I felt like Jo March in Little Women.
The 1994 film version, to be exact, when Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne are sitting backstage at the opera, perched high among the ropes and riggings. Byrne’s Professor Bhaer has invited the ingenuous Jo to a performance of Wagner, having dismissed her concerns over a suitable opera dress with the half-abashed confession that, where they were sitting, things would “not be so formal.” He is interpreting the German libretto in a whisper, and Ryder’s already ethereal face is a portrait of pure enchantment as she gazes down at the spectacle on the stage below, her brown eyes round with delight. It’s a gorgeous scene, charged with the enthusiasm of youth and the incredulity of a realized dream . . . and not only because she ends up getting kissed as the curtain falls.
But I love that image of wide-eyed wonder in the face of almost unearthly artistry and skill. It’s exactly how I feel each and every time I’ve witnessed a flash of human genius of any form upon the stage—and opera in particular.
I love grand opera. Unlike Jo, I’ve seen many. But I never get over the old rapture I first knew when I saw one of these miracles of orchestra and voice leap into living color before my eyes. When I was in high school, my piano teacher handed me a fat volume of famous arias and I spent hours upon hours with that book over the summer that followed, getting acquainted with the greats: Faust, Carmen, La Bohème, Aïda. My first and best love, however, has remained steadfast to this day: La Traviata. I’m just enough of an incurable romantic to ache for the ill-fated heroine. And, in my starry-eyed opinion, there is nothing in opera to compare to the soaring tenderness of Verdi’s score.
Philip and I got to see it live last week—front row of the mezzanine, so far to the left of the theater it almost felt like box seats. We were captivated from the very beginning by the aching sweetness of the overture (one of my favorite moments in classical music) and the breathtaking Belle Époque sets and costumes. But the moment Violetta swept onto the stage in her diaphanous white gown, a glass of champagne in one hand and a coquette’s fan in the other, I knew that we were in the care of a master artist. La Traviata is, in many ways, Violetta’s opera (the title literally means “The Fallen Woman”), and I am always surprised by how much of the action takes place with her singing alone on the stage—or, as in the case of the final act, in the room with her nurse (who manages to sleep through it). Even the famous love duet with Alfredo fails to reach its crescendo of passion until the reprise, when she is tunefully searching her heart in her now-empty salon and he renews his suit from outside, beneath her window. In other words, from backstage, softened by distance and curtains and enormous control on the part of the tenor. I think it’s the most thrilling moment in the whole opera. And it’s all about Violetta.
It did not surprise me to learn that Violetta was the soprano’s signature role. She has literally sung it all over the world, sixty times and more, and you could tell by the way she took possession of the character that she knew her girl. Violetta was so magnetically alive—right until the very last moment—that whenever she was on the stage you couldn’t look elsewhere if you’d wanted to.
The final act is notoriously heart-rending—and stupendously difficult. It opens with Violetta on her consumptive deathbed in a desolate room, stripped of its former treasures. The orchestra sobs out a poignant memory of her gaieties and flirtations from the first act, a painful contrast with the broken, pale-faced woman on the bed, her erstwhile ringlets strewn over the pillow in dark disarray. The light is dim and grey with the coming of dawn, and into the sudden hush at the overture’s close comes Violetta’s song: high, sweet, ineffably pure. And deathly quiet. I can’t understand how a human being can do that—I mean, she’s lying on her back, for crying out loud! It’s one of the most exquisite instances of mastery you’ll ever see.
The opera ends, predictably, in tragedy: after a brief, valiant flare of life and hope at the return of her lover, Violetta dies in his arms. And thus she departs this life, carrying all the sympathies of the audience with her. (I mean, does anyone really care what happens to Alfredo after Violetta is gone? Even romantic little me doesn’t think twice about him. The cad.) It’s a supremely touching scene, however—moments earlier Violetta has gasped out, Gran Dio!…morir sì giovine !— “Great God!…to die so young!” and you feel the calamity of it right along with her.
But more moving yet was the scene after the final curtain had fallen. The cast members came out one at a time to receive their well-deserved “bravos” and “encores”—but when Violetta’s soprano took the stage once more, she brought the house down. Evidently, Philip and I were not the only ones who had been staggered by her performance. There she was, barefoot, in a nightgown with her hair tangled over her shoulders, having just accomplished a feat of superhuman virtuosity, and the look on her face (I could see it well) was of the utmost—gratitude. Down she went to the music of our applause, again and again, in curtsies that nearly kissed the floor. Then up once more with her hands over her heart, mouthing the words, “Thank you.” To us, the audience. Thank you for pitying my Violetta, she seemed to say. Thank you for honoring this sublime music with me. There was such a sincerity in her bearing and manner that I actually found I had tears in my eyes.
Such astonishing generosity; such sublime humility.
Such a crystalline image of the modesty inherent in all true lovers of their craft, from a ballerina defying gravity in a jeté entrelacé to a woman baking bread in her own kitchen. Mastery, in its purest sense, implies servitude: interminable hours of effort and training and devotion. Kahlil Gibran said that our work is our love made visible. I cannot think of a better expression for the self-giving essence of genuine art than the barefoot virtuosity I saw there on the stage before me that night.
Contrary to popular belief, the real divas don’t strut around barking orders like Minnie Driver in Phantom of the Opera. They are kissing the floor in their great love and heavenly courtesy.