Sunday, 27 May 2007

O lambent flame

In 1951 the 28-year-old Peter Ustinov got the part of Nero in Quo Vadis. He was required to sing a lament to the burning Rome and, as it was a big-scale production and the director Mervyn Leroy was, with reason, unsure of Ustinov’s vocal talents, they sent him to a distinguished professor at the Rome Opera House who had been offered a substantial financial inducement to give him three singing lessons. The account of how they went has been told many times, often by Ustinov…….

He delivered to me the pith of his first year’s singing course in a single lesson:
“Always, as I tell Gobbi, always breathe with the forehead.”

I wrinkled my brow as though it contained a small pulse. He was enchanted. Never, he informed me, had any pupil been quicker on the uptake.

At the start of the second lesson, he asked me what I remembered of the first lesson.
“Breathe with the..?” he asked
“Forehead” I replied.
“Bravo!” he cried, “What a memory! Really fantastic”.

Now followed the second lesson, containing all I would learn in the second year, in concentrated form. “As I tell Gobbi, think with the diaphragm,” he said.

I adopted a constipated look, which seemed to me the outward proof that my diaphragm was wrapped in thought. I set the pulse going in my forehead at the same time.

“My God, it’s fantastic, fantastic! One at a time, yes, perhaps, but both together, so soon! Fantastic! What a talent!”

Before the third and final lesson he decided on the usual refresher.
“Da capo,” he said “Breathe with the…?
“Bravo! Think with the…?”

And here followed the third and most difficult lesson.
“As I say to Gobbi, always, in all circumstances, sing…with the eye!”

I came away as enriched musically as the professor had been enriched financially, and whereas those who saw the film might not have guessed that I was thinking with my diaphragm or indeed breathing with my forehead, I fear it was painfully obvious that I was singing with my eye.

[In later years, of course, Ustinov was able to display his talent as composer, tenor, soprano, bass and as a variety of instruments, notably in the one-act opera Die Zauberposaune and in Three Depressing Love Songs: from Spain, The Story of the Girl Who Always Fell for the Wrong Bull; from Russia, The Song of the Peasant Whose Tractor Has Betrayed Him, and from Norway, The Story of the Gnome Slighted by a Dilatory Troll.]

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