Adventures in music and radio

Singer, broadcaster and Milton resident Catherine (Kate) Bott on her work/life/laughter balance.

Curtain up: we’re in ancient Rome, where nobleman Ottone has been ordered to kill his faithless wife Poppea, to stop her marrying wicked emperor Nero. Prop dagger tucked into the back of his trousers, he steals into the garden where she sleeps – and hesitates to do the deed. In operaland, this means singing about his conflicted emotions, loudly, without rousing his intended victim. Watching him from afar, the lovelorn Drusilla (that’s me). And as I walk tremulously towards the man I adore, I see that the dagger is no longer lodged in his waistband but has disappeared down the back of his trouser leg. Time for a love duet (remember, operaland is a parallel universe): Ottone and Drusilla gaze intensely into each other’s eyes as with one arm he clutches me so tightly I can hardly breathe, let alone sing, and with the other he reaches frantically behind him to wiggle the dagger back up again. The onstage orchestra is playing with tears of laughter rolling down every cheek, and I’m wondering what the Italian is for “Tell you what, beloved, why don’t you just strangle her?”. Hurtling towards us like Ben-Hur’s chariot, the moment when, by the laws of composer Monteverdi, Ottone must announce to the world “Behold, the fatal dagger!”

And behold, suddenly it’s actually there, in his hand – but (spoiler alert) soldiers appear, we’re both arrested and dragged off stage. Meanwhile, Poppea still slumbers on, and neither the distinguished conductor nor the capacity audience has noticed anything amiss.

Then there’s the executioner in a Mozart opera, failing to place his boot on the (polystyrene) block to detach his axe before brandishing it aloft. Guess what, the block came with it. If you’re seeing a pattern here – coarse operatic acting opportunities afforded by malfunctioning stage weaponry – you won’t be surprised at my decision to specialise in concert and recital work instead; but looking back on a hugely rewarding singing career which took me all over the world, some of the most memorable moments are of Things Going Wrong. Then there are the times when you’re brought right back down to earth after giving your all – the uplifting performance of Handel’s Messiah with a choral society in Yorkshire, when my sparkly black dress was clearly more important than my singing (“Good choice. We’ll not be booking that – famous name redacted – again, her pink frock clashed with our crimson”) and a long-ago performance of medieval songs in Gloucester Cathedral which inspired the faint praise of a headline in The Citizen: “Unusual concert offended no-one”.

Well, I could see why the Cathedral authorities had been worried: if you’ve sung Carl Orff’s choral settings of the songs of 13th-century itinerant clerics, Carmina Burana, you’ll know what I’m getting at. Over the years, the more obscure the music, the more I was asked to deliver informal spoken introductions. Which somehow led me to a whole new career in radio.

When I started at BBC Radio 3, there was a lot to learn: talking into a studio microphone is very different from making announcements to a concert audience. You have to imagine you’re speaking to a couple of friends, keep things conversational and remember that no matter how many gripping facts you may be dying to share, less is always more. The intimacy of radio makes it addictive, and I was hooked: talking about music gradually took over from performing it. There were lots of Proms, interviews with great artists and a memorable visit to Brixton Prison, making a programme about the time JS Bach did a bit of porridge. I had enthusiastic help from a dozen residents, who’d learnt to sing one of his chorales and called themselves “The Brixton Angels”. Wherever I went on location with the BBC, the crew always had to display promotional banners – the one that said “Escape to Bach” was put back in its box pretty quickly that day.

After 10 years, it was time for a change, and in 2013, when Classic FM asked out of the blue if I’d be interested in “jumping ship”, I took another leap to become a classical DJ. I firmly believe that there’s room for both Classic FM and Radio 3: Classic FM concentrates on familiar, comforting sounds but there’s nothing wrong with that, and especially during the last year, good music has played a vital role in bringing people together. Our listeners enjoy being part of a musical family, telling me and my colleagues what they’re up to and about their favourite pieces. Although I can’t play instant requests in my new Sunday show, with a bit of advance notice I can wish someone a happy birthday or play something to inspire a family quiz team. Emails from Milton are welcome – the demands of both my careers have prevented my being around as much as I’d like, but I’m delighted that April 2021 will see the 36th anniversary of my move to this friendly, self-sufficient, forward-thinking village. Before too long, maybe the members of our neighbourly WhatsApp group will actually be able to get together – there’s a great number in the Carmina Burana about going to the pub….

catherine@catherinebott.com

April-May 2021