I can look upon the roofs and up to heaven.
But when the thaw arrives
The first sun is mine!
April’s first kiss is mine!
Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Si, mi chiamano Mimì
When I was a child my younger sister and I would turn off the television volume whenever an opera singer appeared on a variety show (believe me that was the only time we witnessed an opera singer). Then we giggled and laughed at the singer’s facial expressions as our step-father howled his hardy-har-hars, and my mother thought it funny enough that tears poured from her eyes. It was the stuff of opera.
I have only recently come to love opera despite having had a few friends who studied to sing opera. When I lived in Maine Walter Nowick and the Surry Opera Company presented operas in a barn with townspeople performing in conjunction with exchanges with Russian and Japanese artists. I attended those operas more from a desire to support someone who literally built bridges between cultures at a time when Reagan was developing his trickle-down manifesto.
Now I am in San Miguel and the week after Candlemas, ProMusica will present three performances of Puccini’s La Bohème. One can also purchase a ticket to a benefit dinner that will raise funds for ProMusica’s music outreach program to the campos as well as to a last-night post-production party with the performers.
I don’t have the money to spare for such gala festivities and truth be told, I don’t have the personality, either. As much as I would like to attend these events sheltered by a friend, I have none here in San Miguel. I’m afraid my clothing options are somewhat dowdy. My Spanish is inadequate. Yet the candle flame burns brightly before this moth.
You see, I think we want romance perhaps more than we want love, although we often confuse the two when we’re in the midst of romance. When Rodolfo sings I see in you the dream I want to dream forever, oh my, La Bohème is just so full of romance.
If you play the video below you’ll hear Jussi Björling as the poet Rodolfo and Renata Tebaldi as the embroiderer Mimi sing O soave fanciulla at the end of Act 1. The performance from the mid-1950s took place about the time my sister and I were mocking perhaps this very duet. One needs no subtitles to understand what is transpiring: look at their faces as they express their feelings, as their voices soar.
At the end of the 16th century in Italy, when one said “the works” one was not talking about pizza, but opera: music, libretto, set decor, drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design. All came together in Italy while Shakespeare, in his mid-30s, saw both Henry IV plays and Much Ado About Nothing performed.
Opera is expensive to produce. It is not for the faint of purse, either at the door or backstage. Yet opera can also be a $10 standing room ticket at the San Francisco Opera House. I won’t take the social justice detour about someone paying £175 per ticket to see La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (£8 tickets also available) in London or $225 in Philadelphia or 65€ at the Teatro Cervantes de Málaga or $600 pesos in San Miguel. I’m assuming those folks contribute generously to various socially oriented charities.
Nor will I go down the psychological rabbit hole of what does a $460 ticket holder (Met in New York) get from watching a story of impoverished young artists and philosophers, one of whom dies of tuberculosis. I will leave it that it must be the romantic hold that the city of Paris has over us and the nostalgia for our youth in combination with the artistry of music and voice that awakens something deep.
There are many kinds of opera companies, from those that mount a large number of productions and commission new works to those that basically hire everything out, renting sets from one company, costumes from another, and performers from others. Some companies (as in the United Kingdom) receive significant public funding while others are dependent on ticket sales and donations. A number of companies, especially in the United States, fell on difficult times during the ’00s and either cut back the number and scale of productions or went out of business.
Support for opera, of course, is different in Europe than it is in other parts of the world. A well-written, concise description of the differences between European support for opera and that found in the United States is titled Is Opera SICK in America? by Elise Curran and Bill Doherty.
Now, back to the magic.
The aria below is also from Act I and takes place just a few moments after Rodolfo (in the above duet) has told Mimi about himself and how … smitten he is. Now Mimi (Mirella Freni) tells Rodolfo about herself (Si, mi chiamano Mimi) in a 1965 production.
Could any man – or woman – fail to be captivated by such a story?
So I must attend, if for no other reason than to prevent life from slipping away. There will be no heaven for me unless I find it in moments on this earth.
Movies and Opera
Zachary Woolfe’s column in the New York Times (August 2012) titled How Hollywood Films Are Killing Opera bemoans the portrait of opera painted by Hollywood – stuffy fare, worthy of a big date night à la Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990) jetting Julia Roberts from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see La Traviata. He also decries Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck (1987) taking Cher to see … La Bohème. Woolfe writes:
In the two movies the vision of opera is the same: lush, static, stale. It is less a living encounter than a trip to Madame Tussauds. The experience of going is about wearing fancy clothes and having an expensive dinner, about leaving everyday life behind. It is about a few tears, not about deep emotion or thought. Opera is the most solemn kind of date night.
He may be right. But in both movies, the male lead characters are knowledgeable and think opera important (why, oh why, did both female “date” characters have to be so … not knowing? and provide comic relief?) Gere’s Edward says to Roberts’ Vivian:
The music conveys the story more powerfully than any words.
And in Moonstruck Cage’s Ronny Cammareri tells Cher’s Loretta:
I love two things. I love you, and I love the Opera. If I can have the two things that I love together for one night, I will be satisfied to give up the rest of my life.
There are other instances in film where opera is integral to the character or story, such as Philadelphia (1993), when Tom Hanks’ character Andrew talks to his attorney while listening to Maria Callas sing Maddalena’s aria La momma morta (My mother died)from the opera Andrea Chenier by Giordano. In a tour de force of filmmaking, you hear and watch Hanks translate the lyrics for the attorney (Denzel Washington) while you hear Callas sing: there is the emotion of Callas and the emotion of Andrew. The attorney just doesn’t get what Andrew is talking about when Andrew says:
She’s telling how, during the French revolution, the mob set fire to her house. Her mother died, saving her…
Do you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel, Joe? Then, here come the strings. Everything changes. The music fills with hope.
Of course, there’s The Godfather Part III (1990) in which the Don’s son, Tony, chooses opera over law and makes his singing debut in Cavalleria rusticana (rustic chivalry).
My last example is the French film Diva (1981, redistributed in 2007). Film critic David Denby wrote in New York magazine that
Diva must be the only pop movie inspired by a love of opera
The film tells the story of an 18-year-old opera fan and postal worker obsessed with an opera singer, and he sets out to secretively tape the previously unrecorded diva. A thriller and a romance, after 30 years it remains one of my favorite movies. In the scene below Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez sings, in concert, the aria from Catalani’s La Wally titled Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (Ah well then! I shall go far away/Like the echo of the pious church-bell goes away, translation by J.C. London).
The opera tells the story of a young Swiss woman, Wally, who loves a local huntsman, but she is loved by another to whom her father arranges marriage. As can only be found in opera, after accidents, misunderstandings, and deceits, the strong-willed and persistent mountain girl wins her true love. The pair embrace in the Alps, but an avalanche carries the hero to his death and Wally leaps to her own death.
As Ronny says to Loretta,
love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect.