Last night my husband Jet and I went to see and hear the San Francisco Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” It was the late composer’s last musical work, brilliant, intense and complicated. What followed for us was both a revelation and an epiphany that made us shine a light on our own musicianship.
It started in August when I heard on a local radio station that the SF Opera would be performing the work that contained my favorite aria “Nessun dorma,” or “None shall sleep.” Growing up in New York in an Italian family with a musician father who had studied opera, it was part of my childhood. My family’s play list included Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and of course, Opera! I had even attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for a year as a voice major, but my heart was not in it. I was soon lured by the protest songs of the sixties, rock and roll, rythym and blues and soul music. I played and sang the music of my day with great joy. I still perform with Jet in our 7 piece original rock band and write and record my own music.
However, something in my free spirited soul told me to go to this Opera. I started formulating my plan for how to convince my husband to go. Jet is a great musician, drummer, producer. He has logged thousands of hours of studio time and has played with some remarkable people. When it came to Opera, he had little experience and certainly no love for the vocal aspect. I just knew that when he saw the production and heard the symphony he would be sold. I began my pitch with “You know Honey how sometimes I get you to do things you don’t want to do but then later you say you’re glad you tried it?” Not the strongest argument and he cautiously responded with “What do I have to wear and how much will it cost me?” I was in. When I explained how much I loved the aria “Nessun dorma” and what are the chances of hearing it performed live anytime soon, he said “let’s do it”. The only condition was that we had to get the very best seats possible so he could be close to the orchestra. Thank you opera gods for looking with favor on this humble rocker….I was ecstatic! We stated burning up the internet and managed to procure two orchestra seats, second row center aisle. Wow again. The next day I called the Opera box office and obsessively asked the person on the line every question I could think of. I found out that just prior to the performance the SF Opera provides a lecture explaining the work and subtitles would be provided at the performance. [Above: Paula and Jet at the opera]
The month before our Opera date, we rehearsed, played our regular music gigs while I talked incessantly to fellow musicians and friends about our upcoming night in San Francisco. Where was this sudden fever coming from? It started to feel like either a cosmic revelation or an acid flashback. Music karma was in play.
The day of the Opera we abandoned our rocker multi-colored boots and jeans. The evening found me wearing a black cocktail dress and Jet had on his only suit. He looked impressive but unfamiliar. We had reservations to eat at the Buffet served downstairs at the Opera House War Memorial building and then on to the lecture. Everything seemed so magical. Our lecture instructor explained the story of Turandot and how Puccini had died just weeks before finishing the work. He went on to appeal to our musical souls by explaining the various components of key changes and the use of both pentatonic and whole scales. He then proceed to sing each scale without the use of a piano. Really? This was dedication on a whole different level and the Opera had not even begun yet.
Soon after, we took our seats and gaped in amazement at the size of the orchestra. We were close enough to see into the pit and leaned over to say hello and chat with a few of the musicians. The lights dimmed and we settled into our velvet covered places. The tension was mounting. Jet was thrilled to see the percussion section was just to his right. Now all waited for the appearance of the Conductor. As Nicola Luisotti walked to his podium, the orchestra stood in honor of the Maestro. With baton in hand, seconds passed and then the first strike of the tympani. Power, intensity, over sixty five musicians playing together in a perfect democracy of sound. The curtain went up and a production of no less than fifty skilled singers with reach and unbelievable projection. Let’s remember there are no microphones used for opera singers. Creamy rounded notes, perfect control. Irene Theorin was astonishing as Turandot and Marco Berti as Calaf melted me with his amazing range. However it was Leah Crocetto as Liu who moved me the most. Her stunning emotional performance and incredibly beautiful voice knocked me out. I was in vocal heaven. There was a multitude (literally hundreds) of performers and dancers. Beautiful stage sets, immaculate and awesome solos. [Above: Marco Berti and Irene Theorin in Turandot. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
Midway through the first act I glanced over at my husband. The look on his face told me he was hooked. There is no doubt I love the anarchy of rock, the rhythm and pulse of soul and Latin music and the haunted cry of blues. But to step into this new world of precision and timeless dedication was riveting. I saw the miracle of so many instruments and voices blended so perfectly together and executed with such mind bending expertise. Discipline that is not conformity but rather a sweeping wall of sound that overwhelms the senses. Here lies the reason this has lasted for hundreds of years. As the last act came to a close, the Nessun dorma theme revisited, the opera ended with beauty and power. Stunning, magnificent and life changing. It made me want to be a better musician. We wiped away tears and stood up screaming and cheering in the most undignified manner. Hey, we were opera fans now and that’s the way we roll. After the performance we paid our compliments to some of the orchestra and bid farewell to our new friends seated around us. Riding home over the Bay Bridge we laughed and marveled, for we had heard greatness. We owned memories that would last a lifetime and we planned to revisit the Opera to make more. Anxious now to return to our own music with a renewed sense of commitment and with hearts that had opened a mile wide, we truly felt that “None shall sleep.”