Interlude: The Voice of Sunny Italy

A year before seeing my first full opera with Rob, La Boheme, I hear a soprano sing under the romantic skies of Venice, Italy.

A night train with sleeping cars and strangers wine takes me and my friend Juliana from Paris to Milan onto the romantic canals of Venice. It is summer, big blue skies, bigger clouds, and more tourists than pigeons, and that is saying something. It is my first trip to Europe and my art teacher goal is to work my way eventually down to Rome where I can see the Sistine Chapel.

San Marco’s square is crowded with the glorious chaos of tourists and for respite me and Juliana escape into the cities quieter narrow cobbled passages. After too many watery dead-ends and turn arounds we find ourselves if not lost, certainly exploring the nooks and crannies of Venice. It is here we pause for water and shade in a tiny square of stucco buildings and the art lover in me can’t help but think that the shadows here are tacked to the dust like a de Chirico painting.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Mysterious Departure 1930, Artists Rights Society

In place of Giorgio’s statue though stands a red haired vocal student in a black dress beside a crumbling well, and she is singing opera. The first live opera singer I’ve ever heard. It is a marvel to hear her voice sound so ethereal and lilting. It glues me where I stand and I can feel this miracle of sound traveling both deep into my bones, but also outward toward the gondoliers and above the haloed pilots in planes guiding souls through the sky. It is like that scene in Shawshank, I don’t know what this woman is singing about, but I feel it.

It is an unforgettable experience that quiets everything but her voice. When we leave I have a beckoning nag from my ancestors: go hear more opera.

Apologies to the long line of shoemakers in my family, I’d like to complete my first goal of seeing Gardener’s book of art history in person first and Paris has already taken a nice bite out of that goal and it is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel that is next for this naive traveler. Everything is on hold for the moment though. We are still lost in Venice.

Anyone who escapes the summer crowds risks a high probability of this happening. Venice especially can feel like a maze where sidewalks end abruptly at narrow waterways that force us to turn back and try again. Do this three times and who knows where we are. The reward of getting lost though is finding less traveled gems that the crowds miss, like an opera singer or a wonderful alleyway cafe’ to order the lasagna di pesci special and a carafe of house rosso, which we do.

We’re still lost, but who the heck cares. The fresh summer food is marvelous and the limits of the island will thankfully keep us from waking up in Padua.

The arrangement of me carrying the bags in exchange for Juliana speaking Italian works well. We leave Venice and my soprano behind. Train station to train station I learn lessons: like slow down for desserts, especially chocolate desserts, there are no trains to Florence, only to Firenze; and, a Botticelli painting in person makes my heart skip several beats! A Botticelli can become a life affirming event. All arts have this power of deliverance onto yourself.

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera 1480 Uffizi

We arrive in Pisa around midnight, when something slanted like a cat tilting it’s head catches my eye. We sit on the marble curb beneath this cake of architecture. Juliana reads our fortunes from an unwrapped Baci chocolate and I pull the cork from a bottle of red that we pass back and forth exchanging swigs for bites. More couples come down the street and say in unison, “Oh! It really leans,” and we hear this observation repeated several times over the next two days. It really does lean too, more than pictures prepared me for.

“It really leans.”

Florence, our next city, is a dream of clouds, art, and eggs Benedict. I check off DaVincis, Caravaggio’s, and Botticelli’s, not to mention a David or two.

Finally, my goal to see the Sistine Chapel is within reach. We walk across the city drinking from Rome’s mineral sweet fountains and chowing her Margherita pizza. The uphill street to Vatican City is strangely and surprisingly empty, especially for a Unesco Heritage Site in one of the most tourist heavy cities in the world. Undaunted by the clear signs that something is amiss we walk up the peculiarly quiet hill toward arguably the greatest painting achievement from a human.

A small rectangle of paper is taped to the door of the chapel entrance. Not printed mind you, more like someone handed the paper to their kid coloring on the floor, who then wrote six letters and handed it back. Six letters that read, ‘CLOSED.’

I fly home never seeing The Sistine Chapel, but holding the memory of my Venetian opera singer close to my heart.

It’s not always bad to leave something undone, It’s a reason to return. Eventually I will see the ceiling along with my first full opera in Italy, Aida.

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