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
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