You are here

Featured Writer: Lieselot de Wilde - The Mask of Venice

La Serenissima. The poetical nickname behind which Venice, one of the most eccentric cities in the world, hides its face. As if it were a metaphorical façade for the city of masks.

There is no place on earth where everyday life is as much influenced by theatre as Venice. But the plot of this play becomes more and more of a parody and the price the city has to pay for it too steep.

Coincidence or not, but in 1637 the first public opera house in the Western world opened its doors in Venice. This meant that all the people could enjoy watching an opera. By now this is the common standard, but in those times it was revolutionary. Before, the function of composing was merely occasional. When a king married, a rich duke fathered his first son, or another celebration took place, an opera was ordered and later performed in the palace for an intimate group of eminent invités. Only on rare occasions did regular people have had the chance to see a spectacle like this.

At that time, opera was considered an extravaganza, strengthened by the fact that it only emerged from the end of the 16th century onwards. It was a curiosity that only came into existence because of a creative, yet false interpretation of how ancient Greek and Roman actors performed their tragedies. The mention of choirs in these tragedies led to the revolutionary idea that those plays were put to music entirely.

During the Western renaissance, classical ancient art and the contemporary perception of beauty was revived. For theatre and vocal music, this meant that the text and its clarity became very important. Bodily movements were very balanced, in function of the text interpretation, and inspired by postures of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The renaissance artists “rediscovered”, but actually invented, a special code of hand gestures to indicate and emphasise certain words and affects. They also gave life to a whole new view on the use of masks to typify certain characters. That is why the first operas were called masques, directly referring to this masquerade.

And if you say ‘mask’, you think of Venice. In the 16th century, wearing a mask was not just a privilege for actors and singers. Venetians themselves came masked to the opera house and in the backstage of reality they performed their own theatre of amorous or political intrigues, adultery or jobbery.

But contrary to this picturesque image, over the last decades the mask of Venice is becoming more and more sarcastic in character. The masque, that is performed daily, is threatened with losing its elegant gestures entirely. Plastic masks made in China dress the streets and shop windows. The lifelike theatre bows under the weight of the millions of excursionists, while cruise ships plough their way through the authentic stage setting, and Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagione is conducted with selfie sticks.

Venice has always been a delight for tourists and its appearance has always been unique. Eye-candy for everyone that strolls the streets and squares. But we should keep in mind that this city is old. Not only the infrastructure: it also has the soul of an ancient city. And as it is built on a lagoon, constructed on water, we must be aware that all the beauty and art that this city contains will be swallowed and lost once we have reached the tipping point in the development of global warming.

Behind the serene mask there is a face crying for change. We have to respect this. When we visit Venice, we are spectators and actors in a fabulous theatre. Let us watch it with astonishment and perform the play that fits the scene.

Written by Lieselot de Wilde.

Lieselot de Wilde is a Belgian soprano who specialises in baroque and contemporary music. She has performed on the stages of Royal Opera House, Opera Vlaandere, Centre National des Arts and Operdays.

Watch Lieselot perform Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla Nanna by 16th century Venetian composer - Tarquinio Merula.

Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla Nanna - Tarquinio Merula (1594/5 - 1665) from De Wilderness on Vimeo.

Film Credits:

Ensemble Bel Ayre: Lieselot De Wilde, Sofie Vanden Eynde and Pieter Theuns, 
Sound: A Studio Above
Camera: Lilith Geeraerts 
Film Editing: Niko Himschoot 
Space: Huis Happaert