Ch’è ’sta opera?
by 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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