There are moments in life that you will never forget and which represent a step in your evolution. This is what happened to Lia Della Porta, an American girl from Philadelphia, who stayed for a month in Città della Pieve to sing at the premiere of a Lyric Opera.
We met Lia and her parents in the pastry bar Stefanini in Città della Pieve on the morning after attending the premiere of ‘Azaio’, a work of International Opera Theater, where Lia had the role of Rosalinda (from “As You Like It”) in a new children’s opera written and directed by Karen Saillant to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.
Lia, together with 15 other children (all between 8 and 17 years of age), was selected by Karen after a series of auditions in Philadelphia. She had spent a month in Italy with her parents to prepare for this evening. Every day, for up to 6 hours and 6 days a week, Lia went to the theater to do rehearsals, like a true professional.
She faced two major difficulties: to sing the arias in Italian and to become conversant with the stage. The rehearsals were carried out in a real theater, an architectural gem with three tiers of balconies (above the stalls) with a total of 200 seats for the audience. The stage of the theater is the size of a professional classical theater seating 800, with dressing rooms and rooms for the stage operators. Its structure and the refinement of its decor and its furnishings can make even a professional actor, who likes the public just a few feet from him, feel uncomfortable.
I asked to interview Lia because the show had impressed me with the deep sweetness and professionalism of the 16 children involved. They moved with ease on the stage, they did not ‘miss a beat’ and at the end of the show each of them recited a sentence, dedicated to those children still suffering in the world, accompanied by music. Their tone and their movements showed the maturity to handle small difficulties, overcome by the serenity of childhood.
Lia told me how this total experience had evolved. The relationship with Karen was that of a disciple with a mentor. Karen taught acting and singing according to a method of spontaneity developed by her, one that included acting as per the ancient Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte. Through a system of nonverbal unconscious consensus, a profound relationship was formed with the other children, whom Lia had not known before coming to Italy.
In addition to the work onstage, these bonds were solidified due to the particular lifestyle that one can experience in small centers of Italian art, such as Città della Pieve. This municipality, nestled in the hills of the Umbrian region (not far from the Chiantishire), has about 4,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in the historic center that is all made of clay brick. In contrast to other tourist cities, this center has a presence mainly of Italians fleeing from metropolitan cities and it continues to have a precious inner life.
What Lia and the others could not imagine was that this center allowed for “freedom”. Children of all ages can walk, run and play alone in the streets and squares of the city because they are controlled by a thousand “biological cameras”, the eyes of the inhabitants. All it takes is to be introduced into the local society and one enters the “protective wing” of the community.
For the children, like Lia, these eyes are never obvious. What she and her parents experienced was the joy of participating in the happy growth of childhood, with her parents watching from a distance as she confronted life. Kim and Dave, parents of Lia, told me that the girl who arrived in Italy one month ago has blossomed and grown up emotionally (with even a few inches of height). They will go home with a different girl.
These children have had other life-changing experiences: witnessing the festivities of Palio dei Terzieri, 12 days of local celebration. They sang at La Rocca as part of a fund raiser for Terr’arte, an organization that teaches the disabled to express themselves through the creation of pottery. There Lia sang the music of Broadway (from Phantom of the Opera). She also sang Panis Angelicus in The Cathedral for Sunday mass.
Before saying goodbye to Lia, I asked her parents if the other families have had similar feelings and whether they would all do it again. They responded to me that they have compared experiences with each other and they are all absolutely delighted with the Italian experience with their children, but that much of the credit goes to the maternal and professional guidance of Karen, her love for the opera and Città della Pieve, a jewel among Italian art cities.