The first opera I learned was La Boheme. My dad insisted I know every single part to perfection. We would run through the score marking every singer’s part… Needless to say that if someone is off with “in quell’azzurro guizzo languente,” “pasticcio o dolce,” or “che mi canti” – I am going to notice! That is what happens when scores come flying at you when you mess up! Well, that’s really not fair… my dad didn’t throw scores… he was actually pretty patient as a teacher. He believed learning was a slow process. I really hated that!
But anyway, I can never go see Boheme without throwing cues to singers in my mind. If you sit next to me you will often see my pointer finger just automatically flick upwards with cues. I don’t even think about it. It’s not enjoyable. I hate listening “technically” to opera. It is hard to really listen when you are in that mode.
The other evening I had the pleasure to be in the company of my friend, and wonderful tenor Ben Sloman, and we went to catch La Boheme at the Met because at all costs I wanted to witness first hand the magnificent things I had been hearing on recordings of Joseph Calleja. I seldom break ranks and talk about my personal tastes and preferences, but I am going to break my rule.
Fabio Capitanucci started his wonderful portrayal of Marcello – it all sounded great. Then Calleja comes out on his balcony and starts “Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comgnigoli Parigi…” A special feeling came over me. I felt like somehow I had jumped back in time to a different era where opera was a sacred art of communication of extremely gifted people. No offense to any opera singers. You have to understand that I grew up in a vocal studio. As a child my dad sang, and when he retired, he taught. My house was a “vai e vieni” of opera singers all the time. I have heard many thousands of voices live. It is very rare when you experience “the gift” – the undefinable endowment from God that sometimes opera singers have. Most of us have a few nights we can remember where we had it, but some have it all the time.
I hear/feel this endowment when I listen to Callas. I hear/feel it when I listen to Di Stefano. I hear/feel it when I listen to Caruso very much. Battistini, Carreras, etc. My friends, none of these singers were technically perfect (surprise: no one is). This is about a sacred gift of communication… a power that enriches the listener and that reminds us of how important it is to be alive and to be human, to have a conscious mind with which we can experience reality. Perhaps this gift activates recesses of our inherited mind that brings us back to times where we loved and stuck with our fellow humans in a violent world, where our kind was the most important thing instead of our money, glory, and influence… a world where we could look up to the stars and feel like we weren’t alone… There are a few things in this world that can turn that light on in our soul. Certainly prayer, meditation, and serving the poor are examples, but opera singing does have a special niche in this space… but for very few. Joseph Calleja is one of those very few.
I don’t know exactly what this gift is made of… Perhaps it’s not too different than wanting to explain what the color blue is. It’s just blue… After many years of observation and thought, my hunch is that this has to do with a combination of technical ability in crafting and weaving harmonics beautifully, coupled with a child-like heart… a type of innocence that, notwithstanding personal flaws, has not been corrupted or annihilated by greed and ambition… or maybe that is all in my mind, and the vessel is just that, a vessel.
Perhaps Joseph Calleja is just as much a witness to his gift as we are. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this were exactly the case. Some things are just not subject to any process of deconstruction, or of learning, and remain mysteriously in the realm of the subjective.
I didn’t throw one cue during this Boheme… I think. Ben, did I?