That’s Italian for Before him all Rome trembled. These words come from Floria Tosca, the heroine of the opera Tosca, in reference to the chief of police Baron Scarpia. (We’re now in Rome, circa 1800.)
Scarpia will spare the life of Tosca’s lover if Tosca will grant him one wish: sex.
Tosca is torn. Her lover, Mario Cavarodossi, is a revolutionary arrested by Scarpia and will be sentenced to death if Tosca denies Scarpia. Does she give her womanhood away or save Mario’s life?
This is high melodrama, but there’s a lesson here for any kind of story. Give your characters tough choices. Almost impossible choices. It creates terrific tension and it brings their true colors to the surface. When push comes to ugly shove, who are they?
Scarpia is also torn. He’s a devout man, but his lust for Tosca thrusts him toward ungodly actions. With some agony, he gives in to his darker side.
Cavaradossi, too, is torn. He is hiding a fellow revolutionary, so Scarpia has him tortured with a metal band pressing into his head, tighter and tighter. And Tosca must listen to his cries of pain. Does he give up his comrade to stop the torture and Tosca’s torment? He will not weaken.
Tosca, however, knows where the man is hiding, and she gives him up, to stop her lover’s suffering. She can’t bear it, which is why Scarpia made her listen. But Tosca is not done showing her true colors.
She makes an agreement with Scarpia. She will let him take her sexually, but he must pardon Cavaradossi, which he does with an official document. She takes the paper, signed and sealed. Scarpia steps forth to embrace her. She stabs him in the gut with a knife she had secretly hidden in the folds of her dress.
As she stares down at Scarpia’s lifeless body, she utters the words (spoken, not sung) you saw at the top:
Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma.
There’s another stunning twist if you venture into Act III, but I’ll leave it there for now.
The Opera season has been canceled in New York, but I’ve been listening to several hours of opera every day during the pandemic, soaring to heights of terror and passion right inside my living room. If you wish to join me, here’s Maria Callas singing the aria “Vissi d’arte,” where Tosca implores God to tell her why she has been subjected to such a wrenching choice.
Let your characters feel this kind of passion. Yourself, too.
President, Gotham Writers Workshop