I spent most of this afternoon reading tenor Christopher Gillett's very funny book, Who's My Bottom? I will confess that I retain a slight – and no doubt old fashioned – wariness of self published books, the product of a life spent in bookshops fending off productions which more than justify the term "vanity publishing" – but in this case I had no such suspicions. I knew Gillett's writing from his blog – this post, in particular, was one of those "thank you for writing down all my own thoughts so articulately" moments – and I knew the book must be good, because ever since its publication, my Twitter feed has been full of people whose tastes I trust relating the guffaws it had given them.
Now, I am very very good indeed at intending to read books, and very very bad at obtaining and reading them, so not surprisingly, hadn't got around to acquiring this one. However, I recently risked bringing shame upon my family of Book People and had Santa bring me a Kindle for Christmas. Do I feel guilty? A little, but I have to be honest, it's almost obscenely convenient, and it has definitely made the leap from "I Want" to "I Own" a whole lot shorter. This afternoon it occured to me to wonder whether Who's My Bottom? (which I seem determined to type as "Where's My Bottom?", a Freudian slip I'd really rather not investigate) was available for Kindle, and ten minutes later, 'twas mine.
The book is essentially a series of brief and hilarious glimpses of behind-the-scenes madness in the opera world. Not necessarily grand scale madness, but just the sort of absurdities, eccentricities and frustrations which every singer runs into, but which few, I suspect, would have the talent to do justice on paper. Gillett, however, has just that talent. He's honest – about himself as much as anybody or anything else – but not bitchy; he names just enough names (and places) that a cursory Google will find you the specifics (if you need them); and above all he's very, very funny. And while I've only spent a year involved in this side of the business – and indirectly at that – I can tell you that most of Gillett's stories had me grinning (or grimacing) in recognition. It really is like this, or at least it can be.
The title, by the way, is (if you hadn't guessed it already) a reference to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Gillett has made the role of Flute in that opera something of a signature part, and indeed anecdotes from various Dream productions abound – including reports from a recent-ish Madrid production, which frame the book as a whole. In fact, parallels between Flute and Gillett himself become a motif, not to mention a running joke. (He does seem to have spent a lot of his early career in drag.)
Lest this blog post grow longer than the book itself, I'll start stopping now, but you'll have gathered in any case that this is a recommendation. There are plenty of tell-all books about opera, but a lot of them come with an agenda, and many are rather dated by now – Frances Alda's catty memoir is hilarious but probably not massively reflective of today's opera business...although then again... Anyway, the point is, this isn't really a tell-all book, so much as a tell-some-and-funnily book, and a very witty – if, alas, all too fleeting – insight into what goes on behind the curtains and out of earshot.
Oh, and a couple of side notes for Australian opera types: the Bottom Christopher meets in the book's opening pages is of course none other than our own Conal Coad, and we know from OA's production how perfect he is in that role; and while his name doesn't come up in descriptions of the nudity-laced rehearsals, Rosa, a Horse Opera also numbered one Lyndon Terracini among its cast.