As a Victorian, I worked two rather dissimilar jobs: as a subscription solicitor and contributing editor for Fraser’s Magazine, a general and literary journal; as a bloody opera singer.
You might say I preferred one over the other.
Now, to be fair, there were things I didn’t like about my job at Fraser’s. Soliciting the upper-crust was always tinged in aggravation and condescension. Chasing down contributors hours before deadline wasn’t much more fun. (I had to shoulder a door at one point, only to find our prestigious essayist half-naked and blissed on opium. Another time I watched a perfectionist set fire to his pages in a fit of manic tears.)
And there were things I loved about the opera, too. Her Majesty’s may only put up one show these days, but in my time, we were known as the “Italian Opera House” and did valiant battle with Covent Garden. We had ballet at intermission, strong ensembles (which reflected well on me as the choir-master), and star-power, all of which could be quite creatively intoxicating.
But on the whole, the journal felt like home. It reminded me that I had worked my way up from nothing, from press boy to apprenticed mechanic to clerk to co-owner. My employer, ‘Oliver Yorke’ aka ‘Father Prout’ was more like my Da. He brought me in from the cold, co-sponsored my uni scholarships, bequeathed me his liquor cabinet, and loved me dearly.
Meanwhile, the opera house continually grated.
I had to perform under a false Italianate name to further disguise my heritage, despite the fact that our opera manager was as much Benjamin “Lumley” as I was Elliot “Smith” and understood exactly why it irritated me so.
My voice ‘teacher’, the Michael Costa, was an exacting, conservative arsehole, with zero patience. I was functionally illiterate when I signed on at sixteen, and had I not met Geoffrey, and had he not spent ever so many patient hours teaching me musical symbols and carefully modelling phrases of foreign language (no recording devices, you know), I would have been canned, because god-forbid Costa should make a single explanation. Costa was also a failed tenor and despised me for my voice, and for the fact that he had to mould it and feature it and watch me receive his applause.
Add to that a baritone lead who was a serial sexual abuser and constantly at my knickers, ghastly hours, a slowly disintegrating relationship between Ben and Costa, and the constant disapproval of my in-laws, who insisted on calling the opera house a music hall, and…well the day I quit the opera, I walked out the front door and suffered a sort of reverse-panic-attack. I felt so relieved I couldn’t breathe, as though all the exhaustion I’d been putting off tried to exit my body at once. I vividly remember a near-faint and some passing Samaritan offering me a dram of whiskey.
So…all this to say…
I was not immediately chuffed about the musical opportunity that presented itself to me this last September.
It was a bit odd, actually. My assistant, Danny, came to my office to inform me that he had just fielded a cold call from The Toronto–our local ghost theatre–soliciting me as an understudy for their upcoming musical production. It’d been an intern calling–some bloke who found a Bootube video of my performance at a friend’s wedding and my old listing at Afterlife Magazine and Modelling Agency and put two and two together and come up with seven. He thought I was fresh-faced, starting out, dying to make it big.
Danny and I chuckled.
And then Marc found out. ‘You are need call back,’ he says to me. He says this to me about eighty times between that first call and the next.
The next call came from the Artistic Director of The Toronto. Danny transferred him directly, and he spent a solid five minutes apologising profusely for the assumptions on the part of his intern, obviously edging closer and closer to…but while I have you on the phone anyway…
He eventually got there, which is how I ended up, at Marc’s absolute insistence, in one of those dingy offices above a theatre. The Toronto is extraordinarily well-funded, and still. Dingy. I’m nervous as hell, wrestling with all these competing feelings about the possibility of signing on for a set of rehearsals, a holiday preview, and a star-run in January.
I honestly felt ill. But that sort of illness that might be part excited butterflies. You know?
So, I said I would think about it, and then director of the musical–this very firmly Russian bloke named Serge–calls me and tells me he wants me to meet the soprano lead and see about chemistry. And can I show up to the meeting at about twenty-one-years-old, because that’s the age of the character I’d play–potentially, just potentially–and it’s quite clear I’m being vetted.
Chartruese–Char for short–is just stunningly effervescent and quintessentially ‘actress’ but also totally real, unlike any soprano I’ve ever worked with. I’m a blushing mess, but also completely fascinated, and we end up friends in a matter of minutes. She thinks I’m charming, and just a hint sly. I find myself wondering, in this meeting, if those aren’t more excited butterflies than nerves, after all.
In fact, I’m wondering if this might be exactly what I need–the opportunity to untie all the different cords that I’ve bound around my voice. Here’s a rock-solid, healthy theatre, wonderful co-stars, a brilliant director, a role I was essentially made for.
Also, I have Marcus, who is just pure and utter joy about the whole thing. Not that he disregards my concerns, or devalues them. He hears me, he knows my fears. I know he does, because when I falter, he’s there with the exact reassurance I require. But in lieu of advising or hashing things out or making promises on the front end, he just goes absolutely wild for my possibilities, pushes me out onto the tracks, and trusts I’ll evade my incoming insecurities. If I’m going to do this thing–go back to the stage–I will never have a better partner at my side while I take that leap. I will never feel more capable than I do with him.
At the end of September I signed a contract with The Toronto, and found myself cast as Christian in Moulin Rouge.
And it has, for the most part, been just ragingly brilliant. Marc is beside himself, like it’s Christmas every day. The rehearsal schedule works around my time with the children, who are also rather excited for me. The cast is supportive and warm, especially after I proved myself more than a celebrity hire. The other Christian–Harry Jensen–put on a tough act but melted like sugar in snow as soon as he found out I’d argued for all the promotional materials to feature him instead of me. The show is beautiful–gothic and magical, with plenty of stage-craft that can only happen when you are a ghost with the possibility of bending dimension.
I’m also singing, you know, and quite well. I have a new voice coach, who is both adept and responsive. I’m recovering that particular energy that fuels a confident prance across the stage. I’m remembering the familial delight that comes with sharing the quirkiness of theatre with those in the know. I’m making friends, dancing, groaning over production notes, playing tricks, bringing yet another portion of myself back to life.
I’m having fun.
Eat your heart out, Costa.