Prince Igor – act 1: a vehicle for an amazing début.
I was playing in the Birmingham Philharmonic – then and now one of the country’s leading amateur orchestras. Just up the road was the Midland Music Makers – also one of the country’s leading amateur performing groups.
Every year or so the two groups collaborated, and this year they performed the opera Prince Igor by Borodin. Perhaps the fact that the principal woman was an alto and not a soprano is the reason that it isn’t often performed. Much of the score is well known - used in films, the concert hall and adverts. For example, today,(February 2015), the opening of the Polovtsian Dances is used in a trailer for Jump, a new TV programme.
Because of the popularity of the music, but scarcity of full performances, the great opera houses of Europe were intrigued. They detailed two or three of their own production teams to attend. What is it like? Is it worth a place in our own repertoire? As the requests for tickets came in, tensions rose. This would not be just another concert.
In a small town just outside Birmingham, a devout member of a local church was noticed by members of the chorus, and urged to audition. No, she would be too nervous. “But your voice is so pure”. “I couldn’t survive the audition”. After months (perhaps years) of badgering, she finally gave in, was accepted but not for the chorus.
The second act opens with the heroine seated on a cushion surrounded by handmaidens. Her opening aria starts the act – just a few bars after the curtain rises. Sadly, every evening she was shaking with fright. We knew her fear and feared for her. Never had she sung in public, yet now she had an audience of dreams German, French, Italian and English aficionados of the opera world.
With nothing to play, I craned my neck and became immersed. Although she was trembling from head to toe, her voice was deep and sonorous - a second Kathleen Ferrier. A truly beautiful sound. I was captivated every evening. We were told that before the end of the week, she had been offered contracts as a principal by three of the opera houses. Stupidly, I never committed her name to memory so I can’t follow her career. But those performances were a genuine joy – except one, which I’ll admit to in a later story.