Artist in Residence Quarantine Diaries Episode 11: Un bel di

I am in the midst of a beta-read of a novel you will all be seeing through BVC not too long from now – Phyllis Irene Radford’s “Siren Singer” – and in the context of the book she touches on opera,in particular on arias, and it has sent me down a rabbithole of purity and passion and memory and delight.

The main character in the novel speaks of “Un beli di vedremo”, the “One Fine Day” keynote aria from Madam Butterfly, as “one of the most dificult areas” for a singer – but let me disagree on that, and I’ll show you why. Before I do, though, let me tell you something about Madam Butterfly.

It was my first opera.

I was seven, and my mother took me and my cousin (of an age – she’s only 9 months younger than me) to a performance of “Madam Butterfy” in our local theatre, 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.

Me? I wept. 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 passionalte, 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 bel di” was more or less the beginning of it all, the piece of opera music that lodged first and hardest, and that still lives on in my heart.

But 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 decent) rendition of “Un bel di”. It is a progressive tune that builds on itself 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 and this is a piece that depends for its power on the passion that lies behind it – this is the song that is sung by a woman 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 pause, 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 emptiness 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.

Just as a digression, briefly – I am entertained (although not entirely surprised) that our Siren heroine, in the Radford novel I just mentioned, does not choose somethng like the Habanera for her aria – it just seems to utterly perfect – “si je t’aime, prend garde a toi!” – it’s exactly the kind of thing that a Siren might sing. DID sing – Carmen was a sort of Siren after all 🙂

But back to the point.

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 its 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 wreck the entire phrase. And 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 for a friend and colleague, 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

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…)

casta diva (here live, or here recorded)

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Artist in Residence Quarantine Diaries Episode 11: Un bel di — 5 Comments

  1. Where were you when I asked on Facebook which aria I should have Celia sing? I asked and an opera singer replied. Maybe this is not so difficult because of hitting the notes right, but because of hitting the emotions right while singing. Projecting emotions is hard while controlling a voice. And at this point I believe Celia has just come off of doing a number from “Grease” and is wearing a poodle skirt.

    The book is not yet ready for prime time. I can adjust that scene. But Celia will sing Madama Butterfly because she needs a piece the audience will find familiar.

    In my own defense I must admit, I am not a singer. I have sung but since my hearing went splat I can’t guarantee that what I sing matches the other voices in the choir or the instrument accompanying. A clear and clean soprano is one of the few sounds that can pierce the muddle around my eardrums accurately. Celia has that voice and was a joy to write.

    • I must’ve missed that FB post… Look, ALL opera isn’t “easy” in terms of the fact that you do need to have a properly trained voice to do it AT ALL in the manner in which it is supposed to be performed – and the Butterfly aria is definitely one with real heart, and there is no reason that Celia should not have picked it for her showpiece – it IS one of *THE* arias for a soprano, after all. It’s a great melody to showcase a great voice in. But… in terms of pure technical difficulty I’d still rank it below “Casta Diva”… 🙂

  2. My first introduction to opera as a child was my parents records of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. Great fun for a kid. Then in my early teens a wealthy family friend who had subscription seats at the Met in New York started taking me a couple of times a year. It was marvelous. The last time was in my college years when he was ill and gave me both his tickets to The Wagner that was the last time Bergit Nielson sang at the Met. I had to be pulled back from walking into a lamppost when we left – her voice was so entrancing (literally).
    (The people in that section of seating had all had their seats for years. When I sat down one of the ladies several seats on asked after “the gentleman who usually accompanied me as no one had seen him for a month in his usual seat and they were all worried! -didnt know names but knew their theatre neighbors faces!)
    About 20 years ago I finally heard Butterfly. I’m afraid I did have a few chuckles when I kept picking up on the musical themes Sullivan satirized in Mikado. Then I got to see a performance of the original Butterfly which I found even more interesting both dramatically and musically than the rewritten better known version.

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