Last night I went to see La Traviata, Verdi's classic opera about love and death. Yeah, right, operas are ALL about love and death. But La Traviata does it better than most. For one thing, it features Western culture's greatest party song:
Actually, it's the second greatest party song -- in this category, the gold goes to Otis Day's "Shout," from Animal House:
As is often true of operas, the plot of La Traviata is pretty flimsy. Violetta is a successful Parisian courtesan, less successful at fending off tuberculosis; the opera opens with her throwing an opulent party and also hacking up a lung. Enter Antonio, a wealthy and histrionic tenor, who reveals that he has been loving her from afar for the past year. By Scene Two, Antonio has gotten down to the business of loving Violetta from a-close. The two are co-habitating in the country somewhere, a move that appears to be bankrupting Violetta, although she is too proud to let Antonio know. Antonio's father shows up and browbeats Violetta into leaving Antonio, in order to preserve the family's honor. Hilarity ensues. There's another party, at which Antonio behaves badly. In Act 3 Antonio arrives at Violetta's deathbed to beg her forgiveness just in time for her noisy death.
There are in fact a LOT of problems with the plot, but here are the two that bug me the most:
- Why is Violetta footing the bill for her Act 2 country idyll with Antonio? Isn't he the rich one? And weren't boys supposed to cover the checks back in those days?
- Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease, spread through airborne sputum. Presumably, by the end of the opera, Antonio has had ample opportunity to get up close and personal with Violetta's sputum: after all, she is forever singing in the man's face. But judging by the tenor's striking corpulence, which persists unabated right through Act 3, Antonio remains perfectly healthy. Certainly his lung capacity shows no sign of compromise. (For that matter, neither does hers.)
Whatever. It's an amazing opera; and even though I've seen and heard it a bazillion times, and even though it's clear from the very first measure of the overture that Violetta will be dead before the final curtain, I cry every single time. Let's face it: tuberculosis is a damn fine plot device. Mimi dies of tuberculosis in La Boheme (followed by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge); Fantine expires of TB in Les Miserables. Greta Garbo in Camille. Ingrid Bergman in Bells of St. Mary's. Writers keep coming back to TB because it just plain works.
It is such a fine plot device that I am thinking of incorporating it into my own life.
- I'm sorry I didn't finish that report I'd promised you by close of business yesterday, but <<cough, cough, hack...>> Oh, please don't worry. It's nothing. I'm just going to go and lie down for a minute; I'll be fine, I promise.
- Carpool? 7:00 a.m. tomorrow? My turn? <<cough, cough>> Oh, of course...I'm sure I can do it....if I can sit upright behind the wheel.....it's just that right now I'm feeling.....so......weak......
- All right already, Steve. I'm dying of fucking TUBERCULOSIS here! NOW are you ready to apologize?
You've got to admit: it has promise!
Or not. I'm a low alto, even on my most exuberant days; and everyone knows you have to be a soprano to die of consumption. So I will swing by to get the kids at 6:55 tomorrow, just to make sure we're not late. And that report will be on your desk first thing in the morning.
So I was about to publish this blog post and I remembered that a long time ago, I actually wrote a song that was more or less on this topic. It was a really long time ago -- 2006 -- that's 56 years ago in dog time! It was the year I wrote my very first song. And it definitely has that One-of-her-first-songs quality to it. But what the hell: here it is: