Our Language of Music

Last night at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul we had our opening night for Minnesota Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. We have a fantastic cast: the beautiful Claire Rutter as our Minnie, the heroic Rafael Davila as Dick Johnson, and the powerful Greer Grimsley as Jack Rance, along with a great gathering of singers, including me, to fill the many comprimario and chorus roles. I am playing the role of Jose Castro, the Mexican bandit, and I’ve already had a good time tweeting about typecasting. To be clear for those who may not know me personally yet: I am not a bandit, but half of my family is Mexican, so I feel the role is perfect.

The performance was wonderful, and everyone sang their hearts out. I was not familiar with the opera prior to this production, but I have grown to love every bit of it. The music is lush like the score for an old film, the melodies are soaring and inspiring, and the setting of text is brilliant. The story is equally funny, touching, exciting, and familiar to us due to its setting in the American West. Our director, Doug Scholz-Carlson, has done a fantastic job setting the stage for us to tell this story.

However, these are only words, and to understand what I’m talking about you will have to come see the show. Please do, if you are able, because it really is spectacular. Plus, hopefully, you will then understand what has also been revealed to me by this opera:

We are communicative beings. We interact and progress through communication in a myriad of ways. First and foremost, we have our body language: our eyes, mannerisms, gestures and physical contact. Then, we have spoken languages. Take your pick of one of the approximately 6,900 languages on Earth. Each one has its own distinct sounds and styles that communicate in very different ways because of cultural differences, so much so that I believe if you really want to begin truly to understand someone you have to learn to speak their language (singers and politicians take heed). At last, we progress to the explosion of art as communication, finding ways both to delve into and share deeper understandings of nature and ourselves in ways that words alone can no longer satisfy.

I mentioned earlier in this blog my love for the setting of text to music in Fanciulla. If you have an ear for Italian, just sit and listen to the sung words and take in what they are saying – not as a translation – but for exactly what they are and what they mean to the characters onstage. Again, this is why I am such a proponent of learning languages. The moment that we need to translate the language in our heads or to glance at the supertitles, we are taken away from the direct contact of communication. I am still glad for those translations so that the audience can capture the dialogue and have a fuller understanding of the story. However, to see what I mean, look at a portion of the Italian along with the English translation to Dick Johnson's aria “Ch’ella mi creda”:

Italian: “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano sopra una nuova via di redenzione! Aspetterà ch’io torni, e passeranno i giorni, ed io non tornerò.”

English: “Let her believe I’m free and far away on a new path of redemption! She will expect me to return, and the days will pass, and I will not return.”

Now, listen to him SING it. The hope, love, and desperation are so human and understandable, and I, for one, am pulled into empathy.

This is what I love about opera! The more I study singing and the more I am involved with it either by performing or sitting in the audience, the more I am convinced that MUSIC is our shared human language. Like us, it is infinitely varied and is adapted to the culture from which it arises, and yet to everyone, it has the similar power to influence, inspire, and enlighten. Why? I believe that it is because it is the collective voice of the human experience.

How fortunate we are, then, to live in Minnesota, which is both the Land of 10,000 Lakes and, seemingly, 10,000 choirs. How we love to raise our voices together in song, whether it is our body’s voice or the voice of another instrument. Listen to our fantastic orchestras that can tell stories through instruments that sing without any words. Even watch our fine actors in theater, and hear the elegantly lyrical, musical quality to their spoken words. Look at Musical Theater, whose characters break out into song when spoken words are no longer enough. Is that not a great metaphor for how we feel when we are trying to be heard?

Finally, with this in mind: Do we need more reason for why it is so vital to educate our children, ourselves, and our society in music and the fine arts? How better to understand one another, to express ourselves, and to communicate? Let us share our Music!

Come see La Fanciulla del West, and perhaps you will see what I mean.