The old days

The restaurant workers are transfixedThere’s a moment from a 1950 Italian film — Mad About Opera — that’s a touching tribute to how popular, how deeply loved classical music used to be. Or, if you like, how deeply loved opera was in Italian communities, but that’s just a subset of the overall popularity. And certainly isn’t something you’d see now, even in Italy.

The scene is London, in a restaurant owned by an Italian. A lively (to say the least) argument is going on about a plan a young guy has. And then someone plays a Gigli record, and conversation stops. A young woman comes from another room to listen. The kitchen staff comes out from the kitchen. Passersby on the street gather by a window!

As I said, it wouldn’t happen now.


A few details:

Beniamino Gigli, for those who don’t know him, was the world’s leading Italian tenor in the 1930s and ’40s. Here he’s singing “M’appari,” from Martha. I doubt you’ll need any further introduction to see how powerful — and delectable — he was, though in fact he had both power and subtlety that this short excerpt barely hints at. 

In liner notes for a CD set of Gigli singing Neapolitan songs, I’ve read of how despised that music was by London musical sophisticates, but how Italians in London came, full of love, to hear Gigli sing it. “M’appari,” of course, is an aria, not a Neapolitan song, but the picture painted in the liner notes shows what Gigli meant to the Italian community. Italians in London in 1950 wouldn’t have heard him live for more than a decade, since he was in Italy — on the opposite side — during World War II. And, in 1950, much of London was still in ruins from German bombs, so life was hardly back to normal. Hearing Gigli would have been a special treat. 

So, yes, this movie excerpt shows a situation not quite normal. But still — do you think anything in classical music would get such a reaction today, in Italy, an Italian community, or anywhere else?

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  1. says

    “Do you think anything in classical music would get such a reaction today?”

    Actually, yes. I experienced a situation in 2003 which one could truly call a translation of that Mad About Opera moment:

    “The scene is Hamburg, a factory-turned-apartment inhabited by German twentysomethings with normal jobs. A lively (to say the least) punk rock party is going on. And then three Russian friends arrive directly from working as on-stage theatre musicians, still in tails. They unpack their instruments and present a medley of opera arias – with tenor, accordion, and bass balalaika, but not “crossoverish”. The loud dance music is stopped for them. The guests gather around the musicians.”

    It was surreal, and great. Near all of the 100+ guests (most of them somewhere between slightly and properly drunk) listened in silence and attention, fascinated by the music, sipping their beers. After roughly half an hour, there still was much demand for encores; it was the musicians who finally stopped the concert – after all, they wanted to party, too. So it was dancing at Ramones or Ärzte or whatever again, as before the opera intermezzo.

    If I had known the musicians’ plan in advance, I would have strongly discouraged them. I never would have believed this might work. But it did, tremendously.

    Taught me a lot.

    • says

      That’s wonderful. And, really — I should have reminded myself — there are more stories like this. I’ve seen classical musicians in the NY subway, with people gathered round, missing their trains to listen.

  2. JRinDC says

    I wonder how much the sheer omnipresence of music today makes scenes like in the movie less likely. I mean, the phonograph was a new thing. Not everyone had radios. I doubt music was piped in everywhere the way it is now. To hear something like Gigli was striking in a way it is not now. Maybe I’m wrong, as I’m a GenXer and wasn’t alive then.
    But I do think that talent is still recognized and appreciated (not withstanding that Gene Weingarten story about Josh Bell playing a strad in the DC subway while people walked on by). And there are indeed many stories like this out there. People will stop if what they hear or see moves them.
    Perhaps part of the problem is that we are now culturally dispositioned not to be moved by classical music. It’s increasingly not a part of our growing up. Unless we have particularly musical parents we probably aren’t getting it at home, or increasingly, at school. It’s mocked to some degree compared to more popular or alternative music. But for those of us who are lucky enough to find it and understand it, it’s power is as great as ever.

    • says

      Yes, the omnipresence of music may make moments like the Gigli one less likely. But then we have moments of our own. A friend went to a Springsteen concert shortly after his last album — the one before the new one, Wrecking Ball — was released. Found the crowd singing along with one of the songs.

      And I remember a couple of magic moments. One from the late ’80s — Tracy Chapman singing her hit song at a stadium in LA, at a benefit concert for Amnesty International. 90,000 people there, all singing along softly. Magical!

      And, going back to the ’60s, I was on a beach when the Four Seasons’ Rag Doll was the No. 1 hit. It came on the radio, and people all up and down the beach turned up their transistor radios. Also magical!

      That article about Josh Bell should be repudiated. The writer meant well, and Josh is a lovely person. But what nobody got was that Josh doesn’t know how to busk. Doesn’t know where and when to play, or how to make eye contact. People read such global implications into what was really a failure of presentation.

      • ariel says

        You don’t have to know how to “busk” in any sense except to be good . If you are good people will listen
        if not they walk on – Josh was a bore and didn’t catch the ear of any one – he probably thought who
        he was would do the trick and it didn’t -here at Cov. Gard. you used to hear all sorts , good and some not
        it was always the good that stopped the crowd , I once in a Boston subway heard a violinist nowhere
        with the Bell technique play of all things a Bach adagio !!! -at first just a few people paused then stopped
        to listen, then a crowd and the most amazing memory of that was when the train pulled in the listeners stayed
        put and some forcibly held the trains’ doorway open to hear the end of the work -the conductors came
        out to see what was wrong and even they paused but had to do their job – you could see the people
        applauding inside as the train left the station and were joined in by great applause and shouts from the platform audience. The work was within the violinists grasp and he played it for all he was worth -with
        the most beautiful phrasing imaginable and so won that busy 3pm audience .You don’t need eye contact
        when you have something to say . I called everyone I knew to tell them of this most amazing event and
        have never forgotten that subway stop ” Park Street “

  3. Laurence Glavin says

    For many years, an “elevator-music” radio station on Cape Cod, Massachusetts used to play tapes of Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts on Sunday afternoons. (This feature went away when a local dumbed-down “classical FM” that played the “Skaters’ Waltz” and “Claire de Lune” nearly every day appeared). While those BSO tapes WERE played on Sunday afternoons, there were occasions when I’d be at a cookout when a particularly beautiful piece would be performed on a radio placed on the patio. Since fellow guests recognized me as a presumed classical-and-opera maven , often someone would ask “”what WAS that piece” because it caught their attention. The piece could have been Mahler’s 4th Symphony or since the tapes were wildly out-ofr-synch with the season, the chorale from Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ”, as I recall. Ooops..since these were concert performances, sometimes the piece might be Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin”; if so, the host might switch stations STAT.

  4. AR says

    Moments like this would happen if anyone sang like Gigli. Or Corelli, Bjorling, Pinza or any other giant of music. They are not going to happen if classical music presents Bocelli as an opera singer, or markets Grigolo as the greatest discovery since Pavarotti. A great singer of any style and genre can make audience stop what they are doing; people respond to the sound of human voice as long as it sounds like the singer sings for his life.

    • says

      I think the existence of singers like Gigli, Corelli, Pinza, or Bjorling (and I agree — all of them would stop people dead in their tracks) is directly tied to an active audience. An active community of listeners. Without this community, we get well-meaning, even very good people without that extra edge.

      • AR says

        Active audiences occasionally reject a great performer – a good example is Caruso who never succeeded in his native town of Naples. Russians love telling the story that when Chaliapin and Gorky applied to a conservatory, Chaliapin got rejected, but Gorky got into vocal department. Corelli was a favorite punching bag of critics. These are examples of performers building their audiences rather then being nurtured by them.

  5. CoeTug says

    Perhaps it is partly the singers. Today except in the “big towns” there are no recitals like 50 years ago. If a noted artisit appears it will be in carefully organized symphony event, not in a little town hall. Money, money, money makes them sing in New York, not in Walla Walla, Washington or Butte, Montana.

    Plus today 90% of the singers are more interested in making “beautiful sounds,” forget any attempt to make what they are singing understandable. Listen to the early Opera in English from Chandos and then listen to a recent recording. The first you can pretty much understand, the latest might as well be in Xalxa. Lovely sounds, no meaning.

    Oh! Well! They are better trained today I am told. Today regardless of what is sung, the audience stands up. Of course they would stand for a dog act too.

  6. Rhonda Cundy says

    Bene, bene! Here in Milwaukee we have a wonderful Alterra Coffee House across from Lake Michigan’s shore, lodged in an old and well maintained water department pump house. On its outdoor terrace, in warm months, concerts of opera arias are popular and well attended. In nearby Chicago, the Chicago Lyric Opera performs a concert of previews for the season to come in Millennium Park. I’d guess about 5,000 folks attend that outdoor event! And now therer’s the Met in movie theaters. If ticket prices to opera performances weren’t prohibitively expensive, I’m sure more than 2-4% of the population would attend.

  7. says

    I realize it’s a different context, but this reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption where Tim Robbins’ character puts on the opera record and pipes it into the prison yard ( A moving scene.