Singing, cherry blossom and Caruso before a visit to the Voice Doctor


A self-styled pedant told me yesterday that I had written Marie Celeste instead of Mary Celeste in yesterday’s blog. Thanks for that, corrections are helpful, but I thought how disappointing that a name I had always thought beautiful was maybe just less so all of a sudden.

This thought stayed with me this morning whilst I was thinking about singing, cherry blossom and Caruso. I wondered if I would have been so inspired by the sound of those old scratchy recordings of Caruso and Gigli if the boyhood me had not been so inspired, by I am sure, the largely apocryphal stories about the great singers of the past. Sometimes, you have to make your own World and fill it with your own logic and, maybe, your own inaccuracies.

I am about to go off to hospital again for another consultant’s check-up. All you critics of Barrack Obama’s healthcare reform package just take a note if you will of the amazing level of care that has come my way free of charge in the British NHS system. Today I am going to see an Adult Voice consultant because I lost my voice last summer to what might have been a virus. It is still not back to normal and there is just a chance that a viral infection could have led to my brain haemorrhage. We will see.

One thing that the virus did do, no question, is stop most of my singing activities. I studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music and since those days when I wanted to be the greatest singer of my generation, I have mostly been happy enough to do the odd piece of singing two or three times a year.

Being a tenor was always a ticket to popularity in amateur or semi-professional music groups so I can look back with pleasure at being the tenor soloist in this or that Schubert, Haydn or Mozart mass, the odd recital and some highly enjoyable one to a voice performances of Renaissance music, especially I remember the Victoria Requiem and the Byrd Four Part Mass.

Not after last summer though and I have struggled even to do party pieces when I have sung round proverbial campfires with friends on guitar, banjo, ukulele and maracas. I have recently been doing a mixed repertoire which includes Rodgers and Hart, the Bonzo Dog Band and Elvis Presley to say nothing about “I like bananas because they have no bones.”

Well, I hope the Adult Voice doctor will help get my my voice back even if all my friends and neighbours would rather I left it where it is.

So where did that love of singing come from? It all came flooding back to me yesterday listening to a recording of the new tenor wonder Juan Diego Florez (see yesterday’s blog) who sings in a manner which I thought had gone for good as far as tenors were concerned.

I could criticise him at times for not always putting enough imagination into some of his phrases but this is quibbling in the face of the phenomenal. He just is great beyond any doubt and most definitely has The Voice. It was his version of Una Furtiva Lagrima that sent my mind off into the distant past.

It was what I wanted to be when I was an impressionable teenager finding that I could sing better than most other people I knew. This became my dream after listening to a radio programme about the first tenor to become a recording star, Enrico Caruso.

The voice got me first of course. In spite of the crackly distant sound of those recordings made in the early years of the 20th. Century, here was a big golden voice packed with passion. I have been hooked on it ever since.

Oh and those stories, apochyphal or not: mostly it was an aria from Donizetti’s opera L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elexir of Love) where the young tenor sings Una Furtiva Lagrima one of the most beautiful Italian operatic arias in the whole repertoire.

I loved Caruso’s recording of this but loved it more knowing that it was a role he played right at the end of his career when he had to come off stage, terminally ill with blood coming from his mouth only to re-enter singing this music of youthful hope through melancholy.

Then there was Caruso’s successor, Beniamino Gigli whose crackly but slightly less ancient recordings similarly set me alight. He too recorded a memorable version of Una Furtiva Lagrima.

Gigli had a god-given voice, as they say, he sang as he sang without the benefit of years of training and he with Caruso have remained up there for me at the top of my list with my imaginary memories of Rubini, the 19th. Century tenor I mentioned yesterday and whose direct heir seems to be the young Mr. Florez.

Gigli, again I don’t want to know if this is right or wrong, misplaced his passport once when returning to Italy and the security guard said that he couldn’t enter the country. Gigli put down his case, opened his mouth and sang Verdi’s La donna e mobile and the security guard, well he was Italian, said he could come in because he could only be the great Gigli.

Singing was like that for me – it was the highest form of communication, a direct route to the heart.

So the schoolboy learnt Una Furtiva Lagrima and on an April morning in London’s Regent Park, I walked backwards and forwards under a line of blossoming cherry trees hoping and praying that those high notes would still be there when I had to do this terrible, terrifying and life changing audition at the Royal Academy of Music which stood just yards away from me but which seemed to belong to another universe.


Those prayers by the way were to Caruso and Gigli of course and they responded immediately.

If I didn’t become the greatest tenor of my generation then at least I learnt many other things that day.

Standing in that grand room, at coffee time, traffic humming outside with a panel of distinguished singers sitting behind a mahogany table, I had to summon up enough courage to be Caruso just for a moment. More than that, I had to be Caruso singing his last great version of that aria – singing for my life.

Nothing before or since has been anything like as frightening or, I think, as difficult but I did it and got the conservatoire place.

I appeared calm, I think, sang with passion and hit all the right notes in the right places and even managed to play a Mozart piano sonata with hands made of jelly and finish with singing the Mozart aria Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni.

When I left the building I was shaking and all I could think of doing was to return to that avenue of cherry trees. It was there that I calmed down and realized that I had achieved something major in my life. I hadn’t become a singer of course but I had learnt how to marshal my strength against impossible odds. I will never be as nervous of anything ever again.

Cherry Trees will always be for me a symbol of joy at its most exciting. I plant one wherever I can.

Here is Caruso, well you have to hear him, singing Una Furtiva Lagrima in 1904:

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