Calvino’s Lightness

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino lists some essential qualities of good literature. The first of these is lightness, or literature’s ability to rise above the heaviness of living. Through the lightness of literature, we as readers can take flight into another world: the world of the story, poem, or play. Far from being wishful thinking or escapism, lightness is a new way of looking at the world, Calvino says. His image for the new millennium is taken from Boccaccio’s Decameron, an Italian classic. In the story, the poet Cavalcanti leaps over a tombstone to escape some approaching men who wish to engage in a philosophical argument. For Calvino, Cavalcanti’s leap over the tombstone exemplifies how the lightness of poetry leaps over the heaviness of mortality.


Calvino also uses Franz Kafka’s story “The Bucket Rider” as an example of lightness: the protagonist, a poor boy unable to afford the coal necessary to stay warm, flies away in an empty coal bucket to a world of his own imagination. Surrounded by the utmost privation, the boy literally flies to another world. The lightness of his fantasy enables him to rise above the heaviness of his circumstances. 81a45416fc

Calvino draws analogies from the scientific world as well: the “heaviness” of matter is made of atoms, which, paradoxically, are mostly empty space. Also, computers run programs via software, an intangible sequence of commands which nevertheless produces concrete results when we run the program.

As a competitive opera singer, I see lightness in the arias I have performed. I chose “Der Holle Nacht,” or the Queen of the Night aria, from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute as my example of lightness. Everything about opera is theatrical and over the top, from the storylines of the operas themselves to the makeup and costumes to the sound of the music. In order to produce such a light, high pitched sound, the singer who plays the Queen of the Night must provide her voice with an extraordinary amount of bodily support. She must sing with good posture, an open rib cage, strong diaphragm, lifted soft palate, correct tongue and lip placement, and controlled air supply. While paying attention to vocal technique, she must also bring her acting skills and artistic interpretation to the role, all the while making her performance look effortless.

I chose Natalie Dessay’s performance of the aria because I think she does the best job combining vocal technique with artistry. Click on the link below to watch.

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