Down Memory Lane

This article by Frank Johnson jogged my own memory about my early attraction to opera.

First read the article:

Frank Johnson: why being clasped by Maria Callas was my finest hour
By Frank Johnson

Last Updated: 7:23AM BST 04/10/2009

Renowned as a peerless parliamentary sketchwriter, the Telegraph's Frank Johnson also had a passion for opera. In an extract from a new collection edited by his widow, he recalls the thrill of performing at Covent Garden, aged 14, with the legendary Maria Callas

Frank Johnson was master of the parliamentary sketch

Experience has taught me that one interesting thing has happened to everyone, but only one. Politicians, most columnists and nearly everyone who goes on television are under the impression that everything that has happened to them is interesting. Such people are no exceptions to this remorseless law.

All of which is by way of being an overture to the announcement that the interesting thing that happened to me took place when I appeared with Maria Callas in the first two performances at Covent Garden of Bellini'sNorma.

The secondary school in Shoreditch of which I was an inmate happened to supply the human material for the children's parts at the Royal Opera House. The qualification for getting into this academy was stiff: one had to fail the 11-plus. In my day, one had to be almost feral to fail the 11-plus. I shall always be grateful to my early teachers that I managed the feat.

Having won a place in the school, the privileged pupils discovered that, because the rehearsals took place during the day, if you volunteered for the opera, you got out of maths. On the strength of a few mid-1950s television programmes, I disliked opera. On the strength of a few lessons, I feared maths. I volunteered for the opera.

My Covent Garden debut was in 1955 as one of the Nibelheim dwarfs in Das Rheingold. We were required to scream when the late Otakar Kraus, the greatest of Covent Garden Alberichs, cursed the ring. Over the next three years, we were the urchins in Act One ofCarmen, the urchins in Act Two of Bohème, the urchins in Acts One and Two of Otello, and both Trojan and Carthaginian urchins at various stages of Berlioz's immense The Trojans.

It was extraordinarily casual. In some of the works we were required to sing. But of the vocal arts we were entirely deficient. We simply shouted with the utmost vigour, usually in English, such was Covent Garden's linguistic policy at that time.

Early in 1957, we learned that there was an opera coming which would require only two of us: Norma. Apparently, the heroine of that name had two children, whom she decides to stab to death, changing her mind at the last minute and opting instead for a duet with a mezzo-soprano. I and a boy called Arthur were chosen. The choice was dictated by our height rather than innate musicality, which was just as well since no singing was required.

I embarked on this memoir resolved to be honest, to tell only that which I could remember. So now the sad truth must be faced: of this, the one moment of my life which makes me immortal, I can recall very little. Just a few images in my memory. For I was just turned 14.

I remember that there seemed to be something exciting and tense about the atmosphere in the weeks before the performance. Arthur and I were constantly enjoined to be on our best behaviour, especially at the first rehearsal. At some point, we must have learned that someone exceptional was involved, which meant someone with a foreign name. Hitherto, the singers tended to have such names as Elsie Morrison and James Johnston, the latter a ringing Irish tenor who used to tell Carmen: "Carmen, oil never leaf your soid."

Then, probably in the Daily Mirror, Arthur and I learned with some consternation that a woman was coming to Covent Garden who was known as ''Opera's Tigress''. Furthermore, she had been in a ''storm'' in New York. She had got the sack for a baritone who had held a final note longer than she had in a duet. The latter was untrue, as the books now make clear, but that was no good to Arthur and me at the time.

Come the rehearsal, the late Christopher West, the producer, seemed nervous. An efficient-looking woman came in wearing sculpted horn-rimmed glasses, a tight black sweater, a green two-piece suit and stockings with black seams down the back to which were affixed stiletto heels in accordance with the fashion of the day. (Pubescent boys take note of such details.)

"That's her," Arthur said.

"Don't be bloody daft," I distinctly remember telling him. "That's West's secretary." But Arthur was right.

"These are the children," West said to the great soprano of the age.

"They're a little big," she replied, speaking I recall with a sort of American accent. At this, West, a somewhat epicene figure, began to flap his wrists with some consternation. He gabbled something about younger ones not being allowed on stage under British law. Callas stared at us. Arthur and I cowed. If this bitch gets the boot for baritones, what would she do to us, we no doubt pondered, I regret, in our rough way.

"I understand," Callas told West, who breathed again. But there was still trouble. It came, however, not from Callas but from the mezzo-soprano, the late Ebe Stignani. She was singing Norma's rival in love, the "young temple virgin Adalgisa". Stignani was 52 at the time. I now know that she was a singer of much distinction. "Her acting was all in the voice," says my edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Opera, which was just as well, because she was a short, round woman with a terrifying face. "Not understand to him, not understand to him, Maria," she told Callas. "They're too bigga."

Though I cannot claw the precise words back from memory, Callas replied with something about even the great Stignani having to abide by the law. West giggled.

I remember little of the two performances themselves. But I do recall that when we emerged from Covent Garden Underground station, people were already at the barriers offering clusters of £5 notes for return tickets.

And I could not forget that when Callas bore down on us with the knife, her nostrils flared; that when, dropping the knife, she repentantly clasped us to her bosom, her perfume smelt like that of an aunt who was always kissing me; and that at the first performance there penetrated, into my left eye, the top of the diva's right breast, which partnership remained throughout the subsequent duet with Stignani.

In that eye, I felt the most distinct pain as that voice of myth and legend rose and fell. In the other eye, all I could see was the exit sign at the far corner of the gallery. At the second performance, I ducked and secured a safer refuge in a more central portion of the diva's bosom. And that is all. Still, there are few men who can truthfully say that their eye made contact with the right nipple of Maria Callas.

Best Seat in the House by Frank Johnson (JR Books, £18.99) is available from Telegraph Books for £16.99 plus £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1516 or go to

I have a similar confession to make...

In ANDREA CHENIER at the MET, at the tender age of 14, I was regularly clasped to the surprisingly plush bosom of mezzo Sandra Warfield (wife of tenor James McCracken) who tearfully bid me an emotional good-bye as she gave her only tangible remaining gift -- her 14 year old grandson -- to the cause of the French Revolution in the extended solo vignette MADELON scene in Act 3.

And that is how my more "mature" love of opera really caught fire ... so to speak.



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