Inspirazione! : Opera's Most Generous Moments

Deciding what to spend on gifts, whom to favor with a gift, and how to respond to the unavoidably painful contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” can both fill the heart and conflict the soul during the holiday season. Simply finding the time for holiday giving and festivities while running from gig to gig is a challenge in itself. By taking a few moments to step back, relax, and consider the nature of generosity, we can stay peacefully afloat on the turbulent sea of consumerism and work. So, let’s declare this column a “Messiah,” “Amahl,” and “Fa-la-la-la-la”-Free Zone and spend a few minutes reflecting on what it means to give.

Buddhist teachings on generosity describe three kinds of giving. Beggarly giving is giving reluctantly. Princely giving is giving that which you are ready to let go of or don’t need any more. Kingly giving is giving that which is most precious to you. Buddhism encourages all of these kinds of giving and considers them to be of benefit to both the giver and the receiver. Any kind of giving helps you to let go of clinging and hoarding or, as one teacher I know puts it, “practicing not-enoughness.” Just think of that light, pleasant feeling you get when you give away old clothes to a charity. What was clutter becomes a help to someone in need. You receive both the pleasures of knowing that you have been of use and possessing a clean closet.

While we are on the subject of getting rid of clothes, let’s look at the first of my three favorite moments of operatic generosity: Colline selling his coat to pay for Mimi’s medicine in Act IV of La bohème. I consider this gesture, as well as the other two we will examine, an act of Kingly giving. Colline is not giving away his coat because he doesn’t need it any more, but because of his desire to help a friend who is suffering. Colline’s gorgeous aria in which he bids adieu to his “vechia zimarra” reminds me that it is not always easy or pain-free to be generous. I love that Colline so fully feels the pain of letting go and yet is willing to make the sacrifice.

Introducing a second act of generosity, the Count asks for the forgiveness of the Countess in the Act IV finale of The Marriage of Figaro. Then follows one of the most exquisite pauses in all of opera. The Count has made a fool of himself, utterly. The Countess holds all the cards. One feels in that pause the years of accumulated unhappiness that have transformed Beaumarchais’ chirpy Rosina into the resigned and dolorosa Countess. When the Countess responds “Piu docile io son, e dico di si,” we see Rosina’s sarcastic “io sono docile” from “Barber” transformed into the true humility and grace that maturity brings. In the moment that follows, her melody softens the hearts of all and allows the emotional and musical resolution of the entire piece. Her act is generous both to the Count and to herself. Yes, she forgives him, but she also chooses love over resentment and thus restores a wounded piece of her own heart. Letting go of pride and forgiving another is an act of great generosity.

Finally, in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Gilda makes the ultimate sacrifice in giving her life for that of the Duke. The stirring idea about this act of generosity is that Gilda makes the choice to die for him after she discovers that he does not love her. (She has just overheard his seduction of Maddalena.) Therefore, her desire to save him comes entirely from her love of him, without any expectation of reciprocation. This certainly is Kingly giving—offering that which is most precious without any hope of possible gain.

In examining some of these generous acts, one might consider whether or not the characters are acting with a healthy enough self-interest. Perhaps Gilda would have been better off with a support group for “women who love too much.” But it is precisely their exaggerated nature that makes these gestures such rich nourishment for the composer’s musical imagination. After all, most of the time and in most ways, people are thinking of themselves and what they want, need, or can handle. To watch someone let go of that kind of selfishness for love—simple, pure love—is a relief. And we can access that same relief everyday. During this season especially, the opportunity is omnipresent to let go of a small sense of self in order to expand our sense of connection, abundance, and love.

As Colline says to Schaunard before parting with his coat: “Ciascuno per diversa via mettiamo insieme due atti di pietà.” Or, “Each of us in a different way can now accomplish a kindness of his own.” Whatever you choose to offer this season, be it material, spiritual, or vocal, you will be lightening your own load and making the world richer for your gifts.

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.