Although I had been in Grandmom’s basement hundreds of times, it took a sticky-hot, lonely summer to attract my attention to the old-fashioned phonograph in the corner and to the records stored below.
My friends all had grandparents with homes at the shore. They disappeared a week or so after school ended and were gone the entire summer, leaving this only child quite bored. No air conditioning either. But my grandmother's basement was my sole haven, a place of blessed relief from the 90-plus-degree weather beating down on the Philadelphia suburbs.
Black, heavy, and rigid --I would soon learn how easily those records could break-- some were recorded on one side only. “Your grandfather bought those,” my grandmother said. I picked one up. The name Victor was all I could read. The rest of the label information was in Italian.
I put one on the turntable. The voices seemed to emanate from another galaxy, but their purity instantly captivated me. “That’s an opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, “ my grandmother said. “We used to have the complete set.”
I had lots of records, from Captain Kangaroo to Disney, but this melody was much more complex and compelling. Though the soprano and tenor were singing together, each one was singing different words. I couldn’t understand Italian, yet I could tell that the piece was fraught powerful emotion. And like the undertow at the seashore, it pulled me in. I was listening to the duet “No, no, Turiddu, rimani ancora,” and a bit of research on the Internet leads me to believe that these records were the remnants of the 1929 recording of Cavalleria Rusticana interpreted by the orchestra and soloists of La Scala, Milan (http://www.mascagni.org/recordings/506161).
My grandfather had also left recordings of Enrico Caruso (I remember specifically the song “Addio, mia bella Napoli!”), Tito Schipa, and the great American soprano Geraldine Farrar. I got a real kick out of her very audible gasp just before belting out the last verse of “Vissi d’arte.” Soon I was listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and a few years later I begged my mom to take me to the old Philadelphia Civic Center to hear La Traviata, starring Anna Moffo (to whom I used to send heartfelt fan letters), Barry Morell, and a very young Sherrill Milnes.
So that’s how, in the sticky-hot summer of 1964, at the height of the British Invasion, the Italian grandfather I never knew introduced me to opera.
Fiorenza Cassotto and Gianfrano Cecchele sing Cavalleria Rusticana