October 25, 2015

What Mimi is really saying in her first aria

I think most opera-lovers take Mimi's famous aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" at face value.

"La Grisette" by Constantin Guys
That's a mistake.

Because Mimi is 1) likeable and 2) doomed, opera-lovers tend to over-romanticize her. Most of you out there want -- no, need -- this young woman to be as sweet, loving, loyal, demure and guileless as she appears on the surface as she steps into Rodolfo's apartment. But it's important to bear in mind that this is one of Puccini's most verismo operas. Verismo, you'll recall, means "truth". For composers of the turn-of-the-century "nuova scuola" movement in Italian opera (such as Mascagni and Leoncavallo), this meant NO MORE FAIRY-TALE OPERAS.

No more dashing, brave, virtuous, noble tenor heroes.

No more black-hearted, purely-evil baritone villains.

And no more sweet, chaste, maidenly, faithful soprano heroines.

"People aren't perfect; we're all a messy conglomeration of good AND bad impulses", the verismo composers are saying.

In the case of Mimi, she is actually a fairly typical example of a type of19th-century working girl known as a grisette. (Click on the link for a bit of history.) Of course, opportunities for women were lamentably limited in the 1800's. A college education was a fantasy, as was a career in business, law or medicine. Women either found themselves a husband or, like Eliza Doolittle, aspired to a position in a flower shop, hat shop, or the like. But if you think we have salary inequality in 2015, imagine the pay scale for females in 1830! It wasn't enough to live on. So the working girls of Paris learned the cardinal rule of urban living: Do whatever you have to do to survive.

For the grisettes (so named because they tended to wear simple gray dresses), this often meant making oneself available to be picked up by a young man at a tavern or other gathering-place with the goal of getting him to buy her a meal. If he did, she would spend the evening with him, laughing at his jokes, going along with his plans, with one clear understanding:

There was a sexual quid pro quo to come.

At the end of the evening, she would repay his largesse by returning to his place and sleeping with him. The grisette's sexuality was an asset to be leveraged for the necessities of daily life. With that bit of social history as our frame of reference, let's examine the Mimi of Act 1.

I believe it's no coincidence that she happens to knock on Rodolfo's door immediately after the other three bohemians depart for the Latin Quarter. She's been waiting for such a moment, hoping to find "the cute one" alone in the garrett. Surely the ploy of her candle having gone out is rather flimsy; in fact, once he re-lights it, we see her deliberately blow it out again to prolong her visit. When Rodolfo offers her some wine, she doesn't say "No, no, thanks, nothing for me"; she takes it with no hesitation.  Now let's see what occurs in her great aria.

Rodolfo, remember, has just finished his "who am I?" monologue. Among other things, he states that he is a poet, and that, although poor, he is rich in dreams, fancies, and castles in the air. (And you thought that was an American English expression!)

When it's Mimi's return to talk, she says the following, explaining her fondness for flowers:
"I like those things that ... speak of dreams and of fancies; those things with the name of poetry".

Translation: "You like dreams and fancies? ME TOO! You like poetry? ME TOO!" Gee, what a co-inky-dink.

She continues:
"I make my meals alone, by myself." Translation: I'm available. No boyfriend. No competition for you.
"I don't always go to Mass," Translation: I'm not one of those goody-goody prudes; I'll "put out".
"But I often pray to the Lord." Translation: ...But I'm a nice girl; I'm not a slutty whore.
"I live alone. All alone." Translation: Again - no boyfriend. Gee whiz, I'm lonely and unattached.

And then comes a little line that seems insignificant, but I think is incredibly significant!
"There, in (my) little white room, I look over the roofs and into the sky."

What's the big deal about that, you ask? Think back to the opening moments of Act 1, after Marcello declares he's going to drown a Pharaoh. He asks Rodolfo what he's doing (since he's not doing any writing), and his friend answers:
"I'm looking out at the gray skies and the thousand smoking chimnies of Paris"... etc.

Mimi has just paraphrased Rodolfo's opening line!

WAS SHE EAVESDROPPING AT THE GARRETT DOOR THE WHOLE TIME, WAITING TIL RODOLFO WAS ALONE? Ducking into the shadows when Colline and Schaunard came along?

Not impossible!

That she's a grisette with a plan becomes even more apparent in the final moments of the act. Consider: after the great duet of "O soave fanciulla", Rodolfo plants a kiss on her. She protests. He makes another pass at her.

She firmly says "Your friends are waiting". (Translation: no dinner, no sex.)

He thinks she's telling him to go on by himself. Shyly but insistently, Mimi says she was hoping she could go with him. She just invited herself to Christmas dinner at his expense.

He suggests they stay inside and (obviously) make out.

She demures.

Then, a very transactional, business-like exchange:

HIM: And when we return?:
HER: (teasingly) Aren't you curious!

Translation: "Yes, I will sleep with you."

Now, if you like your sopranos innocent and maidenly and you're inclined to scoff at my interpretation, let me remind you: by Act 4, Mimi has moved on. She's in the company of a wealthy nobleman, riding in a luxurious carriage, dressed to the nines. She has moved on up the survival-by-prostitution ladder of 1830's Paris and become either a Lorette (a "kept woman") or a full-fledged Courtesan a la Violetta Valery or her real-life model, Marie Duplessis. Her embroidery days are behind her; she found a way to survive until tuberculosis ended her ascent.

This much I'll give you, you Romantics: yes, at the end she came to realize that she did, in fact, love Rodolfo, in spite of his immaturity, jealousy and other flaws. In a wonderful bit of dramatic symmetry recalling how, in Act 1, she waited until she could be alone with Rodolfo to introduce herself, in Act 4 she waits until all the bohemians have left on their various errands to open her eyes and ask Sono andati? (Are they gone?) Now she wants them to be alone to tell Rodolfo that he truly is the love of her life.

That's the thing about a terminal illness; about facing one's own mortality.

It makes you grow up fast; it makes you assess what remains of your life and come to grips with the things that matter most.


  1. Great summary, I think you're right on the button. I think there are two meanings to this aria. The obvious which I think you have down excellently and then a much deeper universal meaning. Would you have a go at the much deeper univeral meaning? I'd love to hear what you have to say as I'm realy trying to understand this aria.

  2. I really think what you wrote is excellent. It got me thinking. What we see is the historical realm, the down to earth, changing, everyday realm of Life. But the Music, what we hear communicates the Universal realm, the eternal, unchanging realm. Its like a marraige of the two realms. We see the ordinary realm with our eyes, but we hear the eternal, universal realm with our ears. I think your explanation of the Historical realm is excellent, first class. I would really like to hear your explanation of the Universal realm that is expressed in Mimi's first aria.