Fall 1997

Ambassadore di Opera

by Margie Shetterly

Mario Hamlet-Metz is a small, graying gentleman with a soft voice, soothing accent and impeccable manners. To the casual observer, he blends as easily into Harrisonburg as his typical brick house blends into its orderly, manicured neighborhood.

But step through his front door, and what greets the visitor is anything but Harrisonburg. Inside is a melange of European culture, art and opera that can transport a visitor from middle-class Virginia to Milan in a wink of the imagination.

The house mirrors the professor, whose own wink is an inviting portal into the professional, social and cultural sphere he inhabits. Touch on the topics of opera, Europe, the arts, and you realize at once that, for Hamlet-Metz, home isn't Harrisonburg at all. Home is across the Atlantic in Italy, where opera isn't an art form but is, as he says, a nation's "lifeblood." In Italy, he insists, opera is everyone's music - from society's elite sitting in the best seats at the best opera houses to construction workers perched high on their scaffolding, belting out their favorite arias as much to themselves as to the receptive audience of passers-by below.

It is just such a richness of experience that Hamlet-Metz delights in bringing to JMU, through the French courses he teaches, through the May sessions he leads in Italy and France, through his course on the literature of opera, and through his passion for teaching and opening the minds and hearts of his students to new cultures, new experiences and endless possibilities.

"I try to open their eyes and open their minds," says Hamlet-Metz, "to whet their appetites for the linguistic and cultural aspects of another country."

His own life is an example of those endless possibilities. Growing up in his native Chile, Hamlet-Metz was introduced to opera at an early age by his parents, who filled their house with opera recordings and extended hospitality to performers. He attended his first live performance at age 12, seeing Carmen, and caught an incurable case of opera fever.

Today, he is a world-recognized authority on opera and has lectured on the topic throughout Europe. Last spring, he delivered two lectures on Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan. He returned this fall to La Scala and to the British Institute in Florence to deliver lectures on Donizetti to celebrate the bicentennial of the famous opera composer's birth. He has visited almost every important opera house in Europe, where for him, the performances, performers, music, literature, architecture and history culminate in the operatic experience.

"My favorite will always be La Scala," the professor says. "It's such an experience just to be there. There might be better singers at other theaters, but for repertory, orchestra and especially chorus it cannot be surpassed in Italian opera. And the historical background makes it so special."

La Scala in Milan, where Hamlet-Metz lectured last spring.

His social and professional acquaintances include such opera greats as the late Richard Tucker, Renata Tebaldi, Marguerita Guglielmi and Placido Domingo. His credentials include serving as the regular correspondent for L'Opera in Milan and free-lance opera reviewer for Opera News, the Opera Canada and Paris Opera International. For several years he has also served on Virginia's Ashlawn-Highlands Summer Festival Board of Directors.

Europe captivated Hamlet-Metz early on. He received an equivalent to a master's degree from the University of Chile, but not before setting off for France and Italy as a young man "to enlarge my horizons." His reasons were "partly educational, partly adventure," and his choice of destination was a natural for the young Chilean. Latin America has far stronger ties to Europe than to the United States, Hamlet-Metz explains. "They're closely related by blood and by culture" and "far more influenced by the principles of the French Revolution than the American Revolution."

He first came to the United States as a Fulbright and duPont scholar to attend the University of Virginia, where he obtained his doctorate in French literature in 1971.

One morning in 1970, he came to JMU to interview for a teaching position, and "at noon that same day, I had a contract in hand," he says. "It was hard to refuse." But if you had told him then he'd be at JMU for nearly three decades, he would have shaken his head in disbelief. His initial plans were to stay for three or four years before going back to Europe. Instead, he got caught in the excitement of a growing school and a leadership that gave him the flexibility to expand not only his own horizons but those of his students.

"They gave me the time to do all the things I like to do in addition to teaching," he says, "which is my main love."

In 1972, he organized a student trip to Europe, "the first time any Madison group had crossed the Atlantic," and ushered in a new era of international study and travel at JMU. That first sojourn to France and Italy has become a May session staple, one that is so popular he must turn students away.

With Hamlet-Metz as faculty member-in-residence, the 1988 Semester in Florence became a headlong plunge into the Italian and operatic culture he relishes. There, JMU students explored opera on its home turf. He took them behind the scenes - to dress rehearsals at La Scala, to events where students didn't just watch opera performers, but where they met and talked with them. For the students, it was a whirlwind of cultural overload. But for Hamlet-Metz, the semester was a homecoming.

While Hamlet-Metz is fluent in five languages - his native Spanish and his cultivated French, Italian, German and English - he uses only French in his classrooms at JMU. "I've always taught French only. I want to teach what I was trained to do in the language I was trained to teach in." Hamlet-Metz has a true empathy for his students. "I had to learn French too," he says. "I know where the thorns are - the grammatical thorns especially."

But his goal for his students is far more grandiose than grammar and literature. It includes immersing students in the culture of the language they are studying - an immersion that he believes requires traveling abroad. "Ideally all students, especially foreign language majors, should spend one year in a foreign culture. There's no way you can assimilate that knowledge in the classroom."

Hamlet-Metz shows his students that language is far more than words. It's an appreciation for the culture that produced the language and shapes the people who speak it. It's a reaching out, an understanding and an acceptance of something new. And in the process, it's self-discovery. He wants his students to be more than proficient in a language.

"I want them to be more cultured," Hamlet-Metz says, "more tolerant and more at ease when dealing with people who do not necessarily eat, drink, dress, think or feel like them. In essence, I want to contribute to making my students better human beings."

He does so by bringing Europe and opera home to Harrisonburg - and by taking JMU to his home - the opera and culture of Europe.

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