The first time I heard an opera was at a school where I was teaching in Beirut, Lebanon. The year was 1963. I had stopped at Tom Weaver’s door to listen to this gorgeous, poignant music that was floating from his dormitory room. He invited me in, and we both listened without speaking a word. I had no idea what the characters were singing, about but their voices kept me on the verge of tears. The opera was La Boheme.
Since then, I’ve seen Puccini’s masterpiece many times and listened to it probably hundreds. The other day, a 1957 Metropolitan Opera recording of La Boheme came on the car radio. My wife slowed down so we could listen to the end of the third act in which Mimi and Rodolfo are breaking up. Breaking up already — and they’ve only just met and fallen in love in the first act an hour before. In the background the other couple, Marcello and Musetta, are hurling insults and accusations at one another — “You vain, frivolous flirt…Viper! Toad! Witch!” — while Mimi and Rodolfo bid one another farewell. “Farewell to dreams of love, farewell to sweet awakenings in the morning … farewell to reprimands and jealousy.”
They may be breaking up, but their duet is unlike any breakup you’ve ever heard. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Of course, they’re still half in love. Isn’t that the way it goes? Breakups aren’t the end of the world. Life goes on. But they’re sad. In the hands of Puccini, who knew how to pluck the heart strings as well as any composer, Mimi and Rodolfo’s separation is unbearably sad. I sat there in the car, fighting off tears once again.
Tom Weaver had been teaching at a school in Syria prior to Beirut. According to the story, he’d been dismissed — perhaps because someone feared he was too popular, perhaps because he uttered opinions that were politically incorrect. One reason Tom had come to Syria, though, was that he was a gifted horseman and had been called to help manage a legendary stable of Arabian horses.
One weekend he took us on a trip to the historic city of Aleppo. As we walked through the marketplace, merchants came from their stalls to welcome Tom. It was a hero’s return. Later, we visited the famous stable. The proprietors introduced him to a horse that no one could ride. Tom mounted the high-strung, magnificent animal and just sat in the saddle like a sack of potatoes. Apparently, he was able to communicate some non-threatening message. The animal calmed down at once, and Tom triumphantly put it through some elegant paces around the corral.
In those days, Lebanon was a prosperous, lively place, the Switzerland of the Middle East, a sophisticated, prosperous, hedonistic playground where you could ski in the Cedars of Lebanon in the morning and take the sun on a Mediterranean beach the same afternoon. “America” was a good word in those days. People came from all over the Arab world to be educated at the American University of Beirut. The most popular hamburger joint in Beirut was called Uncle Sam’s. My American colleagues and I traveled freely through the Middle East — Syria, Jordan, Egypt — without fear for our safety. I never heard anyone express hatred of Jews or Israel that year.
In 1967, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War changed all that. An epidemic of terrorism followed. America became “the Great Satan.” Today, Aleppo is in ruins, Syrian civilians have been gassed. The Middle East has become a cauldron of strife, murderous hatred, and misery.
A few years ago, the school I taught at had a reunion. At dinner, they played a recording Tom had made for the occasion. In a frail voice, he shared some memories of those distant, halcyon days, then spoke an Arabic expression for “goodbye.” Tom died in 2008 at the age of 93. It seems as if nothing lasts — neither love nor civilization. It would be comforting to say that beautiful music lasts. But in this world, we can’t even be sure of that.