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Tour de Force: Greg Laing

TUNING INTO LONDON

“At school I was a lazy toad. Always bottom of the class,” says Greg Laing. “But I could play the clarinet. So when I left school I auditioned to join the army as a bandsman and was placed in the Scots Guard. I was 16, a boy soldier, which was OK because they didn’t send you anywhere you could be shot at until you were 18.

“For ten years my billet was Wellington Barracks, near Buckingham Palace. I learned to march, and got shouted at by the band sergeant major. I wore the red uniform and did all the public duties – performing the trooping of the colour seven times. In one rehearsal we were lined up ready to march and I fainted. Got a good tongue lashing from the sergeant major for that. Don’t join the forces if you want sympathy.

“In 1986 I left the army, took a music degree, then taught and played. But I wasn’t a natural teacher and it’s difficult making a living as a freelance musician. One day my wife said to me: ‘you don’t like teaching, you do like London, history and talking, so why not become a tour guide?’”

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Greg completed his Blue Badge course in 2006 and began running classical music tours. “I often start in Covent Garden,” he says. “At the basement of a house on Maiden Lane which stakes a claim to be the world’s first recording studio. It’s where the American Fred Gaisberg made early recordings for The Gramophone Company – the forerunner of HMV and EMI. In 1898 he spotted Syria Lamonte – a singing barmaid at Rules Restaurant – who became HMV’s first ever solo recording artist.

“WS Gilbert was born in Exeter Street – a few hundred yards from the Savoy Theatre which staged Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. They were so successful that a hotel was created next to the theatre for  the audiences. But it all went wrong when Gilbert and Sullivan were involved in the ‘The Carpet Quarrel’. Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte wanted to buy a new carpet for the theatre. Gilbert was against this. Sullivan sided with D’Oyly Carte and the partnership split.

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“But the Savoy thrived as a celebrity hotel. Dame Nelly Melba, the Australian Singer, was a regular at the restaurant and the chef Escoffier created the Peach Melba and Melba Toast in her honour. Melba was the diva of her generation. She was paired with the new young Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in ‘La Boheme’. During one performance she whispered to him ‘get off my stage you greasy foreigner’. The next night, while singing the aria ‘Your Tiny Hand is Frozen’, Caruso pressed a hot Italian sausage into her hand and squeezed her fingers together.

“The Lyceum is one of Covent Garden’s great theatres. Bram Stoker managed the celebrated 19th century actor Henry Irving here. They invited Franz Liszt to dine with them in the beefsteak room. I have this fantasy that if they had had the technology available, they could have made the world’s first ever gothic horror film together – stoker based Dracula on Irvin and Liszt composed dark, filmic scores.

“Covent Garden’s premier music venue is the Royal Opera House. The first theatre was built in the 1730s from the profits of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. This was an antidote to the fashionable but formulaic Italian opera, which took its stories from ancient history. Each character had a set number of arias, which were basically an opportunity for the singer to show off. These divas were 18th century celebrity figures who everyone gossiped about. Factions grew, and fans would boo singers they disliked and cheer their favourites.

“’The Beggar’s Opera’ was about London low life – prisoners in Newgate, prostitutes and thieves. It was the first opera in English to portray ordinary characters and use dialogue rather than endless recitative. It was an enormous success for its author John Gay and it made lots of money for the theater owner John Rich – it was said it made ‘Gay rich and Rich gay’ [happy]”.

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“The Royal Opera House staged the first performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ in 1892. They had just installed electric lights in the auditorium, which they would dim – infuriating the society ladies who went to the opera just to be seen.

“Wagner visited London in 1839. He didn’t like the capital and it didn’t like him – except for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The tradition of playing the bridal chorus from ‘Lohengrin’ at weddings is a direct result the monarch selecting the piece for the marriage of her daughter Princess Victoria. She also chose the wedding march from Mendelsohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The composer was a regular guest at Buckingham Palace, where he gave Victoria and Albert music lessons.

“Mendelsohn and Wagner were just two greats who visited London. Since the time of Handel there are very few major composers who have not visited or lived in the capital. No other city can boast two permanent opera houses, three major concert halls (The Royal Albert, Festival Hall and the Barbican) four music colleges, five symphony orchestras and three of the finest church music choirs in the world. Taken together, they make London one of the world’s music capitals.

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