"Qui finisce l'opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto"
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma! Tu pure, o Principessa Nella tua fredda stanza Guardi le stelle che tremano D'amore e di speranza! Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me Il nome mio nessun saprà! No, no, sulla tua bocca lo dirò
None shall sleep, None shall sleep! Even you, oh Princess, In your cold room, Watch the stars, That tremble with love And with hope. But my secret is hidden within me, My name no one shall know, No... no...
Puccini's opera, Turandot, contains one of my favorite arias - indeed, one of my favorite pieces of music from any genre - Nessun Dorma. It's a passionately dark and haunting aria, and one that conveys some of the essence of Italy, if not all of the human experience, on a cellular level. I'm convinced though, if you could slice and dice Italian DNA, you would find Nessun Dorma woven into the genetic material.
The opera was Puccini's last, and was left incomplete at his death in 1924. Franco Alfano finished it in 1926, and it was performed that year at La Scala in Milan, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who left out Alfano's additions in the debut. Toscanini merely stopped at the end of what Puccini had written, pronouncing, "Qui finisce l'opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto" - "Here the opera ends, because at this point, the maestro died."
Turandot is a Persian word (from Turan-Dokht, "daughter of Turan," a term that commonly represents Central Asian princesses), and Giacomo Puccini became interested in the story which originally has its roots in the epic Haft Keykar, written by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami, though Puccini's opera is based mostly on the 1762 work of the same name by Count Carlo Gozzi. Puccini internationalized the story, setting it in China, with Princess Turandot, an icy cold princess whom the anonymous suitor, Prince Calaf, falls desperately in love with, in typical hopelessly romantic opera fashion. Saying Turandot doesn't want to marry is an understatement of massive proportions. She actually wants all her suitors to die. I've known a few folks like that.
To gain permission to marry the princess, Calaf has to solve three riddles, and any wrong answer will result in his death. But the prince, steadfast in his love for the princess, gets all the riddles right. Still, Turandot refuses to marry him. This princess breaks more deals than Trump. Well.....
The still-anonymous Calaf offers her a way out - if she is able to learn his name before dawn, at daybreak he will die. It's the setting for the intense drama that leads to Nessun Dorma - "None shall sleep." It's opera at its best - a daring life that can be lost if named, or fulfilled if its name remains unknown until dawn.
Vanish, o night!
Light is slowly vanishing from the desert sky. Inside our little home, we two play Greek music together as the sun's influence over the day disappears - my wife - my best friend, my love, and I. There's something about Greek music that makes it feel perfect for a darkening twilight. It's celebratory, yet with a hint of ageless sorrow. We shall die, yes, but first, we will dance and sing and laugh together in the growing darkness. The night may slowly grow dark, but it does not frighten us. The music will continue, the kefi - the spirit of life and living - will continue. We will sing into the dark. We play, together, for no audience, most nights. She smiles when she finishes an exceptional performance of a song. That is the applause I seek.
We got the message a couple of weeks ago that our regular gig - performing our music at a Greek restaurant in the desert - was over. Indefinitely. Coronavirus. COVID-19. The virus.
Everything began collapsing that week. Iconic locations suddenly closed, events that no one ever thought would cancel, went down one after another like dominoes. The crisis that had seemed remote and manageable was now global - and entirely out of control.
I had wondered when this might happen. For a time, it seemed like maybe, with precautions, training, and enough disinfectant, we might be able to perform right on through this pandemic. The week before the end of our gigs had been a good one, and we had played well. The staff was in good spirits, and the food we brought home as part of our pay, was delicious. But the unease among those paying attention was becoming palpable.
We both enjoyed dressing up and performing every week. The staff at Koutouki had always been so welcoming and kind, and the owner, Chris, generous and fun. Greek music is great fun to play as a drummer, and my wife enjoys celebrating her Greek-American heritage and has dedicated herself to her clarinet studies. She plays 100-year-old jazz clarinets reworked for Greek music, and has taken lessons for years via Skype from a leading musician in Greece (who has had all of his gigs canceled as well). The gigs paid for our sound system, as well as my beautiful inlaid doumbek drum. I had planned for my next gig purchase to be a Greek drum, but with no gig, that's on hold. Indefinitely.
The music touches me, as music does, connecting me with my memories of Greece, a land I hope to return to before I too, vanish into the coming night. It reminds me of the wild waves of that desolate cove on Tinos; of the cave on the coast that once served as an early Christian church, a hidden crude place of worship and a place to avoid persecution; of running on the field of Olympus with our oldest son; dining on fish just off the boat and washing it down with light, sweet krassi; visiting the village of my wife's father on Lesvos (he used to tell people he was a Lesbian, and he was right, of course). It brings me back to Athens, an exciting and cosmopolitan city, ancient and modern blended so that you don't know which time period you will walk into around the next corner. It's the vistas of Meteora, the canal of Corinth, the Plaka and its tourists, the magic of Zachlarou, the ruins of Delos, the donkeys of Santorini.
I cannot imagine a world without Greece.
But then, I cannot imagine a world without Persia, China, Korea, or Italy, either. Let alone New York or New Orleans. Or the Navajo Nation. And yet in Iran, they are digging pits for mass graves, their grief muted in the international press, and in Italy, doctors are having to decide who lives or dies in their care as the wave of critical patients overwhelms what has been a model healthcare system, and those new protocols being adapted elsewhere as this virus expands its reach. How heartbreaking to choose a life of healing, and to then be the one who must make those choices, to look into those eyes, to see those lives choke up and vanish like the last light of day. How heroic to face this onslaught all day, every day, knowing your reused N95 mask and your other personal protective equipment isn't up to the task of keeping you safe, as you help your own colleagues as they become infected.
But God gave us music. And as the exhausted and devastated doctors and nurses of Italy faced the unfaceable, as the opera houses sat quiet and dark, and as the empty streets became silent, voices rose up from the open windows and balconies of the quarantined. One was that of the tenor Maurizio Marchini. From his balcony in the immortal city of Florence, he raised his voice up and sang. Nessun Dorma.
But my secret is hidden within me, My name no one shall know, No... no... On your mouth, I will tell it, When the light shines. And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine! (No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.) Vanish, o night! Set, stars! Set, stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!
Against the impenetrable darkness, against the leering face of death, with the chorus united in its belief that we must, alas, die, a voice, not Italian - human - rose up to say the light will return. Yes, perhaps our voices will be silenced. But not yet. Not while we have a song to sing, a dance to lead.
As Maurizio reached the climax of the aria, he picked up his son and sings out Vincerò! (I will be victorious!). Applause rings out from those listening from their windows, doors, and balconies of a city I fell in love with many years ago. Around the world voices are rising up in defiance of this new threat - a universal emotion that if we are smart, we will use to connect and guide us, for we are all family, and while it is so dark now, the dawn will return.
Can we not find something of worth from this devastating global pandemic? Can we not learn from this testing? As the dolphins return to the canals of Venice as the tourists have retreated, can we not see that our family extends beyond the human? For this is not our last crisis. We face a more existential crisis than this virus, and it includes the likely extinction of so many species, and perhaps, our own, if we do not awaken to that possibility before it's too late.
After all, a month ago - just 30 days - could any of us have seen where we are now? We should understand that the unimaginable is possible - with a vengeance. We should go forward - with science, not political expedience; with life as our priority, not greed, lust for power, and hatred for others; with compassion, empathy, love, and understanding, not hoarding, selfishness, and ignorance; with songs in our hearts and the dance of life in our souls.
Sing out! From Florence, Soweto, Bangkok, Munich, Chicago, Lagos, Paris, Liverpool, Wuhan, and Joshua Tree - from wherever you may be. Sing in all languages of all peoples of all times. Play your music, recite your verse, dance your dance. Do not let your spirit be silenced. God will be pleased, for God is with us always and song is prayer.
This night is long, and it looks so very dark, but hush. Listen! You are not alone. We are not alone. Don't listen to the choir singing we're all going to die. They're always doing that doom and gloom stuff. That's opera, after all. Yes, we will all die. Someday. But right now, we sing, we dance, we live! Listen to all the others that we cannot see in the darkness. We cannot yet perceive the dimming of the stars that heralds the glow of the coming dawn in the east, but my heart tells me it will come.
For John Prine, whose songs and gentle humanity have enriched my life, and who is battling this virus for his life as I write. For Judith Salkin, who lost her fight with cancer this week.