A Fright at The Opera

I once got a call to play guitar in an opera.  It was quite an unusual affair even for opera involving three separate orchestras and music ensembles; A large pit orchestra, a back stage collection of usual and strange instruments and an onstage band of travelling vagabond musicians. I had been asked to play in the latter group. The opera was called La Cubana by Hans Verne Henze, a German composer who was influenced by serialism, atonality, Stravinsky, Italian, Arab Music and Jazz.

After extensive rehearsals we were to put on a few gigs at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, North London.

But first, I had to see exactly what I was supposed to play. I asked for the dots to be sent as I had been told that as I was a ‘travelling player’ I had to learn it and not have to luxury of the music to hand.

At first, I found the ‘What you see is what you play’ atonality, 12 tone style a little weird. No traditional key signature in sight; just flats, sharps and naturals littering the pages accompanied by a wide range of notes similar to a large fly suffering from diarrhoea. But I ventured on, making sense of these odd unrelated and disconnected pieces trying to imagine gaps where other instruments might join in.

The day of the first rehearsals arrived and I met my other travelling buskers consisting of flute, mouth organ, mandolin, violin, horn and me on acoustic guitar. The conductor placed us all in a row and asked us to prepare the first piece in our repertoire. Fortunately, I was off the book having learned it all so I was confident at least with what I had to do.

He raised his hands to count us in and as he brought down on the first beat of the bar, the sound that came out of six players was one of extraordinary sonic surprise. It was as though we’d all been simultaneously thrown down a lift shaft while playing our instruments and hitting the basement continuing to play with gusto and confidence. The other players simply carried on as if this was quite normal whereas the mouth organ player and I burst out laughing, reaching for the music to make sure we were even on the same planet never mind page. This seemed to continue for quite a while and I came to the conclusion that mistakes were secondary to keeping control of a sense of reality and humour.

It took a few days of atonal familiarity not to be surprised any more. I immersed myself into my character and decided that I could easily print off miniature versions of my guitar music and tape them to the guitar body so no one except me could see them. I felt I needed this as insurance in case I was challenged at any time.

All was well, the technical rehearsals then the dress rehearsals followed by the previews, we were all getting quite familiar with this style of music and how we were to move about the stage while seemingly making it all up as ‘buskers playing opera’.

The first night arrived and I think they had deliberately left a few things out during rehearsals so we wouldn’t get distracted. Namely that the star of the show on opening night, while singing her classical heart out, disrobed and stood downstage completely naked. Our lovely mandolin traveller, Hugo Dalton, having had a few generous helpings of ale previously, became very concerned about this and decided that it was his job to assist with a small towel. Needless to say, there was immediate panic from any and all available stagehands and he was discretely manhandled into the wings before he got too far or indeed saw too much.

An extraordinary interlude between music sessions and TV composition. I think it was a case of never say no and finding the unexpected just as exciting as the familiar.

I did actually meet the great composer before we did the first performance. I was accidentally introduced to him as I just happened to be standing around when the main creatives were having a critical meeting. He probably hadn’t registered my guitar playing and I certainly had no idea of how extraordinary he was not only as a composer but as a person, but now, much later, I feel very fortunate to have been of part of such a production and experienced this very special and unique fright at the opera.