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Faith in Pharmaceuticals

Drugs. Once alluring, exciting, a bit frightening. Shall I try this, that? What will it be like? Will I get caught? Will I get ill? Experimenting a little, learning that you are not the bohemian adventurer you once imagined and that “a bit grey” is as far into the dark side as you are likely to get.

The next thing you know, you have two babies under three and a full-time job and the nearest you get to the world of ingesting chemicals is when exhaustion drives you to experiment with the slightly funky left-overs in the fridge (because of course all “good food” has already gone to the kids and you can’t drag yourself to the shops for something a little less dodgy to eat).

And then one day you are sitting with a pile of research papers in front of you trying to decide if feeling constantly like you have the flu, a good chance of suicidal ideation, etc. are acceptable compromises for the potential benefits of DMDs (disease modifying drugs used in treating relapsing-remitting MS in the hope they will slightly slow the progression of damage the disease inflicts with every relapse). You conclude… no. For you, no. The data seems unconvincing to someone whose disease progression has been manageable. A slight slowing but no real long term change to the course of the disease? No. The risks seemed too great to someone with two kids to raise, a primary breadwinner with a family that needs her to stay that way for a good many more years.

Time passes, symptoms become more difficult to deal with. DMDs have been dismissed but there are symptom relief drugs on offer that might help with coping with the spasms that beset you now – exhausting you and stealing precious sleep that the growing babies have only just gifted back to you. You dabble – feeling like a teenager in a club being offered something illicit. And as before, you learn that you are just not one of those people that can cope. Within a few weeks you are a zombie, and you know it’s time to give up with the experiment when you realise that not only have you zoned out in a meeting at work for god knows how long, but that you are actually dribbling.

More time, more progression, more challenges. You try diving in to the pharmacopeia once more. You haul yourself out of the pool dripping and disappointed yet again. A mixture of Prussian, Polish and Scottish/Scandinavian stock has gifted you a body oddly suited to “toughing it out” and completely unsuited to coping with pharmaceutical visitors in your central nervous system no matter how well-intentioned they are.

Again now I sit with a new drug in hand, reading the terrifying side effects leaflet, wondering if the risk is worth the possible relief from the throat and trunk spasms that have recently caused not just pain but frightening bouts of night-time choking and breathing disturbance that steal both sleep and sense of safety. I am willing to give it a try, but also ready for it to fail. My lack of faith in pharmaceuticals has encouraged me to commit heavily to mindfulness and meditation as a way of coping with this. Medical science has yet to offer me much by way of relief, let alone cure. But medics, specifically the specialist MS clinic nurse at my local hospital, have gently supported and encouraged me as I learn anew each time that I am the best medicine in this situation. The strength I need is not physical, it’s emotional. I need to have faith that I can cope, with anything that is thrown my way. I need to have faith that whilst it is painful and unpleasant this will not be worst than I can bear, that I can take more.

My dis-ease is not “in my mind” as some would have; it cannot be cured by force of will. I do not believe that faith (of any kind) can “cure me”. I understand that there are observable processes underway in my brain that are having a domino effect throughout my body. But I am no crude determinist either – those processes alone are not the sole determinants of their physical, still less their emotional, impacts on this thing I call “me”. The medical profession is rooted in the idea of caring for the other. But I think what chronic illness teaches us is that caring for self is so much more important. When the system fails us – as it does in MS, where it has no cure and few effects symptom management offerings – we patients need to focus much more on self as the ultimate pharmaceutical when it comes to symptom management. There is, it seems to me, too much emphasis on “self-healing” and not enough on “self-caring”. I don’t believe I can will MS away. But I do believe I can help myself a great deal more, have faith in my ability to self-care, to self-support.

Slowly but surely I am learning to turn the caring and nurturing instinct I have always felt for others on to myself. I recall once as a child sitting on a bus in Glasgow suddenly bursting into tears at the sight of a bent double old lady struggling to carry her shopping along the road whilst fighting a fierce Glasgow winter rainstorm. I wanted to be able to make it better for her. Now I am learning to feel about myself the way I felt about her; I am learning to care about my own suffering. Just a year ago I think I would have struggled to even name it, still less imagine that it was worthy of care.

So I pop my new drug, conscious that history would suggest this experiment will be short-lived and unsuccessful, hopeful it might break the pattern. But mainly, I give myself a warm hug and whisper “You’re doing great, hang in there, you’ll get through it.” I actively nourish myself nowadays: writing like this, meditating, and demanding of my world that I get the peace, calm, rest that I need – these are my internally generated pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals cannot save us, at best they can ease the journey. But we know instinctively to offer care, and love, to those around us we see suffering. We know that when all else fails, that is the most important thing we can do. We, I, just need to remember to do that for ourselves too. I don’t where I learned not to do that, where I learned to care for others more than for myself. Perhaps some old Stoical sense that “suffering is good for us”. Or some ancestral Protestant instinct towards self-denial. But I did learn it, and un-learning it has not been easy. As I look back through this blog, I see myself learning to care of myself, learning to feel deserving of my care, learning to see the value in all of that.

I pop my new pill, hoping the side effects will be limited, hoping the effects will be good. But knowing that if they aren’t, I still have me. The tightness and tension in my throat nudges at my fear, goads me – “This is your future, I will steal your ability to breathe, this is how you will die frightened creature.” And maybe it is, but I am not afraid any more of this. I don’t seek it, but I won’t cower in its shadow or hide myself away from life for fear of it. I have no faith in pharmaceuticals, but I have great, enormous, glittering piles of faith in me. And that is worth a great deal more than any drug.

So….? (or, Here we go again. Perhaps.)

Well after If…. and But… “So” feels like a good, if unexpected and unwished for, next act. (If you have landed on this blog searching for stuff about MS an important note:  The MS bits of this blog are really written only for me as a kind of MS from the front lines report I use to capture and reflect on what it is like to live with this. If you have MS and are looking for reliable information, scant on the web I know, this is not where you will find it!).

It’s 3am in Tayport. Not as sexy sounding as 3am in Amsterdam but then Michelle Shocked went a bit funny anyway so perhaps the less said about that the better. It’s 9 months since my “big relapse(s)” and though I had been hoping this might not happen again for a long time, it appears something is brewing again. I’m up because I woke up with the giant’s hands pressing and twisting my trunk and throat, my legs and left arms misshapen by powerful muscle spasms, and choking on my own saliva and gasping for breath. I’m up. And fine. If irritatingly wide awake. And it feels rather amazing to say that – “and fine” – since the last time this happened I was completely freaked out. Of course back then it happened some way in to a very big relapse that had already reduced me to someone who could barely walk. But still, it’s nice so I’ll say it again: I’m fine. Not worry free – that would be foolhardy. Not being able to count on your body managing to breath properly while you sleep puts a kink in your plans for a restful night. But not overwhelmed by that fear, and able to think about what is happening calmly and rationally – with a clear mental picture of what is happening and why.

It’s interesting how different I feel this time round. Last time I had never had a really acute relapse – one that just floored me (literally on several occasions) for months. Perhaps because I had lived with MS for so long on a kind of steady but slow decline path with flares that were by and large reasonably manageable I was not ready for that and in retrospect I had been really scared of it too. This time as the MS storm starts stirring up the seas around me, I’m nowhere near as in denial or fearful. It almost feels like a challenge I welcome, to see how well I can ride it out. After last summer I have also committed a lot more time and energy to my mindfulness and meditation habit and that seems to be helping with coping too.

The trouble of course with MS is you don’t really know if a flare up is a “relapse” (technically when you get an increase in symptom level that occurs without any underlying infection, which can stir things up but doesn’t indicate any further damage to the brain). And either way as it starts you don’t know how far it’s going to go. Will you be able to carry on reasonably normally or will it floor you? Will there be something new to contend with? And most pertinently of all for me right now – will it mess up your carefully laid plans for the next few weeks/months? I have a busy teaching and project period ahead at work, and a much longed for birthday treat trip to the opera in Zurich (I had to cancel my summer Zurich trip, I’ll be damned if I cancel this one). I am curious to see how much I can balance life (going a bit off the rails) with work and life (joy).

I felt something brewing last month. Subtle things – noticing my computer game performances were getting even worse than usual, a new very slight tremor in my right hand I hadn’t noticed before and which I picked up on when taking photos with my iPhone because they kept blurring due to shake (technology is becoming an interesting tool for tracking symptoms). My fatigue has been getting a bit worse than normal and I’ve had to up the dose of my Modafinil (an anti-fatigue medication I have been on for several years). I hoped it wasn’t something of course, but felt  kind of ok entertaining the idea it might be. Then last week the stiffness and spasticity upped a gear and it became clear the game was on: the message rammed home when I felt my voice weakening again, and, at the weekend, the trunk and throat spasms were back.

Coincidentally I had a scheduled check up at the MS clinic at the hospital (a life-saving service which I hope will always be available!) on Friday anyway and found myself talking quite casually, for the first time, about my suspicions that something might be brewing. In the past I would have minimised or glossed over something like this, this time I was happy to talk openly about my suspicion (not fear) that something might be brewing. We talked about controlling spasms – my problem has been that I do not do well on the medications available for that, in fact on the two drugs I have tried I basically went gaga, and not in a Lady way. But as the big problem is the trunk and throat spasms, which are a particular kind of spasm called tonic spasms, and as some of my other symptoms are related to seizures, we discussed trying one of the anti-epilepsy medications that is used also (at a much lower dose) for MS. So I’ll be giving that a cautious whirl I think. And the clinic also offer an acupuncture service to people with MS so I’ll be giving that a whirl too, on the grounds that unlike the meds at least that can’t do any damage. But mainly this time I’ll be using fatigue management, mindfulness and relaxation and a good dose of self talk to see how well I can manage.

Oh, and I’ll be using hope.. hope that the fates let me off with a light one this time. I do not believe that illness is all in the mind (mine in the brain maybe but not the mind). There is a disease course at play here I cannot fundamentally change – scars in my brain are inflamed, signals are going astray – but I can certainly manage how it impacts me and I can ensure I do everything I can to minimise, or at least not aggravate, it. Hope is the big change this time. Not blind faith, but quiet hope.  Hope that I will cope well, and hope that I might be spared too big a storm. When you are in denial you are also in denial of hope since if nothing is wrong why would hope be needed? You have to face the storm head on to have hope. This time I am and I do.

But… (Life as a Bubble)

Of course with every If… there is almost always a But… *

No life is defined and ultimately dismantled only by pain and suffering. Indeed that pain and suffering does as much to shape as it does to destroy us. Would I be me without my MS? No. Of course not. But I don’t mean this in that pop culture Nietzschean sense beloved of social media banalities – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. As a Scot of course such a concept appeals to my Calvinist side. We need to be forged in the fire of life; made stronger, harder. In this reductionist world view our challenges simply fit us better to the world of onwards and upwards. (I shudder as I write that, a fog of shame as recall the too many years when onwards and upwards was my mantra. But, I was younger then and too busy shoring up my hardness. Oblivious to the futility of that endeavour. Being hard, being strong. Moving ever on, ever up. Such blissful ignorance.)

The sadness of If… is soothed in the arms of But… Yes I have changed beyond all measure. There is nothing unusual about that, we all do. We nurture fantasies of self determination but we are wrong of course. This ‘self’ is simply a collection of atoms and experiences floating through time in a world that variously buffets, nudges, strokes, crushes us. We seize the nudges and strokes as somehow evidence of our worth, our value. We struggle with the buffeting and crushing by reassuring ourselves that it will make us stronger. And we need to be strong, so we tell ourselves. The world is a harsh place. Yet the idea that I have become stronger, harder, no longer resonates or pleases as it once would have done. It took a long time, but I finally feel like I am beginning to grow up.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of organisations. We use that word to hide from what an organisation really is – a group of people doing things together. Organisation sounds so much – more. More serious, harder, more “grown up”. If we called an organisation “a group of people doing things together” it becomes much less easy to dehumanise in its name, to excuse the inhumane. Which is why we call them organisations. We silly, sad, scared, dying creatures have created a fantasy world to inhabit – where being better validates being cruel, where being bigger excuses all. Do, achieve, win, beat, be better, be bigger. We have these ideas pumped into us constantly. The organisation is the ultimate get out clause for when people doing things together turn nasty. Our depressions, our neuroses, are the inevitable by-product of living in an organisational as opposed to an organized world.

In thinking of this I have been struck by the similarities between people and organisations. Isn’t an organisation simply a collection of atoms and experiences floating through time in a world that variously buffets, nudges, strokes, crushes it? Perhaps there’s our mistake. My mistake. To feel the parallels too strongly. A body coheres because of a skin surrounding it and a skeleton forming it, shaping it. We make organisations in our image. We give them a skin, a barrier to force distance between it and others like it. And we fill them with a rigid structure to define its shape, to give it its appearance in the world. And like cells multiplying in the body we repeat this basic structure all the way through an organisation. Everywhere you look – skin and bone. But like the poor rigid human body – when the world tries to buffer or crush us we crack. A rigid structure, as every orthopaedic surgeon or civil engineer knows, does not bear pressure from outside too well. Rigid structures crack.

What, I have been wondering, if instead of filling our organisations with rigid structures we filled then with bubbles? A skin filled (not too much of course) with bubbles can absorb a great many buffers and attempts to crush but still cohere. A skin filled with bubbles can flex and adapt more easily to its external environment. A person inside a rigid organisation experiences mainly sharp pressures, and all too often is ultimately crushed by it. A person surrounded by bubbles is less likely to be crushed.

As one ages one learns that we are not alone in these experiences of the sharp, angular pressures of organisational life. Which makes the question “why do we keep doing this – creating these dehumanising, inhumane ways of organising ourselves to get things done?” – all the more poignant and pressing. As we age our bubble finds others, although many of us will fall by the wayside as the hard structure pushes in and crushes us. But we do find each other. Recognise each other. As I think about how to live the world I want it to be – where we do things together like bubbles, floating, absorbing, adapting, blending into each other instead of drifting away from each other – I think too of what this means for me.

My MS has not made me harder. It’s made me softer. It’s allowed me to recapture the me I thought I would be as a child, brought me back to myself. The me that wanted to be with, not against. The me that wanted to be for, not instead of. The me that looked at the adult world and shook her head in disbelief at the futility of it all. The me that promised never to be like that. I have never craved money or material comfort, but I have craved status and success. I remember a conversation with a former workmate, now moved on to “bigger and better things” when he shook his head in disbelief at my answer to his statement (posed as a question, but not one) “But you want to be a professor.” For it was “No”. And even as I said it a tiny bit of organisational me whispered “Really?”. And as I realised with some shock that I really did mean no, I felt almost reborn.

The seeds of it had been there. I had been forced to entertain the idea that I could not control my destiny as I pleased. Though I was in denial my MS had, to my then shame, reduced organisational me’s capacity to play the game. But as I was crushed by disease and organisation, some elemental bit of me knew I needed to become more like a bubble. I count that day amongst a small handful of life defining moments, I walked away from that meeting unsure of what it meant, but sure it meant that everything was going to change. And it did. It has. Not quickly. Not easily. But steadily, quietly, I have become a bubble. Still learning how to be like this. Still growing into my bubble self. But now living in, and not defined by, our organisational world. And once I knew I was a bubble, I could recognise the others. We are finding each other, working out how to be “groups of people doing things together”. The rigid world won’t go away overnight. May never go away. But it doesn’t need too. I am my own bubble, and I have found others, and there are still others out there to be found.

Freed from the desire of acceptance by that rigid world, even of the desire to change that world, I can now focus my energies on the bubble world of people organising to get things done. I can now start to make the world like the one child me wanted to live in. With softness.

* I love that as the mother of two boys, I can’t help but smile at the word ‘but(t)’. They too have taught me a lot about how to wring joy out of life; how to giggle even in the midst of pain and fear. My boys, my love, my friends, my music, my beach. These are the bubbles inside me. They fill me up and allow me to cohere as as a human being whilst still having enough softness and give to cope in a world that constantly shifts and shapes me.


Can you miss what you never had? What would have been? If…

I had her once. Just for a few days. The woman I might have been these last 20 years. I thought I’d forgotten all of that. Life moves on very quickly even after such a long period when things didn’t so much fall as apart as softly unravel like a ball of wool on a half-knitted scarf happened upon by a playful kitten. But today it was there again, this ache for something I never had. I don’t look back over my life with huge regret. Some of course – for the times when I was less honourable, or less courageous, or less fair, than I wished myself to be. But last year I had a little glimpse, for just a few days, when high dose steroids all but removed the traces of MS from by body, of who I would have been without it.

Oh she was glorious. This me without pain. Me able to move freely, even gracefully. Me alert and energetic for the best part of the days I had her. What time I had suddenly – freed of all the effort of thinking constantly about where my limbs are, how to avoid falling, how to manage my limited energies best. My mind bounced about eagerly The days seemed so much lighter, brighter. She danced in the sunlight and lit up my life even though I knew she would be gone soon, and there would be a price to pay. As there was. Is.

She was just a mirage of course – a suggestion of a life that will never be. A remembrance of things wished for but never achieved. But when she came during those glorious days last summer I recognised her immediately. She was the me of my dreams. I thought of her today and realised I haven’t dreamed of her since. I wonder if I ever will again. And I wonder sometimes if she exists in some parallel universe where MS and all the other destroyers of self masquerading as disease have been banished. Maybe there I’d find me. If…

A Beginner’s Guide to the Opera: Part One – Going

IMG_2422I was love in with opera music long before I ever went to one. But the first time I ever went to one was like the first time you make love to someone you love. As a young woman I had been in love without making love, and I had made love without being in love. I thought I knew a bit about both, until I made love to someone I was in love with. And then I realised I knew nothing.

Being at the opera is for me right up there with making love to someone I love, holding my babies in my arms as they fall asleep, or standing on a beach in a storm as the waves crash around me. It’s one of the things that defines a good life for me. I would be devastated if I thought I could never go again. I often think it would be lovely to die at the opera, for that to be the last thing I experience (although perhaps not so nice for everyone else there!). But like all good things there is a price to pay. This joy doesn’t come free and I am not just talking about the ticket price.

Going to the opera is something I had to learn about, something a bit challenging. And sadly for a lot of people that’s off putting – it stops them having the opportunity to experience live opera. It’s a world of its own you have to learn to navigate. So if you never been, but sometimes fancy the idea of it, I wanted to share a few thoughts for opera virgins. This first part is all about getting there, being there, and what to do afterwards.

The ‘It’s All Poshies” Myth

Well yes, some people who go to the opera are very posh, or very rich, or both. But equally a large number are neither of those things. Anyway the poshies will all be downstairs in the stalls or the first balcony. It’s like transatlantic planes, you all go in the same door but they turn left and you turn right and you don’t see each other again till the end. The thing to remember is that most posh people are just like you – they are there for the music. A few aren’t. They are there because their partners insisted they use the freebies their employer offers as incentives, as they want a chance to get all dressed up and go out for the night. You can spot them quite easily. The partner is madly overdressed, claps at the wrong bits, and the employee is asleep before the overture finishes.

The “Everyone will be Ancient” Myth

OK there is a good chance this is true. The bulk of the opera and classical music audience is older, and from up in the cheap seats this will be immediately obvious as you scan row after row of grey haired heads. There are lots of reasons for this. None of them have anything to do with whether or not you will enjoy the music and / or performance. One is that there is a stigma attached to opera going amongst many young people, and it can be hard to overcome that until, well, you are older. Another is that some folks work their way through lots of other music genres before they get round to opera. And of course the myth of the astronomical ticket prices (see below) puts a lot of folks off even considering going.

But just think, if you are young everyone will smile at you gratefully and you will attract lots of admiring looks. And if you are a grey hair – why then you will fit right in.

The “I Won’t Know What They Are On About” Myth

OK with a few exceptions no matter what language it’s in and your fluency in said language you won’t catch much of what they “say”. You’ll be too busy listening to the music, trying to remember if the woman dressed as a man snogging the man dressed as a woman whilst singing the most furious aria (song) you have ever heard is meant to be “her” brother or “his” mother, and why there is a giant anus on stage …. if it’s a Bieito production. If it’s a Zambello production you will be wondering if the diva cried when they made her put on a dress made of 1940s curtain fabric and sing while French and Saunders wander around rolling cigars on their thighs. You can respond in one of two ways to this:

– if as a child you obsessively collected every Matchbox car or Sylvania Families character, and then arranged them on your bedroom shelf in alphabetical order, and then used the electrical science toy your aunt gave you for Christmas to make a burglar alarm tripwire to protect your pride and joy from your sibling and their thieving hands… get the libretto (the script) and CD of the opera and listen to it with the libretto a few times before you go. Then you will be able to broadly keep up with what the hell is going, at least until the giant anus distracts you. You can usually find the libretto free online – though not always with an appropriate translation for your language. (PS a by product of opera going is that you pick up surprisingly large amounts of other languages trying to figure out what the hell is going on).

– if as a child you frequently used your James Bond Spy Kit and the penknife your mum wishes your uncle hadn’t given you for Christmas to aid you in your efforts to mess up the arrangement of your sibling’s Matchbox Car / Sylvania Families display in order to amuse yourself watching them go berserk with anal-retentive rage, just go along and enjoy the music and make up an appropriate story in your head to go with it.

The ‘”You Have to Dress Fancy” Myth

I’ve seen people who look like they walked off a Vogue fashion shoot (in fact some of them probably did) and I’ve seen people who look like they were cleaning the streets just before they stepped inside the theatre (that’s usually the director by the way…). It varies a lot from opera house to house, and country to country. Houses in Germany are usually less formal. In France they are a bit more formal but there are house to house variations. For example at the Palais Garnier in Paris you see some pretty snazzy dressers. But audiences at the Theatre des Champs Elysees down the road tend to look more like attendees at a conference on Latest Trends in Agricultural Accountancy.

You will see people all gussied up but you will also see people dressed very casually. Wear whatever you like, regardless of how hard you try you are unlikely to be the oddest person there. Remember – it’s the opera – the people on the stage will most likely look like they fell off the catwalk at the Remnant Fabrics Fashion Show (1974). Unless it’s a Christoph Loy production in which case they will all, male and female performers, be in white shirts and black suits (see White Shirts).

Anyway you’re going to be in the cheap seats and people rarely dress up much more than “clean clothes and a good wash” (latter optional). The key thing to remember is that that no matter how you dress no one will make you feel uncomfortable, or if they do everyone around will think exactly what you are thinking… It begins with P, ends in K and there is a RIC in the middle.

Regarding clothes one thing to bear in mind is that opera houses are usually uncomfortably hot – especially up in the cheap seats (heat, and all the posh people’s hot air, rises). Winter or summer, make sure that at some point you can strip down to a comfortable layer without frightening the slightly obsessive older gentleman fan of whatever diva is singing that you will inevitably have found yourself sitting next to. Oh by the way he will frighten you a bit later by screaming Brava at the top of his lungs whenever said Diva pauses for breath. Don’t worry, it’s normal. Well, common at any rate.

The Myth of the Astronomical Ticket Price

There are indeed some eye-watering ticket prices out there for opera goers with independent incomes, or employers who sponsor tickets. I have paid over a hundred pounds for tickets yes, but that is very rare. More usually I am paying between £10 and £40 pounds. There are a number of ways to avoid financial distress in the pursuit of opera going:

  • Go high – generally speaking the higher you are, the further back from the front row in your section, and the further to the side you are in any opera house, the cheaper. There are reasons for this – the higher up, the less you see the stage. The further to the side, the more obscured your view of the stage regardless of how close you are. It depends what you are most interested in but as for me it’s mainly (though not exclusively) the music I tend to go for a seat higher up (usually the top balcony) but as close to the centre of the front row of the balcony as I can get. The acoustics of opera houses mean that most times the best sound is up there anyway. And though in most larger houses you won’t see so much from up there you could always bring some binoculars (I am being serious – small binoculars or “opera glasses” will be in evidence up in the top balcony).
  • Stand – that should be “stand” really. Most opera houses have spaces for standing but they usually come with either a bar to rest against or a perching spot. These spaces often have very limited stage views but they are very cheap.
  • Go while you are travelling. Opera houses in Eastern Europe, and in some Western European countries, often have cheaper tickets than their equivalents in the UK.
  • Watch out for concessions and deals. Many houses are aware of the need to replenish the audience. Some offer cheaper tickets on certain days, or for certain groups of people, or reserve some for purchase on the day of the performance at a cheap rate for people who can queue for them.

The “I Won’t Know What To Do Myth”

OK let’s be honest – quite a lot of folks who go to the opera are a bit, err, weird. There are rules in audiences you need to learn. When to clap, when to clap rhythmically, when to shout, and what, when to stamp your feet. When it’s over. To make things worse, different countries have different audience cultures. In Italy they are very happy to shout loud abuse at the cast and crew if they feel they deserve it, or if they just feel a bit cranky that day and need to de-stress. In the UK shouting (Bravo, Brava, Bravi) used to be very rare and will still occasion a “must be a foreigner” wince from some of the natives. In Germany people often stamp their feet in appreciation, which can be rather frightening if you don’t know what is happening! Don’t worry and follow these simple rules:

– If you are in the middle of a row sit down early to avoid the awkward “make half a row stand up and then wiggle uncomfortably intimately across them all to get to your seat” situation. Unless you fancy someone in your row in which case hey knock yourself out.

– Do not cough, I know sometimes it can be hard to stifle, but you can and you WILL. It’s bloody annoying. If you really must – wait for a loud bit! Cough sweets (unwrapped before the opera begins!!) are very handy for cough stifling.

– Wait till others clap before you do. But count to five before you join in. Go too fast and you might end up with the premature clapper group. Not easy to live down.

– Take a hanky. I don’t care who you are or what the opera is, there’s a very good chance you will have a good cry at some point. Quiet sniffling is the only acceptable noise at the opera unless you are very elderly or very young and in the top balcony in which case humming along a bit is cute as long as it’s not too loud.

– If you loved it, wait till the applause is well established and then make any noises you like. Whoop, shout, sob. Show your appreciation and let the pent up emotion rip. This is also a good time to get chatting to your seat neighbour who, if you are British, you will probably have been studiously ignoring until then.

– Afterwards, make time to keep the feeling going. Don’t rush home. Go for a drink, take a wander, or (if you are not British) hang out at the stage door for a glimpse of the diva (if the elderly gentleman from earlier doesn’t obscure your view with the giant teddy bear he has brought for her). If you are British and with “continental” friends be wary of their attempts to lure you into an autograph queue or the to the stage door. They can be very devious, just run away shouting “I’ll see you at Bar Such and Such later”. It’s better for everyone.

So there you have it – a guide to getting to the opera for the first time. If you know anyone who is into it, ask to tag along. Opera fans and football fans have a lot in common, the average opera fan will be delighted you are interested, only to happy to share everything they know and all their passions with you, and will do everything they can to make sure you have a great time and come again.

No matter what you think you think about opera, if you have never been then the odds are highly stacked in favour of you have an amazing and life changing time. Happy opera going!

Catone in Utica – Paris

IMG_2458There’s a moment you sometimes get in a live performance by a singer at the peak of their powers, singing something astonishing by a composer of genius, a moment when you feel like there’s a laser light between them and you. Everything around you dissolves. You are so caught up in the moment, it’s almost as if “you” dissolves too. There’s just the sound and your body absorbing it and your heart and soul exploding. I had such a moment (in fact several) at the recent concert performance of Catone in Utica at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. And they were all thanks to one singer – Ann Hallenberg.

The omens for the performance had been a bit shaky – replacements were announced and they were singers I was unfamiliar with. Having fallen in love with the CD recording that had been the progenitor of the evening I was disappointed so many of the original cast were missing and worried that such a virtuoso piece might stretch the replacements too far. But these days any Baroque in a major venue with at least some well known Baroque specialists is too rare to miss. I could not have been more delighted when we rolled out the theatre at the end of the night absolutely high on the performances we had been lucky enough to witness.

The opening had indeed seemed to confirm my worst fears. The first recits and arias seemed nervy and underpowered and my heart began to sink a little. One of my favourite singers, Sonia Prina, kept leaving the stage clearly not well but equally clearly determined to give this everything she could. And then Hallenberg come forward for Emiia’s first big aria.

I had spent the night before marvelling at the way the search light on the Eiffel Tower electrified the Paris night sky. Hallenberg did the same thing to the theatre, the audience and it seemed the rest of the cast that night. From that moment on the whole thing caught fire. You know Baroque is being done right when the (let’s be honest) at times stunningly dull recits seem to flash by as Hallenberg and the substitute for Roberta Mammeli – Caitlin Hulcup – fired off aria after aria of such power and energy it was exhausting just listening. On my side of the stage the audience started to rouse – excitement crackled around the balcony. By the time the interval came there were huge smiles all around. However we had only just begun. We came back to Hallenberg, as the song goes, lifting us higher and higher. My companion hit the nail on the head when she noted that unlike some other perhaps more famous mezzos it’s not just that the voice is astonishing – and it is, truly, astonishing – but that from the first second she stood to sing until the moment when a smile of pleasure broke across her face at the curtain call (before skipping off like a little girl on the last day of school before the holidays – very sweet) she *was* Emilia. By the end the audience let rip with a fantastic roar of approval for a cast and orchestra that overcame some tricky moments to bring us this truly magical evening of the Baroque.

I was so grateful to the wonderful alto Sonia Prina who somehow managed to produce a powerful performance despite a clearly ailing body. I was intrigued by the voice of Nerea Berraondo – a new to me singer listed as mezzo but with some wild low notes that sounded more alto-ish to my untrained ears. Up in the balcony the serious lack of power in her voice was a huge problem, but what I could hear was intriguing and from the incredible slightness of her frame I guessed she is very young and perhaps this will change. I was really delighted to have discovered Caitlin Hulcup, who had she been singing on a stage that did not also contain Ann Hallenberg would have been the stand out queen of the night. But Hallenberg was gloriously there, and the night did belong gloriously to her.

I will never forgot that performance; I am like an addict awaiting their next fix (at the Wigmore Hall in April, if you want to know what it’s like to have the world stop and bathe you in sound so beautiful you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it – for tickets go here). Like the Eiffel Tower at night she achieves the impossible – her voice reaches in so far, so powerfully, that everything dissolves. We were lucky that her role called for her to sing without orchestra at several points. In those moments especially, with no other sound but that voice, we are caught like tourists gawping at the Eiffel Tower at night, unable to grasp the wonder of it, but knowing that we are in the presence of something rare, and wonderful, and unutterably beautiful.

Soul Music: that subtle sense of being with



I think you know you have found your soul music when even though you are not musical yourself, can barely pick out a tune on a piano, just thinking of it you can hear it in your head, feel it in your muscles and ligaments, lungs and heart, see the notes flying around an invisible page. Even though I cannot sing, my soul music makes me feel as if I can. I believe I can sing when I think of it, hear its ghosts in my head.

The first time I heard Handel, knowing nothing, a strange little girl feeling her strangeness strongly as she entered her teens, I knew I had my soul music. It’s much the same as the way thinking of your children, even though they may be far away, you believe you can smell them, your skin can feel their skin against it, you can hear their breathing. They are with you always. In you.

Music, and those we love, give us a sense of moving through life together, accompanied, no longer an isolated and frightened creature in the scary woods at night. Nothing “literal” or concrete: just a subtle sense of being… with. Being human can be such a lonely and dark thing. Music, like those we love, shines light into the dark places and sweeps us along in its embrace. With music, like with those we love, life is so much more bearable. So much more.

Perhaps that is why we so often have a strong music motif for the people we love, why we love to add a soundtrack to our times with them. My soul music is also my soundtrack for those I love. As long as I have music and those that I love, I have everything I need. The rest is just set dressing, meaningless stuff we fill our lives with as we play the games society needs us to play to keep the money flowing into the wrong pockets.

As I approach my half century, I think almost daily of my High School Latin teacher who spotted an unlikely Baroque lover in the making and opened that world to me. I have no idea why he seemed to know that my soul needed this music. But I am eternally grateful he did.

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