Friday, November 13, 2009

Music and Memory, Part 5: Life and Death

One of my most important teachers and mentors was the celebrated African-American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad.  Barbara was a musician of awesome intelligence and power, as well as a compassionate, maternal figure who welcomed me to her kitchen table for tea and conversation after many a lesson.  I began studying with her when my life was in turmoil after the end of my first marriage, and Barbara's studio was a kind of safe haven for me during those tumultuous times.

One day I burst into tears during my lesson, and told Barbara I just didn't think I could continue singing.  Though I had been singing since childhood and was several years into an interesting small professional career, I had begun to feel as if I had built my life, including my life as a musician, on the shifting sands.  That life was fueled by vanity, pride, anger, and the will to power, and I believed that, if I continued, I would be -- already was -- heading down a morally detrimental path.  (I'm not sure, now, how much of this was real and how much was self-dramatizing; I had always tended toward the latter.  A wealthy patroness had taken an interest in me around the same time, and given me funds to study with a certain well-known repertoire coach, who asked me, in our first lesson, what my goals were for our work.  "To know the truth," I said with fervor.  I'm sure he must have rolled his eyes inwardly.)  I felt like I had a fateful decision to make about the direction my life was going to take, and that I ought to sunder myself completely from the pursuit that, if not responsible for my complete descent into selfishness, folly, and amorality, had at least coincided with it.

Barbara told me a story.  In the 1960s, while singing at New York City Opera, she had become great friends with the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (above), who was an opera-lover and a friend and supporter to many young singers.  When she won the coveted title role in Carmen, she fell victim to backstage gossip, slander, and intrigue on the part of her jealous colleagues.  The Archbishop came to her rehearsals, and one night, as they had dinner afterward, she cried and told him that she wanted to quit singing.  He said to her, "Oh, Barbara, you must never stop singing.  You never know when it could make the difference between life and death for one man in the audience."

She did not stop.  (And she was received into the Catholic Church by the Archbishop, though he joked  that she wouldn't make a very good Catholic).  One of the high points of her illustrious career, she told me, was singing for Pope John Paul II at a huge open-air Mass at Belmont Race Track when he came to New York in 1995.  I didn't stop either, but I retooled my career so that my performing was of a more scaled-back, intimate nature, away from the opera stage.  This decision probably had little to do with my moral rise or fall in the end, but I see now that it was necessary, as it continues to be necessary in other ways, to seek to make myself smaller and more hidden, and working as an opera soloist tends to work against such aims.

Incidentally, Barbara Conrad is a great woman as well as a great artist.  This profile of her appeared in the New York Daily News in 2006, in the "Big Town, Big Heart" series formerly edited by Dawn Eden; it's worth a read.  And she gave me the great gift of singing at my wedding in 2005.


Anonymous said...

Wm. James said, "We don't sing because we are happy. We are happy because we sing."

Have you heard Harry Chapin sing "Mr. Tanner"?

Pentimento said...

I don't know that song. I'll see if it's on Youtube.