January 12, 2014

The Opera Gods.

Although Buddhism has become my religion of record, the opera gods haunt the marrow of my soul, visceral links to my family, and to my emerging sense of the world.

I listen to it when I cook, and when I drive, but only when I am alone.

We did not go to church. We did not go to temple. My parents had made a compact that kept our home life secular.

My father was raised Catholic, and my mother was Jewish. When my paternal grandmother stayed with us in the winter, I attended mass with her, thrilled by the incense, the music and the magic potential for a God who lived among the pews and stained glass windows. Despite my father’s firm and frequent statement that “organized religion is the root of all evil,” I knew that I felt something in that place; surely all those people weren’t stupid, the ordinary everyday people in suits and fancy hats who genuflected, prayed and sometimes wept openly.

With my mother’s family we celebrated Passover, dipped bitter herbs in salt water and said “next year, in Jerusalem!” We set a place at the table for Elijah, for whom I waited with patience and confidence. We went to Jewish funerals and learned The Mourner’s Kaddish. Every year we lit the candles on the Menorah somewhere in the vicinity of the Christmas tree.

Our worship took place on Saturdays, in the form of The Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcast. At some point in the afternoon, after my mother got home from lunch with her best friend Joyce, and Dad had cleaned the grout or graded papers, it was on. Often, my father watched a Michigan State University football game with the sound off while Pagliacci wept, Tosca lept or Hansel and Gretel wandered lonely through the woods.

I hated it with a passion.

There was something about the wailing and the emoting that made me uncomfortable in my young skin. It was no aversion to classical music; I played the cello, and was a kid who would drop the needle in the same spot over and over again for a heady hit of Brahms. It was that music that freaked me out.

Whenever I could, I avoided it. I went to my best friend’s house for the afternoon, or trudged to my own room and closed the door as a barrier against the weirdness going on downstairs.

My parents tried to tempt me with bits of a favorite opera they thought I might like (“just stay for the overture—no singing!”). I was polite up to a point, beyond which I would announce yet again that I hated opera and there was no point in pushing it on me because it just wasn’t my kind of thing.

Until there was a live performance of “Carmen” at the University, and my parents bought tickets before realizing that she was scheduled to be in San Antonio for a conference. I really, really liked dressing up and going out in the evening, and I figured I could just watch people to kill time between intermissions.

Being a college professor, my father insisted on telling me the story first so that I would know what was happening. I listened, thinking that it sounded kind of over-the-top ridiculous. Why would anyone hang out with someone like Carmen? The fighting, the knife, the blood were all avoidable with a little common sense.

In the darkened house, though, after the curtains went up and the perfume and gum smells of the audience became the smells of the streets on the stage, I was converted.

Some tender bud of a trigger was released, and all of my adolescent yearning and misdirected passion found beautiful, terrible expression.  Music, that music, held all of human emotion a story of human frailty, sorrow and untrammeled ecstasy. More than the lyrics of a pop song, more than the plaintive arc of a symphonic melody, it was all there. Everything was there.

And so I joined the fold, asking for opera albums for my birthday and Christmas, and sitting in my bedroom for hours listening to Madame Butterfly fall in love, wait for Pinkerton and fall on her sword in the anguish of his betrayal. During a couch-surfing December in Manhattan I met my friend Warren and bought standing room tickets to see “La Boheme” at The Met. We spied empty seats, snuck into them and were firmly removed by the Opera Police. The adrenaline mixed with the performance and we were beyond happy to stand for hours in the dark as Mimi loved and died in her Paris garret.

Although Buddhism has become my religion of record, the opera gods haunt the marrow of my soul, visceral links to my family, and to my emerging sense of the world. I listen to it when I cook, and when I drive, but only when I am alone. (The opera gods did not move with me to this family).

Yesterday I slid into the driver’s seat of my car and turned on the radio to find The Metropolitan Opera Broadcast. I had spent four hours working a funeral reception. I am getting better at the whole funeral thing, but I tensed as I watched the woman’s daughter weep and lean on her husband and her father. She is now motherless like me, but I can’t cry at work, can’t co-opt someone else’s grief.

The Met broadcast was “Die Fledermaus,” my own mother’s favorite. It is not a tragic opera; it is, like my mother, a burst of brightness and energy. It is, mostly, about a party, and includes an aria known as “The Laughing Song,” which she loved.

I closed my eyes, leaning against the headrest and letting down the barriers that held me upright and stoic. I could believe again in the old gods, that the lyrical energy of a Strauss waltz held some of my mother’s displaced ebullience, and that it was caught in its universal travels and concentrated in a sonic message for my worn out heart.

When the overture ended, when I sat upright, opened my eyes and turned to the tasks before me, I knew that she was with me still, always, forever.

The applause was thunderous.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: kotomi on Flickr


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