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On the anniversary of Cathy Berberian's birth,
JENNIFER PAULL investigates the legendary musician's
extraordinary talents in humouristic performance,
and her equally astounding wardrobe


High Jinx: Noisy and mischievous merrymaking --, 'an encyclodictionalmanacapedia' -- (Gold Medallist of the Website Kitsch-Word Honorary Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Cathy Poppins (WK-WHSCP) Award)

Haute Couture: 'Haute couture was invented there [Paris] at the end of the 19th century and has felt most at home there ever since. [Its] influence in the world of fashion may even go as far back as the court of Louis XIV.' -- Label France Magazine © The [French] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 1996.

One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art. -- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish poet and dramatist, author of the comic masterpieces 'Lady Windermere's Fan' (1892) and 'The Importance of Being Earnest' (1895).

Cathy Berberian. Photo © Sergio Poggi
Cathy Berberian. Photo © Sergio Poggi

Cathy Berberian, herself, was a work of art. She also served as a clotheshorse for many stylishly imaginative creations of her own [see page 8], those of others, or a combination of the two. We take it for granted today that Elton John wore co-ordinated suits, hats and glasses, which he sold for huge sums of money (for charity) when choosing to adopt a more conventional concert appearance.

To quote one of her 'friends' on the subject of her attire (Cathy Berberian Cant'atrice -- Marie Christine Vila, page 66):

She chose her own wardrobe, coming home laden with suitcases bursting with appalling American clothes', recalls Robert Leydi, who describes the frames of her glasses as being in every colour so that she could team them with her dresses. [translated by this author with full consent]

What, one wonders today, was so outrageous in matching one's spectacles (as presumably one's fan and handbag) to a fashionable outfit?

I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish. -- Edith Sitwell (1886-1964), English poet and novelist

After her split from Berio in the mid 1960s, Cathy introduced the element of humour increasingly in her battle to 'bring back fun and laughter to the concert stage'. She had been a huge admirer of Anna Russell and Joyce Grenfell and was to take her musical high jinx along to the next generation. I am thinking in particular of Julia Migenes' Diva on the Verge, a brilliant one-woman show full of double entendres, intellectual quadruple Salchows à la Cathy, and dazzling singing/ acting in today's overt sensual-sexiness.

Cathy's approach to sensuality on stage was never physically blatant, yet less innocent than Anna Russell or Joyce Grenfell who were very ladylike. Her plays on words, however, were outrageously intellectually sexy with double and even triple entendres sailing way above the heads of almost everybody. She was very cunning and playful in her use of liberated sexuality: an activist for freethinkers. You had to be one yourself to grasp her polyglot wit as outrageous snippets were astutely concealed behind many language barriers. She was the one calling the shots, playing the game, and getting away with it! [Harold Lester and his souvenirs (with my own) of their many concerts given together.]

She could be very 'naughty' with a straight face, by the rolling of her eyes, the shaking of a plume inserted into her tresses (which were her own, not a wig as almost everybody imagined), or the hiding of her face behind a fan. Unlike MIgenes, she did not expose cleavage or strike obviously meaningful poses. Cathy was at her prime during a different climate standard. Had she been performing in the present unrestrained ambiance and senza the Berio restrictions [see page 7] with which she was finally able to dispense, Cathy Berberian might have adopted today's norm; then again, she might not. Intellectual sensuality was her forte in performance although she was a very strikingly good-looking lady with an amazingly charismatic stage presence. I doubt that she could have concealed quite as much word fun had she appeared overtly sexy. Covering up the body allowed her to bare the mind.

Julia Migenes' DVD: Diva on the Verge
Julia Migenes' DVD: Diva on the Verge

In the recital A la recherche de la musique perdue (to which Cathy referred as her 'Proust' or 'Kitsch' recital), she would deliberately sing a chanson by César Cui (1835-1918) whose name (particularly in France) she would pronounce with a very thick Anglo-Saxon accent (sans the French u). The composer's name alone (in her spoken introduction to his work) set off the audience into fits of uncontrollable giggles. In colloquial French, those organs (rhyming with the above-mentioned eyewear) removed in an attempt to sustain a beautiful treble voice, are known as couilles. A pity he didn't think to adopt the transliteration of the Cyrillic as the norm for his moniker -- Cezar Antonovic Kjui. It may sound the same but would have been better PR and certainly less spherical.

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Copyright © 4 July 2006 Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland


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