A Night at the Opera: A Love Story

Once upon a time, when we returned from Genoa after our first year in Italy, in June, 1978, there were no jobs for PhDs in English. So we moved in with John’s parents outside San Diego for the summer while John hunted for work. It was an unhappy time. The future did not look bright. Then in late August, a senior professor at UPenn who had taken a liking to John called: Would John be interested in a one-year position at a small college outside Philadelphia called Widener (now Widener University), where a faculty member had fallen ill? With a week to spare before the semester began, we headed east, stopping in Chicago to load a truck with belongings we had stored during our year abroad and unloading it–a task actually accomplished, piano and all, by the Widener football team–at a small rented house in Chester, PA. To confirm that we were now grown-ups, with a kid, a house, and a job, we decided to do the most grown-up thing we could think of: Go to the symphony. We bought season tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra, then known world-wide for its lush, string-dependent sound under veteran conductor Eugene Ormandy. Because our ticket request was very late, and the season was almost upon us, we were assigned seats that, we realized with surprise, were considered undesirable–first row, just left of center. (I guess the sound is not integrated enough at that distance. Over the next two years, we enjoyed developing a nodding acquaintance with the long-time, somewhat sardonic Philadelphia concert-master Norman Carol, whose chair was just a few feet in front of and above us.)

In the middle of our second year in Philadelphia, Ormandy announced his retirement. It was big news for Philly. Ormandy, an elfin little man in his 80s, was to be replaced by a 39-year old Italian with a rising reputation, especially in opera, named Riccardo Muti. Well, now.

Muti-Riccardo-04The new maestro was musically gifted, a superb conductor–and gorgeous. Quite the toast of Philly. He almost made me love classical music. However, a new job for John took us to the western edge of Pennsylvania in 1980, just a few months after Muti arrived full-time. We began following his career, delighted as his reputation grew, first with the Philadelphia and then back with his beloved opera at  Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He reputedly works his orchestras very hard–a rigorous taskmaster–but there has never been any doubt about his talent, his musicality, and his passion for quality. He became one of the premier conductors in the world. His work in opera was universally admired, and we loved reading about the moment at La Scala when he used an aria in Nabucco, about losing one’s beloved country, to invite the audience to sing along and chide then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for budget cuts to the Italian arts. In 2010, after almost twenty years back in Italy and multiple interviews in which he vowed he would never take on a U.S. orchestra again (too many non-musical, fund-raising responsibilities), Muti left La Scala after a labor dispute, turned down an offer from the New York Philharmonic–and then turned around and agreed to become musical director of the Chicago Symphony.  We were secretly delighted; Chicago is our second home, home to our older daughters and their spouses (and our grandson), and we loved him for making that choice. Muti famously dislikes the promotional duties that come with U.S. orchestras, but he has been faithful to them in Chicago, even conducting an orchestral version of the Blackhawk’s theme (see YouTube) in 2013.

So that’s one love story: Riccardo Muti. Now let me offer another. I have never much cared for opera. But opera has always intrigued John. When our girls were young, he took each one separately to see Carmen, just to make sure they knew what opera was. Every few years he would talk me into seeing something at the Met, when we felt flush enough to spring for tickets. I more or less suffered through these events, barely able to see the stage from our perch in the upper balcony (John often remarked that the stage was on 9th Avenue and our seats on 10th), barely able to stay awake. Then a few years ago, we were offered some last-minute tickets through a friend who sings with the chorus at the Met–discounted, but more important, really good seats. Halfway back, in the orchestra. It was a whole new world. We could see faces; we could hear breaths being taken. We went again. And again. Il Ballo in Maschera. Il Trovatore. La Traviata. I was a convert. Listening to Stephanie Blythe from the 10th row, rather than the 3rd balcony, is a revelation. We traveled to San Francisco to see a new Moby-Dick; in Santa Fe we saw another Traviata, in Brooklyn a transcendent Billy Budd.

So when we found we would be coming to Rome, John checked out the opera: Lo and behold, it turned out that our old friend Riccardo Muti had, in 2011, been named Honorary Direttore for Life of the Rome Opera, and he would be conducting Manon Lescaut in early March, after we arrived. It was two love stories coming together. But of course, the performances had been sold out long since. There was nothing to be done. We thought we might try again after we arrived, and indeed, we went to the opera house to ask about attending a dress rehearsal, but these, we found, were closed to the public by order of the maestro. We gave up. Then, at a meeting with new colleagues from Roma Tre, one of the universities from which his students are drawn, John mentioned our disappointment at not being able to see Muti’s Manon. Ah, said a colleague, but someone here knows someone who…Maybe she could…

We waited. We made plans to go to Florence and Siena for the weekend. And then: Two tickets for Thursday night. Manon. With Anna Netrebko. In a new production created by Muti’s daughter, Chiara. Conducted by Muti. The night of the performance we picked up our tickets. Down the stairs to the right, the usher told us. And we emerged into the opera house, the stage directly on our right, and were led along the orchestra pit to our seats–second row center, ten feet at best from Riccardo Muti. Just an orchestra away from Anna Netrebko. Bliss.

Muti's score and baton, during intermission. Just at the bottom of the picture, his glasses.

Muti’s score and baton, during intermission. Just out of sight at the bottom of the picture, his glasses.


Musicians getting ready (and chatting on cell phones)

Musicians getting ready

The opera house is magnificent. Our seats were magnificent. We could see the stubble as it emerged over the course of 3 1/2 hours on Muti’s jowls, slightly heavier than they were when we last saw him in Philadelphia 30+ years ago (but the wings of black hair are still the same). The production was magnificent. All whites and grays and silvers and bright lights and shadows. The performances were magnificent. (I mean, come on, Anna Netrebko!)

G and J at the opera      And here’s the real love story. I would John at opera 2not have done any of this without John’s enthusiasms, his curiosity, his cajoling. And we all lived happily ever after.