Wandering more or less aimlessly after a trip to the MDC Opera shop I stumbled across Travis & Emery, a music bookshop. The kind of shop which, though it’s tiny, one could spend hours and hours in. I was there for a long time, browsing through scores, a million and one composer biographies, playbills, programmes, everything you could imagine and several things you mightn’t. And as I was leaving I spotted a leaflet. "Handel’s Giulio Cesare: From Egypt to England". A temporary exhibition on at the Foundling Museum, of which I’d never heard. So I checked out the website and discovered that, as the front page states:
The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, London’s first home for abandoned children and of three major figures in British history: its campaigning founder the philanthropist Thomas Coram, the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel. This remarkable collection of art and social history is now housed in a restored and refurbished building adjacent to the original site of the Hospital, demolished in 1926.
Turns out the Foundling Museum houses the Gerald Coke Handel collection, which can be read about here. Needless to say I made my way there as soon as possible and it was without question among the highlights of my stay. Forget the Handel for a moment: the history of the Foundling Hospital is fascinating enough on its own. Then there’s the art collection. The Giulio Cesare exhibition was interesting too. But oh, the Handel room: possibly my favourite place in all of London. Artworks, manuscripts, ephemera, letters…and easy chairs which play music. Imagine it, sit back in a leather armchair, press a button and there’s Joan Sutherland in stereo. I need one. I never wanted to leave and spent a rather long time with the bust of Handel out on the landing, feeling rather tearful and grateful. And I even got all scholarly and returned in my final week for a talk by Dr. Andrew Jones (Cambridge, you know) entitled "A character transform’d", about Handel’s Cleopatra. Very interesting, and it deserved a larger audience than the six or seven of us who were there; he’s an excellent speaker but even better, most of his samples came from the Cesare recording with Magdalena Kozena as Cleopatra. Others came from a real live soprano named Susanna, also lovely.
But anyway, that’s not the serendipity story.
On Friday, my final full day in London, I ended up with a few hours to fill in before heading out to Holland Park for The Merry Widow. Finding myself in Charing Cross, I wondered whether I might stumble upon Travis & Emery again. Stumble upon, because I have zero sense of direction and thus had not a chance of finding it on purpose. Seconds later, I found it. Once inside I determined to buy myself a present or two. Maybe a vocal score to murder on the piano. And why not something edifying and educational? I picked up all manner of things and replaced most of them. I started looking through the opera shelves, still determined to choose something suitable serious and scholarly. The title Backstage at the Opera was thus precisely what I didn’t intend to buy but all the same, as I told myself this very fact, I picked it up. And saw this:
You probably can’t see the photo very clearly at that size. I’ll make it larger.
Recognise the gorgeous blonde? I certainly did.
And so I thought: how wonderful, a backstage book with a photo of Yvonne Kenny on the cover. I’ll need to own that. Then I read the blurb.
"Backstage at the Opera takes the reader on a journey through the making of one of the English National Opera’s most popular and enduring operas, Xerxes."
Right. That would be the Xerxes starring Yvonne then. That would be why she’s on the cover. That would be why she wrote the foreword.
I never knew this book existed. I found Travis & Emery by accident and found it a second time by accident. I picked the book up by pure chance, looking for something quite different. So that’s serendipity at its most glorious. I had a hard time containing my glee. I had to duck around a corner so nobody else in the shop would catch me grinning like an idiot, and fought back the urge to laugh out loud as I re-emerged into the world, book in hand. I came dangerously close to skipping down Charing Cross Rd. In some moments you just know the heavens are smiling upon you.