AND FINALLY… DONALD PLANGE, JP.ED.OP. FSRBR*, LEADING TENOR AND ONE MAN CULTURAL MONOLITH RECALLS HIS CAREER AND DESCRIBES HIS LOVE OF OPERA…
I am honoured to have been asked to share my experiences in the world of opera in this publication. Given my array of travels and performances I am only able to give you a light flouring of my life history. It would be a huge understatement to suggest that I merely love opera. It’s also not too far wrong to suggest opera loves me. At the age of 9 months I was taken to a quite stunning Pelleas und Melisande at St. Martins Lane, which took my breath away. I vividly recall sitting there motionless for 45 minutes after the end of the performance. I think that evening set the tone for the rest of my life. I would spend days on end tugging my mother’s apron strings begging her to put Glinka or Donizetti onto the gramophone around the clock rather than just the traditional hour after church on Sunday.
Childhood was a beautiful period of my life. Whilst friends would go to the Saturday Matinée at the local picture house I would sit alone smelling imaginary greasepaint and evenings would be spent with family debating the merits of Debussy, Offenbach and Strauss versus the shortcomings of Abbott, Costello, Formby, Askey and Burns. On other occasions I would disappear for hours on end taking my vocal chords through a punishing regime that would eventually produce a melodic explosion. One Christmas I received a Meccano set – which I disdainfully rejected – as all I had wanted was a five-hour Rossini symposium. The journey from then through to today has been an arduous one: a model scholar, an expert on opera, a brilliant tenor and one of Britain’s leading JPs. I admit to sometimes being baffled how I have achieved so much. Unsurprisingly it has not always been the smoothest of paths, indeed it was whilst at England’s finest university that I became secretary of Operasoc and realised that not everybody shared my passion. Our weekly get togethers would number about 10. On one occasion, ‘An Evening of Meyerbeer’ saw numbers rise exponentially, unbelievably though interest was minimal. At a low ebb I entertained the Dean at dinner who gave me his blessing for a mid course gap year to reinvigorate my operatic taste buds.
It was to South America that I travelled and within minutes of touching down I was offered a job as chief mediator in the Quito agricultural conflict. A week later with peace accomplished I was able to continue my travels, where I could focus on my passion. My tour of the continent was now at the expense of an eternally grateful President Velasco – a truly brilliant man who would look me up when he was in the Oxon area. Over a bottle of Punt e Mes he would, in vain, attempt to trump my operatic achievements with a succession of frankly unbelievable yarns. Even if Pavarotti had performed in Velasco’s billiard room it would have been knocked into a cocked hat by my one-man performance of The Electrification of the Soviet Union on a floating stage off Honshu.
My taste buds were re-aroused after my impromptu recital of Der Rosenkavalier to a group of Peruvian industrialists met with critical acclaim. Back at my hotel I was presented with a telegram. To my utter disbelief my presence had been requested in another part of the continent. It was the Argentinian Stevedores Association asking me to perform at their annual beano. Delibes is a challenge at the best of times, but translating it into a rare Patagonian dialect and then performing it at 48 hours notice is a feat beyond parallel. Nowadays my name only has to be mentioned in parts of Chubut or Rio Negro and a street party is a minute away. The highlight of the trip for many was my recital of selected pieces from The Magic Flute which drew gasps of admiration and demands for more, but given that this flamboyant performance took place whilst perched on a plateau 18,000 feet up Huascaran this was deemed impractical. Word had spread down though and our descent was met by expectant hordes. With a rope casually flung over one shoulder and still wearing crampons, I dazzled them with a fusion of early Purcell and Peruvian folk. A regular slot on Peru’s answer to Summertime Special had to be declined; there were my studies to consider and there were projects abundant. Performances continue to this day but I’m more than happy to step into the background and let others perform. I am multi stringed and on a midwinter break one year chanced upon the travelling Polperro Gay Appreciation Society who were performing a rather poor Beggars’. One of the troupe stood out though; he was impressive but needed coaching, so I worked tirelessly to promote him. I expected neither gratitude, money nor even the recognition I richly deserved but all I can say is that the journey from Cornwall to London WC2 would have been much harder without my contacts and knowledge. It had dawned on me that I could detect talent from over 15 furlongs. I used to find it faintly irritating when the press could not mention Bill Kenwright without the appendage ‘theatre impresario’, but after all these years of my magnificent work in an ambassadorial role it is satisfying, yet not entirely unexpected, to find the Fourth Estate referring to me as ‘The Opera Cognoscente Donald Plange JP’.
You may imagine that the marriage of a devotion to opera with the workload of a leading JP would be a monumental task. Not only do I manage this with great ease, I also have time for other interests and last week started a book on the history of Viticulture in Guam and, indeed, it is going to print as I write this. My mission from an early age was to spread the word and in the early 1980’s converted Frank Bruno, Noel Edmonds and Yootha Joyce whilst on BBC2’s A Round with Alliss. Extraordinarily, 18 years later, I swear I saw Bruno queuing up at the Keith Prowse ticket booth for an afternoon performance of The Trojans at the ENO. I have also heard that Peter Alliss gets quite irate if there are no nearby operatic performances that he can stroll along to during rain affected golf tournaments.
For years acquaintances would say “Donald, your devotion to the cause is verging on sheer lunacy” and I realised that they were right; I was ambling along the corridor of uncertainty unable to turn off. It was too late – I was an operaholic.
One afternoon I had witnessed a feeble defence, a dull prosecution and far too much legal wrangling. The recorder was an imbecile and I had a wish to be elsewhere. I glanced at my watch and abruptly bought proceedings to a halt. I’m afraid to say that I decided some poor chap’s future on the mental toss of a coin. Before my gavel had come to rest I was scampering to my beloved and beautifully restored Ford Prefect. Six hours and twenty minutes later and I was in Milan, La Scala to be exact, for the opening night of L’Arlesiana.
No more than 4 minutes into the performance, pandemonium erupted as Federico had suddenly developed a nasty case of the vocal yips. Various attempts to wake the understudy proved futile. Luckily for the ticket holders I had been spotted in my private box, the packed house urged me to save the day by chanting the now very familiar “Plangissimo, Plangissimo, Plangissimo”. Reluctantly I agreed and bought the house down with a performance of slide rule accuracy (I later found out that reports in the Milanese press had described my performance “As delicious as dining on Gravadlax on the banks of the Po in springtime”). As a gesture for saving the entire production I was presented with a barometer made from the finest Elban sycamore and to my disbelief, an engraved Umbrian toast rack. If that wasn’t gratitude enough I was further flabbergasted to receive a silver hip flask depicting St. Bonifacio (the patron saint of Candelabrum repairers) skinning a mountain goat. Miraculously, Il Claque waived their usual fee too, only asking for 40 million lira.
I was asked to stay for the entire season but was conscious of being needed around the Didcot region the following day. Before my departure I presented the staff of La Scala with a mahogany, hand carved scale model of the Pompidou Centre that I had knocked up whilst stuck in traffic near Strasbourg.
Inevitably, within days of arriving home I had letters of adulation from all four corners of the globe. Offers from the media also flooded in. Richard Whiteley sent a personal letter offering me a three week stint in Dictionary Corner as cover for Susan Hampshire, though it didn’t appeal. I was very tempted by a television commercial voice-over for Britain’s leading brand of canine flea-powder, though its acceptance would’ve been JP suicide.
My decision to avoid these media opportunities was thoroughly vindicated. An historic evening in Scotland would never have taken place had I been thumbing a dictionary in search of a 9 letter word. The month; October. The place; Edinburgh, the ticket queue stretching as far back as Arthur’s Seat. My name in lights, performing the lead role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Nearing the end of the performance my eye was drawn towards a figure being led to the front of the auditorium whom I recognised instantly as Norris McWhirter. It didn’t take my genius to work out the purpose of Norris’ visit. I finished with a flourish and stood back – a standing ovation of over 4 hours and 7 minutes had yet again taken me into the record books (beating the previous record set by Roger de Courcey in Weston-super-Mare by over 14 minutes). The stage could easily have been mistaken for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and momentarily, I was convinced I was the eighth Wonder of the World. One thing was sure, my performance had secured comfortable early retirement for the majority of Edinburgh-based florists.
I see myself as a blood brother to Monteverdi. We were both massively influenced by Peri’s Euridice and we both got to the top of our professions whilst having a keen ear for a jaunty madrigal. Some of mine have been performed on the not unheard of Oxon Players circuit. It is no surprise that Artsworld and The Performance Channel are engaged in a bitter bidding war to secure the broadcasting rights. It appears that a bread and butter tenor merely drives viewing figures but the brilliant tenor maketh the entire channel.
Being so fortunate I do like to do my bit for charity although I tend to keep this under wraps. Recently I led the fundraising for the Headington Rotarians Roof Appeal. I performed a quite staggering ‘Carmen Cornucopia’ and whilst it is not often that I shell out personal praise, I was simply stunning. As an added extra I invite the audience to ‘Challenge Plange’. They asked me to perform the second act in Norsk and although this is not my mother tongue, it happens to be one of fourteen languages that I’m fluent in. I handled the request beautifully but given that my expertise leans more towards Buffa than Comique, it made the performance truly unique. In fact, had it not been for a rerun of the unfortunate Exxon-Valdez mishap, we would’ve had coverage on Channel Four News – presumably the feel-good factor end piece. I was momentarily downcast until the local evening paper was thrust into my hand; The Oxfordshire Evening Post had questioned the purpose of it all, “another performance like that from Plange will leave Headington House requiring yet another roof!!”. It also described the evening as “an uncommonly heroic performance that possibly only Plange could handle. As ever, Plange performed with the strength of an ox, the heart of a lion and the energy of Korbut. Great things are destined for this Valentino doppelgänger”
Great things have indeed materialised, but not all in the public eye. One particular rendition of “Nessun Dorma” remains as fresh in the memory as a day old leveret. The fact that it took place on a landslide-delayed train from Princes Risborough to Marylebone does not dilute the euphoria. The New Seekers told us over 30 years ago that they would “like to teach the world to sing” – I’m not sure what time frame they had on it but all I can say is that on completion, I would expect at least my fair share of the credit.
Although not a formality it is also very likely that I’ll win the Headington and District (inc. Banbury) Opera Quiz Ladder. That’ll be 4 years undefeated, so yes, opera has given me a great deal. Even though I have repaid that debt many times over, you won’t find me resting on my laurels. Hell will freeze over before that happens.
I have also written many books on Jazz. I do prefer Jazz.
* FSRBR – Fellow of the Royal Society of Brass Rubbing