Sondra Radvanovsky: It's really been my therapist, opera has. It's been my way of dealing with all of my issues in life, not just the death of people close to me and illness, but also happy moments, too.
Rhiannon Giddens: Hey, I'm Rhiannon Giddens. From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code.
Vivien Schweitzer: I think it's the most beautiful musical depiction of despair.
Rhiannon: In each episode of Aria Code, singers and all sorts of experts decode one aria, and then we listen to it all the way through with fresh ears. Today, a super famous aria by Puccini, “Vissi d'arte.”
Rufus Wainwright: That's such a beautiful line, "I gave my song to the stars to heaven, which smiled with more beauty." What that line reminds me once again of is just the mission of opera in general, which is to really leave the surly bonds of Earth and give one a sense of the infinite.
Rhiannon: I've been singing since I was four, but at least that's what my sister tells me. I really can't tell you everything music has given to me. The ability to stand on stage and to open up my mouth and to let my voice come out and connect with the people who are sitting there listening to me, it means everything. When I talk to other musicians about this, it's obvious that they feel the same thing. It's a shared language, and that's as true of fiddlers and folk artists as it is of opera singers. Maybe it's that shared language that inspires us to gather around certain stories, certain songs, certain characters.
One of those characters is Floria Tosca, the tragic heroine of Puccini's opera. Tosca is a singer herself, and she has what you might call an artistic temperament. She's a little volatile, a little high maintenance, and a lot jealous. Her boyfriend, Cavaradossi, has gotten embroiled in local politics and is at the top of the hit list for the evil police chief, Scarpia.
Long story short, Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi and sends him off to be executed, and Tosca is there for all of it. She can hear his screams, she can hear the drumbeats announcing that it's time for his execution, and she has to fight off Scarpia when he tries to rape her. She's scared, she's devastated. She has no idea what to do, but suddenly, she turns inward, and she prays to God. That prayer is truly one of the great arias, “Vissi d'arte.”
In this song, Tosca asks God, "Why me? I've tried to be a pretty decent person, so why have you repaid me this way?" I think it's something we can all relate to from time to time. It's the first lines of the aria that really gets me. "I lived for art, I lived for love," and if that's not the artist's credo, I don't know what is.
Today, we'll hear from three people about how important this aria is to them and why it moves them and us so profoundly. The first is soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, who sings this role at the Met.
Sondra Radvanovsky: I am Tosca. It's my life. Right there in an opera. Okay. I've not killed anybody. Thank God. No.
Rhiannon: We're just going to have to take her word for that. Writer and pianist, Vivien Schweitzer.
Vivien Schweitzer: I love Puccini because I think the way that he uses music to tell a story is incredibly impactful.
Rhiannon: She recently wrote a book called, A Mad Love, all about opera. Rufus Wainwright, singer, songwriter, and opera composer.
Rufus: I became a huge opera fan at the age of 13, but part of that was me trying to indoctrinate my family. Some of them fell for it, some of them didn't, but one of the activities in that campaign was to dress up my sister and my cousins as opera characters.
Rhiannon: By the end of this, you'll know a lot more about what “Vissi d'arte” means to them and maybe even a little more about what it means to you. Now let's decode “Vissi d'arte.”
Sandra: To set the scene before “Vissi d'arte” starts, it's chaos on stage. It's basically Scarpia chasing me around the stage saying, "You're going to be mine; you're going to be mine." I say, "No, no, no, no, no, you can't have me," and basically beating him off of me. He's grabbing me inappropriately, #MeToo, and then all of a sudden you hear the drums, da, da, dum, da, da, dum, da, da, dum, dum, dum. She knows what the drums mean and that is, Cavaradossi is going off to his death.
Sandra: It's chaos, chaos, chaos, running around on stage, nothing, silence, and that is exactly what you hear right before she starts to sing "Vissi d'arte, Vissi d'amore."
Sandra: It's nothing big and spectacular. It's not this big Puccini orchestra that we're so used to. It's just chords and they're doubling me, which is interesting because at that point we're one, the orchestra and the singer are one.
Vivien: It descends in this tragic arc, these four notes, which she then repeats, and it sounds so dejected. I think when people speak normally if you're in a real sense of despair, your voice usually descends a little bit. I think it's the most beautiful musical depiction of despair.
Rufus: She's right up against the greatest trial of her existence, and of course, she needs this moment to reflect.
Rufus: Something that I admire a lot about Puccini now that I've written a couple of operas, is that he has this uncanny ability to just switch the mood dramatically in a fraction of a second. He can do this better than Wagner, better than Verdi, better than pretty much any other composer in opera, I think, where all of a sudden, you're just ripped out of the mood you were in before and plopped into the next one.
He's, sometimes, accused of doing this to people of being a little bit manipulative in that way, but the older I get, the more I'm impressed by his ability to actually pull it off because it's not easy. “Vissi d'arte” is such an excellent example of that where you're bloodthirsty and ready for Tosca to stab the knife in, and then there's peace all of a sudden, and you're reminded of the humanity of these people.
Sandra: It's very much for herself. It's not for Scarpia, it's not for the audience. It's her just saying, "What am I going to do now? I have exhausted all of my options." I think it's her really having a moment, an inner moment, praying to God. The aria is actually about that, about religion.
Rufus: Well, I think in “Vissi d'arte,” Tosca realizes that, like any human being, she's made her mistakes, she's sinned, she's been vain, and so forth, but that in the end, because she's a musician and because she brings joy to people, and she searches for what is positive in the world, she is therefore on the side of good, and that hopefully God will judge her that way.
Sandra: I can relate to the prayer aspect of this, and [sighs] tears come. I have an 80-year-old mother right now that was just diagnosed with Parkinson's and early-onset dementia and finding my father dead at 17 years old, I relate to her a lot. Sorry. [sobs]
Rufus: I've always felt opera to be my religion in the sense that as a very young man, when I was hitting puberty, I knew that I was gay, and at that point, in the late 80s, AIDS was devastating the world and specifically gay men. I was very attuned and familiar with the darker side of existence. I ran to the opera house for a sense of solace, for a sense of perspective, a sense of safety, really to just lose myself in these other characters' struggles. Opera was able to give me that temple to reflect on what was going on in my life and in the lives of other gay men.
Vivien: After this beautiful kind of opening, the orchestral texture then changes quite vividly, and we hear these soft-rolling triplets that propel her line and keep the momentum going. They rise and fall and really mirror the emotional trajectory of what she's singing about. She's almost confronting things, "Why is this happening?" She's defending herself. It's just a very different sonic world, and it adds a lot of orchestral color to her vocal line.
Sandra: She says, "On top of it all, I gave my voice to you," and "[Italian language]." She calls him signore, not dio, but more informal, signore, sir. That's how Tosca always talked to God [Italian language] every day because she prayed to God. She went to church every day, and that is what's so striking about this aria to me.
Rufus: I don't speak Italian very well, but I in this aria, I love the line about the stars. That's such a beautiful line, "I gave my song to the stars to heaven, which smiled with more beauty." What that line reminds me once again of is just the mission of opera in general, which is to really leave the surly bonds of Earth and give one a sense of the infinite.
Sandra: It's up to you as the singer to build the shape of the aria because, quite frankly, what I sing in the aria is not the melody. The melody is in the orchestra, so I'm not the tune, the orchestra is the tune. Singers often mistake themselves as actually having the big tune, but it's like a handshake that goes on. I sing the melody for a little bit, and then I hand it off to the orchestra, and then they hand it back to me. I've come to the conclusion that it's her inner dialogue. It's her having a conversation with God. She prayed to God and said, "What should I do?" I think the answer came to her, "Don't be the victim. Stand up, be stronger, outsmart him."
Vivien: This aria definitely has a particular resonance and potency in the MeToo era, when you think of all these women who are put in awful situations that are absolutely unfair and brutal by a very powerful man who said, "Well, if you want to advance in your career, or if you want to keep this job, you have to do this." That's exactly the same situation that she's in.
Sandra: I've been a victim many times over, and you have to really give yourself that pep talk, and say, "It wasn't you that did whatever, brought that situation upon myself and upon the circumstances." It's that inner dialogue and that inner voice and the inner light that you have to find. I think Tosca finds it as well, but it's difficult because we want to blame ourselves, and I think Tosca is blaming herself, "What did I do? Did I give him some inkling that I was attracted to him, that I was interested in him, that I was weak?" The pep talk is, if not a daily thing, a weekly thing for sure, because in my business, being an opera singer, it's not all roses and sunshine and champagne.
Rufus: Certainly, as someone who was abused sexually and who has also experienced a kind of discrimination, opera has always been a kind of lifesaver in a lot of ways for me, just to receive some kind of spiritual sustenance. That is the ultimate aim of opera, to transcend the bother that we all go through in our daily lives.
Vivien: A lot of the aria, essentially, is building towards the end to this high note. It's the culmination of her anguish. She's letting her despair show unfettered, "Why me? Why? Why, signore?"
Sandra: The hardest part of the aria is building up to the big climactic moment. [Italian language], the big B flat, and it is so easy if you're emotional and into this aria, to overshoot that B flat. I can't tell you how many times I've sung this aria, and I've overshot that B flat.
Vivien: Puccini ends back where we started on this pianissimo note of quiet despair where she's asking again, "Why do I deserve this?" It's a much more prayerful sound just like the beginning was. The aria unfolds in what's really a kind of arc with this beautiful kind of opening, and then we end back with the same somber note of resignation.
It's hard to imagine, given the popularity of this aria and the significance that it now has, that it almost didn't make the final cut. Puccini wasn't sure whether to include it in the final version, and then a couple of critics thought that it was pointless. Somebody said, "I think it was musically inconsequential." The reason that they gave was that it stops the dramatic action, that it stops the flow.
Of course, in one sense, they are right. The action does come to a stop, and we listen to her express her innermost feelings in this very poignant prayer. I think to argue that it's dramatically not necessary is very odd because I think it's because we learn who Tosca is in this aria, and we see her vulnerability, we see her sadness, that it makes her much more relatable, and that we do then understand the choices that she has to make.
Rufus: I would argue that, perhaps more than any other aria ever written in the history of opera, “Vissi d'arte” symbolizes the struggle of being an artist and the chaotic relationship between living in one's imagination and in this mystical world of creation and then facing real life, which, at times, can be very inspiring, but other times, incredibly traumatic. I think it all boils down to that, and this aria certainly defines that; in life you can either do good or you can do bad, and doing music is doing good.
Sandra: What have I had to give up in my life for my career? It's a long list. The biggest thing is very present right now in my mind, and that is, my opening night of Tosca here in New York, and that is the day that my mom is moving from her house to assisted living. How bad of a daughter do I feel. That said, she understands, and I told her I would be there if she wanted me to be there, but she said, "No, you go do your job." It brings her much happiness seeing me happy doing what I love. That day's going to be a bit of a mixed emotion, but maybe that's going to add to my emotions on opening night of singing Tosca. I live for it, I live for love.
Rhiannon: Now, let's listen to her sing the whole thing. Here's Sondra Radvanovsky with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Rhiannon: I never got to sing this aria. I'm so glad that she did. That was soprano, Sandra Radvanovsky singing “Vissi d'arte” from Puccini's Tosca, and, hey, here she is one more time.
Sandra: The last time I sang this, the applause was amazing. That audience was just overwhelming, and I started to cry during the applause. I literally said to myself out loud, "Sandra, pull yourself together." [laughs] I had to physically say it out loud because I was so overcome with emotion. That's what this aria really is. It's just raw emotion.
Rhiannon: All right, curtain's going down on 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 and Matt Abramovitz is our executive producer. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boynton and Original Music by Hannis Brown. Our team also includes Khrista Rypl and Ricardo Quinones. Special thanks to Sandra Radvanovsky, Rufus Wainwright, and Vivien Schweitzer for their insights into “Vissi d'arte” from Puccini's Tosca. Join me next episode to meet one of opera's femme fatales.
Elīna Garanča: Well, I think in general, to be a singer, it's a very power-seeking procedure because we want to go on a stage, and we want to command the audience once we appear. It's a little bit narcissistic, but it really is a very satisfying feeling when you feel that with your voice, you actually can command the attention of 4,000 people where nobody breathes, and suddenly you say, "Okay, I have you now all. I can do with you whatever I want."
Rhiannon: I'm Rhiannon Giddens, and I'll see you next time. Mili grazie. I'm going to sing it one day, but it'll probably be down the octave and with guitar. [laughs]
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