Hipólito Lázaro: fifth advice

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Spanish tenor Hipólito Lázaro (1887 – 1974), a celebrated interpreter of verismo, gives his fifth piece of advice to singers in his book My method of singing, published in 1947. Here we present its first part.

Do not hurry to the debut, it is better to wait, so that later you can sing for many years.

The length of your artistic life depends on your debut. Keep in mind that everything that has to happen to you will be your school, so that you must pay “all your attention” to everything I tell you. Fear will show you that you’re not sure of what you’re going to do on your first attempt. This feeling will obviously indicate that you are not ready. On the contrary, if you are sure of yourself you will be free from worry and will be able to face the audience for the first time, without any fear and with a serene spirit. That memorable night will cement your future profession. It will be the consecration of your theatrical life, and until the end of your existence you will remain performing —if you are not kicked out first, of course.

Of course, this advice I offer to those people who are of sound judgment, because, as I indicated in the preface, there are those who have a head full of little birds, and they do not think or meditate on anything I am saying, and if they read this Method will be out of mere curiosity.

To attest to what I say, I will describe to you some stories of mania, madness, or whatever you want to call it, of certain individuals who, at the beginning of their studies, become maniacs or suspicious and show it in endless details, even if they are ultimately fooled, like idiots, by the first one who arrives.

While I was singing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, I witnessed the mania of a colleague —who had also sung at that coliseum— to test the disciples to see if they had the skills necessary for the profession. He had them spread on the floor and then placed four or five sheet music books on their chests, making them vocalize for a while. Of course, such a “teacher” tested all his students, simply because they meant a large amount of dollars; taking advantage of their ignorance, he “made a fool of them” —pardon the expression— twice. He also made them inhale, through their mouths, the air contained in the empty bottles of the Italian water called San Pelegrino, in the belief that they swallowed the oxygen from Italy, thus obtaining a better voice. For each bottle he charged them a dollar and a half. He was such a scoundrel that when the opera artists, after watching his manipulations with the unwary students, laughed at him and made fun of his procedures, he tried to make us believe that everything he did was true. Undoubtedly he was cunning, and very charming, by the way.

I will now offer another case, also very interesting, so that my readers and students do not let themselves be surprised in their good faith. There was a tenor in Milan who studied singing —he died a madman, by the way— who was beginning to show signs of his disease. The most shocking thing was that his wife, who had undoubtedly contracted his mania, boiled a hen for him every day, reducing the broth to the strict amount of a cup of tea, and told him: “Here, Mr. So-and-so, take this cup of broth, and you shall see the voice you are going to have today.” Poor woman and poor man!

To show the madness of certain singers, even when they have already achieved celebrity, I will refer to another curious event.

There was a guy who sang as a baritone – although he had already sung as a tenor – who insisted on wanting to imitate Titta Ruffo; naturally, he ended up being neither one thing nor the other. The poor fellow wanted to overcome the colossal Titta. That man went one day to Vittorio Emmanuele’s gallery —a meeting point for the artists— and met the chief of the Scala theatre claque. He approached him to speak badly of everyone —this was one of his most outstanding attributes— until he was interrupted by a coughing fit. His interlocutor, to mock him, said: “How is it possible for an artist like you to have a cough? Don’t you know that you can lose your beautiful voice? Go immediately to the Zambelleti pharmacy to buy yourself a bottle of creosote!

The poor fellow rushed to buy the syrup, then went home, and, never one to miss a trick, took the contents of the bottle in one drink. Naturally, he got intoxicated. When he felt ill, he went out into the street holding his trousers with one hand. He got into a car and in a few minutes he found himself at the Consulate of his country; he asked to speak with the consul, and when he was in front of him, all he could think of was to say he “had gone there in order to die on national soil.” The consul, who was a gentleman of delicate temperament and sickly health, upon foreseeing the scandal that could befall him, began to protest and shout and there was such a fuss that the neighbors came. The consul started calling the hospitals nonstop to order an ambulance, while the sick man laid on the floor complaining bitterly and saying that he wanted to die there. At last an ambulance appeared, but then another conflict arose because the madman refused to be moved and, as he was a muscular and strong man, the nurses had to fight to dominate him and take him to the hospital, where he was given a stomach pump. When, a few days later, he recovered, he left Italy. This real character was a lawyer, but the singing upset his judgment because no title is of use in this art. He who has a mania is hopelessly lost. I have never heard from him again.

As we are in the mood for advice and telling stories, I will go on.

There is an endless number of beginners who rush carelessly to their debut, filled with joy, because they have had the bad luck to find one of those bad guys who go around offering glory and success to novice singers, of course, with the sole purpose of taking a few coins from them, even if they are few. And when it comes down to it, what happens? These tricksters make them debut, keep the money, however little it may be —because they are content with little—, they present them at the debut, the beginner does it badly, because, what’s more, they have not given him enough rehearsals, and he becomes the “laughing stock”, forever, of his enemies and even of those who frequently pretend to be friends, saying: “Poor boy, he’s crazy about the theatre!” and the consequences of that first false step cause him the greatest tragedy of his life, because in this profession one needs a lot of money to study, and most of the time one has to enlist the help of the relatives or protectors, and if only thing he gets for this expense it’s a failure, he will be listening to this kind of reproaches the rest of his life: “What a pity; if you had not spent our money in your singing obsession, now we would be rich!” Perhaps they would be penniless, but the little sermon serves to flatten anyone to the end of existence. This memory will be engraved in the mind and heart of the debutant, and it will never be erased, because that kind of theatre bug remains forever within the soul. I have met several who died mad, or in a madhouse, eaten by such a morbid longing.

Text excerpted from Mi método de canto, Hipólito Lázaro, Barcelona, 1947.