Sound Of Music Through Norway's Fjords
Although I had a tough time convincing friends and colleagues about the merits of a singing cruise, ("You're going on a karaoke cruise, with your Dad?"), I knew it was for me when I read the registration form sent by SingLive.
"Have you sung before?" Tick. "Have you sung in performance?" Tick. "Where have you sung – in a group; as a soloist; in the car?" I ticked all three. In the car (and on a good day) my dulcet tones have been known to rival that of a professional with the God-given voice.
A visit to the dramatic fjords, glaciers and mountains of Norway had long been on my wish list and the opportunity to spend a bit of quality time with my father – both of us benefiting from quality singing tuition while immersed in stunning scenery – sounded like a no-brainer. And so, last August, father and I set sail from an overcast Dover on board our ship bound for Stavanger – a robust, Viking-sounding name if ever there was one – via Bergen, Alesund and Flam.
Although this was the first time it had offered workshops on board a cruise ship, SingLive, which was set up in 1988 and whose members now straddle 11 companies from Newcastle to London, is something of a singing-and-sailing phenomenon. Co-founder Linda Metcalfe told me that few places are as well-equipped as a show lounge at sea, and over the past eight years its members have cruised in Canada and New England, the Caribbean and Baltic, Alaska and the Rockies and around the Med – singing in such hallowed locations as the Vatican and Ground Zero. A highlight is the annual Thanksgiving parade at Epcot in Florida, where members deliver the lead performance at the candlelight procession.
"I've sung on cruises in the Caribbean and the Med, at Ground Zero, eight times at the Royal Albert Hall and to a 40-piece Disney orchestra in Florida. Not bad for a retiree!" said 72-year-old Caroline Manders.
As Yorkshireman Captain Rowden tried to outsmart the depression on our tail by steaming full-pelt across a nausea-inducing North Sea swell, Dad and I made for the group's welcome party in the Crow's Nest, a 360-degree eyrie that would eventually afford eye-stretching views across the fjords. Not yet acclimatised to the ship or its boisterous choralist cargo, we conversed with our neighbours, who included four jolly, Champagne-sipping sisters of Norwegian descent, due to be met at Bergen by an army of unknown cousins.
"It started off with just four of them – now there's 20," said one. When I inquired about the reunion a few days later, it transpired the siblings were gatecrashers who'd received an invite by mistake. "We didn't have the heart to throw them out," said Linda.
Pleased to have happened upon another pair of novices, a couple from Hertfordshire who said they run a fledgling community choir with a few friends, began shuffling along the banquet towards us. Suddenly the gangly male of the pair decided to fling himself in a chair opposite, dangling his left leg at a 45-degree angle across the arm like al dente spaghetti.
Cheap Champagne and nausea kicked in. Terrified that I'd just witnessed a misguided Swingers entreaty, I feigned a seasick groan and beat a hasty retreat to the cabin.
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Lost and found
But any initial misgivings about weather, co-passengers and the cruise in general proved unfounded. Within 48 hours of leaving Dover, we were basking in some of the best weather Norway had seen all summer, and I'd almost stopped getting lost.
En route to SingLive's first workshop, I was stymied by the ship's Galley, which inconveniently separates the aft from the bow – the part of the ship where the workshop was located. "We've got 22 signed up but I don't think people can find us," said Linda, after I'd lapped the decks for 15 minutes like a Pacman (note to self: hire an iPod and take the ship's self-guided tour of the $2 million Dutch exploration art and antique collection, and get bearings).
Dad, every bit the retired teacher, sat cool as a cucumber in the middle of the front row. He may have arrived with only three pairs of boxer shorts for the week ("What was your mother thinking?") but he'd brought reams of sheet music and corresponding iPhone downloads, plus a bottle of dry mouth spray for good measure.
Workshop one was all about finding our vocal range using simple songs and exercises. "There's a crossover of notes but it's the extremities that make the difference," said vocal coach and musical director, Laura Taylor. Laura's musicality regularly extended to the Crow's Nest disco, where she and fellow SingLive crew could be found belting out Bon Jovi numbers in the wee hours. Her whey-faced appearance at breakfast (usually as it was segueing into lunch) became a familiar sight.
I'd worried I'd find the basics amateurish but the tuition proved first class and Laura, an effervescent redhead from Newcastle, cracked her whip to great effect. By the end of the two-hour session, and aided by a smattering of SingLive voices, we were embarking on a three-part harmony. Even Dad, a veteran chorister of 50-plus years, seemed impressed.
With only three two-hour workshops scheduled for the week, we had plenty of free time for sightseeing. Next morning we signed up for a hike in the hills above Bergen and in the afternoon headed for the waterfront Bryggen, where we climbed rickety wooden staircases in the preserved homes of the former medieval trading merchants.
The economic might of the Hanseatic League has come full circle; in Alesund, our guide expounded on the country's low unemployment; wealth of natural resources including gas, oil and fish (every day 37 million people consume fish from Norway) and a currency that, once the pain of the first $A10 latte and $A16 half-pint had receded, would provide hours of Nordic price-shock entertainment.
Suffice to say we ate well at breakfast and snacked on the ship's fruit for lunch, with a few exceptions. On Giske, a flat, sheep-pocked island connected by subterranean tunnel to Alesund, we brunched on svele, doorstep-thick pancakes made from sour milk and smothered in sweet brown goats cheese – as if scoffing pancakes at 10.30am is perfectly normal after polishing off a cruise-ship breakfast.
Between mouthfuls, I got chatting to Josianne Paternoster, whom I recognised from our workshop. "How's your voice?" I asked. "Let's not get too enthusiastic, but with a bit of training – who knows? The best thing is that I'm travelling alone and doing this has given me a sense of purpose on board."
Norse legend has it that Giske is the birthplace of the feared Viking king, Rollo, an ancestor of William the Conqueror, and Giske's focal point is its 12th Century marble church and graveyard. We ate our svele at a community-run lighthouse cafe.
The scenic high point of our cruise, both literally and metaphorically, came at Flam (pronounced Flom) nestled in the innermost corner of Aurlandsfjord, where Dad and I hired bikes and retraced the journey we'd taken on the Flam Railway a few hours earlier. Leaving the harbour and quilt of farming pastures behind, we spiralled our way over several valleys, criss-crossing rivers and peddling deeper into the lush Flam Valley towards snow-capped peaks.
Eagles soared, goat bells tinkled and torrents of waterfalls conjured images of scores of Norway's mythical trolls simultaneously pulling their bath plugs in some far-off valley. Cycling back, I realised why we encountered so many downhill speed freaks on the way up: one hour 45 minutes up; 16 minutes down. Freewheeling through the Flam Valley is some of the best fun I've had on a bike.
Workshops pay off
By the time workshops two and three rolled around, we had found our sea legs, range and were raring to go. Workshop two, 'becoming a choir' was memorable for its music, a repertoire of folk and world music that ran from gospel and haunting African spirituals, to Coldplay's Fix You.
Moving at a pace, Laura introduced the riff heard on Smoke on the Water, and we practised the counter melody and blues note. "Men, you're not soldiers, can we sing the blues note with a bit of panache, please?"
Although we weren't part of SingLive's performance on our penultimate night, our final workshop, singing in performance, finessed what we had learned and added phrasing, style and texture. Laura, pumping on all cylinders after seven hours' sleep, was on a roll. We sing beautiful scores by Miriam Makeba and Ben E. King and, after years of struggling with lack of breath, I finally learn how to count in to avoid expelling the lot in the first bar.
My own choir mistress purports that, medical conditions notwithstanding, anyone can sing. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise," she frequently reminds us.
Guest feedback supported her mantra. The swingers who weren't had picked up plenty of tips.
"It's been tremendously helpful, from the warm-ups to seeing how the workshops are structured. We'll take some of this music back and persuade our pianist to learn it," said the female of the pair.
Seventy-seven-year-old Gordon from East Molsey, travelling with wife Marie, said he'd had no intention of attending the workshops. "I seemed to drift into it. Marie's been in a number of choirs. When I hear her playing the piano and singing it gives me great joy and I've always hoped we could sing a duet. I can't say I found it easy – for all I know I could've been making a terrible sound, but this has made me think I could sing in the future."
I immediately clock Marie as the woman to whom I'd sent proverbial daggers in the restaurant that morning when she attempted to join the very-long egg queue at the wrong end. One should never encourage enemies in a self-contained moving vessel at sea, but ahead of me had been Captain Rowden with his young son, waiting for waffles, and queue-jumping the Captain is simply not cricket.
I'll admit that I'd had visions of yodelling under snow-capped peaks ("Wrong movie darling," scoffed Josianne, when I told her) but we'd achieved much in our windowless meeting room. But, unfortunate scheduling, meant that after a morning in port at handsome Stavanger, the last half-hour of workshop three clashed with the start of the cruise through the Stavanger Archipelago into Lysefjord, a spectacular sinuous waterway flanked by sheer granite slopes.
Scenic wonder, or Stand by Me? Braving the wrath of the red-headed Geordie I made my excuses and legged it – just in time to catch the ship turn on a sixpence under the famed Pulpit Rock.
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