The year my voice broke

Frames of Reference. The actor Tom Conti talks to the psychotherapist Martin Lloyd Elliott about a film that changed his life
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The Independent Culture
TC: The Great Caruso is a curious film. I grew up with records of Italian opera, especially Gigli and Caruso. I was so excited when this movie came out. I was 13. My parents took me to see it at the Glasgow Odeon, where it showed for just three we eks. In that time I saw it 15 times. I pleaded with my parents to sit round immediately and they agreed, so I saw it twice on the first day.

I loved the music. It touched something in my soul. I was fascinated with this man, and the intense sad moments in a life characterised by exuberance and generosity; and, my God, those moments where he knelt down to pray carried a considerable emotional charge for me. It is an extremely romantic tale. A little boy from Naples who's Mummy died when he was singing in the choir, ends up one of the greatest opera singers the world has ever known.

MLE: You're smiling broadly, yet you look almost embarrassed?

TC: Well, it's certainly not an art movie. I could have chosen The Seventh Seal. Obviously, that was a good and interesting picture, but it wasn't as good as The Great Caruso.

What was going on in your life at the time you saw the film for the first 14 times?

I was at a Catholic boys' school.

Were you in the choir?

The school didn't have a choir, but I sang the solos in church. Opera was always on in the house, and any movie about music we went to as a family. My father was Italian. My mother was Scottish.

Could both your parents sing?

My mother, yes, and my father, up to a point. I spent three hours each week in music lessons. I had assumed I would become a pianist, but when this movie came out I knew I wanted to be an Italian tenor. I said to myself: "That's what I would like to do."But I had a crisis when my voice broke. If I had been in Italy, perhaps my voice would have been nursed through the breaking period. As it was, when it finally settled, it was this deep basso sound. I tried to sing, but found I couldn't go above the G above middle C, so I said: "Well, that's it, over. I can't sing any more." That was a trauma. It had just started to break and along came this movie with its huge emotional content. It was all about sacrifice. I didn't know then, but now I am a performer I understand exactly what it means, and it is this that is compelling about the film.

The movie opens with Caruso as a little choir boy and his mother on her death bed. He is supposed to sing in the choir procession. She says: "You have to sing." He says: "No, no", and buries his face in her lap. She says: "God gave you a voice. And you have to use it." Even now as I remember this scene I can feel the skin rising on the back of my neck. It's highly emotional. In the next shot he is singing in the procession that passes by his house at the very moment he sees the front curtains being draw n. He knows his mother has died. The tears roll down his face as he carries on singing.

Were there sacrifices at the time of your parents' deaths?

Yes. I was in New York when my mother became ill. My brother-in-law phoned: "I think if you want to see her as you know her, then you had better come back." I went to the producer and explained the situation and he said: "Go. Without reservation. You'll regret it if you don't. It's only a play." I went. After a few days I returned to New York and soon she slipped into a coma, which she stayed in until she died.

This makes me think of spells. Life-changing remarks made by adults to children, as in the scene when Caruso's mother says: "God gave you a voice. . ." Do you remember being given any such spell that you carry on your back?

Yes, there is one. The last thing my father said to me was, "Look after your mama," and with that he was wheeled off on a trolley into the operating theatre, his hand raised up, his eyes looking at me, his words ringing in my ears. He died an anaestheticdeath. Very sudden. He'd gone in to have a hernia repaired.

I was in drama school in Glasgow. I went to see the director of the show I was in that night. He said: "Do what you want to do." I think parents want their children to continue with their lives, so I went on. It's a curious thing to walk on to the stage when your father's just died, because you're in shock. Yet when you're on the stage: you don't remember . . . "The Magic Green" actors call it. So it is that some people are actors in order to really escape. It doesn't matter if the water tank has burst on the roof, you simply announce: "Someone had better deal with this, I'm off to the theatre."

Did your father's request motivate your subsequent ambition?

No. It almost scuppered the whole thing, because on leaving college for London I felt so guilty. Not only had I left her on her own but what you call the spell, very appropriately, operated. It really did.

Did the film cast a spell on you?

Yes, it said something to me about performance. It's difficult to know why we are performers. It's something to do with being a natural show-off. Except that in life I'm not: I'm absolutely reclusive. I'm happy in front of a thousand if they sit there and I can control them, but I don't like them loose in the building.

Control is power.

Yes, there's something to do with power. And one could see that in Caruso. There's a wonderful shot in the scene where he's going to sing for the first time at the Met. They are on stage waiting for the overture to start, and there's a little peep-hole in the curtain covered by a flap that you can lift to look out into the house. The camera gives us his point of view. The image is awesome. The curtain's going to go up and he's going to be standing there with all these packed people looking at him. It's not very healthy if that's why you do it.

So, is that why you do it?

No, no, it simply doesn't happen to me.

I put it to you that you saw the film and said to yourself, "I'm going to be an opera singer." Then you had this crisis with your voice and thought, "Oh God, I'm going to be the next Caruso but I can't sing, so I'd better be a great actor instead."

Yes, yes, yes, you cannot rule that out!

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