This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.
I’m not much of an opera lover. The stories are mostly preposterous, and I prefer instrumental music to vocal music most of the time. But, every so often opera puts words to music in a way that is immensely touching and wise. For me, the best example of this comes in the vocal quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar,” from Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.
Beethoven sets the drama up quickly. Florestan, housed in a dungeon, is the political prisoner of an evil and corrupt Governor named Pizarro. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, doesn’t know whether Florestan is living or dead. But, ever faithful, she disguises herself as a man using the name “Fidelio” (so much for the preposterous part) and gets a job at the prison. Her boss, the jailer Rocco, has a beautiful adult daughter named Marzelline, who is being pursued by a prison guard called Jacquino. But as soon as Marzelline gets a look at her dad’s new assistant, she pushes Jaquino away and has eyes only for Fidelio. Fidelio can’t exactly reject his boss’s daughter, and he lets her and her father assume that a marriage will be near at hand.
At this point, Fidelio (“faithful one”), Marzelline, Rocco, and Jaquino sing a vocal quartet that is touching because of its gorgeous music, but even more, because it describes the poignancy of the human dilemma in which these four decent people find themselves.
As the musical lines of the four voices weave in and out, Fidelio expresses her worries over her husband, the possibility that she will not find him, and the anguish she feels at Marzelline’s affection for her; Jaquino articulates his heartbreak at having been jilted by Marzelline for Fidelio; Marzelline sings as a young woman in love; and her father, Rocco, looks forward to the happiness of these two good young people — his daughter and Fidelio — and their domestic life together.
The music touches us because of what we know that they do not. Marzelline will have her heart broken, as she must very soon, when she discovers that her future husband is a woman. Rocco, too, will have his future hopes for this daughter dashed. Fidelio faces danger if Florestan lives and she attempts to rescue him, and her own unhappiness if she has arrived too late to save him. And there is no certainty that Jaquino will ever win over Marzelline, even as a “rebound romance,” once Fidelio’s identity and true gender as Leonore are revealed.
But there is more, and it is what Beethoven’s opera tells us about life by way of this music. It is that even decent and good people such as these four will sometimes be at cross purposes that frustrate them and hurt them. The disappointment will not happen because any one of them wanted to harm any other one of them. It will occur simply because that is the nature of human existence. And Beethoven made art of this fact of life. We feel for the characters, however absurd the opera’s premise, because we’ve been there too, been in difficult relationships where pain was inevitable despite our best efforts to avoid it for ourselves and avoid inflicting it on others.
The disappointments that are bound up with living, the tragedy that touches virtually every life before its end (and, often, because of its end), is the stuff of opera, life, and of psychotherapy, too. Fidelio moves us because it is a story of self sacrificing love and courage. And the irony of great art that comments on human suffering, such is this vocal quartet, is that just as Beethoven moves us to tears, he touches our heart in a way that enlivens us, and makes life worth living in the moment that we share the beauty and wisdom of his vision.
The above image is a poster for an April 12, 1904 performance of Fidelio, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.