Verdi, in short, has a way of taking over my life.
Here’s where I’m supposed to sit down and write some big expository paragraph in sober-sounding prose explaining all the facts and why Verdi is amazing and why you should care. And I can’t do it. Verdi is way too personal for me. Verdi is the composer I argue about with my husband. Verdi is the first opera composer to whom I lost my heart, when I was a teenager deciding to apply myself to opera and went off one afternoon to see the Zeffirelli film of “La traviata,” which aficionados will tell you is seriously flawed (all those cuts!), and found myself sobbing at the end. From that moment on I was intoxicated, obsessed, driving around with a portable cassette player in the front seat of my car flipping through “Rigoletto” and “Traviata” and “Trovatore” (my birthday haul that first summer of my infatuation), studying in my dorm room with homemade tapes of “Ernani” and “La forza del destino” and my roommates’ amused teasing in the background. And there was the thrill of knowing that there was an entire repertoire of operas out there that I didn’t know, by Verdi and by others, promising a lifetime of immersion, which was both right and wrong, because the immersion came but none of the others ever found quite, exactly the same place in my heart that Verdi did.
I can’t explain to you why you should like Verdi, because I can’t believe you won’t hear it for yourself. It’s hardest for us to teach, or explain, the things that come most naturally to us, and for me Verdi has always made perfect sense. Something about his work accords with my sense of how life works, and how stories can be told and experienced. People stereotype opera as overblown and larger than life, but I’ve never bought it; anyone who’s loved or lost or exulted or raged has at least briefly felt emotions that are best expressed at the top of one’s lungs, in a controlled mighty flow of sound. In fact, words alone seem paltry by comparison — an idea that disturbed me, as a young writer, trying to understand how there could be an art form in which language was not enough, in which words served as a springboard for a whole different kind of expression.
The opera guides will tell you the plot synopses, which I find almost impossible to understand, and the principal arias. When I was starting out, however, I stubbornly avoided opera guides, and I was drawn to the dialogues. I was fascinated by the way that Verdi would take a short, even banal argument between two people and make it into a unified whole that simultaneously expressed the different sides of the argument and showed you what the relationship of the people involved was really like. Take Alfredo and Violetta at Flora’s party in Act II of “Traviata,” hurt and loving and passionate, or the injured dignity and appeals to reason between Amelia and her husband at the start of Act III in “Ballo,” or even the exchanges between Carlo and Alvaro in “La forza del destino” (which is opening at the Washington National Operanext weekend), reflecting the torturous, convoluted stages of their contentious relationship, with fleeting snatches of sweet melody draped over tongue-twisting lyrics, borne along by a growing antagonism. No guide will list most of these dialogues as highlights, but for me they were the way into the operatic repertoire.