What the poet said

…V’entrar con voi pur ora,
ed i miei sogni usati
e i bei sogni miei,
tosto si dileguar!

The society we live in often doesn’t provide for spaces where we feel comfortable letting others see our real selves. Between deceiving social media glamours and real-life guards that we put up, it can be difficult to connect with even friends let alone new people. We ourselves then learn to hide behind formalities and social conventions to make life easier, even if it comes at the cost of authenticity. The idea of opera presents an interesting foil to many of our lived experiences; seemingly larger-than-life people profess exactly what they mean and often with (what seems like) beautifully crafted words. Opera presents situations where people get close very quickly, complete with open-hearted, full-throated sound-making. I think many of us crave that in our own lives. Even the operatic event today in some cases speaks to this yearning for intimacy. A number of start-up companies have popularized chamber opera, some works playing in spaces seating smaller audiences.

I think so many of us really want to feel close. Part of the draw to opera, I suspect, is this very idea: I wish I could be that person who says what Rodolfo said to Mimì. I wish I could speak beautiful Italian to someone and have a romantic fantasy fulfilled. I wonder if this wishful posture provides a distancing barrier from our experience of “the real thing.” We are so attuned to getting close but not too close – getting close enough to see hazy outlines but not close enough to really see flaws. Humans will go far to simulate closeness without actually pushing past superficial markers (think: “We text everyday, so we must be close,” or, “Our Snapchat streak is literally on fire!”). Part of the obsession with the idea of opera comes in part from the othering of the language.

Take the words that open this post in translation:

(Your pretty eyes) entered with you,
And my usual dreams,
And my beautiful dreams,
immediately vanished.

As someone whose native language is English (and I imagine that’s true for most reading this), I, too, am enchanted by how Italian words sound. The cadence of how the words are spoken as well as their innate musicality are pleasing to my ear. However, while Italian words, like these, are very beautiful, I think that they often, by no fault of their own, distance an American audience from what they actually convey. The beauty of the words blind us to what is actually being said. What is left is some shapeless “beautiful” object of no real import. And I’m not talking about singers doing their translations and really knowing what they’re saying; I’m talking about how we interact with what a number of artists (the composer, the singer, the librettist, the director, the conductor, the lighting designer, the costumer, etc) are trying to say.

What is Rodolfo saying here? Over the course of his famous aria, it seems to me what he’s saying is, “I know we just met, but I am stunned by you…and I don’t want this moment to end.” He is flirting with her. How many times have we ourselves had this very thought and attempted (perhaps some of you are good at this?) to win over someone with some choice words? At some point, we have to realize that Italian (or French or German, etc.) is just a language, and it’s not that characters are professing themselves beautifully. In opera, many of the characters are expressing themselves honestly. And how beautiful and rare is that these days?

For those of us who have heard an opera like La Bohème an inordinate number of times, I think that once we get past the beauty of the mode of expression, we can find something even more satisfying: what is being expressed. It’s so easy to fall into the opera-as-love-story narrative and thereby use opera to do the work we are so used to: hiding behind an idea. An idea of closeness, an idea of love. We want to believe these characters are like us; they’re not – at least not the selves that many of us manifest daily. They fervently mean what they say and for many of them, they bend toward complete honesty. Instead of laughing at them, we should want to be like them. When we engage with the characters as real people and push past the distance of language, which I know can be hard for a newcomer, we can use the space created by an operatic performance as a rumination of how life could be (hopefully not filled with sickness and death, though). How amazing would it be to live that honestly and authentically? The secret is that we can. Attending an opera performance can be a learning experience – one which compels us toward a greater and fuller humanity. It all depends on whether you want to listen.

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