Costa Concordia: the Opera

The next time someone asks if you know a great idea for a contemporary opera, you can say "yes."

On 13 January 2012, the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, carrying 4,252 people, capsized and sank off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

Captain Francesco Schettino was arrested on 32 charges of manslaughter in connection with causing a shipwreck. He sailed too close to the shore.

This is the bit that hooked me.

[Captain] Schettino was widely ridiculed during the trial for insisting he did not abandon ship but slipped off the Costa Concordia as it rolled over, falling onto a lifeboat which carried him ashore against his wishes.

In a widely-quoted phone call a coast guard official is heard upbraiding Schettino and ordering him to “get back on board, for fuck's sake” — an order the former captain refused to follow.

The violation of the ancient code of the sea which states a captain must be the last man off a sinking ship only accounted for one year of the [16 year] sentence handed down by a three-judge panel in the Tuscan town of Grosseto.

This is what reeled me in.

A further person on the bridge was a Moldovan dancer, Domnica Cemortan, who testified that she was in a romantic relationship with [the married] Captain Schettino and had just boarded the ship as a non-paying passenger.

He’s Italian, a philanderer, and he sank a cruise liner - one of the largest ships ever to be abandoned - in what must surely be the most unsuccessful attempt to impress a woman in all recorded history. Especially after he further disgraced himself by abandoning ship, leaving 32 people to die. There was cocaine involved too…

Schettino reminds me of Il Capitano - one of the four stock characters of the Italian commedia dell'arte. Il Capitano is a pretentious captain who uses bravado and excessive shows of manliness to hide his true cowardly nature. But commedia dell’arte is physical theater. I want to go deeper into Schettino’s character. I want to hear him weigh his options, choose his actions, examine his conscience, and express his certainties, reservations, hopes and fears. I want to experience his slump from stud to chump.

There’s only one art form that can take us there.

That’s how I got it in my head to try to write an opera.

Let’s be clear: I proposed myself as librettist - story and words. My friend Matthew Whiteside is a very talented composer.

He lives in Glasgow. We met on a multidisciplinary artists’ retreat in Aberdeen in 2016. He has the ability to assemble relatively large groups of people and coax them into singing and/or playing the same tune. I have the ability to put words in people’s mouths. This is a match made in heaven for a game played in hell.

Matthew and I pour over the transcripts of the mayday call and court documents, the marketing brochures for the Costa Concordia, blog posts and online commentary from surviving passengers and the relatives of the victims. We realize the best way to present this story is to curate the real-world records and media into a documentary opera. We claim the artist’s prerogative of conjuring interior dialogue, and sequencing events in the best order to create the desired emotional effect in the audience.

  1. make ‘em laugh

  2. make ‘em cry

    All that’s left get our idea in front of the artistic director of La Scala. Or the Metropolitan Opera. Or Scottish Opera. Or NZ Opera if no one else has a firstname@companyname.com email address.

What I like about opera is that it’s unapologetically pretend.

I’m an opera fancier. By no means a fanatic. I used to live near the Met Opera in New York and every now and then I’d toodle along to try and better myself by paying $25 to stand at the back. I like standing at the opera, and the theatre. I find it a more engaging way to watch. And it stops me from falling asleep. So does the storytelling. Classic operas are classic for a reason. Wagner nuts get genuinely high from the audio visual sensory assault of a well-staged production. As a writer, I fell like a sketch artist when I watch feelings that I’d try to capture in a couple of line being more thoroughly teased out and explored over 10+ minutes in (words + music) x story.

A good friend of mine told me that if you want to understand male violence against women, you won’t spend a better ten minutes than with the finale of Carmen.

A jilted lover wants ‘his’ woman to take him back. He takes her aside, and tries calmly to reason with her. The answer is no. He begs for her pity. No. He offers to save her. Still no. He accepts that she means what she says: she doesn’t love him, and doesn’t want him any more. So he tries to force her to love him. When that doesn’t work, he fucking kills her.

Add the thematic backdrop of a bullfighting culture, and a Spanish story sung in French, and I hope I’m conveying why I think opera is awesome art. I’ll link you to a video later that also doubles as the audition tape for my first choice to create the part of Captain Schettino - the heartthrob tenor Jonas Kaufmann.

Nixon in China showed me opera’s potential to reflect on historical events.

It’s composed by John Adams and the libretto is by the poet Alice Goodman. It’s an opera that uses an historical event to explore very human feelings and attitudes towards the construction and maintenance of power and influence. You want to know the basis of my fear and grudging admiration of news? Listen to what Nixon has to sing about it. I’ll link you to a video below. It will also demonstrate the way opera can use abstraction, representation and amplification of body, voice and environment as a spade to tunnel beneath the superficial, and down towards the essence of human nature. That’s why it doesn’t have to apologise for being pretend. It’s realer than real.

That’s is the kind of thing Matthew and I want to do with Costa Concordia.

Costa Concordia is an opera about ‘Captain Coward.’

Composer: Matthew Whiteside.

Libretto: Arthur Meek

Costa Concordia is the story of a major break-up. A man has to reconcile his feelings about himself and his actions with the way the rest of the world sees them. He feels he is dashing, brave, and admirable. He defends his actions. Then, faced with facts, consequences and alternative perspectives, he is forced to admit to failings, repent and hope for forgiveness from a world that won’t forget.

The libretto is crafted from found text of the tragic real-life story of the Costa Concordia. All the materials we use exist in the public domain: from marketing brochures advertising the cruise, online posts from passengers and their families, recorded emergency transcripts as the boat sinks, press conference questions and statements, corporate memos, court transcripts, legal judgements and shareholder reports.

The Logistics.

Principals: Tenor Francesco Shettino, Mezzo-soprano - Signora Costa (the embodiment of the shipping company he worked for. She promoted him lovingly through the ranks since he was a teenager - but chooses to throw him to the wolves)

Sub principals: Soprano - Moldovan dancer/Mrs Shettino/Judge. Bass/basso profondo - De Falco. 

Small Chorus (4-8 voices): represent passengers, media, the general public and other smaller characters.  

Orchestra: flute (doubling pic/bass), oboe, 2x clarinet (doubling bass), 2x bassoon (doubling contra), horn, trumpet, trombone, 2x perc, e.guitar, 4.3.3.2.1 

Act I                Loading Condition

Scene i: Captain Schettino makes himself center of attention as he welcomes the excited passengers aboard. Signora Costa co-hosts. Everyone is thrilled with the luxury and opulence of Costa Concordia - we meet individual passengers and learn how they came to be aboard and what they expectat of their cruise. Some are veteran cruisers, some are anxious first timers. One elderly couple has saved all their lives for this journey to celebrate their retirement. One lovely woman is onboard for free - thanks to the generosity of the dashing captain.  

Schettino and Signora Costa’s musical language will draw on text used in advertising campaigns to pastiche the unrealistic promises that holiday companies try and invoke through marketing. The passengers’ stories will be drawn from blog posts and comments from real passengers and their relatives attesting to their feelings before setting out on their fateful journey. Some will survive. Some will lose their lives. You won’t be able to tell who’s who.

Scene ii: Captain Schettino brings a woman who is not his wife onto the bridge to watch him work. He gives the orders to launch. He waves away the offer of a local pilot, preferring to take command and dazzle his lady-friend by charting a daring course between jagged rocks and the nearby shore.

Scene iii: Evacuations A and B.

Evacuation A. The ship is going down. Schettino knows this is going to look bad for him. Really bad. But he attempts to coordinate an orderly evacuation. He comes to the assistance of a vulnerable passenger when he accidentally slips and falls into a lifeboat. He attempts to reboard the ship, but his efforts are in vain. He drifts helplessly in the dark towards the shore.

Evacuation B.

The ship is going down. Schettino knows this is going to look bad for him. Really bad. He is overwhelmed by the circumstances, filled with fear. He pushes past rows of vulnerable passengers, oblivious to their cries as he lowers a lifeboat into the waves and saves his own skin.

Act II               Flooding Progression

This entire act is a duet in which I set a lightly crafted version of the following verbatim mayday call to music. I am open to setting it in Italian.

De Falco: "This is De Falco speaking from Livorno. Am I speaking with the commander?

Schettino: "Yes. Good evening, Cmdr De Falco."

De Falco: "Please tell me your name."

Schettino: "I'm Cmdr Schettino, commander."

De Falco: "Schettino? Listen Schettino. There are people trapped on board. Now you go with your boat under the prow on the starboard side. There is a pilot ladder. You will climb that ladder and go on board. You go on board and then you will tell me how many people there are. Is that clear? I'm recording this conversation, Cmdr Schettino …"

Schettino: "Commander, let me tell you one thing …"

De Falco: "Speak up! Put your hand in front of the microphone and speak more loudly, is that clear?"

Schettino: "In this moment, the boat is tipping …"

De Falco: "I understand that, listen, there are people that are coming down the pilot ladder of the prow. You go up that pilot ladder, get on that ship and tell me how many people are still on board. And what they need. Is that clear? You need to tell me if there are children, women or people in need of assistance. And tell me the exact number of each of these categories. Is that clear? Listen Schettino, that you saved yourself from the sea, but I am going to … really do something bad to you … I am going to make you pay for this. Go on board, (expletive)!"

Schettino: "Commander, please …"

De Falco: "No, please. You now get up and go on board. They are telling me that on board there are still …"

Schettino: "I am here with the rescue boats, I am here, I am not going anywhere, I am here …"

De Falco: "What are you doing, commander?"

Schettino: "I am here to co-ordinate the rescue …"

De Falco: "What are you co-ordinating there? Go on board! Co-ordinate the rescue from aboard the ship. Are you refusing?"

Schettino: "No, I am not refusing."

De Falco: "Are you refusing to go aboard, commander? Can you tell me the reason why you are not going?"

Schettino: "I am not going because the other lifeboat is stopped."

De Falco: "You go aboard. It is an order. Don't make any more excuses. You have declared 'abandon ship'. Now I am in charge. You go on board! Is that clear? Do you hear me? Go, and call me when you are aboard. My air rescue crew is there."

Schettino: "Where are your rescuers?"

De Falco: "My air rescue is on the prow. Go. There are already bodies, Schettino."

Schettino: "How many bodies are there?"

De Falco: "I don't know. I have heard of one. You are the one who has to tell me how many there are. Christ!"

Schettino: "But do you realise it is dark and here we can't see anything …"

De Falco: "And so what? You want to go home, Schettino? It is dark and you want to go home? Get on that prow of the boat using the pilot ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what their needs are. Now!"

Schettino: "… I am with my second in command."

De Falco: "So both of you go up then … You and your second go on board now. Is that clear?"

Schettino: "Commander, I want to go on board, but it is simply that the other boat here … there are other rescuers. It has stopped and is waiting …"

De Falco: "It has been an hour that you have been telling me the same thing. Now, go on board. Go on board! And then tell me immediately how many people there are there."

Schettino: "OK, commander."

De Falco: "Go, immediately!"

He does not go.

Act III             Final Equilibrium.

Scene i: A media circus morphs into a trial. It all comes out in public, in court. Schettino blames everyone but himself - an unnamed Indonesian helmsman, the company personified by Signora Costa.

Scene ii: For the first time, Schettino is alone. For the first time he has to ask himself, did I do wrong? After a painful soul-search, he is mortified to discover that the answer is ‘yes’. It’s as if he’s breaking up with an aspect of himself - Il Capitano - his dream job and position in society. Can the world forgive him? Can he forgive himself? Who can he be now that he is no longer Captain Schettino?

Curtain.

As of yet, La Scala has not found room in its program. So I choose to share this juicy peach with you, instead, my beloved Substack readers.

If this is your first time here, welcome.

I’ve got so many more bite size pieces of art delight you with.

Images and links.

I want you to be able to read in a single, distraction-free bite. So I’ve removed hyperlinks and images from the main body of this story.

Here they are:

TheLocal.IT on the final chapter of Schettino’s tale.

The transcript of the mayday call is from The Grauniad

Matthew Whiteside’s website is here.

And one of his tunes is on Spotify here:

Jonas Kaufmann auditions for the part of Captain Schettino in the finale of Carmen

Nixon in China: an incredible song about the power and effect of news.

But you might find that this version sounds better.

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If this is your first time here, welcome.

I’ve got so many more bite size pieces of art delight you with. I’m handing out citizenship for free.

Question

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