Paul Thomason: You know this guy is sex on a stick and charm personified. He's the ultimate bad boy. He's the sort of person you look at, and you think, "God, he is such trouble, but I bet he'd be worth it."
Rhiannon Giddens: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
Paul: She's the perfect victim in writing because she has no life experience, she has nobody to advise her, and she has no clear idea about what true love is.
Rhiannon: Every episode, we crack open one Aria and find out how it works. Today “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi.
Nadine Sierra: He's filled her heart with this emotion, love, which she's never experienced before in her life. Her whole life, body, soul is awakening because of this one single moment.
Rhiannon: I was in middle school and there was a boy. Everybody knew that we were crushing hard for each other, but we just didn't want to admit it, but really, who else but a crush do you watch Jeopardy! over the phone with and see who could get the right answer first? Come on people. I've never done that with anybody else in my entire life. I don't even know anybody else who's done that. For this nerd girl, that was definitely a crush. Now, it's really easy to look back on these experiences and just go, "Oh, well that's just being young and silly," but this guy was the most important person in my life outside of my family.
I thought of him all the time, we hung out all the time, and that's not a small thing. That was my first love, and first love is what today's aria, “Caro Nome” is all about. It's sung by Gilda, a teenage girl who's been sheltered by her father, Rigoletto, her entire life. One day at church she locks eyes with a handsome stranger. Next thing you know, he is sweet talking her saying he's a poor student named Gualtier Maldè. I think he should have picked a better name personally, but that's just me, and not the lying womanizing Duke, who ultimately, of course, ruined her life, but that all comes later. In this moment, Gilda is just young and head over heels and obsessing over the caro nome, the "dear name" of her new love. Today to help me obsess over this aria, I've invited three people who thought a lot about it. The first is soprano Nadine Sierra.
Nadine: Gilda is definitely one of my favorite roles to sing, not just because the music is so beautiful and for what she stands for, but also, she's a role that I learned actually when I was quite young.
Rhiannon: For the record, Nadine is still pretty young, and Gilda is one of her signature roles. Writer Paul Thomason is here.
Paul: The music critic for The New Yorker when I was growing up said the two essential ingredients for a successful opera are sex and the dominant seventh chord.
Rhiannon: Sex and the dominant seventh chord. There's a book here. I know it. I definitely would read it, and our last decoder, psychologist, Carl Pickhardt.
Carl Pickhardt: My latest book is just out; it's called Who Stole My Child? Parenting Through Four Stages of Adolescence, and it helps parents anticipate some of the changes that occur. One of the changes is the topic of the discussion today is what happens when a kid, 15 to 18, falls in love.
Rhiannon: Well, I'm excited for this one. All right, Alex, here we go. I'll take “Caro nome” for a thousand.
Nadine: Gilda is a very young woman. I would say she's about maybe 14, 15, 16 in that area. Her father, Rigoletto, put her in a convent when she was quite young. He is the jester for the Duke of Mantua. Her mother died, and so I don't think he felt it was appropriate for a young woman to be brought up in that environment because he doesn't want her to be exposed to the society surrounding their home, especially people like the Duke of Mantua.
Paul: The libertine Duke has been going to church where he has locked eyes with Gilda. They've never spoken. She has fallen totally in love with him.
Nadine: The Duke of Mantua somehow is able to get into Rigoletto's house and introduces himself to her. Obviously not as the Duke of Manta, but as a penniless student, which she believes, and I think which she hopes for because she's a very humble, very simple woman.
Carl: This is not a young woman who's had many love relationships. This is her first love relationship. What does she know? Where did she even learn about romance? Partly from her imaginings, but also in all kinds of cultural ways. For example, she has heard love songs and she has probably read fairytale romances. It's like romance is just lying and wait for her. When the Duke opens the door, she walks through, she believes the Duke is giving himself away to her.
Paul: An Italian opera of this period, an aria often started with what's called recitative. It's more spoken than actually filled with high notes or a lot of melodic activity. In this bit of recit, that starts “Caro Nome,” Verdi's orchestration is just perfect. It's one flute, one oboe, one clarinet, and above that, a single flute is going up, sort of an arpeggio ascending, like Gilda's thoughts are obviously ascending.
She just says his name and then what a dear name this is.
Nadine: “Gualtier Maldè,” her first pronunciation of his name on an E has to be in tune, quiet pianissimo. This can be really hard because sometimes you do lose your air and lose your support, and then having to showcase that serenity and that almost pureness of sound, it's difficult. I've seen some sopranos that after they sing, [sings], you just see them like [sighs]. They let out, it's okay, it's over. I got past the first part, the first page.
Paul: This aria is called “Caro nome,” which literally means “dear name.” That's a good name for the aria because she spends the entire aria obsessing about the name, trying it on, how does it feel, like a young girl writing her boyfriend's name inside a heart, writing it on her notebook, writing it in her diary, writing it on her schoolbooks. That's what Gilda is actually doing here. Her words show us that she is truly obsessed with this guy's name.
Carl: Just think of West Side Story and the song of “Maria.” The guy is just stricken, and he just keeps repeating her name.
“I'll never stop saying Maria.
Maria, Maria, Maria.”
It's like you invoke the name and you invoke the possibility, and you invoke the dream, you invoke the romance, and what an emotionally heightening experience that is. Focusing and repeating the name is enough to stimulate all this fantasy.
Nadine: When I was a teenager, I could have definitely related to Gilda and some of her circumstances. My father was very loving toward me and very protective. She and I shared that and yes, feeling very much alienated from society in general. Even though I so much loved and enjoyed learning about opera and learning how to sing as an opera singer it was also something that took me away from being a teenager, and I didn't go to parties. I didn't get drunk with my friends. Even though it was illegal. I didn't do those things. I was at the Opera, singing Opera and being in the Opera chorus and I don't know. I was an Opera nerd. In a sense, having that feeling of being detached from other people and being on my own is quite similar to how Gilda was being brought up.
Paul: At the beginning, the only instruments playing other than the strings and the rhythm are two flutes, very high, playing the notes that Gil is going to sing later. We get this sense of delicacy, innocence, girlishness, certainly, plus sort of a sparkle.
It's as if Gilda is in a dream thinking of her prince charming.
Nadine: There are a lot of these eighth rests. She always has to pause. She can't say a full sentence without a pause in between almost every syllable, so she can't breathe. She's almost lusting after this person.
Paul: At the end of her first phrase where she says, "Dear name, you're making my heart beat." When she gets to the word core or heart, Verdi suddenly introduces a solo violin that plays 16th notes [sings]. It does that at the end of every single one of her opening phrases at the beginning of the aria. [sings] That's her heart, just beating as fast as it possibly can and it's just incredibly brilliant on Verdi's part. His instrumentation here is like adding spices in a sauce you're making. There's not enough to really-- when you eat the sauce to say, "Oh, you put some taragon in this," but it's like, "Oh, what is this? There's something in here that is just so delicious." This is a really delicious aria.
Nadine: Some people, and I guess I could agree with them, although I don't want it to be so PG13/R-rated, she is having this orgasmic experience. She is and that's totally natural. That's what being a human being is. We're not these pure innocent creatures. We do have these animalistic desires and her whole body is waking up to this one moment of finding a man who is not her father and who's giving her maybe a glimpse into the kind of future she wants.
Carl: We can hear that this young woman is truly swept away and at that point, the story becomes real. That's the wonderful power of music. It's the power of this opera, is that it teaches about love and what it's going to be like for us.
Paul: Gilda is much younger emotionally than she is chronologically. She's been totally isolated her entire life. She's incredibly naive, which is part of the tragedy that she's fallen for this guy who is a total rat, but she has no experience to judge him by. She's really on her own. This really is utterly first love in its purest sense.
Carl: When a young person enters love, they usually go through a crush stage where they project on this other person all the romantic possibilities that they find luring. The crush is not really about the other person. The crush is taking one's own ideals and projecting it on somebody else and then essentially becoming attached to the projection when it's created. Crushes usually don't last that long because sooner or later, the person upon whom the crush has been projected turns out to be not really that way at all and so the person with the crush lets that go. This kind of romance is enormously mood and mind-altering and it's a euphoric exciting experience.
Nadine: Gilda is very young and of course, she doesn't really understand what true love really is or what the consequences of falling in love could be, especially with the wrong person. When I was younger, a very similar thing happened to me too. I did fall in love with the wrong person when I was young and was very heartbroken by that experience, but it taught me a lot. I remember when I was learning her for the first time around 18 years old, I thought, "Yes, I understand this. This sounds quite familiar."
Carl: Within her is the desire to somehow break out in a more worldly way. She wants something beyond what she has beyond being sheltered. Adolescence is about risk-taking. You can't grow up without taking risks about how you're going to act independently and how you're going to express yourself individually, which are both things that you have to be able to do because the goal of adolescence is to achieve a functional independence and a uniquely fitting identity so that's part of the process. You're doing something new and different you have not done before and it takes daring, it takes courage.
Paul: As the aria progresses, Gilda becomes more and more excited about this and more confident and she is trying on this experience of first love. Gilda's saying that her desire will always fly to her beloved Gualtier Maldè. She says, "My desires will fly,” and she holds volerà. And then she goes nuts, flying. The music flies, goes up and down and then back again. The notes themselves are really expressing, “we'll fly.”
Carl: If somebody is saying to me, "I love you and I'm giving you all my love," and I'm the person receiving that and I really want to have love, how can I resist that opening? It's very hard to refuse, particularly if you're like Gilda, which here she's been secluded for so long. She's the perfect victim and waiting because she has no life experience. She has nobody to advise her, and she has no clear idea about what true love is.
Paul: Verdi gives Gilda two cadenzas in this aria, but cadenza is usually when there are no words. It's just the singer like a riff in jazz, some sort of scale from the top to the bottom and up again with some trills and really showing off, flaunting what she's got vocally. They usually come towards the end of an aria and the big one is always at the end. It's like, "Hello, this is all of my stuff folks. I'm going to sock it to you."
Even these elaborate Cadenzas are expressing her growing love for the Duke and her excitement at what has just happened and what she thinks is going to happen later on.
Now it's not all fun in games because she has a line where she's saying to herself, "Oh, dear name, my last sigh, my very last breath is going to be on your name." As she says that we get two bassoons playing in thirds, sustained half notes, pianissimo it's just a hint of [sings]
It's very dark, can sound rather ominous so that's a rather haunting sound. Verdi, in the midst of this very joyous aria is giving us little instrumental hints, little foreshadowings of what's going to come and that we're going to have her last breath before this is all over with. We hear the beginning of the ending here.
Nadine: I find Gilda to have a wisdom that comes from her pureness of heart and that for me is really, really, really special.
Carl: We're thinking, my God, this is how she really feels. She is really in this altered state. All of a sudden, that story becomes real, and we believe it. We get swept away by it just the way she is swept away with it because you see that's the wonderful illusion. We are as susceptible to a marvelous love story as she is, we're just as susceptible and that's why these musical stories have such lasting power because they're true.
Rhiannon: Well, that was Soprano Nadine Sierra, writer Paul Thomason and psychologist Carl Pickhardt decoding "Caro nome" from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Now let's hear Nadine fall in love for the very first time.
[classical music] [applause]
Rhiannon: Well, I think that last note captures all the amazing floaty feelings of being in love. Thanks, Nadine.
All right, that's it for this episode of Aria Code. By the way, we've been overjoyed by the response to this show. We always knew opera should be at the top of the music podcast charts, but to have it actually happen has us singing the high notes. Thanks for listening and recommending the show to friends. If you're really feeling it, please head to Apple Podcast and rate us and leave a comment. That's one of the best ways to help spread the word.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR in the Metropolitan Opera. Our producer is Merrin Lazyan, Brendan Francis Newnam is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our executive producer. Sound designed and mixing by Matt Boynton and original music by Hannis Brown. Our team also includes Khrista Rypl and Justin Hicks. Special thanks to Nadine Sierra, Paul Thomason, and Carl Pickhardt for their insights into "Caro Nome". Join me in the next episode to go boldly into an aria that aliens will be humming for light years to come.
Kathryn Lewek: The Queen of the Night is appealing. If you're sending a spacecraft off into the eternal darkness between the stars, I think there is an appropriateness to the wild open boundless sound of this aria that commends itself to the environment of the entire galaxy.
Rhiannon: I'm Rhiannon Giddens, and to phrase it in the form of a question, what is? Thank you. [laughs].
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