Big voice, big personality. That’s Graeme Danby in a nutshell (imagine a sizeable nut). But actually there is so much more to a man who flies a flag for North East music across the world.
“Are you still doing some teaching in Sunderland?” I enquire.
“Yes, I am professor of music at Sunderland University,” he replies.
Goodness, Graeme is even bigger than I’d thought (although I tell myself I probably knew that anyway).
We first crossed paths at Scottish Opera about 20 years ago. I recall a booming Geordie greeting across a dressing room in Glasgow as myself and a photographer worked on a behind-the-scenes feature.
It was pleasant and unexpected. In the international world of opera, where much is sung in Italian or German, it isn’t that common to hear a North East accent – although the region has produced its stars (think Thomas Allen, Janice Cairns, Owen Brannigan, Sheila Armstrong).
Others are coming along behind but Graeme, after 13 years as a principal bass at English National Opera, is still in his prime as a performer.
He is speaking to me – on the phone this time – from Scottish Opera, to which he has returned to sing the part of Don Magnifico in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) which is touring Scotland until the end of November.
“I’m back to being freelance which is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been to La Scala (Milan), Los Angeles, Valencia and the Salzburg Festival, and in future I’m going to Paris, Rouen, Brussels.
“I’m a lucky boy, I know, but they know I do it well.”
He does indeed, which is why he is one of the top attractions at this year’s Northumberland Music Festival which takes place in November at three country house hotels –
Doxford Hall, Eshott Hall and Guyzance Hall.
Opera does feature in the festival but Graeme’s concert at Eshott Hall at the end of the month is called Across the Atlantic and it celebrates the legacy of three men who have done much to make music fun.
This country is represented by Flanders and Swann, sadly both no longer with us, and the United States – across ‘the pond’ – by Tom Lehrer, who is still going strong, as far as we know, at the age of 86.
“I did the festival before and really enjoyed it,” says Graeme.
“This year it begins the week after I finish with Scottish Opera and is just before I go to Rouen, so it fits like a glove.
“I wanted to do something that I would enjoy, and they wanted something people hadn’t had before, so I’m doing a relaxing evening with Flanders and Swann and Tom Lehrer. It’ll be a quality night and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Michael Flanders (1922 to 1975) and Donald Swann (1923 to 1994) met at school, where they staged a musical revue, and were reunited after the Second World War when they entered into a musical partnership, Flanders writing words and Swann composing music.
They enjoyed huge success with a musical revue, At the Drop of a Hat, and a follow-up, At the Drop of Another Hat. They wrote more than 100 comic songs including The Hippopotamus with its famous chorus: “Mud, mud, glorious mud...”
Animals were a popular theme. Flanders and Swann also left us The Armadillo, The Elephant, The Gnu, The Rhinoceros and The Sloth, among others.
Tom Lehrer, who grew up in New York and studied classical piano, began writing show tunes at an early age and showed a precocious aptitude for satire. From his song Poisoning Pigeons in the Park it might be deduced that he is not quite the animal lover that his British counterparts would seem to have been.
Graeme will be joined for the Northumberland concert by his wife, soprano Valerie Reid (“We met in The Marriage of Figaro at Scottish Opera”), who is also busy, having recently signed five contracts to perform at English National Opera.
“We’ve done this show a few times now,” says Graeme. “There’s a song called The Gas Man Cometh (Flanders and Swann) which Valerie sings from a housewife’s perspective.”
Graeme was born in Consett but was helped towards a career in music when a pupil at Ponteland High School. “My big inspiration was a music teacher called Eddie Ward.
“I went to the Royal Academy of Music at 18 years old and auditioned, totally by chance really, for Scottish Opera and got into the Chorus.”
Later inspiration was provided by Eric Boswell, the North East songwriter whose most famous composition – though not necessarily his favourite – was the Christmas carol Little Donkey.
“He composed songs for me and Valerie to sing and that was great,” says Graeme. “I’d like to do a programme of Eric Boswell songs next year.”
Eric Boswell died in 2009. Graeme is helping to keep his legacy alive, along with that of Flanders and Swann, but in terms of role models and sources of inspiration, there can be few better than himself.
At Sunderland University he would appear to have been a force for good.
“We have a really good department there,” he enthuses.
“We have just had a very good intake of performing arts students, doing music, drama and dance, and we’re very proud of them. We’ve made fantastic strides over the past six years in what is a really tough market.”
Students who opt to study in Sunderland will find themselves equipped for another tough market, that of the professional performing arts world.
“What I was brought in for was to get the students that we’re producing more employable,” says Graeme.
To this end he focuses, among other things, on the technical side of singing, ensuring that his students are equipped for a long and fruitful career rather than a quick burst of talent show-inspired fame.
He is particularly proud of the choir Dodici Voce, 12 girls who sing unaccompanied.
Graeme, who says he’s fully booked up professionally for the next three years, is the embodiment of what can be achieved with talent and aptitude.
He and Valerie live now in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, and the world is their oyster as they fulfil their obligations to a packed calendar. But for Graeme, at least, the North East is where his heart lies.
You can join the couple, along with Tony Kraus on piano, in their work-as-pleasure concert at Eshott Hall Hotel at 6.15pm on November 30. The concert ticket also includes a gourmet dinner.
To book tickets and find full information about the festival, which runs until November 30, visit www.northumberlandmusicfestival.com