You may have gathered that I work in a classical music store. Several months ago, I had a call from a woman who wished to order the Chandos Opera in English recording of The Makropulos Case, featuring Cheryl Barker and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. I asked to whom I should address it.
Ah, I thought. So you're the cover. And while in other circumstances, I'd welcome a chance to hear Anke Höppner, in this particular state of affairs, I've been very much hoping I wouldn't.
But it happened. I was slow to realise what was going on. The usual white slips of paper were in evidence everywhere, except, as it happened, my seat. But I saw a music stand and a chair set up at one side of the stage, and was suspicious. Then I noticed other people looking at their white slips. There was a whisper between an usher and a regular, eliciting a raised eyebrow. I craned to see one of the white slips, hoping against hope to see a boy's photo on it. To no avail. Couldn't see anything.
Out trotted Stuart Maunder. My heart sank, and sank a little further as he struck the fatal blow, with those two words — Cheryl Barker. And then the subsequent "severe cold". I eyed the door, wondered how clattery my heels were, upbraided myself for considering such an ungracious action as walking out, and stayed put. And then, the glimmer of hope, which the music stand should have suggested to me earlier: Cheryl wouldn't sing, but she would walk through the role. Anke would sing from the side. And I would spend an evening coming to terms with my own superficiality.
You see, the question is, if I feel utterly wretched at the prospect of no Cheryl at all, but significantly buoyed by the prospect of a silent Cheryl, what does that say about my priorities? As it happens, they're not quite so skewed as first I thought. Yes, there was still much to be thrilled by in a voiceless Cheryl, but the voice was indeed a notable absence: I do like her (even) better with it than without. Besides, I have heard her recording of this piece many, many times, and have already heard her sing it live twice, so even with Anke singing, I could still hear Cheryl, in a manner of speaking. And while it's true my eyes were upon her for every moment she was visible (how could they not be?) this is not mere smitten gazing — she's gorgeous, yes, but it's what she does that's so totally fascinating.
If there's a flicker of a silver lining to her indisposition, it's that her silence brought her non-vocal gifts into even sharper relief. She sang with somebody else's voice, but her physical acting was as strong and as convincing as ever. Perhaps even more so. Occasionally she mouthed her lines ahead of their place in the music, delivering replies as they might be timed in a spoken play. She played drunk better than ever, freedom from vocal concerns seemingly allowing her to throw herself into the physicality of it with gay abandon.
The final scene was strange indeed, since this staging has the ancient Emilia Marty Incarnate (Dinah Shearing) mouthing the words sung by a ghostly Emilia/Elina — and now she, in turn, was mouthing words sung by somebody else again. It's curiously fitting that a heroine as extraordinary as Emilia should require three women to play her. Though the situation was hardly ideal, the scene lost surprisingly little of its power. After all, the music (oh, such music...) was still the same. Cheryl still gave it her magnificent all, just silently. Anke sang it gorgeously. I cried more than on opening night.
Meanwhile, I still await a proper chance to hear Anke Höppner sing. This was a surreal way to do it: she sang in quite impressively, especially given the circumstances, but without the benefit of a rehearsal process, or of having really entered into Emilia's mind, her voice was just voice — lovely, but without much characterisation. And that's no criticism, because she could not be expected, nor was it her job, to create her own particular Emilia. Her performance was what it was, and for that, it was commendable. While I want no Emilia Marty but Cheryl's, tonight did raise a question — why isn't Anke Höppner singing for Opera Australia in her own right?
The next performance is in three days. Here's hoping Cheryl spends the interim mainlining chicken soup and healing rapidly. Once was an interesting experience, as a novelty. Next time, I want her back.