Helen Fisher: We pine for love, we live for love, we kill for love, and we die for love. It's one of the most powerful brain systems the human animal has ever evolved.
Rhiannon Giddens: Hey, I'm Rhiannon Giddens. From WQXR in the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code.
Vittorio Grigolo: When I married the first time, it was love at first sight. I saw something that I was so surprised and so interested in, and it turns out to be love.
Rhiannon Giddens: In each episode of Aria Code, singers and other experts decode one aria, and we get to hear it all the way through. Today, it's “Che gelida manina,” from one of the most popular operas in the world La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini.
James Kulsan: Even in a mediocre performance, we cry when Mimì dies because it's everybody's fate.
Rhiannon Giddens: In Ireland where I live, there's an idea of the Anam Cara. Now, Anam Cara is Irish Gaelic for soul friend. The idea is that you meet somebody's eyes, and your soul sees theirs, and you have that moment of connection, love at first sight, if you want to call it that. It is the deepest, most profound connection you can have with a person, and you know it immediately. It's not something that you think about, or it develops, it's like you have it or you don't. We keep telling stories about this, obviously, it connects with us in a really, really deep way.
“Che gelida manina” from La Bohème is all about that, it's all about love at first sight. Now if you haven't heard Bohème or you need a quick refresher, Rodolfo and Mimì are two broke kids living in Paris. Rodolfo was a poet and bohemian life isn't treating them too well. He's cold and hungry and way behind on rent and that's something that still happens, I'm afraid to tell you. Mimì, a sweet seamstress is literally the girl next door. She knocks on her Rodolfo's door because her candle is blown out. Don't you hate it when that happens? Boom, he's smitten.
Mimì might be too because what do you know? She up and loses her house key.
Rodolfo pretends his own candle has gone out and they both drop to the floor, fumbling around in the dark to find it. Then Rodolfo grabs Mimì's hand, he feels how cold it is. He starts to sing, “Che gelida manina,” which translates to, “what a cold little hand.” The song starts with such a simple gesture. Why does it do that thing that every great love song does that gives us that shivery feeling, that warmth in the pit of our belly? Well, I wanted to know, so I asked a singer, a doctor, and historian.
Vittorio Grigolo: Good Morning America.
Rhiannon Giddens: The singer is tenor Vittorio Grigolo.
Vittorio Grigolo: It was a dream for me to play this opera and always will be.
Rhiannon Giddens: He's been playing the role of Rodolfo since 2007. The doctor is Helen Fisher.
Helen Fisher: It was one of the first operas that I saw, and I loved it instantly.
Rhiannon Giddens: A biological anthropologist who studies the brain science behind romantic love. The historian is James Kuslan, a writer who studied The Young Bohemians of Paris in the 1830s.
James Kuslan: They used chamber pots. their lives were horrible.
Rhiannon Giddens: They're going to explain “Che gelida manina” from the moment Rodolfo first sets eyes on Mimì through when he boastfully tells her about himself, until the end when he asks her to tell him who she is. When they're done teasing apart the history, science, and music that go into the aria, we'll put it back together again and listen to it uninterrupted. Now let's decode “Che gelida manina.”
Vittorio Grigolo: Imagine he's already a vision of a movie in front of you. The shot is in front of you. The light on the set, those two people in the dark.
Helen Fisher: The timing is right. He's ready to fall in love and she walks into the room out of nowhere.
James Kulsan: He finds her extremely alluring.
Helen Fisher: They're both cold. They both need warmth. They both need love. They both need tenderness.
James Kulsan: Their encounter is just chemically charged.
Helen Fisher: Sure, enough that brain circuitry was just waiting to be triggered in both of them.
James Kulsan: When he takes her hand.
Helen Fisher: Because you know how wow “Che gelida manina.”
Vittorio Grigolo: Then he looks at the moon and he said [foreign language], even if we don't have the light, there's no problem. We have the light from the moon.
Helen Fisher: People always ask me, "What is love?" What I've been able to establish is that we've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive, the second is feelings of intense romantic love, and the third is feelings of deep attachment to a partner. In the case of Rodolfo and Mimì, it was a striking example of intense romantic love, love at first sight.
A lot of people wonder whether love at first sight actually exists. Just about 50% of men and women have had the experience of it. It's actually very easy to explain. It's the brain system, and it can be triggered instantly. Just like the fear system can be triggered instantly or the surprise system, you can instantly fall in love.
Vittorio Grigolo: When I married the first time, it was love at first sight, I saw something that I was so surprised and so interested in and it turns out to be love.
James Kulsan: I think for Rodolfo and Mimì given their youth, their encounter is just chemically charged.
Helen Fisher: It's a chemical thing. He has this, let's call it, crush.
James Kulsan: You have to realize that they're kids, they're young, they have not even been living in mature bodies for all that long.
Vittorio Grigolo: Rodolfo is a young guy. I said that when I see Rodolfo, I remember me playing with my Italian fellow, those Italians that I've always wants to make fun of everything, never be serious. He's a funny guy, but now he's really in love. When he loves, he loves for real, he will put himself on fire.
Helen Fisher: Mimì's fits within Rodolfo's love map. As we grow up, we begin to build an unconscious list of what we're looking for in a partner. People tend to be drawn to somebody from the same socioeconomic background, which they certainly had. They're both poverty-stricken.
James Kulsan: Puccini is also giving us an insight into the difficulties of the Bohemians' lives. They are poor, they live in unheated garrets. They don't have enough to eat. They couldn't even afford cheap wine. They had to drink water, which in the Paris of the 1830s was not necessarily a safe beverage.
Helen Fisher: What they also had then was timing. The timing was right. She walks in the room, she's the right age, she's the right background, the same degree of education, the same interests, the same degree of good looks, they had all that.
Vittorio Grigolo: It's a complete match. If he would have described women in a website nowadays, he would have described what he saw opening the door.
Helen Fisher: They're both cold, they both need warmth, they both need love, they both need tenderness, and sure enough, that brain circuitry was just waiting to be triggered in both of them.
Vittorio Grigolo: Such a surprise, oh my god, this is it. I want to invite her, I want her, I want to love her.
Helen Fisher: This brain region that was active in both Mimì and Rodolfo lies very close to brain regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. Thirst and hunger keep you alive today. Romantic love drives you to fall for somebody, have babies, and pass your DNA into tomorrow.
James Kulsan: It is really the language of the body, the body that nature tells you you must use to procreate with.
Helen Fisher: I and my colleagues have put over 100 people into a brain scanner and studied the brain circuitry of romantic love. If I were to put Rodolfo into my brain scanner directly after he's fallen in love with Mimì, I would have found activity in a tiny little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area or the VTA. It's a brain region that actually makes dopamine and sends dopamine to many brain regions, giving you that feeling of elation, focus, motivation, and craving that you could see so clearly in him and in her.
James Kulsan: When we meet Mimì, she is already unwell. She is suffering from tuberculosis, which was a very common disease at that time. Chopin died of tuberculosis at a fairly young age. Disease was rife in the Europe of this period. There were really no alternatives, but to suck it up and suffer. When we see Mimì she is already doomed.
Helen Fisher: One of the main drives of men around the world is to be needed. When they see a woman with problems, is going to call from them this desire to help. She starts coughing, and he's watching those coughs and perhaps the flesh of her disease, made her look very pretty, but also quite helpless. Instantly, he could be a savior. That is basic to men. It's called the broken-winged response. When all kinds of animals need help, other animals are likely to come to help them out.
James Kulsan: Part of the progression of Bohème is that Mimì's little cold hand just gets from act to act, colder and colder and colder. Of course, it's his intention to hold on to it until it warms up. I think he's also rather experienced seducer, he knows not to come on too strong.
Vittorio Grigolo: How would you start a conversation with a lady that you like? You will just go to her and say, "Hey, hi, what's your name?" Soft, smooth.
Helen Fisher: Rodolfo then does something that men and women do around the world, which is strut his feathers, show her who he is. I am a poet, I am a brilliant man, I can be your savior.
Vittorio Grigolo: The song, it becomes louder just because he wants to assure her that he's a good guy. He said, "You know, my darling, I might be poor, but my soul is big enough. I have a millionaire soul. I can mimic a guy because I'm a dreamer inside." I would say the same thing over Rodolfo, trust me. [laughs]
Helen Fisher: Women don't brag, men brag. Women find that very transparent that men are bragging, but they're listening, they're listening very carefully. We want to know who you are before we decide whether we're going to have our babies with you.
Vittorio Grigolo: He hung the stool in his way out to open the door and this girl because otherwise, she wouldn't open herself. She would say, "Oh, thank you, see your next day." Whatever Rodolfo said, he said it in a way that at the end, lead to open that door, to the key. The key that we're talking about is the key of the heart.
James Kulsan: Gradually, as he senses Mimì, as responsive to his overtures, his line goes up. He increases his volume until not only is he really in love with her, he's in love with the idea of being in love with her. Of course, nothing in tenor land says I love you and I love me too, like taking a radiant top C.
Vittorio Grigolo: Everybody's waiting for this high note. It's like the momentum, so everybody's scared of this high C because it comes in an area that you need to work, or you don't seen that and you want to keep the voice for the high sea or are you seeing it all and you're scared because you gave it too much before. It's the calibration. You have to really calibrate everything in order to arrive fresh at the end of the aria, and it's just the beginning of the opera.
When you sing Che gelida manina, you know it's just the beginning. You have all the opera in front of you.
James Kulsan: The tenors who have that note, unfurl them in all their glory in the climax of this aria, which then tapers down, so there is an arc that is musical and dramatically, it seems that Rodolfo has ended where he began, but not really. He's gone a huge leap forward in his own experience and in Mimì's heart.
Helen Fisher: I'm not surprised that Rodolfo asked Mimì, "And who are you?" He's just fluttered all his feathers, like a very fine peacock, and he wants to know, "What was the effect? Did I get this right?" Romantic love is very metabolically expensive. You can spend an enormous amount of time and energy and thought on another human being, you often forget to do your job, you forget to call your parents, you forget to feed the cat. You're trying to win life's greatest prize, which is a mating partner.
James Kulsan: I think one reason why even in the mediocre performance of Bohème, we cry when Mimì dies, is that we're also acknowledging just how difficult it is to be here and endure. It gets you by the throat because it's everybody's fate. Even if we don't die in our 20s of tuberculosis, it's still a slog. I do think though, that these two will encounter one another in another lifetime. Let's hope that they both get reborn into an age of antibiotics.
Rhiannon Giddens: You know you're in the world of opera when penicillin and chill sounds like a romantic evening. That was tenor Vittorio Grigolo, historian James Kuslan and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, deciphering the magic behind “Che gelida manina” from Puccini's La Bohème. Now let's listen to the whole thing without people talking all over it, so you can hear Rodolfo and Mimì fall in love.
[opera music] [applause]
Rhiannon Giddens: That was tenor Vittorio Grigolo singing “Che gelida manina” from Puccini's La Bohème. Now we're coming to the end of the show here, but first, when Vittorio was in the studio, he let a little something slip.
Vittorio Grigolo: Two months ago, I had this beautiful thing to meet this girl in a house of a friend of ours. I was Rodolfo. Actually, it happened that I took her hand on the table, at dinner table and we were talking and suddenly I said, ''Okay, it's time.'' Boom and I grab her hands. It was like a “Che gelida manina” situation. Since then, I grab her hand, I never left her hand. Actually, I just discovered I might be a father, so this is going to be incredible news.
Rhiannon Giddens: Okay, Vittorio. Now that is a whole different kind of love at first sight. That's it for this episode of Aria Code. This show is a co-production of WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera. Our producer is Merrin Lazyan. Brendan Francis Newnam is our editor. Matt Abramovitz is our executive producer. Sound designed by Matt Boynton and original music by Hannis Brown. Our team also includes Ania Grzesik, Khrista Rypl, and Ricardo Quiñones.
Special thanks to Vittorio Grigolo, Helen Fisher, and James Kuslan for their insights about “Che gelida manina” from Puccini's La Bohème. Join me next episode when we make a therapy appointment for Othello.
Male Speaker 4: I think the first thing I would do if Othello came into my office and overwhelmed with jealousy is to validate the way he feels. In other words, try to find the truth of what that feels like for him, not to say that it's true that Desdemona is cheating on him, but to say that I understand how horrible, how overwhelming that feeling is.
Rhiannon Giddens: I'm Rhiannon Giddens and we'll see you next time. Go raibh maith agat. That's Irish Gaelic for thank you. [chuckles]
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