2010-06-17 / News

My musical passion: The opera

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

It’s fairly common to hear folks discussing the latest CD by Michael Buble, Carrie Underwood or the Black-Eyed Peas. It’s another thing entirely to come upon a conversation that is centered on the merits of “Aida” versus “Rigoletto,” or Verdi versus Donizetti.

I am talking about the opera.

Over the years, I have become a fan of the opera. It started about 10 years ago, when we were in Italy and I discovered by accident that there was an outdoor performance of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” playing that night in the main piazza in San Gimignano.

I had never seen an opera but I think all kinds of music sound best when performed outdoors so, much to the surprise of my husband and kids, I bought us four tickets. The show began at 9 p.m., which is early for Italians.

It ended about 1 a.m.

I kept getting nudged by one or the other of them about leaving early, but I did not budge. I could not budge. I was mesmerized. I enjoyed every single beautiful note that drifted out of the human mouths of the performers and soared up into the night sky, where they mingled briefly with the swallows before sailing to the far reaches of the firmament. I didn’t understand a word of the libretto, but I knew it would not be my last opera. It wasn’t.

On another trip to Italy, we rented an apartment in Lucca, which was, in his youth, the home of the famous opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Puccini wrote many of the operas that have instant name recognition, like “La Boheme” and “Tosca.” Lucca celebrates its hometown celebrity with the Puccini Festival, which goes on nearly every night of the year. This is actually a great way for people to get a taste of the opera without buying an expensive ticket for a four-hour event.

The Puccini Festival offers an hour or so of famous arias, taken from Puccini’s popular works, performed by professional opera singers. It’s like listening to a “Best of Puccini” CD, and just makes you want to hear more. The setting is a venerable stone cathedral with ceilings that soar to about 40 feet, which makes for incredible sound. The tickets are a bargain at about 10 Euros.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was in Rome, I got to see “Madama Butterfly” performed at the Teatro dell’opera di Roma. It was the first time I saw an opera performed at a theatre designed specifically for the opera.

It looked just like I imagined it would. The horseshoe-shaped space was lined with individual boxes stacked five high above the orchestra floor. Each box was about eight by eight feet square, and had its own crystal chandelier. If you squinted and looked across the hall to the other side, the chandeliers looked like Christmas ornaments hanging in perfect rows on a tree. The walls were covered with sumptuous red velvet that had softened to a cozy terra cotta color.

Within each box were six movable velvet seats – four of them were normal seat height, and two were a little taller, so whoever was at the back of the box still had a great view. It was the kind of space that makes you feel like whispering.

Each of the private boxes had an ante room – a place to hang your coat, or to go for a private conversation or perhaps a kiss. The ante room was separated from the box by a velvet curtain. Attendees of the opera came dressed in their best clothes – dramatic shawls and scarves were an important accessory. Some women had opera glasses – tiny binoculars on a stem – but even two boxes up, the view without glasses was very clear and very close. The performance was beautiful and the experience memorable.

The opera house in Rome, though the national capitol, is considered one of the minor opera houses in the country. La Fenice in Venice and La Scala in Milan supposedly have it all over the Roman venue.

Someday, I hope to find out.

In Italy, many large cities and even small towns have opera houses. In the summer, the opportunities to see performances are many – in Rome, the opera moves outdoors to the Baths of Caracalla. Here in the U.S., we are fortunate to live between New York and Boston, both of which have fine opera companies.

After my experience in Rome, my desire to see another opera at an opera house has grown exponentially. I am already researching my next visit. On my birthday, the Boston Lyric Opera is performing “Tosca” at the Shubert Theater and the Metropolitan Opera is performing “Carmen” at Lincoln Center. Hmmm…tough choices, but either way, I know it will be a birthday I will remember for the rest of my life. I can’t wait.

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