The Costa Concordia shipwreck as an Italian opera

In the end, it was the musician–not the captain–who went down with the ship


(Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo)

The capsizing of the Costa Concordia has the makings of a modern myth–indeed, it’s an Italian opera in utero, from its Tuscan coastal setting to the madcap antics of its protagonist. Poignancy and hubris intertwine; comic error and tragic consequence rise in contrapuntal glory. The scene is epic–a ship aground on a rocky island–and the characters, unforgettable.

The captain, one Francesco Schettino, is accused of crashing the ship in what appears to be a foolhardy deviation from the safe course. His purpose? To salute, he claims, a fellow captain on the nearby island of Giglio. That’s very bad. He stands further accused of abandoning the vessel during evacuation, apparently spooked by the chaos and confusion, without having first assured the safety of his passengers and crew. That’s even worse.

Tension mounts, but wait, there’s more: can you hear the strings?

It emerged today that there may be a woman involved. There has to be! Dominica Cermotan, a beautiful Moldavian–or is she Tanzanian? we’re not sure –is a dancer by trade. Naturally. She is absent from the list of passengers and crew, but was present on the bridge for the ill-fated sail-by, at least according to some reports.

Cermotan brings both mystery, and motive, to the story by her mere presence, not to mention by her profile picture, and her profession. She will be a soprano. Her song, a variation on Stand By Your Man.

Here we have drama in abundance. Now, we need a script. Ah, but we have it. The ultimate dialogue: Transcripts reveal a shouted duet between Captain Schettino and Port Authority chief Gregorio De Falco that is comic, and tragic, in equal measure.

Managing matters by dispatch as the Costa Concordia lies listing on a reef, De Falco harangues the recalcitrant Schettino over the air in a crackly stream of invective, until the captain meekly agrees to return to his ship.

De Falco’s convincing and unforgettable line is “Vado a bordo, cazzo!” which, as we’ve all now learned, means roughly: “Get the f– aboard!”

(This, we imagine delivered in a basso profundo, shaking the rafters of the opera house as patrons gasp at the gravity of Schettino’s folly, and the righteousness of De Falco’s wrath. Picture the super-titles minus the dashes.)

But does Schettino return to the ship? Dastard, he doesn’t! At least so it’s alleged: Notwithstanding the power of the properly placed imperative by the noble De Falco, Schettino, according to the coast guard, fails to get the f– aboard.

Perhaps it’s because at that point the Costa Concordia is lying on its side on a reef a few hundred metres from the island of Giglio, passengers plunging from the side and lifeboats dangling dangerously in a scene reminiscent of the film Titanic, if not its real-life subject.

Yet, somehow the deputy mayor of the island, Mario Pellegrini has managed to make his way aboard, where he apparently made himself useful for six hours. A baritone for the bold Mr. Pellegrini.

Oh, Schettino: We can already hear your part: a high tenor, (or castrato, if your countrymen have their way) slightly nasal, veering off-pitch perhaps as you complain of the awkwardness, the darkness, the danger. As you claim to have stumbled accidentally into a lifeboat, while your passengers make their own muddled way to shore–one so frightened, we later discover, that she keeps on traveling when she hits the coast of Giglio, all the way back home to Germany before even checking in with authorities.

(Here, perhaps a hint of Wagner, just for geographic resonance. Horns and braids would probably be overdoing it.)

Among the supernumeraries, some were not so lucky. Nearly a dozen drowned.

We already hear the sonorous echoes of Schettino’s name through the ages. First, accusingly, then somberly, regretfully: Oh, Schettino… bravado in authority is a heady, deadly mix.

If Schettino is to be our monster, the antihero of this cautionary tale, then the rest of the cast falls quickly into place: De Falco is the voice of reason, Pellegrini conscience in action, and Cermotan, the bombshell Moldavian/Tanzanian, the love interest. But who, then, who shall be Schettino’s foil? The one who unfairly dies, a victim of another man’s ineptitude.

Poignantly, the situation supplies a ready answer: It’s 38-year-old Hungarian violinist, Sandor Feher, the first of the dead to be identified–by his mother, no less–who must stand in for the sorrow of so many yet to be named or seen.

Sandor Feher’s mother’s part is the one no one wants to play, and yet her song is the one everyone must hear, if we’re to learn anything at all from this real-life fable.

Feher, we discover –in startling contrast to Schettino–helped a group of children into their life preservers, amid the chaos of the evacuation, heroically ensuring their safety, before ducking below decks to retrieve his violin.

Unlike those fortunate children–and unlike Captain Schettino–Sandor Feher never made it to shore alive.

What became of his instrument, we’re not yet sure. But if and when this scandalous tale is staged, Mr. Feher’s violin deserves its due. An instrumental solo: confident, reassuring, gentle but firm, and trailing off unresolved.

For, in fact, it was not the captain, but the musician who went down with his ship.


The Costa Concordia shipwreck as an Italian opera

  1. Great Piece!

    • Bravo! Bravo! Encore!!! Encore!!!

  2. il mio bisnonno era in là

  3. absolutely brilliant

  4. This is very well written, and so very true.

  5. best writing in the history of writing

  6. So sad, so tragic and so true. Regrettably, I never met Sandor Feher (or the others in this tragedy) but he certainly conjures up an image of the ultimate hero. Unfortunately, I can only imagine the circumstances of his death, in the dark, as the ship made a sudden lurch, trapping both he and his beloved violin in an inescapable hallway or stairway. May he rest in peace !!

  7. Quick, Sr Newland, and bravo!, copyright your outline, and get on with turning it into an opera.   

  8. Very sad to see that someone, somewhere, was able and willing to trivialise a human disaster only days after it had occurred. Hang your head in shame.

  9. I wonder how long before “Schettino” enters the vocab as a synonym for “coward.”

  10. Disgraceful!
    What kind of journalism is this? People have died you  unthinking, unfeeling, Moron.You are a disgrace to your profession. Shame on you!

    • I disagree. Newland does address the tragedy of the loss, in particular the role played by Sandor Feher, and he does it better than any other article I have read on this matter. His ridicule for Schettino is absolutely spot on. This piece was NOT unthinking; it was thought our very well.

  11. I thought this was deplorable.. It is a news article to be sure, but the death of so many people is no cause for satire, parody or farce. Mere opportunism  is what this is and not that clever.

    JB in Gananoque.

  12. Brilliant …what a clever take on this situation.
    How would the Democratic nominations in the U.S. play out in your mind?

  13. a True tragedy .. how can the captain abandon the ship ‘and be the first to do so’ …
    what happened to man’s very own honor, dignity, courage — and defense of those in need
    before himself–  that is the deeper tragedy of our society. Thankfully there remains
    some great men and great women of our times.. who will be remembered for their heroic efforts, much like the Hungarian violinist Sandor Feher– who risked his life to save the children..–
    that is a life lived with honor. God bless him..

  14. Cazzo state scrivendo? Disgraceful that anybody would make light of a tragedy which, if the captain had been doing his job, would never have happened. Grow the f*** up!

  15. It is very well written, but sadly it makes us forget that this is a true tragedy, which just happened. Let people grieve first and then give it a second look. As an aside, I wonder how long it will take before Schettino is accepted in Canada as a refugee.

  16. why in the world would he go back into danger for a violin? that was stupid.

    • No, sadly it isn’t stupid.  It is a vital part of violinists.  Ask them.

  17. So beautifully written. Mr. Feher will go down in history.


  18. both sets of comments below are valid : it is very insensitive of Mr. Newland to write about an actual human tragedy ( where many lives have been lost) in a seemingly flippant way; that said, I also agree this story will make a wonderful modern day opera, and if done well & in good taste, could even offer solace to the families of the victims who have perished.  Mr. Newland & McLean’s could use a lesson on timing —  this is a probably a very bad time to publish this article.  A period of time for some collective mourning & respecting the dead would be the way to go. 

  19. When I heard about this shipwreck my first thought was that they had the boat on autopilot or the captain wasn’t where he was supposed to be.  I was partly right.  It seems now that he was romancing that young lady and not paying attention.  What a liar!  He “fell into the lifeboat”?  Unbelievable that this totally reckless man ever became a captain.  “Fry” his ass but good!

  20. Actually, the writer uses an Italian opera style (buffa?) which is wild exaggeration and over-the-top performance.  Very clever.    

  21. Making fun of a tragedy is really very, very bad taste. This is NOT an article a reputable magazine should publish.

  22. Fantastico! – except for the poor sousl who were lost on account of this incredibly incompetent captain.

  23. May the victims rest in peace and their families find peace after justice is served.  I pray that all of them, including the survivors, be heavily compensated.  What a nightmare!  I love going on cruises, but now I have second thoughts.  I sailed on another Costa more than 2 years ago, and can’t help but think – what if this happened to us????? (shudder).

  24. ..and now…who will write the music for this drama?
    we live in a very strange era…..people who leads the boat of the world, are in fact thinking only about their careers, benefits, glamour, image…..doing the interest of banks and multinational companies….and the people…the ordinary people, are writing the history…….we all are preparing  a future for our world….not with this leaders… is time for humanity, to lead the planet!

  25. An insightful analogy to a tragedy, it’s written word as poetic as the hypothetical score it describes. Great read, many thanks!

  26. Fantastico piece!

  27. We should have put you on the ship. I do not see how anyone can treat such a horrific disaster
    in such a trite, offhanded manner.  It seems to be the way of the world.  You have to live with
    yourself Mr. Newland

  28. Bravo ! Bravo !

  29. Gee, the comments appear to be equally divided – between utter disgust and absolute delight and hilarity – with the edge, if there is one, going to the cheers and the bravos.
    It seems to me that the horror of the accident derives in part from the fact that a cruise is symbolic of pleasure, contentment, relaxation, and enjoyment.  There are terrible accidents every day in this world, and enormous suffering, but we are inured to it.  However, when people are struck – in the very midst of pleasure – with grinding tragedy, fatal errors, and pointless loss of life, our outrage is shoved into high gear.
    But when you think of it, almost all humour has a “black” side, doesn’t it?  Jokes get a lot of their punch from human foolishness, stupidity, or bad behaviour.  In that, this Macleans article excels.  You can know that there is terrible sorrow and still laugh at the vain and fearful captain with a sexy girl at his side.  You can cheer for the brave mayor and indignant Capt. De Falco, and you can cry as the bodies are found…  all of which is, at the end of the story, the stuff of which great operas and great comedies are made.  I end up saying “Bravo” with the other commentators, while being totally respectful of those who are indignant.
    May the dead rest in peace, may the brave be honoured, may the foolish repent, and may we all find a way to laugh at ourselves.

  30. Bravissimo!

  31. What ever happened to going down with ship? Shettino is a disgrace to all sailors everywhere!

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