Wednesday, 30 November 2005

My career in opera

The longest singing career ever was probably that of Danshi Toyotaki of Hyogo, Japan, who sang in Musume Gidayu for 91 years from the age of seven. A friend of mine was still singing in public in his ninetieth year, but he’s not a contender because he didn’t have lessons and start singing seriously until his seventies. Several of the great prima donnas of the past, and some tenors or baritones, carried on, in most cases with declining greatness, for many decades; I have not searched the internet to find out who sang on the longest, but I expect some knowledgeable friend will tell me. However, when it comes to the record for the shortest career ever on the operatic stage, then if you count abortive attempts there is no doubt that I am the holder.

I have been a keen bath singer since early childhood and have once or twice sung publicly in a jokey sort of way (and I don’t mean karaoke), not being too inhibited by the lack of anything in the nature of a voice. It might be said of me, as Bernard Miles said of one of his characters, that I have a belly-full of music but a bad road out.

So I was immensely flattered when I was invited to take part in a performance of Tosca in a country house venue in Sussex. It was no small scale production: there were distinguished internationally known singers as the soprano Tosca and the bass-baritone Scarpia. The husband of the soprano was directing, and as friends of mine the two of them thought I might like to fill in as they were a bit short in the chorus department.

I had some misgivings but took it very seriously from the start. The soprano tested me with a few scales and gave me some hints about what to do with my diaphragm, how to breathe and so on, and then told me that I would probably be all right. One problem was that I can’t really read music, and I went to the trouble of driving down to Dorset for some practice with my niece who is a musician so that I could get most of the notes more or less right from memory.

[The picture is not of this production, which was in modern dress; we were to be dressed as Mafia hoods.]

Then rehearsals began. The director was very kind and helpful to me, as were my colleagues in the chorus, talented amateurs or semi-professionals, but I became increasingly unhappy. In my mature years I am no longer much afraid of making a fool of myself because life has already done it, but I began to realise that I was just not going to be any good, even in an undemanding chorus role.

So I went to my friends and said I am very sorry, but I just can’t do it. If they had been angry and complained about me leaving them one short in the chorus at the last minute I wouldn’t have blamed them, but the final embarrassment was that they were terribly nice: no, not at all, quite understand, don’t worry about it.

And so ended my career, a week or two before it was to begin. My wife and I went to see the performance, of course, and very good it was. But I never liked Tosca much, and now I can’t even bear to listen to it, or for that matter anything else by Puccini.


Minerva said...

I think that is remarkably brave of you, not the putting forward for the singing bit, any fool can do that, but the realisation that you couldn't do it and would be letting the rest of the chorus down..
Bravo Tony!!

Minerva (and just a leeeetle gap...)

Tony said...

What d'you mean, leeetle gap? It's just as large and unnecessary as all your gaps. Do get a grip.