A hotel in Tuscany is offering personalized preludes from a resident composer.
There are plenty of reasons to travel to Tuscany. Among the most famous are the vineyards draped across its lush hills, but that’s not why I’ve made the journey this time. I’ve come to hear myself in the operatic city of Lucca to meet with a composer who will write a prelude not just for me but about me, and I honestly have no idea what that really means or why someone would do this.
Obviously, I have to find out.
I’m familiar with the idea of sitting for oil paintings, but I don’t know anyone who’s commissioned a composer to represent them on the piano, so I’m on my way to Grand Universe Lucca, directly across from Teatro del Giglio, within the medieval walls of a city that dates back to 180 BCE and has more recently become renowned as the childhood home of its favorite son, composer Giacomo Puccini (Madama Butterfly, La bohème, etc.). They didn’t always love him—in fact, he couldn’t even live there during his adult life because of his scandalous and illegal relationship with a married woman—but they sure adore him now.
High above the Garfagnana Valley, near the medieval town of Barga, I check in to the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco after a zig-zag drive up an impressive hill I’d personally call a mountain. This property was originally a hunting lodge and is now an elegant hotel with plush rooms overlooking the entire valley beyond the shimmering pool at the edge of the hill. I’m here to recharge and adjust to my new surroundings while catching a glimpse of the Tuscan countryside Puccini loved while ostracized from his home city. Up here, there’s no trace of opera, but the breezy silence is just perfect for an indulgent afternoon nap with the French doors of my balcony wide open.
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Here, I spend two days filling my lungs with clean mountain air as I wake up to the morning clouds settled above the time-tested villages in the valley below. I stroll nearby towns and verdant landscapes in the sun each afternoon and overdo it with pasta and wine on the terrace each night (hey, at least I went through the effort of making the pasta myself after booking a private cooking class with the hotel’s chef). But I’m ultimately here for the music, and though I did overhear a woman practicing vocal scales through a window on an aimless evening galivant through otherwise silent Barga, I’ve fully revived from my journey, and it’s time to head where the real music is.
My meeting with the composer is set for my final day in Tuscany—the grand finale of this adventure—so I’ll spend two days acquainting myself with Lucca first. Grand Universe Lucca couldn’t be more centrally located within the historic heart of town, so it won’t be difficult to explore by foot and drop in and out of my room whenever the whim strikes.
I’m a strong advocate for taking walking tours on the first day in a new place to orient myself a bit and see what strikes my interest for further exploration, so I take a fascinating jaunt with a passionate guide from TurisLucca, who fills me in on the city’s posh pasts as both a merchant hub and then a banking center, both of which brought plenty of cash and panache to Lucca. The Lucchese still wear this legacy proudly in their chic outfits, evening strolls, and lingering meals. This is clearly a place of status, but there’s a grittier side to every story, and she also shows me the pornographic graffiti left by medieval pilgrims on the walls of the cathedral, as well as the amphitheater that was later converted to bare-bones apartments in a less glam part of town that’s now quite fashionable. But most importantly to me, she brings me to the Puccini Museum, at his birthplace within the city walls.
Inside the home of young Puccini are mostly photos and letters, music scores and manuscripts, and opera memorabilia, including costuming, but the main attraction is the piano on which he composed some of his best-loved operas, like Turandot, and it reminds me why I’m here. I spend the next day and a half regularly passing the life-size Puccini statue in Piazza Cittadella, increasingly conflicted by the notion that he wasn’t even allowed to live here, in the house he still owned and kept for his family, for any of his adult life, while today his name is plastered on buildings citywide. References to his operas in shop names and cocktail lists abound. But now it’s time to leave Puccini behind in the Lucca of yesteryear and return to the piano in Grand Universe Lucca’s lobby, where the city’s newest prelude is about to be composed. About me.
To be completely honest, I’m wildly intrigued by the hotel’s Prelude to Existence experience, touted as the hotel’s most exclusive, but I don’t understand how a person expects to boil me down into a page of notes and produce them after just an hour of meeting. My doubts are strong, so I arrive with a friend who will go first, giving me plenty of time to sip champagne, nibble on mini fruit tarts, and silently judge. Her name is Elena, and we have similar tastes in fashion and cuisine (except for her obsession with porcini mushrooms), but this experience teaches me that our souls are not as similar as our surfaces because I hate the prelude that’s arising from her session. Maybe hate is a strong word, but I don’t connect with it at all. It’s light and airy…a dreamy little piece reminiscent of her favorite composer, Debussy. I become afraid this exclusive (and expensive) experience is the wash I feared, after all.
But then it’s my turn.
I tell composer Andrea Anfuso that my life has been less shimmery and fairytale than a Debussy piece, more full of the emotion and tumult of Soviet composers like Khachaturian and Shostakovich. My path seems to be one of dazzling peaks and treacherous valleys, not sunny meadows. My favorite flavors are strong. I love extreme heat in the summer. I’m super competitive. While I’m still unloading these first few ideas, Anfuso’s fingers begin toying with chords that represent my words, and I’m already gripped. These are sounds I understand instantly, and he knows it.
He continues to play as we talk, and he can sense from my body language when I’m disconnecting, which is both fascinating and alarming because I’m not sure how someone can detect so much so quickly and because I had already written this off as a luxurious gimmick, not a therapeutic exercise. I tell Anfuso that I obviously want a happy ending in my life, but something substantial, not frivolous, and when he plays his finished draft for me, I struggle not to cry. It’s not that I have anything against crying, even publicly, but I’m not sure why I’m feeling the urge, so I’m pushing it down. Maybe it’s because I was so cynical after witnessing Elena’s experience, not yet understanding how intimate a simple piece could be. Maybe it’s because I’d just had a new form of conversation in which I spoke words, and he responded in music, yet I understood. Maybe it’s because I just heard myself for the first time. Or maybe it’s because he gave me the ending I truly hope I get.
If you listen to the piece, I suspect you won’t connect to it any more than I connected to Elena’s. But that, it turns out, is the point.