My Love Of Italy
I have such a clear memory of the beginning of my love affair with Italy. My dear friend Marg and I were in the kitchen cleaning up after celebrating Rick’s sixtieth birthday. We spent a lot of time together either preparing, cooking, or cleaning up after parties! Marg handed me an envelope and whispered to me,
‘Jen, would you like to come to Italy with me? I want to go on a tour with Opera Australia and Sydney University of Continuing Education.’
I didn’t hesitate. ‘YES.’
I have always had a love of Italy having visited twice, but certainly not in such esteemed company and I knew nothing about opera! My mother had nurtured a love of classical music in me from a young age, but opera?
Who cares, I was up for it.
Thankfully Marg was more knowledgeable, and we had a wonderful tour leader called Robert Gay, an opera singer who now lectured and lead tours to Europe with his students. I was way out of my league, but willing to learn and enjoy. This was the first of four opera tours Marg and I enjoyed. ‘Following in the Footsteps of Verdi and Puccini,’ who are my two favourite composers. The itinerary was mouth-watering.
With our husband’s blessing we were on our way for three weeks of class and culture and lots of fun. Arriving in Rome and checking into our elegant, boutique hotel situated behind the Pantheon, I fell in love with Italy. Listening to a Swiss choir singing the Halleluiah Chorus in this amazing building (the Pantheon) under a star-studded sky was unforgettable.
Our fellow group members were extremely conversant having attended Robert’s lectures, some for many years, but I was learning with the help of Robert’s introduction and explanation prior to any performances we attended. Several recitals I did not enjoy, including a concert by the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. Marg and I both found it to be harsh and discordant and not musical, but many of the other members loved it. Either we were being honest, or we missed something!
Following in the footsteps of the wonderful composers found us visiting their homes and theatres of significance in Parma, Lucca, Roncole, Busseto and Bologna. It was here we attended another harsh opera performance to our ears, ‘May Night’, a Rimsky-Korsakov opera. We both loathed it, but the Opera House was lovely and my first experience of sitting in a box. Sadly, our view was obstructed by a pillar and we could only see half the stage! I wondered if the musical part of this tour was going to give me any pleasure.
Things improved dramatically as we attended ‘La Travatore’ (Verdi) in Florence, returning the following night from Lucca where we were based, to enjoy a very long but interesting opera, ‘Tamerlano,’ (Handel). It was a six-hour marathon and at one stage a gentleman in our group woke from his slumber and muttered,
‘Isn’t the bloody king dead yet?’
Another husband announced that it was the most expensive sleep he has ever had! Most of us nodded off at some stage but it was a wonderful experience even though it wasn’t Verdi or Puccini.
Mostly our days were spent in various places with a connection to Verdi and Puccini, but my personal highlight was visiting Torre del Lago and Viareggio, the home of Puccini. His operas take me to another level. The music and story of Madame Butterfly reduces me to tears every time. I have been very fortunate to have attended Tosca, La Boheme, Turandot and of course Madame Butterfly.
We drove from Florence to Genoa and on to the beautiful city of Milan for our final opera. Well, one can’t top an opening night of ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ (The Masked Ball) at the famous La Scala Opera House. Marg and I had paid a ridiculous price for tickets ($600 each in 2001) in a box situated under the Royal Box, to be certain of being able to see the stage. We had learnt from experience that the boxes usually have a post in front of them, or you can only ever see half the stage.
We dressed in our travelling best outfits including paste jewellery to fit the occasion. We bought little boxes of chocolates to nibble daintily during the interval. The conductor was the famous, temperamental Ricardo Muti. We were excited.
Well, things didn’t go according to plan. Our companions in our box were journalists and as the performance started and the soprano sang her opening piece, they erupted in booing and hissing. We were so startled and shocked, being schooled to be silent during performances in Australia. By the time interval came the entire theatre seemed to have people booing and hissing and calling,
‘Go back to Bologna.’
We were horrified and Marg was extremely distressed and threatened to thump our companions. Most unlike her normal, well behaved composure. We had paid an exorbitant amount for this performance, and we did not want this riff raff to spoil it. I ventured outside to find an English-speaking attendant who assured me that the Italian audience can show their displeasure at the correct times, which they did, at the end of an aria. There was nothing anyone could do. This is the way of Italy she assured me.
Marg was NOT happy. I just kept feeding her chocolates as we waited for the second act. We waited and waited and waited….. Muti did not appear. Loud booing and hissing erupted from everywhere. He finally emerged and the show carried on with accompanying noise and abuse.
Once we were re-united with Robert and the group he explained what was going on. Apparently, the conductor selects the lead soprano, and Muti had selected a cheaper model from Bologna. There is great rivalry between Milan and Bologna. He was having a tantrum and refusing to return for the second act, so we were lucky not to have half a performance for our money. I wish I had known beforehand because I think I would have enjoyed the chaos, but Marg was not to be pacified and carried her disgust until the day she died. What a finale to my cultural tour!
Driving through the countryside in our very spacious and comfortable bus, I was reminded why I love Italy. The buildings, cities, small towns with their individual history and cultural celebrations, the food, wine and most of all, the crazy people. It was here that I knew I wanted to return and also learn the language.
I have been learning the ‘bella lingua’ for ten years and continue to learn and love every minute with special friends who also share my love of Italy.
My love of Italy is very real, and I have many more experiences to share.
Stay safe and ciao for now.
Jenny Old AUTHOR
‘Innocent Nurses Abroad’
‘Back of Beyond’ Facebook