Some weeks ago I wrote in this column about Patricia Rozario’s historic concert at the reopening of Mumbai’s Royal Opera House last month.
Her concert programme had included the soprano aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ (O My Beloved Father) from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. It is an aria that is in the repertoire of Rozario’s protégée Joanne Marie D’Mello as well. Some of you will remember hearing her sing it at the Art Chamber Calangute last year.
Sadly I missed Rozario’s recent performance in Goa as my family already had holiday plans which could not be altered by then. Although the destination was Singapore with a lot of kiddie-centred activities on the itinerary for our son and his cousin of the same age, I was keen that we devote just a little time experiencing some of Singapore’s rich cultural fare as well. My son is now seven, and had not yet heard a symphony orchestra in full force in a purpose-built concert venue, and a date with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra seemed the perfect remedy to this.
With a little internet homework, we found to our delight that there was a scheduled concert appropriate for children exactly during the days of our visit. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that it would be conducted by Jason Lai, who had conducted ‘my’ orchestra in my London years, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra at St. James’ Piccadilly. Lai has now risen to the post of Associate Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He has literally gotten very far in a very short time.
The concert was part of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Discovering Music! series. Billed as “suitable for ages 5 and above”, it was one of a trio of concerts “exploring how composers use stories, plays and poems as an inspiration to write great music. From Shakespeare’s plays to Wagner’s music dramas, and Tchaikovsky’s ballets to Stravinsky’s colourful ballets based on folk tales, feast your ears on some incredible music!”
The plug worked, as the Victoria Concert Hall was quite full of little children accompanied by adults. I spoke to one parent of a four- and a six-year old, and this wasn’t even their first concert.
This concert was titled “The World’s a Stage: The Drama of Opera”, with a child-friendly start time of 4 pm on a Sunday. I must confess I was a little sceptical of the appropriateness of the fare for little children, especially when I saw on the programme that the concert would open with music from Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, no less.
But I needn’t have worried. Jason Lai emerged on stage with a cheery greeting, and explained the opera synopsis, the emotion in the music, what to “look out for” or hear in the music that would unfold, in such a casual and candid manner that children and adults alike were sitting up in their seats. His comparison of the western classical music genre of opera to Korean television soap operas elicited knowing laughter from the house, and I thought to myself how well the analogy applied to Bollywood (well, some of it) as well: The plotlines may be far-fetched and the emotions over-the-top, and one doesn’t even need to understand every last word for the meaning to come through nevertheless, especially through the music. Just as Raj Kapoor’s Hindi films were a craze in the former USSR, loved by people who didn’t understand the language at all, opera can be similarly appreciated by audiences worldwide if only given half a chance.
And so it was that I heard ‘O mio babbino caro’ one more time in a span of a few weeks, in a city in another part of the world, sung this time by the Chinese soprano Cherie Tse, and with the orchestral forces written for the aria.
If anyone ever wants an easy introduction to opera, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is just the ticket. Just around an hour long, it draws you in right into the deep end from the very start. The final part of Puccini’s triptych (Il Trittico) of short one-act operas, Gianni Schicchi offers comic relief from the other two.
There are many versions out there well worth a watch and listen. I’d recommend Antonio Pappano’s 2011 recording for BBC Four at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, or Riccardo Chailly with the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro alla Scala Milan, both accessible via YouTube.
Without spoiling it for those of you who’d like to take in the whole opera: It is a theatrical farce, with Florence as its location setting. A wealthy miser Buoso Donati has died, and although his relatives have gathered ostensibly to mourn his passing, they are scavengers looking to see what he left each of them in his will. When they find the document and realise that he has left it all to the monks at the nearby monastery, they are furious. They quickly come to the conclusion that only local confidence trickster Gianni Schicchi can come to their rescue. But wily as he is, how can even he get a dead man to change his will? Ah, now that would be telling. Watch the opera to find out.
It is a non-stop riot, with very imaginative use of score-writing (for instance, Puccini uses the falling figure in the very opening motif to mimic the hypocritical weeping of the relatives around Bonati’s death-bed) throughout.
But right in the middle of all the commotion and madness, the action seems to abruptly stop for the breathtakingly beautiful aria. It is sung by Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter, to her father. Gianni Schicchi is about to walk away in a huff after being told rudely by one relative, Zita, to “be off”. But his daughter Lauretta is in love with Zita’s nephew Rinuccio, and begs her father to let her be with the man she loves.
The aria makes several Florentine references: she wants to go to Porta Rossa to buy the ring, and threatens to jump off the Ponte Vecchio and throw herself into the river Arno if her father doesn’t relent.
And relent he does, and he resourcefully brings the opera to a grand conclusion. Does everyone live happily ever after? Again, that would be telling.
The aria entered into popular culture when Rowan Atkinson mimed and lip-synced it in Mr. Bean’s Holiday. It also is the main theme in the 1985 James Ivory film “A Room with a View”, sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
I’ll leave you with Ekaterina Siurina singing it in the 2011 Covent Garden production:
Although out of context, I thought of writing about it this Sunday as it happens to be my own father’s birthday today, and this is a little dedication to him. He would have been 88 today.
(An edited version of this article was published on 27 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)