Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Some Thoughts on Opera

[A preliminary note: I’ve been away from blogging for some time now, thanks to a complete knee replacement (and three weeks in the hospital) and a trip to Europe and . . . well, laziness.  I’m back now and will try to be a bit more regular with my posting.]

I don’t remember a time when opera wasn’t a part of my life. One of my earliest memories is listening to Enrico Caruso singing, on a 78 rpm record, “Vesti la giubba” from Ruggero Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci. This famous aria comes at the end of Act I and is usually translated as “Put on Your Costume.” The clown, Pagliacci, has just discovered his wife’s infidelity—but the show must go on—not that I knew or understood any of that in my callow youth. By an extraordinary stroke of luck, I still have that record.  It was recorded on one side only, as they were in those days.  I still get it out every once in a while and listen; it always brings back a flood of memories, although there are better digitized versions on CD.  But those scratches and hisses take me right back to circa 1948, listening to this deeply moving aria.  I’m still moved by it these many years later.

My mother instilled a love of opera in me. She was passionate about it and passed that passion on to me.  My dad hated opera and would have nothing to do with it; he passed that hate to my brother Ken, who to this day will have nothing to do with opera. But it was important to me then and it is now.  

I remember my first live opera performance Mom took me to: Faust by Charles Gounod.  I don’t think I followed the plot completely, but I remember quite vividly two scenes.  One is where Méphistophélès first appears in Act I.  I knew nothing of stage “magic” and didn’t understand the techniques behind Méphistophélès appearing suddenly in the air over Faust, seemingly floating off the ground.  I know now he was lit behind a scrim painted as a library, but at the time I was spellbound by this wonder.  And then I remember the final scene: Faust is visiting Marguerite in prison; she’s there for murdering her child. I doubt if I understood all those details at that age, but then Marguerite sacrifices herself for Faust and falls, seemingly dead.  Suddenly (and with that wonderful music) the walls of the prison were pulled away, the clouds of heaven appeared, and Marguerite ascended to Heaven. It would take a far less romantic soul than me not to be greatly moved by this scene.  Although I’ve seen it many times since, I am always moved by this great opera. I’ve seen it once in Chicago already with the wonderful Piotr Beczala as Faust and Ana María Martínez as Marguerite.  And it returns this season with Benjamin Bernheim as Faust and Erin Wall as Marguerite.  But I’ve never forgotten that memorable first performance.

There were other operas.  I remember a Rigoletto in particular.  I also remember that these operas were performed by The Metropolitan Opera on tour. I’ve spent a little time online and I can’t find any reference to The Met performing in Oklahoma City, so I suspect it was some other opera company on tour and my memory yet again fails me. It doesn’t make any difference: I was dazzled.

And I’ve been a regular opera attender ever since.  I had season tickets for the Ft. Worth Opera when I lived in Dallas (I couldn’t afford Dallas Opera, although I attended a few performances there).  Then when I moved back to Oklahoma I had season tickets for Tulsa Opera for many years.  For both those opera companies I had two tickets, and Mom would travel from wherever she was to join me.  After Dad died, she moved near me in Eastern Oklahoma, and we continued to regularly attend Tulsa Opera.  The last one we saw before Mom died was The Barber of Seville. After that, I moved first to Oklahoma City and then San Diego.  I attended San Diego Opera occasionally but couldn’t afford season tickets, working as I was as a night clerk in a hotel.  After returning to Texas I was too far away for a season at Austin Lyric Opera.  But now I’m in Chicago where we have a world class opera company: Lyric Opera of Chicago.  I have had season tickets for my almost ten years here.

What a world of music Mom opened for me.  I will always be grateful.