Life is Beautiful

This weekend I watched Life is Beautiful with my wife and older kids (15-year-old Jonah and 10-year-old Hannah). Two-year-old Mia Sarah hung around, too, but didn’t really watch it.  Life is Beautiful is an Oscar-winning Italian movie, written and directed by Roberto Benigni.  Benigni also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Guido, the main character, a Jewish Italian man.  I watched this movie for the first time in 1998.  If asked at the time, I would have said it was a tragicomedy about the Holocaust.  But 18 years later, having become a father, I saw a different movie.  I saw a love story between a man and a woman, but even more importantly, it’s a love story between father and son.

It is hard for me to tell you about the movie without ruining it for those who decide to watch – which I highly recommend.  On Guido’s son’s fifth birthday (in 1940-something), the Nazis take Guido, his uncle, and his son to a concentration help.  Guido is a very light-hearted character who cannot bring himself to tell his son of the severity of what has just happened.  He makes up the story that this is his present to his son – they are both participants in a elaborate game where the winner will get a prize.  The yelling, abusive Nazis are actors playing the part of angry people.

This was the part of the movie that had the biggest impact on me.  When you become a parent something strange happens to you.  It’s as if kids mutate your DNA and you become more sensitive to the world around you.  I think we parents internalize the world more and start placing ourselves in the situations we see around us.  As I was watching the movie this time, I was thinking “How would I behave in this situation?”  I started to imagine the horror, were this to happen to us now – not to the generation of my parents and grandparents.  When you start doing that, the movie has a much different impact on you.

My kids loved the movie, too.  Mind you, this is a foreign-made movie with subtitles (though my kids have had plenty of practice watching operas, which always have subtitles).  I took Jonah to Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC a few years ago.  This movie had a much bigger impact on him than the Holocaust museum, because it humanizes people.  It shows the simple, ugly transition from a sunny everyday life to the dark horror of a concentration camp.

Unlike most Hollywood movies that you forget about right after you leave the theater, this is a film that moves you; it stays with you.  As I was tucking Hannah into bed yesterday, she was still asking me about this movie.

Today I want to share with you the famous barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann by the German-born French-Jewish composer Jacques Offenbach.  This is one of the theme songs in Life is Beautiful. 

  • Excerpt from Life Is Beautiful (scene at the opera)

  • Excerpt from Life Is Beautiful (scene from concentration camp)

  • Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca

(We rented it on iTunes, but you can buy/rent it on any movie streaming service.)

Netrebko & Garanca

I wanted to share with you an aria from opera Lakme by French composer Leo Delibes. Ironically it is known as British Airways’ theme song. It is sung by two of my favorite sopranos Anna Netrebko from Russia and Elina Garanca from Latvia. I have to be honest, I am not sure I am very objective in judging their voices, as I am probably smitten by their beauty. I take it back, their voices are simply incredible.

Just listen to this Offenbach’s Barcarolle duet.

Opera and I

When I was young there were a few things I could not understand – probably more than a few, but these stood out: why would anyone drink coffee or beer, since they both tasted awful; and why anyone willingly would listen to opera?  My mother had a great voice and sang in a chorus, but I don’t remember my parents listening to opera at home.  They took me to the opera when I was seven, but I remember barely sitting through it.

When we came to the US in 1991, my aunt gave us a present: a CD player and one CD – I still have it – Pavarotti singing Rossini’s “Stabat Mater”.  Since this was the only CD we had and we did not have money for others, I think that after listening to it a dozen times I started to like it.

The first time I went to the opera willingly I was an adult, it was in the US, and I wanted to impress a girl.  The opera was “Madame Butterfly,” and I remember vividly liking the girl but not the opera.  Normally you’d stop there, but I wanted to impress another girl, so I went a second time.  Neither girl worked out, but a love for opera was born.

I never thought I’d be comparing opera to coffee or beer, but just as most people don’t like the taste of coffee or beer when they first try them, so it is with opera (and the same probably applies to most classical music).  Just think about it: most opera sung today were written a hundred and fifty years ago, the performers usually wear costumes of that time period, and on average they don’t come up to Hollywood-defined standards of attractiveness (a lot of them are overweight).

I am grossly generalizing here and it’s an extremely shallow observation, but there’s some truth to it nonetheless.  Operas are sung in languages we don’t understand.   In fact, you have to read the program (or subtitles) to follow them.  Add all this up, and in our society the odds are definitely stacked against opera.  But somehow this seemingly archaic genre of music/theater keeps marching right along.

Why?  I can only speak for myself.  I find that opera has a deeper emotional impact on me than a symphony or a piano concerto.  Opera is really symphony orchestra plus voices (a voice symphony within a traditional symphony).  Not being able to understand the words is maybe even a feature, since it stimulates the imagination.  When I write and get stuck, which happens often, I turn on an opera, because I found that it has a magical ability to clear my writer’s block.

At the end of this month my son, my father, and I are going on a road trip.  We will drive to Santa Fe, which is about six hours from Denver.  We’ll go to art galleries, and my father will teach his son and grandson about art.  We’ll visit Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was born.  And we’ll go see “La Traviata.”  If I told you my twelve-year-old son is looking forward to seeing it, I’d be lying.  But over the past twelve months I have taken him to see “Rigolletto,” “Carmen,” and “La Traviata,” and he didn’t hate them.

Today I want to share with you the opera “Samson et Dalila,” by one of my favorite French composers, Camille Saint Saens.   I wanted to focus on your attention on this piece.  It is sung by Elina Garanca, Latvian soprano.  She has an incredible voice, she is a very talented actress (I saw her last year singing “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera), and her looks contradict what I told you above – her looks would make Hollywood proud.

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