Verdi’s message

Here is where I tell you that I have written a book;

NORMAL: Stories from my Life:

a Normal Person in an Abnormal Society

I am now in the process of doing some editing.  I thought for my first attempt at blogging I would do a series of something like

–  What didn’t make it into my book.

The fifth story in my Travel series is about a four month trip to Europe my wife and I took in 1971.  Here is a section of that story

We did take in the cultural life of Paris, going to museums and the opera.  In Paris we saw Verdi’s Rigoletto.  The story is the tragedy of a hunchback court jester who keeps his daughter a secret to protect her from the jeers he receives daily, and to protect her from his womanizing boss, the Duke.  She, nevertheless encounters the Duke, is seduced by him, and falls in love with him.  When Rigoletto attempts revenge, his daughter sacrifices herself to save the Duke.  The power of the opera is that the drama is revealed through the music. 

When Verdi wrote the Duke’s famous song

La Dona e Mobile, meaning “all women are fickle”

he knew he had a hit tune – that everybody would be singing it on the streets the day after the premier. 

As we watch the opera, all we know is Rigoletto’s plan for revenge.  He has invited the Duke to a lonely building along the river, and when the Duke enters, Rigoletto throws a sack over him, ties him up, stabs him and throws him in the river. 

But then, off in the distance we hear

–              la dona e mobile

What was that? 

–          Qual piuma al vento

How can this be? – Then who was in the sack?  He was dressed like the Duke.

–          muta d’accento

–          e di pensiero.

Who else knew of this place or the plan?  Rigoletto’s daughter knew.  Oh no!!!

The gradual understanding of what has happened, by Rigoletto and the audience at the same time as revealed by this catchy tune with it’s SO inappropriate words, getting louder and louder as the tragedy sinks deeper and deeper into the heart of Rigoletto and all of us in the theater… only in opera.  I became more determined to try my hand at it.

I did, in fact, write several operas.  And I always admired how Verdi made this now famous tune the most dramatic part of the opera.  I tried for those moments in my own operas;  those A-ha! moments when the music did the story telling, or put complex situations in relationship in such a way that some kind of insight was possible.

But there is something troubling to me about what I wrote in my story.  It is the line:

–          he knew he had a hit tune – that everybody would be singing it on the streets the day after the premier.

Was that the point of the opera?  to have everybody jauntily strutting around imitating the Duke?  Even those who had witnessed first hand the tragedy of a young woman who had sacrificed her life for this shallow despicable man, leaving the theater singing this song immitating the Duke? 

I had a roommate in college who was a tenor and constantly played records (yes, we had records then) of all of the famous tenors, all of whom sang this song with the appropriate swagger, never once seeming to acknowledge that its place in the opera is revealing that a father has just killed his daughter, who let herself be killed to protect this man whose only asset was the power he had inherited, and which he used to degrade women.

But worst of all, when I was taking care of my then 6 month old granddaughter when my wife acquired a second hand wind-up swing with a music box; you guessed it, one of the tunes was La dona e mobile.

I have done a lot of educational work in my later years, mainly in the popular education method.  I have learned that one never “nails” a subject or a concept.  Ways of thinking are deeply imbedded in our culture and the best one can do is gradually chip away at old patterns.  One moment at an opera is not going to be life changing, but it might help.  What I have learned is that one’s life and life choices are the best teachers.  Verdi chose fame, and that is what he got.

I was impressed with Al Gore’s movie, Inconvenient Truth, if for no other reason than the title.  But my dominant memory of the movie is of him walking through large glass walled airports.

My wife and I now play a lot of Pete Seeger to my granddaughter.  There is one song on our tape (yes we still have tapes) that has a chorus

–          ha, ha, this-away

–          ha, ha, that-away

Bridget is now a little over 1 year old.  Whenever she hears music now she says

–          ha, ha;   ha, ha 

I don’t think she listens to that music box anymore. 

I hope not.


About Newell Hendricks

I have lived a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It's been a good ride. And I go to church. I've just finished a book of stories from my life, I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schoold, and to the extent that my cancer doesn't pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Welcome, and let's share.
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6 Responses to Verdi’s message

  1. memo says:

    Noel, keep on writing…..


  2. Clara says:

    Even though I am editing your manuscript on my lunch break at work, I still can’t get enough of your writing! This was a great post, and regarding the swing, it is safely tucked away in the basement.


  3. Renny says:

    Enjoyed!!! More please 🙂


  4. Thanks for sharing Newell. Such a nice way for me being able to keep in touch across the miles. 🙂


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