On Saturday evening, June 1, more than 200 people were in our church at 8 p.m. They were the audience who came to enjoy a concert given by the Riverside Opera Company under the direction of our parishioner, Maestro Alan Aurelia. He brought an orchestra of more than 50 professional musicians, and three outstanding sopranos, Ashley Becker, Xueyan Fan and Galina Ivannikova, whose amazing voices beautifully filled our church.
This was the second concert by the Riverside Opera Company—and I think it will not be the last. For such occasions, before the concert I remove the Blessed Sacrament from its place of honor and reservation in the tabernacle on the altar. I place the ciboria containing the consecrated Hosts safely in the sacristy, as we do on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Concerts in churches are beneficial in many ways: parishioners and friends have a chance to hear great music and singing. Visitors come to our church and we get to meet neighbors, perhaps drawing some of them on future Sundays. And we receive a small donation for our parish.
One of the musical pieces on our June 1 program was a movement from the opera “Turandot,” by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Mr. Puccini gets the credit for this wonderful opera, and deservedly so, but the end product that we heard was not his alone.
As with a baby, an orchestra or our church: great results always need someone to get things going. Then, however, it may be that others are trusted to add to or complete the project.
So it is with “Turandot.” Puccini had written famous operas by 1922. But then while working on “Turandot,” he was diagnosed with cancer. This news about their revered teacher was awful for his students. But he gave them a job. He told them: “If I don’t live to finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.”
Do you remember Jesus Christ saying anything like that to His apostles 2,000 years ago, after His resurrection, just before he ascended into heaven? They did not want Him to go, but He was giving them—and us—a job to do. St. Matthew ends his Gospel with these orders from Jesus that many call The Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Jesus’ greatest work, the salvation of souls, was not something He stayed around to do Himself. The apostles certainly wanted it to be that way. But neither Jesus nor Puccini would stay on earth to complete their masterpieces. Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven; Puccini suffered bodily death, which is the fate of all mortals—geniuses, artists and everyone else. But he too gave his star students, his disciples, a commission: “If I don’t live to finish this, I want you to finish it for me.”
When Puccini died in 1924, this opera was not finished. But his students had learned from the Master; they knew his ideas and style. So they picked up his papers and they studied the parts he had done, and they completed the opera for him.
In 1926 in Milan, Arturo Toscanini, a student of Puccini who would become very famous himself, directed the world premiere of “Turandot.” When Toscanini reached the part of the opera where Puccini had stopped composing, Toscanini began to weep. He quieted the orchestra and lay down the baton.
He turned to the silent audience, and he said: “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.”
Then he smiled through his tears, and announced to the people: “But his disciples finished his work.” He picked up his baton, and the music resumed.
When “Turandot” ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause.
In life as in art, we stand on the shoulders of those who came ahead of us and left this life before us. Each of us should know our history and build on our heritage. Let us heed the voices of our God, and of our parents and teachers. If our parents and teachers did what they could in their time for you and your salvation, for Christ and His Church, then pause and listen to their implicit request: “If I don’t live to finish this, I want you to finish it for me.”
Msgr. Belford is the pastor of St. Teresa’s parish on Staten Island. This column first appeared in the parish bulletin there.