The road not taken: Howard Jacobson on his ambition to be a lyric tenor

It was the final week of school. I was standing on a table in the library, farewelling my fellow prefects with a version of “E Lucevan le Stelle” that I believed was as good as Lanza’s.

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“That’s not singing, Jacobson, that’s shouting to music”.

With those words my ambition to be a lyric tenor in the mould of Mario Lanza, with the crackle of Caruso, the fatalistic lilt of Richard Tauber and the succulence of Jussi Björling, was dealt a fatal blow.

It was the final week of my last term at school. I was standing on a table in the library, farewelling my fellow prefects with a version of “E Lucevan le Stelle” that I believed was as good as Lanza’s. Maybe better because I wasn’t acting. Time really was running out. But the headmaster, who happened to be passing the library that very moment, thought otherwise.

“It’s from Tosca, Sir,” I pleaded.

“Is that the one in which the heroine throws herself off the battlements?”

I nodded.

“Well I’d do the same if you were singing that to me. Save it for the shower, Jacobson.”

I took that badly. We couldn’t afford a shower.

And I never sang in public again.

I regret that I was so easily deterred. But then being easily deterred was part of the oversensitivity I found in those great arias of goodbye I played over and over on my bedroom gramophone the minute night fell. I didn’t care about footballers or film stars. I didn’t heroise courage or determination. I revered anguish. To be a man was to weep copiously, fall in love with women with cold extremities, and hit high Cs without your voice cracking. I was fashioned for such heartbreak. Sadness coursed through my body. But I was too easily cowed by authority. A headmaster had spoken. And that was that.

Years later I sat across the aisle from Luciano Pavarotti on a plane to Milan. I was going to cover a fashion show for a Sunday paper. To such humiliations is a writer brought. I told him the story of my disappointed hopes. “So you want to be
the fourth tenor?” he said.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” I replied.

“Then you never will be. You have to want big to be a tenor.”

“I thought you have to be sensitive and tormented. I thought you have to tremble and sob.”

“No, that’s writing. To be a tenor you just have to be able to shout to music.”

I put my hands to my temples. “That moment has fled,” I cried – L’ora è fuggita. E muoio disperato! – “and I die in desperation.”

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special