Searching for Silence - Summer 2022
By Tony Lopresti
Photo by Valentina Zanzi
My name is Tony Lopresti and I am a silent actor. Otherwise known as a mime.
I’ve always been plagued by the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
I recently figured out that I am what I want to be, and that I always have been. No matter what job or career I was in, and I’ve been in many; no matter whether I was single or not; no matter if it was before or after I became a father – I am, and always have been, a seeker of silence. I believe that silence is the purest form of communication, the most sublime experience of existence.
During this past summer of 2022, after two years of pandemic and of political turmoil throughout the world, I sought silence. And I found it. But not where I expected it.
I thought I’d find silence doing what I do best – creating silent theatre. I work every summer with the Festival Musica sull’Acqua on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. I create original silent theatre choreographies to be presented at one of the Festival’s concerts.
But this year, the silence of the work was shattered when I became ill and spent about a week off my feet. I lost half of my rehearsal time. I felt certain that this year the project would be a total failure. Once I got back, by some grace, the aura of a modern-day miracle settled over my rehearsal space, and the work progressed as if the actors had been doing this new piece all their lives. I can honestly rate the result – Meditations in Black and White – as one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever created.
By concert night, though, I still hadn’t recovered my stamina. But I had to work prior to the concert with the lighting technicians on light placement and focus. I had to oversee the actors’ tech rehearsal and their makeup and costumes. I had to work with the musicians and stage crew on the placement of the grand piano. And throughout the concert I had to give the lighting operator each of the light cues. All the time I worried if I’d make it through to the music’s closing notes…
No silence that night…
We left Lake Como to join my childhood best friend in Torino. He introduced us to many new friends. My Sicilian cousin who lives not too far away came with his wife to visit. We were on the move almost every day, walking to visit people and places, sharing wonderful meals. Every minute was filled with delightful new experiences, but, still recovering, I struggled to keep up.
I am fluent in Italian but the strain of speaking and listening all day long in another language can be wearying. The brain just wants to shut down. Sleep comes fitfully.
No silence in Torino…
From Torino we traveled with our friend to Tuscany. We stayed on a friend’s vineyard. Other Italian friends joined us for several days. Together we talked, we laughed, we cooked together and ate and drank for nearly a week. It was terrific. It was heartwarming. It was fun! But it wasn’t silent. It came close, though. The very large house was in a low-lying section of the vineyard. The location shielded us from any internet connections and from any cell phone service. There was no WIFI, no television, no radio. Only the people gathered, and the donkeys who lived in a nearby field and who every night eagerly awaited the tasty scraps from the day’s meal preparations.
I really thought that was going to be silence. It was wonderfully fun. But it wasn’t silent.
No silence in Tuscany.
From Tuscany we went with our friend to Naples. After Naples we would be going to Taizé, a small village in the Burgundy area of France that is home to an ecumenical monastic community where our friend is a monk. Prayer three times a day establishes the rhythm. And where the idea vivre le provisoir – to live provisionally – underscores each day: to live in the now with the understanding that everything will change. I expected that I might find my silence there. But first we had nearly two weeks in Naples, where I’d spent only one night as a student a long time ago.
I didn’t know what to expect from Naples. Our first half hour, though, had me thinking that this was a big mistake. A friend of our friend picked us up at the train station. It was hot. Really hot. The car was small. Very small. We could barely squeeze in, let alone find room for our belongings. The traffic was loud. Really loud. And chaotic. Totally chaotic. The stoplights seemed merely decorative. The rules of the road seemed abandoned to a mad free-for-all to try to fit one’s car into any space that could possibly move it forward one more inch or so. Our car lurched, stopped, lurched again, swerved sharply, and hit bump after bump shaped by the uneven, black volcanic paving stones that form every street in the city.
We stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in what was once a very run-down section of town but had been revived painstakingly over thirty years by a dedicated priest who gave young people meaningful work. They cleaned up the neighborhood, started businesses – including the B-&-B – and excavated the catacombs of San Gennaro and San Gaudioso – where the skulls of the wealthy had been imbedded in the walls with the deceased’s skeletons and clothing painted below them – and turned them into tourist attractions. Restaurants and cafes followed, and a theatre. The area is still a bit dicey but it is vibrant and alive. But it was not silent. Not by any means. Especially at night when, around midnight, some celebration or other would call for twenty minutes or so of fireworks.
We met with friends almost daily. We were invited to home cooked family meals that lasted well into the night. We visited historic archaeological and geographic sites and saw profoundly beautiful works of art and culture – including a modern dance performance in the narrow passageways of the below-ground section of the 2,000-year-old Amphitheatre of Flavian in Pozzuoli, and an opera at the theatre of San Carlo, which opened in 1737 and remains the world’s oldest continuously active venue for opera. We walked and walked through wide boulevards and winding alleys. We ate traditional meals and tasted some of the world’s best pizza. There were tourists everywhere. Locals catered to them, sold to them, fed them – and sometimes, under their breath, cursed them for getting in their way.
Activity percolated everywhere all the time. It never stopped. I couldn’t process it all. I thought my head would blow off.
But the evening meals with friends and seeing the places where they took us through their eyes opened my own eyes to something that is so easy to miss in Naples.
Underneath all the chaos, weaving through all the cars, motorcycles and pedestrians, next to the ancient structures that date back thousands of years, whispers the heartbeat of a profoundly genuine humanity.
And in between each heartbeat … silence.
I was stunned. Silence? In Naples? The less I listened to the traffic and to the crowds and the more I listened to the heartbeat, the deeper the silence grew.
It is the silence of hope. A hope that transcends the millennia of struggle, of sudden and violent death, of the earth belching out its innards again and again and of the sea surging and swallowing entire populations and their dwellings.
It is the hope, rising from the depth of the catacombs, that something, some part of us, continues after the body stops. A hope that sustains the ancient reverence and care for the dead that continues to this day. A hope that converts an underlying fatalism into an intimate embrace of our fragility and our strength. A hope that we have a purpose, that we can connect the moment of birth to the moment of death in a way that carries such great meaning that it will live forever.
That’s how I fell head-over-heels in love with the people of Naples.
That’s how I found silence during the summer of 2022.