A few years ago, my wife, Jane, and I went to see Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence, without Avio, and as soon as I walked in, I was struck by the light and space. It did not look like a church. It looked more like the banqueting hall of a great king. I wondered if its acoustics matched the magnificence of its architecture and wanted to sing to test it. But the signs on the doors all said “Silenzio!”
I found a young woman attendant and whispered to her that I was an opera singer and had tested the acoustics of many churches in Italy and France by singing in them, and asked if I could do the same here. She said she did not have the authority to give permission, but would ask her superior. We walked to the door of the church, and explained the situation to the chief attendant who said she did not have the authority to give permission and suggested we ask the priest who was in charge of the church.
We entered the cloisters behind the church and stopped outside a door. The audio box next to the door said ‘Monsignore Fabio’. The attendant leaned in and asked if she could speak to Monsignore, and an old man’s eggshell voice came wheezing over the intercom saying he was having his lunch and would she come back in ten minutes?
After ten minutes, the attendant pressed the intercom button again. The door swung open and a frail, eighty-year-old man, in priest’s cap and cassock, stood before us. The attendant started to explain my request, and I decided I had to immediately take the initiative or the answer was going to be, “No.” So, I said, “Buon giorno, Monsignore…” in what I hoped was understandable Italian and stuck out my hand. The Monsignore grasped my hand and held it in an iron grip, and suddenly said, in English, “Yes!” and beamed. Then he saw my wife, Jane, behind me. He dropped my hand and grasped hers, shook it and held onto it even longer than he had mine. Finally, I thanked him with a shower of Grazie’s and we re-entered the basilica through a side door.
The church was almost empty – it being lunchtime – except for a group of about twenty students sitting half-way down the nave, listening to their professore. I positioned myself in front of the altar, faced back down the length of the nave of Brunelleschi’s magnificent church, and sang, in full bass-baritone voice, the opening lines of Mephistophele’s aria, “The Song of the Golden Calf”, from Gounod’s “Faust”. “Le Veau d’Or…” rang out down the length of the nave, swelled past the sixteen stone pillars, surged up to the roof, then came back, magnified. I held the top note much longer than normal as I, and everyone else, was overwhelmed by the astonishing waves of sound that filled the church.
Especially the professore. He let out a shriek, and ran at me, shouting, “Silenzio! Silenzio!” and waving his arms.
The attendant leapt in front of him. “He has permission!” she said in a loud whisper. He ignored her. “Monsignore has given permission!” she cried.
The professore continued to ignore her and shouted at me, inches from my face, “You interrupted my lesson! You have ruined my talk to my students!”
“No, I haven’t,” I said, “I’ve helped you. Your students would have forgotten your talk almost immediately if I had not sung. Now they will remember it forever.”
The professore stopped waving and seemed to consider this, then said, “Buon giorno!”
“Buon giorno!” I replied.
And to my complete surprise, the professore added, “Buon appetito!”
“Buon appetito,” I responded and walked past him, down the length of the nave with my wife, until I came level with the students. “Buon appetito!” I called.
“Buon appetito!” they replied, like the chorus in an opera. An Italian opera of course.
Posted: Friday 25 February 2022