I grew up singing. When I was a kid my mother tempted me into the Catholic Church because they had a children’s choir. My dad was into musical theatre and he got me interested. At the same time, it became apparent to me at some point that while I can carry a tune without a bucket, I don’t have a beautiful voice-I make a better chorus member. That doesn’t mean I can’t sing along with iTunes when I’m doing housework or cooking however. Neither does it mean I want to do karaoke. It means that when I’m happy it’s okay to sing a bit-just enough to help someone identify a song or make a joke-in front of others without embarrassing myself.
When I was last home in New York I was standing in the kitchen listening to my parents (who had just gotten back from Italy) explaining that they had not seen Don Giovanni because although they had tickets to the opera at one of the places they visited, there was an opera strike on at the time. I was holding one of my nephews and he started fussing. Because he is less than a year old and because he’s named Giovanni and my parents had just been talking about not seeing Don Giovanni I started singing him Là ci darem La mano while rocking him. I sang the tune with vowel sounds because it occurred to me (as I was singing to my nephew) that in spite of the fact that I’ve known the tune to this song for 20 years I didn’t know any of the word except “Andiam Andiam.”
The tune and the rocking calmed my squirmy nephew down, so I decided that it would be worth my while to finally learn the words to the song. Perhaps it was long past time-since it’s one of the best duets ever. So I found the lyrics online and downloaded a version to my iphone. It’s a duet between a baritone and a soprano. I am neither. I can only hope in singing it in my own register that I’m not flat (as I have been told I tend to be.) But the tune I know. It was the words I was acquainting myself with. The song is (of course) in Italian (because all operas were written in Italian at the time-no wonder for it is easier to sing than German, French or English.) I don’t speak Italian. However, I’ve grown up watching the Mozart/Lorenzo Da Ponte trio of operas (Le Nozze De Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte y Don Giovanni) and mapping what language I understood to English. Because that’s what I do.
I am a Babelfish. I do not know if this counts as one of my talents or one of my obsessions, but if you hand me a piece of music in some other language and the English translation or if I watch a foreign film with English subtitles I will do my best to map one on to the other until (best case) I understand the foreign phrase well enough that I don’t need to translate it into English in my head to know what it means-this point comes when “Voi che sapete que cosa et amor” is interchangeable with “you who know what love is”—not that I have any cause to use either phrase in my day to day life. This doesn’t always work out. Surprise surprise, It works best on Italian and Spanish and Latin. It doesn’t work well on Swedish, German or Russian-but that doesn’t mean I don’t try (I also occasionally try to read the code for various software packages that we have. But that’s another story).
I digress. I decided to learn all the words to La ci Darem la Mano because it was high time I knew all the words to this song and I had a wee nephew to sing it to. I bought the song from iTunes (Pavarotti and Cheryl Crow) and pulled the lyrics off the interwebs and applied myself to both. Not too terribly surprisingly, I fell in love with the song all over again. It is beautiful and might even be so without Mozart’s music. Don Giovanni sings a verse begging Zerlina to give him his hand and run away with him and she responds with interest and misgivings. They then sing lines from their verses until they agree to Andiam. Right after that, one of Don G’s old girlfriends shows up and puts the kaibosh on the whole thing, but you don’t know that if you take the song by itself.
Most of the lyrics were easy to learn because it was obvious to me what they meant but there are a few lines of Zerlina’s which I still can’t remember because I couldn’t figure out what they meant. I am pretty sure (because I’ve seen this opera a decent number of times) that within “Felice, è ver, sarei,
Ma può burlarmi ancor. “ is something like “this could be awesome but he might break my heart.” But because I cannot be sure exactly which word means what I cannot remember them as easily as all the others. I can remember to repeat the last line-but I cannot always remember what it is.
While that irks me (and I will solve this riddle) it didn’t matter this week when my sister and her kids were in town visiting me. I once again got to hold a squirmy Giovanni who needed a nap and as such was not happy with anyone but his mom holding him. Not even Grandma would do. But his mom was busy watching over her other two kids as they dipped themselves in the ocean. So I sang him his song. He doesn’t know that it’s a song I learned for him but he calmed down and fell asleep instead of squirming and crying.*
So overall it was a win. I’m not going to be invited to join the Met’s chorus any time soon but I don’t care. I set myself a small goal (really it’s time you learned the words to this song) which had nothing to do with work or school or keeping my house clean and I achieved it—at least enough to make the crying baby go to sleep.
And now I know more than I did before. It’s not something I can put on a CV, but it means that the next time I sing this song to myself or Giovy I won’t have to sing “La did a dum dum dum dum.”
*I’m not particularly maternal, but having the fussy baby calm down and go to sleep while I’m holding him ranks with having a difficult cat (I’m talking to you Ms. Chan) want to sit in my lap or at least be willing to let me pet her.