Chapter Three - Rhadames
RHADAMES WAS the son of Badile, the locksmith, whose real name was Hernani Gniffa. Obviously an operatic family, Badile had a good ear, and when he had tucked away a bottle or two of wine he sang with a powerful voice that was a pleasure to hear. When Badile's son, Rhadames, was six years old, his father brought him to Don Camillo and asked to have him taken into the choir. Don Camillo tested the boy's voice and then said:
"The only thing I can do is set him to blowing the organ bellows." For Rhadames had a voice as hard and cutting as a splinter of stone.
"He's my son," said Badile, "so he must have a voice. It's still tight, that's all. What it needs is loosening up."
To say no would have meant giving Badile the worst disappointment of his life, and so the priest sighed and said, "I'll do my best."
Don Camillo did everything he could but after two years Rhadames' voice was worse than ever. Besides being even harsher than before, it stuck in his throat. Rhadames had a magnificent chest, and to hear a miserable squeak come out of it was really infuriating. One day Don Camillo lost patience, got up from the organ and gave Rhadames a kick that landed him against the wall. Where singing is concerned, a kick may be more effective than three years' study of harmony. Rhadames went back to the choir and produced a voice that seemed to come straight from La Scala. When people heard him they said that it would be a crime for him to discontinue his studies.
This is the way they are in a village. If a fellow is disagreeable and unattractive they'll let him die of starvation. But if they take a liking to a fellow, they'll put together the money to get him singing lessons. In this case, they collected enough to send Rhadames to the city. Not to live like a gentleman—that couldn't be expected—but with his singing lessons paid for. And for the rest, Rhadames had to earn his board and keep by sawing wood, delivering parcels, and so on. Every now and then Badile went to see him and brought back the news: "He's not doing too badly. He's making progress."
Then the war came along and Rhadames was lost from sight. One day when it was all over he turned up in the village. Peppone was Mayor and, when Don Camillo told him that Rhadames' musical education must go on, he found the money to send him back to the city. A year or two later, Rhadames turned up again.
"They're letting me sing in Aida," he said.
Things were tense in the village for political reasons, and violence was in the air, but because of this news hostilities were suspended. Peppone held a meeting at the Town Hall, and Don Camillo attended it. The first question that came up was how to raise funds.
"The honor of the village is at stake," Peppone explained. "Rhadames mustn't cut a poor figure before those big shots in the city."
And the committee agreed.
"If anyone can get money out of those that have it," said Peppone, "I can guarantee the support of the common people."
Don Camillo understood that this was a gentle hint, and answered. "Somebody will do it."
Then Rhadames gave a detailed account of his needs, which was found quite satisfactory.
"Here there's no question of corruption or special favors," Peppone said proudly. "This is definitely a proletarian victory."
Don Camillo turned to Rhadames.
"What is your stage name?" he asked him.
"His stage name?" shouted Peppone. "His own, of course! Do you want him to assume yours?"
Don Camillo did not lose his temper.
"Rhadames Gniffa isn't the kind of name you can put on an opera program. It's a most unfortunate name, because it's bound to make people laugh."
Then Rhadames' father came into the discussion.
"My name is Hernani Gniffa, and I've borne it for sixty-five years without anyone's laughing!"
"That's all very well, but you're a locksmith, not a tenor!" Don Camillo answered. "Around here nobody cares, but in the theatrical world it's a different matter. There you need a name that sounds well and is sure to be popular."
"How ridiculous!" exclaimed Peppone. "Middle-class stupidity!"
Don Camillo looked at him hard.
"If Giuseppe Verdi had been called Rhadames Gniffa, do you think he would have won such fame as a composer?"
Peppone stopped to think, and Don Camillo gave him another example. "If Joseph Stalin had happened to be called Euripides Bergnocioni, would he have left the same mark on history?"
"The very idea!" stammered Peppone. "Think of Stalin under the name of Bergnocioni! Impossible!"
The committee sat until late at night, and finally made a unanimous choice of the name Franco Santalba.
"It's a queer world!" they all said.
Rhadames shrugged his shoulders. "Whatever you decide suits me all right," he said.
The great day came at last, and the committee met in the village square to read the announcement of the opera in the newspaper that had just arrived from the city. Rhadames' photograph was there, and under it the caption: "Franco Santalba, tenor." They couldn't resist going to hear him.
"There's room in the truck for all of us," said Peppone. "And we'd better make an early start in order to get seats. We'll meet here in the square at four o'clock."
"Somebody must tell the priest," one of the men observed. "He won't be able to come, but he ought to know about it."
"Priests don't interest me," said Peppone.
But they went to the presbytery in a body.
"I can't go, you know that," Don Camillo said sadly. "It wouldn't do for a priest to go to the opera, especially on the opening night. You'll have to tell me all about it."
When the committee had gone, Don Camillo went to confide his sorrow to Christ on the altar.
"I'm distressed that I can't go," he said with a sigh. "Rhadames is almost like a son to us all. But of course duty is duty. My place is here, and not amid the worldly frivolities of a theatre. ..."
"Quite right, Don Camillo. One of those small sacrifices that you must accept cheerfully."
"Yes, of course from a general or absolute point of view, it's a small sacrifice," said Don Camillo. "But to the person concerned, it's a large one. Of course, the greater the sacrifice, the more cheerfully it should be accepted. Complaints take all the value of a sacrifice away. In fact, if a sacrifice brings out a complaint, it doesn't count as a sacrifice at all."
"Naturally," the Lord answered.
Don Camillo paced up and down the empty church.
"I developed the boy's voice," he explained, stopping in front of the altar. "He came not much higher than my knees, and he couldn't sing; he squeaked like a rusty chain. And now he's singing in Aida. Rhadames in Aida! And I can't hear him. Surely that's a tremendous sacrifice. But I'm bearing up very cheerfully."
"Certainly you are," the Lord whispered gently.
Peppone and his gang sat in the front row of the gallery with their heads whirling. To gain admission to the gallery, it's not sufficient to pay for a ticket; one has to fight for a seat as well. And when Aida's on the boards, the gallery is a madhouse. That evening, however, a burly man made his way through the crowd at the last minute and came in just behind Peppone. He was wearing a green coat, and Peppone seemed to know him, because he squeezed over on the bench and made a place for him.
"If Rhadames loses his nerve, he's out of luck," Peppone mumbled. "This is a merciless crowd."
"Here's hoping." said the burly man in the green coat.
"If they hiss him, I'll kill somebody," said Peppone excitedly, and the man in the green coat motioned to him to keep his head.
But they didn't whistle; they were kind enough simply to snigger. Towards the end of the first act, things got worse and worse. Rhadames grew really scared and sang off key. The gallery howled, vigorously enough to make the curtain tremble. Peppone clenched his teeth, and his stalwarts were ready to sow murder round them. But the burly man took Peppone by the collar and dragged him outside. They walked up and down in the fresh air, and, when they heard a howl, they knew that Rhadames had hit still another false note. Then at the sound of the triumphal march the audience began to calm down. Shortly before the third act, the burly man said to Peppone: "Let's go."
The attendants didn't want to admit them behind the scenes. But before two strapping men with the combined strength of an armored division, there was nothing to do. They found Rhadames waiting in terror to be howled off the stage for the third and last time. When he saw the two men, his jaw fell open. The man in the green coat went behind and gave him a kick powerful enough to launch a Caruso.
Rhadames practically sailed through the air on to the stage, but he was completely transformed when he got there. When he sang the great aria "Io son disonorato!" the theatre almost broke down under the applause.
"You've got to know a singer down to the bottom," the burly man said triumphantly to the hysterical Peppone.
"Yes, Don . . ." Peppone started to reply, but at one look from the burly man he broke his sentence off in the middle.
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