“Florence, Dante and Me”, my recent book on living in Italy.

February 15, 1961 Florence Dearest J,

   It’s two a.m. and I have just been awakened by some drunks singing at full blast in the street. There are lots of drunks in my quartiere. They got the sudden downpour. 

   On a more positive note, the singing lessons are going very well. This is the real bel canto method and it seems to have as much to do with mental attitudes as it does with producing notes. We use deep diaphragmic breathing and I breathe through the nose. The idea is to get to feel that I am producing the sound from somewhere up near my eyes and to get the sound up there I start by humming. Early in the lessons we figured out with the piano where my good notes lie. My best note is the F an octave and a half below middle C. We start from this low F and go up: F-G-A then down G-F then up again (G-A), and so on, three times, finishing on a whole note. I crescendo going up and diminuendo coming down. Great care is taken to keep the color of the notes consistent. We do this over and over and over! And faster and faster. Any bad phrasing or incorrect dynamics or flat or sharp note is brought to my attention, let me tell you. Exercises and more exercises. « Niente canzoni! » (Absolutely no songs!) the Maestra says. Not for months! It seems that my voice has some (six, to be precise) really good notes so this is where we are doing our work, repeating the exercises until the notes become fuller and richer.

   When my notes are right I can feel and hear a kind of buzzing sound. We will gradually extend the range, both upwards and downwards, from this cluster of good notes. The cluster becomes stronger and stronger so that when I reach the top note I feel the energy and champ at the bit to increase the range. There is no forcing things on my part. Finally! I think I will be able to get higher notes without straining and hurting my throat. This has always been a problem when I sing.

   As I walked along the Lungarno the other day it was crowded with elegant Florentines in their Sunday best. Children in carnival costumes, yelling, blowing horns and throwing confetti. A little man was selling balloons. He resembled Charlie Chaplin and looked very much in danger of being swept away by his great bunch of balloons, over the parapet and into the Arno. I could see a few fishermen basking in the sun, maybe smiling at the clever excuse they used to get away from their Signora for the day, and small groups of British sailors, some tattooed and bearded, with bell-bottoms and sparkling white caps.

   Don’t take too seriously that paragraph I wrote on being disillusioned with the romantic aspects of Italy. I was in a down mood. On days like today I find that here there’s more life, color and romance (plus the thrilling sense of history and of centuries past) than you could hope to find in western Canada. Many times I have felt this and overall I am definitely not homesick for Vancouver although at the moment I have to admit that I’d give anything for a plate of waffles with butter and Maple syrup. They don’t seem to have them over here (Hey, that might be a money-making business to set up!) Too bad you didn’t join me for my year over here because you have missed a great deal. I think a young, sensitive, romantic person would get far more ‘food for the soul’ from just living in Europe than the most scholarly, learned person would get from her galleries, monuments and architecture.

   The book I recommended on Michelangelo is by Ludwig Goldscheider. Many of the plates show Michelangelo’s unfinished works. He was never satisfied with them. This I find very disconcerting. The church of San Lorenzo is full of Michelangelo’s spirit. This is where you can see his sculptures La Notte, L’aurora,  etc. that are placed on the tombs of the Medici.

I will be posting more about “Florence, Dante and Me” on this blog. Watch for them.

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