The first opera I ever saw–on 5 August 1974, just 3 days before Richard Nixon announced his impending resignation on national television–was Puccini’s La Bohème. I was 12 years old that summer, and my friend Connie’s parents had invited me to spend two weeks with their family at Chautauqua, in southwestern New York. Truth be told, the music didn’t really stick with me that night. But in the years that followed, as my musical experience broadened and I saw more operas, Puccini’s works became favorites.
The basic plot outline, which in the case of this opera unfolds among a group of struggling artists in 19th century Paris, has appeared in works of every genre: man meets woman, they fall in love, they fight, they separate, one of them falls ill, they make up, the ill lover dies. (A more detailed synopsis is available here). The opera was Jonathan Larson’s inspiration for his extraordinarily successful Broadway musical, Rent.
La Bohème‘s ill-fated couple, Rodolfo and Mimi, meet in Act I, in the midst of a bitterly cold winter. He asks her to tell him something about herself, and her response is the aria, Si, mi chiamano Mimi, the lines of which–in both Italian and English–are below. She begins quietly, telling him of her work as a seamstress, embroidering flowers on pieces of linen or silk. It’s a simple life; she is alone, but happy and contented. At the emotional high point of the aria, highlighted in blue, we hear one of Puccini’s truly glorious, arching melodies. Mimi tells us how she views the first rays of sunshine in spring: she considers them hers.
In the version of the aria I’ve posted, you’ll hear the great Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé; this was recorded in 1970 (with the London Symphony Orchestra), at the peak of her singing career; she’ll turn 80 next month. When she sings these highlighted passages (starting 2 minutes and 47 seconds in), I’m transported; her rendition of these eleven measures of music is, for me, truly otherworldly and never fails to raise goose-flesh. I hope that some of you will hear and feel what I do.
Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì, ma il mio
nome è Lucia. La storia mia è
breve. A tela o a seta ricamo in
casa e fuori. Son tranquilla e lieta,
ed è mio svago far gigli e rose. Mi
piaccion quelle cose che han si
dolce malia, che parlano d’amor,
di primavere, che parlano di sogni
e di chimere—quelle cose
che han nome poesia. Lei
Mi chiamano Mimì, il perchè
non so. Sola, mi fo il pranzo da
me stessa. Non vado sempre a
messa, ma prego assai il Signor.
Vivo sola, soletta, là in una bianca
cameretta; guardo sui tetti e in
cielo, ma quando vien lo sgelo il
primo sole è mio—il primo bacio
dell’aprile è mio! Il primo sole è
mio! Germoglia in un vaso una
rosa. Foglia a foglia l’aspiro! Così
gentil è il profumo d’un fior! Ma i
fior ch’io faccio, ahimè, i fior ch’io
faccio, ahimè, non hanno odore!
Altro di me non le saprei narrare:
sono la sua vicina che la vien
fuori d’ora a importunare.
Yes. They call me Mimi, but my
name is Lucia. My story is brief. I
embroider silk or linen at home
and outside. I’m contented and
happy, and it’s my pleasure to
make lilies and roses. I like those
things that have sweet charm, that
speak of love, of springtimes, that
speak of dreams and fancies—
those things that are called
poetry. Do you understand me?
They call me Mimi, but I don’t
know why. All alone, I make
dinner for myself. I don’t always
go to Mass, but I often pray
to the Lord. I live alone, all by
myself, in a little white room
over there; I look on the roofs
and into the sky, but when the
thaw comes, the first sunshine
is mine—the first kiss of April is
mine! The first sunshine is mine!
A rose opens in a vase. Leaf by
leaf I sniff its fragrance. So lovely
is the perfume of a flower. But
the flowers that I make—alas! the
flowers that I make—alas! have
no odor. I wouldn’t know anything
else to tell you about myself—I’m
your neighbor who comes at this
odd hour to trouble you.