6/22/2008

My Knight at the Opera

I have a deep , dark, dirty little secret. What could it possibly be, you ask ? Am I leather fetishist ? Do I belong to a nude Harley riding club ? Do I grow dope in the basement ? Am I a long lost member of the Weathermen ? A Unitarian ? It's nothing that exciting , trust me. It's just that when I tell people about it, well, they give me that weird look. I tend to keep kind of quiet about it, as a result.
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Classic example : A few weeks ago, there was a school-sponsored event in the evening, after school hours, that some faculty members chose to attend, and I had already long ago made other plans, and could not go. In casual conversations, co-workers would say stuff to me like, " Are you going to be at ______ tonight ? " And I would cough, and lower my eyes, and reply, " No, unfortunately, months ago, before I knew the date for this event, I made other plans. So I'll be busy that night." "What are you doing ?" "Uh, I'm going to the opera." Long, long pause. Seconds ticking by loudly on the clock nearby."Oh."
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Not once, in all these years, have I run across the casual acquaintance who would answer back to me, " Oh, that's interesting. I enjoy listening to the opera, too. Which one are you going to see ? " For you see, I have been attending the opera since I was 13 years old. Did my parents drag me ? Was I born into a classically performing musical family ? No, and no. It's actually a much cuter story. There was this boy, you see, that I knew in jr high. A boy I had a crush on at the time. He would sit in my English class every day, and prattle on and on about Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, doll houses and The Borrowers, and opera. Esp Beverly Sills. This is an odd list of interests, I confess, esp for young teen suburban kids growing up in Dallas, Tx, in the 1970's. It seems this boy had recently been taken to an opera for the first time by his godmother-auntie, and he just fell in love with the beauty, the music, the pageantry, the excitement of it all. And in his excitement, he got me interested. I confess, I went that first time, coercing my parents into buying tickets, hoping to run into him there. The opera, as I recall, was "Siege of Corinth" . I didn't run into this boy as I had hoped , of course, but at least it gave me something to talk about to him, at school, the next time I saw him.
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Of course, I grew up in a family that listened to all the old Broadway musicals instead of pop music or rock and roll. I knew the lyrics to "On the Street Where you Live," "What Do the Simple Folk Do ? ", and "Some Enchanted Evening" , long before I knew them to "Yesterday" or "Love Love Me Do." So for me, attending an opera was not that far out there.
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The next time I went to the opera, a few years later, I went with this very same boy. It was a dreadful choice for a first serious date between us. The opera was Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde". I seem to remember it was something like 5 hours long, and this particular production fell into the " minimalist " category - mostly just two singers, 1 male, 1 female, standing in front of a roll-down backdrop of a giant greenish swirl ( suggesting what ? grass and the forest ? the sky ? ), singing, for 5 interminable hours. The only other thing on the stage, for all that time, was a large fake plastic rock, off to stage right. This was in the day and age before operas used what is called "hypertext" that is, large screens over the stage that translate what is being sung into English. So it was 5 hours of German gobblydigook against a minimalist stage and two people singing who never moved. 99.9% of the people on this planet would have refused to ever go out with that boy, ever again. I kept hoping he'd reach over and try to make out with me, in the dark , but he never did. Yet something in me responded to the music, at least ! "Tristan and Isolde" has some of the most beautiful musical passages that exist, and I , a classical music cretin, still recognize them when I hear them on my local radio station, to this day.
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I know I am not your normal Bible belt mid western housewife. I'm sort of a culture junkie, love art museums and theater, books, movies, bookstores, etc. I have attended so many events in the DFW and Houston areas, ( yes, I actually take road trips, just to see museum exhibits or performances, even drag my children along with me, book a hotel, etc. Most recently went to Houston to see the "Lucy" exhibit at the HMSH, and the "Pompeii" exhibit at the HMFA, back in the spring. ), these past 40+ years that I have started to notice I see all the same people, over and over again. I call them " the 500". Not the "500 people you meet in in Heaven", or the "500 people who will be saved when our Lord and Redeemer brings about the Judgement Day" or the "500 people who contributed to my campaign" or the "500 people with dreadfully good taste". There are many people and corporations, thankfully, who give of their time and money to support the arts, and lord knows society needs them to keep doing that, through economically lean times as well as good times. But I think that of all the folks who give money to the arts, there is a smaller subset, in Texas at least , who actually enjoy watching or attending the arts. This is not NYC, where everyone at least SAYS they enjoy they arts. Folks here are far more likely to fork over $50 for tickets to see a monster truck rally than they are to spend the same amount of cash to see the ballet. The few people who truly enjoy the arts are the same 500 people I keep running into, over and over again.
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Somehow, in spite of that rather challenging first opera experience ( I would not recommend "T & I" as a first opera to go see, for anybody. I suggest something with a lot more action and sizzle, something by Puccini, or Verdi. ) that boy and I stayed friends, in spite of that inauspicious beginning, to this day. We have continued to attend operas (and other cultural events, classical concerts, solo performances, museum exhibits, plays, etc) together, wherever we have found ourselves , from Texas to New York to Paris France, for over 30 years now. He is far more knowledgeable and excited about opera than I am, went so far as to work for an opera themed publication, and he knows singers and attends performances all over the world. Yet his joy is contagious to all he meets , and he inspires nearly all of his family and friends to at least attend a live show, or listen to some particularly dazzling diva on cd, no matter who they are. I often think of him as the Johnny Appleseed of opera, spreading a love of this particular form of entertainment, wherever he goes.
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So this is how I happened to be spending this particular late spring evening attending a performance of the Ft Worth Opera's 2008 Opera Festival. When my friend, the Johnny Appleseed of opera, comes to town, he will often see several different shows, and write reviews of them for his various projects or publications. I am lucky enough to get to tag along to one of them (probably could go to more, if my schedule permitted) , which is always a treat, as he gets the very best seats and it is always exciting and enjoyable to be able to meet and schmooze, even if only for a bit, with some of his colleagues- the director of the Ft Worth Opera, an occasional singer here or there, other members of the press, opera aficionados of all stripes. This year, I saw " Turandot ", and had a lovely time. It was a beautiful performance, lovely singing, gorgeous sets and costumes, with an added kick of a stranded troupe of Chinese acrobats doing their juggling routines in the crowd scenes. Sitting in our very wonderful seats, which I never could have afforded for myself, and looking over the silvery heads of the crowd at the palatial Ft Worth Bass Hall, I couldn't but help think to myself, " Who will comprise the 500, when all these baby boomers are dead ?" I mean, seriously, I was the youngest person there ( other than the performers, bartenders, or members of the press ) by about 20-30 years, and I am not that young. We have got to get the younger generations interested in the arts. I am doing my best, dragging my increasingly surly children around as much as possible, but that is not enough.
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Lest you think I am unduly morbid, I will end on a cute, upbeat note. My childhood friend, the Johnny Appleseed of Opera, and I once entered our jr high 9th grade talent show. We were co-authors of a satirical little skit where we , and several of our nerdy little friends, dressed up as various members of the Marx Brothers and ran around the stage, throwing whipped cream pies at each other. We won the first prize of this talent show - I seem to remember our chief competition involved a girl singing "Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down" in an earnest off key voice - and none of our parents were even there to see us do it! That is the diff between how parents were, back then, and how they are, nowadays, my friend. Can you imagine how many mini-camcorders would be present, in a similar venue, nowadays ? It was a seminal moment in our friendship, Opera Boy, and I. And so it is, that for over 30+ years, either he or I have been the Margaret Dumont to the other's Groucho, or vice-versa. And so it goes.

3 comments:

  1. The Boy in QuestionJune 22, 2008 at 3:18 PM

    Actually, I wasn't an opera fan until I saw "Siege of Corinth" - it was only the second opera I'd ever seen, but it was sufficient to win me over, permanently.

    Since then, I've come to know hardcore Wagnerites who laugh out loud when I tell them we went to "Tristan und Isolde" on our first date. But we were exceptional people. And I daresay we still are.

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  2. Dear Girl from Texas,

    You mentioned that the first opera that you saw might have been "Siege of Corinth." Do you recall if you saw Beverly Sills in your first opera? Where were you? In New York?

    Cheers,
    Tansui

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  3. the boy in questionJune 28, 2008 at 8:30 AM

    My very first opera was a school field trip to Pagliacci, when I was in sixth grade. The cast for this student performance included Maria Spacagna as Nedda and Lenus Carlson as Silvio. (The grownups got to hear Jon Vickers as Canio and Raina Kabaivanska as Nedda.)

    My second opera was Siege of Corinth, with the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Dallas, and yes, it was Beverly Sills who sang the leading role, Pamira. (Others in the cast included Shirley Verrett, Justino Díaz, and Harry Theyard; conductor was Richard Woitach.) My godmother and I went backstage to meet Sills after the performance, and I was hooked on opera from that day to this.

    My first opera in New York was one of Sills’ final performances, in Menotti’s La Loca. I got my ticket at the last minute, and found myself fourth row center, four rows ahead of Sills’ mother. Mrs. Silverman would show up at almost every performance - of opera, of ballet, of every kind - that I attended, throughout my first years as a New Yorker. It was as if she oversaw the process that her daughter had set in motion.

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