Daniel Schmid’s documentary Tosca’s Kiss shows us a retirement home set up specifically for elderly opera musicians. The home, established by Giuseppi Verdi himself, houses instrumentalists, singers and conductors, all of which are only retired professionally. The movie features wall to wall music and reminded me of another documentary I recently saw made around the same time, George Nierenberg’s Say Amen, Somebody from 1983, about the lives of traveling gospel singers. Tosca’s Kiss shares a similar joy of performance, but it’s a little sadder because the people it features have seen the days of big audiences in grand houses come and go. Perhaps this is just the projection of a young man, however, because nobody in Tosca’s Kiss seems to be too bitter about aging. “I have experienced love and art,” Sara Scuderi, an aging soprano says. It may be gone now but think of how many people never experience either.
The home, Casa Verdi in Milan, is the first of its kind. The facility has beautifully ornate rooms that stand as monuments to Verdi or Puccini (the residents don’t seem to enjoy other composers) with what appears to be a high ratio of pianos to residents. We learn a little about its founding and it’s operation but not much (I would have liked to learn how one comes to live there—must one audition?), the movie is mainly a collection of performances, some impromptu, as when the residents sing a chorus from La Traviata that must be second nature to them.
Like many documentaries, it’s the story of obsession, in this case with music. It’s all these people talk about. “It’s not often that Otello is done well,” one complains to a friend. “Where do you find a good Otello?” she asks. “Difficult,” her friend agrees. It’s doubtful that in my waning years I’ll be all that concerned with where to find a good Otello, especially when my mobility, like many of the inhabitants of Casa Verdi, has restricted me from going out and seeing him anyway, but that’s the beauty of Tosca’s Kiss; these questions and one’s like it are what made these people’s lives. The cruel march of time has forced them away from the glow of making their living this way, but for most performing wasn’t a job, it was a vocation. Casa Verdi allows them to continue serving it.
And they still have it. The voices may not be as strong as they once were, but they are still astonishing singers. Scuderi was famous for her Tosca at La Scala in the ’20’s, others performed with the likes of Maria Callas, and the name Caruso is invoked like one would an old friend. All of them seem to have recordings of themselves. They listen and cry out of sentiment and pride. A conductor leads us through his room, recounting a lifetime of achievements that are all but forgotten by everyone but him. A pessimist would bemoan his failure to become a legendary musical force, a Tuscanini, but our man is satisfied to have good marks in a tiny paper half a century ago.
“Here you never live in the present,” says an employee at the home. That seems to be true. A well-dressed octogenarian can’t let go of Rigoletto, even going as far to put on his old costume to reminisce. When he puts it away, he bows to the chest it came in. Residents complain about the lack of opera in today’s culture, just as their elders complained about them. One tenor seems to exist in the moment. Leonida Bellon, who can really belt, has a wry sense of humor. After a fellow singer holds a note a little too long, he chastises him. “Turn the light off when you leave,” he says.
Tosca’s Kiss isn’t told with a lot of skill; in fact, it feels like an opera with too much recitative. The moments between performances are fairly dull, and Schmid never feels confident enough to make a point about aging or devotion to an art form. He’s content enough simply to document. Luckily, his lack of ambition is leavened somewhat by the extraordinary subjects he’s chosen to watch. Bellon and Scuderi pass each other in the hallway, and he spontaneously breaks out in a scene from Act II of Tosca, the scene from which the movie takes its name. Bellon, now as the opera’s Scarpia, is stabbed; Scuderi doesn’t miss a beat to join in, reciting Tosca’s lines as Bellon falls crumpled in a phone booth. She finishes her aria. “Can I get up now?” Bellon asks. She helps him, saying, “I was worried you might have died.” Not enough, of course, to stop her performance. The show must go on.