Just look at that sleeve rolling work – perfection.

If you want to see the opera this comes from (Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice) you can buy the DVD, and in case you need any more encouragement there are some extracts to whet your appetite on YT.


If Only Life Was Like a PhD: Giving Thanks

I was chatting with a friend the other day about her PhD, remembering a stage in my own where I felt I had the whole thing held in my mind for a short time. It was only there for long enough to get the conclusion and the introduction written, and then it was gone. But for that short time I had a magical sense of understanding, a sense of “it” that I had not had before and never had again.

The last week in Project Recovery has been in many ways wonderful. The worst of the relapse, or rather relapses, is over and I feel really confident that I am entering remission. I am beginning to look ahead with anticipation more than fear (though there is some of that too), I don’t panic when the spasms that seize my throat, whoosh away my breath and make me feel like I will choke get hold of me. My energy levels are returning and though my walking is taking some getting used too I am past the stage of longing for the abilities of before to return. My dreams have become less disturbing, and though I do feel an ever-present sense of fear of it happening again, the fear feels familiar now. I can see in my mind’s eye the errant signals, the broken synapses, the mis-firing muscles. It feels unwelcome but understandable and therefore less frightening. I have even begun to rationalise my fears as “my body’s way of encouraging me not to let myself do anything to bring on another relapse like that again”.

I feel a million times more emotionally settled than at the peak of all this – a.k.a. “The Day I Nearly Shaved My Hair Off”. During the worst of it all I had to do, all I could do, was bear it. Now though I am required to do something rather more active – to resume ‘normal’ life. (I hesitate to write that as the last time I did I promptly had another relapse!) I’m no longer a passenger on this train, I’m the driver. The problem of course is that unlike a PhD this project has no end, or rather no clear, visible, end. There will be no moment of clarity and understanding. We live our lives with next to no idea of what is around the corner, or when the tracks will run out and the journey end. Sometimes we are fairly oblivious to the idea of the end, and other times we repress the idea of it in order to make the pact with the system we must in order to survive within it. Nevertheless we do somewhere inside ourselves know it must end, but we don’t know how. More particularly, as these last few weeks have hammered home to me, we have no idea how that last stage will play out. Will it be sudden or protracted, gentle or violent? Will we be at ease or racked with pain? Will we be calm or distressed? I do feel a little comfort from the knowledge that when things were at their worst I “bore it” pretty well. I retreated into myself and held on as tight as I could. I also feel a sense of relief that I did not fall apart, at least not publicly or for any length of time. I slipped pretty far down the hill and though I was often terrified, I managed to hold on (the Long Night of the Mercifully Missing Hair Clippers excepting).

I learnt so much in these last few weeks about what is important to me. I felt regret in spades – despite what Piaf said I can’t imagine many have gone to their deaths truly regretting nothing. I also learnt I think for this first time (ever the late developer) the importance of seeking help. The stoic in me runs deep but at times like these it is not helpful to dwell too deeply on the more conservative interpretations of Stoicism my protestant ancestors gifted me. Sharing and seeking help have aided me through this time more than anything else.

Whilst the medical part of the recovery seems well underway, and psychologically I am less ill prepared for something like that happening again, the future beyond ‘medical’ recovery is going to be a big challenge. I feel unsettled by MS’s irritating habit of, when asked “So what happens next?”, shrugging its shoulders and looking off mysteriously stage left. Life is changing but the parameters are still very vague. However I do feel reassured by one thing. Whilst we may not have the luxury of an equivalent to the “final submission date” of a PhD we do in life share one very important commonality with PhD students. A PhD is a community effort – family, friends, advisers, fellow students, other academics and your academic community more generally all are vital in producing that thesis. A PhD is a lesson in the necessity and rewards of asking for help.

So today I am thinking about my friends and family, near and far (thank you social media and Skype!) who quite literally carried me through these last weeks. I am thinking of my wonderful MS nurse who knew me well enough to instantly put a stop to the neurologist’s suggestion that I be hospitalised and managed to get me the help I needed at home. I am thinking of my beautiful boys who put up with their summer holidays being plunged into turmoil. The help of all of those people, their thoughts and kindnesses, made a difficult time also a beautiful time for me. We will never have that wonderful moment in life that PhD students get – never see “it” suddenly all there, and making sense. But we have the reassurance that help can be asked for, and the knowledge that help will be given. Thank you.

(Almost) Everything I Love About Opera in 5 Minutes 59 Seconds

(Note: If you can be bothered, you can read about it. Alternatively just skip to the bottom and watch the clip. It does a far better job of explaining why I love opera than I ever could with mere words).

One of the nice things about blogging opera is that you find out that you have a shared enthusiasm with people you hadn’t realised were similarly “inclined”. My gaydar is pretty good but my operadar is very much sub-standard. Should have returned it ages ago but you know how it is; it’s such a  hassle going back to the shop and you keep hoping it might fix itself. Once you have outed yourselves to each other then you get to have that lovely chat about why you love opera so. Today was one of those days, enjoying a coffee with two dear friends, former workmates and now lovely near neighbours, and it got me thinking about a great clip on YT that pretty much sums up everything I love about opera. 

It’s a bit of an odd choice as it’s from a style of opera known as Bel Canto which isn’t madly to my taste, I’m much more inclined towards Baroque. Also it’s a recording of a performance I wasn’t at and I generally am a “live” junkie and not hugely interested in recordings other than as aide memoirs. But…this clip of Montserrat Caballe singing Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma, at an outdoor staging at Orange in 1974, pretty much sums up everything I adore about opera.

First it’s a very atmospheric recording from which I get such a strong sense of what it must have been like to be there. Perhaps it’s because it was outdoors and we can see the wind moving people’s costumes and hair, but I really feel as if I am there watching this. For me the ‘being there’ is such a big part of opera (and ballet for that matter but that’s another coming out story!). I love arriving in an opera house, watching the audience, and the people who work there. I love the sense of excitement and anticipation, wondering who these people are and why they are there, eavesdropping on conversations in the queue for the loo. I love wondering if my seat neighbour will be chatty or not. But most of all I love that moment as the lights dim and we all sit a little bit taller in our seats as we crane for a glimpse of the conductor. Watching the performers here I am absolutely imagining how incredible it would have been to be in that audience watching this incredible performance and feeling the mistral winds.

Next, it has for me a killer combo – a beautiful voice against a very quiet orchestra and then as if that was not achingly beautiful enough – bam… a choir. I start to cry the very second that choir comes in. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of listening to an amazing singer give it their all in some lovely aria, but I have always found the sound of a choir singing simply overwhelming. Probably some genetic memory of all my Hebridean ancestors standing in their Kirks as their congregations sang (Lewis psalm singing equally will bring this heathen to sobs of ecstasy in seconds). A choir, like an orchestra, seems to me to be just such a fantastic, magical, manifestation of the human community spirit. Of course I know in reality choirs, and orchestras, can be hugely political and full of intrigue. But when they perform they remind me of all that as amazing about humanity.

Which brings me to Caballe. First I love this for the reminder that despite recent trends to the contrary, opera should be honoured and valued for its ability to remind us that great art need not come packaged in the one size fits all but it better be size 0 package, for its ability to remind us that beauty need not be defined by some boring Hollywood standard. Opera is a bit like ‘Orange is is the New Black’ in that it is one place where one can encounter a huge range of women’s (and men’s for that matter) beauty. Caballe is probably most people’s stereotype of “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. And the perfect reminder of why that stereotype is just that, a stereotype. It’s not just that her voice is so amazing, it’s her ability to stand there and command your attention with her presence that is so amazing. I defy anyone to watch that performance and not feel utterly mesmerised by her grace, that regal profile and bearing. She may not fit Hollywood’s idea of beautiful but she certainly does mine. Not to say that the opera world hasn’t fallen under the evil spell of the market –  a pretty face and svelte figure can get a mediocre voice a long way these days – but I like to believe that at heart the opera audience is still capable of falling hook, line and sinker for a singer like Caballe. A singer who reminds us that the nature of beauty defies prescription, for all the marketing men’s efforts.

Then there’s the voice. When you are in the audience listening to a great singer perform it can be utterly transcendental. I’ve had moments where I have wanted to punch the air and scream. Moments when I have been terrified that I am about to make a fool of myself by letting out a primal sob during some painfully beautiful slow aria. Watching and listening to this I am there. My body starts to respond as if I am really there. I can imagine how I would feel were that sound real, since of course the difference between hearing a singer live and hearing them on a recording is like the difference between a having a photo of a glass of fine single cask, single malt, and actually having the glass in your hand. I hang on every note wishing both that it would never end and that the next would come to let the tension out. Bellini seemed to love those wonderfully long notes and in this the presence of the choir in the background really accentuates them. Even without knowing anything about what is going on in the aria (as I mentioned before I am just as happy sitting through an opera without a clue what is meant to be going on as I am with) I get it. This is about longing, about desire, not for something physical but for something more fundamental.

Now I’m quite sure that someone who knows about music could offer a great explanation of what happens next, but I do know about listening and in this something incredible happens as the aria builds towards those final notes. Caballe, the choir, the orchestra and the conductor scoop us up in their arms and hold us gently as we are lifted up to the clouds to see God’s face. Which as an avowed atheist is some trick to pull off! I love the way the orchestra, choir and Caballe suddenly come in to such close unison. I love the contrast between Caballe’s incredible soprano and the wonderfully sonorant bass choir lines. Just when you think you can’t take it any more, the coup de grâce; the final note stretches out and out and out, Caballe’s chin goes up, and you realise suddenly there is no God’s face here; this is not some supreme moment of religious ecstasy, but rather of human ecstasy. You have been in the presence of a singer, a choir, an orchestra and a conductor combining to do something incredible. For you, it seems when you are in the audience.

The audience – the last part of why I love this. The sound of that audience as they let rip, so instant, so in agreement, makes me smile every time. Sometimes after an aria or at the end of an opera a great ovation will come but it will build slowly as everyone is almost bullied into joining in. But other times it’s instantaneous – people release cries of joy, leap to their feet (or start stamping if you are in Munich). For that is our time then. The performers have had their moment, now it’s ours. We look around at each other, smiling. If you’re in the cheap seats where I mostly am then there’s usually a fair bit of chatter about why this or that was so incredible between furious clapping and bravo-ing (or brava-ing, or bravi-ing). There’s also usually a bit of tutting and scowling at the folks in the posh seats who were there for appearances and not the love of it, so they start leaving indecently early. We reserve special applause for older singers who are perhaps no longer at their peak vocally but whose history and intelligence we admire, or for the kids who may have had acting roles, or some young singer who we suspect may be a new star in the making. Then we all try and make sure that our particular favourite singer gets the most applause. But pretty soon we forget all that as the audience dwindles to the hard core, and we hope for just one more curtain call to drag the last moments of our joy out. At this point we’d probably bravo for the theatre cat if it wandered out.

All of that is why this clip will for me always be the perfect reminder of why opera is the perfect reminder of everything wonderful about life, humanity, and music.

The Road is Long, and Kind of Boring

The last few days have marked a clear transition in this journey. First a slipping into an utter exhaustion so overwhelming I was unable to lift my head from the pillow without feeling overwhelmed by the effort of it. Then just as I managed to accept that a long planned and very much anticipated holiday would have to be cancelled, an unwelcome if predictable flare up of my MS caused by the heat, and then equally predictably just as I was feeling a bit better I picked up an infection. I’m beginning to feel like a punch drunk prize-fighter staggering to their feet just to be knocked down again. But today with the infection and the heat both receding, I am ready now to stagger to my feet and persuade the ref I am ready for another round. But mainly the battle now is to stay positive and to let time do its thing. Continue Reading →

Advice to Myself / X

I wrote a version of the letter below to someone who wrote to me today in a lot of distress seeking advice about a situation they found themselves in at their work. I realised when I finished it that it was in fact to myself (as most “advice” we offer others usually is of course). I hope, but don’t know, if it will help X. But it’s helped me.

Dear X

In the last few weeks I have experienced a profoundly distressing acute relapse of my multiple sclerosis. I have never had a relapse as serious as this before and at a number of points I have been concerned not just about what disability this may leave me with, but whether I would survive. My ability to swallow has been compromised and with that comes a risk of respiratory distress and choking. Ironically however the enforced rest of this time has given me a mental energy I have not had for some time. It is from this place I write to you now.Continue Reading →

On the Rocks Again

The private message responses to yesterday’s missive have been beautiful and deeply thought provoking, In particular since touching on issues around death and the murkier depths of coping with a degenerative disease inevitably touches close to other’s ‘home’. They got me thinking again about why I am writing this (I’m a fairly private person, not usually madly enamoured of confessional culture). Especially as in writing it I am may have caused some concern or worry or raised some personal issues for others. Continue Reading →

The Wrong Turn

Every journey will have its wrong turns, every grand adventure its moments of doubt. Today was one of those – the day when fear gets its claws into you and won’t let go. I think I’m beginning to see the pattern though; a little bit too up one day leads to over-stretching, which in turn leads to tiredness, and in the tiredness come the dreams. Not very imaginative my dream last night – swimming happily in the Gulf of Spezia, watching the divers on the high rocks, when suddenly the current pulls me down and I am drowning. Continue Reading →

The “Rest”

So I finally got the message my amazing MS nurse had patiently been drumming into my head and accepted that “you must rest, completely” meant “do nothing”. I’ve been pretty good the last few days but yesterday I got to that point where the crutches, the rowing machine, the medicine ball called. The little voice worked its way back into my brain; “you need to fight this Cat, you need to get up and do something, you can’t just lie there”. I managed to resist, Battlestar Galactica on Netflix helped, but it got me thinking about the language of illness.Continue Reading →

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