Death at the Beggar’s Opera – book review

Last year I started making a list of novels with theatrical themes. More specifically, where the plot evolves around operatic stage or persons somehow involved with opera or stage music in general. It does not come as a surprise that many authors reach out for inspiration in  the colorful stage world that somehow always leads us to believe it is inhabited with people more interesting than the rest of the population. Not surprisingly, there is quite a significant body of literary work that diverges into all the genres and sub-genres.

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Being a cozy mystery and XVIII century music aficionado, Deryn Lake’s Death at the Beggar’s Opera ranked high on my to-read list. The title is the second volume in the John Rawlings mystery series and it is first published at 1995. Judging by the bare title I fully expected a thrilling plot and vivid characters. Alas, it was not to be.

The plot is set in London in 1754 evolves around a stage production of John Gay’s wildly popular Beggar’s Opera with music arrangements of J.C. Pepusch and its cast. Following the unfortunate event of the death in the most shocking manner of the leading man, Rawlings finds himself yet once again  assisting the Blind Beak in finding the murderer. As the investigation progresses, we find out that basically no one had any tender feelings for the victim. And this is where the story inevitably fails in dead-end. It seems that Lake  herself hasn’t had any compassion for the victim so she decided to introduce yet another one assuming that the reader will inevitably feel compelled to show some interest into finding the devious murderer. It really didn’t help that Rawlings is not much of a likable character and he stays rather flat and two-dimensional throughout the whole storytelling. In addition to  ambivalence, he does not seem to posses any tangible sleuthing talents. What sets him apart is a pair of fast feet and inexhaustible and numerous affections towards the ladies. The resolution of the mystery came expected and was delivered in an unconvinced way as a result of illogical contradictory actions. I was hoping up to the last page that the author will give us at least some glimpse of the real life in mid-eighteen century London, after all it is a period-set story, but once again I was left unsatisfied.

So you can guess, the mystery left  me quite indifferent. However, not all was lost. The character of John Fielding (1721-1780) was an actual historic person and he was the most interesting of all the character appearance. So at least I had the chance to learn that he was the brother of Henry Fielding (1707-1754) who was a prolific writer and novelist. The very same author of Tom Jones a novel that is also on my to-read list ever since I found out about the lovely opera of the  same name by Edward German.

It is highly unlikely that I will read another John Rawlings mystery in the near future, but I will happily explore the opus of Henry Fielding that even from far does not look disappointing.

How I ended Up Studying Singing in the Netherlands – Part 2

As every young singer knows, auditions can hardly ever be described as a pleasant activity. Even if you end up getting the position, that day that you have to sing in front of jury is never something to look joyfully about.

When I arrived to the Scchipol airport, the first thing that struck me were the prices. It seemed to me that everywhere I turn, the prices for the smallest sandweach would get me through at least three days of food back in Serbia. With 70 Euros in my pocket to last for six days for everything (food, transportation), the actual auditions at the Amsterdam and Utrecht Conservatories were the last of my concerns. How to literary survive without starving was the thing that bothered me. Gone were all my hopes to visit some museums and bring souvenirs for my family.

My first host lived in a small village outside Amsterdam, which meant additional costs for the bus, but I was lucky that the atmosphere in the house was fully welcoming. I remember setting up my sleeping bag on the couch thinking ‘well, this is it. It doesn’t get any better than this. After all, you are going to fail tomorrow anyway, so the good thing is that at least you made some friends’.

I went early to Amsterdam and had the misfortune to get completely wrong directions, so I ended up walking for more than an hour and barely getting on time. Only to find out that they were running late. Nevertheless, I was quite stressed. The entrance committee was puzzled by me. It is quite unusual to see someone at the entrance exam that you did not make any contact with beforehand. So they asked me what brought me there. Having nothing to lose and being tired already, I said ‘The most famous Serbian Singer Marijana Mijanovic studied here, and since she is so good, I figured out you must be good as well’. And they liked it. Couple of teachers wanted to hear me separately, which was a good sign, but by then I was preoccupied with the theoretical part of the entrance exam. To be honest, I did not prepare for it at all. For one thing, because I did not know what to expect exactly, and for the other I dd not have enough money or time. Let me tell you, the theory at the entrance exam in Amsterdam is a serious business. And it last for hours as well, separated in several blocks.

Next step was Utrecht, and I arrived already quite hungry there. My host was exceptionally wonderful and a musician herself. Utrecht is quite a different city than Amsterdam. By this time the only thing I could think of is to finish everything as fast as I could and to go home to start the job that was already waiting for me. That is probably why I was more relaxed when I sung. They offered me immediately acceptance in the third year bachelor and I couldn’t believe my ears. That was the first ‘yes’ I got for my singing in years. After that, the theory test looked even more insignificant. The short visit to the Student Service Center blew my enthusiasm in a second when I found out how much money would I actually need even before I even come here to study.

Utrecht as a city, has its many charms and one huge disadvantage. It is a dreadfully conservative and bureaucratic city. Perhaps the worst in the Netherlands. This is how it reflects on studying. If you are from a non EU country, the discrimination begins with the tuition fee that is 5 times more expensive. Then, you are forced (unlawfully, I checked) to pay the deposit in its entirety before 1st of July so that the school can begin the process of issuing you your study Visa. Not only that you have to pay all the tuition fee in front, but you are also obliged to pay the prescribed monthly costs for a whole year in advance. In 2010 that was 12,500.00 Euros in cash.

Utrecht Conservatory in Winter

Utrecht Conservatory in Winter

In the light of that fact, I was fully convinced that we (meaning, my family and I) will not be able to collect the necessary amount in a little less than a month time. In a country where average salary is 300 Euros, that meant we had to sell our apartment. A thing that I was reluctant to accept, but I also thought that there is no way that could happen in such a short period of time.

I was happy that I proved myself that I did have at least some qualities for classical singing, a thought only to be reinforced by the acceptance letter from the Amsterdam conservatory I was to receive shortly after. But let me tell you, this part together with previous 11 years was nothing compared to the problems that waited for me  and challenges I am still facing.

On July 1st 2010 the miracle happened and we transferred the money to the HKU. This few hours completely changed my life and out of the sudden, I gained that long awaited chance to actually become a singer.

Report from the Belvedere Competiton Finals in Amsterdam

I seriously doubt that there is any young classical singing student or professional who hasn’t heard by now about the famous Belvedere Singing Competition. To be able to reach even the semi-finals here means that you will have a career in this business. And ultimately, we all aspire to have more engagements, better engagements that would give us some kind of security in this overly competitive profession.

This year, after 31 years total, Belvedere was held for the first time outside Vienna. When I was still living in Serbia I often fantasized how would it be to actually sing in a competition of such a high level. So when the opportunity came to witness the final evening  from a close range (although, still from the opposite side of the stage), I simply could not miss it.

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There were altogether thirteen finalists from all the continents except Australia. I will not dwell into fine details about each and every one of them here cause you can easily read it for yourself on the official web page of the competition.

Yes, all thirteen of them were fine young singers, but for some I seriously was wondering how on Earth did they manage to reach the finals as they did not sound to my ears any better than any a student of a conservatory level. The second thing that stroke me were the repertoire choices. Most of the competitors went along with the ‘usual suspects’ which was disappointing to say the least. I mean, one can hardly expect to win with Habanera or Largo al factotum nowadays. Or Dido’s Lament. Have you ever heard that anyone actually won an opera competition with a Purcell piece?

The Gelders Orchestra was suitable and provided a strong musical input except perhaps on the Rossini arias where the strings were at places behind the beat.

Overall and without any doubt, men were at least on Saturday night, by far better than the women.   The audience recognized two of the performers as definitely the best – the young Russian baritone Roman Burdenko and the South-African tenor Rheinaldt Moagi. I fully expected that Burdenko will win and be followed with Moagi, but of course, in competition of this size, the politics will inevitably play a significant role alongside with individual artistic achievement. And that is precisely what happened. Both sexes and all the races had to be fairly represented. Moagi took the 3rd prize together with the Audience Prize. Burdenko shared the 2nd prize with a Swiss mezzo-soprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux and a Korean baritone Dong-Hwan Lee won the 1st prize. After the announcement, I swear there were a few seconds of disbelief among the audience at the Muziek Theater. Thus the following applause came with some hesitation. He himself looked a bit surprised, maybe even more so than the rest of us. To his favor, his second performance of the Toreador aria was definitely wholeheartedly much better than the first.

Basically, I was relieved. I use to think that one has to be a major talent in order to reach to these kind of singing venues. It is not so. Sure, you rally need to posses a steady technique, stamina, stage presence and language control, but you do not have to be exceptional. What does help is to have a track of performing experience, and by that I mean on a real operatic stage. Not concert, but operatic. This is without any doubt, the road towards the ultimate excellence in stage performance. That is that little something that will make you stand out among your peers, even you yourself would not think so at the given moment. And of course, it does help the right place at the right moment, but that is usually out of our reach or comprehension. Thus, focus on the former

How I Ended Up Studying Singing in the Netherlands – Part 1

The question I have been asked the most ever since I came here, is why did I choose to come to study singing in the Netherlands in the first place. Well, I guess it was the other way around, the Netherlands chose me.

I actually really wanted to study in the USA. So I did my research back in 2008 what do I need to prepare for the entrance exams. Living in Serbia means that basically you have just enough money to cover your immediate life expenses, but having to go abroad meant a significant strategic planning and severe saving for more than a year. A few weeks before my long expected and planned trip to Baltimore and Boston, I had a casual chat on Skype with a friend of mine who was doing her PhD studies at the University of Groningen. The two of us shared the same passion for baroque music, and she suggested that I could consider applying for the Utrecht Conservatoire. Well, back then Amsterdam conservatoire was more or less the only thing I knew about the Netherlands and it did not occur to me to search any further. After our little talk, I checked out the official web site of the HKU and after seeing how easy was to apply for the entrance exams, I decided to try. So I applied for both, Utrecht and Amsterdam conservatoires and completely forgot about it because I was busy with my forthcoming audition trip to the USA. This was back in January 2010.

After returning from the Sates it was very clear to me that my admission chances were more than slim, so I firmly decided to focus on finishing my other studies and to forget about singing. After all, it has been eleven years since my first singing lesson and I was really exhausted of all the stress and having to cope with ups and downs of the whole business. I did not feel any joy in making music anymore.

Somewhere in mid April I suddenly received the invitation letters from both schools with my entrance exams schedule. This came as a complete surprise, for I was having totally different plans for the future by then. When I saw that I could do auditions both in Amsterdam and Utrecht within 6 days, I started to think that maybe I should do it. Just one last time. After all, I already did have other safe plans, and at least I will get to see Amsterdam. The problem now was, as it always is, how to collect the money. And by that I do not mean only the money for the trip (plane ticket, accommodation, food), but also for the lessons and coachings. Severe choices have to be made so I opted to get eight hours of coaching sessions. That meant two times an hour for four weeks. Other than that, I mostly had to focus on collecting the rest of the money.

Around that time I also started making my first handmade cold-process soaps. My friend and flatmate Milica was my biggest supporter and help so together we set off to sell enough soaps for me to buy the plane ticket. Having to pay for the accommodation was out of the question, so for that I relied solely on Couchsurfing. Milica and I were already hosting in our home couchsurfers from all around the globe for months, so I had quite good chances of finding great hosts based on the feedback I already received for my hospitality.

In the mean time, we made a blog to showcase the soaps I made together with Milica’s wonderful photos. We also spread the word about the soaps and literally blackmailed our friends into buying them. After all, they were great and all the proceeding were meant for a greater cause. We managed and off I was in the last week of May 2010 to try my singing luck one last time in the country of tulips, windmills and rain.

Oudegracht chanel in Utrecht

Oudegracht chanel in Utrecht