Tag Archives: Grattitude

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.

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Gratitude in Tough Times

4 Aug

 

keep-calm-have-an-attitude-of-gratitude

 

It’s been a tough summer…a tough summer in the middle of a tough, tough year.  War in Israel, mass slaughter in Syria, a passenger plane shot out of the sky—the horrible collateral damage of an ongoing war in Ukraine.  Here at home our government has devolved into hyperbolic political theater, as our Congress adopts a well-practiced posture of outrage and contempt, and our President seems quite incapable of stewarding the roll-out of his signature healthcare legislation (it’s true my liberal friends. I know too many young people who have had an incredibly difficult time with “Obamacare” to pretend otherwise).  On the personal side of the tough-times ledger there is my ongoing engagement with health, healthcare, and well-being.  I have a lemon-sized tumor in my chest, which fortunately is not cancer and has not grown but can still scare the bejesus out of me from time to time.  I am poked, and prodded, and scanned, by doctors on a regular basis.  I have developed a touch of arthritis in my spine (up around my neck) and must see a physical therapist once a week.  Beyond health and well-being I have experienced other types of personal challenge and sadness, as well.  Those who are regular readers of this blog know that recently an old friend was killed in a terrible car crash down in Texas.  And then, just a few weeks ago, another old friend died.  This death was not as shocking as the loss of my former classmate.  The person in question was a docent from our museum, and he was almost 90 years old at the time of his passing.  Still, he was a good guy.  I had known him for years, and I liked him very much.  He was kind, pleasant, charming, and baked cookies every week for the docent corps (and for me).  Such commitment to the culinary arts should not go unnoticed or unapplauded.  Like I said…a good guy.  When I learned of his passing, I turned to a colleague and exclaimed, “My God could this summer get any worse!!!???” 

As the words left my mouth I already regretted saying them.  First of all, things could, and have, gotten worse.  The war between Israel and Gaza goes on, bringing terrible loss of life and sadly sowing the seeds for decades of mistrust and anger on both sides. Syria has gotten no better.  Ukraine has gotten worse.  Fifty, some odd, thousand kids from Central America, some of whom will receive refugee status, others of whom will be sent home, live in a legal and existential limbo in detention centers near our southern border while the politicians continue to feign outrage and concern but do little else as they prepare their rhetoric for the coming election.  Then, last week, in a kind of cosmic slap in the face, a water main break at UCLA wasted some 10 million gallons of water—this in the midst of an ongoing drought in California (we’re at four years and counting). Like I said…tough times.

But my regret at having implored the heavens also emerged from a second reality that had nothing to do with these worsening circumstances.  I regretted asking if things could get any worse because to do so was to ignore the many blessings that exist in my life and the world.  My bizarre condition has not proven eminently dangerous, but rather a medical oddity that has put me in touch with some wonderful, attentive doctors and has generated expressions of kindness and concern from around the world.  This summer, I turned fifty, and that milestone has been marked by really wonderful celebrations in LA and NY, granting me the privilege of spending happy times with friends and family.  Indeed, just recently I spent the day with old friends from my high school days, people I haven’t seen in years.  We ate and drank to excess, shared stories about our lives and our children, and in general just had a good time.  I have a loving and supportive family, a rewarding and engaging job, two crazy dogs, and a host of other blessings that make me one of the luckier people on this planet.  Even the passing of my docent friend came with its own set of blessings.  He lived a long life.  His death was neither incredibly sudden (he kind of faded away over an 18 month period) nor cruel, painful, or prolonged (he was at the museum every week for all but the last few months of his life, and I understand that his passing was painless and peaceful).  I was lucky to know him for as long as I did, and he will live in my memory and the memory of countless others who toured the museum with him, knew him personally, or ate his cookies. 

In the wider world things remain pretty bleak, but there are still small signs of hope.  We have seen a kind of radical empathy emerge from the awful murders of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers whose deaths signaled the beginning of this most recent war.  Some three hundred Israelis travelled to the home of the bereaved Palestinian parents to mourn their loss and let the world know that such heinous acts are unacceptable to many in Israeli society.  Across the globe, Jews and Arabs have participated in the “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies” initiative.  In America, tolerance and legal acceptance of and for marriage equality is on the upswing, and our nation’s damaging and expensive war on drugs seems to be winding down.  At the very least, the nation’s politicians are beginning to rethink the political calculus of the “tough on drugs” rhetoric and legislation that began in earnest in the 1980s.  And in a somewhat mixed blessing, football season begins soon.  While I continue to worry about the ways in which the sport has damaged the lives of many athletes, I still love the game and look forward to the season.  I don’t believe for one second that the Giants stand a chance of even making the playoffs, but to paraphrase a friend, with every new season there is new hope. 

Gratitude is tough in tough times.  I don’t wish to seem too Pollyannaish, nor do I want people to think that my appreciation of my good fortune blinds me to the very real suffering and misery that exists on this planet.  But what is any one of us supposed to do…spend our lives contemplating only suffering?  We need hope.  I am reminded of the story of how rescue workers at ground zero in Lower Manhattan would hide in the rubble so that rescue dogs could discover live bodies.  The dog’s trainers found that the endless stream of death proved too dispiriting to their K9 coworkers and the only way to spur them on was to offer some hope of life.  If a dog (a wonderful creature, but hardly the most sophisticated of thinkers) needs that kind of hope, we human beings must require at least as much and likely more.  And so in tough times I try my best to count my blessings every now and then.

Finally, please know that I am not writing this post to lecture or cajole my readers into appreciating the good that surrounds them.  The aims of my blog are much more modest than that.  I merely want to let any interested parties know what’s going on in my world, to share my thoughts publically in a relatively safe environment, and to see if and how they resonate with my readers.  If this posting helps you in any way, great.  If not, that’s fine too.  The fact that anyone reads these posts at all adds to my already considerable blessings, and I am grateful for that.  And I hope that my family, friends, and other readers have much to be grateful for, as well.

 

As always, stay tuned.