La Traviata

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Opera is a genre that have not often enjoyed.  As a child on car trips, my family would often parody opera to pass the time (think, “who has stepped on my sandwich?” “It is I!” set to vibrato and you get the idea).  But even this could not last too long before the novelty wore off and everyone was simply screeching at the top of their lungs.  For my father’s sanity, we stopped.

So it is not surprising that it would take me so long to begin to appreciate the art form.  I have long enjoyed “classical” music… though I am sure that with any amount of adequate research I could tell you whether I enjoyed romantic music apart from other kinds of “classical” composers.  Learning to love opera, though, seemed a far-gone conclusion.

How wrong we can be.

Far from it’s seeming pretension, opera is deeply emotive.  It expresses the complexity of human emotion in ways that no other type of art can.  Poetry, of course, evokes the kind of condensed, raw, and often subtly elusive emotions that make being human a journey into contingency and change.  But set to music?  The human heart soars first with the notes and melody, and later with the words of poetry set to that music.  Spoken aloud, poetry cuts deeper and lifts more strongly than mere words on a page.  Set to music, the experience can be otherworldly.  Opera does just this, I believe.

To be honest, I am no rightful connoisseur of opera.  To truly appreciate it, one must spend years loving it.  But I have spent years innocently enjoying whatever scraps of poetry come my way, and thoughtlessly smiling at whatever tunes lilt over the NPR air waves.  Only recently have I come to really enjoy opera.  And it’s all thanks to Maria Callas.

Maria Callas (1923-1977)

I was lately introduced by a friend to Maria Callas, the American-born Greek soprano who, throughout much of the twentieth century, was one of the most loved, most lauded operatic singers the world over.  And I never knew her until a friend introduced me.

While with this friend, we happened across a six-disc collection of Maria Callas’ work in a bookstore.  I was immediately encouraged to buy the collection, which included works from Wagner as well as full recordings of La Gioconda and La Traviata (Ponchielli and Verdi, respectively).

Not being familiar with opera, I had no idea the treat I was in for.  After listening to one disc, I immediately listened to the other five.  Insatiable.

La Traviata has particularly engaged me in the few days since I have owned this collection.  It is the story of a courtesan, Violetta (played by Callas), whose recovery from an illness gives the occasion for not only a lavish ball, but also for Alfredo to profess his love for her.  It is at this ball that one particularly famous song arises, a toast offered by Alfredo to the guests gathered at the ball:

Libiamo ne’ lieti calici – “Drinking Song”

At face value, it is not one of the more emotionally engaging songs of the opera, which continues on through Violetta and Alfredo’s life together, their separation due to his father’s machinations (especially his father’s disdain for her role as a courtesan), and their reunification on Violetta’s deathbed.  But it is a song that, for me, encapsulates one novice’s budding love of opera.

“In what other genre could an entire piece be dedicated to drinking?” some might think.  But in this song rest all the subsequent themes of the opera: fading beauty, hedonism wasted on youth, and the stinging prediction of love unrequited.

(Translation from Italian to modern English)

[Alfredo]
Let’s drink, let’s drink from this merry chalice
that beauty so truly enhances
And the brief moment will be happily intoxicated
with voluptuousness
Let’s drink for the ecstatic feeling
that love arouses
Because this eye aims straight to the almighty heart
Let’s drink, my love, and the love among the chalices
will make the kisses hotter

[Chorus]
The chalices will make the kisses hotter
The chalices will make the kisses hotter

[Violetta]
With you all, I can share
my happiest times
Everything in life
which is not pleasure is foolish
Let’s enjoy ourselves
for the delight of love is fleeting and quick
It’s like a flower that blooms and dies
And we can no longer enjoy it
So enjoy; A keen and flattering
voice invites us!

[Chorus]
Be happy; The wine and singing
beautify both the night and the laughter
Let the new day find us in this paradise

“Everything in life which is not pleasure is foolishness,” Violetta sings.  “Let’s drink for the ecstatic feeling that love arouses,” Alfredo toasts.

And yet, in the middle of this merry affirmation of youthful voluptuousness, there is an exchange between the two soon-to-be lovers.

[Violetta]
Life means celebration
[Alfredo]
Only if one hasn’t known love
[Violetta]
Don’t tell someone who doesn’t know
[Alfredo]
But that seems to be my fate…

Violetta, determined that life is all a show, a promenade upon which to display oneself and laugh at everything, sings counter to Alfredo, who knows that life is only so merry for those who have not loved.

[All]
Be happy; The wine and singing
beautify both the night and the laughter
Let the new day find us in this paradise

And still the chorus sings on.  “Be happy!” they shout.  They do not know the terrible separation that Alfredo and Violetta have yet to face.  They do not know that paradise is not guaranteed simply because the one expecting it is young and now full of life.  Alfredo and Violetta sing with the chorus at the end:  it is as if Alfredo pleads for the new day to be paradise because he so longs to express his love for Violetta; it is as if Violetta pleads that the new day bring paradise because she has seen the depth of sickness and suffering.

For a “drinking song,” it packs quite an emotional punch.  Such joyous vibrancy in the music coupled with sometimes vacuously cheerful, sometimes knowingly mournful lyrics.  It is a story of the passion that we all are so adept at hiding.  For those of us who are Violetta, it is a brief exposition of the ways in which we would rather be blinded to the suffering of the world, not because we have not suffered but because we have suffered enough.  For those of us who are Alfredo, it is a dark moment where we carry with us the pain of unfeeling… the pain of impatience, of not yet knowing that for all love’s somber valleys, love also brings inestimable joy.

I am sure that critics of opera might have something different to say about this piece’s place in the wider work.  But for me, it is a reminder of the public faces we all wear in an effort to hide our true selves.  A whole lifetime of evasion, captured in just over three minutes.

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