A desert... then there was Gobbi

Simon Callow recalls how a revelation in Covent Garden turned him from sceptical schoolboy into man of the theatre

It must have been 1965. A Friday night. Two school chums and I were wandering about the centre of town as we usually did at the end of the school week, on a sort of tea-crawl from one Joe Lyons to another - gossiping, dreaming, showing off, smoking furiously - when we happened to drift into Floral Street, down by the Royal Opera House, past the entrance to the gallery. People were filing in: idly, I glanced at the poster and saw that they were doing something called Il trittico. Never heard of it. "It's by Puccini," I suddenly noticed. "Never heard of him," my chums said. I scorned their ignorance; I knew him from my grandmother's shellac records. Then I saw that Tito Gobbi was singing in it; had indeed produced it, whatever it was. He was on dozens of those cracked old 78s. That settled it. "We have to see this," I said. They were aghast. We were not what you might call theatre-goers at the best of times; and were we now going to submit to an evening of foreign yowling written by one unknown wop, starring another? Somehow I swung it, and we found ourselves up in the Slips, hanging suicidally through the bars at right angles to the stage like three culture-loving gargoyles.

The first shock was the sound. I'd never been to a concert, never heard a live singing voice, and by that marvellously democratic trick of the architects of the Opera House, here, clinging to the rafters, we encountered far more vividly the full glory of that swelling, complex orchestra than did the toffs sitting a hundred miles below. Then the voices. They seemed a yard away. The physical impact of Gobbi's voice was shattering, his unmistakable tone, here - in Il tabarro, the first of the three operas that make up Puccini's "Triptych" - hardened to reveal the bargee's bitterness, frustration and despair. The directness of it was extraordinary: like someone talking to you, someone you knew inside out. I had not heard this before. On my grandmother's records, Bjorling was always Bjorling, Gigli always Gigli. They were the noise they made. This was different: a character, a human being.

I risked decapitation, or at the very least osteopathy, straining for a glimpse of the physical embodiment of this person so far only heard, not seen. There, finally, at the centre of the grim stage picture, he was: a man wearing a polo-neck jumper, rough trousers and jacket, and some kind of cap - a man who might have just come off the street. But this ordinary man was riveting; the impacted force of his pain sucked you into him. Suddenly, shockingly, by some turn of the head which seemed wholly natural, his eyes raked the auditorium and you saw the anguish through them as clearly as if you had X-rayed his heart. Puccini's unrelenting river welled up and up, and with it my tears.

The interval was a little embarrassing, me snuffling, the chums bored. They had not been having the best time. We went off and smoked passionately, then returned for more, they somewhat as if they were about to settle in for double maths. There's no point now in my pretending that I enjoyed Suor Angelica any more than they did, though at the time I worked myself up into some sort of synthetic ecstasy. For Catholic schoolboys to spend an unrelieved 53 minutes with 20 nuns after school stretched aesthetic aspiration to breaking-point, and anyway, where were the tunes? After the next interval and five more cigarettes each, they decided that it could only get worse and jacked it in. I stubbornly stayed, and so set my life on its future course.

I had been totally unprepared for Gobbi's comic genius. That the granite figure of Il tabarro should, within an hour or so, be replaced by this gargoyle, tip-nosed, rubber-mouthed, agile as a monkey, was, and is, uncanny. What was going on around him on stage and in the pit was pretty lively too, but he positively became the music, mercurially transforming himself from bar to bar. He seemed constantly to take - and I have no doubt did take - his fellow singers by surprise, an anarch at the centre of things, pure energy, only finally coming to seem benevolent in time for Gianni Schicchi's final address to the audience, and then only temporarily. Simply the thing he was made him live.

Well, this was IT. I rushed home to proclaim the new gospel. Bjorling and Gigli, brassy top Cs and creamy cavatinas OUT; character in music and music in action IN. Shellac was out, now, too. I put together a gramophone from various spare pieces; then began my love affair with vinyl as I discovered not golden gobbets but whole operas. The sequence, I found, was everything. When I first heard the chain of two arias and a duet at the end of the first act of La boheme - together, instead of separately - I thought I'd explode (as indeed I have thought on every subsequent hearing).

There was no end, it seemed, to the territories in this new universe. With Stephen Williams's Come to the Opera as my vade-mecum, I more or less moved into Sadler's Wells, where the entire repertory crammed itself on to that unaccommodating stage: operettas, a cycle of early Verdi, Britten, Kurt Weill, Janacek, Thea Musgrave.

Even I could see that the productions were somewhat hastily put together, that the chorus were barely numerous enough to do what was called of them - in The Flying Dutchman they were unmistakably running round the back of the stage to take their place at the end of the rope again. But what the hell. Norman Bailey was singing Daland, for God's sake, Rita Hunter was Senta.

Then, after some years, came the staggering culmination of everything everyone had worked for - Lilian Baylis, Tyrone Guthrie, Constant Lambert, Colin Davis and indeed the audience, because we felt ourselves part of the Wells, the fuel, I suppose, in the engine - the monumental evening when the Sadler's Company and the Wells Company joined forces to mount The Mastersingers of Nuremberg on that impossibly tiny stage, Reginald Goodall weaving his immense gold-threaded tapestry in the pit, every strand clear, the whole picture radiant, while all those singers whom we had watched and relished, who had grown in artistic stature from performance to performance as we watched them, were now constituted into the noblest thing the theatre has to offer: a great ensemble, integrated yet individuated, a living organism, a huge celebration of human life.

And at the Garden, still hang-gliding from the Slips, I had seen some of the greatest personalities I have ever seen on any stage: Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov; Geraint Evans as Falstaff, Leporello and Wozzeck; Aspassia Papathanasiou as Andromache (a non-singing role!); more Gobbi - Tosca and Simon Boccanegra. And, as the years passed, I watched opera production start to evolve from a medium of singers to one of directors and designers. I was as excited as everyone else. Bliss was it in that dawn. No more fat ladies! Good-bye mulish tenors, farewell old-time buffo baritones! Away with dreary representational settings and contentless stagings. Let's have some analysis, some attitude, a little irony and a lot of alienation. Bring the opera stage up to date; why should it lag behind the rest of the theatre?

And so it came to pass. Except that, like a new drug whose effects are unpredictable, the prescription seemed to have results that far out-stripped the ailments. Far from lagging behind the theatre, opera raced way ahead. The opera house became the crucible, the laboratory, the powerhouse of theatrical art. Anything went. And the first thing that went was the opera itself.

In many of these stagings, no one who was not profoundly familiar with the piece in question could have the remotest idea of what the story was or who the characters were. One quickly found out what they meant, both story and people; there was no danger of forgetting it, because one was told over and over again. One was told nothing else, indeed; nor was one allowed to come to any conclusions of one's own. Another funny thing happened: all those singers whose dreary, conventional performances were to be banished were now generally placed in the centre of the stage - admittedly sometimes upside-down - singing out front, while the set did all the acting for them.

The New Stagecraft turned out increasingly to be the Old Symbolism. It was as if, as in some late Strindbergian epic, all the characters were named He and She, representatives of some Nameless Force. Doubts began to set in. Something about babies and bath water began to whisper in the back of the brain. And some of us began to feel that the reason we had wanted to go to the opera in the first place was no longer being satisfied. We were definitely getting something; but was it opera?

For the first time, I began to wonder whether I might have a contribution to make to opera production. It seemed to me that, at a time of great adventure in any medium, it was vital that there should still be those who ploughed a simpler furrow, those who, as it were, stayed at home while the explorers roved. The temper of the times seemed to demand that everyone should be an explorer; every production a brave new world. But was this possible, or even healthy? Of course, it pleased many of the critics, who had seen everything 10 times over; and productions are so much easier to write about than performances.

By now I had written a book in which I expressed various doubts about what I called the "directocracy" in the non-operatic theatre. A year or so after it appeared, the conductor Roderick Brydon wrote to me saying that I would think him mad, but he was sure I should direct opera. As a March hare, I told him, and a few months later we embarked together on a Cosi fan tutte which is one of the happiest, and certainly the most searching, experiences I've had in the theatre. Later I was invited to do Die Fledermaus for Scottish Opera. In both pieces I was trying - and I was a tiro, a novice, a beginner, wet behind the ears; I was a long way from achieving my splendid objectives - but I was trying to let the musical text suggest a context in which the story could be told so that it branded itself on the memory of the audience, not as a series of images but as a coherent narrative, one in which the characters were not mere symbols of a judgement on their behaviour but conduits for the audience's understanding of motive and intention.

I continue to nail my colours to that mast. Tito Gobbi and my grandmother, Norman Bailey and Reggie Goodall, Maria Callas and Franco Zeffirelli are all bound up in that belief: that the story, the characters and the music are profoundly intertwined, not dialectically counterpointed, and that the acting singer is the focal point of the whole enterprise.

It's hard this way, less spectacular. But there's a chance you might know more about Puccini and what the singers have to say about his people and even - this would be the crowning glory - about human life itself, than about intellectual history and the art of the theatre. The art will have concealed itself, and the director will have disappeared from view, an admirable outcome, on both counts, in my opinion.

Simon Callow's new production of Puccini's 'Il trittico' opens on 22 August at Broomhill, nr Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and plays in repertoire to 10 Sept. Booking: 01892 517720

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