Bella Figura and the Open Air Opera


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Of all the social skills critical to living in Milan, the mother ship of them all is a concept known as bella figura. More or less translatable as cutting a fine figure, it embraces not just how one dresses, but also manners and comportment. Wearing track pants downtown would, for example, be the polar opposite of bella figura. Not even when popping out to the corner store for milk, please. Ditto using the familiar tu form prematurely. Or offering to help clear the table when you’re at someone’s house for dinner, even with a good friend.

Setting up; don't let the plastic chairs fool you

So what this got to do with opera? Well, I thought the concept was more of a Milanese thing until I went to the open air opera in Varese Ligure. It’s put on every summer in the centre of the medieval borgo. A stage is set up, plastic chairs are brought in, and for several weeks they pack the place. The first summer that my daughter and I decided to go, I had dressed in casual pants (not jeans!) and a light sweater. With plastic chairs, how dressy could it be? But when I happened to mention to my landlady that we were headed to the event she looked at me and, in a tone that sounded an awful lot like my mother, said “not dressed like that, surely?

Quick as a wink I said no, of course not, and rushed upstairs to put on a dress.

Figaro understood bella figura

And I have to say, the performance totally warranted the extra measure of respect that dressing for the occasion implies. Rather than the amateurish local production I was expecting, it was one of the best operas I’ve ever attended, with stunning voice quality. The opera was The Barber of Seville; for the first time ever, I actually understood what Figaro was going on about in his famous ‘factotum’ aria. It was as easily entertaining as watching a modern musical.

If you’d like more information on the Varese summer opera, here’s the link:  It’s an exceptional night out. But wear something nice!

Ligurian Heart


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Godzillavilla is in the Val di Vara, an area of Liguria where you still hear few languages other than Italian, even in high tourist season. It’s not quite on the international destination map.

The little town that could

Sometime around our fifth year in Italy I’d come across an article in Io Donna, a women’s magazine, about the valley and its main town, Varese Ligure. The photos were beautiful, its story more so. Like many rural valleys that twist their way into the central spine of the Apennines, it had experienced a population exodus post-war. Young people had moved to the larger towns for work, rejecting life on the land, and the towns became phantoms of their former selves.

By the 1980’s it was a dire situation. Then Varese Ligure’s enlightened government had a brilliant idea, well ahead of its time: since their valley was in the middle of nowhere and offered pretty much nothing, why not make something of that?

Making the most of the middle of nowhere

Through a remarkable application of both will and action, in 1999 the Val di Vara became Europe’s first valley to be certified ISO 14001, the international benchmark for environmental management. Chemical free, energy-sustaining, and boasting fine organic cheeses, produce and meat, it has become an organic haven in an industrial world.

People returned to take up organic farming, bee-keeping, and cheese-making. Varese Ligure, an ancient borgo with its own perfect castle and a unique, circular town plan, began to be spruced up. Good restaurants opened. Artists and craftspeople arrived. And so did we, drawn to its energy, inventiveness, and the purity of its landscape.

Varese Ligure’s story reflects the character of its people. What better folk to be around when attempting something as audacious as bringing Godzillavilla back to life? I’m hoping some of their resolve and resourcefulness rubs off on me. If they can resurrect a whole valley and its towns, surely resurrecting one old house is possible.

Varese's castle, still privately owned

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