Arts: Make it a Last Night to remember

Tonight, Felicity Lott and Ann Murray will be only the second duet to perform at the Last Night of the Proms. And they don't even have the decency to conform to petulant diva stereotypes - they're singing the 'Rule Britannia!' solo together. And they're having fun. By David Benedict

There's a sublime irony at work in Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney's famous hymn to togetherness, "Ebony and Ivory". The two of them never met. Recorded separately, the producer simply spliced their tracks together. Natalie Cole sang her way to seven Grammy awards for her album Unforgettable duetting with her father, Nat King Cole, who just happened to be dead.

Not all music-making is quite so cynical. Dame Felicity Lott, the Cheltenham- born soprano, and plain Ann Murray, the Dublin-born mezzo, not only harmonise on disc, they even perform together. Anyone who has missed the intimate pleasure of hearing their exquisitely matched voices can catch up tonight when they appear at the Last Night of the Proms. You don't even have to be one of the die-hard, flag-waving patriots who has spent the past week cluttering up the Kensington pavement in order to bag a ticket. The climax to the world's largest music festival - 72 concerts in eight weeks - is being relayed on screen to an expected audience of 40,000 in Hyde Park, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and televised world-wide.

The prospect of singing in front of an estimated 100 million viewers doesn't seem to faze them. Ann Murray joins Sarah Walker as one of the two singers in living memory to have performed last night duties more than once (in 1992, alongside Lesley Garrett). It is, however, a first for Felicity Lott - known universally as Flott - but since she has sung at countless regular Proms, including several notable performances of Strauss's Four Last Songs, she's taking it in her graceful stride. Indeed, with just eight days to go, before settling down to some serious rehearsing, they are both distinctly larky, their welcoming grins defying the stereotypical image of the loud, proud diva with massive voice, frame and ego.

At Murray's Surrey home they are wearing jeans but tonight they'll go for a little more glamour. Murray announces that she isn't going to try to compete with Walker, who once appeared in a dress that opened out into a vast Union Jack. "You couldn't better that. Anyway. I've never been a big fan of seeing Boudicca or Britannia and I don't have the, er, upper torso for it." "You could go as her trident," laughs Flott.

There have been celebrated operatic partnerships before, such as Callas and di Stefano or Sutherland and Horne, not to mention the new kids on the block, Alagna and Gheorghiu, but none has done it in quite the same way. Both distinguished soloists with major international careers, they have been touring the world's leading concert halls from the Met to Madrid and Milan since the late Eighties, giving duet lieder recitals with two highly regarded collections on EMI into the bargain.

It's not just that their voices sound so good together, something they say is unconscious. Only when singing in unison do they try to colour their voices to blend. On top of the intelligence, sensitivity and musicianship at work, they are obviously having a ball. With its old-fashioned image of stuffy parlours and lace-covered pianos (plus the not-so-lucrative deals), duet-signing is all too redolent of the amateur. It's nobody's first choice for a career, least of all theirs. "Having stumbled upon it though, it's jolly good fun," says Murray. "It's such fun to go on tour and on stage with somebody else. You have a freedom you don't have on your own. You can take that extra risk because you don't have 100 per cent responsibility. The balance moves from one person to the other. I don't sing with anybody else but Flott's so marvellous, she's well... graceful, musical, talented... you know, sickening."

Does Flott rate her partner? "Naah... Actually I've got such a complex about this one." "Oh get out of here!" says Murray. "No, we have a good relationship. She's so tolerant of my silly wants and Graham keeps us all together."

It's all his fault. In 1976, accompanist Graham Johnson founded The Songmakers Almanac with Flott, Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Richard Jackson, performing songs by a wide range of composers, many of which they rescued from oblivion. Everyone except Murray had studied at the Royal Academy of Music, but he had done the final masterclass with the legendary accompanist Gerald Moore in Manchester in 1971, and meeting him again after winning a singing competition, the link was made.

Since that time the three of them have cornered this previously disregarded market, singing Purcell, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Rossini, Massenet, Britten and even the odd gleeful piece of Sullivan to remarkable effect. Do they spend their time burrowing for forgotten material? "Graham's the burrower," says Flott. "I don't think we can take too much credit." Tonight they are singing with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra rather than Johnson and a piano. This gives them a chance to do more unusual repertoire. The BBC is responsible for most of the programme, which explains the appearance of the Flower Duet from Madam Butterfly by Puccini, a composer neither of them usually sings. "I've been practising Suzuki's Japanese giggle," confides Ann mock-seriously. "Mind you," she says, eyeing Flott's tall figure stretched languidly upon the sofa, "you couldn't do Butterfly on stage, not with your colouring. You'd have to sing it on your knees." Is Murray, a Handel and Mozart specialist, waiting for the unlikely day when her voice acquires a rich Italianate throb? "Oh yes! I'm waiting for that. I'm also waiting for Tina Turner's legs. That's what I want for my fiftieth birthday. No. I would love to be able to sing Butterfly. I love it. Flott wouldn't get past bar one: all that Japanese mascara would be on the floor." Flott agrees. "I have that trouble with Rosenkavalier. I couldn't cope with something where everybody dies."

Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is their operatic calling card, with Flott playing the part of the pre-menopausal Marschallin, Murray the breeches role of her aristocratic young lover, Octavian. Flott's performance is available on video but no record company has captured the two of them together on disc, despite their having stormed opera houses around the world in another variant on their estimable double act. "Tom and Jerry", says Flott, a throwaway remark that obscures their acting skills, something they use to subtle effect in recital and on disc. Describing Flott's performance as Ellen Orford in a recent performance of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, one critic declared that with singing this good, one wondered why the opera wasn't called Ellen Orford.

As Flott continues to develop her ever deepening Strauss repertoire, Murray is moving ever upwards from standard mezzo territory towards roles - such as Despina, the duplicitous servant-girl in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte - more traditionally associated with the soprano voice. ("She's pinching our repertoire," growls Flott). Conversely, she's also braving Wagnerian waters with the Valkyrie sister Waltraute, which she sings next month in Covent Garden's new Ring cycles (she has nothing but praise for producer Richard Jones) and with her first Brangaene in Tristan und Isolde. "And when I'm not doing that I'll be in church, praying."

Given their golden reputations throughout Europe, one wonders why they aren't household names? Is it because they're not foreign? "We don't want the great publicity hype," replies Murray. "We don't belong to any particular record company that is going to invest the sort of money to put your name forward the whole time. If we were in the public eye all the time, people would be programmed to a degree into wanting to go to see and hear you. I want to stand on the stage because I can do it or because someone wants me to be there. I feel nervous if I'm pushed in a way I don't like."

On the other hand, they light up at the prospect of another recital disc, with perhaps a few lighter numbers. Murray cites an ENO gala where they performed the Lakme duet, the theme tune to the British Airways advertisement, dressed up as stewardesses with Donald Sinden as a passenger. Then there's Flanders and Swann, an arrangement of "There's a Hole in my Bucket" or even in a tribute to their twin survival, Sondheim's "I'm Still Here".

I ask them what they don't like about their voices. "How long have you got?" says Flott. "I would like one of those beautiful voices... like the ones I find boring." Murray's response is even swifter. "From about bottom G to top C sharp. I think the softer I sing the 'prettier' it is... if you can't hear me at all it's wonderful." But hear it we will. Flott's worried she will cry on the night. The Proms don't have quite the same meaning for Murray because she's Irish, but she regards it as a great honour to be invited. After all, it's only the second time in the Proms' 102-year history that we've had a vocal double-act for the last night.

So who exactly will get to sing "Rule, Britannia!", the treasured solo spot in the midst of all the raucous community-singing that makes up the traditional finale to British music's annual Last Night jamboree? Typically, Flott and Murray will be sharing the verses between them, singing the first verse together, taking turns on verses two and three, and coming together again for the final sprint, with Murray on melody, Lott on descant.

"I think we should cultivate a huge rivalry," declares Flott. "The public is much more interested in fights between prima donnas than people who get on. 'Will they hit each other on stage?' " The chances of these two coming to blows is virtually non-existent. But anyone who has witnessed them tearing into the notorious "Cat Duet", or seen Murray demolishing 10-foot statues while singing "Rise Ye Furles From Babel's Abysses" in Xerxes or heard Flott's chilling, heartrending Governess in The Turn of the Screw will know that anything is possible.

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