My First Opera

MY FIRST OPERA – by Amanda Holden

I was in short white socks when my parents decided to take me to my first opera. They were passionate amateur musicians, but very protective of their small daughter against anything violent or sexy (or both). So presumably they just didn’t think that Carmen might be slightly disturbing for a child of seven.

The auditorium (Covent Garden) seemed overwhelmingly huge and sumptuous. The opera seemed rather difficult to understand, despite the performance in strangely fusty English (`Toreador now guard thee, Toreador, Toreador, bear thou in mind when combat thee elates, two bright eyes fondly regard thee’ – I now recoil in horror at the inversion, the non-rhyme, the awkward stress and the two disgraceful added syllables…). But the tunes were great; my father was particularly keen on the chain-smoking, the smugglers and the bullfighters, while my mother admired the 29 year-old soprano, Joan Sutherland, who (seeming `ill at ease’, according to Opera) `sweetly’ sang the role of Michaëla. Most of all, I was mesmerized by the pretty woman in the red frock and totally appalled when she was stabbed at the end. I didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. So I was completely nonplussed when she re-appeared, to uproarious applause, for her curtain call. I turned to my sister (it was her twelfth birthday) and said: `I thought she was dead!’. The reply was swift: `Shut up stupid, that’s the woman who will sing the next performance.’

After that I wasn’t sure that I was going to like opera very much, though I was taken regularly (mostly to Sadler’s Wells, the D’Oyly Carte and even Abingdon Handel), so I had plenty of chances to check out what I felt. Opera sung to foreign words (solely at Glyndebourne in those days) was puzzling; my first experience there was La Cenerentola. I was baffled, why all in Italian and no fairy godmother? The highlight of that year (1959) for me was My Fair Lady. But Carmen is the opera that stuck most deeply in my memory from those early years. It had got hold of me in a way I couldn’t begin to appreciate until much later.

Being a serious student of music, grateful for my parents’ kick-start, I became a keen opera twitcher, braving terrible weather to stand in queues, and standing through much of the repertoire with a restricted view and aching feet. I saw several more Carmens, most memorably, and comparatively recently, David Pountney’s terrifically energized car-dump production at ENO, with Sally Burgess’s terrifying `death’ on the bonnet of an old Chevrolet.

Almost forty years after my first visit, I found myself in the stalls at Covent Garden listening to a rehearsal for a new production of Carmen. I had written the surtitles, a bit reluctantly, but it is one way of getting to know an opera slightly better. I went to a basement at the BBC and plotted those titles onto Barrie Gavin’s film of it. I also wrote the script for a Carmen cartoon film. So, when David Freeman asked me to translate Carmen for the Albert Hall, I was eager to get to grips with it. And living with that score day in day out for about three months was revelatory. I faced the profundity of a masterpiece, and realised that it had remained in my system since 1955.

Next year marks my operatic golden jubilee and, since Raymond Gubbay will revive the Albert Hall production, I shall be able to celebrate it aptly – with Carmen.

Opera, April 2004, p.512