Tag: woman

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

Verdi house

The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

SLUT.

Here I am, almost seven months since my last blog, writing about the word “slut.” It’s strange, what passes for writing inspiration these days, especially since I promised in the past I’d be doing less personal-life-issues blogging. But, this word, and its usage, occupies a strange place in my mind.

Perhaps I’m blogging about this now, at this time, as I undergo some radical life changes, assessing and re-assessing the role authenticity plays in my life, and how sexuality is key to embracing that authenticity in a more complete and satisfying way.

Sex columnist Dan Savage’s response to a young woman being called a “slut” hit some buttons, mainly because I have been called the same thing, by a woman who is friends with my mother, no less. it wasn’t said in front of me, and perhaps I wasn’t meant to ever know of it, but, it didn’t surprise me, to once again be called “slut,” especially by another woman.

In dealing with female friends in the past, I used to feel a particular pressure to cover up, dress down, go shapeless, never be too revealing. That was thanks to a youthful lack of self-confidence in my appearance, but it was also a way to fit in with my chums’ idea of how females “should” look: no bare shoulders, no decolletage, always tasteful and subtle. There was still glammy makeup and vampy nails, and a growing passion for lingerie. Like the veiled ladies I used to see buying hoards of lacy knickers in Harrod’s years before, I felt I had a fabulous secret to savor hidden underneath the high-necked velvet tops and long skirts.

Gradually, I began to bust out of the mold. I attended a concert in the late 1990s wearing a tight, low-cut, vintage halter-dress; the concert wasn’t great, but boy, did I feel good, powerful even. Such boldness complemented an already entrenched taste for literary erotica, sensuous writing, and the naughtier side of history. That’s to say nothing of how much bellydancing aided in recognizing and embracing what God gave me too. Such pursuits helped me gain the confidence to claim my womanly body as my own, to express the person it contains, outright, -through dress, through manner, through every single visual and aural element shrieking “AUTHENTIC” loudly, proudly, finally. I realized the absurdity in dressing -and thinking, speaking, choosing -just to make other people comfortable.

None of this is to say I don’t believe in work-appropriate wear (I do), or that I don tube tops and micro-mini skirts daily (I don’t) -in fact, I’m typing this in jeans and a t-shirt. But stepping out in public still, inevitably, frustratingly, invites judgment: Your jeans are too tight; your top is too low. (Never mind that I’m wearing bare-bones-makeup and tiny stud earrings.) Perhaps it’s the nature of human beings to judge, maybe it’s our madly media-heavy, super-connected world making things worse (those “things” mainly related to the business of cultivating female insecurity around looks). Maybe it’s that depressingly common female competitiveness rearing its ugly head. Does the awareness of such human fallibility make it okay to call someone a “slut,” a woman who’s taken years to come to terms with body, soul, flesh, spirit, and all the mixed twisted vital veins pulsating, glowing between them? Why this desire for a slut and a saint, at once? A vixen / mother? A seductress / soother? Peacemaker / homemaker?

Choice is a funny thing, and sometimes it’s in embracing choice fully we court the snap judgments and narrow perceptions of others. It’s stunning, and sadly unsurprising, to be called a “slut”in 2013. Dan Savage suggested such the use of such a term is rooted in jealousy: she’s getting laid, you’re not, how shitty. The reality is more simple than that, I think: even if you’re not technically getting laid, if you look like you could, conceivably, be perceived as somehow sexually desirable (and the assumption is almost always to men), boom, out come the knives. One has to, as Savage suggests, take the mindset of, “who gives a shit what those bitches think?” Right. But I wish they didn’t have to be bitches. I wish things weren’t set up thusly. I wish I could have more pity in my heart, more consistently, for those who close their minds and hearts to others. Walt Whitman puts it a bit more poetically in I Sing The Body Electric:

Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

(Photo of me from my Flickr photostream

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