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Why I'm Excited for the RPO's Tosca

Tosca at the Met
Tosca at the Met


In the 2020-2021 season, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will be presenting Puccini’s masterpiece Tosca. Although the work is frequently performed, I still gasped to hear the news. Tosca is an opera near and dear to my heart, and I am excited for it to be a part of the community here in Rochester next season. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, check out a synopsis here

After finishing my freshman year at the Eastman School of Music, I headed back to my hometown in the Pacific Northwest and prepared for my first professional operatic experience. I sang in the chorus for Inland Northwest Opera’s production of Tosca. At the time, I enjoyed listening to arias by Puccini, but I would not say that I had a favorite composer. After the rehearsals began, that changed. I was star struck by the professional singers. I loved watching Tosca work. I took notes on how she acted in rehearsals and how she was preparing. When they held auditions amongst the choristers for the shepherd boy solo that begins Act III, I jumped on the opportunity. I practiced those couple of pages of music every day without fail. I swear that sometimes I sang it in my sleep. I almost cried when they offered me that small solo that would be sung offstage. I was so anxious about missing it that I would stand backstage for nearly the entirety of Act II to be in place with the C# in my ear.  One of the comprimario (a secondary role) singers joked with me that I jumped out of the womb with a Tosca score in my hand ready to sing that solo. This show opened my eyes to the professional opera world. I also fell head over heels in love with Puccini. Someday I hope to sing many of Puccini’s heroines, and that helps motivate me on days when I am frustrated with my vocal progression. As I work to cultivate an easeful yet powerful high C, I say to myself “Do it for Tosca!”

So, why should anyone who is not an eager young opera singer care that the RPO is presenting Tosca?  The story is set in Napoleon’s era, but the main themes are timeless and still important today. Corruption is the talk of the Nation and the World. What can we do about people who abuse their power? How do we share the stories of those being manipulated? What options do victims have to change their futures? What role do “bystanders” serve in these situations? Puccini’s opera does not necessarily seek to answer these questions, but rather to raise a discussion about them. This dialogue can and should continue today so that we can find answers for our own time.

Furthermore, I think exploring the character of Floria Tosca is important for women. Many stories like this portray women as damsels in distress. The men are the knights who save them and are ultimately the focus of the story. Tosca came at a time when women were being brought into the forefront of operas more. They were being depicted as more multidimensional characters. The “tropes” of sopranos and mezzo-sopranos were being broken down into more complicated archetypes. For example, compare Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème to Floria Tosca. While both die tragically (it would be nice to have more strong female leads who survive the show), the two characters are quite different. Tosca is frequently at church praying, but her motives might be just to see Cavaradossi. Mimi says that she does not always go to church but she “prays often to the Lord.” Mimi is shy. She parts from Rodolfo to spare him pain. Tosca is a spitfire. She teases Cavaradossi and gets jealous when he does not paint Mary Magdalene’s eyes enough like her own. Mimi apologizes as she coughs while consumption ends her short life. Tosca chooses to fight until her ending. This is not to say one way is better than another. For me, it is just exciting to see that both women can be the heroines of their stories, despite their vastly different personalities. Another aspect of Floria Tosca that is important to me is that throughout it all, she is motivated by good intentions. While we may not all face corruption, jealousy, murder and tragedy, we all can relate to the feeling of loving and wanting to be loved. Tosca’s biggest problems come when she just wants to protect the one she loves most. The message of fighting for something close to the heart is important in a day where it is easy to cope with the bad news in the world by becoming apathetic.

Let’s talk about that final scene a little. I am intrigued to see how the RPO will handle the traditional staging of Tosca’s jump from the building when the RPO’s productions are only semi-staged. This moment is on my opera bucket-list. I think it would be so exciting as a performer to unleash a powerful high B-flat and to (safely) jump off of a set-piece. If you're looking for a laugh, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCUrtD_JSYM">here is a video of that final scene with cute animals instead. On a more serious note, this scene is crucial for Tosca's character development. At this moment, Tosca chooses her fate. She has been manipulated by Scarpia throughout the show. He takes advantage of her love for Cavaradossi, her dedication to her faith, and her voice. In this final moment, she is not allowing Scarpia (even after his death) to control her anymore. Her final line “Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” translates essentially to “Scarpia, [I’ll see you] before God.” I always thought that the subtext, however, is rather “I’ll see you in Hell.” As I’ve grown, though, I think there is a little flavoring of both of these interpretations in the way Tosca says it. Tosca is a dedicated Christian. She also knows that she murdered a man and is about to end her own life. I think, however, that Puccini would have said “See you in Hell” if he had wanted it that way. He was a meticulous composer, and he was very specific in his notes. Much like how Suor Angelica is at the end absolved of her sin due to her dedication and the circumstances around it, I wonder if Tosca believes she still has a chance of getting into Heaven. Even if she does not, this final line is her chance to own up to her decision and take charge of her life. She challenges Scarpia with this line and it seems to say “I’m ready to meet God. Are you?” 

Another reason to go see Tosca with the RPO next year is simply the music. Puccini’s music is beautiful. It is a great “first opera” for those unfamiliar with the art form because there are not too many characters to follow. The story is relatable, and the music may even be familiar. Furthermore, Puccini’s style is inviting and soul-touching. Under the direction of Ward Stare, the music is sure to shine. Be sure to listen for what I consider to be one of the greatest tenor arias of all time “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SK27yI0tIkA">E Lucevan le Stelle” that Cavaradossi sings as he bids farewell to his love. The clarinet line at the beginning of this aria is gut-wrenchingly beautiful and iconic. It’s the kind of music you don’t mind having stuck in your head.

I, for one, am incredibly excited that the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is tackling Tosca in 2020-2021. The stories are important. The music is lush and beautiful. The characters are dynamic. It is sure to be a treat.