Opera Now's Montblanc competition winner
9 October 2013
Opera Now readers were invited to write a short account of an experience of opera that has made a lasting and inspirational impression on them. Opera Now’s judges were struck by Chris Berentson’s atmospheric account of how Puccini’s La bohème continues to influence his life and career. Mr Berentson wins our prize of a beautiful, precision-made Montblanc Meisterstück LeGrand Ball Point pen.
Winter Garret by Chris Berentson
The snap of dry twigs beneath our feet and the smell of eucalyptus: it was the wintery late-night prelude of a fellow student tenor and I approaching my flat. Inside, it was considerably warmer, especially once the whisky was found, and the promised favourite recording of all time featuring Robert Merrill, Victoria De Los Angeles and our idol, the incomparable Jussi Björling, was on the CD player. With the opening salvo of double-basses and trombones crashing through the speakers in mono, my mind went back four years to my first experience of the piece that was to change my life.
It was 1999, and I had stepped off the plane in Sydney from my native New Zealand, to find a job and learn to be a singer. I took lodgings in a backpackers’ hostel near the beach and worked in a department store unloading boxes. Ten minutes’ walk away was my singing teacher’s studio and after some days of singing on the beach, she gave me her keys so I could practise after work.
In the warm dusk one evening, having finished my scales and arias (and resisting the call of the watering-holes of my workmates), I wandered up the steps of the Sydney Opera House with the magnificent harbour glistening below; I stood under her sails to find a spur-of-the moment ticket for La bohème.
What struck most in the theatre that evening was the directness of the music, its endless striving to reconcile art and life, and the tragic story of ordinary people attempting the extraordinary. In that cold student garret, Puccini summed up all the real experiences of being a young artist: poetry, painting, wine, laughter, love, song. Of course, straight away you realise that this is a romantic account; being poor, ill-clothed and sick is a terrible existence. Yet as the young, impoverished poet Rodolfo sings, ‘E come vivo? Vivo!’ (How do I live? I live!), anything seems possible. Such was the singer’s conviction that night, I knew that I had finally found what I had to do with my life. His words still resound in my ears.
Chris Berentson is a New Zealand-based tenor who has performed a wide variety of roles in opera and oratorio.