On the day I see the opera norma by Vincenzo Bellini begins to rehearse with the orchestra, my friend calls. I haven’t seen her for quite some time, I hear she’s not doing well. Her voice sounds fragile, but she doesn’t answer my questions. Finally, she politely asks about the opera production at my work. But I can tell disturbingly little about the story and swerve to know that Maria Callas has sung the lead role more than eighty times. Then I suggest having dinner together in a few days. She is not a fan of the diva, but she thinks catching up with each other at the table is a good idea.
The next day in the orchestra I devote myself to Bellini’s music. But the viola part doesn’t really captivate and while the conductor regularly freezes over the orchestra with his stick, it becomes clear to me that holding my breath and paying attention is more important this week than the flexibility of my fingers.
As the rehearsal progresses, our simple accompaniment makes the conductor sweat, but my mind drifts back to my girlfriend and to our recent phone conversation. Bellini’s phrases only reach me when the chorus enriches the inconsiderable orchestral measures and the singers stir up the emotions. Music and words suddenly reverberate in my strings.
The coloratura contest between Norma and Adalgisa, who transform love into hate, make me dizzy and both turn against Pollione. But it is not a classic triangle, because the women unexpectedly become well-disposed towards each other and the man loses.
The restaurant is unlit, yet I can see one tear glistening in the corner of her eye. With a melodious accent she creates a déjà vu in my head, so that her voice quickly folds into sounds. Her husband has been tricking her with a colleague for years. Do you want to leave him? I ask, bewildered, trying not to think about Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione.
My stuttering phrases of comfort, comparable to the meaningless viola part this morning, are of little interest to her. She doesn’t know any further and labels her triangular mare as a contemporary phenomenon.
Hell, why didn’t I tell her about Norma’s libretto? In a last effort, I ask her to come to the performance tomorrow. But no, she thinks opera is old-fashioned and too far from life.
Ewa Maria Wagner is a violist and writer.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 22, 2022