In my youth, music came from the radio or via records played on a gramophone. Each record was printed with a dog attentively listening to the sounds emanating from a record player’s big horn. The text read, “His Master’s Voice.”
What kind of “tunes” was I listening to? Mostly opera arias by the great singers of the time: Caruso, Nicolai Gedda, Jussi Bjorling, Chaliapin and others. Yes, many of them were males. But I also liked the pop music of the day. Back then there was not such a divide between the two genres. Many singers had a foot in each camp: Mario Lanza,Ezio Pinza, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Deanna Durbin were some of them. It was the golden age of the movies and they all appeared on the screen. Films were the great unifier. One pop singer was called Tino Rossi . He was the Andrea Boccelli of my youth and appealed to the sentimental sensibilities of the 1930s.
Back then I thought opera was just a collection of beautiful solos. We had no opera house and I had never seen a complete opera performance. And then one day I witnessed an amateur rehearsal of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni. Suddenly my whole musical world was totally changed. Although I had never been in love, I completely identified with Santuzza pleading with Turiddu not to abandon her. Her pain became my pain. I understood that opera was much more than bel canto. It was drama, tragedy, poetry, farce, all of it enriched by music. And music often expressed those sentiments better than words alone could. What would seem absurd, even excessive if spoken suddenly seemed absolutely right when sung. In the famous quartet in Rigoletto four people speak at the same time and instead of resulting in cacophony, each voice is heard and understood while they blend at the same time. When listening to Violetta (in La Traviata) sacrificing her own happiness to that of Alfredo, you cannot help crying.
The same scene in Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias” might seem mawkish and over the top because our sensibilities are not the same as those of the 19th century. “La Dame aux Camelias” was inspired by the real life story of Marie Duplessis an ignorant peasant girl in Normandy whose brutal father beat and raped her. When she was fourteen, he sold her to an old man of 70 who took her to Paris. Within a few years she changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and totally remade herself into the most famous courtesan of the day. She lived by her wits and prospered. She died of tuberculosis at age 26. Her story inspired a novel, a play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and Verdi’s La Traviata.
Sometimes an opera plot is so absurd that it is only held together by the music. In Verdi’s Il Trovatore, you will find revenge, abduction, mistaken identities, a baby thrown into flames. It is so ludicrous that no matter how much you would wish to suspend disbelief it is impossible to identify with it. It is only held together by Verdi’s glorious music.
And sometimes the union is perfect: Don Giovanni goes to Hell in style and The Marriage of Figaro ends with everybody living happily ever after to Mozart’s uplifting music.