A more tender time

April 29, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafielf (With Your Permission)

Speaking of opera, following our interview with Mark DuBois, much of whose life has been spent singing opera, there was, once upon a time, fabulous annual Opera Festival held in a strange place in Tuscany. I may have mentioned this place before in passing, as an extremely important and pleasant several months of my life but a book about it, called A Heap of Stones by Adam Pollock, has come out and I need a break from ranting at you.

Our life in Batignano really began when Ernest and I were working for the Canadian Opera Company, back stage, building the sets for the upcoming opera and finishing props. This was all happening under the demanding eye of Adam Pollock, a British designer, a youngish man of tremendous energy who found our parochial Toronto strangely old fashion and very dull. However, we seemed to connect with him and told him about our plans to travel to Europe for an unscheduled length of time, a little later that year.

“Oh, you must come to Italy to pick the olives!” he declared and we agreed that we must.

So, after our time in Germany, staying with family for a few weeks, Adam sent us a note to say, “The olives are ready!”

We had bought a VW Beetle and, with our streamer trunks in the back seat, we made our way south, gasping at our first sight of the mighty Swiss Alps and feeling our whole brains and sense of things change as we drove through the Italian countryside. A day was all we gave to the fabulous city of Florence, knowing there would be other chances to get to know it but eager to carry on to our destination.

We found Batignano, a stone and brick village of hundreds of years and a thousand souls. With some difficulty, finally finding someone who spoke some French, we were directed up a stony track, Ernest easing the Beetle gently through the dangers to an edifice that was wonderful and rather primitive, the 17th Century Santa Croce Convento of Batignano.

Disembarking, we shouted our hellos and within moments, there was Adam, calling a welcome and ushering us in. A well stood in the courtyard, which was framed by arches on all sides. When he had first bought the building, those arches were bricked in but he and others had taken sledges and muscle to clear them. It had been a thrill for him to free them and see the beginnings of a very long term and expensive renovation.

His partner, Robert Brain, an anthropologist whose every morning from seven to noon was taken by his writing his next book, hailed us as well and we were soon settled in to one of the monks’ cells with a basic bed big enough for two and a basin for washing with the water we hauled from the well.

Oil lamps lit our way through the halls in the nights. A gas Bombela fuelled the stove and the fireplace provided warmth in the large room we used as a lounge. The four of us fell to with the work in the Convento. We were there to be involved and it was magic.

Italian lessons began immediately, Adam instructing us in the grammar of the language from his position in the next olive tree. With a background in French and Latin not that long ago in high school, we readily learned by rote and worked at conversations with the locals. Tuscany is the land of Italian truly spoken, not as a dialect. So, what we learned carried us everywhere ever after.

Grosseto stood some 13 kilometres to the south, planted on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the complex of waters running into the Mediterranean Sea). Town enough it was, without being a city and the market place was the hub to other stores, offices and services. Each trip in was another lesson for us, another understanding of the world outside our limited home world. Everything was new and I could have happily gone no further, I believed then and, in many ways, I still do.

All this was some years before Adam imagined and made a reality of his annual Opera Festival at Batignano. It is something that can be easily seen online.

Adam was to return to London, for work he had been engaged to do in the U.K. Robert was staying on in Italy. We were invited to remain if we wished and Ernest was offered a job with the builder to work on the roof that was being replaced. Before long, we were in the convento on our own and that was fine too.

When we visited Rome for a few days and Batignano was about half way between Florence and Rome, we naturally went to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. It was stunning to stand before it after knowing it from afar.

We wandered through the Vatican Museum and came to stand within Michelangelo’s monumental Sistine Chapel.

On that day, we were the only people there.

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