Ancient cobbled walkways wandering off from Placa Saint Jaume in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter just wide enough for horse and carriage and strangely mysterious and mystifying on this late May evening, pulled us in among the darkness of Barcelona’s medieval times past shards of Roman walls with tales to share. Drifting clouds skittered above the timeless Old Quarter sporadically releasing a scattering of rain drops that pattered on the glistening uneven stones with a chilling refrain.
Our umbrellas were out as the full moon struggled to dapple its brilliance through fickle nomadic clouds, casting shadows across walls of brick and stone leaning inward helped by the thrust of time. It was our moment to follow the passageway, comprehending that throughout the ages the uneven cobbled walkway had felt the footsteps of countless travelers, invaders on the prowl their swords at the ready, lover’s hand-in-hand waiting for their moment, and Catalans who were born and raised in the Quarter, nearly all fading into the clutches of time while the stone passageways remain forever. Within minutes the old Gothic Quarter with its eternal sense of place was sending feelings to us by way of voices barely heard.
Walking slowly in the mottled darkness, we came upon a middle-aged classical guitarist sitting cross-legged on the stones, eyes closed, wearing scuffed sandals, and a black-ribboned hat, surrounded by a display of CDs. He was playing delicate heart-warming charts, his right hand agile and melodic. Stopping for a moment we perceived a spine-chilling voice in the distance, two octaves above the guitar passages, a voice that seemed to be floating skyward echoing off the buildings and passageway, for a moment in concert with the nearby bells of the massive Barcelona Cathedral ensconced in place in 1298 when ground was first broken.
We walk a few yards further to discover a small, passionate group of people some holding umbrellas, wedged tightly in a small area just off the passageway amidst unlit buildings, cheering “Brava, brava, brava,” while an exceedingly skilled opera singer, possibly touching her mid 40’s with perfect pitch and no microphone, performed La Traviata, Macbeth, Rossini, and Bellini, in Spanish, Italian, and German. Wearing badly faded ripped jeans, and accompanied only by a young flautist reading from a music stand, she offered her voice as a gift of musical beauty from the heavens.
Occasionally illuminated by threads of moon light and performing the stage choreography she fell hard to her knees on the stones, her dramatic facial expressions enlivening her voice and the opera characters she was performing. This single coloratura soprano with a vocal range and breathing that extended her voice to the sixth octave, and a full, vibrant vibrato echoing through the Quarter, created an astonishing ecstatic moment, sounding like a recording from Barcelona’s Gran Teatro del Liceu, one of the largest opera houses in the world.
An older gentleman with shades of gray hair spontaneously stepped forward from the group of opera aficionados and in the lower register, mid-chart, keeping within the tempo and in Spanish sang a duet with the opera singer. His voice, once grand, is now on pitch but fragile and time has taken its toll. Unfazed, her voice alive and fervent, she carries his passion until he bows and steps back into the shadows. It all felt illusory and imaginary; the Gothic Quarter closed tight around us, the rain tangled amongst the buildings that seemed edgy and wanting, our legs weakened and eyelids frozen, as we watched the small group of listeners, many of whom were familiar with the lyrics, drop coins and bills into a small, crumpled, paper basket placed askew on the stones.
The opera singer faded into the night as did the listeners, some pulled away by restless dogs on a leash. No one spoke to her. It seemed like an abnormal musical vision in the heart of old Barcelona, a momentous spiritual awakening. We walked in silence through the darkened passageway, past the guitarist, who was still in his own world, eyes shut, fingers moving, to our apartment on Carrer Ciutat. The language of opera, an art form as old as the Gothic Quarter joined hands on a rainy, May night in a loving embrace, the singer’s voice lifting the Old Quarter off its Roman foundations, until the ills of the world faded into the mist if only for a moment.