Inspirazione! : Opera's Most Liberating Moments

My next-door neighbor rescues greyhound dogs. Several are hers to keep, and some pass through long enough to heal a broken foot or recover from some other injustice endured—often in a life at the track—before moving on to a new, permanent home. One such recent transient was Dolly, who was stopping over for some remedial house training after sadly spending most of her one year of life enclosed in a metal cage. (Dolly had been bred and kept only to be a blood donor for other dogs.) A beautiful mix of greyhound and some other hound, Dolly’s fluffy white coat was adorned with a perfect brown mask covering half of her face, adding a perpetually quizzical expression to her sweet temperament.

One day, my neighbor asked me to look in on Dolly and take her out while she was busy away from home. Dolly was a delight to play with. Frisky and jubilant, she bolted here and there. But her jaunts always tended toward the enclosed. She would run across the yard to a corner of the fence, or go under the deck and peek out. Once in the house again, she would dart to a crowded spot under a table against the wall. Despite her almost boundless youthful energy, Dolly tended to seek out what she was accustomed to: small, enclosed spaces.

As I reflect on the holidays and the coming new year, I am thinking of Dolly and what she’s been through. I am thinking of how her life is changing and wondering how she’ll adjust to her freedom. As we look back on the past year, where have we been vocally and artistically? What has our vocal progress been? What are our hopes for the future as singers, and what cages are we still keeping ourselves in? I see in my students and in myself how we often hold ourselves back as artists, keeping ourselves confined despite almost infinite possibility. How can we find inspiration to grow and change?

For this year’s holiday column, continuing the tradition of choosing three inspiring moments in operatic story (see “Inspirazione!” columns December 2006, 2007, and 2008), I want to share three of my favorite examples of music that helps open our hearts to what is possible and move beyond the known and into the new. Here I give you: Opera’s Most Liberating Moments.

Beethoven’s Fidelio, first performed in Vienna in 1805 to an audience comprised largely of the French occupying military force, includes many profound moments on the theme of liberation. In the aria “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” Florestan sings of his angel Leonore who will lead him to freedom in the heavenly kingdom: “führt mich zur Freiheit ins himmlische Reich.” Leonore loses her identity by masquerading as a man and lets go of concern for her personal safety. Even in disguise and imprisoned, she is, in essence, free because she follows the wisdom of her own conscience to lead her.

In the aria “Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern,” she sings “Ich folg’ dem inner Triebe” (I follow an inner drive). It is her strength of character that brings about what, to my mind, is the most beautiful moment of liberation in the opera, the Act I finale “O welche Lust.” After Leonore pleads to have the prisoners released, they sing of their joy at being able to breathe “in freier Luft” (in free air).

Unlike the successful ending of Leonore and Florestan in Fidelio, many operas end in death. And the idea of death as liberation is also common in opera. Characters that are imprisoned by illness (Mimì in La bohème) or oppression (Kundry in Parsifal) move beyond their tragic circumstances. In Meyerbeer’s L’africaine, Nelusko sings that death is here, but Sélica corrects him: “Non, c’est le bonheur!” (No, it is happiness). And the chorus sings, “Here is the sojourn for love eternal. Here is the sojourn for love absolute.” And, as in Aida, love that cannot be achieved in life is achieved in death.

Having no shortage of examples of death in opera, the difficulty was one of choice. Which among the myriad of manifestations of mortality, the panoplies of peril, the feasts of fatality in operatic lore to choose?

Carmen. Act IV, Scene II. Just as an animal used to confinement may continue to seek that out, one accustomed to freedom will be reluctant, if not unwilling, to relinquish it. Choosing death rather than give up the freedom she has embodied throughout her life, Carmen states her position clearly and simply to Don José: “Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra” (Free was I born and free will I die). Carmen’s allure seems nearly universal. She’s not the nicest character around, yet people love her and relate to her because she is unapologetically free.

“Va pensiero” is certainly the most famous operatic moment on the theme of liberation becoming, as it did, a de facto national anthem for the unification movement (Il Risorgimento) among Italy’s different states upon Nabucco’s premiere in 1842. I include it here not for that reason, nor because it is a beautiful example of freedom of thought in the face of oppression. (Fenena’s aria “Oh, dischiuso è il firmamento” [Oh, heaven has opened up] is another instance of this sentiment in the opera.) I include it, rather, because the details surrounding its writing are such a moving example of how quickly one’s life can shift and how freedom from one’s past, whatever tragedy it contains, is possible.

Giuseppe Verdi, just 27 years old in 1840, was grieving the loss of his wife and children due to illness. Also, his second opera, Un giorno di regno, had been a failure. He was, by all accounts, in a deep depression and resolved never to write again. Bartolomeo Merelli, his friend and the impresario of La Scala, gave him a libretto. He accepted it with great reluctance, rolled up the thick manuscript, and walked home.

As Verdi himself retells the story, “On the way, I felt a sort of vague uneasiness, a great sadness, an anguish that swelled up in my heart! And at home I threw the manuscript with a violent gesture on the table and stood rigid before it. The libretto, falling on the table, opened itself and, without my quite realizing it, my eyes fixed on the page before me at one particular line: ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate’ (Go, thought, on golden wings). I glanced through the verses following and was deeply moved.”

Without this moment of inspiration, would Verdi have recovered from his losses and gone on to write music again? Would Italy’s Il Risorgimento have succeeded without such a great artistic catalyst?

No one can say. But without such moments as these three—a life-or-death choice for our own freedom, the desperate circumstances of a loved one, or the insistence of a friend or coworker like Merelli to give it another try—there might not be that glimmering of hope that falls unexpectedly into our consciousness, and we would have no vision of a future that is different from our past.

One year I was singing a concert on New Year’s Eve. I sat in the dressing room with two colleagues I’d become friendly with after having done several shows together. As we put on our makeup, we began to talk about our feelings about the coming year. One of the singers said, “I can’t wait for the new year!” She was beaming and seemed to be feeling a great relief. We asked her why she felt this way. She looked at herself in the mirror, as if seeing a new person emerge, and said, “Because this won’t be the year I got a divorce.”

This may be a season of joy and celebration, but it is also a season of letting go. These operatic moments celebrate the beauty and power of freedom. Whatever you have done, whomever you have been, whatever has happened in the past, may you have a happy new year, filled with the knowledge that you are free.

P.S. Dolly was adopted by some very nice people who happen to live on an 18-acre farm. Maybe she will find another cozy corner, or maybe she will learn to love open spaces. Fortunately, she will be free to choose.

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.