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Nights at the Opera - My Own Balcony Scene

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Article for British Double Reed Society Magazine 1993.

Nights at the Opera - My Own Balcony Scene

oboe and cor anglais

If I were to tell you that once upon a time there was a little opera house nestling in the rolling hills of the English countryside, you would probably say "ah yes, that's Glyndebourne". But that famous little opera house in the heart of Sussex has been demolished and at this very minute is being rebuilt the other way around. Bourneglynde is what some of the locals call it, though that joke is wearing a bit thin now. We all look forward to seeing the new opera house, and we hope the snooker table which Bernard Haitink gave to the orchestra (in a moment of rashness) is still in one piece.

It will be sad that never again will I be able to walk into that little theatre, as I used to when nobody else was there, and just sit in the stalls and remember ... and remember, and to look at the wooden panelling there, now gone, and recall how once the very fabric of the building used to glow with life and excitement as we spun through some of those wonderful Mozart finales. ... And to recollect how the curtains once caught fire, and how the cannons went off in the wrong place, and how somebody put a sausage in John Pritchard's score. ...And how I fell in love with the girl who played Desperina the maid in Cosi, and the terrible prank she played upon me. She also used to play the part of Barbarella in The Marriage of Figaro and she used to take a swig out of her hip flask before she went on. The audience never saw that of course. He name was Giulietta. She had lovely brown eyes which sparkled in the lights when she was on stage. She had high cheek bones and wonderful dark Italian hair, and she had a lovely voice like silver bells.

I remember how we first got talking. She came into the Gentleman's toilet by mistake and caught me in the act of cleaning the gunpowder out of my cor anglais reeds. She was quite shocked and asked me what on earth I was doing. I took her by the arm and led her outside. Someone had written on the wall "W.A.Mozart was here".

To tell you the truth I was rather cross with her. Only a few nights before I had gone to a party after the first night of Falstaff in which she had sung Nanetta. Seeing her alone at a table I had gone up to her and asked her if she would like to dance. She had looked me straight in the face with those watery brown eyes and had said "no". That is all she said. I thought for a minute and then asked her "do you speak English?" She again melted me with her lovely eyes and said "no". So I turned on my heels and left, feeling very disgruntled.

And now here she stood speaking perfect English and asking me why I was apparently sticking a pheasant's tail feather down a hole in the wash basin. I reckoned that if I didn't tell her the truth she would probably hit me. So I told her the truth and she hit me anyway ... well not with her fists but with a phwe of exasperation as she turned to walk away. No, the story I had told her was quite true. When we did performances of the Cunning Little Vixen there was a bit near the end where the Vixen gets shot by the poacher for stealing his sandwiches. The gun goes off and as the Vixen dies there is a mournful cor anglais solo like there usually is when that happens. The problem then was that the smoke from the gun used to drift down into the orchestra pit and I used to get a lung full just before I played the cor solo. After three performances my reed tasted so strongly of cordite that I could not bear to put it in my mouth.

Anybody who has ever played the oboe parts of Cosi Fan Tutte will know the plot quite well. First of all you ruin the overture by coming in on a really flat solo G after the opening chords, and then you confound the bassoon player by playing effortlessly a tune which is almost impossible on the bassoon. After that you nip out for a game of snooker. When the flutes come out you have to dash back into the pit and while you are there the flutes wreck your game by having a snooker match of their own. Actually if both the flutes come out of the pit at exactly the same time then you know there is a flute missing for one of the numbers in the opera, but that is their problem. When Desperina comes on doing her funny voice then your gastric juices start to get going because you know the dinner interval is coming up. When the interval comes then you get summoned to the conductor's room to be told off for playing out of tune. After that then you are set for a pint or a Bloody Mary because there is precious little to play in the second act.

However one knows to be careful because there are just two very awkward little solos for the first oboe in the second half of the show. The first is a ravishing little tune with a wrong note in it when Fiordiligi gets ravished, and the second ... well I never knew what happened on stage just then because it is a difficult tune that starts on a top B and then hurtles down in either E major or A major, I could never work out which. Giulietta knew I hated that little tune and stood in the wings waiting for it. This was in the days before they built the apron stage and you could see into the wings from the orchestra pit. She waited till I was looking very nervous and about to play and then lifted up her hands to her face with her fingers waggling, put her thumb to her nose, stuck out her tongue and pulled long noses at me! For that I have never forgiven her. My fingers were a-waggling too and all the wrong notes came out, but it was at that very moment the conductor found the sausage in his score and so the day was saved. Oh we walked in the sunshine, Giulietta and I. And we sat by the lakes and ate pork pies and strawberries. I always wondered whether she was the one responsible for the sausage that had saved my life, but she seemed to know when I was about to ask her and I could see that her mind had moved on to other things so I never found out. We walked hand in hand across the croquet lawn, to the ha ha to see if there were any cows in it and then we walked to the Wendy House behind the hedge. As we did so we could hear the understudy for the Queen of the Night warming up in her dressing room. We fell to the ground in paroxysms of laughter.

Don Giovani was revived several times at Glyndebourne. For the first year we had special costumes made for us, those of us who were in the stage band, that is. I was slim and handsome in those days but after that I seemed to age very fast. My costume was all in black with a doublet and knee breaches with black tights and lovely high-healed shoes. There was a white ruff for the neck and a broad-brimmed hat. To save money they did not give us a wig but stuck hair onto the back of the hat, so if the hat was raised then so was the hair, and at times I thought this was a mistake. That was for the first act stage band but for the second act we had to wear nighties because the Don had summoned us from our beds to play to him. At the sides of the set were balconies and some of the band had to climb a ladder and play form there. This was all right for the first year but more difficult during the second when I was older. In the third year I had lost my youth completely and the costume no longer fitted and my eyes were not so good either. I had to wear glasses but obviously not on stage. The difficulty here was that when I went up into the balcony and looked down into the orchestra pit without my glasses, I got the most terrible vertigo, and when I put my oboe over the parapet my fingers seized up in fear and I could not waggle them. This I overcame by asking the wardrobe department for a piece of string so I could tie the oboe to my thumb. It solved the problem but was awkward at other times. stage band

For the first act stage band we had on the lovely doublet costume with the broad hat and the hair stuck on the back, and the musicians were on a sort of trolley which moved slowly down into centre stage when the scene changed. I was sitting on the front and there were a few players standing behind me. Giulietta was singing in the chorus for this scene and I always like to look my best for her. She was dressed as a drunken medieval wench and was swanning about the stage, making rather a fool of herself if you ask me. And I looked disdainfully at her. "Settle down you gin-soaked hussy" I was thinking and she could easily see what I was thinking. It was like a red rag to a bull. She charged over towards me and knocked me over backwards with my legs in the air, probably the worst bit of acting that has ever been seen. My hat with its hair went flying and even she could see that she had gone too far. She scrabbled for the hat and put back, squashing it down firmly on my head so as to make it stick, and then she retreated.

I was in the centre of the stage, not more than ten feet away from the conductor ( I dare not tell you who it was, nor do I wish to remind him of this terrible thing). My hat was on my head, my oboe in my hand and the reed was OK. The maestro looked at me with his tongue in his cheek. I knew what had happened. Giulietta had put my hat on back to front and the hair which should have flowed over my shoulders now covered my entire face like a sheep dog.

And that is why I grew a moustache. From that time on what little hair is mine is to be firmly attached and nobody will ever again be able to misrepresent me so. The old theatre is gone, and Giulietta went back to her family in Italy. I have not seen her for a while now but she sent me a postcard from Calais and perhaps we will be together soon.

Geoffrey Browne (c) 1993