Keith Hann: chilled opera buff

Keith Hann in his "Centre of Mediocrity"

Keith Hann in his “Centre of Mediocrity”

If you ever want an expert in opera, frozen foods and idiosyncratic PR, Keith Hann’s your man. He wrote The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera and is PR for Iceland Foods (you might have seen him in BBC  Two’s ‘Life in the Freezer Cabinet’).

The Bluffer's Guide to Opera

“What utter bollocks, do you fancy a pint?” A fair response to some productions, according to Keith Hann.

Keith describes himself as “the most honest man in PR” and has a notice tacked to his door at Iceland declaring his office the ‘Centre of Mediocrity’. His highly entertaining website flouts marketing’s positive thinking mantra at every turn. His company motto is ‘Like we care’, he has a page where he lists ‘Things we are really good at’ and ‘Things we can just about manage’, and he says that despite being based on a bleak Northumberland hilltop, staffed almost entirely by infants and Border terriers, his consultancy charges “popular* City of London prices”.

We’re having a bit of an opera moment at Chickentown Radio right now, so we invited Keith in the other week to hear some of his favourite moments from opera and to discover if his views on opera are as bracing as his approach to PR. Which they are, it turns out.

Two loathsome characters, one divine song

To start us off, Keith chooses ‘Pur ti miro’, the concluding duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi. “This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written,” says Keith. “It was written in 1642 shortly after the birth of opera. Unlike most human activities, you can date the start of opera to 6 March 1637 when the first opera house opened in Venice.”

“It’s sung by two of the most loathsome characters, Nero and Poppea, but I think this is one of the highlights of the whole operatic canon.”

Matchless entertainment

Keith’s first experience of opera was at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle when he was just a lad. “Watching a 20 stone woman pretending to die of tuberculosis in La Traviata was one of the most moving and entertaining experiences I’ve ever had.”

And today? “I still think opera is the most supremely involving art form,” says Keith. “It can always take me out of myself. The technical expertise of being able to fill a theatre with a voice unamplified is utterly amazing. And if it all comes together with sets, costumes and orchestra, it’s a matchlessly wonderful form of entertainment.”

Skulduggery at the opera

Keith is a huge Handel fan. “I like all of Handel’s operas, and he wrote over 40 of them,” he says. “If I was going on Desert Island Discs, I could easily choose Handel operas for all eight pieces. This aria –  ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ from Giulio Cesare – is a particularly beautiful bit of music from one of his greatest operas.”

Here, Tolomeo, the King of Egypt, has subtly threatened Caesar, who responds by saying that the cunning hunter moves silently and steathily. He’ll be on guard against any skulduggery that Tolomeo has planned.

This aria was originally written for a castrato, like many of the principal parts in Handel’s operas. “But unfortunately there’s rather a shortage of those these days, so they tend to use counter tenors or mezzo sopranos instead,” explains Keith.

The misunderstood art form

We talk about the most common misconceptions about opera that tend to put people off. “People think it’s going to be dull, which it very rarely is, although it can be achieved if you work hard at it,” says Keith.  “People think it’s going to be expensive, which it often is, although it doesn’t have to be. You can go and see world class opera at Covent Garden for a few pounds if you don’t mind standing up. They also think it’s terribly high brow. I don’t think it is. It’s a perfectly accessible art form. There’s no reason why it should be any harder to enjoy than a rock concert. It’s one of the great human endeavours.”

Tip for the opera virgin? See Turandot

If you’re new to opera, Keith recommends Turandot by Puccini. “It’s packed with tunes. Over the years, I’ve taken several people who say they don’t like opera to see Turandot and at the end of the show I’ve asked them, ‘Do you still not like opera?’ and not one of them has failed to be won round by it.”

Here’s Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun dorma’, the most famous operatic tune of all. “Pavarotti had the acting ability of a brick lavatory,” says Keith, “but the most fantastic voice.”

Dark and stormy (no chatting at the back)

For his next choice, Keith leaps forward to the 20th century, with the ‘Storm’ interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes. “I thought we should have something more modern, to demonstrate I don’t have a complete obsession with early opera,” says Keith.

“Peter Grimes is without doubt the greatest opera written in the 20th century. It’s wonderfully tuneful. There’s no singing in the sea interludes which has the annoying effect that people think it’s alright to talk through the bits where there’s nobody singing on stage. This is very much not the case. Although the fourth interlude is quite loud, being about storms, so they’d probably be drowned out anyway.”

The anti-spin doctor

As mentioned previously, Keith has a reputation for being generous with the truth. How has he managed to make a living in PR, given that positive spin usually goes with the territory?

“I’ve always believed in telling the truth,” he states, “so I’ve made a living out of the PR business for 30 years without ever telling an outright lie. But honesty is always the best policy. It does mean that at the age of almost 60 I’m down to one and a half clients. I’m wearing a shiny suit that doesn’t fit with a cardboard belt, but I’m just about scraping by.”

Rogered for all eternity

Pulling in that cardboard belt, Keith’s thoughts turn back to Handel and a track called ‘Endless pleasure’ from Semele. “There are a number of excellent tracks from Semele,” he says. “This aria is a particularly lovely piece of music where Semele – the mother of Dionysius – sings about the joys of being rogered for all eternity by Jupiter. It’s just beautiful.”

Best of British

Keith isn’t very fond of ‘abroad’, so he doesn’t profess any great knowledge of foreign opera houses. He admits: “I quite like Venice because Venice reminds me of England, with a bit of water. But other than that, I’m very very very insular.”

So his favourite opera venues are exclusively British. “Country house opera in England in June and July is terrific: Glyndebourne, Grange Park, Nevill Holt, Garsington. Personally I enjoy those the most.”

The best opera full stop

As for the best opera, Keith’s vote goes to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. “It’s just the perfect opera in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma is the perfect novel. It’s unbeatable. All of the Mozart operas are very accessible. The ones he wrote when he was 13 are possibly lower quality than the ones he wrote when he was a massive 25. But Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute are all fabulous nights out at the theatre.  I particularly like the Marriage of Figaro and could happily see it every month for the rest of my life. I like this quartet in Act 2 – ‘Signori, di fuori son gia i suonatori’.

Hum-along-a-Verdi

Keith’s final choice is the Grand March from Verdi’s Aida. Verdi is another of Keith’s recommendations for newcomers to opera. As he says in his book: “Even the sort of people who think they hate opera will cheerfully hum along to the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Nabucco, ‘La Donna e mobile’ from Rigoletto, the ‘Drinking Song’ from La Traviata or the ‘Grand March’ from Aida.”

Thanks to Keith for sharing his top opera tips. Here’s what I now know, following our chat:

  • People who are intimidated by opera should try ‘Turandot’.
  • If you want to bluff your way in opera, bask in the brilliance of Handel.
  • Two equally valid responses to opera productions are: “It’s a brilliantly refreshing take on a staid old piece, don’t you think?” and “What utter bollocks. Do you fancy a pint?”

* Regarding those ‘popular City prices’, Keith adds: “Well, we like them.”

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