I grew up with the sound of opera in my Grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, NY, on West 5th Street, between Avenue U and Avenue T; the home I spent my first 8 years in. Our family would gather sometimes by the Victrola, which was what a record player was called then, or in front of the TV set to share a night at the opera or respectfully remain quiet on a Saturday afternoon when Grandpa listened enraptured, sometimes breaking into tears, to a direct broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera house on radio. Few neighbors ever complained, though the windows were wide open in summertime and the opera blared into the neighborhood.
My parents, Grandmother and I would take our respective seats on the sofa and chairs waiting for the opera to begin. Darkness was a time for sharing in a room called the living‑room, the hub of evening activities after supper. There was a feeling of closeness, warmth and security there. This room housed the TV and many exotic furnishings: a Persian rug with intriguing patterns I enjoyed studying, antiques Grandfather had created and collected, like copies of Chippendale chairs, a roll top desk, a decoratively carved sofa and many sculptures that filled the remaining space. I sat beside an unusual lamp Grandpa had carved that was part woman and part lion called a sphinx. Across from me was a bronze statue of a handsome shepherd boy my father had brought from Europe after the war, four elephants with ivory tusks, several paintings of Italian landscapes and two very special oils over four feet high that dominated the room. One depicted a dark, lush and green forest with a cave that opened to a shimmering waterfall as inviting as the womb. The other painting depicted a tall, fair, blonde woman holding a vessel that carries water or wine. She had a classical face, long neck and large, full breasts and wore a sheer toga or gown of Greek or Roman style, trimmed with golden symbols. Light and dark, the two themes of my life, spelled out graphically in oils.
Grandfather, Rocco Marchesani, was born in a mountain of village, Spinosa in Basilicata Italy. As a boy, he was sent to study woodworking in Florence before being shipped off to America to join his older brother in New York. Rocco became a creator of fine furnishings, sculptures and chandeliers over his lifetime, and had worked with other talented artisans on Vizcaya in Florida and other unforgettable projects, some of which are included in the Rockerfeller Collection. He also made pieces for movie stars including Marilyn Monroe’s bed head, none of which I heard of or knew about, until I was an adult. Although I heard every political and social opinion of each family member, they rarely if ever spoke about their work in detail and absolutely never bragged about it. Later in life Grandfather opened his own business, leaving Lovezzo and Sons, the company he worked for in Manhattan that made expensive reproductions of antiques for the rich.
I listened to the opera attentively, because Grandfather had promised to take me to the Metropolitan Opera House when I was old enough. I’d imagine myself that special night sitting proudly, dressed in a pink or yellow silk organza dress, wearing my best black patent leather shoes and matching socks, a ribbon in my hair with Grandfather beside me in one of the three piece suits he wore on special occasions, his pocket watch neatly tucked inside the vest as the curtain rose.
Although I didn’t fully understand the operas, except to see that stories were often tragic, filled with jealousy, passion and death, I was most honored to have been asked. The voices of the divas and tenors moved me and despite a language barrier, the language of feelings reached ranges that were infinitely exciting.
Grandpa was a real opera buff and knew all the stories and plots as well as who sang the best arias and parts and at which opera house and when. He taught me a reverence for the art form. Tonight’s opera would be Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, a sad tale of a man whose unfaithful wife drove him to kill her, her lover and himself, was already a hot topic of debate.
“Beniamino Gigli is the best tenor in history,” Grandfather said with authority, having heard him at La Scala as a young man. “Vesti la Giubba is his signature aria. No one could touch his version.”
My father, on the other hand, preferred Caruso’s rendition and said so. “Pop, that was a long time ago. What about Enrico Caruso, the Neapolitan star? His version is better.”
Grandma thought the argument foolish and said so. She loved the costumes and pageantry, but found the character objectionable. “Why doesn’t the clown just start over and forget his wife? How terrible to kill her. I lost my first husband. Nobody wants to lose someone you love. That is no reason to murder another human being,” she said quite naturally, in her Buddha like manner.
Grandpa disagreed. “Ripsetto, Mama, rispetto!” he said, with an assurance that implied we’d simply be daft not to see it his way. “How could a man have any self respect if his wife betrays him?” he added, making the sign of the horns with his right hand.
“He’s right,” my father said. “Maybe not to kill, but his honor must be defended. Infidelity is a disgrace. Marriage is for life,” he stated in a funereal tone.
“That’s old fashioned and ridiculous!” my Mother exclaimed. “That woman had no life while he was off performing. She was left to be lonely. It’s no wonder she fell in love with another man,” she said, concluding the repartee.
Although no one asked, I found myself in agreement with the women, and with all the authority I could muster at the age of six, stated loudly, “I think the old clown was full of false pride and killed his wife because he couldn’t bear to see her free and happy without him!”
And the grown ups listened.
Although my Grandfather did not live long enough to keep his promise, I did eventually attend an opera at the new Metropolitan Opera house in midtown and saw the opening of Verdi’s Otello. I have retained a keen interest in opera and politics to this day, a legacy of my Grandfather
Louisa Calio is an internationally published, award winning author and photo artist. She won: 1st Prize for “Bhari” fr. City of Messina, Sicily (2013), 1st Prize for “Signifyin Woman” Il Parnasso” Canicatti, Sicily (2017). Finalist for Poet Laureate, Nassau County, honored at Columbia Barnard as a Feminist Who Changed America (1973-75), Director Poet’s Piazza at Hofstra University for 12 years, she was a founding member and first Executive Director of City Spirit Artists, Inc. New Haven, Ct. Her latest book, Journey to the Heart Waters, was published by Legas Press (2014).