A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Hot Opera Part 1

30 March 2012

When talking about Italy, it’s hard to avoid the subject of opera for very long.  Opera was invented in Italy and epitomizes Italian culture, right along with up-to-the-minute fashion, superb design, Renaissance art, slow food, fast cars, and the occasional garbage strike.

Normally, opera is not my thing — I have to be in just the right mood to listen to people sing while they are dying — but I must admit that I’ve found myself enjoying quite a few operatic productions both in Italy and in the U.S. all the same.

During a recent visit to Verona, I had an opportunity to experience the quintessence of opera, wherein a story about cruel and inhumane deeds was enacted in a remarkably apt setting:  an ancient site of gladiatorial fights, venationes (fierce, exotic animal hunts), and public executions.  The Arena di Verona was built in the 1st century AD to hold 30,000 people, making it the third largest Roman amphitheater in the world and today having ample space for operatic ambience.  Even the name of the structure is pointedly symbolic, deriving as it does from the Latin harena, a fine sand used to absorb blood.

Fortunately for my tastes, the only thing being executed in the arena on the evening I planned to attend would be arduous coloratura passages by sopranos.


The Arena di Verona (center), seen from the 84 meter-high Torre dei Lamberti in Verona, Italy.


Not to dwell overly much on the macabre — we are talking about operas AND Roman arenas after all — but apropos music, it is a poignant irony that while the organ (Latin hydraulis) was originally employed in Roman arenas to cover the screams of victims (be they gladiators or Christians), after a period of being banned by churches because of the unpleasant association, that instrument is almost exclusively linked with churches today.  Correspondingly, it is only music that remains in Verona’s arena, the likes of Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, and Sting having sung there in past decades, while the “games,” apparently in order to comply with FIFA regulations, have gone somewhere else.

A colleague of mine who had once lived in Verona tells me that the Veronese do not say, “I’m going to the opera;” they say, “I’m going to Aida,” whether or not that is the particular opera that is playing.  It has become a generic term there, like the word ‘aspirin’.  This may have to do with the fact that Aida was the first 20th-century operatic production at the arena, occurring in 1913 to mark the centenary of its composer’s birth with Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni in the audience, and now returns on an almost annual basis.

As it turned out, Aida was being staged at the arena when I happened to be in Verona.

This celebrated opera by Giuseppe Verdi was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, with its première taking place in 1871 at the Cairo Opera House.  The opera’s libretto was written by Antonio Ghislanzoni.

The story concerns an Ethiopian princess, Aida, who has been captured and brought into slavery in Egypt.  Radames, a military commander, loves Aida and she loves him, which really breaks all the rules, and to make things really messy, Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris has a weakness for the military commander too.  The rest of the tale is like watching a three-and-one-half-hour-long train-wreck, or as I suppose in this case, a camel-wreck.  But with pyramids, boats on the Nile, dancing maidens, and a scary prison, how can you go wrong?

Well, actually there was one dissatisfied customer at the beginning.  A student, who I suspect may have been starving at the time, had written to Verdi to say that he didn’t like the opera.  Verdi begrudgingly refunded his admission price, but declined to reimburse the student for the food he had eaten on the train, admonishing him that he should have had dinner at home.

In spite of that initial, isolated complaint, Aida is now the thirteenth-most performed opera worldwide.


Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini, 1886, National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


After picking up our tickets at the biglietteria (box-office) that morning, my wife Colleen and I circumambulated the arena and observed the vast quantity of props that were amassed in a fenced-off area in the periphery of the structure:  sphinges (try saying that out loud — the word glides across the palate so enjoyably, it’s hard to stop), a gilded and bejeweled throne, columns, shields and lances, walls and stair cases covered with lots of hieroglyphics, and big pallets filled with actual papyrus reeds for the Nile River scene.  All in all, these were pretty good clues that Aida was the opera being presented that evening.



Then I noticed, cowering uncharacteristically in the shade of an alcove, a guy dressed as a Roman centurion.  He was obviously hoping that someone might ask to pose for a photograph with him but was too timorous to venture out into the direct sun.  We approached him with the customary Italian greeting, “Il caldo è insopportabile [The heat is unbearable]."

So I don’t give the wrong impression here, I should point out that the customariness of that expression only pertained to that particular week, as Italy was experiencing a heat-wave worthy of the land of the Nile — with 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) highs and nightly lows dipping only into the low 20s Celsius (mid-70s Fahrenheit).  The humidity was somewhere around 88 percent.

Beads of perspiration appeared on the centurion’s forehead under the rim of his crested galea.  When Colleen charitably posed with him for a photo, he vainly tried to appear threatening, but even his plastic sword was starting to droop in the heat.  I gave him a few euros for his effort and he retreated to the shade.




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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