THE STORY BEHIND FATAL SONG
by Kathleen Cahill
Mimi died in the car on the way to my grandmother’s house. I was sitting in the front seat next to Rocko, who worked with my father. On the radio, we were listening to the Texaco Opera Broadcast of La Bohème from the Met. Rocko was telling me the story, and it was so sad and so beautiful at the same time that it made me cry. Violetta died the same winter, and so did Carmen. Rocko and I listened to the radio and he told me the stories of the operas with tears running down his face. It was because of those afternoons with Rocko that I went to graduate school to learn how to write librettos and the books to musicals. (I like to say I have a master’s degree in show tunes.) A few years after I graduated, I was commissioned by the director of the Maryland Opera Studio, Leon Major, to write something for his voice students which could be performed at an upcoming conference on “Opera and Its Heroines and Divas.” He bought me a copy of Kobbe’s Opera Guide, a hefty tome of over 1400 pages of small type. “This should fill you in,” he said.
With the Guide under my arm, I took up residence in the music library at the local college where I listened to over thirty operas. I emerged buzzy, dizzy, and instead of being moved, I was annoyed with the librettists who kept killing off the heroines. Only Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte -- who, after working with Wolfgang, left Europe for New York City where he sold fish on the lower east side ---didn’t rely on female death to inspire the composer. But for librettists who worked with Puccini, Massenet, Donizetti, Verdi and Bizet (among others) a beautiful, impassioned, thwarted, and emotionally off-balance female whose greatest moment is her last breath, was a staple of their plot. Was this because so many women died in childbirth in the 19th century? Because female sacrifice was a cultural value? Because composers like to write music for sopranos? After listening to so much opera in such a short amount of time, I began to imagine what would happen if all these doomed females got together back stage and started to figure out what was going on. For a start, they might ask “Who’s responsible for the death of all these wonderful women?” A movie called Fatal Attraction was a hit at this time. It’s about a beautiful, impassioned, thwarted and emotionally off-balance female who dies in the end. The movie inspired my title. But I owe a debt of gratitude to those 19th century librettists. They inspired me to write FATAL SONG.