Inspirazione! : Opera's Most Grateful Moment

Here at my local café where I often write this column, the jovial baristi are sharing their bemusement at a recent customer who complained loudly: “This is the worst mocha I’ve ever had!” When they apologized profusely and offered to make the man another, he grumbled something about “making do” and left in a huff. As I gently sip the silken foam that tops my latte, I find it difficult to imagine any of the employees here creating a beverage deserving of such a statement. These people feel about coffee the way some conductors I know feel about Mozart. Even if we give the man the benefit of the doubt that it was a bad mocha, if indeed such a thing exists, I think it more likely that his unhappiness was due to something other than mocha ennui. I think he may have been suffering from a more serious ailment: lack of gratitude.

This is a state of mind I’m all too familiar with. You might call it lack of gratitude, or hyper-awareness of what’s missing, or just plain crankiness. In fact, I am writing this on one of my “cranky” days. Inspiration for singers? Bah! Humbug! I know this mood well enough, however, to know that it is a low hanging fog and not the sky itself. I know that it may obscure my awareness of life’s bounty, but it cannot obliterate the reality of it. And unlike the fog here in the San Francisco Bay area, which comes and goes as it pleases, this crankiness can be lightened by, as Buddhists say, “inclining the mind” toward what I have to be grateful for, right now, as I am.

Classical musicians, and singers in particular, can be an ungrateful lot. All that striving for perfection puts us deeply and constantly in touch with what we, or our performances, are lacking. Add to that a competitive environment in which we constantly train and evaluate ourselves to become more competitive, and who has got time for gratitude?

Practicing gratitude does not mean denying what may need to change, however, or failing to acknowledge that things are imperfect and we may wish they were better. It’s not about telling yourself to be happy, but about staying in touch with reality, and understanding that your view of reality may be skewed by what you are in the habit of thinking about, and therefore what you are able to perceive.

Think of the color red for a moment. Say it to yourself three times: red, red, red. Now, look around the room. Red pops out everywhere, because you are aware of it, thinking about it, expecting it. If you are continually thinking that you don’t have enough, that you aren’t enough, you will see those thoughts everywhere, the same way you just saw the color red.

You’ve probably thought recently, “I wish I could do this part,” or “Things would be so much better if I could only work with that company,” but when was the last time you read your résumé for pleasure, to reflect on all the wonderful musical experiences you’ve enjoyed?

Singers are often so busy comparing ourselves to a perceived ideal, and thinking about how much happier or better off we’d be “if only,” that we fail to appreciate the joys and privileges that surround us. We’re just like the man in the coffee shop, comparing this moment to others and finding it lacking. Consider this: If he can say that is the worst mocha he’s ever had, I’m guessing he’s had quite a few mochas in his day. Do you think he has ever paused to reflect on how lucky he is to live in a society where he can enjoy a mocha and have enough money to buy it? Do you think he’s in touch with the reality that two-thirds of the world’s population does not have consistent access to clean drinking water? If he were, he might have enjoyed his mocha a bit more.

Likewise, if you are healthy and prosperous enough to be taking the time to read a magazine about singing, you have much to be grateful for. Just as most of the world’s population does not have consistent access to clean water, most of the world’s population does not have the freedom, wealth, or health to pursue a passion such as singing, whether full or part time.

As I discussed in last month’s column on practicing, we need to be careful what we’re practicing, because what we practice gets stronger. We often think of gratitude as a feeling, but it can also be a practice. (See sidebar for ways to practice gratitude.)

As a reflection on the subject, here are some of my favorite operatic moments expressing gratitude.

“Voce di donna” from Ponchielli’s La gioconda

In this aria, the Blind Woman (La Cieca) gives thanks to Laura for saving her from being carried away as a witch. She begs that the woman (or angel), who is a complete stranger to her, not leave without an expression of gratitude. She gives Laura her rosary and wishes that it would stand vigil over Laura’s head, protecting her, as indeed it does, later in the opera. Overall, it is a beautifully lyrical piece, with a peaceful quality, but at the moment when she sings “pure da me non partasi, da me non partasi, senza un pietoso don” (“yet do not leave me, do not leave, without a compassionate gift”), the marking is “affrettando” (hurried). The idea she could receive such a kindness and not have a chance to express her gratitude is greatly distressing to the character.

“Fortunato l’uom che prende,” the finale from Mozart’s Così fan tutte

At the beginning of this opera, the young lovers are all about making as much trouble as they can. The men scheme to prove the women’s infidelity, and the women react as only proper queens of drama can, with much sighing, lamenting, and counter-scheming. By the end, it seems that everyone has been made somewhat of a fool (except, perhaps, Despina) and the moral of the story is stated thus: “Fortunato l’uom, che prende ogni cosa pel buon verso” . . . etc. The translation, very loosely, is “fortunate is the man who understands that all things come and go. And because of this, what makes others cry makes him laugh, and in the whirlwinds of life, he experiences beautiful calm (bella calma!).” In the beginning, the young lovers are looking for trouble. In the end, they appreciate what they have.

“Ombra mai fu” from Serse by Handel

I include this piece as perhaps my favorite example of pure gratitude in all of opera. In terms of the plot, this opening largo has little connection to the lovers’ farce that succeeds it, and I must admit that the gratitude is inferred rather than explicitly stated. The simple text, appreciating the beauty of a tree, along with the nobility and beauty of the music, all in the character of the world’s most famous warrior (Serse), make this an unforgettable and deservedly famous work.

The juxtaposition of the pain of war and the beauty of nature is a vivid reminder of why the practice of gratitude is important. Whatever suffering or struggles we experience in life, we have the human capacity to engage with a deep respect for beauty, nature, and for life itself. And just like beautiful singing, that capacity can be cultivated. Just as Serse, perhaps fresh from battle and grateful for his life, wishes the beautiful tree safety from lightening, wind, and storms, when we are in touch with the grace that allows us to breathe and eat and love and sing, we wish each other safety and well-being, too. This aria is remembered, and sung almost 300 years after Handel wrote it. That, I cannot help but believe, even on a cranky day, says something about our human need to pause and appreciate life’s gifts, whatever has come before, and whatever may follow.

With gratitude for your readership and wishing you many holiday blessings!

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.