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Roxy Dots

by on 23 September 2020

Summer’s Apples

Roxy Dots

West Green Opera at West Green House, Hartley Wintney, 20th September

Review by Mark Aspen

John Keats wrote his famous Ode to Autumn on 19th September 1819.  He could have been writing about the scene in Hartley Wintney 201 years and a day later, when the “maturing sun” of a gorgeous late summer day conspired with early autumn “to bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees” in West Green’s beautiful gardens.

How appropriate then that our noontime treat by the Roxy Dots included the 1942 wartime hit Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me) and the beautiful mood piece I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time.

Although this gig started with Roll out the Barrel, we certainly were not in a pub, but in the more gentile surroundings of the grounds of West Green House, home in the Green Theatre, where for two decades West Green House Opera has been presenting fully staged summer operas.  The house has had quite an exciting history.  Having been built by the controversial Georgian military commander General Henry Hawley, it has been home to a number of prominent people, including as the dower house of the Duchess of Wellington.  As the home of Lord Alistair McAlpine, a well-known advisor to Margaret Thatcher, it attracted the attention of the IRA, who bombed it in 1990, destroying the front façade and much of the neo-classical garden statuary that Lord McAlpine had commissioned from architect Sir Quinlan Terry.

Enter garden designer Marylyn Abbott, who purchased the 99 year lease of West Green House in 1993 and set about restoring the house and garden and enhancing the landscape with contemporary design features ideas.  However, there was a second career strand up Marylyn Abbott’s sleeve.  She had been an executive of Sydney Opera House and was an experienced opera professional.  Hence in 2000, the West Green House Opera was born.

Determination is clearly a hallmark of Marylyn Abbot, and the loss of the 2020 season for West Green House Opera has not dinted her resolution to keep country house opera alive in this corner of Hampshire.  The 2021 season is planned and largely cast, including fete champetre performances of two major staged operas La Rondine and Eugene Onegin.  To keep appetites whetted, she has brought three of England’s finest opera and oratorio sopranos to last Sunday’s garden open day, the Classic Car Show, in the guise of the Roxy Dots.  “The girls”, as she called them, came together last month, initially as Dixie and the Dots, wowing an audience at West Green’s V J Day commemorations, with “their toe tapping show, singing the best of the 1930’s and 40’s girl band music”.

The Roxy Dots looked very much the sassy songsters of the end-of-war period, all dressed in bright red halter-neck A-line dresses, scarves in hair and wedgies on feet.   The inspiration for their style comes from the Andrews Sisters, the American trio whose name was the by-word for the close harmony singing during the swing era.   However, the Roxy Dots have built on that inspiration to soften and broaden the style. 

These performers though are undisguisedly opera sopranos, witness the round lyricism that swelled from Apple Blossom Time.  Chlöe Morgan sings with Glyndebourne, most recently in Handel’s Rinaldo, which also toured extensively last autumn.  As a baroque singer, Eloise Irving has also appeared in Rinaldo, in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, but she is also an accomplished harpist (and has acted in panto).  Kirsty Hopkins sings with “The Voices of Classic FM”, The Sixteen, whose repertoire extends from early English polyphony to Benjamin Britten.  She is due to appear Howard Goodall’s 2018 work Invictus: a Passion in West Green Opera’s opening production next year. 

So “the girls” are in truth a very versatile trio of singers.   For instance, Choro is a Brazilian popular music style (not to be confused with the Spanish doughnut, churro!) and the Roxy Dots certainly had our dancing shoes twitching with Tico-TicoBoogie-Woogie Bugle Boy brought out some throaty jazz-singing flourishes around the boogie-woogie wartime style.  It was a number featured in the Abbott and Costello 1941 comedy film, Buck Privates.  (As was, in contrast, Apple Blossom Time.

These songs were all popular hits for the Andrews Sisters and the Roxy Dots could not have disappointed any swing and boogie-woogie aficionado with their full range of Andrews Sisters standards, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Oh Johnny, In the Mood, Sing Sing Sing, Shoo Shoo Baby, and Pennsylvania 6-5000, many of which drew spontaneous audience participation. 

Meanwhile, in the adjacent field, like mature and shiny apples, the classic cars waited for their turn, stately Triumph dropheads, a whole row of resplendent wind-in-the-hair Morgans, and a muscular 1936 supercharged Bentley, which won the people’s vote.  One felt that they were all ready to Straighten Up and Fly Right.  Roxy Dots take on Nat King Cole’s one-time spiritual (which his father Revd Edward Coles had used in his sermons), certainly had the classical motorists revving up.  

Roxy Dots adding in some interesting little snippets to their introductions.   Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, the sheet music for which sold over a million copies, was alleged by Scott Joplin to have its melody plagiarized from his unpublished works.  Berlin’s ragtime-ish melody was given the full energy that its jaunty tune demands, another toe-tapper.  The title of the Andrews Sisters 1937 hit Bei Mir Bist Du Schön came from a misunderstanding of the original title Bei Mir Bistu Shein, Yiddish not German, taken from a Yiddish musical comedy.  The Americanised version of the song, about a young man courting his girlfriend, plays with language possibilities, so that the girlfriend becomes bella, bella and sehr wunderbar.  This of course is second nature to opera singers, whose considerable skills must encompass several languages.

Driving home in the low early evening sunshine, in one of those maturing classic sports cars, I could congratulate myself for resisting the temptation to scrump West Green’s delicious apples, but who could resist listening to West Green’s Roxy Dots’s scrumptious songs.  Under the mellow note of the exhaust, they became a welcome hum-along for the journey, a rich Ode to Autumn.

Mark Aspen, September 2020

Photography by Jane Mossop and Elizabeth Wait

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