Gillian Keith Soprano

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Best Foot Forward

Last week I sang two concerts standing on one leg.  Sounds like a crazy idea from an ambitious choreographer, or an opera director breaking barriers of convention.  But alas, it was out of necessity that I performed with a pair of crutches and only one foot on the ground.

Gillian Keith sings Handel with Arcangelo at Hampton Court Palace, September 2014 - photograph by  Ellie Kurttz  © Historic Royal Palaces

Gillian Keith sings Handel with Arcangelo at Hampton Court Palace, September 2014 – photograph by Ellie Kurttz © Historic Royal Palaces

A fluke accident at home is to blame – an innocent looking jar candle broke as I was doing some tidying, its bottom glass disc falling without warning on the top of my foot, and severing the tendon (extensor hallucis longus!) attached to my big toe.  Quite a feat for this seemingly innocuous ‘Scented Candle Jar’, which ‘adds a distinctive and pleasant aroma to your room as well as being an attractive ornament and a useful jar once burnt out’. I’m sure I never got my promised 120 hours of burning time, but I won’t let that snuff out my spark!

I have been sewn back together by the good doctors, but I am on crutches for 3 weeks. Footstools and cushions are now dotted around the house, and the stairs are dust-free since I brush them down with my backside (the safest and most efficient way of descending our narrow staircase) several times a day.  I have developed ingenious solutions for getting my mug of tea from kitchen counter to coffee table, for getting sweaters down from the high shelf in the wardrobe, and for hanging out sheets on the clothesline.  Of course I have lots of help, but my fierce independence makes me determined to do everything myself!

When it comes to singing, however, I’m on my own. Last weekend I performed Handel’s Silete venti, his beautiful motet for solo soprano, with the excellent orchestra Arcangelo at a special outdoor event in the Privy Gardens at Hampton Court Palace. A wonderfully apt setting for the text ‘Offer garlands, offer blossoms, Crown me with your honours’. At over 25 minutes in length and culminating in a florid and technically demanding Alleluia, this piece is not one that is tossed off lightly even in normal circumstances.  So how does it work on one leg without proper grounding? Surprisingly well, I found.  It’s not ideal positioning, but it’s amazing what the body does to compensate.  I find all of my other instincts are working overtime to support in any way they can.  I suppose it’s a bit like a director asking you to sing your big aria lying down. I’m using extra strength in my good leg to support my body weight, and the need for extra support seems to kick my breathing mechanism into high gear. My upper body responds by opening up as much as possible, and most importantly, my arms, even holding my crutches, are in a still and neutral position, not hampering my breath or posture in any way.  I admit that I am often one to hold tension in my shoulders and neck, and to move my upper body unnecessarily whilst singing, so this is proving to be a good lesson in standing still!

Concert number two (Music in the Village, Walthamstow) was less of a struggle, since in the role of the Angel in a scene from Handel’s Jeptha, I was only singing for 5 minutes. And by this time I had clued into the fact that it’s easier to move around on stage in trousers than it is in a floor-length gown!  But I admit I did find it difficult to command my desired level of authority as I sang out my decree “withhold the slaughterous hand!” propped up on a pair of NHS-issue walking sticks.

What’s the next step for this sore-footed soprano? I’ve got a mountain of music to memorise, a script to be edited for my next big project (a programme of words and music about Debussy), and liner notes to proofread for my upcoming CD release. Fortunately I can do most of this from a comfy chair in the garden.  But these feet are itchy to get back to life as normal, and to be planted firmly on the ground.