Life and art (2): Tosca sings

On our third date, Laura and I drove to Pennsauken to see the Met in the Park concert production of Tosca. She told me again that Tosca was her favorite opera, and Puccini her favorite composer. We had not thought to bring lawn chairs, so it was rather uncomfortable to sit on the hard ground with no back support.  The discomfort did not interfere with our enjoyment of the music.  Afterwards, Laura talked quite a bit about the aria vissi d’arte, about living for art, something she had tried to do.  The aria spoke to her aspirations to live a life of and for art.

When I met Laura, she already had been subscribing to the Opera Company of Philadelphia for a few years.  She would go on Sunday afternoons with her friend Kathleen Wright.  Laura had met Kathleen at Haverford after Laura moved from the University of Colorado to follow her first husband.  Kathleen had let Laura share her office while she was teaching at Haverford before switching careers and going to Penn Law School.  Laura and I continued to go to the opera with Kathleen on Sunday afternoons. Anne Mei would stay with Kathleen’s daughter Sophie, whom Kathleen had brought back from China just about the same time as our first Tosca concert.

In the spring of 2009 Kathleen told us that she might be going to China for research and study during the next academic year.  Laura and I decided not to get tickets for the next season.  We said that we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to afford them, but deep down we weren’t sure what was going to happen with Laura.   Giving up the opera seats we had held for 15 years stirred up many emotions, letting go of the familiar, fearing the unknown.

In the fall of 2009, while Laura was getting her last futile round of Avastin, we had a grand musical celebration of her birthday and then we took her on a final tour: the orchards near Freehold, the Jersey Shore, and the Metropolitan Opera to see Tosca. When we arrived at the Metropolitan Opera, I was told that our tickets were for the week before. I had made a mistake in my order, and I had not thought to check the tickets when they arrived in the mail.  We stepped outside into the Lincoln Center plaza, and I broke down.  Because of her aphasia, Laura could not quite understand why I was so upset.  I decided that we hadn’t come this far just to miss the opera, so I went to the ticket window and explained the mistake.  They sent us to the lobby manager.  When I explained our problem, she just gave us tickets that were a few rows closer than the ones I had bought.  In retrospect, I think her location gave her a view of a grown man crying when we were turned away, and she had compassion.

During our last season with the Philadelphia Opera, Laura had complained that aphasia kept her from reading the supertitles to follow the operas the way she used to.  For this last opera Laura knew the score and the libretto of Tosca so well that she never even mentioned this problem at the Met.

In Pennsauken Laura had been moved by the opening words of Tosca’s great aria in Act II, vissi d’arte.  When we went to the Met, we weren’t thinking about living for art any more. We were living Tosca’s question: what did I do that this evil is being inflicted on me?

I never did harm to a living soul!

why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?

This time we didn’t hear some diva just showing off her art.  It was a real cry. Why me?  I’ve been good.

A large part of our feelings obviously arose from Laura’s situation, but the dramatic role of Tosca’s words and how they were performed that afternoon dissolved any appearance of performance. Stephen Dunn is not alone hearing Vissi d’arte as a paean to a life of making art.  That’s certainly was foremost on Laura’s mind in Pennsauken.  The music is so beautiful it is not surprising that people tend to focus on those first words, I lived for art, especially when so many performances take place mostly to display the artistry of the singer.  But after that first line Tosca’s words are not about art.  They are all about her quandary over Scarpia’s evil demands that she submit to his lust or see her lover executed.  That torment rang loud and clear as Laura and I listened.  That afternoon no one could argue with the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini in his judgement that Karita Mattila “brings shimmering power, incisive attack, pliant lyricism and emotional honesty to her performance.”

Just as Stephen Dunn made art out of all the distractions from art that life puts in his way, so too we experienced great art in a performance that was no longer a performance.  We could imagine ourselves in the room with Tosca and her tormentor.  We experienced Tosca’s agony, not some artistic rendition, because the artistry of the singer, the orchestra, the composer, and the librettist disappeared as they perfected their appearance.

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