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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Simon Callow on his first opera

It was 1965; I was a 16-year-old schoolboy besotted by classical music but only, so far, on record.

By Simon Callow

It was 1965; I was a 16-year-old schoolboy besotted by classical music but only, so far, on record. Of a Friday night, my school chums and I used to roam the West End, drinking strong tea at Joe Lyons, chain-smoking and riffing on Sartrean themes. One of these Fridays, we wandered into Covent Garden, then still a vegetable and fruit market with an Opera House at its centre.

Padding across the cabbage leaves, I idly looked at the posters outside and saw that that night they were doing Il Trittico, Puccini’s triple bill of one-acters. I’d never heard of it, but I did recognise one of the names in the cast list – Tito Gobbi. My grandmother, once a singer, had any number of his recordings among the piles of battered and scratched shellac 78s, many of them with bite-sized chunks around the edges. I persuaded my chums to shell out the 3/6 for a seat in the slips and up the back stairs we trooped.

It was my first opera. And my first experience of a great performer. Even hanging down from the slips, nearly on the ceiling, miles away from the stage, I was astounded at the sheer charisma emanating from the man. Dark, brooding, anguished, he seemed to be ten foot tall and in 3D, all the admirable English singers around him pallid and proper by comparison.

But there was more. I hadn’t realised that he was also singing the lead in the last of the three operas. In this, he played the con man Gianni Schicchi, roly-poly, lewd, cynical, red-nosed, hilarious. Unrecognisable, but still somehow himself. The principle of transformation entered my consciousness, as did the appetite for huge and extraordinary personalities. And after that, no one could ever tell me that opera singers couldn’t act. 

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special