Opera: Nonvocal music?

Yes, I know, it’s a really strange title!  So what do I mean?  Let me give you a little background:  I’ve ripped a number of my musical CD’s to my mp3 player, which I listen to constantly while I exercise at my exercise facility every other day.  One of them is titled “Opera goes to the movies” and I particularly love listening to this CD.  But:  I don’t understand the Italian language of opera (well, I did have three years of classical latin in high school some sixty years ago, but it turns out that that’s not much help!).  So in that sense  (language ignorance —  I admit it), the opera of that CD is nonvocal music to me, whence the title of this musing.  There are surprises in that non-vocality, and I’d like to share a few of my own experiences with you.  But first, what inspired this page:  My curiosity got the best of me, and recently I decided to search out the exact translations of the music that I enjoyed so much by way of my own interpretations of this “nonvocal” music.  Which led to the following:

My first surprise occurred with the song “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep”) from Puccini’s opera “Turandot”, which I had heard years ago, long before my opera CD.  There is a magnificent climax to this song, where the tenor sings “Vincero” three times.  My latin learning made it perfectly clear (to me!) what the operatic song meant:  “I shall overcome!”.   I felt it very deeply, that someone was overcoming great difficulties, profound obstacles in his life.  It meant a lot to me, and for years I called the singing of that word (and do to this day)  the “three greatest notes in opera”.  That compliment was heartfelt.  Now to the actual translation:  It turns out that the literal translation in modern day Italian is “I will win!” sung by Prince Calaf in his efforts to win the hand of Princess Turandot.  Not quite the meaning that I held so closely to my heart for so long.  Doesn’t matter, really:  I know the deeper meaning, not some contest with a princess, but the deepest feelings of someone who will overcome those great obstacles of life.  No matter the story line, those three notes will always inspire me with the joy of victory over the hardships of life.

The second surprise occurred with another of Puccini’s operas, “‘Gianni Schicchi”, with the song “O mio babino caro”.  My latin told me that, along with the speculation that “babino” was just a variation on “bambino”,  that this was a song of love of a mother to her most beloved child.  Oh, the sublime beauty of this suprano airia!  Every time I heard it I was touched by its elegance and heartfelt sincerity.  So what did the actual translation reveal?  It turned out that “babino” is an Italian term of endearment for your father, like “papa” or “daddy”, and that it was an aria in which the singer asked her father (“daddy”) to let go of his hatred for this other Florence family to which her beloved lover belonged.  Again, very sweet, but it will always and forever mean to me the elegant and deeply touching love of a mother for her child.

The final surprise was even more personal and more deeply felt than the previous two.  It comes from yet another Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly”.  Strangely enough, the first time I heard the opera was when I was about six or seven.  My aunts were transfixed by this opera on a television at one of their homes.  It was the first time I had ever seen a TV, and I was transfixed by the sight of it and mystified as to why they wanted to watch this operatic thing, which I could not understand at the time.  Fast forward to my adult years:  It turns out that the piece “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly is the very first piece on the CD that I had ripped to my mp3.  I  had listened to it many times without understanding, but was touched by the heartfelt quality of it.  And then recently I looked up the background of this story.  It turns out that Madama Butterfly, a young Japanese Geisha girl, married an American Naval officer, who soon left the country and forsook his loving wife (for a suitable American bride, it turns out).  Madama Butterfly grieved over her loss of him, and a friend, in an attempt to comfort her, sang this soprano aria “Un bel  di vedremo” (“one fine day we will see”) saying that one fine day we will see him arrive in the harbor and walk up the hill to your home; you will delicately receive him with an intense contained love.  But Madama Butterfly’s heart is breaking, for she senses the truth of things:  He will never return to her.  I had listened to this aria many times without knowing the story, but now I understood it.  And one fine day, as I drove towards my exercise facility, I heard on my NPR radio channel the orchestral music of that aria; this time, I knew the meaning of the words and grief that belongs to it: He will never return.  And then it struck me, so painfully hard, just as Madama Butterfly understood:  My wife Muriel, who had passed away the year before,  was never returning to me.  Not now, not ever.  As I pulled into the parking lot at Madonna Pro-Active, tears filled my eyes.   I am not a person who weeps, but I couldn’t help myself — did it really take over a year for me to truly understand and grasp that she was gone forever?  I sat in the car for a while and tried to compose myself before I got out. Of course, I knew the moment that Muriel passed away that she was not returning.  And yet … so much opera speaks not to the mind, but to the heart.