How I got my arias kicked on TV

With the return of 'Maestro' to the BBC, Tom Latchem has a go, with other celebs, at conducting a Puccini aria

Imagine finding yourself standing at the Royal Opera House in front of a full orchestra, with the eyes of more than 100 world-class musicians staring intently at you, looking for some – any – kind of direction. Dressed in a penguin suit and holding a thin white baton, it's clear you're supposed to be conducting. There's just one problem: you don't know your arse from your arias.

If that sounds like a bad dream, you're wrong. It was, for me, horribly, painfully, real. Bluntly, I don't "do" classical music. Apart from playing the cello for one year when I was 10, my knowledge of the genre is the square root of diddly-squat. My favourite band is The Stone Roses and I used to be a hardcore raver. And, while appreciating classical music can be beautiful, I couldn't think of anything worse than sitting through a stuffy old opera.

Which made it something of a surprise when I was rung by a contact working on the new BBC series Maestro – in which celebs, who in the past have included comedian Sue Perkins and newsreader Katie Derham, compete to conduct an orchestra – and asked if I fancied giving it a go.

They must have been desperate and I must have been drunk; I said yes. I'm not quite sure why I agreed. I certainly didn't realise the magnitude of what I was letting myself in for. But always game for a laugh, I got dressed up and trotted off to the Royal Opera House, where I was told I was going to be given basic training.

This consisted of listening to what I was to conduct, and being told how to move my hands by Principal Percussionist Nigel Bates. The aria I was handed was "O Mio Babbino Caro", from Puccini's 1918 opera Gianni Schicchi. I had to make six movements with my right hand, with the sixth going upwards, while bringing the opera singer in with my left. I'd never heard it before. "Keep it simple," Mr Bates told me helpfully. No chance of that, Nige, but I'll do my best.

Next we got a five-minute "masterclass" from Sir Mark Elder, one of the country's leading conductors. An eccentric English gentlemen, he has conducted The Last Night of the Proms several times. Hugely impressive, Sir Mark explained how top conductors are believed to have not one auditory vortex like normal humans, but two, meaning they can hear different noises from around the room. Which is all well and good, but I can barely keep my concentration listening to one person talking.

I was led to the Royal Opera House's main rehearsal room, and beckoned in for my turn. It was then that the scale of my stupidity hit home. If I could have turned round and run, I would have. But with the doors blocked by orchestra staff, I had to – literally – face the music. There sat a full orchestra waiting for little old me. Bless them, they gave me a round of applause as I took to the platform.

"You're too kind," I said. "Literally." It got some laughs and broke the ice. I picked up the baton and frantically waved it in the six-beat motion Mr Bates had taught me, and – what... the... hell – the orchestra started playing the song as I had heard it on the CD 10 minutes previously. "Maybe I am good at this," I thought, starting to get into it. "Maybe I do have some musical talent." I smiled to myself as the nerves started to dissipate. "Stop! Stop! Stop!" boomed Sir Mark, shattering my illusions. "You forgot to bring the singer in! Start again!" Ohhhh... that's who the pretty, petite brunette standing to my right was. I probably should have guessed. "How do I know when to do that, Sir Mark?" I asked, desperately seeking a little guidance. "That's your problem, mate," he cackled, as my heart sank further. I started again.

Again, I messed it up, this time losing track of timing – but the orchestra kindly ignored my direction and continued regardless. Only it wasn't over, and five minutes later I was made to do it again, with the orchestra under strict instructions to follow my every movement. I sheepishly made my way back to the podium – no applause this time – and said: "I don't know why they've asked me to do this again." To which a chippy violinist piped up to uproarious laughter: "It's because you were so good last time." Quick as a flash, I replied: "That's enough cheek from you, I'm the boss here." They laughed. If only my musical talent was anywhere near as good as my ability to be a cocky little so-and-so.

So, I tried for a third time – which, if possible, was a bigger shambles than the previous two attempts. I lost timing, forgot to bring in the singer, and this time the orchestra did not follow me – making an appalling racket. But I struggled through and soon – somehow – it was over. I left the podium to polite, if markedly less enthusiastic, applause while breathing a huge sigh of relief. Then it was the turn of the celebrities – Strictly Come Dancing's Craig Revel Horwood, DJ Trevor Nelson, comic Josie Lawrence and TV mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. We were shown how it was meant to sound by Sir Mark, whose performance left me speechless – not a common occurrence.

Hearing live the power and majesty of a top-class orchestra sent shivers down my spine. In fact, the whole experience had such a profound impact on me that when I got home my mind was racing and I couldn't sleep until the early hours. The celebs, who signed up for the show several weeks earlier, were better than I had been.

Afterwards, I asked Sir Mark whether I had a future as a conductor. "You have very little talent for becoming a conductor, and no ability as a musician, so you should stay off the podium." He was right; if I had a day job, I wouldn't be handing in my notice any time soon – even though, if I say so myself, I do look quite natty in a penguin suit.

Tom Latchem is a freelance writer and broadcaster. 'Maestro at the Opera' starts this Friday at 9pm on BBC2

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - London - £40K plus benefits - Salary negotiable

£38000 - £40000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: A leading consu...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor