Some people go to the opera to be transported by the sublime music. Others go because the heart and soul soar in the presence of singers who seem to have received their gifts from the gods. Still others adore the spectacle—the dazzling sets, lighting, costumes, dancers and supernumeraries who magically become courtiers or soldiers, peasants or fishermen.
Yes, all of the above nourish me, but this year I went to the Santa Fe Opera to learn about love. I settled into my seat, looked beyond the open theatre to the dramatic sunset that graced the surrounding desert landscape, flicked on the screen in front of me that provided instantaneous translation, and enrolled in the school of love studies, Santa Fe style.
My first class was….Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Briefly, the story, which takes place in Rome, is this: Tosca is a star, a beautiful and charismatic opera singer onstage and a pious believer who also happens to be a jealous drama queen offstage. She is in love with Cavaradossi, an artist, who rapturously admires female beauty but his heart belongs to Tosca. Simple, right?
Anything but. Without going into the fascinating political events that are part of the story, Scarpia, the aristocratic and sadistic chief of the police, wants to bed Tosca. He ensnares her in a web of manipulations that spin around her jealousy. He convinces her that Cavaradossi is being unfaithful. He also pursues Cavaradossi’s friend and political prisoner Angelotti, jails and tortures Cavaradossi, tries to rape Tosca, and, when she resists, tells her the only way to ensure the freedom for Cavaradossi is to sleep with him. She agrees, and then stabs him with his dinner knife. Scarpia’s promise to free Cavaradossi was a sham. When her lover is shot, and the police come after her, Tosca leaps from a parapet to her death.
My head was spinning. I thought I had enrolled in a beginner’s class on love, but this was definitely graduate school.
At the start of the opera, we meet Cavaradossi, an artist who loves beauty. He is drawn to an attractive blonde who comes to church regularly, and, without her knowledge, he uses her as a model for his Madonna painting. He is not emotionally mature yet, and although he loves Tosca, he can’t help his roving eye. Tosca suffers from jealous, possessive love. She is tormented by her imaginings of whom Cavaradossi is with. The peace in her life comes from her religious love, and her trust in God.
Cavaradossi is bound by brotherly love, and he is willing to sacrifice himself to help his friend Angelotti. Both Tosca and Cavaradossi feel physical passion and sexual love and, in the course of the opera, they develop a deeper, transcendent relationship that includes and goes beyond everything they felt and experienced before. Tosca brushes off her jealousy as though it were some unimportant detail from the past. She is willing to kill to save her love. And Cavaradossi trusts Tosca with his life, his silly flirtations a thing of the past. As for Scarpia, his is a perverted, violent and solipsistic love—twisted by needs for power, domination and conquest. To him, a lover is no more than an object that is used and then discarded.
For Tosca and Cavaradossi, art and loyalty, passion and risk-taking, trust and open-heartedness all inform their tragic love.
The only form of love that is unclear in the opera is the Supreme Being’s love for his creations. The God that Tosca prayed to is nowhere to be found in her most desperate moments, and seems curiously absent from the sufferings of humankind. Scarpia says of his obsessive and pathological pursuit of Tosca, “You make me forget God.” There is the suggestion that Tosca and Scarpia will meet before God, in the future, on their day of judgment. But as for the present, searching for God’s help is like looking for Waldo.
The opera is also a teaching about the dangers of excess. Tosca’s jealousy makes her weak and insecure. Scarpia’s cruelty and manipulations cost him his life. Cavaradossi’s pursuit of physical beauty creates pain in his beloved.
Before the tragic end of the opera, the positive aspects of love come together. Love and art become one: moments before Cavaradosssi is shot and Tosca plunges to her death, the two artists sing of beauty (the painter), sound (the opera singer), color (the artist) and the undying power of love. They have both been emboldened and made brave by their love: for each other, for their art, for a friend.
At the end of the performance, while the audience rose to its feet and applauded wildly, I thought about what an extraordinary environment I had for my lesson in love. Love makes you suffer. Unhealthy love makes others suffer. Deep love makes you brave. Love of God may be unrequited. On a higher plane, art is love and love is art.
In The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet and librettists Eugene Cormo and Michel Carré, we find a different configuration of love for a friend, romantic love, and religious adoration. Because it is not a tragedy like Tosca, the ending is upbeat and, as I learned long ago in Latin class, omnia vincit amor—love conquers all. But the path to get there is fraught with tension, passion and drama.
The story takes place in Ceylon, in a village of pearl fishers— a dangerous profession that involves plunging up to a hundred feet beneath the sea, without gear, to coax potential pieces of jewelry from bivalve oysters. The only protection the divers have is Brahma and a large dollop of luck.
At the beginning of the opera, Zurga is chosen as king of the pearl fishers, and, shortly afterwards, Nadir, his best friend from childhood, shows up. They reminisce about the past, when, at the temple of Kandi, they both fell in love with the veiled, virgin priestess of Brahma, Leila. They vowed that neither of them would pursue her, and that their friendship was more important than any woman. Their reveries are interrupted by the arrival of a veiled virgin priestess in their village. She has taken a vow to protect and watch over the village and keep away the evil spirits but the human cost is enormous: she can have no friend, husband or lover, and must live in seclusion. If she breaks her vow, the penalty is death. Guess who the priestess under the veil is? Leila.
Nadir, besotted by love, discovers who she is, pursues her, Leila resists, and then melts into his masculine arms. The two are found out and Zurga condemns them to death, with the full and enthusiastic support of the village. At the last moment, Zurga is wracked by remorse. He remembers that, in the past, when he was a refugee, Leila saved his life, and that he vowed eternal friendship with Nadir. As the flames leap in the funeral pyre for the soon-to-be-killed lovers, Zurga secretly sets fire to the village to distract the villagers, then frees Nadir and Nadir and helps them to escape by boat. Indeed, omnia vincit amor, at all levels in this operatic manual on love.
First, it affirms the intensity of deep male bonding. In a famous and celebrated duet, Zurga and Nadir sing to each other of their immutable love, which excludes any woman who might come between them. Homoerotic? Who knows? Impossible? Of course. Both men are heteros, and secretly they would like nothing better than to leap into the arms of the woman they have sworn to resist. Not only is she chaste, sacred, virginal and beautiful, but she is also forbidden fruit: no one is allowed to look at her. She is veiled, secluded, a goddess, and under penalty of death if she betrays her vows.
The story has important contemporary relevance. Celibate priests, unable to keep their sexual longings under wraps, have preyed on innocent children. Stories emerge from monasteries and nunneries about illicit relationships, secret children, and vows broken. The Virgin Mary? Many reject the notion of a divine mother who gave birth without intercourse.
Although chastity is of course an option, although friendship is among the strongest of human bonds and many willfully renounce sexuality in favor of love of God, there is a roiling human need for physical, tactile, consummated love on the physical plane. Death and punishment be damned—there is no stopping human biology. One has to make a choice between renunciation and the full expression of human love.
Closely linked to love is the desire for protection. The village needs protection from nefarious forces that can drown the pearl fishers and wreak havoc. Leila is terrified of her solitude and, when Nadir vows to protect her, her body and soul relax and then soar. Zurga promises, as king, to protect the village. Although Brahma is always in the background, humans are terribly vulnerable and need someone who can watch out for them and make them feel safe.
The notion of self-sacrificial love is also explored in the opera. Zurga and Nadir promise to give up pursuing the woman they love to preserve their friendship. Leila gives up all human bonds in order to serve as a priestess. At the end, Zurga, tormented by his own rash death sentence, makes an impetuous last-minute decision to lose his love and his best friend—sacrificing his own needs so they can be free, safe, and consummate their love. He also sacrifices the well-being of the community by setting a fire to the village so that the people dearest to him can escape. There is great nobility to his act. It is a higher form of love than any other in the opera-- a transcendent love that is pure, unselfish, heroic, almost divine. How many us would be capable of such nobility?
COMING SOON—part II.
IF YOU GO:
Contact info for SF opera: www.santafeopera.org
Free lectures one and two hours before the opera by the entertaining Oliver Prezant. He is guaranteed to have you singing.
And if you dine in the Cantina at the opera, you are in for a treat. Opera lecture Diva Desiree Mays offers brilliant insights in the opera you are about to see.
About the author: Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel.