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Phyllis Chesler
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Posted in: Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Aug 25, 2021 by Aria Code

Published by Aria Code

At War, Redeemed by a Moment of Opera: Aria Code

In the midst of our desperate humanitarian campaign to airlift Afghan feminists out of Hell, I had 90 minutes of pure pleasure when I was interviewed about an opera. In the mid-1990’s, my “career” as an interpreter of operatic roles began at NPR with Lou Santacroce’s program “At the Opera.” Our very first program was also about Lucia di Lammermoor’s “madness.” Once again, Aria Code, an amazing podcast, hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, called upon me to discuss this same opera. My interviewer, Merrin Lazyan, was unbelievably wonderful. Also on the same program—none other than the divine Natalie Dessay about whom I’ve written and whom I was privileged to see perform in this role live, at the Metropolitan Opera and once when another production with Dessay was streamed online. At first, I focused on a possible lifetime of sexual violence which rendered Lucia vulnerable to what she would see as legalized rape on her wedding night. This time—my views evolved. Here is what I wrote about the great Dessay in 2007. Thank you one and all for this opportunity.

We stood on holy ground, at least those of us who were lucky enough to be at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, starring France’s Natalie Dessay.

I do not say this lightly nor am I suggesting that either Dessay, her audience, or myself were like Moses at the burning bush; only that in secular terms, something out-of-the ordinary took place. Such great artistry inspires awe, gratitude, humility, and a slightly terrified disbelief which, under other circumstances, are emotions that signify an encounter with the divine.

I only hope that the composer, Gaetano Donizetti, was there too because even he would have been overjoyed.

I tried all evening to find a way to describe the quality, tone, and color of Dessay’s voice. I decided that it is a Silver Bell, one that may once have belonged to a Faery. Given Dessay’s magnificent discipline in its service, (she first wanted to be a dancer, then an actress, an opera singer last), that faery-gift now belongs to us and to the ages.

My friend, Lou Santacroce, the consummate opera aficionado who used to interview me on his program “At the Opera” on National Public Radio, was silent, speechless really. For nearly an hour afterwards, he would not speak unless pressed to do so. Even then, he said very little. I think he may have been in shock, stunned. I do not say this lightly either.

Dessay is now our reigning Lucia. The great Joan Sutherland, with whom one was always assured that each and every note would be nothing less than perfect, lacked Dessay’s extraordinary theatrical talent. Dessay: small, almost elfin (for an opera singer), is a Method actor much like Marlon Brando.

Dessay’s Mad Scene was chilling, fully and terribly realized, perhaps unique as well. She began with a wicked, wild laugh, but then proceeded to evoke an overwhelming terror and pity, not only among the onlooker chorus but among the audience too. There we were, (at least in my case) quietly sobbing, as it became clear that Lucia was really ruined, undone, had passed the point of no return, both in terms of her sanity and her life, and this fact mattered far more than it ought to have mattered since Lucia is not real.

The experience was thrilling for me; I got to render my interpretation of some great role–only to be happily upended by the latest opera great (Jane Eaglen for example) who had just sung that very role (Isolde) and whose interpretation was very different from my own and who said so. Still, I got many complimentary tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and got to have splendid conversations with Santacroce. At one point, we decided to do a book together, one which an editor at Oxford University Press was interested in publishing until their editor-in-chief shelved the idea.

Operas, even when they are based on historical figures are, essentially, about people whom we do not know, who lived long ago and far away, and who, unlike most of us, were wealthy and royal. Many operas are also based on fictional characters. When these people suffer and die, for whom do we weep? Probably for ourselves and for all humanity who, like flowers (or, as the Psalmist would have it, blades of grass), who bloom but briefly and then die. In opera at its best, we go down singing, our mortal fate glorified by art.


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