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

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.

Italy

Hot Opera Part 2

6 April 2012

In Part 1 of this entry, I described our preparations to attend Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Verona Arena, providing a little history of both the venue and the opera, and alluded to the record-breaking heat wave that was encasing Italy that week.

By that evening, after having repaired to a restaurant where one tiny air-conditioner above the door was struggling heroically, Colleen and I emerged around 8 p.m. into the still sultry Piazza Bra’ near the arena.  We gazed at the Roman walls, conscious of the crowd swelling by the thousands around the arena, and also, ominously, noted the Croce Verde (Green Cross) ambulances parked near the arena gates.  By 8:30 we noticed the crowd thinning as people funneled into the arena, and although the opera didn’t start until 9:15, we decided we had better find our seats since everyone else was doing just that.

 

Verona’s Piazza Bra’ with the arena in the background

 

Once we made our way inside we saw that, although the arena seats 20,000, it was filling up fast.  An usher indicated our section — gradinata settore E (tier sector E) — and squinting, I could discern the stone seats near the rim of the arena.

A few years ago I had the memorable experience of sitting on a marble slab for three-and-one-half hours in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, Greece, while attempting to decipher the spoken Dutch and supertitled Greek in a version of Euripides’ The Bacchae presented by a troupe from the Netherlands.  (When I returned to the states I quickly found a copy of the play in English, as the Dutch and Greek only helped with every tenth word, and finally understood what was going on.  One point evaded elucidation, however:  I was unable to find any reference to the large refrigerator unit that rolled around the stage in the Dutch production.  It always seemed to follow the guy wearing the animal-skin, and my guess was that it contained a week’s supply of either Gouda or feta, depending on the translation.)

 

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, Greece, which, like the Arena di Verona, also represents a long-term sitting challenge.

 

As I still have impressions of that stone seat in the Odeon, emotionally if not physically, when I spotted someone selling cushions, I mentioned to my wife that it might be the most important eight euros that we spent that day.  We bought two.

Once we reached the upper echelons of the gradinata, two ushers quickly shot out to find two spaces for us, bounding like mountain goats up the steep terraces and through the crowd.  We followed and were soon deposited in one of the few empty spots left.

Discussing how pleased we were with the prompt, efficient, and courteous service we had received from the ushers, we teetered on our air-pillows and took in the enormity of the arena.  There was a sea of people in every direction (we were at the bottom edge of the top-most section).  Behind us and to our right was the ala (wing), a white and pink limestone section of arches that extend above the outer rim of the arena.  This façade once encircled the arena, but most of the limestone, which was mined in nearby Valpolicella, seems to have disappeared during a building boom in the Middle Ages.

 

The ‘ala’ (wing) of the outer rim of the Arena di Verona.

 

On the stage we noticed some of the same props and set decorations that we had examined outside the arena this morning:  those sphinges again, as well as obelisks, columns, banners, and palm trees.  The stage occupies an enormous area, maybe a third of the ground level of the arena.  The arena seating behind the stage comprised part of the set as well.  Soon, an Egyptian priestess in a long white robe and Nefertiti hairdo walked on stage with a gong, on which she produced a long crescendo and then a crash, after which she left the stage.  That certainly got everyone’s attention.  But then the roar of 20,000 people talking and milling about resumed.

It felt more like a sporting event than “high culture” at this point, but perhaps that is instructive.  One secret to listening to opera is to think of Verdi as basketball and Wagner as soccer, with one point scored for each authentic cadence.  The final score in each case says something about the way the respective composer handles tonality.

Speaking of scores, as I was mentally wrestling the incongruity of the aesthetic/athletic nature of this experience (fine arts vs. Roman games), I imagined receiving a call just then from my friend Mott back in the states:

"Pronto."

“Hey.”

“Hey, Mott.”

“Wa’chup to?”

“Oh, I’m at the arena, watching Berti play Radames.

“What’s the score?”

“Oh, I dunno.  I think they’re using the 1871 edition.”

“Huh?”

In any case, throughout the arena, vendors with trays strapped around their necks called out,  “Bibite . . . birra, Coca, Pepsi, vino, acqua [Drinks . . . beer, Coke, Pepsi, wine, water]," just like at a ball game.  And then a ragazza walked through our sector, crying, “Gelato . . . ice cream.”  I thought that we were being offered a choice between the rich, velvety Italian ice cream and some plebian variety that doesn’t even merit la bella lingua, since she used the English term.  As she approached, she opened the cooler that was strapped around her neck, revealing only the flavorless, pre-packaged, mass-produced variety that she had essentially flattered in both languages.

Colleen was scandalized that the word gelato had been used to designate these products.  I, however, considering the fact that we had sweltered in the unrelenting heat all day, was focusing on the idea of having anything frozen in close proximity.

“Quanto costa?” I inquired.

“Quattro euro,” she replied.

I implored Colleen to have some anyway, but to no avail.  “Uno, per favore,” I conceded.

I gave the ice-cream vendor four euros.  Colleen stuck to her principles while I ate my sub-standard frozen dessert.  Early in the process I made several attempts to offer her some, but then I had to admit that I admired her resolve and eventually gave up.  Mustering the best Chico Marx accent that I could, I told her, “You no wanna some, then Aida by myself.”

 

The audience awaits the performance of Verdi’s Aida at the Arena di Verona.

 

After a while, the Egyptian priestess appeared again and this time gave a long crescendo culminating in two crashes.  Everyone knew it was getting closer to opera time.  It was growing dark by now, and I started to notice little flickers of light throughout the arena.

So that’s what those candles are for!  While climbing the steps into the arena, I had noticed people in the long line ahead of us bending down one by one and reaching into a box to retrieve something.  I had followed suit, not comprehending the purpose at the time.

Now clued in, I produced four little candles, two of which we shared with some women next to us, and someone in our vicinity offered a lighter with which to light them.  It was a moving, almost solemn moment to see the thousands of people assembled become a galaxy of light.

The little card that came with the candles explained that in 1913, when operas were first presented in the arena, people brought candles because it was the only way to see.  Then, in the 1980s, the Vicenze firm began donating the candles in creating a picturesque tradition.  Their slogan, La qualità dell’Italian fine pastry che brilla nel mondo — The quality of (why are the next three words in English?) Italian fine pastry, that sparkles in the world — contains an oblique allusion to the candles, no doubt.

The woman next to me thanked me for the candles.  When I asked her in Italian, “Dove abita lei? [Where do you live?]" she surprised me with an answer in German, “Deutschland [Germany]."

Now I had to shift linguistic gears, which wasn’t easy, as I’ve had no formal training in German, but have only picked up a smattering of the language in my travels.  So I started shakily, “Wo wohnen Sie in Deutschland? [Where do you live in Germany?]" to which she replied, “Ich bleibe in Sachsen [I live in Saxony]."  Encouraging her to be a little less geographically comprehensive, I asked, “In welcher Stadt?! [In which city?!]."  At last she replied, “Zwickau.”  “Ah,” I said, “wo Robert Schumann geboren wurde! [Where Robert Schumann was born!]"  “Ja, Robert Schumann!” she bubbled, pleased that anyone might be aware of such an arcane connection in a new millennium that is marinating in popular culture.  “Ich bin Komponist [I’m a composer]," I added, just in case she was wondering.

Although I always try to be egalitarian, I had to give her bonus points for being a fellow citizen, if only two hundred years too late, of the composer of Dichterliebe, Kinderszenen, and many other enduring works.

Soon the Egyptian priestess appeared a third time, with a “Brrrrrrrrmmmm-boohge, boohge, booooooohge!” striking the gong three times.  While I could observe heat vapors rising from the rim of the arena, the lights on the stage came up and the music commenced.

It was going to be a hot opera.

 

An ‘Egyptian priestess’ strikes a gong to announce the beginning of the performance of Verdi’s Aida.

 

 


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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