Sir Edward Downes was a renowned British opera conductor with whom I shared the same passion for Verdi’s Operas. For many years, Sir Edward championed Verdi’s repertoire from his position as director of the famous London’s Royal Opera House (best known as Covent Garden, after the famous London’s district). In that capacity, he rendered many of Verdi’s less known works–for instance, the following sneak-pick from the overture of Stiffelio:
In any case, Sir Edward recently died, along with her wife of 54 years, Lady Joan. The circumstances of their passing have become somehow controversial. According to a recent report, Sir Edward and his terminally ill wife traveled to Zurich, where they gathered their children and then drank some liquid, “before lying down on adjacent beds, holding hands.” A few minutes later, the couple went to a deep sleep and finally passed away, quietly.
We now know that they traveled to Switzerland to get assistance from a well-known euthanasia group, Dignitas. And that’s precisely what makes their passing controversial. Sir Edward and his wife decided to act against what (say) is the normal course of action—, or, in the words of a philosopher-priest:
According to Christian beliefs, the sovereignty of God and the human responsibility for stewardship limit our freedom to control life. God has absolute dominion over life, and we share in that dominion only as limited creatures […] The Judeo-Christian opposition to [euthanasia and assisted dying] is a part of its general opposition to making autonomy an absolute value. Freedom lies not just in having control but also in submitting to what cannot be controlled. We exercise freedom by accepting ourselves as creatures of God and by admitting our powerlessness before death.
Under such a premise, Sir Edward was expected to do, for instance, what actor Ryan O’Neil did recently. O’Neil’s stayed by the side of his girlfriend of many years, actress Farrah Fawcett, who died a few weeks ago of cancer. Although O’Neil also has cancer, he did not take his life to accompany his loving companion in her last trip. Rather, he decided to stay and tell her goodbye—and, of course, that’s OK as well!
We may ask ourselves: why didn’t Sir Edward do the same? I don’t know! We don’t know. All we know is that Sir Edward was 85 (O’ Neil is 68, by the way); although not terminally ill, he was not in the best of conditions. Also, his wife Joan was his companion of “54 happy years,” and that’s according to the couple’s own children.
And, if we think about it carefully, we need to re-work our question. After all, what else could we expect from a passionate fan of Verdi? If I remember well, Verdi’s Operas are about one thing more than anything else—they are about sacrifice. Just remember the sacrifice of Violeta (La Traviata), who knows her death is coming (tuberculosis) but prefers to sacrifice her love for Alfredo and save him the pain of seeing her dying. Opera is about sacrifice, about Tosca jumping down a cliff minutes after realizing that she has been betrayed, that her beloved Caravadossi was gunned down by Scarpia’s guards. That’s why Opera is one of the greatest manifestation of Romanticism.
Therefore, if we consider that Sir Edward lived all her life under the spell of Opera, we need to ask ourselves: what else was left for him, for a man who so passionately loved listen to those wonderful stories about love and sacrifice? What else was left for an 85-year old man who loved his wife so much and believed his life was in fact over once she was gone? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I hope you all do.