Barefoot Virtuosity

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I felt like Jo March in Little Women.

The 1994 film version, to be exact, when Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne are sitting backstage at the opera, perched high among the ropes and riggings. Byrne’s Professor Bhaer has invited the ingenuous Jo to a performance of Wagner, having dismissed her concerns over a suitable opera dress with the half-abashed confession that, where they were sitting, things would “not be so formal.”  He is interpreting the German libretto in a whisper, and Ryder’s already ethereal face is a portrait of pure enchantment as she gazes down at the spectacle on the stage below, her brown eyes round with delight. It’s a gorgeous scene, charged with the enthusiasm of youth and the incredulity of a realized dream . . . and not only because she ends up getting kissed as the curtain falls.

But I love that image of wide-eyed wonder in the face of almost unearthly artistry and skill. It’s exactly how I feel each and every time I’ve witnessed a flash of human genius of any form upon the stage—and opera in particular.

I love grand opera. Unlike Jo, I’ve seen many. But I never get over the old rapture I first knew when I saw one of these miracles of orchestra and voice leap into living color before my eyes. When I was in high school, my piano teacher handed me a fat volume of famous arias and I spent hours upon hours with that book over the summer that followed, getting acquainted with the greats: Faust, Carmen, La Bohème, Aïda. My first and best love, however, has remained steadfast to this day: La Traviata. I’m just enough of an incurable romantic to ache for the ill-fated heroine. And, in my starry-eyed opinion, there is nothing in opera to compare to the soaring tenderness of Verdi’s score.

Philip and I got to see it live last week—front row of the mezzanine, so far to the left of the theater it almost felt like box seats. We were captivated from the very beginning by the aching sweetness of the overture (one of my favorite moments in classical music) and the breathtaking Belle Époque sets and costumes. But the moment Violetta swept onto the stage in her diaphanous white gown, a glass of champagne in one hand and a coquette’s fan in the other, I knew that we were in the care of a master artist. La Traviata is, in many ways, Violetta’s opera (the title literally means “The Fallen Woman”), and I am always surprised by how much of the action takes place with her singing alone on the stage—or, as in the case of the final act, in the room with her nurse (who manages to sleep through it). Even the famous love duet with Alfredo fails to reach its crescendo of passion until the reprise, when she is tunefully searching her heart in her now-empty salon and he renews his suit from outside, beneath her window. In other words, from backstage, softened by distance and curtains and enormous control on the part of the tenor. I think it’s the most thrilling moment in the whole opera. And it’s all about Violetta.

It did not surprise me to learn that Violetta was the soprano’s signature role. She has literally sung it all over the world, sixty times and more, and you could tell by the way she took possession of the character that she knew her girl. Violetta was so magnetically alive—right until the very last moment—that whenever she was on the stage you couldn’t look elsewhere if you’d wanted to.

The final act is notoriously heart-rending—and stupendously difficult. It opens with Violetta on her consumptive deathbed in a desolate room, stripped of its former treasures. The orchestra sobs out a poignant memory of her gaieties and flirtations from the first act, a painful contrast with the broken, pale-faced woman on the bed, her erstwhile ringlets strewn over the pillow in dark disarray. The light is dim and grey with the coming of dawn, and into the sudden hush at the overture’s close comes Violetta’s song: high, sweet, ineffably pure. And deathly quiet. I can’t understand how a human being can do that—I mean, she’s lying on her back, for crying out loud! It’s one of the most exquisite instances of mastery you’ll ever see.

The opera ends, predictably, in tragedy: after a brief, valiant flare of life and hope at the return of her lover, Violetta dies in his arms. And thus she departs this life, carrying all the sympathies of the audience with her. (I mean, does anyone really care what happens to Alfredo after Violetta is gone? Even romantic little me doesn’t think twice about him. The cad.) It’s a supremely touching scene, however—moments earlier Violetta has gasped out, Gran Dio!…morir sì giovine !— “Great God!…to die so young!” and you feel the calamity of it right along with her.

But more moving yet was the scene after the final curtain had fallen. The cast members came out one at a time to receive their well-deserved “bravos” and “encores”—but when Violetta’s soprano took the stage once more, she brought the house down. Evidently, Philip and I were not the only ones who had been staggered by her performance. There she was, barefoot, in a nightgown with her hair tangled over her shoulders, having just accomplished a feat of superhuman virtuosity, and the look on her face (I could see it well) was of the utmost—gratitude. Down she went to the music of our applause, again and again, in curtsies that nearly kissed the floor. Then up once more with her hands over her heart, mouthing the words, “Thank you.” To us, the audience. Thank you for pitying my Violetta, she seemed to say. Thank you for honoring this sublime music with me. There was such a sincerity in her bearing and manner that I actually found I had tears in my eyes.

Such astonishing generosity; such sublime humility.

Such a crystalline image of the modesty inherent in all true lovers of their craft, from a ballerina defying gravity in a jeté entrelacé to a woman baking bread in her own kitchen. Mastery, in its purest sense, implies servitude: interminable hours of effort and training and devotion. Kahlil Gibran said that our work is our love made visible. I cannot think of a better expression for the self-giving essence of genuine art than the barefoot virtuosity I saw there on the stage before me that night.

Contrary to popular belief, the real divas don’t strut around barking orders like Minnie Driver in Phantom of the Opera. They are kissing the floor in their great love and heavenly courtesy.

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


15 Comments

  1. GeorgeW

    “Mastery, in its purest sense, implies servitude”

    This is something that will stay with me a long time. Thank you.

  2. Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing this. I love that “Jo” feeling, too, that breathless amazement of witnessing the sublime. Our local symphony hosted a visiting tenor, Carl Tanner, this past weekend. I was in the symphony chorus, which was fun because I’d never sung opera before. But the real treat was listening to the tenor sing the selected arias. It was so moving, even though we were watching from behind him. Maybe that was a good thing…I think if I’d been facing him while he was singing “Nessun dorma” and seen all the passion he put it, I’d have either burst into tears or fainted!

  3. Loren Warnemuende

    Oh lovely! I’ll have to have Kraig read this, too. He adores opera and would relate to every word here. I haven’t had the opportunity to see an opera live (unless you count Phantom and Les Mis) but have a similar ache for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake over the years.

  4. Jaclyn

    Oh, Lanier, thank you! You call to my remembrance both beauty itself, such a gift of grace when so lavishly, freely displayed, and of the hard work done in crafting beauty that makes that kiss on the floor when the show is done the culmination of love.

  5. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM

    Exquisite. Rereading it. Yes, take a bow for your writing about beauty.
    Love so many sentences and especially the last one. I was just reading my George Herbert book from you and showed it to my college son who just got back from England yesterday!

  6. Madeline

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!
    And an exemplar, glittering in its goodness, of true greatness–a more humbling and glorious goal for me (as the track season and my theater class kick into gear) than being “the best”.
    Thanks. Just lovely.

  7. Rachel B

    I’m letting every word soak in. I wonder if your soprano would love to read this? Thank you for writing, Lanier!

  8. Laura Boggs

    I saw this opera a few days later than you did, and our Violetta’s countenance was the same. She swept the floor with gown, hair… such humble gratitude. My husband commented, “It’s too bad she had to take her bows looking like that.” No, no — it was all the more moving after one of the most moving moments I’ve seen staged. I left the theatre in broad daylight, red faced and still sobbing. Not a pretty sight.

  9. Kimberlee Conway Ireton

    I read this on my phone while I was waiting in line at the post office. I think I was as enthralled by your description of the opera as you were by the opera itself. Just as Violetta was dying in Alfredo’s arms, a voice interrupted, “Next? NEXT! Excuse me, miss, can I help you?” And I looked up, only to realize I was still in the post office, and that the next available clerk was looking at me with raised eyebrows and a small scowl. 🙂 All that to say, thank you for this lovely piece, for whisking me off to the opera with you.

    Also, you mention a book of arias that your piano teacher gave you. I assumed it was a music book till you said you read it all summer. So maybe not? If not, I’d love the title. I want to begin my own acquaintance with these beloved arias of yours 🙂

  10. Lanier

    Kimberly, the book of arias was actually a music book–I should have specified that. 🙂 It’s called “A Treasury of Grand Opera”, a lovely collection of arias transcribed for the piano with gorgeous, stylized 40’s-era black and white sketches. It’s still one of my most treasured possessions.

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