When I decided to write about growing up in Italy, I had no idea I would be revisiting nooks and crannies I had mentally boarded up a long time ago.
One happy story was my first paying gig. I was in kindergarten, so I must have been five. We didn’t have phones, television, movies, heck, I don’t remember if we had cars back then. We had a tram, an electric tram traveling from town to town. The rest of the time we rode our bicycle. Our town had a magnificent theater, courtesy of Count Marzotto and family. The nobility title was bought, but the Marzottos owned most of the town. The rest was owned by the Catholic Diocese.
Every year we had opera season. The talented opera company came from Milan.
On this ordinary kindergarten day, we were all summoned into the main hall, girls separated from the boys. Next, the girls formed a line facing a small group of people consisting of a short, chubby man who kept smiling, a plain youngish woman, and a blonde lady who reminded me of the women I saw in the True Stories magazines my mother read. She was tall, blonde (back then I didn’t know the difference between real blonde and bleached hair) red lips, a tight suit, and a cigarette. I was hooked.
The blonde vamp started to walk up and down our line, looking and smiling. She pulled me out of the line along with another girl with marvelous blond, curly locks. My hair was long and straight and black. Where I come from, blond and curly trumps straight and black any given day. The rest of the kids were sent back to class while Goldilocks and I stood there, clueless.
The trio of guests confabulated in low voices under the attentive eyes of Mother Superior. The younger woman ran her fingers through the curly locks of the other girl. Then it was the vamp’s turn to walk up to me, gently lifting my chin and pointing to something in my face. I was pretty sure she was saying something about my eyes. More talking, and then it was over. We went back to class.
At dinner time there was an air of unspoken words hanging over the table. Both my parents worked at the Marzotto’s factory. We lived in an apartment owned by the Marzottos. You get the drift. My father said the director of the opera company wanted to hire me to play Madame Butterfly’s child in the opera. Would I be okay with that?
“They are going to give us money?” I remember asking. Money was always an important factor in our household. I was told yes, but no one mentioned amounts, and the money was paid to my parents.
I went to rehearsals. I had the cutest long straight dress with gold sequins. I remember the sequins because I had to sit on Madame Butterfly’s lap—my opera mother—and she kept complaining that the sequins scratched her skin through the flimsy silk of her kimono. I was given a blonde, curly wig that made my head itch, but it was worth it. My opera name was Dolores—Sorrow in English and no, I did not sing.
The vamp was the soprano playing Madame Butterfly, and the chubby director was her husband. They liked me so much, they paid my parents for me to go on tour with the opera company. I traveled through major Italian cities, stayed in hotels with the singer. The best part was when young opera lovers asked for my autograph. Of course, I didn’t know how to write, but it felt great.
This could have been the end of my story, but it wasn’t. The next year they hired me to travel with them and be an extra in Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I was aware they didn’t really need me. I was allowed to wear my hair down the back, straight and black, I also wore my own Sunday dress. On the third and last year, I went on tour as an extra for Boheme. By then I knew how to sign my autograph.
At the end of the tour they asked my parents if they would allow them to adopt me. My parents said no and broke three hearts. I never forgave my parents, but that’s another story.
I leave you with Madame Butterfly’s song of hope “Un bel di vedremo…” On a fine day we’ll see….