Fine and Rare: La Traviata, Illuminata, and John Turturro’s Dream

illustration by Tom Ralston

When I first thought of writing about Illuminata, my uncle had been a handful of ashes for more than a year. Cancer meandered north from his prostate and made lesions on his liver, then penetrated his beautiful brain. I imagined sending him this essay—I wanted to write it because I knew he would enjoy it. After all, we loved opera and we loved one another. 

In opera, as in life, what we do not know will kill us. 

My uncle was a baritone with a robust, melodic voice; he sang for years in his church’s choir and in the Portland Opera’s chorus. One of his early performances was Aida. He loved to tell me how the creative director had somehow rented a real elephant to appear on stage, dragging the Ethiopian prisoners of war into Egypt in a massive fishnet. The best part of rehearsals, he said, was when the elephant took a huge shit halfway across the stage and then kept on walking, human cast members in tow. 

“The singing rapidly turned to hideous screams,” he told me with a smile that suggested he had not been in the net. 

My uncle’s great unwinding brought me back to my fascination with opera—and with it, my profound attachment to Illuminata. Co-written and directed by John Turturro, who also plays the film’s protagonist Tuccio, Illuminata was released in 1998. It got a Palme d’Or nomination in Cannes that year, but otherwise seems to have slid into the sea. It’s one of my all-time favorites and I’m always surprised that almost nobody has heard of it. 

Turturro’s film tells the story of a failing theater company trying to stage a new play while the lives of the actors and various theater people intersect, conflict, and finally resolve. I have seen it at least fifty times—maybe more. But only after my uncle’s funeral in 2021 did it occur to me that, yes, Illuminata might be an opera.

Illuminata is set at the turn of the century in an Italy-flavored New York, with bright colors and bare-bones staging that evokes the archetypes of classical theater. The film’s ensemble cast transmutes the story’s elegant simplicity into genius. With shining appearances by Beverly D’Angelo, Ben Gazzara, Christopher Walken, Katherine Borowitz, Susan Sarandon, Donal McCann, Rufus Sewell, Aida and John Turturro, Bill Irwin, Georgina Cates, and other greats, Illuminata showcases what gifted actors can do with a minimalist script and staging. 

That minimalism isn’t an accident (or a reflection of budget constraints). I believe it is a deliberate creative choice that Turturro—a lifelong opera fan and Verdi lover—uses to elevate an ensemble comedy to the realm of opera. In an interview on WNYC’s Aria Code podcast, Turturro said, “If you’ve done all the work beforehand, there’s nothing more eloquent than simplicity. I think that when you’re a young performer, you think, ‘If I show it all, I give it all, that’s the apex.’ And then later on, you start to realize, no, I could be really simple. I think that’s what you remember in life, too: that graceful, generous gesture that someone gave to you in a certain moment … Wow, I’ll never forget that.”

Aria Code discusses notable arias in opera. Singing an aria is challenging both physically and emotionally; it moves the audience and the story, and decorates the performer’s skin with beads of sweat. Arias, especially as Giuseppe Verdi wrote them, have a deceptive simplicity. The fewer notes there are, such as in longer phrases requiring sustained breath control, the harder it is to sing. There are no fills or frills. No decoration. All you have is voice, and everything depends on it. Verdi’s compositions are economical—they are emotionally piercing because of their simplicity. Turturro calls this type of transportation a form of prayer, an “emotional transportation” for both the performer and the plot. Less is more, even in opera—a medium famous for its excesses.

In the podcast episode that caught my ear, Turturro considers Violetta’s “Addio del passato” aria from Verdi’s La Traviata. (The aria title’s literal translation is “Goodbye to the past,” though the aria is also known as “Farewell, happy dreams of the past” or “Farewell to the bright visions.”) This iconic opera debuted in Venice in 1853. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel, The Lady of the Camellias, it is about a 23-year-old courtesan named Violetta who dies of incurable tuberculosis. As consumption chokes the life from her body, she sings an aria in which she bids “goodbye to the beautiful days of laughter of the past.” Her aria is accompanied by a plaintive, mournful oboe solo. Violetta’s aria is written in 6/8 time, like a broken-down waltz, breaking just as Violetta’s heart, lungs, breath, and hope are breaking. 

Yet, even as her life fades, Violetta also remembers her passionate days and her love, Alfredo, who is ignorant of her illness. She recalls the decadent dances, roses, and loves come to an end. As she remembers how she has lived, she mourns her immoral ways; because courtesans could not be buried in consecrated ground, Violetta would essentially vanish into an unmarked grave with “neither tears nor flowers, no cross with a name that will cover this skeleton.” 

The same rule that barred Violetta from a proper burial was true for actors as well. (This precedent also affected gay men like my uncle, who were historically excluded from “polite” society. For example, many victims of the AIDS crisis were never claimed from the unmarked graves on Hart Island.) Actors were considered scoundrels from the same low class as homosexuals, prostitutes, ballet dancers, models, musicians, and clowns. At the time, there was a lot of crossover—for example, the dancers who posed for Edgar Degas often supported themselves in unsavory ways. Performance was a way of leaving poverty and perhaps, like Violetta, finding at least a temporary respite in the lap of luxury. These two halves must coexist, and still do; it’s a dynamic you can find anywhere from strip clubs to the star-studded red carpet. 

When desire and talent (or lack thereof) mingle, they produce a heady brew. The two ingredients are inextricable, as Illuminata shows again and again. After an opening night snafu leads to the impromptu debut of a new play—to mixed reviews—a motley theatrical company contends with the high stakes of performing from the heart. Over the next 24 hours, the actors prepare to restage the debut, a drama called “Illuminata.” Along the way, they also grapple with the big questions about theater. Are all actors whores, or just the famous ones? How far are you willing to go to get a good review? Can a supporting actor play the lead without tempting fate? Why do people like Ibsen? And most importantly, when is a play ever ‘finished’ and ready to stage? Moments after blockhead leading man Dominique (Rufus Sewell) fails to bring her to climax, the company ingenue Simone (Georgina Cates) promises to press her forehead against Tuccio’s door to give him inspiration as he writes. 

“You should press harder,” he says wryly. 

Illuminata plays with the same themes as La Traviata. To laugh, and to love, seem to be the only way to survive in a world that does not value acting, beautiful words, or transcendent music. Beppo (Leo Bassi), moments before he smears spaghetti across his bare chest and juggles a wardrobe with his feet, declares his creed: “A clown laughs at death.” A montage follows in which everyone is screaming in Italian.

But it isn’t all pratfalls. While frequently playful and risque, Illuminata is also a profoundly melancholy story. Starvation is right around the corner; failure is not only a blow to the ego, but a threat to life as well. For this reason, Turturro says, you must “tenderize the meat of humanity.” Opera and the emotions it evokes in us dispels the “tribal instinct” that tramples delicate, creative people—those who, like Violetta, need care and love to survive.

Theater is not possible without passion, and passion can be evoked in many ways—even when it may not be enough, in the end, to create the desired catharsis. The characters in Illuminata cope using jokes, slapstick, clowning, tears, one-night stands, jealousy, and yes, a choral interlude. After a night of dalliances, Astergourd and Pallenchio (Beverly D’Angelo and Donal McCann) reunite over breakfast in bed. 

“We live in a drama,” they coo, feeding one another fresh melon. The sweetness of the scene is only heightened by the conflict they’ve just weathered, and the stress that awaits them in the very next moment. 

In La Traviata, the sympathy we feel for Violetta is the same feeling we might feel for the characters in Illuminata, or even for ourselves. Violetta is caught between life and death as she sings her aria of memory. Everything is effortful as she struggles for breath, departing into the higher range again and again, only to be grounded by the muted sound of the oboe. Her joys and pains, she sings, very soon will be over: “Goodbye to all the beautiful dreams, the roses of my cheeks are pale.” Those roses flowered so briefly, but beautifully enough to enrapture all of Paris. 

Verdi’s instructions say dolente pianissimo, dolente a piano, which means to perform the aria fadingly, “with pain.” As the key shifts from A Minor to A Major, Violetta asks God for forgiveness for her life as a “wayward woman.” She ends on a high A with a cry of pain that is abruptly cut off. Even in her last moments, she cannot help enchanting us.

At the end of my uncle’s cancer treatment, the voice that sang and laughed and teased and told jokes faded to a pinched whisper. My uncle’s husband shaved off his beautiful curly hair when he started chemotherapy; the long illness and 18 months of chemical and surgical torture deadened his follicles, so that when I saw him for the last time, he was completely bald, eyelashes and eyebrows blank spaces on his expressive face. 

What I noticed most was not how shrunken he looked as he was dying, but how he sounded. The third cancer roosted in the part of his brain that was responsible for speech. As a result, my uncle could only talk in loops and phrases that repeated like a skipping record. His vocabulary shrank to a few words that all seemed wrong to him; he spoke them with a frown of self-distrust, as if surprised to learn these were the only sounds he could still make. The expressive man whom I’d known my entire life was reduced to a broken music box. 

He might have recognized me when I came to see him in the hospital, but I will never know if that’s true or just my wishful thinking. His immune system was so weak that I could not touch or kiss him goodbye. 

The day before his funeral, I ironed the Hawaiian shirts he tailored for himself and listened to Madame Butterfly. I listened to Aida for months after, imagining him in the chorus as the elephant took its fatal steps across the stage. I had less and less to say about this man who loved me—this strong, good, patient man whose absence marked my heart as no other loss ever has. As my uncle’s words failed him, so did mine. I loved him as much as I ever had; his dying was a knife in my chest, a wound I expect will never completely heal. 

“Our lives wind themselves together,” says Tuccio in Illuminata. “When they wind themselves together, that is something fine and rare. When they unwind, I leave it to others to diagnose the cause.” 

What can anyone utter at their loved one’s deathbed? I listened to opera to tell me what to do. At the end, the simplest words were the only ones that felt true enough to say. 

Thank you. I’ll see you. Farewell.