Books: Even As We Speak — A Voice is Born |
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A Voice is Born

If you love music, you can’t be tone-deaf: the only reason you can’t hold a tune is that you haven’t got the notes. More than a year ago, this was one of the first things my singing teacher Ian Adam said to me when I edged through his door like a dental patient. Ian Adam is famous within the showbiz world for his ability to turn actors into singers so that they can star in musicals and thus do what actors like to do best — stunningly reveal a hitherto unsuspected talent. Ian’s lack of fame outside the showbiz world is due not just to his innate modesty, but to the touching reluctance of the stars in question to concede that the hitherto unsuspected talent was ever less than fully formed. Yet almost invariably the talent was scarcely there to be suspected before Ian Adam helped them reveal it, or — in the majority of cases, but let’s keep that a secret — supplied it in its entirety.

The latter is certainly what he is doing for me. I was never an actor, but still less was I ever a singer. In the forty-five years between the demoralizing month in which my once pure alto voice broke and the blessed day I slunk up to his door in South Kensington, there was hardly a tune I could carry, with the possible exceptions of the first phrase of ‘Che gelida manina’ (all on the one note) and selected fragments of Cole Porter’s ‘True Love’ (written specifically for Grace Kelly after it was discovered that she had the vocal range of a mouse trapped under a cushion). I couldn’t even sing ‘Happy Birthday’ successfully. With the arrogant humility of the wounded animal, this was the first thing I confessed to my new mentor, and he began the necessary soothing process by saying he was not surprised: ‘Happy Birthday’ is actually quite hard — something about the interval leading up to ‘birthday’ in the third line being impossible to manage if you haven’t got the notes in between. ‘But that’s why you’re here, dear boy. Now let’s breathe.’ And he started showing me how to breathe.

Learning how to breathe was the nominal reason for my attendance. I had been told by several musical people that some singing training might help stave off a problem with my speaking voice which was starting to show up with advancing age. When I go to market in television, my speaking voice is the only thing I’ve got to sell. Nobody stays tuned for the bewitching symmetry of my features: if I can’t address the audience in my trademark effortless drone, I’m a dead duck, and I had begun to notice that after a two-day studio rehearsal for a big show, when I got to the taping session on the second evening I was a bit short of puff, and hoarseness threatened. A hoarse effortless drone could be a switch-off.

Having been assured that the antidote lay in diaphragm breathing, and that this was something only a singing teacher could teach, I fronted up for the cure, and in no time started feeling the benefits of breathing deeply for the first time in my life. The secret is to get all the air out by pulling your diaphragm in, and then, by letting your diaphragm out, filling your lungs entirely with brand-new air. If you breathe with only your chest, the way most of us do all the time, you’re running on just the top half of a fuel tank, and the bottom half might as well contain marsh gas. The technique is soon learned, although it takes years, starting young, to master it completely. (Any of those three tenors can take on a full load with a single twitch and you won’t even see it happen unless you’re ogling his abdomen instead of the soprano’s cleavage.) But you don’t have to be that good. After your first week of proper breathing, your teacher has already established the basis on which he can start cleaning up the mess you made of your singing voice after it broke. Women don’t have the same problem, but they, too, have to learn to breathe properly if they want to add a few soaring notes above the squeak they always thought they were stuck with, and the main reason they squeak is that there isn’t any air coming out, because they haven’t taken any in.

You will have guessed already that behind the nominal reason there was a real reason. Wanting to be Jussi Björling or Giuseppe di Stefano and sing all those wonderful arias into the adoring face of Victoria de los Angeles or Maria Callas — that was a dream. But just wanting to sing a pretty popular song — that seemed a real, legitimate possibility, except that it was impossible, seductively near yet cruelly out of reach. After four bars of my ‘Strangers In The Night’ strangers were talking about noise pollution. And now here was this kind gentleman telling me it didn’t have to be like that. Yes, I would be able to sing those golden standards and even a few carefully selected arias too. But first I had to realize the crucial importance of the magic word ‘support’. He pointed to my nether regions. The focus of the whole business, he explained, is not up there in the head and throat, but down there behind the scrotum. With singing, the standard military exhortation in times of danger applies in all cases: you have to keep a tight arsehole. The only tension should be in your tripes, not in your gullet. Try to sing exclusively from the throat and you’ll bust a gut.

Clenching the fundament as you expel your full tank of clean air upwards over the vocal chords, you support the voice. That way, the few notes you’ve already got won’t crack or slide about, and you are creating the opportunity to add new ones on top of them. The initial work of augmentation is done through vocal exercises. Ian has perfected a set of these which are niftily designed to circumvent your perennial expectations of failure by springing on you by surprise the missing note he has decided you are just about ready to hit. When you first hit it, it sounds lousy, but this is the precise point where he reveals himself as a master psychologist. Well aware that a honking klutz like me dreams of unfurling shimmering skeins of melisma in the upper register like Tito Schipa, he knows that the main psychological inhibition is the fear of sounding less than perfect. He convinces you that when you hit the note in any form, however horrendous, the job is already done.

The rest is just the mechanical work of lifting the roof of the mouth, keeping the lower jaw back, hoiking it up at the sides, flattening the back of the tongue, maintaining the support, and so on ad seemingly infinitum. Just all that, but lesson by lesson you can hear the new note sounding more natural. Flatteringly — and, wonder of wonders, believably — he assures you that it sounds far less forced than any notes you’ve already got. Meanwhile he is already helping you build the next note up the scale. Again it starts off sounding like an alley cat in a trouser-press, but week by week that dreadful noise is climbing higher and higher, the new notes underneath it are becoming usefully available, and the repertoire of melodies that remain recognizable, even while you murder them, is steadily increasing.

Of Ian’s psychological strokes, the masterstroke is to slake your clandestine ambitions by giving you a few of your so-long-dreamed-of chansons and arias right from the jump, so you can take something home to sing in the bathroom. (If the bathroom door starts caving in under protest, you can always test your new stuff out in a deserted park on a rainy day.) Knowing by heart every decent melody that has ever been written in any genre, he knows exactly which ones to pick that will fit your burgeoning range without straining it too much at the top. (It doesn’t hurt to strain it a little, just to go on reminding yourself that there’s a note up there you can soon have, as long as you remember that it can’t be had by wishing, only by work.)

After the first few weeks I was making something better than a cry for help out of Donaudy’s pretty lament, ‘O del mio amato ben’, and in less than three months I could hit all the notes of Fauré’s gorgeous ‘En Prière’, even if most of them were sans overtone and the desired legato line showed a few rough welds at the joints. Best of all, inside four months I had my first aria, ‘Prendi l’anel ti dono’, a surefire showstopper from Sonnambula. Sounding challenging enough to chill the blood, but in fact far more easily negotiated than ‘Dancing in the Dark’, it was cunningly designed by Bellini so that the tenor, with minimum effort and maximum parade of daring, could bring the house down. All I brought down with it was the bathroom, but I was singing an aria!

But, as Ian kept on patiently explaining, it’s seldom the tessitura that makes things tricky: more often it’s the intervals. A lot of good stuff is written entirely within the stave, but a song can demand only a narrow range and still flummox you by the jumps you can’t make from one note to the next without grinding to a halt, consulting your mental tuning fork, and starting again. While never precisely forbidding the project, he pointed out that my self-assigned task of getting on top of the ‘Flower Song’ from Carmen was asking for trouble. After one unsolicited hearing he pinpointed where the trouble was, but didn’t tell me until I figured it out for myself. My own candidate for the most ravishing of all tenor arias, a love-letter to enslave Circe, the ‘Flower Song’ is a relative doddle throughout except for a vicious booby-trap in the seventh line: in ‘De cette odeur je m’enivrais’, the interval between the two last syllables is a killer. I went on killing myself with it in private for about six months before he told me the cruel truth. I was trying to sing the consonants ‘vr’ instead of the vowel ‘ais’. When he got me to sing the syllable without the consonants I could hit it with ease. ‘Practise that for a while, dear boy, and you can fudge the consonants in later. It’s admirable how much you care for the words — you really are amazingly sensitive to language, it’s a privilege to hear you speak on the television, so articulate — but if you try to pronounce the consonants too accurately when you’re singing you’ll have trouble jacking your gob open to do the vowel. We have to be a bit ruthless.’

Going light on the consonants is a very good general trick for joining up those scary little black dots at the top of the stave. All trained singers, no matter how illustrious, use it as a crutch. It’s the reason why their consonants, during the bravura bits, tend to sound like Henry Kissinger’s. Even Björling, probably the greatest tenor after Caruso, sang in French as if it was his native Swedish, and sang in Swedish as if he was half drunk. (A lot of the time he was, but that’s another story.) Joan Sutherland got through her entire career without uttering very many consonants at all. Often she turned a whole aria into a cadenza, and if you’re still looking for an argument-winning reason to prefer Callas for the title of top diva of the modern era, you could suggest with some justification that Callas sang the words, whereas Sutherland sang only the music. And we singers don’t sing just to make a nice noise, we sing to give back to the language the wings it lost when the angels fell.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Knowing a little bit more about the technicalities now, in the opera house I have become, if no less easy to please, at least a bit harder to fool. For a tired tenor to transpose a high note downward isn’t as heinous as Mike Tyson biting the other guy’s ear off to get out of the fight early, but it isn’t honest either. From here on, I’ll know when to sit on my hands. Let us, however, not kid ourselves, dear boy: those singers up there can really sing. They’re doing it for a living, and all I’m doing is dreaming aloud. But at least the dream is no longer confined to the interior of my head. My current practice number is ‘Fenesta che lucide’, a funeral song in dialect variously attributed to Bellini and to that prolific Italian composer Ignoto. Grittily catchy as a dirge from The Godfather, plangently lovely beyond all measure, it laments, in phrases that pulse like pent-up weeping, the death of the singer’s sister. Whether or not I have truly mastered its haunting melody, people certainly look haunted when I sing it. I sing it in the street, like Mario Lanza yodelling as he toddled in The Great Caruso. Heads turn.

And even the most deeply buried dream of all has come true. I have sung the duet in the restaurant with the pretty girl. When Frank Johnson and Petronella Wyatt took me to lunch at Simpson’s in the Strand for the purpose of inveigling me into writing this suicidally inadvisable piece, the subject came up of which show songs were harder than operatic arias. I suggested Cole Porter’s ‘So in Love’, which bristles with lethally placed examples of the most awkward sound to sustain beyond a quaver, the long ‘i’ diphthong. In that blackberry-stained mezzo voice of hers which is so much more enchanting than her politics, la Wyatt began to sing it, and after the first stanza I joined in, pianissimo but con amore. As our last notes faded away, the whole restaurant burst into applause. It might have been because I had stopped singing, but I like to think it was a tribute to our joint impact — just as I like to think that Mr Johnson’s twitching smile throughout the performance was a sign of envy rather than embarrassment, and that he pulled his jacket over his head only because the beauty of what he heard was too much for him to bear.

(Spectator, 19 December, 1997)