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PRIVATE LIVES, PUBLIC PLACES : The Grandeur of Opera Is Felt First in the Heart

In the middle of a night 16 years ago, Aida Monte woke up and was seized with the desire to be on the stage again, to sing grand opera. A violinist by training (“my father made us practice on pain of death”), a secretary by profession, she longed in her middle age for the passion and torments of the great prima donna roles.

Who beyond a certain age has not known such nights? The anguish of nostalgia for dreams, for youth at its most hopeful? Most people sigh, go off to work and, wistfully, become once again their reliable, everyday, unnoticed selves.

Since that night, twice a year, at small theaters over the city, and all at her own expense, Aida Monte has relived the tragedy of Madama Butterfly, the aching romance of Mimi and the defiant abandon of Carmen. The Hollywood Opera Ensemble, of which she is director, scenery-shifter, prop-collector, prima donna and costume maker, is in rehearsal.

Picture, first of all, the rest of Aida Monte’s life: a small, stucco house on a Hollywood side street with a patch out front in which she has “planted” silk flowers, a tiny yard out back. The house had been divided in two so that she could offer a downstairs apartment to her parents when they moved here from the cold eastern winters during fading old age. “My mother was almost bed-ridden in her last six years, my father almost 93 when he died, but I consider myself very lucky. Parents are everything.”

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The house is plain: sparse furniture, few gadgets, barely a trinket. It is homey: a simple stage, as if all the color happens elsewhere. As, indeed, it does. Not at work. She is a secretary in a law office: “I’m really quite good at it--when you’ve been at it for so many years, you should be.” Her husband is a computer engineer, “a sweet, lovely man--however, he doesn’t like singing.”

She saves every penny she can; each production costs $1,500. “Nobody gives me a dime. I don’t ask; I don’t get. It’s always from my own pocket.” Since her parents’ deaths, the downstairs apartment has been kept empty, to use as a rehearsal space for the opera. “I’ve always rehearsed in my living room.” Forty or so singers--secretaries, sales clerks, a retired hairdresser with a hearing aid, assorted sopranos pretty and not, a tenor from Montgomery Ward, some who read music, some who cannot--brought together two, even three nights a week, in Aida’s living room, thumping out Bizet’s masterpiece on the upright piano, nearly in tune.

By the silk-planted flower bed outside, strangers sometimes gather to listen through the open door, to applaud the Gypsies, smugglers and toreadors. It is the magic of make-believe. “It makes me feel marvelous that I am the key. If I didn’t do all this, all these people wouldn’t be able to get on the stage. It’s always an act of love for us. Kiri Te Kanawa doesn’t have to move scenery and drive a truck.”

In the garden shed, the props and scenery. In the bedroom closets, the costumes and handmade glitter. In the drawer, the letters. The ones that bless her for bringing joy; the barbed one that scorned and laughed, from a writer who did not see the magic. But would not Bizet himself be thrilled to see, 115 years after his death, this ordinary sitting room transformed by passion for his music?

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Somewhere, perhaps half a century ago, Aida Monte saw her first “Carmen"--was it in Milan at La Scala? Or in standing room at the old Met in New York? Her father, an Italian lawyer and composer, came to America to watch over the career of her brother, a piano prodigy. “We thought he was going to the moon--his concert career went down the drain.” Her memories swirl together: her brother playing with Toscanini, her parents sending away their wedding bands. To Italy? To family? To pawn? Her father, who named her Aida , gave music lessons and put her to the violin.

A quarter of a century ago, she came to this quieter life in Los Angeles: to her husband, to caring for her two sons, keeping a family together and putting aside, like a costume, the heartbreak and delight of being young, Italian, with glossy black hair and shining eyes, full of life. “Gina Lollobrigida is my third cousin. Some people used to say I looked like her. Aaah, I wish. . . .”

On the stage, though, as Carmen--defying Don Jose, embracing his knife and fate--she lives it all again. “Imagine how lucky I am--in a beautiful aria, you are pouring your soul out. In this life, who can do that?”

There are so few second acts: Aida Monte got up one morning and made her own.

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