"The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn..."


Have you ever possessed two loves which are seemingly worlds apart, yet, at a stroke, a person can draw parallels between them which somehow links them together in perpetuity?

This delightful occurrence happened rather recently when I discovered an interview with Juliana Gray (a.k.a. Beatriz Williams; unfamiliar with her, see these posts here and here) in which she discusses why opera is so essential to those of us who adore love stories.  (Pardon me while I place my hand to my heart and weep with joy. Too overly dramatic? Well, dear readers, it is opera.) This discovery of Williams’ love of opera marshaled me to read A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, the first in her Emmeline Truelove series under her pseudonym Juliana Gray. 

From the first page, I was enthralled. My literary and musical senses titillated even at the dedication. To Maestro Verdi- for whom great passion was never a mere subplot. It was opera at first sight and I quickly fell in love.

Then I came across a bit of dialogue that agitated my grey cells in the musical ether, as it were. Allow me to preface.

In between bouts of emesis aboard her former boss’ yacht, the Isolde (I can’t help but feel this is an operatic reference, too), Emmeline Truelove makes her way to the main salon where she consoles herself with a phonograph and Donizetti. Lord Silverton- to whom she finds herself shackled during this adventure- stumbles upon her in this tableau and proceeds to criticize her taste in music. Emmeline takes his remarks so long and then says, 

Have you come for any particular purpose, or only to malign a form of art of which you are entirely ignorant?

I believe there is tremendous truth in this scene. For most people, at least of my acquaintance, opera seems a foreign, hoity-toity, snobby affair. They seem to think it’s boring or esoteric or irrelevant. It’s a has been, done and over with, holding little pertinence to today. However, this assuredly is not so.

Case and point: La Traviata, by none other than the purveyor of great passion, Maestro Verdi. 

Hands up for those of you unfamiliar with La Traviatta. Don’t be shy, little chicks. We none of us can see you. Raise your hand with full internet anonymity. 

You may think you don’t know La Traviata, but I would argue that you do; after all, the tale, as the porcelain Mrs. Potts would sing, is as old as time.

The plot is rather simple: Violetta, a courtesan who has long given up on true love in her life, is quite unexpectedly swept off her feet by the sincere and deep seeded love and devotion she witnesses in a young man, Alfredo, who attends one of her Bacchanalian soirees. She rebuffs his numerous attempts to woo her (all in perfect pitch), even questioning, in the spectacular coloratura aria, Sempre Libera, whether such love can be for her or if she should laugh at it and remain free, but finally, she succumbs. (Who could withstand the unrelenting onslaught of such musical magnificence?)

"Parigi o Cara," the final duet between Violette and Alfredo, filled with dreams for a future that will never be. 

Months later, we find Violetta and Alfredo sequestered away at his country estate in a halcyon state of idyll. Of course, as is the case with opera- and real life- all that glisters is not gold. Enter Alfredo’s wealthy, bourgeois father, Gerard Germont. Playing on the overly taut heartstrings of a woman who has found a love she never thought she deserved, Germont begs Violetta to end her association with his son. His list of reasons are many and varied, but it comes down to the fact that his son’s reputation is being irreparably damaged because of his association with a woman who's past is so colored it puts that stunning Kodachrome to shame. Violetta has struggled to reconcile the purity of Alfredo’s love with her own sinful past. At the behest of Germont, she says nothing to Alfredo about his father’s imploration, but, instead, ends the romance and throws herself back into the fiscally capable hands of one of her former lovers, Baron Douphol. Alfredo’s love quickly turns to hate (I’ve heard tell there’s a thin line between the two), and he scorns her publicly. This sends Violetta’s heart and health into a tail spin. The final act ensues when Violetta, on her deathbed, receives a missive from Germont to tell her that his son has been wounded in a dual with the Baron but is recovering. He also informs her that Alfredo knows of her noble sacrifice. Alfredo arrives in time to declare his undying love for Violetta, painting dreams of their future together while he holds her in his arms, where she finally dies in peace. 

Does this seem at all familiar to you? If so, let me offer up several places where you could have encountered it before…

Of course, we should start with the book, Les Dames aux Camélias, Alexandre Dumas’ somewhat autobiographical novel (which has some magnificent sequences, some of which I will quote throughout the week on my Instagram and Facebook accounts; follow links at the bottom of the page to follow me), which he subsequently turned into a play. One evening in 1852- at least, this is how I imagine it- while ensconced in red velvet at his favorite theater, Giuseppe Verdi saw this latest offering by Dumas. He was inspired thusly to render the pathos from the play into words and music that transport the soul in his opera, La Traviata

Frederic Chopin was similarly inspired to compose a score for a ballet, baring the same title as Dumas’ novel. (I myself was required to dance to several of the pieces from this ballet over the course of my years as a ballerina.) 

My father would record operas off my PBS for me as a child and I have a vivid memory of the scorned Alfredo throwing a handful of bills at Violetta. This scene from Camille captures that drama perfectly. 

Hollywood could not be left out of this classic tale of sacrifice, loss, reconciliation, and love. There are numerous productions based on Dumas’ novel, most notably George Cukor’s Camille starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. (This is perhaps my favorite as Greta Garbo breaths life into Marguerite in an unique manner; it was the first time I had ever seen Marguerite possessing a nuanced intelligence, displaying a woman who owns her decisions rather than a woman who is manipulated by men. That’s always a refreshing change.)

However, I believe Baz Luhrmann, tour de force of a director that he is, somehow stepped back and saw the full scope that Giuseppe Verdi did on that fated evening in 1852. I am referring to none other than his musical masterpiece Moulin Rouge!. Like Verdi, Luhrmann did not restrict himself to the constraints of names and places and events to bring Les Dame aux Camélias to life. Luhrmann crafted a new cast of characters in a novel time and place, juxtaposing modern music with historical sets and timeless emotions.

The introduction to Moulin Rouge encapsulates the theme of the film, and, indeed, the theme of La Traviata as well. 

While Luhrmann’s Satine is not Violetta, she is still a fallen woman who believes love cannot touch her until it does in the simple sweetness of Christian. Though he is not the son of a wealthy man, Christian possesses all the sincerity of Alfredo and for a time these two characters find themselves in halcyon days until nefarious and selfish minded people intrude upon their little paradise. Frivolity is upstaged by love (twue wuv); true love is displaced by deceit; deceit leads to bitterness and heartbreak, but in the end, love cleaves the darkness and brings joy to the lovers. The tale, though tragic in the separation of death, holds to the truth proclaimed from the start of the film:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.
— -Nature Boy, Eden Ahbaz

This is precisely what Verdi conveyed in La Traviata; he tapped into the immortality of love- the sacrifices one makes for it, the depth one feels in it, the completeness one knows being the recipient and giver of it. 

So, dear readers, you need not fear the opera, for every opera I’ve ever encountered is simply about love, whether it is the rapture, prowess, or potency of it. In the end, it’s just love, the most powerful emotion known to mankind because it defines the virtue of life. It transcends any one musical, cinematic, theatrical, or literary genre. It’s the great worth found in any human experience.

Have you ever encountered a plot line or story or piece of music that you’ve seen echoed in another wholly unrelated area, like La Traviata and Moulin Rouge!? Tell us about it. 

P.S. As of this writing, I have not finished Juliana Gray’s novel, but I will be traveling shortly. I anticipate finishing this jouissance somewhere over the eastern seaboard at approximately 10,000 feet. Since opera and reading do bring me to new heights of rapture, it seems appropriate.