Saturday, September 22, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 29: Pavane for a Dead Soprano

One early-summer day fifteen years ago I saw, while walking around my old neighborhood, a flier for an apartment sale -- one that promised opera scores, costumes, and gowns. Being not only a struggling young opera singer but also an inveterate apartment- and stoop-sale junkie, I made my way over to the address listed, a couple blocks from my own building. There I saw a middle-aged singer I knew by sight from the neighborhood, the friend of friends of mine, presiding over the sale of the contents of a pre-war tenement apartment, the kind whose walls have been painted so many times without being scraped first that they look wavy, with a bearded middle-aged man. I pieced together that the things for sale had belonged to the man's sister, a soprano. This woman, whom I did not know, had died suddenly of an aneurysm in the middle of a Thursday-night rehearsal for one of her bread gigs, a church job at the lovely little Dutch Reformed church just down the street, whose choir was blessed by an abundance of local talent in the form of struggling opera singers from the neighborhood (there were a lot of us). She was in her mid-forties.

The soprano must been a lyric coloratura. The ghoulishness of the situation notwithstanding, I made off with the Schirmer scores of Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor, along with a pile of sheet music, some costume jewelry, and a couple of recital gowns. In fact, I bought so much of her stuff that her grieving brother, seeing me eyeing a tea-strainer -- the kind that looks like a little colander on a stick -- tucked it into the pocket of the big old man's shirt I was wearing. It appeared that he and the singer who I recognized from the neighborhood (she had sung with the dead woman in the church choir) had started some sort of romance, and I was glad for them.  On the way out, I saw a pile of the deceased woman's promotional postcards, no doubt ready to be mailed out to booking agents. They showed her in a variety of comedic poses, and I realized that the soprano, no longer young and easily cast-able as Lucia or Violetta, was attempting to move into character-actress work.

These memories came rushing back to me the other day when I saw Jude playing with the tea strainer, which has remained in my possession over the intervening years and four subsequent moves. I wondered if, like Babette, she was now delighting the angels in heaven, where she had become "the great artist that God meant [her] to be." I thought of some other middle-aged artists I had known from bread gigs of various kinds, some of them with prominent pasts: the former director of a theater program at a Midwestern university; the former award-winning fashion designer whose management company fired her for being too old when her long-time agent died; the tenor whose childhood of sexual abuse caught up with him just as he was achieving a stable degree of success, causing an undiagnosable psychosomatic condition that robbed him of the ability to walk; and many others. I thought about the untimely death from metastatic breast cancer of the luminous Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who worked steadily and quietly for many years before achieving the international fame she merited, and then died at 52, and of the charismatic voice teacher with whom I'd studied briefly, who'd worked with Bernstein and been friends with Jacqueline du Pré and her widower Daniel Barenboim, and who opined that great musicians seemed to be canaries in some sort of global-spiritual-crisis of a coal mine; since so many of them died in their primes, there must be a cosmic plan to it.

At the same time, I recently finished a new memoir of bohemian New York, a literary genre of which I'm particularly fond, but this one did not call forth the bittersweet elegiac sense that the best of them do. In fact, this one -- ironically, written by a friend of mine -- I found depressing. The book chronicles the author's debauched young adulthood simultaneously with the transformation of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from shunned ghetto to chic arrondissement. I've never lived in Williamsburg and was not part of the circle he describes, but I felt a strange, unpleasant sense of voyeurism while reading about other people's drug-and-sex-addled days and nights, which took place during roughly the same time I was pillaging the dead soprano's apartment and my first marriage, along with my own opera career, was slowly unraveling.

I spoke recently on the phone with an old colleague from those days, a wonderful lyric tenor and devout Catholic who has sung in many of the world's major houses, including the Met, and, after the initial years of struggle, was having an important career. His wife has been battling a debilitating illness for the past few years, and he's cancelled some very important gigs in order to stay home and care for her. "I'm back to where I was fifteen years ago," he told me. He has a church job and is teaching for a foundation that offers free music classes to adults with disabilities. "And," he added, "I'm totally at peace with it." He left his wife at home for years with their children while he was out on the road; backing out of his major career now, he said -- a career that requires ten months a year away from home -- is the least he can do.

"And you," he said, "Look how far you've come." I didn't know what he was talking about. I hadn't had a major career. I'd left everything and moved to the middle of nowhere, where no one knows "who I am," or even, for that matter, who I am. I expend a great deal of my daily strength managing my autistic son's difficult behavior. I barely sing anymore.

But he explained that he meant how far I'd come spiritually. He knew me back in the day -- the young singer who bought the dead soprano's scores and gowns, the young singer who sacrificed everything sacred on the altar of ambition -- and I supposed that he might, in some way, be right.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Music and Memory is a great series. Keep it up!

Mother Teresa became a "somebody" because she realized she was nothing without the love of her Maker. At this stage of my life, I'm a nobody, and I'm too tired and busy to have any worldly ambition or expectations of worldly success. Perhaps now God can work through me. Veritas et caritas, TQ

Otepoti said...

Call me a vulture, but what I thought was, what a great one-act opera your garage sale would have made. Bereavement and broken dreams, new hope through love, and the aspiring soprano sorting through the detritus of a life. The elements are all there. Plus, what with the characters all being singers, there would be no problem at all with the suspension of disbelief when everybody bursts into song. Suddenly, I wish I could compose.

Best

Pentimento said...

Awesome idea, Otepoti! Maybe I'll shop it to an opera composer colleague from grad school who now teaches in the South . . .

Thanks, TQ, and prayers for you.

MrsDarwin said...

Beautiful, Pentimento. I love that your friend recognized and admired your spiritual journey. That's the kind of progress that so often goes unnoticed and uncomplimented, though it's the most important kind of growth. It makes me wonder whether anyone I haven't seen for years would comment on my spiritual growth, and I fear the answer would be no.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Mrs. D., and note that this kind of spiritual growth always seems to come at the hands of stuff that no one in their right mind would choose to go through.

ex-new yorker said...

Your (Pentimento's) last comment really makes me think, particularly about the kind of people I'm tempted to envy because they seem to be having the wonderful Catholic family life depicted in all the books and blogs, *and* their problems seem so easy. I guess the "stuff no one in their right mind would choose to go through" could be hidden, or subjectively difficult in ways I can't imagine. I'm pretty sure it would be wrong to dismiss them as not experiencing as much spiritual growth as is available to me just because their lives look so great.

Honestly, some of what's been most difficult for me to cope with -- and most difficult to trust God through, accept God's will about, possibly allowing greater spiritual growth? -- hasn't been what presumably would be ranked highest as "objective suffering" in my life.

You in particular may understand how noteworthy it seems to me that what stand out as particularly formative spiritual experiences to me usually seem to be things I can't share, or share fully, with almost anyone. (I'm saying you may understand because it must be especially obvious to you how much I like to process my life through "sharing," i.e., talking, writing :).) I will never be writing anything approaching a public tell-all story of the ongoing conversion in my life.

Anne-Marie said...

On a tangentially related topic, the WaPo has feature article today about the Lieberson Neruda Songs, which are being performed here soon. Just reading the article made me cry, and want to go to the performance... until I learned that Peter Lieberson already had a wife and three kids when he met Lorraine Hunt. That really took a lot of the shine off the love story for me.

Anne-Marie said...

Sorry, I forgot the link to the Post article:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/neruda-songs-at-the-kennedy-center-a-lost-loves-legacy/2012/09/27/7dc00588-072b-11e2-afff-d6c7f20a83bf_story.html

Pentimento said...

Thanks for the link, Anne-Marie. I know what you mean, and I can't attempt to justify the affaire Hunt-Lieberson, but I always thought, about her, that "by their fruits you will know them" applied. She was someone who'd been through a lot and perhaps was vulnerable, but that doesn't make it right, of course.

Melanie B said...

Pentimento, I second Anonymous. I love the Music and Memory series. Like the poems you share, I always save them to savor when I really have the time to read them with some attention, though that can mean waiting weeks sometimes. Perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon, though I really should be doing some writing of my own right now.

ex New-Yorker, I agree that for me the struggles that seem to bring about the most spiritual growth are not the splashy crises I can write about publicly and are not what would seem to be the highest in "objective suffering;" but are the private struggles, the tiny toothpick crosses that aren't really fit fodder for my blog.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Melanie. I agree with you both that in some cases, dealing with that one fork that won't go the right way in the drawer is a grueling cross. It often is for me.