Meeting each week in the Questors Theatre, we naturally are alert to the latest in gentleman theatricals, and our interns are often abuzz on a Monday morning following yet another first night. But sometimes they will spurn the queen of the arts for more melodic entertainment, seeking out a musical evening that doesn’t keep getting interrupted by a ridiculous play. Yes, our trainee archivists have been gigging – and this isn’t a reference to their current zero-hours contracts. No, they have been out to see a band. Naturally, the name of the long-haired herberts making all the racket is quite lost on your diarist – but suffice to say they are barely old enough for a paper round, and already they have racked up more number ones than Kim Jong-il’s golfing scorecard.
Of course, flashy flashes-in-the-pan are nothing new, and nor is their pretentions to write lyrics beyond the tutti-doo-wah–ob-la-diddy-diddy which made them famous. And for that, they need the help of poets. If only Wolfie Mozart had thought to consult a wordsmith for his Magic Flute, he could have avoided all those embarrassing pah-pah-pahs when he obviously couldn’t think of any rhymes.
No lack of words at this week’s workshop, with Bashir Sakhawarz taking lead for the opening number about childhood friends on trees swapping bee stings, handing over to John Hurley’s song of the streets, particularly the ones dug-up and abandoned. Peter Francis then sung a lamentation to the hard-working butterfly, while Doig Simmonds was channelling the hippies of old with his hymn to passing over and passing on the life-force, leading on to Pat Francis and her ballad of a young, black-blooded Tennyson. Michael Harris then gave us a feel-good number in a major key and Daphne Gloag crooned for a model bird that almost sang. A country song followed from Martin Choules, telling how deadly vegetation is really our misunderstood friends, and for the finale Alan Chambers gave us a hoedown to the moon from his new collection.
Technically, composers already had tame poets on tap in the form of their librettist, but maybe it is no surprise that we never remember their names when it’s the music guy with his name above the title. And perhaps the composers realised the pressure on them to oversee the entire production. And so it is no surprise to find in an entry for June 1900 that Jackie Puccini was in town to oversee the London premiere of his latest masterpiece, Tosca. While that opening was still three weeks away, and perhaps finding the rehearsals dragging, he took himself off to the theatre and a visiting play from Broadway called Madame Butterfly.
Despite speaking little English, he immediately decided to operize it, and naturally sought out the leading poetry collective to help him get a libretto worthy of such a tragic tale. But the workshop did not go well, with Gilby Chesterton probing him about the rumoured anti-Catholic subtext of Tosca, and Bernie Shaw buttonholing him for his patronising portrayal of the poor in La Boheme. Little wonder, then, that when working on his next Oriental opera, and needing a lyric for the centrepiece of the second act, he threw up his hands and just told his cast to hum along.