Archive | October, 2014

The Opera, My Father, and Me

31 Oct

About two months ago, I went to the opening night of the Los Angeles Opera, Verdi’s La Traviata, set in 1920s Paris.  To be clear, I’m not trying to brag, here.  I am not the kind of person who has the money or the inclination to purchase tickets for such grand and glamorous events.  I just lucked out. My colleagues at the opera offered me free tickets.  As I often tell my wife, every now and again there are perks to knowing me…and this was one of those rare occasions.  Truth is I haven’t been to the opera in years.  At one time, though, the opera was an integral part of my everyday life.  For many years, my parents were subscribers to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.  As well, some of you likely know that in my youth I studied voice at some of the nation’s most renowned conservatories (I failed out of those conservatories, too, but that’s a story for another time).  And so, sitting there at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, my mind was filled with countless memories about the opera, my on again off again love affair with musical performance, and, of greatest importance, my family.

Watching opening night of La Traviata, a powerful current of memory almost overwhelmed me, as I thought about uncomfortable childhood nights sitting in ill-fitting suits at the Met, watching productions that seemed overly dramatic and insanely long…at least that’s how they seemed to my nine-year old brain at the time.  I recalled my adolescence and my growing appreciation of the opera, of my interest in specific composers, singers, conductors, and directors.  I remembered, too, my brief and ill-fated career as a student of classical vocal repertoire and how uncomfortable I felt among the many talented hopefuls in New York’s classical music scene.  And, above all else, I remembered my father, the man who deserves much of the credit for my love and study of music.

My dad was an opera fanatic.  His passion for the art was remarkable and one of the more distinct and memorable features of his persona.  No doubt some of my childhood friends, as well as the friends of my two sisters, will remember my dad blaring the Met’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts as he whined along (he surely couldn’t sing) and conducted with his own baton, a birthday present from my sisters and me. In all likelihood, dad had been to the Met the previous Tuesday evening, and so there’s a good chance that he had already heard and seen the operas that blared throughout the halls of 56 Sterling Rd on any given Saturday.  Had he lived a different life, had he delayed marriage and family, I suspect that my dad would have found some way into opera research, production, or management.  He was just that passionate and knowledgeable.  Indeed, one of my fondest memories of my dad concerns a backstage tour we took of the Met many years ago.  In one of the scene shops (which used to be onsite in those days) we came across a sketched out backdrop of a colonial Boston street scene.  Everyone in the room scratched their heads as they tried to figure out what obscure work in the classical repertoire was set in Boston.  Indeed, even our guide was utterly befuddled. Then my dad observed that in the 19th century, European productions of Verdi’s Un Ballo en Maschera, a work that depicts the assassination attempt of a Swedish monarch, would often be set in colonial Boston.  Apparently depicting the assassination of a monarch was unacceptable in mid to late 19th century European productions, but the assassination of a colonial governor was just fine.  That was my dad.  He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the opera and an oversized love and admiration for the art form and its practitioners.

I, on the other hand, was less enamored of the opera.  Over time I came to enjoy it, of course, but I lacked dad’s all consuming passion for the art form.  And without that passion one really can’t succeed as a classical musician.  The careful study of scores, the daily practice, the intense care one must dedicate to protecting one’s voice, it was just too much for me, and there were others who were far more passionate, disciplined, and in truth, more talented than I was.  And so by my early twenties, I had stopped studying voice, taken up the study of acting, and, over time, the opera ceased to be a part of my life. Still, opera lives inside me.  I know the plot lines to most of the standard works in the classical repertoire, I can recognize countless arias after having heard just a few notes, and I still get a chill listening to Puccini’s La Boheme (Puccini was and continues to be my favorite opera composer).  My appreciation of the opera is a portion of my patrimony, a legacy forcefully and passionately bequeathed to me by my father. And so when offered the chance to attend the opera this fall, I went.

It was a great night.  It was nice to be at such a grand event with my wife and daughter. I saw numerous friends and colleagues.  The production was fun, and the music is still as beautiful and powerful as I remembered it.  Most rewarding of all, while sitting in that vast music hall enjoying the sometimes glorious, sometimes awkward, always exciting merger of grand music and grand theater I thought about the opera, my father, and me and the way in which the art form played such an important role in our relationship as father and son. Lost in that reverie, for a brief moment, I saw my father’s soul.

This last claim, my maudlin assertion that I could see my father’s soul, likely requires some explanation.  My father died in 2008, after a lengthy battle with melanoma.  Over the past six years, I have had a hard time recalling my father in any context other than his rapid decline in the two or so months that preceded his death.  To be sure, we all have wonderful stories about my dad, about his peculiarities, his temper, his sense of humor, his love of dogs and little kids, and, of course, I have photos of my father to remind me of what he looked like at different stages in his life.  But what is absent from my mind, is a recollection of the kinetic totality of my dad, of the way that words, and movement, and thought, and emotion, and other ineffable qualities combined to form his unique being, his essence, his soul. I have some vague memories of his bearing during his illness, of his labored breathing, his terrible frustration with his physical deterioration, and of his dips in and out of conscious thought.  But for years now I seem unable to capture in my mind some fuller sense of my father in his younger, healthier days…until I went to the opera.

As the lights fell and the overture began, a vision came to my mind’s eye, a vision of my dad sitting in a similarly darkened theater, his attention riveted on the stage, his occasional look over to me to confirm that I was still awake.  I recalled strolling across the large and beautiful plaza at Lincoln Center with its signature fountains.  I could see and hear snippets of my dad telling me the synopsis of this or that work—an experience that, as a child, I often found far more entertaining than the actual performance. And most specifically, I remembered meeting my dad for a pre-opera dinner one night on New York’s Upper West Side.  I was 23, living in Memphis Tennessee, and had just come into town for Christmas.  When I arrived at the restaurant my dad looked at me and smiled this big, genuine and loving smile.  Just writing about it makes me tear up a little bit. I saw all this and more, that night.  Throughout the evening I caught glimpses of dad as a young and healthy person deeply engaged in the one hobby he embraced more passionately than New York Giants’ football.  The whole experience was fulfilling and quite moving.

I had no idea that the opera had meant that much to me, that it had become an ethereal link between my earthly life and my father’s soul.  It has, though, and so I suspect it is time for me to return to it….not as a singer, of course, that’s just nuts.  No, I suspect it is time for me to embrace my father’s legacy.  To listen to more works of opera, to whine along with the arias I know and love, to conduct an invisible orchestra, and to close my eyes for just a minute and see my father.

As always…stay tuned.