Matt Aucoin '12: Italian opera up close (and political)

by Artist Development Fellow

English concentrator Matt Aucoin '12, who was awarded a 2010 Artist Development Fellowship, reports on his summer trip to study opera in Italy. Matt also has a secondary focus on music and performs with groups throughout Harvard. This is another in a continuing series of blog posts by this year's ADF recipients.

It is rare to get the chance to study your art merely by being a privileged observer, but sometimes you learn things that way that you couldn't get anywhere else. This summer, I was lucky enough to be an observer amid the splendor of Italy in May and during the chaos of Italy's opera world on the verge of a national strike.

I'm an aspiring conductor and composer, and my conducting teacher here at Harvard, Federico Cortese, was kind enough to recommend me to Daniel Barenboim at La Scala and Zubin Mehta at the Maggio Musicale. I went there simply to study everything they did. How they communicated. How they ran rehearsals. How they dealt with the daily disasters of opera life (a necessary skill in Italy).

Conducting is fundamentally a wordless art, and studying great masters up close for an extended time is worth many a conducting class. (Barenboim, in a talk at Harvard, once said that he used to sneak into Herbert von Karajan's rehearsals just to be a sponge. Mehta and Claudio Abbado also used to sing in choirs, though they weren't otherwise serious singers, just to watch the conductors they admired up close.)

I'll describe the transformative experience of studying rehearsals in my next post, but first it's necessary to set the scene. Italy's opera houses are in a state of turmoil at the moment. They don't feel that Berlusconi's government supports them financially, but they're in a tough position to make demands, since they also lose money even under the old heavily government-support-based system. A recent government "decree" ignited fresh panic about a week before I arrived. The opening night of "Das Rheingold," the opera I was studying at La Scala, was canceled, and the rehearsal schedule was completely changed. Some rehearsals that were open to the public were preceded by demonstrations by the opera house's staff on the theater's stage, to the soundtrack of howls of (usually) support from the audience.

Otherwise, I found Italian protests to be...well...fervent, if inefficient. At one point, I joined an orchestra (which I won't name) and members of their families in a post-rehearsal protest outside their opera house. Everyone was given yellow pins to wear, and there was plenty of singing and shouting (no surprises so far). The theater, however, wasn't exactly in the heart of the city. As a matter of fact, no one was around to witness the protest. No matter. Someone suggested everyone join hands and hug the theater. We barely made a circle around it. Then it was time to dance, ring-around-the-rosie-style, around the theater. Which way to turn? Clockwise? Counterclockwise? No one could decide, so everyone pulled whichever way he/she felt like. I spent about 20 minutes being pulled in every direction, as if strung a medieval torture instrument. I walked away sore and trying not to laugh.

The aim, of course, was to create ideal conditions in which to make music - and in spite of it all, plenty of music managed to get made. More on that next time.