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July 22, 2006

Look I'm At The Albert Hall!

The Times (UK)

Here’s how Neil Fisher went from singing in the shower to joining a top choir for the First Night of the Proms

Plenty of opera buffs will tell you that they sometimes sing along with their heroes — at least in the privacy of their living room. Some might even be known to mouth the best lines safe in the darkness of the Covent Garden auditorium. As for me, well, I try not to limit myself to one character. In the friendly acoustic of my bathroom shower I can attempt any number of hits from Tosca, La Traviata, or even, on a good day, Wagner's Parsifal.

But could I really sing with the BBC Symphony Chorus at the First Night of the Proms? Apparently there was nothing to worry about. It was February. There were two months until the last auditions were being held for this year’s line-up. Until then, I would get the benefit of elite training from the chorus’s vocal coach, Debbie Miles-Johnson, who also sat on the chorus’s audition panel — along with the fearsome chorus director Stephen Jackson.

Thankfully it turns out that Debbie is exactly the right kind of person to turn me into a choral singer, mainly because she crushes my operatic ambitions to dust in a brutal five minutes of screeched scales and cracked (middle) Cs. My breathing is the problem: projecting in the bathroom may be one thing, but sustaining a long legato line in the Royal Albert Hall will be impossible without learning the basics of the allimportant air intake.

Debbie’s first piece of seemingly whimsical advice — “pretend you have Falstaff’s belly down there” — turns out to be spot-on. Cushioned by an imaginary layer of fat, I slowly work out how to support my voice with my diaphragm, rather than my throat. I also, apparently, need to stop moving my mouth: vowels, the focus in anything you sing, need to connect up with the rest of the body; too much eager chin work cuts off the sound. But the signs are looking hopeful that I can be turned into a passable cog in the Symphony Chorus’s well-oiled machine.

To my surprise, the verdict after one hour’s hard slog is positive: “You’ll make a very useful baritone.” On the one hand this is a blow — baritones are the boring fillers between the sonorous basso profondo and the glory- hunting tenor. On the other, Debbie and I settle on Papageno’s Vogelfänger aria from The Magic Flute for my audition piece. Apparently my proficient German diction will earn me brownie points with the chorus director.

Working on the aria takes up my remaining lessons. In three concentrated Debbie doses, it slowly comes together. What still remains is nobbling the high notes. My range remains stubbornly limited, and despite Debbie’s endlessly inventive description of what it feels like to let my larynx “drop” (the secret of high notes, apparently) I still sound like a strangled cat the moment I start to rise from a middle C. As a baritone, that’s going to be pretty fatal.

I’ve been warned that the main rehearsal room at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, where I’ll be auditioning, has a “tricky acoustic”. This is an understatement: John Tomlinson, the great bass who will be joining the chorus for the Dvorák Te Deum on opening night, would probably make an impact; warming up before the audition, my vocal muscles produce a thin, reedy sound.

But I don’t do too badly by the Mozart, even if the accompanist does decide to take the aria twice as fast as I had rehearsed it. Desperately trying to channel the spirit of a great Papageno such as Simon Keenlyside, I make an impromptu decision to make my Papageno a bit of a cheeky chappie. Unfortunately, the resulting snaps taken by the Times photographer show the horrible truth — awkward posture, goldfish mouth, panic-stricken eyes. I hadn’t realised just how nerve-racking it would be to have my voice exposed to this level of scrutiny.

Still, best to dwell on the positive. My Papageno passes muster, as does, curiously, my triumphant rendition of Happy Birthday — the song, according to Jackson, that “sorts the sheep from the goats”. I am pronounced a sheep and welcomed in for the First Night. I get a smile from Jackson, a hallowed BBC Symphony Chorus membership pass, and a welcome pack full of stern edicts on dress and onstage etiquette. I am firmly reminded of my contractual obligations: skip more than one out of four rehearsals, and you’re out. Months of hard slog loom before I will be unleashed on the Albert Hall.

Did someone say that the BBC Symphony Chorus were amateurs? The 230 dedicated members, some of whom have sung with the chorus for more than 30 years, aren’t paid for their services, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the slickest of professionals when it comes to singing some of the hardest pieces in the repertoire.

The first rehearsal for the Dvorák soon shows that there’s no time for spoon-feeding. The punishing schedule for the summer, the chorus’s busiest time of year, allows for relatively few rehearsals. Even a 20-minute piece such as the Te Deum would normally be worked over for months by a small choral society; these guys get six rehearsals in total, only four of which are with the chorus director.

I turn up expecting each section of the choir to be coaxed through their parts separately. Instead, we all dive in head first, and my abominable sight-reading leaves me clinging on to the cues from my fellow basses. But I soon realise that this is the best possible section to be in, thereby subscribing to the partisanship that distinguishes every choir. The basses clearly are the best. We’re picked out least often for criticism, we snigger the most at the altos and we make the biggest noise when all singing together. Plus, judging from the number of guys around me making disparaging noises about Dvorák’s “Tedium”, we have a neat line in withering scorn.

By the end of the rehearsal, after numerous scribblings of “diminuendo”, “crescendo” and “glottal” in the appropriate places on my score, I feel I fit right in, a feeling cemented by a post-rehearsal trip to the pub for some team-bonding.

Then comes the catastrophe. Busy at work, I miss two rehearsals. When I return for the second batch of rehearsals just two weeks before the performance, the Dvorák has changed beyond recognition. Entrances are all perfectly crisp; the subtle effects that my pencil markings were supposed to indicate have all been brought in, and suddenly the piece seems unrecognisable. This is our first rehearsal with the conductor, Jirí Belohlávek, and I find myself worryingly out of step with his requests. Just how do I sing a staccato amabile? How can I bring more “operatic solemnity” to an exposed pianissimo passage when I’m mainly concentrating on not running out of puff? But the worst moment comes when the basses are suddenly accused by Jackson of “dodgy intonation” — in other words, we’re flat. Row, by row, each line of basses sings the offending phrase so that Jackson can find the offender — “the creeping death”, as the bass on my right describes it. Amazingly, I’m not the guilty party — but the episode reminds me just how easy it is for one singer to ruin a glorious harmony.

I’d love to say that my Proms debut passed by in a blaze of glory, that my high notes stayed up, my larynx dropped, and my staccato amabile was perfectly judged. Maybe all those things happened. Maybe they didn’t. The truth is that my 20 minutes of singing pass by in a blur of rigid arm muscles (no one told me how to hold the music), anxious looks at the conductor (helpfully mouthing our words) and suppressing the desire to sneeze during Tomlinson’s solo.

What impresses most, naturally, is the sheer scale of it. There is nothing like singing in a packed-out Albert Hall, and nothing like joining 200 other singers in massed harmony. Moments after our final, fortissimo blast, I sink into exhausted elation — I didn’t sing out of turn (a half-bar solo, the chorus members call that), I didn’t drop my music — I even look reasonably professional on telly. Even better: The Times critic calls us “ exceptionally responsive” in the next day’s paper.

But the main boost that will stay with me is how massively exhilarating choral singing really is. In a crack team such as the BBC Symphony Chorus, the professionalism and musicianship are breathtaking. So is the camaraderie. Maybe I’ll pitch my next performance at a slightly smaller audience, but I’ve definitely got the choral bug.

Posted by acapnews at July 22, 2006 12:27 AM