In bad weather and when it is especially cold outside, I tread stairs for exercise. People often comment how boring that must be for me. They can’t imagine doing something so mind-numbing.
I have a very high tolerance for boredom. Often, I find my mind racing with ideas, making connections on the most tenuous grounds, sometimes then speculating, making ‘what-if’ scenarios based upon my imaginings, filling in the ideas with details. My mind races ahead, filling the imagined void with entertaining thought. I am never bored.
It takes little to spark my imagination. My tolerance for boredom is so high that I am content to sit on my patio and make a mental connection between quiet sitting and say, fishing. Then I recall my relationship with fishing through the years, flesh it out with detail and compare it to what I feel while sitting on my patio with nothing much to do. Then I write a story called, “A Sense of Fishing.” It is a well crafted story that should bring the reader in touch with just what a sense of fishing is and how it benefits us from time to time. It’s about seeking and finding peace and contentment in the simple act of living.
Unfortunately for me, other people bore easily and they are unable to share the richness of my meditative-like, mind-meanderings. This makes Jake not bored, but boring. Today, as I tread my stairs, I think of writing a piece I shall call, “Opera Stories.” It is unlikely to be published. No one is likely to comment upon it positively. Still, drawing parallels between my own life and my limited knowledge of opera keeps my feet moving and my mind engaged.
My love has left me! We have parted ways. We shared many exciting times together. I tried to be respectful. I was always protective, useful to her in as many ways as my skills and abilities would permit. But she probably found me ‘boring.’ So this morning, my exercise was filled with thoughts of parallels, of connections to my pain, and I came up with the idea of writing “Opera Stories.” Sure, “Opera stories,” I thought.
There was a very moving scene, played by Tom Hanks, in the 1993 movie, “Philadelphia.” The Tom Hanks character is a successful lawyer in Philadelphia. As a gay man, however, he has contracted AIDS and he must deal with many negative outcomes, not the least of which is living to witness his own inexorable deterioration and the approach of his inevitable death.
At one point in the film, he explains to a new acquaintance why he loves opera. As a hauntingly beautiful aria is being sung in the background by a soprano, the Tom Hanks character explains the torment of the soul as she sings of her love and her love of life as she faces certain separation from both.
Of course opera plot lines are generally convoluted and ridiculous from start to finish. They have nothing to do with real life and the way people get on in life, do they? Yet parallels continued to occupy my mind, and I thought of the opera Il Pagliacci. (pronounced [ill-pahl-YAH-chee]).
Canio is one of a troupe of clowns (il pagliacci), who, when he is performing, goes by the name Pagliacco. Love can be tortured and tempestuous, and Canio is no stranger to its emotional twists and turns. At one point in the story, he is famous for singing the title aria, “Il Pagliacco,” in which he reveals the torture he is going through all while acting happy, clowning and making people laugh, including his lover whom he suspects has been unfaithful to him. The aria is a signature piece for expressing such inner turmoil.
Have I become Pagliacco? I wonder this as I tread the stairs. She has soundly rejected me, making it clear that there will not be another chance. She has told me that I must seek another woman and that she will someday seek another man. But no matter what else may happen, it is over between us. I am boring and that cannot be remedied. Yes, I’m Pagliacco! The crying clown. The fool. The man who could mislead himself.
Well at least I know I could not play the whole role of Pagliacco because he goes mad and slays his lover and the man he thinks has been her suitor before an audience of horrified on-lookers. But the suffering part, ah yes, the suffering part, that is a role I find all too familiar. “Suffering Pagliacco!” It sounds like the kind of line Perry White, the newspaper editor in Superman comics might have spoken instead of his usual exclamation,“Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Maybe he should say, “Suffering Pagliacco!” or maybe “Suffering Saint Pagliacco!”
I move on, still treading the stairs. Bored? Not a chance! Pagliacco? Not me. Yes, I see parallels, but I am not Pagliacco. Better to identify with Calaf from Puccini’s opera Turandot. He is the voice of hope, even when there is no hope! Of course, Calaf’s hope morphs magically into love, which triumphs in the end!
Like some new women I have met, Turandot is a seemingly cold-hearted princess who delights in having the heads of unworthy suitors lopped from their torsos as punishment for their brazen presumptions, for daring to proclaim their love. Calaf has gazed upon her beauty and he too is smitten, but unlike previous suitors, he has proven himself worthy. He shows that he has the right stuff, and he ‘wins’ her, in a fair contest of her own design!
With the whole royal court as witness to the contest, Turandot then bemoans her unexpected, unhappy fate. Seeing her anguish, Calaf offers to ease the suffering of his bride-to-be, and again places his life in jeopardy with a riddle of his own. They had never been formally introduced, so she does not know his name. She does not know the real him, as women I court do not know the real me. They only see the sketch of me, not the wholeness of me.
Turandot’s challenge then is to discover her suitor’s name before dawn, or else he has won again and she will certainly be his this time. If she is able to discover his name, he will still suffer the decapitation fate of all the unsuccessful suitors who have gone before him.
The stakes are high. The whole court is abuzz with spying and sly persuasion. As he gazes at the stars above, Calaf sings the aria, “Nessun Dorma” (No one is sleeping) as he relates his intense love for Turandot, his intense love for life and how wonderful the light of dawn (la luce splendera) will feel to him as he makes it sleeplessly through the night, the stars go down, and he will be able to declare the “victory”(vincero) of love, as he banishes the smirking face of death lurking ominously over his shoulder.
He is victorious, but not because he has been so clever. It seems that Turandot, the cold-hearted princess, has indeed allowed love into her heart for this brave stranger, Calaf. She has discovered his true name, and she is in a position to have him slain. Instead, she announces at dawn that she has discovered the name of this worthy man and his name is “Love.” The royal court cheers because they understand the meaning of her proclamation and a celebratory wedding is begun.
I think of the English equivalent, an interpretation of the lyrics of ‘Nessun Dorma’ as I continue climbing and descending the stairs, staying fit, staying trim, staying alive like Calaf.
No one is sleeping. No one is sleeping.
Even you, oh princess, even you, must see the stars above us as they twinkle with love and hope. My name is a mystery. No one shall guess it. It shall not be known until I speak it from my own lips in the splendid light of dawn. I and all of my family will remain silent about my name. When the stars go down, oh please stars, go down, I will have achieved victory, Victory, VICTORY!
Thump, thump, thump goes my heart. Thump, thump, thump goes the tread of my foot on the stairs. Up and down I go in the narrow corridor. Bored and boring? I suppose. No one sees me here. No one knows the depths of my torment. Still I have spiranza, I have hope that if I do not abandon hope, my own cold-hearted, as yet nameless, princess may see my struggle, the struggle of the man who would love her. Then, her heart may melt and form itself around me like a protective layer of wax. In the meantime, I must pretend to be stone as I wait and hope for her soothing embrace and acceptance.
Staying fit. Staying trim. Staying hopeful. Waiting for the heart of my princess to melt around me and discover the true worth of my solidity. As ever, it is her call to make, her mind to yield, her love to share.
My situation is nothing like that of Cavaradossi in the tragic opera Tosca, yet I seem to be able to identify with his closing words in the aria “E lucevan la stelle,” as his last hour of life is upon him, he sings, “Tanto la vita!” (Never have I loved life more!)
Why else would I be treading these stairs?