Spring 2010




Ch’è ’sta opera?


by Lina Medaglia



As the story reached its end, with the sensibility of an artist. In her my eyes felt heavier and heavier. It was like an opera or a fairy tale almost but much more moving because it was true. Her right hand passed over my eyes and closed them in one soft motion. She sang into my ears a few lines from Butterfly.” (Lilla, remembering a moment like many others, from her childhood with her opera-obsessed mother, Seraphina.)


In her novella, Made up of Arias, writer Michelle Alfano speaks in the beautifully compelling, yet remarkably guileless voice of her protagonist and narrator, Lilla Pentangeli. The first sounds of opera fall on Lilla’s ears while she is still in her crib, as she comes into a consciousness adorned with opera’s most memorable heroines – all of them interpreted by her mother, Seraphina, who, sooner or later becomes every single one. She is Violetta, Tosca, Cho Cho San, but she is more – she is Callas La Divina, who in Seraphina’s adoring view, trumps all of the real and made- up ladies of opera, both in beauty and in tragedy.


Lilla drinks in, like mother’s milk, the archaic words, the fixed, impermeable characters, the heavenly music and, most of all, the stories. And what amazing stories they are! Inextricably woven into her mother’s character and in her family life, past and present, opera is not simply a way to soften the sadness – the sadness of a woman transplanted from a youth of sea, sun, and flowers and into the interminable grayness of Canadian winters. Seraphina, we learn, has loved opera since infancy, and a voyage halfway around the world will not cause her to abandon it.


This is why Seraphina’s story, her family’s story, is not just a story of survival. It is a story of reaching, as high as possible, for meanings that allow her to rise above the ordinary. She becomes immersed in the only context she comes to understand – the place of the sacred and the sublime, the perch of angels.
  Accenti BOOK REVIEW  Ch’è ’sta opera? Lina Medaglia

Seraphina herself is named after a class of angels – the Seraphim – and by her indirect statements, up with the angels is where she feels most comfort- able, and where she takes her some- times reluctant, cautiously enthusiastic family. Let the reader imagine, as I did, a working-class man and his three children, called outside by a sound coming from above their house. A few steps from their front door, they look up, open-mouthed. In the midst of a chorus of their neighbours’ vocal protestations, they see a woman – his wife, their mother – singing O Mio Bambino Caro on the roof, at the top of her lungs. “How ridiculous! How beautiful! How Italian!” some of our Fellini-inspired italophiles will surely say.


But Seraphina is no stereotype. She is both a metaphor for opera, and an instrument through which opera flows and finds its way into the psyche and heart of her family. She is a restless soul mind’s eye, she sees it all: the immense grief of love lost, the exhilarating joy of love found. More than this, she feels it. Her restlessness is both fuelled and abated by opera. She is preoccupied by a spectacle of highs and lows, of tension and relief, a sensual experience that envelops her, not just in the theatre, but in her kitchen and on the roof of her house. At the same time, familiarity with the inevitable end offers her respite, a rock on which to rest. Such is the paradox, the incongruity, and the raw desire of living a life on an operatic canvass – the painting is always there, concrete and abstract, and willing to be com- pared to everyday life.


Michelle Alfano’s mastery of English and Italian, her knowledge of opera, and her ability to elevate the ordinary, are inspiring and transforming. But it is not just the author’s splendid artistry and technical skill that draw us to Made Up of Arias. Removed from my first operatic experiences and having attended, at one time or another, all of the operas brilliantly described in Made Up of Arias, I had forgotten what it was like to grow up with opera. I had forgotten what it meant in my life until I read Michelle Alfano’s novella. The stories of her family are nothing like the stories of my family, and yet they are exactly like them. They are fierce and tender, like passionate love.


Opera, it’s clear, is both life and a metaphor for life. It takes true talent to shine a light on the commonplace and draw out the extraordinary tales embedded in a child’s play, in a mother’s hope, and in a father’s sacrifice. In the end, whether you are an immigrant or not, these are your brothers and sisters, your mother and father. Michelle Alfano’s stories remind me to embrace opera, in all of its fervour, as well as to embrace my life, my humanity, and my Italo-Canadianness.


Lina Medaglia teaches, writes, and lives in downtown Toronto with her family. She is the author of The Demons of Aquilonia.






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