April 8, 2020

“Nobody Everywhere” — Networking Neighborhoods on Fellini’s Centenary

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ll be writing in depth about Federico Fellini (1920-1993) later in this, his centenary year, but there’s no way not to mention the director of La Strada when Italy has been at the epicenter of the pandemic, with locked-down neighbors on rooftops, balconies, or leaning from open windows expressing solidarity by singing, strumming, clanging, and making their own free-form fear-and-death-defiant music. No wonder, since song is at the heart of the land, and the language, simple as a tune heard on the street, elegant as an opera; whether it’s poetry on the page or on the canvas, just say the names, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Puccini and Pavaratti, Venezia and Firenze. You can hear it in the air, or see it shining in the eyes of the wonderstruck waif Gelsomina in La Strada, the film that shaped my imagination of the place a year before I arrived in person.

That was the summer when Dominic Modugno’s song “Volare” was the “virus” infecting all Europe. No need to know the Italian lyrics to sing the chorus, “Vo-lare,” as if your heart was soaring, then joy-sounds, oh-ho, then “Can-tare,” Italian for singing, drawn out to the last measure of musical devotion, then more happy, happy Oh-oh-oh-oh-ho’s, then, “Nel blue di pinto di blu” (the formal title), which is about the blue sky you’re flying into on the wings of the song that seemed to come out of nowhere, an infusion of pure melody, musical nitrous oxide that has you laughing with the sheer exhilaration of singing it.

Music in the Neighborhood

The mention of neighborhood and song and Italy sent me back to my September 19, 2007 column about Luciano Pavarotti, written following his death at 71 on September 6. After mentioning the drawing by his youngest daughter that had been placed above his head as he lay in state, I imagined “a vocal version” of the drawing in the recital given one morning by our next-door neighbor’s then-6-year-old daughter. She was sitting on the back deck alone, swinging her legs, and singing. At least “singing” will have to do. I don’t think there’s a word in the dictionary that could capture the charming atonality and random rightness of the happy sounds she was finding in herself (or in the air, it almost seemed) and setting loose on this sunny spring morning. She was making up a song according to some scale and sequence of her own, singing what she felt and what she felt was simply happy. She wasn’t showing off for her parents or her sister. The swinging of her legs seemed to set a sort of a tempo as she sent the sounds up, down, and all around, doing with her voice something like what Pavarotti’s daughter was doing with her crayon. Just another form of sketching the way kids do it, artlessly, with that freedom Picasso sought and must have had in mind when he said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”

What I realize after sampling some early Pavarotti is that he’d already somehow absorbed it all: the spontaneity of the child and the expressive power that constitutes great singing in any genre, and on top of that, sheer technical prowess. All you have to do is see Pavarotti smile and you know that he didn’t need to learn how to become young.

“Nessun dorma”

It’s no surprise that one of the songs issuing from the windows and rooftops of Italian towns and cities was Pavarotti’s signature aria, “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. This is the music they played at his funeral, the music that will forever be associated with his rendition of it when Italy won the 1990 World Cup (it’s become a soccer anthem). Death is key to the plot. The beautiful princess Turandot has sworn to behead any man who desires her. But her father, the Emperor, has decreed that a suitor solving three riddles would win her hand. Pavarotti’s character solves the riddles, but Turandot refuses to be “given away.” The suitor nobly offers to let her off the hook if she can discover his name before dawn; if she can, he will be put to death. Turandot commands that “Nessun dorma” (“no man shall sleep”) until the name is discovered. For melodic splendor, the heart of the aria is when Pavarotti sings that his secret will remain within him (“Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me”), but he comes to the summit of song when he sings, three times, vincerò (“I shall win”). Watching Pavarotti achieve the last amazing vincerò (not a high C, but a high B) is an experience in itself. When he comes back down from the summit, the dazed look isn’t for show. He’s obviously shaken by the effort. It’s as if he’s come back to earth, having tasted death and lived to tell the tale — lived to tear away Turandot’s veil, kiss her, and reveal his name, which is amor.

The last piece he performed in public, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, was “Nessun dorma.”

My Italian Friend

I met Ester in the back of a truck half a century ago in Greece, somewhere between Olympia and Thessaloniki. She was from a small town near Torino, she wanted to save the world, and she was doing her part by exchanging letters with people in other countries. Decades before the internet, she had pen pals on every continent. For her, the beauty of autostopping, as she called it, was meeting people, learning new languages and new songs. She’d only been in Greece a few days and she was already speaking the language and singing Greek songs.

The only downside of that otherwise romantic night ride was the driver’s eventual insistence that Ester come up front in the cab and sing for him. He’d heard her singing to me, and after treating us to a midnight snack of lamb chops at a taverna, he demanded to know, in effect, why I should have all the fun. Thus were we evicted from our cozy nest in the back so that Ester could sit next to him and sing, and so she did, song after song in four or five different languages. As her voice began giving out, we asked if we could go in the back so we could get a little sleep. Not a chance. It was a Greek Scheherazade, with overtones of “Nessun dorma.” Either Ester kept singing or we would be dumped by the road in the middle of nowhere at two in the morning.

Our first full day together we spent almost four hours in the hot depths of the August afternoon, stuck somewhere between Alexandropolis and the Turkish border with no shade, no water, and no rides. We talked the whole time. Life stories were told and I heard about Ester’s hopes and dreams for world brotherhood, her issues with the Catholic Church, her job at Olivetti. We kept up a correspondence for several years, I met her family and friends, we had a less romantic autostopping adventure in Spain and North Africa, and eventually lost touch with one another.

I tried to reach her several times over the years, seeking out her family, contacting Olivetti, and, when the internet came along, googling as inventively as I could. Forty-five years after we were last in touch, a letter from Munich landed in my mailbox. The sight of her name above the return address chilled me through and choked me up, which happened again when I read the letter. After quitting Olivetti, she’d moved to Munich, learned how to become a midwife, and had gone for three years as a volunteer to Rwanda, where, in her words, “I was responsible for Maternity and babies.” She came back to the same clinic in 1985 until “the genocide began and 1 million Tutsi died in 3 months, many friends of mine died too. So I adopted a Tutsi girl and now she is a Doctor in a hospital here and has a 9 year old boy. Her sister survive with 3 children the genocide and I did all I could to bring them also here. I am very happy to have done what I did.”

When I wrote back, she emailed me a photo of a Rwandan wedding party. Of the 13 men and women and children standing beside her in the picture, eight had survived to find a new life in Germany with her help.

“Nobody Everywhere”

Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve had several emails from Ester asking how we’re doing. It’s good to know that she’s in Munich, at this writing one of the safest places to be. Her English, as she admits, is not what it was 50 years ago when we were regularly in touch (she’d learned the language during her year as an au pair for an Italian couple, both writers, whose next door neighbor was John Cheever). Still, there’s a kind of music in lines like “All world is sad! From where came this virus? Who organized this terrible situation for the world?” Her message, dated March 29, begins “I heard Corona is now also in New Jersey!! Please pay attention and stay home like we do here in Germany. I’m so sorry for this Virus, so  terrible! I am not sick, no fever and nothing else, but I must stay home. Now we have sun, sky is blue, the spring is coming but??? stay home! I go walking 30 minutes  near my house, nobody everywhere, so no problem.” In concluding, she repeats her English for “the streets are deserted” — “Nobody everywhere!!”

This would be more than a book review in name only if I’d been able to check out the a copy of Tullio Kezich’s biography of Fellini from the Princeton Public Library. The same could be said of the DVD of La Strada in the World Cinema collection. To see what’s available from the Virtual PPL during the crisis, visit princetoncovid.org.