She sang once more – In praise of brave and brilliant Connie Fisher

baftaI got to meet Connie Fisher at BAFTA the other day. I was far too excited. I mean bar ‘brown paper packages tied up with string’ she’s always been one of my favourite things. I too had wanted to grow up to be Maria Von Trapp as a child (so much so I broke the VHS copy of the Sound of Music from overuse) and I shared in Connie’s joy after she, a sparky, short haired 23 year old with an outrageously perfect soprano voice triumphed and won the role in the Andrew Lloyd Webber TV show ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria’? She was so nice (despite my lame attempts at conversation,spanning from Carrie Grant’s hair to being a properly Welsh Megan) she even gave me her card which I was foolish enough to lose (along with my whole bag!!!) on the way home- I was gutted! All in all my inner 11 year old self was overwhelmed, it was thrilling to meet someone I have admired so much and for them to be so friendly in person

However, had I seen her documentary Connie Fisher: I’ll Sing Once More prior to meeting her I would have had even greater admiration for her talent, dedication and perseverance. The documentary chronicles her struggle with voice problems as a popped blood vessel during her run in the Sound of Music, led her doctors to discover an underlying condition called congenital sulcus vocalis, meaning she had holes in her vocal chords. After extensive vocal surgery she was told she would never sing again.

I cannot even begin to imagine how it feels to be told the one thing that comes as naturally to you as breathing, that has been such a gigantic part of your life, your career, that you are incredible at and successful in has suddenly become potentially impossible. Connie’s openness and honesty in recounting the experience, the pressures of trying to please the public who had voted for her and the toll of learning that her voice was permanently damaged is very admirable. Connie is frank about her struggles with depression during this period, her dependence on anti-inflammatory drugs to keep her voice able to hit the high notes and the ensuing bodily and mental changes that occurred as a result of this.

In my comparatively meager career as a performance poet (and as a depressive) I have often had to perform in the throes of depression and anxiety. It can be terrifying to have to maintain the performance, to please the audience, to talk to them afterwards. However, for Connie with all the public expectation and pressure and in conjunction with coming to terms with the developments with her voice, I can only imagine how exhausting and strenuous the experience must have been. Emma Thompson has said of her 15 month West End run in Me and My Girl ‘I became clinically depressed…Maybe it was because I had to be so cheerful every night!’ and similarly singing that glorious, yet relentlessly positive Rodgers and Hammerstein score day and night when one is hurting inside and making it look like you are not, is a thankless and difficult task.

Connie’s documentary not only recounts the ordeal of discovering and dealing with her vocal condition but also follows her as she starts vocal therapy with LA ‘voice builder’ Gary Catona. She approaches him with a probably sensible level of cynicism to begin with, his glitzy YouTube video featuring soundbites from the likes of Liza Minnelli and Lionel Richie casts him as a Messiah-like fixer of voices- it all sounds a bit too good to be true.

The struggle to accept his unconventional methods, to deal with the fact that there may not be a fairytale positive result is evident and displayed in Connie’s tears, in both her triumphs and moments of defeat. And until medical science advances and exciting new surgical technology,such as an amazing sounding injectable gel which may be able to literally fill in the gaps of  the vocal chords, that voice may never fully recover. However, what Connie achieves throughout the course of the documentary is pretty miraculous.

She is triumphant, as she sings the gorgeous ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ to an enthralled and delighted Shirley MacLaine, who endured similar difficulties herself and also sought the help of Gary Catona.Connie emotionally sings ‘Happy Birthday’ down the phone to her jubilant nan. Her beautiful mid-lesson rendition of ‘Natural Woman’ has a quiet gorgeous power which surpasses her full-voice phenomenal performance during the first week of ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria’ (a performance which made me back her from the beginning), due to what a moment it is for Connie: a beautiful, brave and bold breakthrough.

The conclusion of the programme is an emotional return to perform at the Palladium, the site of the 2006 Sound of Music production. She sings the musical’s title track beautifully and leaving the stage she looks happy to me (to me, to me) and deservedly so. To even get on stage and sing Connie shines courageous and burns as bright as her glorious (Carrie Grant Red) hair!

The documentary airs on BBC 4 on Sunday 12th July at 8pm and I firmly command all to watch, whether you are interested in musical theatre or not, it’s an amazing story of perseverance and struggle from a phenomenal talent. Thanks to Connie for so generously sharing her talent and her difficulties, it is refreshing to see someone open up on such a personal and emotional condition- she inspired me all that time ago and now even more so.

In honour of Connie and her incredible journey, here’s my poem on my childhood ambition to play Maria Von Trapp, entitled Vontrapped:

Vontrapped
When I was young I wanted to be a nun,
to run through a meadow
and bellow from the top of my lungs:
‘the hills are alive with the sound of’ fruitless
attempts to represent the endless eloquence of Julie Andrews,
the soprano singer heaven sent.
And I went too far, or so it seems,
I climbed every mountain in pursuit of my dreams.
It was my ultimate goal to solve a problem like Maria.
Couldn’t stand to be Liesl or Brigitta,
it simply had to be her,
no matter how.
I couldn’t kick the habit
having made one to wear out of a tea towel.
I’d howl and yodel the same old words,
like a lonely goatherd
in the high hills of Salzburg,
in an empty living room,
all afternoon,
believing every word was true.
So consumed I presumed that
brown paper packages tied up with string
had the potential to be one of my favourite things.
And that if you can sing it brings lightness to even the
gloomiest of occasions,
like escaping the incoming Nazi invasion.
This film was the persuasion
that an ex-naval officer makes the best kind of lover
and there was no man on Earth as dashing
as Christopher Plummer.
I wanted to have a Reverend Mother
and seven Austrian children whose singing talent I’d uncover.
But my plans were scuppered.
I was Vontrapped by the fact that
there wasn’t a Nazi or nunnery in sight.
I didn’t actually even believe in Jesus Christ.
And I was only seven years old,
couldn’t sew and thus wouldn’t know
how to use a needle pulling thread
to turn my curtains into clothes.
And I played that video so much it eventually broke
but as Maria said herself
‘when God closes a door, he opens a window’

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