When people tell me they do not like opera, I oftentimes sense their physical resistance, a pulling back from something unknown that might sweep them away. They are not wrong.
Italian opera: dazzling, otherworldly, delirious, unrestrained glory….acrobatic performers masquerading as voices that defy the heights and yet fall to a place where my breath and heart both just stop.
And the words that define the music! Italians don’t use mundane words or phrases, like “fast, slow, song, singer, lyrics” to accomplish that. Rather, allegro (cheerful/lively)….imbroglio (with intrigue)…scherzo (a joke)….pizzicato (pinch or sting)….capriccio (whimsy or a temper tantrum)……diva (goddess)…..aria (the air)…….libretto (little book)…..ritornello (a little return trip) and yes here it is again, tessitura (texture). (See Sensuous Italian Words, Part One, Italian Food Words)
One doesn’t have to understand Italian to know how these words direct the music and voices: tremolo, vibrato, espressivo, accelerando, coloratura.
My personal favorite? Sotto voce. Meaning “under the voice,” this is the moment when the prima donna takes a note to the heavens and lets it descend to barely a whisper. And that is when my breath catches. There is a brief moment of silence in the audience followed by a simultaneous surge of applause, standing and calling out for more. Bravissima!
This glittering music was almost always in the background, playing on the stereo in my grandparent’s “front room.” Caruso, Callas and Pavarotti sang to Verdi’s, Rossini’s and Puccini’s emotional music….and while I did not understand what they were saying, I could feel it….hearts that were lustful, longing, joyful or tragically breaking spoke to my young spirit in ways that left an imprint.
When a career move took me to New York City, I brought along my love of opera, immersing myself in it at the Metropolitan Opera.
For the first time, I was able to watch the performance as well as listen to the music, a kaleidoscope that mesmerized and delighted me. And not only see the performers, but the words of the libretto. The English subtitles showed up on a small screen on the back of the chair in front of me.
It was the understanding of the words that flung open another door into the sensuous nature of the Italian soul, my soul.
The words, the words, the words.
Madama Butterfly’s, “Un bel di”, (“One Beautiful Day”) fuse betrayal and hope so powerfully, I always have to sit down, pull over or otherwise stop what I’m doing when I hear it. Her stratospheric voice in this aria commands that kind of attention and so I surrender, tears streaming, still hoping she will somehow escape her fate.
The brilliant “Bella Figlia dell’Amore” (Beautiful Daughter of Love) from Rigoletto, a quartet of people embroiled in deception and revenge, is a masterpiece of conveying four different perspectives and two conversations simultaneously……the innocent young woman, Gilda, watches her manipulative lover, a Duke, seduce a commoner, Maddalena, who knows he is a player, while Gilda’s father plots his death. It is deliciously complex and stunning in its beauty.
Italian opera, like food and so many aspects of the culture, engages all the senses. In my favorite, Puccini’s “Tosca,” I can taste her desire for revenge, take in the palpable smell of fear as she contemplates the blade and the visceral blow at the moment she runs it through Scarpia’s black heart….Tosca’s Kiss.
I can never manage to eat dinner after seeing an opera performance. I am completely sated by what all my senses have absorbed. Yes, swept away, released, elated….issimo. Highly recommended.
Do you enjoy opera? Let me know why or why not in the comments below…
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