Monday, November 16, 2009
Music and Memory, Part 6: Treason
E.M. Forster wrote that if forced to choose between betraying his friend or his country, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." While his proposition trifles with the notion of treason, I wonder what the comparable label is for betraying friendship. If betraying friends were as feared and anathemized as betraying country, perhaps we would do it less casually than we do. I know that I have sacrificed friends on the altar of my ambition, as well as simply because our beliefs diverged on matters that seemed to me absolutely fundamental (though few things really are). Often in my life I've come to a fork in a friendship where continuing on has seemed like more energy than I've felt like giving, and so I've let those friendships fade away. I'm ashamed to think of how lightly I've taken my friendships. After all, Christ Himself called His disciples His friends, which certainly suggests that friendship is a holy relationship, or should be.
When I was a young singer, I had a beloved friend -- Soprannie, whom I've written about here before -- who was also, sometimes, a bitter rival. Soprannie was a remarkable person on many levels: not only a fine soprano, but also beautiful, highly intelligent, a marathon runner, a gifted jazz pianist, and possessed of a dry, wicked sense of humor. She was courageous and feisty: she lived all alone in Brooklyn, and once fended off a would-be mugger with a cast-iron frying pan. Most of all, she had a great talent for friendship. Her heart was more open than that of anyone I've ever known, before or since, and she suffered compassionately alongside her friends, whom she called her "volitional family." Indeed, Soprannie's friendship was prized by her colleagues and semblables, for whom she always had a listening ear. Her friends were so used, however, to her position as the listener, the shorer-up, and the scraper-down-from-the-ceiling, that few of them ever considered that she needed to be listened to and supported as well. The self-absorption of her friends vis-à-vis Soprannie was probably the reason that, as she confided to me afterward, only two of the many guests at her wedding actually gave her and her groom a gift (I was one of them). No one, apparently, thought that Soprannie needed anything.
Like every beautiful, brilliant, and talented woman I've ever known, Soprannie was subject to searing romantic disappointment (the more I know women who were raised in faithful Catholic families, on the other hand, the more they appear to me to have been inoculated against this hazard of modern femininity; but Soprannie, like me, was raised in a progressive-activist Catholic family, and she herself used to quip that God offered minimal protection and maximum support). In those days, both Soprannie and I were scraping by on pocket change -- on one occasion, she had to panhandle her subway fare home from work -- and at one point I tried to set her up with a very nice young lawyer whom I worked for. He was artistically inclined himself, one of the many lawyers and bankers I encountered during those years who had given up an uncertain future in the arts for the far more reliable and lucrative worlds of finance and corporate law, and he was very taken with Soprannie. She, however, put the kibosh on their relationship one date night when, having a drink at her apartment, he propositioned her with the suggestion: "You have needs . . . and I have needs."
Soprannie and I used to go to the opera together, and, since we couldn't afford to go out to dinner first, we would each bring snacks -- a bag of baby carrots, a package of pita bread, a little tub of humus -- and meet in a public atrium on Broadway in the West 60s to share them before heading over to the Met. I remember once we were at a star-studded performance of Mozart's wonderful, underrated opera Idomeneo -- Plácido Domingo, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Dawn Upshaw were all in the cast -- when Soprannie, in tears, asked if we could leave after the first act. She was going through a painful heartbreak. We left, and went to a bar instead.
In the mid-nineties, we were both at a point in our careers where we needed more credits and roles on our résumés. So we did the sort of thing that enterprising young singers in New York often do: we self-produced a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, with Soprannie singing the Countess and I (still singing soprano roles at the time) Susanna. It was not hard at all to find other young singers in need of gigs to take the other roles, and we ended up with quite an excellent cast. We used the piano-vocal transcription of the score, and our opera was "played" by one of the best coaches and rehearsal pianists working in New York at the time. Annie's church donated the space, and we packed the house with our friends and colleagues. Our staging was minimal, but effective: my costume prop was a sheer little black French maid's apron, and hers a string of pearls, and in the last act, when the Countess and Susanna exchange clothes in order to trick the Count, she put on my apron and I put on her pearls.
During the rehearsal period, I got angry at Soprannie when she explained to a non-singing friend the difference in our voices. "Pentimento's singing," she said. "is exciting, like baklava. But I am like a slice of rich dark-chocolate cake." I wanted to be dark chocolate, too; who wouldn't? But Soprannie was a singer of great intelligence and musicality, and singing with her, when she wasn't undermining herself with the kinds of semi-conscious, neurotic self-sabotage practiced by many singers, could be thrilling.
The truth was that, as much as we loved each other, Soprannie and I were fiercely competitive. We concealed information from each other about auditions and coaches. Once we were able to tag along together on a road trip to Washington, D.C. for an audition, in a car driven by an up-and-coming young woman conductor. I told the conductor how Soprannie had recently been in a bike accident when a guy in a parked Mercedes had opened his door into the bike lane on Madison Avenue; she'd gone on to sing a performance a few days later with a taped-up cracked rib. My point was to favorably reflect upon how tough and committed Soprannie was. Soprannie, however, was furious with me: the up-and-coming conductor had a car (a rarity in New York), and was, therefore, a driver. Didn't I realize that New York drivers hated bicyclists? She was sure my anecdote would have a negative effect on her career, and that I'd told if for that purpose.
Over time, Soprannie's life changed, and mine did too -- hers, it must be said, for the better, mine not so much. In spite of her unstinting self-giving, she had long been lonely, and she finally met a suitable man. Some of her friends were not shy about expressing their distaste for this fellow -- he was an M.B.A. working in marketing, and they were . . . artists (I'm wondering now if this may have been one of the reasons for the general withholding of gifts at their wedding). Some in Soprannie's circle saw her choice as a true betrayal -- as a sort of friendship treason, if you will. Soprannie wouldn't have to work her ass off anymore, like everyone else in her cohort: it just wasn't fair. The consensus was that she was selling out. You can bet there was not a little resentment abroad concerning her happy reversal in fortune.
I, on the other hand, had gotten married young to M., a conceptual artist, and, while we had a great deal in common, were good comrades, and he was unselfishly supportive of my life as a musician, I, though I could never admit it, was eaten away by mistrust and anger towards him for taking me to abort our child before we were married, engaged, or even a real couple. I understand now that I had a deep instinct to make him suffer in retribution. That anger, combined with my selfishness and ambition, and the toxic delusion that neither he nor anyone else could ever really love me, spurred me on to destroy our marriage at the same time that Soprannie was forming the bond that would lead to hers.
For a few years after that, I meandered through my world in a kind of exile from my own life, musically, relationally, and professionally. Soprannie was kind and reasonably tolerant of my changing cast of boyfriends and spiritual practices, and supportive of my career transition in the direction of scholarship and teaching. Sometimes I wish that she had been firmer with me -- had told me, especially during the horrible times, that I was going down the wrong path, that I needed to stop. But an unspoken rule of female friendship among our cohort was that we didn't judge. Heartbreak and hard times were considered the price we paid for being highly-educated, artistic women making our own way in the metropolis. In fact, even abortion itself was accepted, though not without chagrin, as part of the mixed bag of modern womanhood, and was thought of as a sad hardship that had become part of our landscape, but never as something that should be restricted in any way.
After Soprannie had her first child, and I underwent my conversion (which happened about the same time), our paths diverged even more. She had different friends, and I did too. But I always loved her like crazy. I haven't seen her now in almost five years. She moved to the West Coast with her family a few years back, and is now the mother of three boys. I sometimes picture with envy what I imagine as her perfect life, and contrast myself, still struggling in so many ways, with what I picture.
But the other day I got a message from her on my cell phone. She was saying, through tears: "Pentimento, my heart was just filled with you. Do you remember when we did that Figaro, and we were so young and so in love with the music, and with being able to sing it so beautifully, and how we just wanted to sing on and on?"
Yes, I remember it well. In fact, though Soprannie and I had our ups and downs both as musical colleagues and as friends, singing with her in our little home-grown Figaro was truly one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. I miss her.
Above: An excerpt from the Act III Countess-Susanna duettino, "Sull'aria."