When covering Musetta in La Boheme two summers ago, I easily watched Mimi die 40 times. Because the rehearsal process was so intense and private time was so scarce, every time the opening chords of Sono andati sounded I would turn into a total basket case, channeling every emotion that I didn’t have time or space to process, pretending it was grief for a fictional character. To this day I can’t make it through that moment of the fourth act without crying.
In the opening lines of the aria Mimi sings one of my favorite lines in all of opera: Ho tante cose che ti voglio dire, o una sola, ma grande come il mare. (There are many things that I would like to tell you, or one thing, but large as the ocean). Between Puccini’s melody, the way the vocal line descends amid the sparse orchestration, and the beauty of the poetry, that line simply tears me apart every time I hear it.
What is the one thing worth saying, that is as large as the ocean? Maybe it’s because I’m an over-emotional Italian, but I know the feeling of having something to say that is beyond words: a feeling that is deeper than feelings, that comes from our foundation. We long to express it – in art, in poetry, in music, in gesture, in prayer. There is something holy about that infinite expression.
I sometimes wonder if we try to define our God before we decide whether or not we believe in one. Rather that accept that there is something out there that is as large as the ocean, wholly integral to who we are and undeniable, we build a god and then decide if it suits us. One of the most liberating things I was ever told was that when my emotions run away with me, that is prayer. God is in the beautiful yearning that wants to share something too big to express. We don’t learn “about” God, using our reason to build a deity we can worship, but we find God in big beautiful spaces, and then start to name that God as we continue the encounter.
Similarly, I often wonder if we attempt to figure out what it is we want to say before we commit to saying it. As I write those words it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do (commonly referred to as “thinking before you speak”, an activity about which I know very little). But if there is truly something that is big as the ocean, and if we truly spend our whole lives exploring it, perhaps we should commit to sharing it even if we don’t know where that path will lead.
Sometimes when we start singing we don’t know what sounds are going to come out of our mouth, but we start anyway. What moves me so about Mimi’s moment in Sono andati is that she is saying what she wants – needs? – to say in her final moments, rather than ruminating on the depth of her emotion privately or keeping her truth under wraps. With her last breath she struggles to express the inexpressible: love. Although Puccini might not have put it there consciously, I find God in that moment, propelling devotion and affection toward our highest goal: sharing love and ourselves with other people.