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Italian Voice MAG
“Vorrei spiegarvie, Dio! Qual é l’affanno mio …” My squat, shrewd-looking voice teacher switched off the record and turned to examine me with the gleam in her eye I’d quickly learned to dread.
“What’d ya think?” she asked expectantly, settling back into the slight groove she’d worn into her piano bench.
I swallowed nervously, desperately searching for a response. Open-minded, I scolded the devil perched on my shoulder. You’ve got to be open-minded! “It was … um … interesting,” I managed.
She grinned wildly. “Well, that’s what you’re gonna sound like by the time I’m through with ya!” she declared triumphantly. “Whaddya think about that?”
I sensed my afternoon snack planning a swift return trip up my esophagus. “Wha – what do you mean? We couldn’t go any lower down the scale than that? I – I really don’t think I can pull that off,” I stammered helplessly.
“You’ll see,” she trilled on a high E. I couldn’t help but shiver.
Within weeks, I had received my first aria, “O cessate de piagarmi.” The name certainly sounded pretty. “What does it mean?” I asked excitedly, anticipating wild tales of true love and frolicking under the stars. Maybe this opera thing wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Oh …” she responded tiredly. “It’s about a guy who’s sick of the world and trying to figure out how to commit suicide. Why don’t you start at measure eight?”
I left that teacher a month later with a dire hate of anything operatic. I was welcomed back with open arms to Opera Haters Anonymous, the exclusive association founded by my father and younger sister. The only membership requirement was that all participants had to clamp their hands over their ears and grimace, as if undergoing an amputation sans anesthesia, any time strains of “Carmen” or “Madame Butterfly” floated over the dinner table conversation as a result of my mother’s efforts to win us over to the “beauty” of opera. All I knew was that it wasn’t going to happen – no Italian suicides for me, thank you very much.
Several months later, however, I found myself back in a cramped practice room with a new voice teacher. I’d had my mother thoroughly grill this one before signing me up to ensure that she was, in fact, a musical theater instructor and not some aria freak.
Paula seemed amiable enough. In fact, she completely understood my severe case of I-hate-to-sing-anything-above-a-high-C-phobia, and I decided we were teacher-pupil soulmates. She began ticking off her most-loved composers and performers to see if we could find any in common: “Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, Kathleen Battle … ”
“Kathleen Battle?” I asked curiously. I wondered if she was some sort of folk singer.
Paula’s eyes lit up at the mere repetition of the name. “You’ve never heard Kathleen Battle sing? Oh, jeez – you’ve got to hear her! She has the most amazing voice in the world!” Duly excited, I promised to track down one of her recordings as soon as possible.
Curiously enough, I caught the name emblazoned on the side of a CD cover in my mother’s vast collection of classical music. I pulled it out, thoroughly expecting it had simply been misplaced among all those other albums labeled with unpronounceable names like Rossini’s “Péchés de vieillesse” and Mozart’s “Kammermusik mit Klarinette.” But my first glance at the CD cover made my heart sink. “Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart,” it proclaimed proudly, showcasing a portrait of a heavily made-up woman in some sort of hideously frilled black dress.
Paula had failed me miserably.
I stuffed the CD back in its place and cleared it from my memory. Besides, if anyone had caught me glancing at such a recording, I could have lost my Opera Haters Anonymous membership.
Thankfully, Paula forgot about my supposed search for Kathleen Battle – at least for a few months. When she finally remembered and asked if I’d listened to any recordings, I lied through my teeth, saying I’d been unable to locate any. Paula raised her eyebrows and sighed. “All right,” she said, “but you don’t know what you’re missing.“
Feeling sufficiently guilty, when I returned home I pulled the album off the shelf. I’d give it two minutes of airplay, and then be through with opera forever. I pressed play with a grimace, fully expecting the room to overflow with the pretentious vibrato of yet another irritating soprano.
Instead, the violins began softly and were soon joined by the gentle chords of a piano. Before long, I realized a voice had slipped unobtrusively into the orchestra. The voice was far from pretentious. In fact, its clarity was improved only by its smooth, silvery tone. The foreign words, which sounded so cumbersome in the mouths of others, seemed to slide naturally off the singer’s tongue.
I closed my eyes and slowly turned up the volume until the voice had wound itself into every corner of my mind, crowding out any unpleasant thoughts with its clear, bell-like quality. For several minutes I found myself in a state of near-meditation, enraptured by the soprano’s quiet elegance. Before I knew it, I’d listened to nearly an hour of – gasp – Mozart’s arias.
Paula knew what I’d been doing the instant she heard my voice on the phone. “So?” she asked hopefully.
“Can you teach me to sing like that?”