Keeping It Real

The verismo period of Italian art and literature took root in the late 19th century and carried into the 20th century. The movement strove for a realistic portrayal of human emotion. Rather than focusing on historical plots, the verismo style showed the nitty-gritty, everyday, contemporary characters of real life, which often included intense violence, bloodshed, and life-enhancing love in the here and now.

Verismo originated among the writers and painters of the era. Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana established the verismo movement in opera, and other composers like Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea, and Puccini (in his later works, specifically Tosca) followed suit.

I’ve always found the wedding of the verismo movement—which translates as realism—and opera a little ironic. I mean, the very fact that people are standing on a stage singing their conversations, rather than speaking them, requires a suspension of belief from the get-go. Not to mention that an opera that takes place in Japan is written in Italian, that a 35-year-old woman is often playing a 16-year-old, as well as the many pants roles that have women playing men.

So many elements of opera are unrealistic. To make the art form “real” is a tall order.

But just like those Italians, a group of American composers is taking the challenge some 100 years later. They are striving to bring real-life, nitty-gritty, everyday, contemporary stories to the stage. And remarkable things are happening.

Michael Mayes, featured in this month’s cover story (p. 14), grew up on a healthy diet of country music while riding around Texas with his dad, who traveled for work. So when Mayes first attended an opera, he found it sterile, foreign, and elite. With increased exposure, his feelings changed. Then when he experienced what he calls Contemporary American Verismo Opera, he found an even deeper connection to the art form.

Mayes has built a career playing these very realistic, everyday roles—from a convicted murderer on death row (Joseph de Rocher in Dead Man Walking), to a brash Texas conservative who copes with his depression by mountain climbing (Beck Weathers in Everest), to a gay man living in San Francisco with his partner (Charlie in Three Decembers). And the really meaningful part for Mayes is watching the impact these operas are having on audience members.

Perhaps some of Mayes’ ability to step into these roles with authenticity and conviction results from how authentic and real Mayes is in his personal life. His career journey has not been an easy one, and there have been significant personal struggles and loss along the way. But rather than hide that part of his life, Mayes chooses to speak realistically about the challenges he has faced in the hopes that others might take comfort and courage from his story.

The word verismo comes from the word vero, which translates to “truth.” So while some elements of opera don’t easily lend themselves to a realistic portrayal of life, the art form does offer ample opportunities for presenting real-life, modern-day stories with honesty and conviction. And, as Mayes can attest, that’s when opera gets real.

Sara Thomas

Sara Thomas is editor of Classical Singer magazine. She welcomes your comments.