September 7, 2012
Have you ever heard a performance that you will never forget no matter how long you live? I have.
And have you ever gone out on a blind date with someone who is known to thousands, perhaps even millions of people—just about everyone except you? I have.
Not only that, but both events happened on the very same evening.
It was the middle 1960s and our Guarneri String Quartet, only a year or so old, was engaged to play in glamorous Rome (Italy, that is, not New York). We flew into Rome the day before our concert, rehearsed the planned program for a couple of hours, and then I was free as a bird to enjoy one of the world’s most alluring cities. Days earlier, I had alerted my friend, Anita, who lived in Rome, that I was to be there with a free evening on my hands. Anita promised to arrange something special. True to her word, she made reservations at one of her favorite restaurants, and if this wasn’t enough, she also fixed me up with a blind date.
That evening, Anita, Anita’s friend (let’s call him Ken since I’ve long forgotten his real name), Eddra Gale, my blind date, and I set out on foot through the streets of Rome en route to our restaurant. Along the way, we passed some of the city’s jewels—parks, gardens, fountains, aqueducts, statues, obelisks and columns—the sparkling new intertwined with and seemingly inseparable from the breathtakingly ancient in this two and a half-thousand-year-old city. As a first time visitor, I was swept away.
I got to know smart, witty, and attractive Eddra during dinner. All blind dates should be like this one, I thought to myself, having been on one or two before. I also learned over house-made gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce that both Ken and Eddra were opera singers. As one course and one bottle of wine followed another, we probably chatted about the city, art (Anita was a sculptor), and music, but I have not the slightest recollection of our conversation. What I do remember is that we emerged from the restaurant a couple of hours later very happy and very tipsy.
It was close to midnight by then and time to head home I assumed, but no, the evening was apparently nowhere near over. “Let’s go to the Colosseum”, Ken and Eddra suggested, and off we went. Moments later, the Colosseum suddenly loomed before us in the dark like some giant ocean liner, its hulking outline barely visible in the moonlight. The Colosseum, dating from 70-80 AD, was the largest amphitheater ever built in the Roman Empire. Originally capable of seating 60,000 spectators, it was mainly used for gladiatorial combat.
No spectators or gladiators greeted us as we entered the Colosseum’s cavernous space. The place seemed utterly and eerily abandoned. Then, Eddra had an idea. She asked Ken to head to one side of the amphitheater and wait for her while she went the opposite way. Anita and I watched both of them fade into ghostly figures shrouded in the semi darkness. Finally, Eddra called out in a surprisingly clear and loud voice considering that she was now stationed at the Colosseum’s far end, “I’m here. Are you there?” To which Ken responded from the other side in an equally audible, “I am here.” Then to everyone’s surprise, Eddra began to sing the opening notes of a renowned Italian opera duet. Ken, hardly hesitating, answered her beguiling voice with his part. Ken and Eddrag were accomplished singers whose two voices floated toward each other across the giant amphitheater and came together in sumptuous harmony. It was an otherworldly performance rendered in bigger than life stereo.
The two singers must have felt inspired by their impromptu rendition. When the duet came to an end, they spontaneously launched into another, and then another. Anita and I, an audience of two, stood transfixed in the middle of the vast arena. At least, I thought we were only two. As my eyes gradually became accustomed to the dim light, I saw figures gradually emerge from the Colosseum’s crumbling underground catacombs, drawn out into the open by the seductive sounds relayed back and forth on high. Who were these people—lovers, gangsters, the lonely, the unwanted, the homeless? It was impossible to know but of no consequence to anyone at that moment. One duet effortlessly followed another as Eddra and Ken sang their hearts out like star-crossed lovers reaching out across the void. I have little concept of how long their performance lasted—perhaps it was for only a half an hour—but when it came to an end, applause broke out from the two or three-dozen people who lined the arena’s shadowy perimeter. Had this uncommon event taken place 2000 years ago, gladiators might have put down their swords, lions ceased to roar, and 60,000 spectators given Eddra and Ken a standing ovation.
Afterwards, Anita, Ken, and I walked Eddra back to her apartment mostly in silence. I had the feeling that each of us was overwhelmed by the unexpectedness and the singularity of what had just occurred. I thanked Eddra for our special evening together. Then, with Eddra safely home, I thanked Anita for having fixed me up so superbly. “What a lovely lady and what a gifted singer,” I enthused. Anita smiled. “Have you ever seen Federico Fellini’s movie, 8 ½?” I nodded. Of course, I had. Who hadn’t? My friend, the pianist Peter Serkin, boasted facetiously that he liked 8 ½ so much that he had seen it 8 ½ times. The 1963 film, both a comedy and a drama about the struggles involved in the creative process, had just won two Academy Awards. I adored 8 ½. Anita kept smiling. “And do you remember the scene on the beach?” How could I forget? It was the film’s one scene that almost everybody remembered. “La Saraghina,” I murmured, wistfully. She was the prostitute who danced so playfully, so enticingly for the enraptured young boys on the beach—my absolute favorite part of the movie. “Well”, continued Anita, “Eddra is not only a singer. She’s also an actress.” Anita paused just a brief second for effect. “La Saraghina was your blind date tonight.”
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