Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Heard You Singing

Back in July, I wrote a blog post about whiskey and colds, and mentioned the New Zealand Opera Quartet.  I was accompanist for this group at one point in the sixties, and toured the country with the four singers presenting 45 minute concerts to secondary school pupils.  To great enthusiasm, surprisingly!

As a result of the blog post, one of the surviving Quartet members, Corinne Bridge-Opie, sent me a copy of her book, I Heard You Singing, in which the Quartet gets a whole chapter to itself.  It turns out it had a longer life than I knew about - I was just one of several accompanists who worked with it at different times.

I Heard You Singing is an autobiography/memoir that covers the careers of both Corinne and her husband, Ramon Opie.  Ramon was actually Raymond, which isn't quite so exotic, but as a result of a broadcasting error, Ramon became his performance name.  An announcer had mispronounced his name as Raymon Dopie.  It was quickly decided to change it to make future mistakes avoidable.

Ray was New Zealand-born and a Kiwi through and through.  He was very down-to-earth and a man of the people, you might say.  He was musical from an early age, and by the time he was a late teenager was gifted with a superb tenor voice. Even before he got some professional vocal training he was known as an outstanding singer. His voice was regarded as unique in Australasia, and like many other New Zealand singers he could easily have become famous well beyond our shores.  He learned all his roles (and the innumerable songs he sang) by ear.  He auditioned at  Covent Garden when he and Corinne spent a few years in England, but was turned down.  It may have been because of his age - he was in his fifties at that point - and the fact that he didn't know any of the operatic roles in their original languages.

Corinne was also born in New Zealand, but her parents were from England, and she spent some of her childhood there and some here.  Her parents were musical, and she sang and performed with them from a very early age.  By the time I knew her she had trained in London and worked professionally as a singer in the UK.  A call from the fledgling New Zealand Opera Company brought her back to New Zealand, and the Opera Quartet was formed a little later to give four singers work between NZOC productions.  That company offered more work than you might think; not only did they put on full-scale productions, some of which toured the country (Die Fledermaus was one that I was involved in), but they also presented Piano Tours, in which an opera would be performed by as small a cast as possible, accompanied by a pianist/musical director.  (I played for two of these, doing La Boheme, prior to the Opera Quartet tour.)  In these piano tours the cast would also act as stage crew, props and costume organisers, and shifters of scenery.  Even the bus driver who took the unit around the country would get involved backstage with the performances.

I lost touch with Corinne and Ray after the Quartet tour because I went to London to study and work. Strangely enough it turns out they went and worked in London a couple of years later, but our paths never crossed, which was a pity.  They were trying to get work with the opera companies over there, and had some success, but in the end it was decided that New Zealand offered better prospects for them, especially as Ray had some health issues that curtailed their stay.

Corinne's book is detailed and brings back memories of a wide range of people with whom I've had some association, or whose names were familiar to me from the 60s onwards.  In this respect it's like Edmund Bohan's recent book, Singing Historian, which covers much of the same time-period and includes many of the same names.

I Heard You Singing highlights the difficulties of being a full-time singer (or musician of any kind) in New Zealand.  The population is too small to support singers all year round, and the choice is either to pursue a career overseas (as Bohan did) or be content with juggling a job in the 'ordinary' world while working only part-time as a performer.  Corinne mentions innumerable occasions when she goes out and finds a job in order to make ends meet.  Sometimes this job fits in nicely with singing work; at other times the singing has to take a second place.  This increasingly became the case as Corinne and Ray grew older.  It requires considerable stamina (and an understanding family) to cope with the erratic nature of available work, and sometimes it's just easier to do your singing in your spare time.

Corinne's book is a welcome addition to the growing number of books on the work of New Zealand singers and musicians in the second half of last century.  I enjoyed it greatly.
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