Things to be shattered; things to be shown

The project is in two basic parts: Bologna, Italy // NC, USA; Research // Presentation I am attempting to develop a comprehensive overview of the trajectory of the Italian operatic tradition from its beginning to its current manifestation, including crucial intersections with other traditions at points of influence. I believe it to be essential that I study these operas in Italy and in Italian because one of my main theories is the importance of understanding the cultural context in order to appreciate the opera. At this point I am entirely at home in Italy, I’ve been living here since September. I imagine the return to the States, and to my tiny hometown in rural NC will be greatly assisted by the prospect of sharing an important part of Italy with the students at my old middle school. Maria is funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Grant program run by Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research, which also sponsors these blogs.

The Pendulum Effect

The beginning may not always be the hardest part but, perhaps because it’s the beginning, it pretty much feels that way. Such was the case with the start of my research — talk about a series of dead ends. Unexpected facility closings, crashed internet, essential materials on loan indefinitely, and, to top it all off, suffocating heat and humidity pressing down on Bologna. Oh, and the picture messages from my family with captions like “Great time at the beach!” and “Wish you were here for the bonfire!” …Smiley face. I started to get pretty discouraged to say the least. Right and also my friends who had also finished their exams had gone back to their respective home towns and countries. But from the midst of my gloom my roommate, who was preparing a horribly difficult law exam and would frantically unload her stress on me as I watered my plants in the morning, one morning asked me how the project was going. “It’s not really going….” I responded, and explained the troubles I was having. But she just laughed. “Darling, you’re in Italy!” she reminded me, “You can’t count on systems and procedures and bureaucracy, trust me. I’m studying them and they’re broken. You have to count on the people instead. Go reach out to people, that’s where you’ll find you resources. I mean, your project should be like your garden; deal with things that are living, that will respond to the energy you put into them.”

And if you can imagine, her little speech was even more inspirational in Italian. So I got my chin back up and reached out to everyone I could think of. Within a couple days I was sitting in a marvelously comfortable chair, surrounded by scores and recordings, full bars of wifi showing confidently on my laptop screen, at a desk in front of a huge open window, with a beautiful stormy rain sweeping in to break the heat.  My second project beginning therefore consisted of three straight days of chronologically viewing the eight operas while following the scores. What may sound like little more than a movie marathon was actually a necessary task to compact the progression of the musical periods in the style of time lapse photography. My stance is that history is not so much a constant forward reaching arch as it is a pendulum that retraces, repeats, and revisits itself with the advancement of time. By viewing all the operas in quick succession I clearly recognized the swoop of the pendulum that, like a playground swing, had a foreseeable trajectory but also points of fixture, of seemingly immobility. These fixed points, which will be discussed further once I’ve clarified them for myself, were discovered and hesitantly added to my metaphor only after the review of my marathon notes and are as disgruntling as they are eye-opening. Though I was warmly familiar with every opera on the list before beginning the project, I found myself personally swept up not only in the course of each individual work but in the swoop of the course of musical history also. I doubt I’ll ever forget the day in which I watched La Traviata and La Boheme back to back. I was wrapped in a quilt in my comfy chair with the rain pounding down and the smell of soaking herbs coming in the window and I was sobbing, whole-heartedly sobbing. As Violetta and Alfredo swore to run away from Paris. As Mimì and Rodolfo bid goodbye to waking up beside each other. I was out of control. That’s hard to admit as a girl who was quite recently scornful of the sappy over-wrought tear-jerking associated with bel canto. But I was riding that musical period swing. It all made sense, the actions, the reactions, the emotions, the historical context, the blatantly provocative music. And there’s more! The next opera, the final one on my list, tells the story of a family in an unidentified European totalitarian country during WWII. The father, sought by the police for political crimes (also unidentified), has fled over the border and is anxiously awaiting his wife, child and mother who are trying to obtain visas. Here too there is love, struggle, and ultimately death. But it’s not the same. I did not cry. I felt cold and angry and unsure. Menotti the composer tells us it’s not the same. He points out over and over again in his music and in the structuring of the scenes that the world has entered into a coldness that turns a blind eye to that which only a few years before was the catalyst of life: human relationships. The music, you see, these operas, they belong in their time periods. They are entwined with the spirit of the world as it was when they were written.  To follow shortly is a series of (what I find to be) fascinating stories about the original presentations of these operas. But for now I leave you with a picture of my garden. One, because for me it’s a symbol of the care and response relationship I’m now finding also in my project. Two, because I really like my garden and want to show it off. You can’t really tell but there’s sage, rosemary, basil, citronella, lavender, stevia, succulents, and tomatoes!

my terrace theater

Getting started…

Two nights ago I took a friend to the opera. There is always a special moment for me when I go to the opera theater, a moment just before the orchestra begins to tune, when I feel entirely at home and even slightly entitled knowing that the music, the staging, the plot – in summary, the whole of the presentation about to appear before me – is that which I adore. I have studied it, I have stayed up nights unable to stop thinking of it, I have done it myself and loved it and hated it. I have spent thousands of dollars pursuing it and countless hours dreaming about it. But most of all, I have always been at peace with it as an art form. Only at the end of the previous school year did I realize I am also scared for it. And this fear, this tense nervousness in my chest, is that of a girl embarrassedly introducing her awkward and obnoxious little brother to her friends. I brought my friend to the opera to see a modern production, a world premier, an “audience divider”. And I was scared, not for the friend but for the opera. I begged it in my head to be beautiful, to be meaningful, or at least to be swallowable. But, alas, it was none of the above. I left the theater begging him to let me show him good contemporary opera, good music that hasn’t forgotten to retain at least a scrap of acknowledgement for the listener. But in his face I could see the “Too Late” expression and I knew his next words before he said them: “I guess I’m just more of a classics guy.”

As melodramatic as it might seem, that sentence makes me weightily sad. There is in opera, like in most any evolving medium, a historical trajectory that, contrary to popular belief, does not plummet to the ground in the early 20th century. Manically beautiful operas are being written at this moment. I want to scream it from the rooftops. There is a path, a sense, a scope: this trajectory that renders the good operas of the past century not only comprehensible but profoundly refined and evocative – like the latest model of a machine that was conceived over 300 years ago. In my opinion, enjoying an opera does indeed require a bit of context. For most that would mean understanding the plot, knowing the names of the characters, maybe the musical period in which it fits. But for me the necessary context is far more personal. When we enter an operatic theater we must know the context of the audience. We must know what the world had seen and what had not yet happened or existed at the time when the opera premiered. In short, we must control and selectively shatter our own disbeliefs. And by understanding that we the audience are at the furthest possible point forward in time, we can come to appreciate the capacity for intimacy contained in an opera of our own day and age.