After my post about A Room With a View and the Puccini aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” the fabulous Architect Design and I exchanged a few personal recollections about soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. When I mentioned to him that I had pictures of Te Kanawa that I had taken in 1992, it occurred to me that my loyal readers might enjoy the tale of my summer at the Proms. For those who don’t know, the Proms is shorthand for The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC. The Proms is an eight-week classical music festival held at Royal Albert Hall in London. With over 70 concerts each year, the Proms is an amazing place to hear the world’s greatest orchestras, conductors, and soloists.
On my first trip to London in 1989, I managed to get to a concert by the venerable Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust with Anne-Sofie von Otter, Jose van Dam and conductor Sir Georg Solti. It was a fantastic concert but what always seems to pop up from my memories of that night is the fact that before the concert I tripped and fell flat on my face in front of hundreds of people. Thankfully I was unhurt and I never saw those hundreds of people again.
In 1992 when I was working in London I got a half-season pass for the Proms so I could go to as many concerts as I wanted to over the final four weeks of the eight-week period. The thing about the Proms is that they have two rather large areas for standing room, the entirety of the circular main floor and the very top gallery. Those who want the main floor (the Arena) stand in one queue, and those that want the gallery queue in another. At the time the cost of a single Promenade ticket was about £2—a steal even by 1992 standards. The other thing to know about the Proms is that various self-selecting groups among the rabble who take standing room places on the floor and gallery often breakout with witty comments that they annunciate loudly to the rest of the auditorium before the concert and during the interval. Unfortunately, I think I only ever understood what they were saying once. They also make sound effects whenever the grand piano is raised up onto the stage.
Over the course of the season I heard an amazing array of concerts by an even more amazing array of orchestras, Cleveland, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, London, Royal Phil, BBC, City of Birmingham, BBC Welsh, and the list goes on. But the cultural highlight of the season, if not musical highlight, is the Last Night at the Proms. The program is heavy on light music with a decidedly British emphasis and rowdy renditions of “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen”. Thankfully this American knew the words to each of these patriotic chestnuts and was able to join in with just as much enthusiasm as the Brits and Commonwealthers who surrounded me. I found out later from those watching on telly that I was on camera a fair amount. Years later I managed to procure a video of that evening and I am indeed quite clearly on camera singing my heart out, but looking rather grim at the same time.
So what does all of this have to do with Kiri Te Kanawa? Well the Last Night of the Proms always features a vocal soloist and in 1992, that turned out to be Dame Kiri. I was in the equivalent of about row seven so I had a fantastic view of her. It was kind of a full circle moment for me. One of the earliest manifestations of my Anglophilia was getting up at 3:00 AM when I was 12 years old to watch Charles and Diana get married. As I am sure all of you know, Te Kanawa sang at the wedding and so began my fascination with her career. That twelve year-old boy in Elk River, Minnesota sitting alone watching the wedding in the wee hours would have never imagined that eleven years later he would actually be living in London seeing Kiri Te Kanawa in person at the Royal Albert Hall.
If you don’t have at least a half-season ticket to the Proms, you have to enter into a lottery to gain entrance to the final night. Since I had a half-season I cleared that hurdle. But then you still need to queue up the day of the concert to make sure you get a good spot (or get in at all). I arrived at 6:43 AM and placed my name on the queue list, which allows you a certain amount of freedom of movement throughout the day without losing your place in line. This is a fuzzy, pre-digital photo, but here is the list where I am number 130.
Here I am with my Union Jack at the start of the Arena queue.
The hall before the performance.
The hall once everyone got inside.
Kiri in dress number one – in which she sang arias from operas by Massenet.
Kiri in dress number two, decidedly showing her commonwealth and Kiwi pride. She sang the verses on Rule Britannia.
The post concert aftermath.