I cannot even remember the first time I saw Tosca on stage – but I do remember the first time I heard Maria Callas sing Vissi D’arte, my very favourite aria. My mother loves Callas and has several of her records (vinyls!). When my sister and I were younger, we’d often make a show of putting our fingers into our ears, ‘No caterwauling!’. But once when I was about ten or so and she listened to her favourite soprano sing I saw she was crying. I had no idea what Maria Callas was singing about, but suddenly I too felt tears well up inside me.
And now it really doesn’t matter what opera it is, or what the subject matter is – as soon as a soprano, or a tenor, reaches certain notes, tears start to roll down my face. Nothing gets me going as much as when Tosca sings Vissi D’arte. In the aria she’s being blackmailed by a powerful and ruthless politician, the brilliantly named Scarpia, and sings about the cruelty of fate.
I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
Tosca sees herself as just a simple singer in love with a painter, Mario Cavaradossi, who gets into a political entanglement which leads to his arrest, torture and eventual murder. But in truth Tosca is also famous and it’s her jealousy together with her beauty which are her downfall.
Each time I see this opera – or even listen to it – I am full of hope for a better ending where Tosca blissfully walks into the sunset together with her beloved Mario. Instead she makes one of the most spectacular exits in the history of opera: she commits suicide by jumping off the embattlements where she’d just witnessed her beloved getting executed by Scarpia’s men. Tosca’s scream at the end of any performance of the opera stays with me for days, even weeks afterwards.
What’s your favourite opera?