Giacomo Puccini and I are close, having become the best of friends since our first encounter at the old Metropolitan Opera House when I was twelve. My opera-devoted aunt and uncle, having rewarded me through the years by taking me to my first Brooklyn Dodger baseball game, gifting me my first baseball glove (“Pee Wee” Reese model) for being such a "well-behaved boy" (only in their presence, I assure you) etc., decided to take me to my first opera, a performance of “La Boheme” starring Ferruccio Tagliavini (I believe his debut performance) and Bidu Sayao. Though I didn't understand one word of Italian and still don't other than menu choices, there I was, sobbing at the finale along with most of the grown ups around me.
What is it about Giac's music that elicits such a universal response? I have no answer, nor do I need one. I'm just very happy to be sad when my ol' buddy's music reduces me to a slobbering mound of overcooked rigatoni.
As my opera-going continued on my own, I befriended a few other composers along the way, but never got as close to any of them despite the deep love and respect I had for their magnificent music. No, it was Giac who kept hitting me with an “Il Tritico” here, a “Butterfly” there, and while some of these don't produce the tears “Boheme” always musters, I was moved in other ways that my slowly acquiring sophistication allowed me to discover and enjoy. For instance, Giac's ability to pummel your senses with passion, power, and drama as he did in "Tosca" is masterful and remains my favorite opera.
But even when the story he was setting to music was absurd, like lovers somehow wandering alone in the desert wasteland of Louisiana as in "Manon Lescaut," Giac's music is haunting.
Or take the over-the-top tale of Calaf falling madly in love with the cold, heartless Turandot at the expense of his blind father and devoted, adoring girlfriend. The "Turandot" libretto is just as silly, but when Calaf sings the now planet-popular aria Nessun Dorma (None shall sleep), Giac offers a theme so moving that none shall laugh at the absurdity of his relationship with that nasty ice maiden. If you're alive and your ears are in good working order, he's got you!
As a part time freelance illustrator, I was able to secure a dream relationship with the Met's publication, Opera News. The magazine provided me with a backstage pass to any opera I felt like attending so that I could sketch from the wings.
Sitting on a wooden crate directly behind the curtain with fountain pen and sketchbook in hand, I would quickly sketch the characters as they moved around the stage, starting many more drawings than I could finish in a minute or two in the constantly moving scene, dropping them to the floor around me in various stages of completion. At the end of each act, I'd gather them up and apply washes to the few I thought worthy of completing with brush and water, a process that would break down the water soluble ink to create tone in selected areas. It was certainly more fun than work. That backstage pass enabled me to attend performances my daytime job income couldn't and my wooden crate was the best seat in the house!
While Boheme's can create wonderful moments on stage or film (as it did providing musical glue underscoring for the delightful movie “Moonstruck"), it provided me the greatest operatic highlight of my life, one that brought me closer to my friend Giac than ever before. Sketching from the wings during a memorable performance, I was unaware that someone was standing behind me. I was surprised by a voice that whispered, “I enjoy very much your sketch.” I turned around and saw that Luciano Pavarotti had picked up one of the scattered drawings of himself, albeit not one of my favorite efforts. With my head reeling that one of the greatest Puccini interpreters of all was casually speaking to me, I immediately responded, “It's yours if you want it.”
He replied, “No, an artist never give away his work, not wise. But I sign if you like.”
“I like very much, Sir!” I said as I handed him my fountain pen. And sign it he did before returning to the stage on cue.
It doesn't get any better than that, right Giac?
Nick Meglin is a writer living in North Carolina.
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