Tuesday, 10 October 2017

John Tusa And Old Memories

There are times when you find yourself in the past in unlikely ways. On Sunday 8th October at 6.45 on Radio 3 I was spooked by John Tusa, a well known person high in standing, see Wikipedia etc., telling a personal tale. Over sixty years ago our paths crossed.

He is a few days older, and did his National Service at the same time as I did before university. We were in the Army in Germany and he was down the road at Celle. We both went to the Hannover State Opera House in this period. I saw "La Boheme" and "The Flying Dutchman" but unlike John was limited by time and cost.

He mentioned during the programme his visit to Kiel and that it was on a military exercise. I recall that one and our crossing the Kiel Canal. Also, there was a brief comment about the countryside adjacent to the River Elbe. He omitted to mention that on the other bank then were the forward units of the Soviet Third Shock Army, ready for the off.

I spent some days there monitoring signals along with others from The Royals, recently Prince Harry's regiment and The Cameronians, Glasgow and The Gorbals own, throwing empty beer bottles at them. There were a lot of bottles.

I doubt that John did that. But below is the programme note of the BBC for the broadcast.


John Tusa revisits the provincial German towns where as a 19-year-old national serviceman he first discovered opera in 1955 and finds out why, 62 years on, it's still thriving there.

Back then, he was based in the centre of the country, at the garrison in Celle. None of his fellow officers seemed to think it at all unusual when John vanished off from time to time to spend an evening in nearby Hanover glorying, for example, in the Verdian climaxes of what was billed as "Die Macht des Schicksals".

Though only when the orchestra struck up the opening bars of The Force of Destiny overture did John realise what he'd booked seats for! From Hanover, it's a 300-mile round trip to Essen, in the much-bombed Ruhr valley, but to enjoy the wonders of Mozart's Idomeneo, or to travel to the far north of the country to have his first ever taste of Wagner, it was worth it...

More than 60 years on, original programme pages in hand, John retraces those journeys to find out what makes German opera, outside the great houses of Berlin and Munich, tick. Because tick it certainly does.

Along the way, John meets the current "Intendants" (directors) of all three houses, their artistic directors and house singers. Today, still, Germany counts its opera houses in the dozens - as many as 80 or 90 of varying sizes - most with an ultra-loyal public who are happy to pay not-many euros to enjoy often world-class singing and playing.

So what's the trick? And - in the Facebook age - is the audience of young people shrinking? And what are the houses doing to counter that? Oh, yes: and at Hanover, John enjoys the latest Forza del Destino, while in Essen, it's still Mozart (Clemenza di Tito in 2017), and in Kiel, he catches up with Wagner - The Valkyrie.


John was lucky having a prosperous family so he was far from typical at that place at that time. Also, a Royal Artillery officer, but was he at Div. HQ, perhaps with the CRA? When by the Elbe did he ever come across a crew of rough types and join them in telling the Soviet's he would be in Berlin within the month?

I think we should be told.

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