Barefoot and French
It has been far too long since I have written and I am in the middle of several pieces, but what happened to me the other night was something I was so moved by that I knew I needed to write it all down and get back on my blog.
I am a huge believer in the universe and that everything happens for a reason. This has proven to be true in my life on countless occasions and I can trace certain events from the root and see how they started maybe in an unpleasant way and then land me where I am meant to be. And this is because of our universe. This is because certain people are brought in and out of our lives at just the right time.
Last night was a confirmation of my belief.
I have a sweet gig singing at the bar I work at two or three times a month and it has been so special for me to sing in the piazza that not only is home to our bar, but also houses the church where Puccini was baptized. It’s an opportunity to sing the Puccini classics that everyone knows and then throw in a bit of musical education with Mozart, and go back to my musical theatre roots. It has also tested me physically in that we are performing for two hours and thus teaches me about pacing. And doing mostly the same repertoire every time, you challenge yourself to try and find how many ways a person can interpret “O mio babbino caro”. Not an easy feat! Tourists and sometimes even locals will flock outside to drink wine and let my pianist and I serenade them. It is a pleasure. An absolute delight to share opera with people who range from knowing absolutely nothing about the music to having been musicians themselves.
As a young singer, or a young artist/musician/athlete/grad student/business assistant…as any young person I should say: every moment can become a life or death situation. We are always hoping that everything we produce is perfect in our line of work. That kind of pressure can be motivation on some days and crippling on others. This past week was one of those Lifetime movie moments where I left a rehearsal crying and questioning why on earth I chose a career I have no business in. Having that happen 48 hours prior to a performance is not an enjoyable or uplifting experience. This was a big week of questioning (thanks a lot Mercury retrograde!). So when the other night (Friday, October 24th) came and an hour before my concert I had a fever, it just seemed as though the universe was telling me something. But I got excited as I always do to perform and tried to remind myself to pace, to focus, and to just ENJOY IT.
Spoiler alert: everything went wonderfully. I was very pleased with how I sang and interpreted the music and that’s all one can ask of oneself. The amazing part of this evening, however, was the presence of two rather strangely dressed young men who had arrived outside near the end of our set with a large group of people. The head of the group I recognized as my boyfriend’s aunt who was coming from her own performance art exhibit.
During a break she introduced me very briefly to her group and I shook hands with these two young men who I assumed were friends of hers. One had long blonde hair pulled back in a bun and was dressed in this pretty heinous bright orange corduroy tuxedo. The other exactly how you would picture a French man to look: clear eyes, light brown hair, a little bit of scruff, cute, and had on what I can only imagine the captain of a ship in the 1970’s might wear: white pants, an above the knee black double breasted suit top with some sort of emblem sewn over the heart, and a red cravat around his neck. It wasn’t until I was inside away from the crowd outside that someone pointed out they weren’t wearing shoes. I leaned over to glance out the front doors and indeed, they were barefoot! This furthered my theory that they were part of the aunt’s performance piece that had included dance.
The next set went on and as I sang outside into the night I noticed one of the men was filming me and high-fiving his friend. During our next break the two of them came inside all smiles and hugged Aldo, my pianist and I and could barely manage to get out words. So I just cut to the chase and asked, “where are your shoes?”. They told us that they were artists and came up with this project where they wanted to leave their houses with absolutely nothing (as in nude) with an end-goal in mind and rely on anything they find along the way or that people give to them. At this point Aldo said, “how are you both dressed better than me from just finding clothes in the donation bin?”. Needless to say, the strange outfits somehow were, as the French say: chic. I was intrigued by this entire endeavor and had a million questions to ask about where they found their clothes, how they walked so far so quickly (from the south of France to Lucca in 10 days), weren’t their feet cold, where were they going to do to next, etc…And when I asked how much longer their journey would be, they looked at each other and burst out laughing. In a thick French accent, the blonde one said, “Now, it is finished! We can go home!”. I said, “Oh, that’s so great! Congratulations! You must be so tired and now you have to turn around and walk back”. The brunette one said, “But don’t you want to know why we can go home?!” I nodded vigorously laughing from their contagious excitement. The blonde one cried, “Because we have found YOU!”. And then my American cynicism flew right in. My face dropped and I told this French poser, “Shut up. Don’t try to woo me”. And I went to turn around and they both started telling me, “Yes! It is because of you! We swear! Listen! Our entire goal when we left France was to come to Italy and find and opera singer! We have been looking for so long and we wanted to give up and then we found you! You are the end of the story!”.
I could not believe it. I didn’t know whether to laugh at them or give into my double ego (Soprano AND Leo) and say, “But of COURSE you were looking for ME”. They recounted their trip and how they had been sleeping on the road or were lucky enough to have a stranger host them and it was all to find an opera singer. This was the end-goal. They wanted to know if after our concert they could film Aldo and I doing a few pieces. We said of course. However, when the concert ended around 11, there wasn’t anywhere that was open to go. They didn’t want to film at the bar so we got emergency permission to use a beautiful oratorio the next day around noon. When I showed them pictures from a concert I had done there they started dancing in the piazza. Like Elaine Bennis from Seinfeld dancing. They were whooping and jumping around it was so funny.
We ended up talking for quite a bit while my colleagues closed up inside and we all crowded around asking them questions. When the subject of meals came up they told us that part of the project was to never ask for anything, but if people offer something then they can take it. When I asked when the last time they ate was they told me they had had a little bit of bread that morning. WHAT! I ran inside and had one of the girls cook them pasta and said I would pay for it. Seeing the look on their faces when two big bowls of tortelli and a mountain of bread came out was magical. Everyone was so excited to help them out and touched by their kindness and persistence for their project. I sat with them and watched them eat and was just filled with glee. I had a million questions and I felt like I was going to burst because I wanted to ask them all at once. “What do you miss the most?” One said the feeling of security you have from being in a home: you can have water whenever you like, you know you’re going to sleep in a comfortable bed and can shower etc. The other answered that he missed tenderness. Being touched by a partner, by a woman. I’m thinking, “You’ve only been on the road ten days, what a French answer…”. But in all seriousness it is such an important thing that we all need and crave so it made sense.
After my rapid-fire question session, the brunette one who I now knew was named Nans, began to ask me about my life and singing opera. Again, as both a soprano and a leo, I can really go on about talking about myself. I realized after a few minutes that the blonde one, Mouts, had been filming the whole time. Hope I had intelligent responses! I asked what kind of documentary it would be and they shrugged it off saying it was kind of said an art project just about meeting people and they would send me a link when they posted it on youtube.
We agreed to meet the next day around noon and go to the oratorio together. We hugged a lot and they were very emotional and relieved they had “found me”. I was absolutely floating. I felt like the universe had really forged a beautiful moment. Being able to go to bed after singing for two hours and then wake up and do it all again was so pleasing…a little daunting maybe, but exciting.
I could barely sleep and waking up felt like Christmas morning. I had gotten home so late I wasn’t able to tell my boyfriend the amazing event that had transpired and when we woke up I launched into my story, “-and there were these French guys with no shoes-“,
”Yes, I met them at my aunt’s art piece”.
“Really?! Well, guess WHAT?!—“
And like a little girl telling a fairytale, I told him about their epic barefoot journey.
“Hannah, come on. They aren’t walking around without a place to sleep and they didn’t just happen to find those clothes. They are professional filmmakers”.
I refused to believe this. And then Aldo called an hour later and told me in slightly panicked rapid Italian, “Hannah, we need to pick pieces to do today that are going to be perfect. These guys…I think they are professional filmmakers.”
“Are you and Valerio trying to pull a prank on me?”
I thought they were both acting crazy and then Aldo pointed out he had seen four professional cameras and a sound system with them. I guess I didn’t notice at first and then remembered they had a stereotypical hitchhiking stick with a sack attached to the end of it and there were two cameras embedded into it.
I still didn’t believe anyone and wanted to trust that these two struggling artists had indeed struggled here without anything to complete their project.
I met Nans and Mouts and took them to the beautiful oratorio and let them film around while I went in the back to warm up.
I started to notice that they had quite a lot of equipment with them and Aldo mouthed to me, “I told you”. Nonetheless, we went on! We did “Quando me’n vo” by Puccini because we ALWAYS HAVE TO DO PUCCINI IN LUCCA. And then they said they wanted to have me do a piece that could capture the emotion they had of being lost without anything, feeling hopeless and desperate. After conferring with Aldo we decided to do “Vilja” by Lehár as essentially it is the story of a hunter who sees this beautiful witch of the woods and falls desperately in love with her upon first sight. He searches for her and when he finds her she pulls him into her house and after a few hours of passion she disappears right before his eyes. He spends the rest of his life searching the woods for her and calling her name finally crying out for her, “Vilja!” to conclude the aria.
Nans and Mouts loved this idea and had me carry around their rucksack with the two cameras. We did three takes: the first time for audio, the second for wide shots, and the third for close-ups. It was a blast. It was really fun to do the piece in succession three times and find different emotion, movements, and dynamics all while using this strange (and very heavy) prop. Throughout filming people would wander in from off the street as usually happens whenever we use the oratorio and sit for a few minutes to listen and then go on their way. At one point between takes someone asked the barefoot Frenchies what this was for. I heard one of them say it was a documentary for French5, a major television station in France. Wait…what? I tried not to think about it and continued on.
We filmed in total for about 3 hours, we wrapped up with close-up shots of my hands, face, and feet, and of Aldo’s playing, their reactions to the music, etc. It was amazing to see all of the small pieces making up a story. And when we wrapped, Aldo played a little jazz ditty and we all danced. And then they whipped out waivers for us to sign. Where did that come from?!
This was when it all began to come together. They pulled out a credit card and started asking us to look up trains and flights for them to get back to France. I jokingly called them out on their deception and how they obviously didn’t leave their homes with literally nothing. They were good spirited and said that they had the credit card solely for emergency purposes with the camera, but that they hadn’t spent any money at all. I stepped outside for a minute and googled them. I was very glad I hadn’t done so before that moment because I found out that they weren’t just doing a random documentary, but that they are two very famous filmmakers in France who have a regular program on French5 where they travel to different countries in the same manor they ended up in Lucca and rely on people’s generosity to see them through.
I walked back inside mouth slightly agape and said, “But you two are really famous”. They both shrugged their shoulders and smiled sheepishly saying, “Yeah…we are”. Seriously though, thank goodness I did not know this all before! It was a very lovely and shocking surprise to end the day of filming! They were so humble and honored that Aldo and I were fawning over them. They were just the kindest people.
We all walked out together, hugged a million times, exchanged contact information, and promised to all meet up again one day in France. And then a rainbow formed overhead. No, that didn’t happen. But that day was such a surreal and inspiring window of time. For all of us to be in the right place at the right time and make a piece of art out of it was inspiring, emotional, and brought on overwhelming happiness. For Aldo and I as young musicians, this kind of exposure is so incredibly important for us.
The documentary is due to air in April, a long time to wait! I am hoping it all turned out wonderfully and that we sound good! Either way, these are the moments that make me reaffirm my journey. My insane journey of being an opera singer. I went from questioning my choices only days prior, to flying back to my apartment on a cloud of happiness at really being pleased with my work. Once again, Universe, you’ve done nicely. Thank you. Fin.