Finding Warmth at the Opera and In Life

Friday, January 13, 2017 - 12:12 PM

A solitary palm tree in Delray Beach, Florida (Fred Plotkin)

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Florida—It is often stated that the days grow longer in January in the northern hemisphere. In fact, a day is still 24 hours but there is incrementally more light with each passing day, offering small compensation for the gelid cold and snowy tempests that can besiege vast swaths of our continents.

At this time of the year, my mind turns to the subject of warmth in various expressions. I see it in the cold hands and warm hearts of Puccini’s La Bohème. I see it in variable weather. And I see it in human relations, what the Italians call il calore umano, that particular combination of empathy and kindness that is born of warm feelings and made nobler when they are shared.

In opera (as in life), things run hot and cold, but onstage things tend to be hot most of the time and that is how we like it. Opera is described as hot, steamy, passionate, erotic and all those good things. It is human drama with a pulse.

Opera, in terms of its subject matter but also its stagings, can be about who we are and what we experience in life. I am thinking of the so-called “American Ring” in Francesca Zambello’s production of Wagner’s tetralogy staged at the Washington National Opera in 2016. Zambello makes very clear that, in her view, the Ring cycle is an allegory about many things but, foremost among them, how human beings are desecrating the earth through harmful, unsustainable behavior. This is a view I have long held about the Ring, having written about it in the New York Times a quarter century ago. Zambello’s Ring comes to San Francisco Opera in 2018 and I heartily commend it to you.

In one way or another, the story of each of our lives is that of a solitary tree that springs from soil and roots, thrives when nature consents, and must bend rather than break to survive. Just yesterday I watched a lone tree near the shore put up its best defense against an intense storm. That tree fares better when other people take care of it.

I happen to be writing this article in a warm place, where I have repaired for a few days with an elderly relative who needs warm air and light as a temporary corrective to the predations that age and weakness can visit on all of us. I am reminded of how time does fly and how, when the most basic needs of nutritious food, clean air and water, and a sense of security are met, most everything else is a wish fulfilled rather than a need met. In addition to air, water, simple food, and a bed, give me a radio with good music and I am just about all set.

I recently experienced a beautiful night at the opera that reminded me again of the extraordinary power and relevance of this greatest of art forms. For all the times I have seen Puccini’s La Bohème, one of the loveliest and most affecting performances was on Jan. 6 at the Met featuring a sensitive cast of young singers led by the luminous Ailyn Pérez as Mimì. She brought to mind Victoria de los Ángeles, which is very high praise from me.

WQXR will broadcast this opera on Saturday, Jan. 14 at 1 pm (ET) and, if you are reading this elsewhere, you can listen online at wqxr.org or find it on your local broadcaster. Listen with care, rather than hearing it as the umpteenth performance of pretty music. We have young people facing desperate odds, living what feels like a carefree Bohemian life until tragic circumstances arise, killing one of them and permanently changing the lives of the others. Reality, like cold, can bite.

In our civic life we are also witnessing a climate change. For millions of Americans, a period of hopeful illumination is being eclipsed by a new ice age or, at the very least, encroaching darkness. But, as we see with Mimì and Rodolfo, light and hope can be kept alive by the mere flicker of a candle. And, if it goes out, we can still warm one another with our hands and our hearts.

Warmth, of temperature but also of character, must be encouraged for it to thrive. It is the better part of us, but requires empathy and care for us to want to summon it and share it. It must be taught to those who disdain it, often because they did not receive it themselves when it was most needed. We see this in some cold-hearted, beady-eyed figures in public life. We see such characters in opera. Listen to Tito Gobbi as Iago in Verdi’s Otello and you will understand what I am saying.

Sharing warmth and showing true compassion (or caritas, as Pope Francis describes it) often requires personal sacrifice, but such sacrifices often go hand in hand with love. What could be more simple yet moving than the compassionate sacrifice made by Colline in the last act of La Bohème? The young philosopher sings “Vecchia zimarra, senti” as he bids farewell to his coat, which is to be pawned off as Mimì lays dying. 

In addition to helping Mimì, he realizes that the coat will benefit someone else.

Each year an organization called New York Cares has a coat drive in which they provide donated coats to those who need them. I was inspired by Colline to give one of mine. If this drive has concluded by the time you want to donate a coat, there are many other charities that would gladly accept one.

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Comments [4]

Fred Plotkin from New York

To Cherubino: I did not hear the Saturday broadcast. The scheduled tenor was Michael Fabiano and, according to the Met archive, he did perform on January 14

Jan. 16 2017 12:16 AM
Cherubino from Down Souf

Was the tenor in yesterday's broadcast ill?

Jan. 15 2017 02:10 PM
Sarah Baker from Firenze

Thank you for the gorgeous clips, as always real gems, no, one can never hear La Boheme too many times.
It's universality always shines through.
And thank you for the sage words: il calore umano.
Best Wishes for the New Year

Jan. 14 2017 04:43 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Great post, Fred.

Nemorino springs to mind -- because he sings "Caro elisir. Sei mio!" and then "Oh! qual di vena in vena/Dolce calor mi scorre."

Jan. 13 2017 02:48 PM

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