I address this capsule memoir especially to those of you who take boisterous, passionate delight in retracing trajectories of your major life discoveries and convergences. Among my most profoundly haunting classical music discoveries of the past decade, Marco Rosano’s contemporary Stabat Mater has come to play a role in my life well beyond the treasured experience of listening to it, and seeing it performed, again and again.
The insistent, unmitigated artistic focus, across centuries, on the mother of crucified Jesus has long fascinated my wife and me: There the mother stands, as witness, as support through her very proximity, choosing not to shut her eyes or flee from the torture and murder of her son. A literally excruciating event, beyond the capacity of nearly all of us to genuinely absorb, whether or not we ever contemplate our children or anyone else we cherish as divine.
In my teens, I came to adore Pergolesi’s classic Stabat Mater. It helped launch my lifelong esteem for select countertenors: I grew up exalted by Alfred Deller and his son Mark, by Russell Oberlin, and (arguably equivalent) by John Jacob Niles’ upper-range singing of Appalachian ballads and the songs he himself composed. Though a skeptical adolescent in the 1950s, I briefly reverted to my parents’ belief in a heaven populated by Jehovah and His Angels after Alfred Deller transfixed me with an aria from Handel’s Sosarme. Yet not until the current cluster of mesmerizing countertenors (e.g., David Daniels, Daniel Taylor, Max Emanuel Cencic, Philippe Jaroussky) did I excitedly link the resurgence of regard for operatic Handel and the important rethinking of what constitutes authentic masculinity, artificially cultured gender construction, as well as the prospect of increased ease in risk-taking public self-presentation to what brilliant male singing from the Renaissance to our twenty-first century could provoke and ground. . . its sensual ideology, if you will, supplementing political and philosophical advance.
Perhaps keenest among the countertenors who inspires me for his vocal magnitude and for his lucid intelligent commentary is Andreas Scholl. I routinely check for news of Scholl’s latest concerts and recordings. To my amazement, I found that he had secured permission from his contracted label to record the Stabat Mater composed for him by Marco Rosano, an Italian musician living on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. I ordered the album nervously; was it truly to be sung by Scholl? Was it a scam? There was even another composer named Marco Rosano involved with the pop music scene in Chicago. A Chicago Rosano joke, perhaps? When the recording reached me, I unwrapped and popped it into my CD player—gearing myself up for embarrassment—with no one else near earshot.
Goodness, yes, it was Scholl. And each component of this Stabat Mater couldn’t have been more distinctively recorded, more skillfully engineered. But the music! What era was I living in as I listened? I did know other contemporary composers whose modes of artistry transcended their limits of years on this planet. But this STABAT MATER soared beyond time. Beauty was just the start. Scholl and each aria he sang were transcendent. . . beyond my ability to keep my feelings contained. I had to share this instantly with my wife. I thirsted to contact Marco Rosano the moment I’d reheard the final notes. (My history of reaching out to live artists, performers, and writers who broke right through to my mind and soul began at age fourteen, and I’ve been blessed by how many have not counted me crazed nor reduced me to being their “fan,” by how many replied in depth and launched remarkable lifelong friendships.) I did find Marco, did write to him, and astonishingly received what would be the first numerous exchanges ahead.
Marco Rosano and Andreas Scholl did not confine their collaboration to Marco’s Stabat Mater. They are developing a Requiem together, excerpts of which Scholl has already internationally performed, segments of which are already on the internet. Marco is also exploring electronic variants of his original works, virtually a given with the Requiem, which has Scholl in live harmony with his prerecorded voice.
And then I received word from Marco that he was traveling to NYC. Might he visit my wife Joyce and me in Amherst with his fiancée? he asked. I gulped and assented. Our foursome’s half a day together was transporting, unreal in its degree of mutual comfort. Before bidding us farewell, Marco asked whether I would be willing to attempt an opera with him. He had, till then, he explained, set only extant texts to music; why not an active writer/composer collaboration? Despite how my heart soared, I knew we needed, before tackling any project this large, to start small, perhaps with an aria. Marco wholly understood. Neither of us wished our prizing of (what we felt to be) our artistic kinship to get the better of us.
Drafting the aria’s lyrics, I shot it to Marco to work with it, whenever his time allowed (remembering his still-in-progress Requiem). Impacting the style, subject, and structure of my lyrics was a key element of what I treasure in Marco’s work: namely, his forsaking of self-protective armor in the face of extreme emotion while he yet maintains disciplined guard against sentimental murk. I kept in mind, as well, the implicit point in a full-scale operatic narrative where this aria might crystallize, an especially self-challenging juncture in a traumatic love affair.
I conclude this memoir with the lyrics Marco now has in hand:
If I Resist
If I resist the temptation to say goodbye to you
though we are left with no more ways
to save our history, rescue our trust, revive our love,
If I refuse to say goodbye to you, will you hesitate,
will you linger, or will you rage
through our forest of mute suspense
in hope my delayed words of blessing and solace
ease both of us toward the gentlest release?
If I resist the temptation, after you’ve left,
to sing your name, to call you back,
too proud to apologize, voicing only regret
that we came to the edge where we lost all hope,
Will you resist the outcry of my song,
insist on the cruelty of my confusion,
and leave me to the blade of my own knife?
If I resist the temptation to end my life,
though I ended my life the instant
I thought I could be reborn,
If I manage to show you the lover you left,
the lover you managed to escape,
has lost the urge to drive to the edge
you or any soul other than his own,
will you let our history sink beneath our forest’s debris,
rejoice in wresting yourself free of me,
and love me anew, simply and fresh,
two strangers roaming our forest,
who have yet to meet.
Len Berkman, playwright/dramaturg with NY Stage & Film, is Smith College's Anne Hesseltine Hoyt Professor of Theatre