Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression. It is so spontaneous. And after singing, I think the violin. Since I cannot sing, I paint. – Georgia O’Keefe
Loving opera is something I inherited somewhat by accident from my father. He loved opera, though I’m pretty sure he only saw a few live performances during his lifetime. His love of opera was primarily based upon the Saturday broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York that he could hear on the radio.
In my mind, this love of music came from his mother, who was a wonderful pianist who died a few weeks after he and his twin brother were born. Her death was operatically tragic. Audrey was 21 years old and pregnant with twins. It was the Spring of 1934 on a wheat and cattle operation in the Texas panhandle that was being devastated by what the locals call the “dirty thirties”.
Whether her death is directly attributable to the dust storms or not, the facts are that maternal and infant death soared during this horrific time period. After her death, my great-grandmother then struggled to protect these infant boys from the dust by hanging wet cheesecloth over their cribs. They both survived, but my father’s “allergies” certainly gave testament to his damaged respiratory system. I so appreciate Ken Burns’ new series on the Dust Bowl for telling the stories of those who stayed. Those are my ancestors and we are all Dust Bowl Tough.
My father was alone with this love of opera and had to sneak out to the barn to hear the strains of Verdi, Mozart, Strauss, and Rossini. His own father, perhaps still grieving the loss of Audrey and her music, had no tolerance for this behavior and punished him severely if he got caught.
One of my great joys in life was that I was able to have my father backstage while I was a stage manager for Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s. He was sitting against the stage left wall by the prop table as we were doing our set-up for the opera house premiere of Sweeney Todd. About 45 minutes before curtain, Beverly Sills, who was then director of New York City Opera which would be the next stop for this production, walked up and asked if she could take a turn dying in the barber chair. We gave her a memorable ride, enjoying her trademark giggles, and then sent her out front to watch the performance.
I stole a glance at my Dad who had watched this interchange and saw the tears running down his face. I always knew that he loved me, but in that moment, I also knew that he was deeply proud of me. Since then I have wondered what listening to opera really meant to him growing up. Did it help him grieve the mother he never knew who died too young – like so many Violettas and Mimis? Was it simply a portal into a place of beauty that called him away from the hard work of farming wheat and raising cattle? Did he learn the stories or just enjoy the luxuriant sound of a operatic voice cutting through an orchestra?
For myself, listening to classical music and going to opera performances and concerts is an act of transcendent renewal. Those soaring melodies, crashing chords, and tragic stories lead me away from the pettiness of everyday life. Hearing a well-developed solo human voice completely fill (without amplification!) a large hall with sound is thrilling. And if that singer can also inhabit a character and sing with great musicianship, well my faith in human possibility is restored. Even if a particular performance is flawed, hearing the attempt is still worth every moment of my attention.
Dad, who was also an actor and scene designer, but alas a poor singer (hearing problems), would have loved that opera has become such good theater. He would love the new productions and ambitious sets, lights, and costumes and he would exult that the current batch of opera “stars” can sing AND act and that this grandest of all art forms continues to evolve and grow. He would have loved the HD simulcasts from opera houses to movie theaters and would have gone often, I imagine.
So as the new season begins for American opera companies and symphony orchestras, I invite you to give a listen with an open mind and heart and let the beauty of these art forms speak to your deepest needs for healing. If you can’t get to an opera house or concert hall, try an HD broadcast or investigate new channels on the radio. But if you go, I’ll be there too, ready to be renewed, ready to be thrilled, ready to remember to say “thanks Dad”, I needed this.