JL: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Josie Long and this is Sound Unbound, where we get inside the music that moves artists of all genres.
JA: Hello, my name is Jayde Adams and I'm a comedian. The piece of music is 'O Mio Babbino Caro' by Puccini.
And it's a piece of music that essentially changed the course of my career. It changed my life.
JL: I should say that's not an exaggeration. Jayde used to work at Asda and now she sings opera arias at her stand up shows.
JA: So I've never had any singing lessons, the close I could probably get to having a singing lesson is joining a choir at my school. The school had a great music department. And at the beginning, the first couple of years I was sort of acting up and I hung out with the wrong type of girls and got into some mischief. And then I fell out with those girls... I'll tell you what happened. They lit the school toilets on fire and then blamed me. And then I was alone. And the girls that I called nerds came over to me in the playground and asked me if I wanted to hang out with them in the music room. And that moment changed my life. And then I had.. I had a good teacher, that was all it was, it was just one teacher that didn't kick me out of his class because I was loud and asked too many questions or I was too exuberant, I had a teacher that saw promise in me. And allowed me to stay in the music room every single lunchtime and every single break time and allowed me to use choir in the church as a reason to get out of stuff and he saw something in me and he supported me.
I remember the first time I sang with vibrato and find out what that word meant. I sang in that - I did an impression of Katherine Jenkins in my halls at school and I just went [sings] and then Mr. Davies said 'Oh that's vibrato' and I was like, 'Err, what's that?' And he told me, he explained to me what it is and he told me I had a natural vibrato. I didn't have to learn how to do it. And then I always knew that.
JL: So Jayde loved singing, she knew she could sing, but she didn't do too much with it. Beyond singing her way through her various jobs while working on her stand up.
JA: And then in 2016 I did my very first Edinburgh show and it was all about my sister and our quite difficult relationship and the way I loved her and the way that we hated each other, as siblings do. And then eventually how she died of an inoperable brain tumour. Now my sister was always the... my sister was always the child in our family who was going to go on to do great things with her life. And I was always, you know, Jayde'll do something but Jenna was the focus. And then she got sick and then it all sort of fell on me. And my mum, obviously as parents do, had to give my sister a lot of attention when we were growing up because of her illness. And then she died and there was still a lot of attention on her.
I'd heard O Mio Babbino Caro on Classic FM which is my one of my favourite stations to listen to, in any situation. I find it really calming and relaxing, as a lot of working class people do. And I remember I heard, I heard I think it was Maria Callas. They were playing her on Classic FM one afternoon and she sang that song and I was like, Oh, I really like that.
JL: Chances are you recognise the tune. But what's the story behind the aria? Here's conductor Ben Gernon.
BG: O Mio Babbino Caro is a very, very famous aria from Gianni Schicchi, which is from Il Trittico. When Il Trittico, which is a collection of three different operas, was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on the 14 December in 1918, it was only Gianni Schicchi, the third and final opera of the three that did really quite well. There was a rule in the Metropolitan Opera where arias were not allowed to be repeated. There was a custom in opera houses where people would scream 'Bravo again, encore encore', and operas could last for days. But what happened at the premiere of this, was after O Mio Babbino Caro, the audience went absolutely wild and this was the only aria that was allowed to be repeated. And it stayed in everybody's heart since.
JL: So Jayde was bowled over by the aria that was so popular it broke the Metropolitan Opera in New York's rule.
JA: And then I did what I always do, and I just had it on, I just had it on whatever I was listening to on my headphones and I learned it.
I sang it to my mother for the first time. And she sat and I thought, 'Oh Mum you should listen to this'. I sang her O Mio Babbino Caro, and she cried. And then she looked at me with her eyes. This was after my sister died, and you know what she said to me? I thought, well she said to me, she said, 'Your sister was always such a good singer' - to me after I'd sang it at her. And it was the, at the end of my my show in 2016, that's what I did. I told the story of never really having my own identity. And then in my 20s, when my sister had died, I discovered my identity, including the ability to be able to sing.
People always said my sister could sing, but I'll be honest, she couldn't. It was just that she had a brain tumour and everyone was like, 'Oh, she can sing. She can sing'. She couldn't. I could sing. But no one really knew about it. But my mum said to me, you know 'Your sister was such a good singer!' after I sang her, this beautiful aria, she could still only think of my sister. And that was how I ended that show in 2016. I sang O Mio Babbino Caro.
BG: Essentially, the story is rather ridiculous. This opera is Puccini's only comedy. You have Gianni Schicchi, who is a 13th century peasant from Florence. And his daughter is begging him to pretend to be a man who's just died, so they can change the will so she can marry the dead man's son.
He agrees, and he too feels rather ridiculous, but she's so impassioned in this aria that she will throw herself into the river if she couldn't be with this man. And whilst the music's extremely beautiful and extremely delicate and you can't resist her demands, her wants to marry her partner, but you do also know the back of your mind, it is a rather silly story.
JA: I mean the story, the translation of the words have actually no relevance to the story at all. It's about a woman begging her father to let her marry the man of her dreams. I suppose the only thing that was connected to it, is me, basically, you know, me pleading with my parents to take notice of me. And then at the end of the song, I say the sentence on stage I said, 'Oh my mum, do you know what she said to me? Your sister was always such a good singer.' And it was a way that I undercut myself because, you know, singing an aria to any type of audience - it's one of the things I love about classical music. It blends. The class, the classes in this country. There's a huge class divide. People constantly talk about it, and it's because we've got a Royal Family. My mother, who works at Asda, and all of her friends and all women, over the age of 50, in whatever class they are in love classical music, and if you find a beautiful aria, and you play it to these people, they will sit and they will listen. I think there is a massive issue in this country right now, there's a big divide, and so many people are just shouting at everyone. But there's a lot of working class people being shouted out for decisions they made three years ago. And no one knows how to communicate with these people because no one's trying. And no, like you know, there's just like, a lot of blame from both sides. And I, I really feel that it may sound really stupid. If you literally just sat some people down, and you played a beautiful piece of music and that was what they had to do and then you just added some stuff over the top of it. Just some like maybe new ideas about the world over the top of the music, I think it would be an easier way to communicate with people. It's why they play classical music at tube stations. It's why they play it in McDonald's at 2am in the middle of Holborn because it relaxes people. It makes people open to suggestion.
One of my things I do with singing, in terms of my comedy, is I never really know the words to things which is my clown. So I do know the words to O Mio Babbino Caro, because I had many people correct me over the period of time that I performed. Lots of people came up to me the end and told me bits and pieces. Actually, I learned the song via the audience. I was watching. So I sort of learned with the audience was really nice. I'm sure that will really annoy a lot of classical singers, but I'm a comedian. I'm not a classical singer. I'm a comedian who absolutely loves to make people feel.
BG: I think Gianni Schicchi is a really good opera to start with if you haven't been to see an opera. It's only 55 minutes long. There's one act, it's extremely entertaining. The music's very fast paced. There is a wonderful comedic element to the whole piece. And it's quite light hearted but contains really beautiful music. I think if you're feeling a bit more hardcore, you should listen to La Boheme, which has written before, or [Madame] Butterfly, or even Tosca. And these are really sort of full blown, full blooded operas that you just get completely immersed in. But yeah, as a starter I think Gianni Schicchi is a very good one.
JA: All of the arias I've listened to by Puccini is the rise in the music and the, I can... I can say something really blue - a bit blue for dads... But it's like, it's like an orgasm. [Laughs] And that's why I like... Like classical music is that visceral and, you know, that the build in the music and then you... and then you get this - and then, I mean, then you get - I'm going to use a music term to impress people! And then in some pieces you get a perfect cadence at the end.
And you get the build and build and build and build and then you get this perfect, you get a perfect moment the end and then the song's finished. I mean name me a pop music that does that. Makes you feel that way, there isn't any. There's none at all. And we should be infiltrating children's minds with classical music and I am evidence of the effect that a music teacher that cared about me. I'm working class, my mum worked as Asda. My mum and dad have done everything they can to sort of put me in the right directions and they're great parents. But if it wasn't for that one teacher at my school taking an interest in me, I don't know where I'd be.
JL: Thanks to Jayde Adams, Ben Gernon and you, for listening to this episode of Sound Unbound, with me, Josie Long. In the next episode, we'll be talking to the writer and historian, James R Gaines, about Bach, Frederick the Great and the meeting of two opposing worlds.
JG: 'So it was really not about Frederick understanding it, it was about Bach saying it. And stating, emphatically the position that he occupied in his world and categorically refuting the world Frederick lived in'
JL: Thanks for listening to Sound Unbound, part of Nothing Concrete from the Barbican. To listen to the rest of the series, subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcast. And if you'd like to hear more of the music connected to this episode, listen and subscribe to the Barbican's Sound Unbound playlist on Spotify.
Sound Unbound is produced by Freya Hellier for Loftus Media. The assistant producer is Alex Quinn.