The highlight of my lockdown mornings has been the ability to watch whole operas online, streamed on the Metropolitan Opera website. At the time of writing this, I’ve clocked over 60 operas, and counting.
It has been a voyage of discovery, revisiting old favourites but also learning about many I didn’t know about before, some of them extremely new.
‘L’Amour de Loin’ (Love from Afar) is one such opera, in five acts with music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and a French-language libretto by Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf, both based in Paris.
The two-hour opera is inspired by the work of Jaufré Rudel, a 12th-century literary figure, Prince of Blaye (in today’s southwestern France), and troubadour noted for developing the theme of “love from afar” (amor de lonh or amour de loin) in his songs.
According to his legendary ‘vida’ or fictionalised biography, Rudel falls in love with the countess (Hodierna in the vida, and Clémence in the opera) of Tripoli just from hearing about her from pilgrims returning from that faraway land en route from the Holy Land. She becomes his ‘love from afar’. According to legend, he finally sets out to meet her, but falls ill during the journey and is brought ashore to Tripoli in the throes of death. The countess descends from her castle to meet Rudel, and he dies in her arms. In the legend and the opera, the grief-stricken countess decides to enter a convent in posthumous fidelity to her ‘lover from afar’.
Was this ‘countess’ a flesh-and-blood living-and-breathing woman, or a fantasy, a figment of Rudel’s (or someone else’s) imagination, or was she allegorical, an embodiment of a place, real or imagined, or an ideal, an intangible concept? Was this a religious or profane, more carnal love? The ‘love from afar’ has been variously interpreted as a ‘love of God’, the idea of the Crusades, the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Land, and even the long-forgotten quasi-historical, quasi-mythical Helen of Troy, as a literary trope.
The idea of an ambiguous Beloved, with a hazy distinction between sacred and profane love existed in early Islamic discourse and can still be encountered in Sufi and qawwali music. There are direct parallels between Occitan (medieval language of the Provençal of the 12th to 14th centuries, in which Rudel’s song-poems were written), and Islamicate court lyric and troubadour songs, which should not surprise us, given the links between East and West, with cross-fertilisation of ideas back and forth.
Why did this ancient fable become the springboard for a 21st-century opera? Saariaho and Maalouf are both self-described ‘voluntary exiles’, and the story inspired them to collaborate in turning (to quote the publicity for the work) “a seemingly simple story into a complex story very simply told…With the straightforward trajectory of its plot, L’Amour de loin turns anxiously around deeper themes – obsession and devotion, reality and illusion, the loneliness of the artist, the need to belong”.
The opera’s principal cast comprises just three – Rudel (baritone); The Pilgrim, the go-between who carries messages back and forth (mezzo-soprano); and Clémence, Countess of Tripoli (soprano) – and a chorus that comments, narrates and moves the plot along. In the 2016 production shared with us from the Met Opera Live in HD archive, Eric Owens, Tamara Mumfor and Susanna Phillips sang the respective roles with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus.
After listening to the opera, my mind inevitably wandered to the idea of our Goa as the ‘Beloved’. I recalled a song from Remo Fernandes’ very first album ‘Goan Crazy’ (released in 1984 and re-released and uploaded on YouTube last year, 35 years later), called ‘Little Goa’. In it, he sings of leaving Little Lady Goa, but only to “have a little look-see at other little ladies” so he can understand her more, and promises to be back. And I daresay he will.
Goa, like the elephant to the six blind men in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem means so many different, often conflicting, things to so many people. The Holy Land trope as one possible explanation for the ‘countess’ in the opera reminded me of the time I had just arrived in the UK in 1998 and begun to meet fellow Goans at social functions (usually some feast or the other, on a Sunday). Some of the younger Goans were second- or third-generation British, descendants of Afrikanders who had come to the UK in the 1960s and 70s. A few had visited Goa with their parents, once in a while and briefly at that, just a few days at a time, some of them not at all. ‘Their’ Goa as they described and talked about it was very different from ‘my’ Goa that I had just arrived from. I remember thinking then that for a lot of them, Goa was ‘somewhere there’, faraway, like Mecca or Jerusalem, a Holy Land, to be worshipped and loved from afar.
The same can be said for many ardent, niz mogi Goenkars, overseas internet warriors who wax eloquent over their love for Goa, bemoan her state now compared to ‘back then’ and issue a shopping-list of instructions on what ought to be done to correct the wayward course. They make quite a few ‘pilgrimages’, many annually, with religious regularity, but stop short of ‘doing a Rudel’, coming here while they’re still able to contribute much more on this ground that they profess to worship so much, than long-distance virtual hand-wringing. Their love for Goa may be just as true, and most of them mean well, but it can rankle for those in the trenches here, having to actually grapple with everyday issues. Having been on both sides of the equation, I can empathise with both.
Four generations in my own direct lineage (if you include myself) left Goa, ‘had a little look-see’ but then ‘did a Rudel’ in the prime of their lives; and three generations before me (and probably I too someday will) eventually died in Goa’s arms. How much the ‘look-see’ helped any of us understand Goa better, I cannot say.
The newest wave of Goans arriving in the UK directly from the homeland has a much closer connect with the land. You could say they have taken little pieces of the ‘countess’ in their hearts with them.
In the initial phase of my decade abroad (1998-2008), I suppose I had her in my heart too. But I was also the ‘Pilgrim’, making two, sometimes three visits home each year, so in many ways I never really left, emotionally speaking. But each return visit home underscored the alarming changes taking place, most of them not for the better. The castle of the ‘countess’ was under siege; she was being reduced to a travesty of her beautiful self. And the pace has only accelerated.
Will the ‘countess’ die in our arms instead of the other way around? Will many of us look nervously over our shoulder, and cut and run, deserting Little Lady Goa and hoping that the ‘other little ladies’ Remo sang about will take us in? And then once safely there, we can sing with even greater fervour about our ‘love from afar.’