Artist in Residence: Quarantine Diaries – Un bel di

I was doing a beta-read of a novel for a friend and colleague that touches on opera, in particular on arias, and it has sent me down a rabbit hole of purity and passion and memory and delight.
Madam Butterfly was my first opera.
I was seven, and my mother took me and my cousin to a performance of Madam Butterfly in our local theater where a well-known international opera star was guesting in the title role. So far as I know, it left no lasting impression on my cousin, who was all like, meh, people are singing on stage, can we go home now.

I wept

Callas as Cio-Cio-san photo
Callas as Cio-Cio-san

I sat forward on my seat – I remember this, vividly – with my hands knotted in my lap, leaning towards the stage, my cheeks wet with tears. To me, this music was transporting – and the passionate, tragic story made so much more SENSE to me than the “happily ever after” pablum that Disney made of the fairytales of my childhood. I fell in love with opera, and it was forever. And “Un beli di vedremo”, the “One Fine Day” keynote aria, was the beginning of it all, the piece of opera music that lodged first and hardest, and that still lives on in my heart.
It is not a DIFFICULT piece of music. Like much of Verdi and Puccini, it is eminently singable. Even I with my untrained voice could probably do a non-operatically comparable to be sure but nevertheless a decent rendition of “Un bel di”. It is a progressive tune with syllables falling squarely on notes and it is easy to follow through – you just hit the notes, it’s a scaffolding that is in place there for you.
This is a piece that depends for its power on the passion that lies behind it – this is the song that is sung by the heroine who in the end loses EVERYTHING that she loves – her love, her child, her illusions, her world. There is nothing left for her – it is all ashes.
But this is a moment of beauty, of belief – “one fine day” he will be back, we will be together, our son will be part of a family. We know – and she probably already knows – that it is a dream, and that is why that song is so heartbreaking. She wants to believe, and you want to believe with her and for her – and so you follow her to that cloud, even though you can see that you are standing on air and that there really isn’t anything between you and a hard long fall except air and wishes. In that sense, yes, it is difficult. But musically, it is not hard.

The most difficult aria

The most difficult single female aria in opera – and arguably the most heartrendingly beautiful one – is Bellini’s “Casta Diva”. There is good reason why “Norma”, the opera this comes from, is not more frequently performed – there are few singers who can do real justice to this aria. It takes a VOICE. It is ethereal, impossible, fragile, it makes my hair stand on end and it makes the tears come as soon as the right voice hits those cascades of notes.
Compare the opening phrase of “Un Bel Di” and “Casta Diva”. In the former, the first six notes hit the first six syllables that you hear – distinct, and very firmly separate. In the later – “casta diva” is four syllables. It is sung to a cascade of up to twelve distinct notes – and a slide off any one of those will destroy the entire phrase.
When we go further into the “Casta DIva” aria – there’s a place where a downward glissando has to end – abruptly and PRECISELY – on a note that takes the aria forward in a specific direction and if you miss THAT you’re off into uncharted waters and the whole thing is destroyed. We won’t even talk about those crystal phrases in the middle, flying up and down the music like so many songbirds released into the sun. I just cried myself into happiness, listening to it, the diamond glitter of those notes cutting right through me like I was made of butter.
It’s one of the first loves of my life.
I was doing a beta read and I ended up healing my soul a little, just plunging back into the music and the memories.

Links, to listen for yourself if you want to, all by the immortal incomparable Maria Callas –
Un bel di HERE
Habanera (the aria starts at about 2:10 – look at those FLASHING eyes – the singer was Greek, the character was Spanish, all Mediterranean fire and passion…) HERE
Casta diva HERE


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