A PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO ROSSIGNOL.
Derek Isaac Rossignol ( born Rosenberg) 14/03/1923 Kimberley, South Africa. Died 26/12/2010 Malérargues, France.
This was a man who lived an incredibly full and rich life that began beside the diamond mines of Kimberley , S. Africa, and ended in a château in the beautiful Cevennes, S. of France. In the course of his life he touched many people’s hearts in so many different ways. He was a special man and artist, who, though he took the name of that most poetic of birds, the nightingale, in 1973, was definitely not flighty. He was one of the most constant, dignified, open people you could ever hope to meet. He could be infuriating at times and his peculiar sense of humour with its acid, grating edge that upset more than a few sensitive souls was not always welcome. But teasing aside, he was a man of great integrity with no axes to grind. He was warm , outgoing , and open to everyone and everything. How many times were we greeted by a smiling Rossignol leaning out of his bedroom window to see who had just arrived at the château, or hear him calling out ‘hello’ or ‘who’s that?’ from his open sitting room door as we walked up the main staircase in the château. The students who met him socially over a coffee or at a lunch out the back were always impressed by his theatrical charm and his easy way of connecting. And as a teacher right to the end he gave out an incredible energy and vitality that belied his advancing years. With age he did become less confrontational and more systematic. What student over the past 20 years has not played with Boris, Antonio, Delila and Violetta, his version of violin, viola, cello and double bass? But he still demanded a lot of the pupil with a mixture of warmth, cajoling and technical precision. He was known all over the world, and I love the story told me by a French pupil of his, who whilst travelling in Italy, got talking with a Dutch nun he had met in the gardens of a monastery. When he told her that he was going back to the South of France to continue working on his voice, she replied with a smug look on her face ‘to work with Rossignol, I bet’. He was understandably taken aback by this miraculous intuition!
Rossignol was a man of many parts and many passions. At school he was an excellent athlete who when only 16 set a South African junior record for long jump of over 20 feet ( 6 metres +) and used to ‘soar over the hurdles with astounding grace ‘ according to one of his classmates with whom he used to roller skate to school quite frequently. In his late teens he took up the piano again after a break of many years and taught himself to play the most complicated of piano pieces by Lizt, Schumann , Beethoven and co. His younger cousin Lin Freeman remembers many happy hours spent with Rossi when she was a teenager, with him playing the piano and she dancing. By then Rossi himself had discovered dancing and would secretly climb out of his bedroom window every evening, whilst supposedly revising for his engineering exams at university, to go and rehearse with the ballet company he had joined. He rapidly became one of the company’s leading male dancers with the stage name of Serge Dimitrov and a fantastic leap. Only after he had passed his exams at the third or fourth attempt was his cousin allowed to take one of the uncles, who had been paying for his education following the early death of both his parents, to see a dance performance. When the uncle proclaimed early on in the evening ‘ but that dancer looks extraordinarily like Derek !’ his cousin replied ’ It is Derek!’ You can imagine the shock!
Thus dancing became his passion and brought him to London where he dreamed of becoming a top Ballet dancer. However the competition was much tougher than he had expected and he never made it to the top but he did dance with many different companies, notably the Ballet Rambert, run by a tyrannical Mme. Rambert who often used to exclaim disparagingly ‘ look at those kipper feet’ ( a reference to his very flat feet, which in later years became so sensitive he could only wear a certain type of sandal. In that respect he was a true Pisces.) He also danced with the Sadlers Wells company and eventually went into musicals where he met Barry Irwin and Robert Harvey. It was because he was required to sing (he himself later said he had no voice at all) that he and Robert decided to take lessons with a certain Roy Hart. They both had their first lesson on the same day in 1955, one after the other. And for both of them it was an encounter that was to change the direction and the meaning of their lives.
Rossignol was a ‘bon vivant’ who loved good food and good wine, which he ordered directly by the case from his favourite wine dealers. He was an excellent cook and generous host. Right up until the last months when he could no longer get around his kitchen he would make delicious soups from vegetables bought in the Lasalle Monday market. Garlic, ginger and cardamom were the staple spices with nutmeg the extra ingredient for his pumpkin soup.
He loved living at Malérargues with its trees, its flowers, its hills, and for many years he was a keen gardener planting irises, daffodils, forsythia, lilacs and many other bushes and trees. This autumn for the first time the persimmons tree that he had planted on the front terrace some years ago bore many golden fruit much to his immense satisfaction. His favourite tree was of course the purple flowering jacaranda and the last time he went back to South Africa to visit his brother in Johannesburg he burst into tears when he saw whole avenues of them in bloom. His big regret was that it is almost impossible to get them to grow here.
Another enormous passion of Rossignol’s in the second half of his life were stones and sculptures. Many years ago in London he had had a dream in which he had found some magic stones that if spoken to could turn into human beings. Then one day in the ‘80’s the dream became reality. And from then on when he wasn’t teaching, performing or just socializing, he would be busy putting bodies and faces onto stones, shells and sometimes pieces of wood. Hours would be spent on visits to beaches around Montpellier collecting stones that spoke to him with faces already apparent or waiting to be revealed. He would then carry them back to the car in several very full and heavy plastic bags , usually with help from friends. Once home they would be added to the pile of stones on his bedroom floor and at the earliest possible opportunity he would start working on his next creation, filing , scraping, drilling, plastering and painting. Gradually his apartment became filled with a rich world of characters, both human and animal ( and also a lot of dust!) and every birthday that came up was an occasion for him to choose one to give as a present. I think we must have all received at least one sculpture over the years!
But most of all Rossi was a wonderful performer with a very expressive vocabulary of dance and mime movements and gestures, allied to a beautiful deep, soulful bass baritone voice. Who amongst us can forget his last public performance at Malérargues in June 2007 when he sang “Old Man River” with such feeling and depth. The words ‘tired of living and scared of dying’ struck home in such a poignant and palpable way . Here was this 84 year old man , already suffering unbeknownst to him self from fibrositis of the lungs, singing his heart out in a very generous and dignified way about the approaching end to his life. Totally giving, totally unsentimental. A huge lesson in life. Rossignol probably performed in more RHT performances than any other RHT member to date. He was good to work with. But with all his talents and gifts he always remained utterly humble. There was never a sense of arrogance or ego about him. If anything rather the opposite. He tended to downplay himself and his gifts both as a teacher and as a performer. Without doubt his favourite role as a performer was the role of the hunchback in “Pagliacci”, where he was able to fully use his gifts for mime and comedy and where his voice could be heard in all its richness and its rawness. Whenever we showed our 5 week students extracts of the “Pagliacci” video he would always become tearful watching himself and the others perform.
Rossignol was a dear friend to me for over thirty years and I miss him a lot. When I think of him now I see the easy smile, and the sparkle in his eyes that so many others mentioned in their letters of condolence. I see his elegant and expressive arm and hand gestures and above all I hear his lovely deep bass voice and his laugh. Right up to the end his voice stayed clear and resonant ,both on the phone and when ever you knocked on his door. The ‘come in’ would sound firm and even angry sometimes, especially if you happened to be the fourth person in a row to knock on the door that morning. Yes, he was a tough old bird, ‘un rossignol solide’ who fought to the bitter end to maintain his dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. Only once did he say to me that he felt like giving up.
He has left us quite a legacy for which I for one am grateful. Today we moved the piano he was given by the RHT for his 60th birthday out of his apartment and into Studio 3. May his commitment and his humanity live on in our work.
I wandered the streets of Paris this cold, clear winter day remembering and remembering those wonderful bright eyes of Rossignol – and how often he would call down to me from his window when I walked past the front of the château. That same window that he threw open before singing:
“Si puo, si puo signore et signori…….” some thirty years ago. I once asked him which was his favourite performance and unequivocally he answered:
“Pagliacci”. I would agree with him because undoubtedly in this performance he found all the complexity, humanity, humour and tragedy of a dark soul. One of Sweden’s most famous actors once told me that he had never encountered such humility in an actor as with Rossignol, in this performance. A deep respectful complement from one artist to another. There was a humility in Rossignol sometimes almost a diffidence, a touching, vulnerable nervousness that constantly seemed to question his abilities, but, he was never diffident in his teaching and never sentimental. I can remember one lesson when I was thinking: “If he asks me to give any more I think I am going to die!”
It is hard now to re-imagine the limit of exhaustion he asked for – and yet, now I understand that he would never ask you for more than he would demand of himself. This was my teacher – a man who had climbed out of the window in secret in order that he could follow his passion – “to dance”!
We toured together with “Pagliacci” for five years – years of joyful artistic pleasure.
His next role – Queequeg in “Moby Dick” – was for me one of his most poignant. The dignified humanity with which he gathered the fragile Pip into his arms was a moment pure love – a moment that only an actor with a great soul could understand.
Both Rossignol and I were born white Africans and though he came from South Africa and I came from Kenya we had a lot in common – not the least the same extraordinary teacher, Cecil Williams, a white South African who was forced into exile for his engagement with the Anti-Apartheid movement and a collaborator of Nelson Mandela. I never spoke about my engagement in the anti-apartheid movement with Rossignol but I would often think of it in relation to Queequeg, who in a quiet way is a militant of human rights….. it is one of those questions that I wish that I had asked him.
In the last years, the last days what strikes me most is the quality and presence of Rossignol’s voice. I will sadly miss hearing him say, in his slightly ironical, old fashioned way:
“Well, my dear…….”
My heart is heavy dear Rossignol but your voice will always fly to me from those windows – and I pray too your soul flies joyfully…….