Neil Armstrong

August 26, 2012

Over the course of my life there have been a few of those truly historic moments when you never forget where you were when you first heard of them.   Mostly they were about death and disater.   The JFK assassination;  The death of Princess Diana;  9/11.

The first Moon landing was different.  That was about mankind’s constant voyage of discovery.  In September 1962 President Kennedy said in Houston, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

NASA took up the challenge and on 20th July,1969 Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on its surface. There were two wonders that night. The first, obviously was that the landing had ocurred. The second was that back in the comfort of our living rooms, wherever we were on this planet, we could watch it happen, and listen to Armstrong’s famous “One small step ” live.

And watch it we did in our millions. I remember going to work the following morning and all of London seemed bleary eyed. Everyone had stayed up into the small hours to see history being made.

Neil Armstrong, together with his colleagues on that epic voyage, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins inspired a generation. It seems strangely unreal to think that these true superheroes are merely mortal like the rest of us. But then while they may be mortal, they are not like the rest of us for who among us would volunteer to be strapped into a tiny cabin sitting on top of a rocket containing 960,000 gallons of fuel and then having been propelled into space journey down to the Moon’s surface in a rickety contraption that looked like a bad scool project?

Today the word hero is much overused but Neil Armstrong was most definitely one of the finest.


August 24, 2012

When Liliom, the play upon which Carousel is based, first gained global acclaim in the early 1920’s composer Giacomo Puccini begged playwright Ferenc Molnar to grant him the rights to turn it into an opera. Molnar turned Puccini down flat. “Liliom is my masterpiece,” he said, “and I want it to be remembered as a Molnar play, not as the libretto for a Puccini opera.”

A little more than twenty years later, after being taken to see Oklahoma!, he granted the musical rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein paving the way for the pair to write what Time Magazine would call “The Greatest Musical of the Twentieth Century.”

Had it been written by Puccini, I am sure Opera North would have staged many productions of the musical Liliom over the years. As it is, we have had to wait until now to see and hear how a major opera company would tackle the most operatic of Broadway musicals and boy, they have done it brilliantly.

Richard Rodgers, who with his rich melodic and harmonic gifts I consider to be the Puccini of Broadway, was asked if he had ever been tempted to write an opera. He replied that he and Hammerstein were sorely tempted a couple of times, and he imagined Carousel in those terms. If, like their leading man Billy Bigelow they could look down from heaven and see this production, they surely would be delighted.

Nicholas Hytner’s 1993 National Theatre production reminded us what a classic show Carousel is. This production, while not forgetting the importance of the acting, focuses as one might expect on the music. It does not diminish the importance of Oscar Hammerstein’s superb book and lyrics, but it is in Richard Rodgers’ music that the true glory of this Carousel lies. It is like seeing a great painting that having been hidden in the vaults for a number of years, has been lovingly brought back to life by a master restorer.

Director Jo Davis stamped her own authority on the production. Her decision to use the prologue to show Billy’s back story was clever and I thought moving the story from 1873 to 1915 worked well. The production was well paced and had a good narrative flow. I especially enjoyed the setting of the introduction to the Act 2 ballet, transforming Heaven’s backyard into a movie set. Perhaps only in the final graduation scene, when Billy is at last able to help his family did the direction lack a certain clarity.

Gillene Herbert was entirely convincing as Julie, the strong New England girl who would survive whatever life threw at her, whilst Eric Greene as Billy showed us a tortured soul struggling with the unfamiliar emotions of love and fatherhood. They nailed the classic Bench Scene and If I Loved You completely.

Claire Boulter was a comedic delight as Carrie and Joseph Shovelton as her beau, Enoch Snow excelled too. Together with Elena Ferrrari as Nettie , whose rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone was spine tingling, the entire cast sang their roles superbly. A special word of praise too for the chorus – seldom can the big set piece numbers such as June is Busting Out All Over have sounded better.

Anthony Ward’s uncluttered but effective sets and Bruno Poet’s lighting were a delight and Kay Shepherd’s choreography, sometimes lusty, sometimes tender, enhanced the story exactly as it was supposed to do..

James Holmes conducted the Birmingham Royal Ballet with a great feeling for the music. If I have one gripe it is that Richard Rodgers composed the score with a full orchestra in mind. When Carousel opened on Broadway the pit contained thirty-nine musicians. For this production there is twenty-nine. With such wonderful voices on stage it is a shame that they could not be backed by the full orchestra that the composer had in mind.

Nonetheless, this is a wonderful production and one that will live long in my memory. I do hope that Carousel stays in Opera North’s repertoire and I hope also that other opera company’s add it to theirs.

Opera or musical? In the end it does not matter for what is certain is that Carousel is magnificent theatre.

Sporting Loyalty

August 16, 2012

Now I am not naive enough to believe that all Olympians are saints. But in the week following London 2012, I cannot help but contrast the attitudes of some of the heroes of those games with those of some well-known footballers.

Take Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter for example. No-one who saw their interview with Jon Inverdale immediately following their final in the lightweight double sculls when they apologised for finishing “only” second is ever going to forget it. Their distress at what they considered “letting everyone down” was heartbreaking, particularly having seen them give absolutely everything and then some, in their attempt to hold off the Danish boat.

Then one could talk about Andy Murray who drew so much strength from the success of his fellow Team GB members, or Joanna Rowsell proudly claiming her gold medal without the wig that she wears to cover her alopecia. Some like Gemma Gibbons had to overcome personal loss and take part-time jobs to keep up their training. What courage she showed in winning her silver medal. Then consider the dedication shown by so many of the team: the dawn training sessions, seven days a week; the endless separation from families; the constant physical and mental pressure. The cycling squad are not even allowed to shake hands in case the contact with another person leads to them picking up a bug which might cause them to miss a day’s training. Throughout the games, the talk by every athlete was about the team and what it meant to be a part of that team.

And all this is done without a thought about financial reward.

What a difference to football.

There are two big football transfer stories today. One involves Robin Van Persie of Arsenal and the other involves Luka Modric of Spurs. Both stories are perfect example of the total lack of “Olympian spirit” that exists in football today. Now let me lay my cards on the table. I am a Spurs fan and have been for over 60 years. So to see Arsenal fans crying over the loss of Van Persie leaves me cold and unmoved.

But he and Modric are both still under contract. Van Persie has a year left on his and Modric has a full four years left on his contract with Spurs. It makes sense for Arsenal to sell van Persie now especially at the price Manchester United are offering. But Spurs should not have to sell a player who two years ago was happy to sign a new six-year contract with the club that gambled £16.5million to provide him with a global stage on which to perform. At the time of signing that contract Modric said “Tottenham Hotspur gave me my chance in the Premier League and I want to go on to achieve great success here with them. Yes, there have been enquiries from other big clubs, but I have no interest in going anywhere. Last season’s Top 4 finish was an indication of where we are as a Club and I feel I can continue to improve and go on to achieve everything I want to at Spurs.”

That is until an even bigger club comes along offering shedloads of money. In which case I will go on strike and threaten to poison the atmosphere in the dressing room until I get my way. Loyalty? Forget it.

It is a shocking indictment of the modern game that two of the country’s biggest clubs cannot prevent players effectively tearing up contracts. It is an ever bigger indictment of the modern player that they have no qualms in doing so.
It may be a forlorn hope, but none-the-less I do hope that the children growing up today, take as their role models as the heroes of Team GB and not the pampered spoiled brats of the Premier League.