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2004-07-20 `Cover' stands by as tenor splutters his way through role in 20th century opera

I stood in the wings, on `Emergency stand-by', fully costumed and made-up. I gazed open-mouthed as the singer soldiered on, spluttering his way through the role. Fully prepared and in good voice, I was itching to jump in to save the day. However, the English tenor I was `covering' knew that if I went on, he would have to forfeit his extremely generous fee  to me!

 

As the cast took their curtain-calls, I sat crestfallen backstage, erasing my disguise with a make-up wipe. The following day a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape arrived at my hotel room, thanking me for standing by so heroically. I don't drink red wine.

 

My initial job with Music International Agency in London had been to understudy the tenor in a 20th century opera called "La Dueña" by Gerhard. I did get to perform on the vast stage of the Opera Liceu in Barcelona, as house policy allowed the `covers' to give a recital to an invited and packed house. I had been warned that continental audiences boo if they don't like what they hear coming from the stage. As I walked out onto the expansive lonely stage towards the giant Steinway grand, the same platform Carreras, Caballé and many others call their home, I sensed 6000 Spanish eyes daring me to draw breath and open my throat. This unknown Irish singer performed arias by Gounod, Verdi and Tchaikovsky, and wasn't booed, even receiving a few `Bravos'. Tragically, the Liceu was gutted by fire in 1994. All that remains is it's façade, with a newly revamped, even plusher interior.

My first foreign opera contract meant that I spent nine weeks in one of the world's most unique, dynamic and strangely beautiful cities. When I think of Barcelona, I see it divided in two  the Gothic Quarter including the Cathedral, government buildings and the Plaça Reial with it's emblematic archway cafés, and on the other hand Barcelona's hallmark Gaudi architecture.

In 1992, Barcelona's Olympic year, I was put up in a room with a roof terrace in the Hotel Gaudi just off the Ramblas  the city's main artery, alive with cafés, newsagent kiosks, stalls selling birds, animals and flowers, and an assortment of buskers ranging from marble statues which wink as you pass by to a transexual Flamenco dancer shamelessly employing his elderly mother to gather the pesetas (now cents). Barcelona is all about the old and the new. The port is perhaps the biggest and busiest in Europe, and whilst the old port is still in operation, the new one boasts a dramatic flyover, a vast aquarium and a posh shopping centre. At the port end of the Ramblas, a monument to Columbus commemorates his visit to the city after his triumphant return from the Americas, whilst at the other end, the bustling Plaça Catalunya displays the city's less pleasing modernity. It is somehow acceptable in this fabulously crazy city to catch a funicular up to the Sacred Heart Temple with it's ensuite funfair on Mount Tibidabo.

The world's first and finest Picasso museum is in the old city, and yet, when you think of Barcelona it is not Picasso you think of, but rather Gaudi whose indelible stamps are left scattered throughout the Catalunyan capital. The Passeig de Gràcia's Batlló and Milà houses are perfect examples of Gaudi's unique style. The trademark Sagrada Familia was begun in 1883 and remains unfinished. An exhorbitant entrance fee helps pay the brickies realise Gaudi's dream. Eighteen ornate towers represent the Apostles, Evangelists, Jesus and Mary. Each tower's perfect staircase spirals to it's pinnacle - if you are afraid of heights, this is your Room 101. This `closet sky-diving steeplejack' witnessed the awe-inspiring views from the top. Another dream of Gaudi's was to construct an architectural space in communion with nature, a sort of garden town. Again unfinished, Parc Güell is nonetheless his magnum opus. This people's park houses a chamber with 100 columns, colourful mosaic ceiling features, waterfalls, dragons and balconies, as well as some houses in a Gaudi gingerbread style.

The richly decorated Unesco World Heritage Palau de la Música Catalana is a stunningly ornamental and harmonious concert hall with a heavy emphasis on the patron saint of Catalunya  Saint George, the dragon-killer. The castle, gardens, fountains, museum and Olympic Stadium at Montjuic are hugely impressive. All in all  a city with shockingly contrasting faces, needing many return visits.