The Bad Fairy and the Opera.

Montpellier Opera House.

Montpellier Opera House.

I have obsessed about the Opera house in Montpellier since I first clapped eyes on it in 1992. My love for theatres and operas stems from my childhood. My parents got rid of the TV when I was seven, and generously gave their offspring the chance to find out the difference between Opera and Oprah. At Plymouth’s New Palace Theatre, we climbed the steep and narrow wooden stairs to the Gods. So-called because of its proximity to the painted ceilings, the seating in the Gods is the cheapest, but also the most magical part of the theatre. Perched in the vertiginous heights on a creaking seat, somewhere between heaven and earth, I would revel in my tingling feet, crane my neck and eagerly soak up the performance.

So when I discovered that Father Christmas had put opera tickets under the tree this year, I was ecstatic. I turned to Herr Google for further information, and he revealed that Montpellier Opera’s rendition of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” had recently been reviewed by a critic working for a leading French newspaper. So I clicked and read avidly.

The critic began by singing the praises of the mezzo-soprano, to such an extent, in fact, that the latter would have problems fitting her head through the Opera’s double doors. She described the great talents of the orchestra and conductor, then proceeded to throw her toys out of her cultural pram. My stomach sank as she fastened her teeth into the rest of the team and ripped them to shreds like a fox in a hen-house.

The lighting and minimalist scenery were not her cup of tea, and the director was more or less accused of being as out-of-date as Flash Dance leotards and pink leg warmers. She then set about dismissing the opera singers one by one, describing their performances with charming adjectives such as “trivial,” “unremarkable” and “one-size-fits-all”. An accusing finger pointed out the “uncontrolled vibrato” of one of the male roles towards the end of the opera, and she wrapped up gloriously by saying that she had found the opera “tedious”, “pithy” and “caricatural”.

Now. Although she may have had the excuse of getting out of bed on the wrong side to find that someone had already eaten her porridge, her portrayal of an event I had been looking forward to was more than just a damp squib. A bad fairy had trampled all over my Christmas present and told me that it was a pile of rubbish before I’d even had the time to check it out. It was tantamount to telling a three-year-old that the bedtime story is crap before you even start reading it. How many people would now go to see the performance with the idea that it was going to be a pile of poo, just because she had deemed she didn’t like it?

I refused to let this experience set the tone of my evening, and my night at the Opera proved that music is like men: one woman’s rice pudding is another woman’s chocolate cake. I suppose that the advantage of being a bog-standard member of the audience is that I was simply going there with the intention of enjoying it.

The building was a delight in itself. The huge staircases made me want to slap on a red ball gown, pout and do Scarlett O’Hara impressions. Marble statues posed coyly for passers-by, proudly flaunting generously proportioned butts, flabby stomachs and thunder thighs that would make Rosemary Conley scream in horror. Christmas lights shone in through the huge windows. It was as close to heaven as MM could get, bar sharing a bucket of ice cream with Colin Firth.

The super swinger chandelier at Montpellier Opera (sorry for the bad quality).

The super swinger chandelier at Montpellier Opera (sorry for the bad quality).

Our seats were in the Gods, so close to the beautifully painted clouds on the ceiling that you could almost put in a good word for yourself with St Peter. An enormous, ornate chandelier sparkled in the centre; the kind of thing heroes end up dangling off in action films. I can only describe the interior of the Opera as an inside-out wedding cake – ornate, iced and decorated to the hilt.

I only voiced one criticism that evening, and it had nothing to do with the people on stage. Getting two teenagers to willingly discover Mozart and the Opera is exceptional. It is less so when the two adults sitting in front of them start talking at the tops of their voices as soon as the lights dim and the orchestra strikes up.

PF stiffened in his seat, growled and pricked up his ears, making me feel like I was sitting next to a Rottweiler in a dinner jacket. He stretched his arm out slowly until his hand was just behind the first woman’s ear, then proceeded to click his fingers loudly. She continued to yak on, apparently insensitive to the fact that she was disturbing everybody else. Snap, snap, snap, went PF’s fingers. Yak, yak, yak, went the two women, who had apparently confused the overture for the advertising slot at the cinema.

That was when the grumble of Bigfoot’s voice cut through the dark. Low and distinct, with an unambiguous message. “Hey, lil bro, make sure you tell me if you need to barf. I told you that you shouldn’t have come to the Opera with a tummy bug”. I stifled a laugh. That kid is most definitely his mother’s son. The women immediately shut up and exchanged a concerned glance.

It didn’t last long, and soon they were off again. Although MM is no good at singing, she knows how to strike the right note with rude people. I leant over, laid my hand on the woman’s arm, and informed her that we had paid to listen to an Opera, not to her. *Result*.

And the Opera? I beg to differ with the bad fairy. The opera was fabulous. I loved the colourful mixture of authentic and wildly modern costumes that were set off to their advantage by the simple scenery and clever lighting. The orchestra and the wonderfully rich, varied, and powerful voices of the cast knocked the stuffing out of the mindless crap churned out by the music industry today. It took me back to my childhood and made me dream for four hours, and my teenagers discovered a whole new world. As a certain Arnold S said, “I’ll be back”. 

To finish off, I’ll leave you with one of the voices I enjoyed the most. See what you think.

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Super Saver Tomato and the Punctuation Police.

My heart goes out to foreign learners of my native language. English grammar stinks. So does punctuation. I am a punisher for punctuation, a grammar geek, and a stickler for spelling. Yet when I point out glaringly obvious mistakes on billboards and hoardings to my offspring, they roll their eyes at me and tell me to wake up and smell the coffee. Who cares as long as the message can be understood? The inaccurate use of quotation marks, capital letters, apostrophes, commas and exclamation marks is not deemed to be a punishable offence by Bigfoot and his generation, whatever the language concerned. His mother, on the other hand, would happily bludgeon the culprits into oblivion with a hardback copy of English Grammar in Use.

Imagine a world without correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Admittedly, we would live in a better place where nobody would be frustrated or unfaithful, as the absence of the dashing dash would mean that extra-marital sex would disappear and only extra marital sex would remain. A win-win situation. On the other hand, be careful how you suggest that dinner is ready – without a comma, the suggestion « Why don’t we eat, John?»  becomes a matter of life or death for the person concerned.

My sad condition started out as an amused smile at the greengrocer’s apostrophe, until the latter turned into a major source of irritation for me. I took to hesitating in front of stores, unsure whether to quietly pull out a marker pen or call the Punctuation Police. Nobody else seemed to be unduly affected by this affront to the Grammar Gods. People continued walking by whilst I stood there, fighting with my punctuation principles.

You know what I’m talking about: those lurid fluorescent signs outside high street shops selling “BEST BANANA’S”, and “super saver tomato’s”. Who on earth is super saver tomato? Is he Batman’s new organic sidekick, devoid of capitals? What a pity that the sentence is not completed with his activity (“Super saver tomato’s on his way for lunch with Wonder Woman!”) or the unwanted belongings that are presumably for sale (“Super saver tomato’s underpants at cut price until 5pm tomorrow!”).

Super Saver Tomato, drawn by Rugby-boy.

Super Saver Tomato, drawn by Rugby-boy.

After years of teaching English as a foreign language, I finally gave in to the temptation and set up as a copy editor. I have been happily sticking my snout into scientific documents ever since, sniffing out rogue prepositions and tracking down perfunctory punctuation with more enthusiasm than a pig hunting for truffles. I see my job as the linguistic equivalent of cosmetic surgery, and I love it: give me the written equivalent of Elephant Man, and I’ll do my best to turn it into Brad Pitt.

However, I sometimes have problems switching off at the end of the day. This occasionally leads to frustration when it comes to reading in bed, my number two hobby. (Number one is writing – variety is the spice of life.) I recently snuggled up under my quilt with a promisingly well-thumbed Chick Lit novel I’d found in a charity shop. Within two chapters I was swearing blue murder at the rash of bad punctuation running riot throughout the pages. I grumbled audibly, wondering who the hell had edited the English in this book, or whether it had been edited at all. I fiddled with the corner of the page and my vivid imagination took off. I imagined the editor, drinking direct from the Chardonnay bottle as he picked out the odd spelling mistake or typographic error in the script. Then, no doubt tired of fiddling around, he must have grabbed a box of punctuation marks and magnanimously tipped it over the document like a trainee pizzaiolo attacking an unsuspecting Napoletana with an entire tin of capers. The commas scattered away into the different pages like cockroaches trying to find a quiet, damp corner to hide in, and the damage was done.

I told you I had a vivid imagination. In any case, the readability of what promised to be an excellent storyline, suddenly became somewhat, compromised; because the text was mined, with badly placed, punctuation. Ok, so I’ve exaggerated a tad, but you get, what, I mean….

The last straw was the herd of brackets rampaging across each page, giving me the uneasy feeling that the narrator was schizophrenic. The numerous asides thrown into the text made her look like her own sidekick. I threw the book on the floor, where it has remained to this day.

So spare a thought for poor old punctuation he’s having a tough time of it whether on the street or in published form. (Garnish this sentence with both punctuation and parsimony, if you please.) The day punctuation dies, we will have a heavy sentence to face.