Thursday, November 26, 2009


Enbrethiliel of Sancta Sanctis is one of the most thoughtful, elegant, and stylish (in the writerly sense) bloggers on the Catholic interwebs.  She took my breath away today with the closing of a typically provocative and well-considered post:

"Perhaps, one day, I'll look back at everything I've screwed up and see the grace that helped me to do any of it at all."

I think I will adopt this felicitous thought as the motto both of Thanksgiving and of this blog. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Passion Cannot Music Raise, and Quell?

What passion cannot music raise, and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood 'round.
And wondering on their faces fell,
To worship that celestial sound!
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

-- John Dryden, "Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day" (musical setting by G.F. Handel)

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."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mother Cabrini, Pray for Us

Today is the feast day of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, affectionately called "Mother Cabrini" by her devotees, patroness of immigrants and traditionally revered by Italian-Americans.  Her shrine in New York City (in a neighborhood jokingly referred to as "Upstate Manhattan") was my long-time parish (the beautiful stained-glass window at the back of the church, which has a view that overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey, is pictured above).  I spent many hours praying there both before and after my conversion, once hopping a gypsy cab on an impulse to take me there in a snowstorm even after having moved some distance away to the Bronx.

The corridor that connects Cabrini High School for girls to the shrine is lined with glass cases filled with gifts left in honor of the saint, in thanks for her miraculous cures.  Her popularity has been effortlessly transferred to the neighborhood's large Latino population as its Italian population has dwindled to virtually nothing, and most, if not all, of these ex-votos, which include china plates and ceramic statuary, are inscribed in Spanish with the names and dates of the cured.  Just a few weeks before my conversion, I struck up a conversation with a professional, highly-educated woman at the local Korean fruit-and-vegetable stand, who told me that her daughter had been healed of life-threatening illnesses through the prayers of the local faithful and the intercession of the saint.  "This," she said, gesturing to include the whole neighborhood, "is holy ground."

One day several years before that encounter, I went on a Saturday to pray at the shrine.  Mother Cabrini's body is interred in a glass coffin, over which the altar is built.  As I knelt in a pew, the Latina charwoman, who spoke no English, put down her mop, came over to me, took my hand, and led me up to the altar, normally roped off from the public.  She had me kneel down before it and placed my hand on the glass; it was vibrating.

Next door to the church and high school is the former Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, where Maria Callas, who grew up in the neighborhood, recovered from a badly broken leg after being hit by a car (it's now co-ops).

This is also the sixth anniversary of my first date with my husband, which took place at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal.

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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music and Memory, Part 4: The Fat Lady

As a young girl, one of the most exciting things about Christmas was the books my parents gave me each year.  While sometimes these gifts expressed my parents' own concerns -- I remember a few years when I received things like The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks and Native Son by Richard Wright -- there were also books that revealed a depth of sensitivity to my growing spirit that was not always apparent in our everyday interactions:  The Cloud of Unknowing one year, for example, and a book of Meister Eckhart's sermons.  But the best year of all was the one in which they gave me both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Franny and Zooey.  I was eleven or twelve that year, and I read both books many times over the next decade or so.  Franny in particular was precious to me, so much so that, when my high-school boyfriend lost the copy which I, with an upswelling of feeling, had pressed on him (the same one my parents had given me), he was so worried about my reaction that he bought a new one, dog-eared several dozen pages, rolled it in the dirt, and slammed it in the door a few times before giving it to me (he confessed all of this when we broke up).

Franny and Zooey is a novel in two parts, each of them an eponymous short story originally published in the New Yorker (my father first read "Franny" in the New Yorker as a high-school student, and told me, that Christmas I was twelve, how thrilling he'd found it).  Franny Glass, a gifted young actress and college student from a stupendously gifted New York family, is suffering (not unlike Holden Caulfield) from an existential crisis occasioned by the sickening inauthenticity of the culture in which she lives.  In order to combat or at least ameliorate it, she has begun the practice of hesychastic prayer, which she's learned about from the anonymous classic The Way of a Pilgrim.  She ends up in a state of nervous exhaustion on the sofa of her family's Upper East Side apartment, where her brother Zooey attempts to rally her and send her back out into the world to accomplish her duties in it.  She cannot withdraw from it, he tells her, because she has a responsibility to the mysterious Fat Lady, whom he describes as a grotesque, quasi-Southern-Gothic figure sitting on her porch and swatting flies as she listens to the radio.  Then he lets her in on a secret:  the Fat Lady is "Christ Himself."

When my son was a newborn, I bought an old book of J.D. Salinger criticism from the discard bin at the local library, and read it as I nursed him.  I was surprised to discover the tremendous disdain in which the prominent literary critics of the 1950s and 1960s held Salinger and his entire fictional Glass family.  The critics were on the defensive -- sneering, for instance, at Zooey's reverence for the disgusting Fat Lady as a self-conscious badge of his and his family's intellectual superiority.  Salinger's Glass family is rather too good to be true, but hardly, it struck me, worthy of the spleen heaped upon it by actual flesh-and-blood critics. 

Revisiting Salinger, however, brought to my mind a long-forgotten encounter I'd had as a young singer.  I was about twenty years old, and was on a subway platform in Brooklyn, waiting for the train to take me to my voice lesson on the Upper West Side.  I was clutching my music in my hands -- one of the volumes of the Peters complete songs of Schubert.  As I sat on one of the hard wooden benches, a tall, muscular, middle-aged woman approached me and pointed at my music.  She tried to talk to me, but I couldn't understand; she was Polish and spoke no English.  Then, to my astonishment, she started to cry, pointing at my volume of Schubert and saying, over and over, "beautiful."  I was stricken.  Who was she?  She appeared, like so many Polish immigrant women in New York, to be a charwoman -- had she in fact been a singer?  I smiled at her, and tried to say something that might sound consoling, but she just shook her head, weeping, and when the train came, she ran to another car so that our awkward encounter would be severed.

I was troubled by this strange meeting, and for a long time after that, whenever I wanted to give up singing, I would think of the Polish woman on the train.  I started to see her as my own Glassian "fat lady," and decided that, if for nothing else, I should keep singing for her, and hope that it would bear fruit in her life in some mysterious way.  I wonder where she is now; I pray that she is at peace.

Above:  the cover of the French translation of Franny and Zooey.  I love the Hopper-esque cover painting.  Can anyone make out whether the gent in the picture above Franny's head (for it is Franny) is Kafka?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Blogger's Ball

I had a dream last night that some of my favorite lady bloggers -- including Betty Duffy, Mrs. Darwin,  Emily J, Sally Thomas, and Elena Maria Vidal -- and I were getting ready to attend a ball.  We were pulling on fabulous clothes worthy of Elena's site Tea at Trianon, and Elena herself was escorted by a dashing genteman à la Mr. Darcy (though he hailed from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, and his name was Jim).  The ball was being held at a very tony place on the east side of midtown Manhattan.  Though I woke up before the dancing started, I was left with a pervasive sense of looking at the city where I had lived for most of my life through the eyes of one who has traveled away from it and will never live there again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Mouth of the Righteous

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks what is just.
The law of his God is in his heart;
and his feet do not falter. (Psalm 37:30-31)

A beautiful sacred motet, "Os justi," by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). (I sang this piece as a teenager with the best choir I've ever sung with in my life, the New York All-State Choir.)

Musical Saints of Helfta

November is a month that commemorates many musical saints, both celebrated and unknown. This is a repost from a couple of years ago about the musical aesthetic of the Benedictine Abby at Helfta.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
November 22, aside from being a singularly tragic day in American history, is the feast day of the Roman martyr Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose name I took at my confirmation. I love that her feast falls at the denouement of autumn, when the beauty of the season is mostly past and everything is gray and barren; it cheers the heart. But November also marks the feasts of some other remarkable “musical” saints, a trio of women from the thirteenth-century Saxon monastery of Helfta, a Benedictine abbey that was a sort of hothouse of visionary nuns: Mechthild of Hackeborn (November 16), Gertrude the Great (who shares her feast day), and Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose feast day is November 19.

All of these nuns were party to visions of Christ in which musical sounds and imagery played an important role. Gertrude the Great, for instance, wrote of a visitation by the Lord in which he told her: “Listen to me, beloved, and I will sing you a song of love that is quite different from those sung by profane courtiers,” and then proceeded, in a voice that Gertrude calls indescribably sweet, to sing the following words to the hymn tune Rex Christe factor:

Amore meus continuus,
Tibi languor assiduous,
Amor tuus suavissimus,
Mihi sapor gratissimus.

(My continuous love,
Your persistent languor;
Your very sweet love,
a most pleasing savor to me.)

Mechthild of Hackeborn, the abbey’s choirmistress, was renowned for her own beautiful voice; her sisters in religion referred to her as “God’s nightingale.” She received a revelation in which Christ extended a harp from his sacred heart, explaining that the harp was himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then Christ, the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum.

Mechthild of Magdeburg’s mystical writings are well known, and have been studied and appropriated by both feminist and Jungian scholars. The record of her revelations, the book The Flowing Light of the Godhead, is also filled with remarkable musical imagery, including a vision in which Christ tells her: “Oh, dear dove,/Your voice is string music to my ears./ Your words are spices for my mouth./ Your longings are the lavishness of my gift.”

I find the musical mysticism of Gertrude and the two Mechthilds of Helfta quite thrilling and encouraging. Their aesthetic – a sort of ecstatic rigor that, like all mystical writing, from Rumi to St. John of the Cross to William Blake, uses the language of poetry and eros – is so very far removed from our present understanding of holiness that it strikes me that many present-day orthodox Catholics would find it dubious and unsettling at best. But it seems to me an antidote to the both the meandering confusion of liberal Catholicism and the joyless legalism of modern-day traditionalism, and I'm happy that the Church in her wisdom has seen fit to honor these three nuns.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friendship, Maine, and Marriage

Since my conversion/reversion, I've stood in a rather awkward position vis-à-vis my gay friends (having been a female opera singer in New York, they are rather many). One dear friend and colleague of mine expressed his distress that I was marrying a man who believed that my friend's behavior was aberrant. "God made me this way," he explained. Several years ago, before I understood that such things were really sins, I attended an old friend's gay wedding in Toronto. I had no problem with it at the time, and didn't see why anyone else should. The two had been together for years, loved each other, owned a house together. Love is love, I told myself, and I was happy that someone appeared to have found it.

In the light of conversion, I see things differently now. I still feel uncomfortable with the Church's injunction of celibacy for homosexuals, but no more so than I do about the same injunction for single heterosexuals: not because I think it's an undue burden, but simply because I know how hard and painful it can be. I am also very sympathetic to the feelings of hurt and exclusion that every gay person I know has felt at some point. Their suffering is not helped by the fact that some among my own faithful Catholic cohort effectively shun them.

However, my Facebook news feed is all abuzz today with cries of woe and outrage over Maine's adoption yesterday of a ballot proposal that would overturn the new state law permitting gay marriage. One friend wrote simply, "Muck Faine [sic]," while another, a deeply religious man who sincerely loves Christ, quoted Psalm 69: "Those who hate me without reason/outnumber the hairs of my head;/many are my enemies without cause,/those who seek to destroy me./I am forced to restore/what I did not steal."

I wish I had a good argument to refute them. To say that marriage is between a man and a woman, which I think now is a no-brainer, appears to gay-marriage advocates to be an argument based on a lack of charity and an outmoded morality. To be honest, I don't quite understand why gays even want to marry, other than for symbolic reasons of equality. Most states guarantee hospital visitation and property transfer rights to gay partners, and some recognize civil unions. Some of my gay Christian friends point to David's intense friendship with Jonathan in Samuel 1:18-20 as an example of a homosexual union blessed by God. I am no scriptural authority, but, as a musicologist, I'm all too familiar with recently-popular posthumous ascriptions of homosexuality for which there's no real evidence to certain great composers and musicians. (As for the Schubert claim, all I can say is that the construct of male friendship was very, very different in early-nineteenth-century Vienna from what it is today. And as a colleague of mine once noted as we browsed in the classical music section of the late, lamented Tower Records at Lincoln Center, recording companies need some filler for those "Gay Classics" anthology CDs, since it would be too boring if they were all Tchaikovsky.)

As it stands, I will have to refrain from making comments on my friends' posts, because I fear I have no consolation to offer. But I wish I knew exactly how to be a good friend to them, which I feel at a loss to do right now.