I Cry Every Opera Season
“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” Socrates
I was not born with a manual. I tried to be the best daughter, girlfriend, wife, mother and friend that I could. I think that is what Socrates means. We don’t really know how to do anything. We are all just winging it.
My mother loved opera best of all her many cultural pursuits. Opera was always playing in my house growing up. She took out records from the Donnell Library in Manhattan every week. We listened mostly to musicals and operas. Whenever she was alone, it was all opera, all the time. There was not an opera she did not like – Italian, French, German. She listened to them all. I would walk into the house and talk about my day at school with the Marriage Of Figaro, Rigolletto, or La Traviata in the background. Her children were going to be named Don Giovanni, Tosca and Carmen. Apparently, my father intervened. We had to have American names.
I hated opera as a kid before I ever saw one. my mother would tell us the stories or the libretto as she called it. I responded with “It’s just screaming to music. Why do they have to sing when speaking the story would be just as effective? All they say is I love you, I love you, I love you. I’m dying; I’m really dying; I’m dying in ten minutes. I died.” I would fall on the floor coughing and dramatically clutching my chest. Tuberculosis or consumption was a big killer in opera. Someone always dies at the end.
She tried taking us to operettas. I can handle Gilbert and Sullivan. I do know all the words to the Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and Pinafore thanks to those weekly records. I never made the transition to serious opera. I would always say that she was wasting a ticket to take me. I did not get it.
Opera is supposedly the most emotionally direct of all art forms. The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion. It is storytelling at its most vivid and manipulative. Those big moments in opera are usually the ones that deal most directly in the big human themes: life, love, death, loss, passion, joy, anger .
In her later years, My mother loved to go to the opera dress rehearsals at the Met with her friends. They would bring lunch and spend the day. She would say that the Met was the best place to have a picnic. The tickets were different colors. My mother didn’t have tickets to every rehearsal but she had all the colors. Someone would find out the color of the ticket that day and she and her opera loving friends would run by the ticket takers waving their ”blue tickets.” I was a little surprised. “Mom, you are sneaking into the Metropolitan Opera House?” She would laugh. “Who is going to stop a bunch of sweet, little old ladies?” They did not.
I never thought to ask her why she loved opera so much. What was it about opera that made her sneak into a rehearsal or listen to it all day? Why didn’t I ever go with her to find out? What was I doing that was so important?
On her ninetieth birthday, she planned for everyone in her family who could come to New York to attend the opera with her. I volunteered for babysitting so everyone else could go. She laughed at my not so suble ruse. It was a long one but I don’t remember what was playing. She died at ninety one.
Her memorial was the day after my birthday. The ceremony was held at an event room in her friend’s apartment building overlooking Lincoln Center. I walked into a Starbucks in Los Angeles before going to the airport on my birthday. Opera music was playing. I had never heard opera in a Starbucks before or since. I asked what the song was called. It was a famous aria by Puccini called O Mio Bebbino Caro – oh my beloved baby.
A year later, my son asked me to go to an opera with him. I said yes, knowing my mother would have loved that. I sobbed through the entire opera. The music starts, and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. For a few hours, I am in my apartment in Brooklyn and an opera is playing on the record player and my mom is alive.