This one is different. I’ve encountered memoirs written by artists I’ve respected from afar often created with the help of a ghost-writer.
But Chris Cameron’s Dr Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life, perhaps a bit like Chris Cameron himself, doesn’t conform to usual expectations.
This is not the story of a big star, at least not if you believe the humble words of Mr Cameron. One of the most refreshing things about this book is the absence of a self-congratulatory tone, replaced by a nuts and bolts approach.
No this is not a triumphalist account painted in primary colours. We’re in a world of real people, presented warts & all. The author is front and centre without pretense, a likable fellow telling a fascinating story– his own — while commenting on the business.
The devout followers of Canadian opera likely would undertake reading this book even if it weren’t wonderful, insightful, fun, and well-written. But this is not a ghost-written book where the author is barely discernible. I don’t think we usually talk about the writing ability displayed by an opera singer, especially when there are great ghost writers around (although sadly dear Donald Arthur –who co-wrote memoirs of Astrid Varnay, Hans Hotter, Lotfi Mansouri & James King—has passed away). I inhaled this book, partly because I was interested in the material, mostly because it flows.
As a memoir of someone close to my age if not quite contemporary, I recognize many of the names he mentions. Yes there are other memoirs of this period – for instance two that I’ve reviewed here, Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey & Stuart Hamilton’s Opening Windows—but they are of an older generation. Cameron is still relatively young even if he no longer sings.
It needs to be said that Cameron can write. Oh sure, the other books are readable. But Cameron is not just recounting a series of anecdotes, not just taking us through his resume. We’re hearing an account of a life, with a consistent & original philosophy, punctuated by some edgy commentary. But let me put it out there, that Chris Cameron is a good writer with lots to say above and beyond recounting his life-story. I flew through the book, breathless to be reminded of so many familiar names & scenes.
And Cameron is full of lessons for any artist. But you won’t be hearing anything that sounds like the career advice of a brown-noser. Cameron boldly goes where no singer has gone before, as far as I can recall, even if he has good things to say about everyone. I love when he’s reporting his nervous internal monologue while freaking out in sheer terror of the challenging first notes he’d sing as bass soloist in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that I laughed out loud. There and elsewhere, this is a fun book from an affable artist without bitterness, yet still more than a little bemusement at what a strange world we live in. Cameron is a frequent observer of the absurdity of the business, especially the Canadian version.
I would recommend Dr Bartolo’s Umbrella to the young singers I know who are considering a career, even if the world he describes has largely vanished. A question I keep asking myself is whether one can still have a career in opera. Oh sure, if you have a magnificent voice, fine. But what if you’re not very tall, and always cast as the old man even in your mid-20s? We go through many fascinating stages in his career, including the poignant moments towards the end when he recognizes he has had enough. His simple eloquence will surely speak to anyone who has ever performed.
In passing Cameron is writing a history of the musical scene, reminding us of the Festival Singers, the beginning of Ontario Place, of Tapestry (before they started doing modern opera), the early days of the Ensemble Studio under Lotfi Mansouri, encounters with Seiji Ozawa, Andrew Davis, Ben Heppner, Elmer Iseler, James Craig plus many more artists both well-known and obscure. Being a crazy opera nerd I devoured it without any signs of indigestion.
I believe Dr Bartolo’s Umbrella could be a fun first look into the world of opera & classical music for those who don’t know anything about opera, educational without being solemn or academic. There’s a welcome absence of technical jargon, and a directness that makes for a fun read. It’s a pleasure to encounter something in the language of a real person, an artist without a phony bone in his body.
And if you know some of the names, so much the better.