Christopher Lee | My Music: ‘It's been the greatest regret of my life: I still believe I was born to be an opera singer’

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The actor Christopher Lee reflects on an opera career that might have been...

My mother played the piano when I was very young. I never learnt to play, though, because my stepfather said, 'Playing the piano is for sissies. Let the boy learn to box!'

At Wellington I was a Greek and Latin scholar, which took up most of my time. Then the war came, and I joined the RAF. Though there wasn't really enough time to listen to classical music, occasionally it used to be on the radio. I became fascinated by Beethoven piano concertos and their wonderful tunes.

Then we were in Italy for two years, and the local radio broadcast operas: and suddenly one heard a lovely voice. I saw my first opera ever in the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, shortly after the city fell. I've still got the programme: it was The Barber of Seville, which is the opera I would take anyone to who had never seen one, because it has the most wonderful, catchy tunes and marvellous characters. Tito Gobbi sang the barber, and Giulio Neri, one of the great bass voices of all time, sang Don Basilio. 

‘My interest in classical music soared to the point where I was a complete fanatic: mainly symphonies, concertos – Beethoven to me is God – but above all opera’

Back home after the war, I was one day in the bath, singing away in a very dramatic voice; and my mother said 'You've got a voice!' I told her about how I wish I'd learnt to play the piano. And she said to me, 'Well it's not surprising that you can sing, and that you now have this incredible love for classical music. You've inherited all of this from your great grandfather, Girolamo Carandini, 10th Marquis of Sarzano.' He was a singer at the Modena Opera House. He was also quite a chaser, quite a lad; possibly because of this, rather than the Risorgimento, he left Italy in a great hurry and settled in Tasmania. There he married my great-grandmother, who called herself Madame Carandini and became, before Melba, the finest soprano in the country. Their five daughters and two sons were born, as far as I can make out, either in Australia or Tasmania or in New Zealand. Madame Carandini must have been a strong character because she took these gorgeous girls who all became opera singers – in horse-drawn wagons to out of the way places, including Queensland. They sang all over the world. 

My interest in classical music soared to the point where I was a complete fanatic: mainly symphonies, concertos – Beethoven to me is God – but above all opera. I found out who were the greatest singers, and listened to their records on a wind-up gramophone. And I started going to Covent Garden; I saw everyone you've ever heard of. 

Then in about 1948 or '49 I was at a party in Stockholm where everybody was singing student songs, knocking back the drinks. And I suddenly felt a tug at my sleeve; I turned around and swooned slightly when I saw it was Jussi Björling: 'You have a real voice!' He told me to come the next morning to the Opera House and sing to him. I told him I hadn't been trained, but he insisted: 'I don't care what you sing. I want to hear the voice – the instrument'. I could barely believe this, but the next morning I stood on the stage, nervous as hell. And he was there, sitting in the stalls next to Joel Berglund: no piano – nothing. 'Sing something!' I did something unbelievable like sing Don Giovanni's Serenade. And there was a lot of muttering. I sang them everything that I knew from opera. At the end of it all, Björling offered to take me into training if I stayed. I couldn't accept because I didn't have the money to live in Stockholm. It's been the greatest regret of my life: I still believe I was born to be an opera singer. But then on the other hand if I'd sung professionally I'd have stopped 15 years ago at least, whereas I'm still acting. I'm too old to perform as a singer, but I can still sing. That's what's so extraordinary: it's because I haven't sung opera for three hours or whatever a day that I can still sing.

This article originally appeared in the 2003 Gramophone Awards issue. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today

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