Journey to a Sicilian Opera

It’s a snowy Saturday afternoon in Rockford, Illinois. My grandfather, Ignazio, is all but pressing his ear against the Zenith radio to hear the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of La Boheme, starring Bidú Sayao and Ferruccio Tagliavini. He pleads with me to sit with him and listen to the music of his country, which he deeply misses. No doubt the opera is a heartwarming escape from his tediously stultifying job at the Roper Stove foundry. I sense his disappointment as I squirm about, unable to sit through the whole opera, even though I’m struck by the beauty of the voices and the glorious Puccini melodies. But mostly, I’m in awe that this broadcast is coming from New York City, the magical place I longed to be since it first enchanted me in the movie musicals.

Belmonte Cathedral
Belmonte Mezzagno Cathedral

The journey from Sicily to Rockford for my grandparents and from that six-year-old boy to the man writing my first opera, is long and circuitous. Ignazio Cangialosi, born in Borgetto, and Francesca Spera, born in Belmonte Mezzagno,  were married in Santa Christina Gela in 1905. They immediately moved to Palermo, Ignazio finding work as a clerk in a farmacia. Francesca bloomed in the city after her constricted small-town life in Belmonte. Here she could buy tantalizing prepared foods that were hoisted to their upstairs apartment in a basket raised by a pulley—a welcome break from everyday cooking.

In 1907, Ignazio had a major confrontation with his boss and in typical Sicilian fury he announced to Francesca that they were departing for America. With their one-year-old son, Gaetano, and fifty dollars, they embarked on the SS Re d’Italia for New York, where Francesca’s brother Tony was to meet them. Alas, Tony was a no-show. What to do? Another brother, Benny, lived in Rockford, Illinois, a town with a plethora of manufacturing jobs. Off they went by train.

Francesca’s first disillusionment with her new country came when a strange soot-covered man appeared at her door late one afternoon. It was Ignazio returning from his first day at the foundry. How she cried when she realized they had left her beloved Palermo for such a grim and dismal life. Ignazio and Francesca never returned to Sicily. He suggested a trip many times, but Francesca, who longed for the island the most, just couldn’t do it. She panicked. How could she tear herself away from Sicily a second time to return to America? She had no choice. She now had her own large family in Rockford, and she loved her role as the matriarch. My parents, Matthew and Mary, always talked about a trip to “the old country” when my dad retired. Unfortunately, he died a few months after retirement, and it never happened. It was left to me to make that return trip.

As a child I began dancing and singing around the house when I had barely learned to speak. At that age I had an unfortunate penchant for singing inane popular songs I heard on the radio—the Andrews Sisters’ World War II hit, “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Having been told by my kindergarten teacher that I was uncommonly musical, my mother decided I should have piano lessons. Though I plodded along earnestly, serious practice was beyond my endurance. I was precisely the kind of student who caused me much dismay years later when I became a piano teacher myself—the innately gifted child who lacked the requisite discipline.

No, my interests centered around musicals and the theatre. At the age of six, I was already fascinated by adult dramas. I negotiated with my mother to allow me to stay up late on Monday nights so that I could listen to the “Lux Radio Theater,” which did one-hour adaptations of Broadway plays and Hollywood movies, often with the original actors. My older cousin, Jo, further encouraged my interests by taking me to the local high school productions of operettas and musicals.

Though I had no formal training in any of the theatrical arts, I did appear in school plays. In ninth grade, a junior high drama teacher encouraged me to consider theatre school and urged me to write for catalogs so I’d have years to prepare to meet admission requirements. Unfortunately, I was not a child blessed with self-confidence about my talents and was easily talked out of an acting career by teachers (“You’ve got a brain. Why waste it?”) and parents (“If you really want to study drama, okay, but we can’t afford to pay for a school where you’ll come out a bum, unable to earn a living.”)

As a student at Denver University, aimlessly careering from major to major, I took a theatre dance class as an elective. What an eye-opener. The teacher, a former Hanya Holm (choreographer for My Fair Lady and Camelot) dancer suggested I should study seriously. That was it! I was off to New York to study at the American Ballet Theatre School. It was there that I learned the hard lesson that artistic ambitions without discipline and perseverance lead to nowhere. Three years later I had my first job at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. While warming up backstage during my first show, a production of The Great Waltz about Johann Strauss, the fine operatic bass, Giorgio Tozzi, who was starring, came up to me and said, “ That’s what I really wanted to do—dance.” And I said, “What I really want is to sing like you.” As a teenager I had worn out the movie soundtrack of South Pacific, for which he dubbed the singing for Rosanno Brazzi.

Two years later, I was in the Dorothy Lamour national touring company of Hello, Dolly!, followed immediately by dancing in the film version of that show starring Barbra Streisand. That’s when my very non-Sicilian last name was born. When my grandparents immigrated to the United States, their name was mysteriously transformed from Cangialosi to Cancelose (the ending “e” not pronounced). I used this ugly, distorted moniker until it became obvious that no one could remember my name—in a business where name recognition is paramount. Attempting not to lose my family identity completely, I took my father’s name as my last name.

My first original Broadway show was Celebration by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, authors of the longest-running musical ever, The Fantastiks, during which I met my life’s partner, Todd Lehman, who was assistant to the producer Cheryl Crawford. Being on Broadway, having my picture in Life Magazine, and recording the show at Capitol Records—this was the stuff of a dream realized. Though I had a sore throat the day of the recording, I sang with everything I had. The result: I was unable to make a sound for the next five days. Apparently, that stupid “Pistol Packin’ Mama” was finally paying off. Then all came crashing down. Celebration closed and a few months later a back injury ended my dancing career.

Palermo Poverty Street
Palermo: My nonno might have lived here

Having spent nearly a year in a plaster body cast and at a loss as to what do with the rest of my life, I escaped with Todd to Europe. For seven months, we toured thirteen countries, gloriously spending most of our time in museums, at the opera, and classical music concerts. Christmas season that year was spent in Sicily, a few days in Palermo and the holiday in Taormina. Stunned by the beauty of Palermo, I asked myself incredulously: “My grandparents left this beautiful city to live in Rockford, Illinois?”

As our savings began to run out, Todd and I had to make a decision. In a single evening in a four-franc-a-day room at small left-bank hotel in Paris (which we later learned was a favorite of the Beat Generation), Todd decided he would go to art school, and I decided to return to the piano and study music theory. We flew back to New York where I received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music, with the goal of teaching piano. The next several years were spent developing a  teaching practice and performing in a classical piano-duo with Sarah Renberg, a pianist I had met in graduate school. Eventually we performed in a large theatre in Rockford, my childhood piano teacher in attendance. She was so proud to tell everyone that I had been her student—never mind that I was bad student.

Todd was always encouraging me to compose, though I had shown no evidence for such a talent. Thinking I might possibly be interested in writing for musical theatre, on a whim I wrote to Stephen Sondheim, asking for advice as to whom I should study with. Never anticipating an answer, I was startled a few days later to receive a note from him saying he could think of no one. His advice: Pick a classical composition teacher and learn the rudiments. Composer John Corigliano recommended a protégé of Samuel Barber, a composer I admired. (Sondheim’s advice and encouragement became crucial to my development over the years.) Panic stricken that I had nothing to show the teacher at the first lesson, I composed an art song to Elinor Wylie’s poem “Velvet Shoes.” On seeing the piece my teacher said, “This should be published.” And several years later it was. That was the beginning of many art songs, including song cycles of Walt Whitman and Christina Rossetti and performances and recordings from Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center to Munich. Several singers who performed my songs suggested I write an opera, but I didn’t believe I had mastered the necessary skills yet.

I returned instead to my original intentions to write for musical theatre. The first result was a unique one-person musical, You Might as Well Live, about the life and work of American writer-humorist Dorothy Parker. The jazzy music was set to Mrs. Parker’s verses, but what to do about a libretto? Thirty-two drafts and several years later, I finally taught myself the difficult art of playwriting. The show has been performed in Chicago and New York by both Tony-Award-winner Michele Pawk and Broadway-cabaret star Karen Mason.

In 2010, Todd and I made our first return trip to Sicily, and seeing it for the first time in the spring, we were seduced by the island’s lush beauty,  It became a kind of addiction for both of us as we delved into the many layers of its rich cultural history. We rented apartments in Palermo and Taormina for lengthy stays. The deeper we bore into its history, the more Sicily became an inspiration for our artistic pursuits. We began to study Italian, and in an attempt to improve my reading ability I bought a copy of Giovanni Verga’s short stories in Italian, but with a side-by-side English translation.

Verga (1840-1922), a major exponent of the verismo or realistic style that concentrated on the lives of the poor, was a favorite of D. H. Lawrence, who translated many of his stories. Verga’s most famous short story is Cavalleria Rusticana, which became the basis for Pietro Mascagni’s beloved opera. Verga’s writings were a major inspiration for the neorealist filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s—Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and especially Luchino Visconti, whose film La Terra Trema, shot in Aci Trezza, was based on Verga’s most famous novel, I Malavoglia.

The novella that most intrigued me, however,  was La Lupa (The She-Wolf). In four pages, Verga created a powerful tale of a woman possessed by love. Pina, a beautiful and sexually voracious 35-year-old widow, falls desperately in love with Nanni, a handsome much younger man who works beside her in the fields harvesting wheat. When she declares her love to him, Nanni informs Pina that he, instead, loves her young daughter, Mara, who also works in the fields. Pina is devastated, but in her misery, she seduces Nanni. Weak of character and always ready to please, he can’t to resist her advances. To keep him near her, Pina agrees to the marriage with her daughter as long as they all live together in Pina’s house. Mara is painfully aware of her mother’s passion for Nanni and catches them in a compromising embrace. She goes to the police, charging her mother with the theft of her husband. Pina is forced to leave the house, but after tortuous months of not seeing him, she secretly visits Nanni in the fields and seduces him again. He threatens her never to come back or he will kill her. She tells him she would rather die than live without him. In the final scene, she approaches him, carrying a bouquet of red poppies. With a raised axe in his hands, he screams, “God, damn your soul.”

Verga Museum
Verga Museum

My immediate reaction was, “Here is an opera if ever I saw one.” It had all the elements of Greek tragedy but in true verismo fashion, populated by ordinary people rather than gods or nobility. I saw clear parallels with Phaedra, but it was the power of that stage picture of the final scene with red poppies that impelled me to write this work. Months of research followed, including a visit to Verga’s house, which is now a museum in Catania. During my research, I discovered that Puccini had been engaged initially to compose a La Lupa opera. This verified that I had made the right choice in selecting the story. Apparently, disagreements between Puccini and Verga that the daughter was not drawn sympathetically enough derailed the project. I like to think I’ve remedied that concern. Other minor composers have taken the piece on without much success.

Verga also wrote a play version, but in his second act, the plot degenerates. The characters spend most of the act in petty squabbling, completely neutering the impact of the original story. Despite its weaknesses, the play has seen some prominent productions, including one directed by Visconti, starring Anna Magnani, and more recently one by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon. I found that I could use little from the play, which meant having to invent scenes and characters to fill out the bare-bones original story. This allowed me to use all my family’s names for characters: the Cangialosis, the Speras, and the Giovingos, my mother’s maiden name.

There are also two Italian films of La Lupa: one directed by Alberto Lattuada in 1953, which apparently was a failure; another by Gabriele Lavia in 1996, which is effective and quite powerful.

Giovanni Verga
Giovanni Verga

A problem I detected in all the previous dramatizations was that they depicted Pina as a nymphomaniac, making her very unsympathetic. Most psychologists dismiss the very idea of such a disorder as primarily a male fantasy, so I knew I wanted to avoid that. In its place, I made Pina’s love the dominating force, albeit a totally destructive force. To develop her character fully, I turned to a statement from Verga’s novella: “she never had her fill—of anything.” Here was a woman who worked harder than any man and stopped at nothing to expand her world beyond the mundanity of her provincial village life and the oppressiveness of being little more than a serf. A Verga scholar explained to me that what makes Pina an important literary character is that a Sicilian woman of the late 1800s who controlled her own life, and particularly her own sexual passions, was virtually unheard of—a story well ahead of its time.

I was determined to use everything that I had learned about the musical theatre in writing the libretto and tried to avoid the clichéd pitfalls that mar some opera libretti. Sondheim states that one of the reasons he almost always writes lyrics in rhyme is that it makes them more comprehensible from the stage on a first hearing. Because I knew the libretto would have to be as important as the music, I decided to write the key moments and arias in rhyme, something I had never done before.

In Verga’s story, Mt. Etna is seen from the wheat fields in the distance. In my opera, I moved the setting closer to the volcano because it serves as a metaphor for the characters’ lives and emotions. Etna is a life-giving force in that it provides a rich, fertile soil. It is also a brutally destructive force. Much of the setting I observed first-hand when Todd and I took the Circumetnea Railway.

Taormina BalconyThe idea that music flows effortlessly from composers is mostly illusion. Composition is laborious and at times tedious, but one romantic episode in the opera’s creation came when I wrote some of the scenes from a balcony with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean in Taormina—photo at the right—where we were studying Italian at the Babilonia School of Language and Culture.

Writing a new opera is one thing, but how to get it performed in a world where most opera houses concentrate solely on the tried-and-true traditional repertoire is quite another matter. I realized I needed to have a demo recording, something people could hear while they studied the score and libretto. Opera America in New York provided the perfect venue for this. I found three wonderful singers, a first- rate pianist/vocal coach, and was able to produce a fine recording of a thirty-minute scene from Act 1, plus two short arias. To listen to these excerpts, click here.

It was that recording that led to the work’s first major opportunity. La Lupa is one of the operas selected by competition for Frontiers, the Ft.Worth Opera’s fifth annual, critically acclaimed new works series. Frontiers is considered one of the premiere new opera showcases in the United States. The performances will take place at the Bass Performance Hall in Ft. Worth, Texas, May 3-4, 2017.

My grandfather, Ignazio, would be so pleased that his grandson has written a work about his native country in the genre that he so loved. It would please him even more if once I have the work translated into Italian I can have it  performed in Sicily, the island that inspired both the story and my opera—and better still at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. The long journey to this opera and the fascination for my Sicilian heritage, the island’s people, and its culture led me to apply for and recently receive my Italian citizenship. In a way that completes the circle, My grandparents left their beautiful island. I return as a new citizen with an opera in my luggage. I have come home.

Norman Mathews
Norman Mathews
Norman Mathews' autobiography, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater has been published by Eburn Press. As a composer/playwright, Mathews' work has been performed at the Kennedy Center, Chicago’s Harris Theatre of Music and Dance, and around the world. La Lupa, his opera set to the novella by Giovanni Verga, was performed at the Ft. Worth Opera. Songs of the Poet, set to Walt Whitman, premiered in Europe with Munich Opera tenor Gregory Wiest, who recorded the work for Capstone Records. The American Composers Orchestra performed the work at its Whitman and Music Celebration. Rossetti Songs, set to Christina Rossetti poetry for mezzo-soprano, piano, flute, and cello, was recorded by Navona Records and distributed by Naxos. Sonnet No.61, a choral work set to Shakespeare, won the American Composers’ Forum VocalEssence Award. Ye Are Many—They Are Few, Cantata for a Just World received a Puffin Foundation Grant and premiered at the Chicago Cultural Center. Mathews’ one-woman Dorothy Parker musical play, You Might as Well Live, which received a Vogelstein Foundation playwriting grant, has been performed around the country by TonyAward-Winner Michele Pawk and Outer-Critics-Award-Winner Karen Mason. His music is published by Graphite Publishing. His play Drone dramatizes the horrific effects of drone warfare on two families: the pilot’s and the victim’s

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  1. Wow,so impressed with everything you have accomplished!! Also, I am jealous of all the family history you know.
    I wish you the best of luck with this beautiful opera.

  2. my father Andrea anselmo born 5/3/1905 in mezzojuso Sicily loved opera he also tried get me involved. I was a street kid and never shared is passion for opera. today I’m 80 yrs old I miss my dad,however I play Puccini operas from his record collection on a regular basis. I would like recognize my father andrea anselmo as a true lover of opera

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