What If There Is No Fat Lady?

No Fat Ladies HereHow many times have you heard someone tell you that it isn’t over until the fat lady has sung? I’ll be honest, I’ve never really known where that expression originated. I’ve always assumed it was opera related and something everyone knew via osmosis.

Why am I admitting this to you? Well, I thought I would tell you because I’ve just spent some time Googling it because I considered it for the title of this post and wanted to know what it meant. Whilst the phrase does indeed make reference to an opera; Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the “fat lady” is the valkyrie Brünnhilde and her final aria at almost 20 minutes pretty much draws the epic to a close.

What was surprising, to me, is that the phrase was only attributed to someone in 1976, not as old as I imagined it to be. It was coined by a Ralph Carpenter during a ladies basketball match. In a bit of a twist, a 1976 booklet, Southern Words and Sayings by Fabia Rue Smith and Charles Rayford Smith, includes the saying “Church ain’t out ‘till the fat lady sings,” perhaps an origin in Southern America proverbial lore?

Not that it really matters, it was because I was thinking of the first time I went to the opera that the phrase popped into my head, setting off the educational half hour section of this post. I had only been in London a few months when I splurged £50 on a ticket to see Carmen at London’s Earls Court. It was 1989, £50 was not far off a week’s wage at the time.

What I can tell you however is it was worth the money, or what I saw of it was at least. I do recall going for a meal, drinking a bottle of wine and then dozing off shortly after I sat down, I had a 20 minute ‘nap’ before the lady next to me woke me up explaining, “It didn’t seem fair for you to spend all that money and sleep through it.” It’s possible I was snoring and she was just being polite but no matter, I may have missed a bit but the event was fantastic and ensured that opera would be something I would see more of.

Growing up I’ve often claimed my Italian ancestry gives me a natural inclination for Italian things. I don’t know why I ever said that given I can’t speak let alone sing Italian, don’t possess the smouldering good looks normally associated with Italian men and whilst my homemade pasta sauce is OK, it wouldn’t have Luigi quaking in his boots.

BrunnhildeI do however love opera, which seems to be considered an Italian ‘thing’. If I had to pick a favourite I guess I’d say Rigoletto but I’d really be hoping you wouldn’t make me choose just one. Living in London I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few performances, occasionally at the Royal Opera House but more often than not at the ENO’s Coliseum.

What I really appreciated as a wet behind the ears 17 year old was the fact that all of the ENO’s productions are sung in English. Removing a bit of that stigma that opera is elitist and posh. Sadly ticket prices ensure that stigma remains however whether you listen in English or the opera’s native tongue.

There’s no production of Rigoletto at the Coliseum until February 2014 (tickets go on sale in June so get in quick!)  but what they are currently showing is Puccini’s mesmerizingly beautiful La Bohème. From what I can gather Jonathan Miller capture’s 1930’s Paris accurately in this adaptation of what was originally a book and play by Henry Mürger. If you have a chance and a few quid, go see it. To give you a taster, here’s a video I found on the ENO’s site.

Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO has quickly become a company classic and here receives its second revival since its 2009 premiere. Inspired by Brassaï’s photographs of the Paris Left Bank in the 1930s, Miller modernises the original bohemian setting to evoke the stark poverty of the day, creating a highly effective contemporary resonance, citing the film Withnail and I as an inspiration. Playing Mimì is Kate Valentine, who in recent seasons has played the Countess in Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro and an ‘excellent’ (The Times) Helena in Christopher Alden’s Olivier Award-nominated A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gwyn Hughes Jones returns to the role of Rodolfo following his great success in ENO’s 2010 production, and recent acclaimed Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly.

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