Drawing: Justina Gringyte as Carmen

Autographed drawing of Justina Gringyte in Carmen

Lithuanian operatic mezzo-soprano and the 2015 International Opera Awards Young Singer of the Year, Justina Gringyte returned to the London Coliseum earlier this year to reprise the titular role in the English National Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s CARMEN. The exotic and wilful Spanish gypsy girl is Justina’s signature role and considered one of the summits for a mezzo.

After initial studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, she continued her learning at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Italy’s Accademia Musicale Chigiana and at the National Opera Studio in London. Between 2011-2013, Justina was a member of the prestigious Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. During the 2014/15 Opera season she played Maddalena in RIGOLETTO at the Royal Opera House and the Bolshoi Theatre and Hansel in HANSEL UND GRETEL for the Vilnius City Opera, but it was the role of Carmen that dominated that and the following season. She performed it for the ENO, staged at the London Coliseum, the Scottish Opera, the Lithuanian National Opera and the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre known as the ‘Siberian Coliseum.’ She also appeared in semi-staged performances in Moscow and St Petersburg.

The London and Scottish productions were radically different. The ENO’s was very contemporary, set in the 1970’s near the end of Franco’s regime, using the English translation with some edgy character breakdowns… and a few cars. The Scottish production was performed in its original French, set in 1825…. with a few tables. The one similarity: no big flamenco dancing scenes. Richard Bartley in his Spectator review described Justina’s “smokey voiced” Carmen as “terrific.” She also returned to the role for the Lithuanian National Opera from October 2017- May 2018 and again the following year.

Justina signed my sketch at the Coliseum during the final week, which completed its limited run on 27 February, before the coronavirus pandemic closed the West End.

Drawing: Mick Hucknall

Autographed drawing of Mick Hucknall

Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall has a simply simple signature. The band’s lead singer and songwriter was described by Q magazine as the “the most prodigious voice this side of Motown”.

Formed in Manchester in 1985, the soul-influenced group has sold over 50 million albums, reaching their peak from 1989 to 1995. They have had ten songs in the Top 10 UK Singles Chart and five No 1 albums. ‘Stars’ (1991) is one of the best-selling albums in UK chart history. ‘Holding Back the Years’ and ‘If You Don’t Know Me by Now’ reached number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Simply Red have won three Brit Awards with Mick winning Best British Male in 1993 and two Ivor Novello Awards, including Songwriter of the Year in 1992 and three Grammy nominations. After a five year hiatus, Simply Red reformed in 2015. Mick also produces wines from his base in Sicily under the label II Cantante’ (The Singer).

He signed his simply black sig on my drawing as he left Wogan House after the band played a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘The Dock of the Bay’ on Zoe Ball’s BBC Radio 2 show on 8 November last year, the same day they released their latest studio album ‘Blue Eyed Soul’.

Drawing: Shakespears Sister

Autographed drawing of musicians Shakespears Sister

It took a few attempts to override spellcheck’s efforts to correct my typing of ‘Shakespears Sister’, but I prevailed, enhanching my skills as a serial misspeller. The group’s name was taken from The Smith’s song ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’, which was based on a 1928 Virginia Woolf essay and lecture. Delving further, it was apparently misspelt – dropping the final ‘e’ – in a woodcut artwork for the group’s first single sleeve. The apostrophe ‘subsequently surrendered to pop music.’

Anyway, after that rambling intro and a 26 year gap, Shakespears Sister reunited and played at the London Palladium last November as part of the ‘Ride Again Tour’ tour to support their compilation album ‘Singles Party’ and EP ‘Ride Again’. Formed in 1988, initially as a solo act by Irish singer-songwriter and former member of Bananarama, Siobhan Fahey, Shakespears Sister became a duet a year later when Siobhan was joined by American musician Marcella Detroit. Success and accolades followed with two Top 10 albums and a string of hits, including ‘Stay’ which, true to its meaning, stayed at No 1 on the singles chart for eight weeks, winning a 1992 Brit Award for Video of the Year. It also reached the Top 5 in the US. Their second studio album ‘Hormonally Yours’ achieved double platinum in the UK, spending 55 weeks on the charts with three Top 20 singles. It received the 1993 Ivor Novello Award. In May 2019 the duo performed ‘Stay’ on the Graham Norton Show, their first TV performance since 1993.

Siobhan and Marcella both kindly signed my sketch at the London Palladium after their 5 November performance.

Drawing: Sir George Benjamin

Autographed drawing of composer Sir George Benjamin

One of Britain’s greatest living classical composer-conductors, Sir George Benjamin celebrated his 60th birthday leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in A DUET AND A DREAM at London’s Royal Festival Hall in early March this year. From composing at the age of seven Sir George has become one of today’s most prominent composers, conductors, pianists and music teachers, regularly appearing with some of the world’s leading orchestras and ensembles. Sir George taught composition at The Royal College of Music for sixteen years becoming the first Prince Consort Professor of Composition before succeeding Sir Harrison Birtwistle as the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at Kings College London in 2001. The recipient of numerous international accolades, Sir George’s honours include the Commandeer de l’Ordre des Arts des Lettres and a Knighthood.

He kindly signed my sketch at the RFH after one of the Southbank venue’s last performances before it closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. All concerts have been cancelled until December this year.

Drawing: Hozier

Autographed drawing of singer Hozier

Irish singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier-Byrne, known simply as Hozier made his international breakthrough with the single ‘Take Me to Church’ and the subsequent music video which highlights the injustices and violence perpetrated against members of LGBT community. It went viral and multi-platinum in several countries, including the UK, US and Canada and was Grammy nominated in 2015 for Song of the Year. It is a mild tempo soul song, with lyrics using religious terminolgy to describe a romantic relationship. “Growing up, I always saw the hypocrisy of the Catholic church”, Hozier said in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Hozier established the organisation ‘Home Sweet Home’ led by celebrities Saoirse Roman and Glen Hansard. In 2016 it illegally took over an office building in Dublin to house 31 homeless families. Last month he realised ‘Jackboot Jump’, with royalties going to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter.

In early October last year he had a five-night residency at the London Palladium. “Stunning atmospheric performance leaves the audience mesmerised”, headlined Rachael O’Connor’s review in The Irish Post. Hozier kindly signed my drawing that I left at the stage door.

Drawing: Jonas Kaufmann

Autographed drawing of tenor Jonas Kaufman

German operatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann has established himself among the greats. The New York Times described him “as the important tenor of his generation.” The Discover Music website wrote, “Combining the holy trinity of brooding good looks, charismatic stage presence and a powerful and versatile voice.” Jonas began his professional career at Staatstheatre Saarbrucken in 1994. Since then has played all the major operatic roles at all the major venues including his debut at the Royal Opera House in London in 2006-2007 as Don Jose in Bizet’s CARMEN to critical acclaim.

Jonas returned to Covent Garden earlier this year in the Royal Opera’s new production of Beethoven’s only opera FIDELIO as the political prisoner Florestan. In his five star review for The Stage, George Hall wrote, “An announcement excuses Kaufmann for being under the weather, but for his thrilling crescendo on his very first note onwards he is outstanding.” Due to the coronavirus pandemic the run closed in mid March, but Jonas kindly signed my drawing before he left.

Drawing: Bjorn Ulvaeus

Autographed drawing of Bjorn Ulvaeus from Abba

With the cancellation of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which was to have taken place over the weekend in Rotterdam, the BBC aired a tribute substitute EUROVISION: COME TOGETHER, hosted by Graham Norton and featuring a shortlist of 19 songs from the past 65 years with viewers asked to vote for their favourite. ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’, a song about the joys of surrendering to love, was declared the viewers favourite of all time.

Written by the Swedish supergroup’s two B’s – Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson – with lyrics by Stig Anderson, it won the 1974 Eurovision contest held in Brighton, topping the charts in several countries, selling six million copies and launching ABBA’s rapid rise to become one of the most popular international group ever. The previous year they were third with ‘Ring, Ring’.

At the 50th Anniversary of Eurovision in 2005, ‘Waterloo’ was also declared the best song in the competition’s history. After the group split in 1982, it was supposed to be a temporary break, said Benny in a recent interview, but both he and Bjorn were persuaded by Sir Tim Rice to get involved in musical theatre and didn’t see the immediate need to go back to ABBA. They have written the music for two of the most successful and acclaimed West End and Broadway productions, CHESS (1984), the Cold War allegory with Sir Tim and MAMMA MIA! (1999), the jukebox musical written by Catherine Johnson and based on Bjorn and Benny’s backlog of ABBA hits. The title is from their 1975 chart topper.

After Saturday’s tribute show, the BBC joined other European broadcasters to present EUROVISION: EUROPE SHINE A LIGHT, honouring the 41 songs that would have competed in this year’s contest, interviewing, via satellite a host of past winners including Bjorn, who said that the Eurovision celebration “allows you to escape and be happy and even forget about the coronavirus for a little while.”

Appropriately he was a guest on Graham Norton’s BBC Radio 2 show at in September, last year, where he signed this quick portrait sketch for me as he was leaving the studios at Wogan House in London.

Drawing: Lise Davidsen

Autographed drawing of soprano Lise Davidsen

“It’s been a long time since a singer has generated as much buzz as the Norwegian soprano,” wrote the renowned Gramophone magazine in their review of Lise Davidsen’s self-titled debut album of Strauss and Wagner songs late last year. “A name you will want to remember and a voice, once heard, you won’t forget.” She is the first operatic soprano to debut at No 1 in the UK Classical Charts. “This album only reinforces the fact that she is one of the greatest vocal talents to have emerged in recent years, if not decades,” continued the Gramophone review, who awarded her Young Artist of the Year in 2018.

The Financial Times declared her ‘the real deal’. It was not alone with the Scandinavian lyric dramatic soprano gaining universal adoration and agreement that she ‘one of the greatest voices of her generation’.

Lise shot to prominence in the summer of 2015, winning the Queen Sonia Singing Competition in her homeland, before she ‘swept the board’, collecting the three top awards at the prestigious Operalia competition in London as well as being a triple winner at Amsterdam’s Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing contest. A series of acclaimed international Opera followed. Last year she debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the young, rich lover Lisa, in Tchaikovsky’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES, with the New York Time’s Zachary Woolf writing, ” Ms Davidsen’s voice is creamy in texture, but with a silvery shimmer that gives it a penetrating spine.” Her first appearance at the Royal Opera House was in Wagner RING CYCLE in 2018, returning this year alongside Jonas Kaufmann as the free-loving, cross-dressing, husband-rescuing heroine Lenore in Beethoven’s FIDELIO. The production sold out within 24 hours.

In his Backtrack review David Karlin wrote, “Covent Garden has seen many great role debuts over the years, but I doubt there have been many with quite the level of self-assurance.” Unfortunately the season was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which included a live screening to cinemas of the final performance on 17 March. Fortunately I managed to get Lise to sign my drawing of her in the Met role before the lockdown.

Drawing: Paul Simonon, The Clash

Autographed drawing of musician Paul Simonon of The Clash

British punk and experimental rock group The Clash’s landmark double-album LONDON CALLING, was released in the winter of 1979. To mark the 40th Anniversary, the British Film Institute screened Don Lett’s Grammy Award-winning doco, THE CLASH: WESTWAY TO THE WORLD, forty years to the day on 14 December 2019 with the band’s original members Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in attendance.

The apocalyptic, politically charged title track, written by the late Joe Strummer and Mick was influenced by the BBC World Service call signal and the panic that resulted in the Three Mile Island nuclear scare. The era-defining record is regarded as one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. It was voted the Best Album of the 1980’s a decade later by Rolling Stone ranking it number 8 of all time and, in 2004 The Clash were ranked at number 28 on it’s Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list.

The iconic cover design by Ray Lowry was based on Elvis Presley’s self-titled 1956 debut LP. It features the classic photo by Pennie Smith of the band’s bass guitarist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision guitar in frustration at the bouncers stopping audience members from standing up out of their seats on the Palladium’s stage in New York on 20 December 1979. Pennie thought the image was too far out of focus and didn’t want it used, but Joe and Ray thought otherwise. In 2001 Q magazine called it the best ever rock ‘n roll photo, commenting, “it captured the ultimate rock and roll moment – total loss of control”. It also selected it the 9th best album cover design of all time.

I drew this montage sketch of Paul, including his immortalised instrument demolition, but my attempts to get it signed at the BFI event was thwarted by the large gathering of fans with similar ambitions, so I sent it to his home and he kindly signed and returned it.
The Museum of London also hosted an exclusive exhibition, LONDON CALLING:40 YEARS OF THE CLASH featuring over 100 personal items including Paul’s broken fender, which I visited last November.

Photo of The Clash smashed guitar from London Calling album cover

Drawing: Stephen Schwartz

Autographed drawing of composer Stephen Schwartz

I had the good fortune to meet one of the great contemporary composers and lyricists last night at the West End opening for his new musical THE PRINCE OF EGYPT at London’s Dominion Theatre. Winner of three Academy Awards, three Grammys, and nominated for six Tony Awards and an Olivier, Stephen Schwartz added ten new songs to the original five he wrote for the original 1998 DreamWorks Animation feature for the stage adaption, which is directed by his son Scott. He won the Best Original Song Oscar for ‘When We Believe’.

Stephen made his name with GODSPELL in 1971, his hippy-era, communal-clownish presentation of Christ’s parables and now returns to the Good Book with the story of Moses as a once prince of Egypt who leads the children of Israel out of Egypt. It debuted at Mountain View Centre for the Performing Arts in Silicon Valley, California in October 2017 and had its international premiere at The Fredericia Theatre in Denmark in April 2018, followed by a summer season at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen last year.

Stephen’s stage hits include PIPPIN (1972) and WICKED (2003) and his film successes GODSPELL (1973), POCAHONTAS (1995), THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996) He won a Golden Globe, a Grammy and two Oscars for Original Score and Original Song (‘Colours of the Wind’) for POCAHONTAS.

In 2015 he was the recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award.
Luckily I caught Stephen after he did his press interviews at the Dominion Theatre, where he was happy to sign my portrait sketch.