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Wagner and Me: The Story of an Impossible Love Even in New York

The lyric opera brings me back to childhood memories of trips to the Arena di Verona, so when I have to face Wagner at the Met, I miss Manrico and Violetta

The Valkyrie at Met Opera in 2013, led by Brunilde (the soprano Debra Voigt, in the lower left), from a famous opera form Richard Wagner (Le Valchirie al Met nel 2013, guidate da Brunilde (il soprano Debra Voigt, in basso a sinistra) da un'opera famosa di Richard Wagner).

I like opera, but I’m no expert. I used to hear my grandmothers hum the Verdi and Puccini arias that had served as the soundtrack of their youth and had represented their (alas, really melodramatic) emotional education. I remember seeing my first opera at the age of seven: an over-the-top production of Aida at the Arena di Verona, a bus departing from Bozzolo in the early afternoon, and a hellish heat.

My mother, her friends, some ladies who knew their operas well, a few husbands—bored even before we set off–and then us, a brood of eager children drawn more to the endless picnic on the scalding, rose marble steps of the Arena than to the show that would start after sunset. Despite the fatigue and the digestive torpor that followed the binging, the story and the music slowly got through to us, and instead of dozing off we became enraptured by the extraordinary spectacle unfolding before our eyes. And so, the opera was, for several years during my childhood, an annual outing shared with my peers and eagerly anticipated as an adventure.

Then, for many years, no opera. We all know that in adolescence you try to blend in, and I would say that opera was the last genre of music that we would consider; that is, unless it was mediated as a parody by Queen. Once arrived at Stanford, in the middle of a particularly challenging academic semester, a professor gave me and a fellow-student two tickets to the San Francisco Opera. Stupendous tickets in the dress circle, and obviously, as penniless doctoral students, we accepted. It was Tristan und Isolde by Wagner. The music was sublime, the story a bit far-fetched–and boring as hell. At the end of the first act, my friend and I looked at each other and practically in unison, decided to sneak out. This wasn’t the opera I had known in my past: there weren’t hundreds of extras, exaggerated (but moving) stories and plot twists; and not even any arias that if you wanted to, you could hum in the shower. Or was it that I, after a decade and a couple of academic titles, had become more resistant to the beauty of the art?

I began my true discovery in New York a few years afterward when I would go to the Metropolitan and to the City Opera anytime I could. But also, for work I was dealing more and more with our lyrical tradition and taking part in the preparation of exhibitions, moderating round tables and presenting concerts. I learned a lot and shared a little of what I was learning. And I was learning especially from Fred Plotkin, who, for the past eight years has held a series of conversations on opera at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.

In one of our many musical chats, I confessed my difficult relationship with Wagner to Fred and he, master teacher that he is, invited me to accompany him to see the entire cycle of “The Ring of Nibelung”, four operas for a total of more than 16 hours of performance. To have Fred as a guide in this undertaking and to be able to count on the illustrious quality of the orchestra and singers of the Metropolitan Opera House encouraged me to engage in this musical marathon; and so, I welcomed the invitation as a personal challenge, a kind of initiation into an unknown field.

Stefano Albertini with Fred Plotkin at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò (Photo Credit: Molly Egleman)

Right off I could see that the audience was very different from the one I was used to, for Italian operas can count on a colorful crowd that ranges from music-lovers of the Opera Club–always strictly in tuxedo and bow tie– to the young couple where you can see that the boyfriend is trying to impress the girl with a night to remember and the girl has consulted half a dozen friends to decide on her outfit (usually very colorful and a little over the top).

For a performance of Wagner, you enter the theatre and there’s an unreal silence: people don’t talk much and if they do, they murmur, whisper, as if in church. The men as well as the women are dressed in dark clothes. I wore a tie, but I was definitely in the minority. Fred warned me that from the first note to the last the room would be in the most absolute silence. Even the sound of a candy wrapper would be considered a sacrilege. No applause at the opening scene, unlike at the Italian operas where people applaud after every famous aria, even if the orchestra is still playing.

Fred’s introduction to the first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine), helps me navigate the complex and head-spinning Nordic mythology. The parallels that Fred draws, between the serious and the facetious, among the characters of the Wagnerian round and those of the Trumpian White House fascinate me, it amuses me and it helps bring otherwise distant and incomprehensible events into contemporary reality. I don’t want to reveal the details of Fred’s parallels here because I hope to soon read one of his fully developed articles in his opera column for WQXR, the classical music radio station of New York.

I have to admit that in the second opera of the cycle, The Valkyries, despite having been perfectly instructed about its content, motivation and orchestration, and to Fred’s great disappointment, I gave up after the second act—and that was after four hours of the performance– and so I left. I therefore missed the famous “Ride of the Valkyries,” perhaps one of the best-known classical musical pieces of all time.

Since I am about halfway through my Wagnerian journey, on the way home I reflected on my initiation. I experienced the satisfaction of having managed to enter a world that I still feel to be laborious and heavy, yet at the same time I have to resign myself to a very simple fact: even if I should ever come to appreciate and enjoy Wagner’s operas, they will never be completely mine. Even by making an effort, I will never be able to identify with Wothan or Brunhilde. And yet even without trying, I will always feel like Il Trovatore, Turiddu, Violetta, and even Mimì. 

Translated by Emma Bass

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