Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tear-Water Tea is Always Good, or Why I Write

This is a Catholic blog. But it's not a Catholic apologetics blog, or a Catholic-mommy blog, or even the kind of blog in which a charmingly self-deprecating, adorably-bumbling Catholic woman candidly reveals her missteps and foibles, only to show how, in the end, they reveal profound lessons of God's wisdom. I was chided once in the combox here (by a non-post-abortive woman, one of more than a few who have taken the opportunity, in the comboxes, to assure me that they would never do what I had done all those years ago) for setting a destructive example, with this blog, for other post-abortive women, presumably by not making it one of the blogs described above. And I've been advised by a respected friend that more people would read here if this blog didn't have its ethos of quietly-pervasive melancholy.

But that's okay with me. Unlike, I presume, most bloggers, I don't like to think that too many people are reading here; it makes me feel exposed. After one of my posts went bizarrely viral a couple of years ago, I canceled my occasional participation in a much more widely-read blog, because the attention was uncomfortable. I'm not interested in things like getting a book contract out of my writing here, which seems to be the logical next step for many of the Catholic bloggers I admire. I already have a book contract in real life, for a work based on my musicological research. But not only will few people who read this blog read that book (most of my readers don't know me by the name under which it will be published), but it's also likely that few people in the real world will read it. Again, that's okay with me. I want to finish writing the book in order to honor my commitment to the publisher, and also because I believe I have something original to say in my field that might be of use to other scholars. But there's more.

While I have neither any authority nor any ability as a theologian or apologist, nor as a mommy- or cute-hapless-chick-blogger, I'm an observer, a witness to the mundane life, a diarist of memory, and a noticer of beauty in unusual places. This blog is where I attempt to chronicle those things. My life has been, and is, very different from those of most of my blogger cohort, including those whom I consider my friends. Because of my background, my temperament, and in some measure my circumstances, I experience psychic pain, both chronic and acute, every day, and I don't really believe in neatly-tied-up endings, which makes this blog not only an anti-blogger-book-contract-getting kind of blog, but even, in some ways, exactly the kind of blog you don't want your search engine to turn up when you're looking for answers in the lonely middle of the night.

In Barbara Kingsolver's compelling novel The Lacuna, Harrison Shepherd, an aspiring writer working as a cook in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1930s Mexico, states his greatest wish: "To make something beautiful, that people would find very moving." I share that wish. I suppose that the reason I continue to write here when I have time is that I want to make sense of things, of my life, and of the world around me, and to pull some beauty out of it in the hope of moving some anonymous reader's heart.

This is why I love the story "Tear-Water Tea" in the easy-reader book Owl at Home, by the legendary Arnold Lobel.  In fact, it may be the perfect work of literature, because it describes what I think must be the true purpose of literature, and indeed of all the arts: to take what is mundane, sad, or even unbearable, and to make something consoling and useful out of it, if not something transcendent.

In the story, the childlike and solitary Owl, in his bathrobe and slippers, decides that it's the right sort of night for making tear-water tea. Aided by sad thoughts ("Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again . . . . pencils that are too short to use"), he proceeds to weep into his tea-kettle. When the kettle is full, he boils it for tea, saying, "It tastes a little bit salty . . . but tear-water tea is always good."

There's something reminiscent of a sacrament, I think, in the idea of tear-water tea, which uses the commonest, plainest, most mundane and intimate substance -- a substance whose association with suffering is inescapable -- to make something else, something comforting and curative. All true works of art, I suppose, are reflections, however pale, of that divine confection, the sacrament of God's mercy, made from materials which are worked by human hands. In my own small, particular, faltering, and anonymous way, I would like to reflect God's mercy here, in the hopes that it might be useful to someone else. That's why I write.

Merry Christmas to all of you, dear readers. I wish you a very happy new year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beauty: Let it Kill You

Heather King has linked to a very good essay by English pianist James Rhodes, published a few months ago in the Guardian, about the sacrifices, existential and ethical as well as physical and material, that Rhodes has made in order to be a musician. Rhodes writes (quite accurately, as any working classical musician or singer can tell you):

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching) . . . And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary.

The "and yet" part is one of the great, secret pleasures, I think, of any classical musician's life. There is a quiet but profound elation at opening a fresh piece of music and settling in to work. A young musician, to paraphrase Stanislavsky, practices his art because he loves to hear himself in it; but as you advance in that art, you begin to fall in love with practice itself. You come to love the protecting walls of even of the most moldy practice rooms, the ones with the broken piano benches, the missing ceiling tiles, and the garbage cans stuffed with half-full cups of deli coffee; such places become your kingdom of solitude, your secret laboratory, the place where you shuck off the shell of the mundane world and become better than you are. And you also come to love the methods, the process of taking apart a piece: phrase by phrase, working those phrases backwards, forwards, in triplets, in dotted rhythm, in reverse dotted rhythm, using different vowel sounds, in different keys, etc. Maybe the dawn of this very particular kind of love is one of the reasons classical musicians appear to exhibit more autistic traits than the general population.    

Using Rhodes's essay as a starting point, Heather suggests that the necessary sacrifices an artist makes -- the eschewing, or the loss, of love, financial security, success, and emotional stability -- can be a unique imitation of Christ:

If you want to be an artist, you have to be willing to be totally ripped apart. Maybe that's why we don't have more Catholic writers (and painters, and poets, and composers, and musicians). Maybe we lack the willingness to be ripped let grace work its violence on us. To wait for a wedding that may or may not ever come, practicing, practicing, practicing. Preparing, hoping, praying, waiting. . . . There is nothing more Catholic than letting ourselves be killed by love. 

Indeed, though one often hears platitudinous reassurances from teachers and mentors that you don't HAVE to to be unhappy to be an artist, one sometimes suspects that these mentors are just trying to stave off the ruining of their students' lives. Who are these happy artists our teachers allege exist? And do we admire them? Edvard Munch said, "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. . . .My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Conversely, Gustave Flaubert wrote:  "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

Beethoven is known to have been a difficult and not very nice guy who was at times wildly unhappy, unhappy to the point of suicide when he realized that his hearing loss would eventually be profound deafness. He wrote in 1802, in a letter found after his death which has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament:

Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. . . . With joy I hasten towards death [but]  if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. - Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead.

To echo Heather's point, the sacrifice that Beethoven made in his terrible unhappiness -- the decision to forestall his own longed-for death and to continue living a life of suffering until he had brought out of himself all the beauty that he wanted to give to humanity -- is Christ-like. 

I'm not sure that great art and happiness are compatible, and, for the selfish reason that I get to be wrenched open by the  profound understanding of the human spirit that is evident in his playing, I'm rather glad that James Rhodes does not live a bourgeois life of comfort and forced good cheer.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Consolations of Appalachia

The literary critic George Lukács defined the novel as "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." I wonder sometimes whether, in my own small way, I am living in such a world. The winter has set in for good in my aging Rust Belt town, and the sky overhead, like the blighted landscape below, is every day an unrelentingly gray: an oppressive gray, a dull, gun-metal gray; not the kind of gray that's illuminated from behind by the sun, or the gray that seems redolent with mystery, or the gray that you know will blow away with the next strong breeze; or the gray that, even if it lingers, is mitigated by the hum and buzz of industry, endeavor, and human interaction. There were gray winters in New York, too, of course, but Petula Clark wasn't lying when she suggested that "When you're alone and life is making you lonely/You can always go downtown," because, there, you're liable to meet "someone who is just like you."

In spite of the fact that I've been here for five -- five! -- years already, I still feel that lack, that inability to meet who Anne of Green Gables would have called a kindred spirit -- that dearth, in fact, of someones who are just like me. Maybe they exist, but I would never know where to find them here. In New York, of course, you don't have to look far. You're bound, by the sheer volume of people, to meet many semblables. But I need to keep reminding myself that your friends don't have to be just like you.

Nonetheless, even though I've been here for five years already, my heart still leaps into my throat sometimes when I speak or hear the name of the city where I now live. How can it be that I live here? I think to myself. It sometimes seems like everything has conspired to humble me, even to chide me, for imagining that I could ever do important things. Will I die here? I wonder. Will the fire that burns in my heart be extinguished here, in total obscurity, in a forgotten backwater full of people who are sad, sick, and poor?  Will I never be able to bring forth anything beautiful?

And, my own loneliness and yearning notwithstanding, every day young single mothers from my old city and my old borough climb off the Greyhound bus here, their little children and a few shopping bags of belongings in tow. And some of them, I know for a fact, weep tears of relief when they arrive in this place about which I try very hard to remain neutral, grateful for the chance to leave behind the danger and despair of their lives in New York and to do right by their children. And with very good reason.

A few weeks ago I was actually back in New York for a semi-important gig. Remarkably, these still come my way once in a while, and I usually take them if the pay is reasonable and they don't disrupt my life or the lives of my family members too much, although they usually involve a lot of driving in the dark to get home as soon as possible afterwards. Doing school drop-off the morning after a concert on scanty sleep, my professionally-styled gig hair and traces of stage make-up are the only evidence that I've just come from a "real" place, doing what I think I "really" do, living for a day or two what I used to think of as my "real" life. And the fact is that my real life in that real place is no longer real. When I try to remember everything -- the years and years of memory accreted like layers of sediment, the smells and the sounds, the way the light looked -- it's almost as if a wall of smoke, of fog, stands between me and the person I was and the place in which I felt myself to be so deeply and intrinsically rooted.

I spend a lot of time in my car now, which is a very strange experience -- the sense of ploughing forcefully through a world that's hostile or at least indifferent, observing everything and yet removed, encased in the protective shell of my own atmosphere, is so different from the multi-sensory engagement, and the vulnerability, of being out on the street in a scrum of your fellow men. I have to say that it's cool to drive -- and even that I love my new used car, a Subaru Outback -- but I don't like the way that it's supplanted being in the greater world, and I find it hard to accept that this ethos of driving around is one of the defining aspects of middle-class American life.

One of the few random amazing things about this place though, is the libraries. There are four contiguous municipalities here that bleed into each other, but have their own separate governments, and each has its own library, and each of these libraries is a wonderful place, a haven, in a different way. I drive around to all of them, usually hitting two or more in a week. I love to go to the various children's rooms by myself, because I love to read children's books, and each library's children's room is bigger and better-stocked than my entire old branch library in the Bronx. And each library has discard tables that are veritable treasure troves, mainly for the kind of out-of-print children's books that I love. Some of the many books I've bought for a quarter have not been out-of-print, just inexplicably neglected and thrown away, like a new-looking copy of Maira Kalman's Fireboat, and a whole stack of books by Tana Hoban, which are among my favorites. My breath catches in my throat when I look at her photographs, so full of mystery, and suggestive of the strangeness and beauty hidden in the most mundane things (a picture from her book So Many Circles, So Many Squares, a library-discard-table glean, is above). Just the other day, for the combined price of forty cents, I picked up the following: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt; 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 1-12; a beautifully-illustrated children's biography of J.S. Bach from the 1960s; the January 2011 edition of the PMLA journal; and the "brief edition" (still four-hundred-plus pages) of the standard college music textbook Listen!

So, while haunting the public libraries here is one of my favorite things to do, it's an activity carried out in solitude (I shun the children's story hours, because they're way too noisy and frenetic for me, let alone for my children), and it reinforces my own solitude. But while I drive to the libraries, I often listen to Beethoven's Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, whose first movement never fails to astonish me and fill me with delight, as it coalesces out of a tentative, fearful darkness and into triumphant joy. I wish I knew a way to bring that joy out of my car and onto these gray streets.

(If you play the clip below, do pay special attention to the ABSOLUTE GLORIOUS WONDER of Beethoven's writing for woodwinds, specifically for the solo woodwind quintet -- the way that he lifts it out of the structure of the symphony for a few measures, and allows each of the wind instruments' voices to come forward as they twine together in their finely-woven texture. I think that Beethoven, in all his large-scale works, gave the music of consolation to the woodwinds).

Friday, November 22, 2013

For Saint Cecilia's Day: The Secret Lives of Singers

The fact is, the business has changed a lot in the past few years. Singers with A-house credits take roles at regional companies to fill in their schedule gaps; instead of hiring established professionals for smaller roles, companies will often use students or locals who may be less experienced in order to save money; seasons and runs are both shorter; very few companies doublecast anymore. Many of my colleagues who sing leading roles and have many major credits have expressed nervousness over the fact that opera companies aren't hiring as far in advance as they have been used to. It's scary when you have a family to support and bills coming due, and your engagement calendar looms empty six months down the road.

"The past few years" is really since September 11, 2001.

I'm too busy to post. I have lots of things I want to write about here, but no time. I have to have the first draft of my research-intensive scholarly book in to the publisher on a short deadline, and I have lots more research to do, and very little time in which to do it. Also, I've been hired to teach a class in the music department of the local community college in the spring semester, and I have to prepare, because it's a subject in music that I've never taught before. 

Still, I feel moved to share this for the one or two people who might remotely be interested, because it made me nod my head vigorously up and down. I've been condemned in the combox here in the past by apparent would-be music critics, who suggested that I was failure as an artist because I haven't performed on the world's leading stages (although I think these readers, who don't know me and have never heard me sing, actually may have objected to me on other counts, and allowed their objections to shape their opinions of everything I do). Because I've spent most of my adult life as a working (i.e. paid) professional classical musician, have earned a doctorate in music, and still go out on semi-important gigs once or twice a year, I feel as if it's semi-important to set the record straight about my sort-of profession.

For the record, I had a friend, also a singer, who is friends with soprano Lauren Flanigan and used to bread-gig with her, and told me that Lauren in fact went to her temp job the day after she subbed in at the Met in the telecast performance opposite Pavarotti in Verdi's I Lombardi. Like so many singers, she was in debt.

Happy Feast Day!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Non-homeschooling and Education into Beauty

Although I occasionally consider it wistfully, I'm not a homeschooling mother. My school-age son has special needs, and public school has been a great place for him thus far. He has supports in the classroom, and he has the necessary-for-him-for-now friction and pressure of being with his peers. He loves school, and academically he's at the top of his class. All the schools in our high-poverty city are Title I, meaning that a critical mass of their students live in poverty, which entitles the schools to receive a certain level of federal aid. Nevertheless, although this would seem to contradict common wisdom -- at least the faulty common wisdom based solely on student performance on standardized tests -- these schools are not bad, but, on the contrary, are extremely good. The teachers are excellent, and the curriculum is far more enriched than what's offered in most urban and even some suburban public-school settings. The district is known not only for its commitment to inclusion, but also its emphasis on the arts. Every elementary school in the city has its own choir, band, and orchestra, which students can join in the third grade, instruction provided; and the high school has, in addition to those conventional forces, all kinds of chamber ensembles, a string quartet, a jazz band, a concert band, etc. Because of ubiquitous budget cuts, elementary music instruction (though not band, choir, or orchestra) was cut in the district this year from two sessions per week to one, and, in response, a number of parents, myself included, are working with local arts organizations to try to find low-cost ways to do meaningful arts-education outreach into the schools.

In the meantime, although I'm a non-homeschooler, I spent the summer, as I did last year, devising and teaching a home-study curriculum to my rising second-grader. While last year our work comprised a general introduction to aesthetics and their place in the human person and community using picture books, this summer's focus was on Henry David Thoreau. I was led to this topic by way of a new and wonderful children's book about how Charles Ives composed his Orchestral Set No. 2. On the face of it, this may seem a dull subject for a picture book, but it's anything but. The third movement of Ives's piece, called "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voices of the People Again Arose," commemorates the day the Lusitania was sunk in 1915; the crowd waiting on the subway platform at the end of the workday began to spontaneously sing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."

Because Charles Ives also wrote a musical portrait of Thoreau in the fourth movement of his Piano Sonata no. 2, "Concord," I went, in figuring out what our summer course would be, from Ives onward to Thoreau. Ives wrote that the Concord Sonata was meant to give an "impression  of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect . . .  Hawthorne," and I thought Thoreau would hold more appeal to a seven-year-old than his erstwhile Concord colleagues.

I also thought that my autism-spectrum little boy would understand in a particular way Thoreau's single-minded obsession with the natural world, an obsession that led him to eschew society for two years -- a society that regarded him as warily as he it -- which is altogether a sort-of spectrum-ish situation in itself, when you think about it.

I was delighted to find many children's books about Thoreau, some of them excellent. I didn't warm up to the D.B Johnson series at first, because it seemed a little precious to depict Henry David Thoreau as a bear; but then I opened one of the books and saw how wonderful they were. The illustrations suggest cubism, and some of the books veer into the dreamlike and transcendent, like Henry Climbs a Mountain, which begins with the real-life event of Thoreau's arrest for tax evasion -- enacted in protest of the legal institution of slavery -- and the resulting night he spent in jail. In the book, the bear-Henry enters into a synaesthetic vision in which he meets an escaped slave and helps him to freedom.

So, over the summer, we read about a dozen children's books about Thoreau; my son wrote about them in his journal; and we started going into nature ourselves -- a state park about ten miles away -- and observing it closely. This has proven to be an unexpected boon for my son: in nature, his near-constant anxiety seems to completely lift away, and he is quiet and observant, seeing things the rest of us miss. He brings a journal with him, and he writes poetry containing quite lovely images, and, like Thoreau, makes little sketches of the flora and fauna he encounters.

School is in session now, and we've started another home-study unit. Somehow this one branched out from my son's love of the music of Antonín Dvořák, which, frankly, has a lot of things in it for a child to love. My son first encountered Dvořák's music in a violin transcription of the famous English horn theme ("Going home")  from the second movement of his Symphony no. 9 (From the New World), which Dvořák composed in America when he was director of the short-lived National Conservatory in New York.

My son had also become familiar with Dvořák's American String Quartet last year, after we read a lovely picture book about its composition called Two Scarlet Songbirds (in a sort of "Anecdote of the Jar" scenario, Dvořák attempted to imitate the song of the scarlet tanager, which he first heard in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, in the quartet's third movement).

So I am envisioning an interdisciplinary home-study taking place over this fall and winter, which, like the Thoreau unit, begins with the great music of a great composer. There are many directions one can take starting out from Dvořák: folk music and culture, the encounter of the old world with the new, African-American and Native American musics, of which Dvořák was a great admirer (he told a reporter from the New York Herald that "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. . . . .There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source"), and from an age-appropriate study of these musics on toward a study of the cultures from which they arose. 

I love doing this. Introducing my children to the beauty of the world is a great concern of mine. Sometimes I think I'd like to homeschool just in order to devise and implement such aesthetically-derived curricula. But my abilities to do all of this also raise questions for me. An aesthetic education is a given for me, a sine qua non, but what about all the other children -- most American children, in fact -- whose parents are not in a position to enrich their educations like this? It may be an accident of birth that my children have access to these things, but I feel strongly that I have a responsibility also to children who have not suffered such an accident. Public education has traditionally been supposed to remediate these accidents, and theoretically to supply all children with the same access to resources and means in order to give them all the same opportunities. But, as we know, neither resources, means, nor opportunities are evenly distributed in our society, which makes me feel even more strongly that it's incumbent on me to use my own in the service of those who lack them.

I understand that many in my cohort don't feel with me. While I greatly admire Sally Thomas as a writer, teacher, and mother, I disagree with her here, at least where it comes to my own situation.  I cannot presume to know what's best for anyone's children at any given time, and that includes my own more often than not, but my feelings about sending my children out into the world diverge from Sally's. Perhaps it's naive, but I believe that the world needs their light, and that we need to bring that light into the dark places. Every day before school I tell my son to look for opportunities to do kindnesses to people in his midst, because each kindness goes a little way towards the healing of the world, a world which, as we know, Jesus Christ is even now restoring unto himself. "Do something to make the world a better place," I tell him, an exhortation that I heard more times than I can remember at my own mother's knee. There are, of course, many ways of doing this, as many ways as there are people. For myself, while I wish to educate my children in beauty, I also would like to carry that beauty to the many children in my older son's school who have no access to it, which is why, to make a long story short, I'm working on the committee that I mentioned above. If it's unjust that my children should love the music of Ives and Dvořák and should take long walks in the woods while some children in my son's class don't have beds to sleep in or meals between school lunch on Friday and school breakfast on Monday, I believe I should do something about it, and that the best way that I can do it is through music-educational outreach, because spirits need to be fed as surely as bodies.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Listening to Classical Music: A Moral Imperative?

I'm still too busy to post much, but I thought this provocative essay by a composer who's also on the theology factulty at Wyoming Catholic College was worth sharing.

If one knows that Palestrina or Bach or Handel or Mozart or Beethoven wrote superior music, then choosing consistently to listen to less excellent music would be a moral fault. It could even be a mortal sin . . . for example, listening for pleasure to songs about sexual perversion or [to] Satanic heavy metal would be mortally sinful. However, since we must strive to flee even venial sins lest they prepare the way for mortal sin, it is always better to assume that today’s popular music, produced mostly by hedonists who are generally singing about sins, is a slippery slope leading to some kind of intellectual pollution and consent.

. . . . For a person attracted by the goodness inherent in art, there can be no divide between entertainment and profundity or worthiness. We should only want to listen to that which is beautiful; to settle consciously for something less is a lessening of our humanity, of our rationality. It would be like saying that only a church needs to be holy, while a home can be profane. No, the home itself must be made holy, it must be a “domestic church,” a sort of monastic enclosure for the bringing up of saints. The divide between entertainment and fine art is a form of dualism. . . we should elevate our souls to the point where what is intrinsically best or most beautiful is what gives us the greatest pleasure and restfulness. In other words, we should aim at a condition where anything we choose to do—whether for relaxation, leisure, or work—is equally noble, excellent, and praiseworthy. When I am in a serious mood, I should sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer; when I am in a light mood or in need of relaxation, I should also sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer.

While I would defend with my dying breath the superiority of anything Beethoven ever wrote to practically anything else created across genres in the history of humanity, I'm not sure I agree with Kwasniewski. He works from the assumption that the classics of the western art-music canon are morally superior to other music (or "musics," as we say in the embarrassingly-desperate-to-be-hip world of musicology), but his definition of that which is musically "intrinsically best or most beautiful" is, at best, a tautology.
In the realm of Kwasniewski's aesthetics, could John Coltrane and John Cage be elevated into the moral pantheon along with Beethoven and Bach? And what about John Prine? They would be in mine. Kwasniewski anathematizes the musics that stir up ache and longing, but what does he say to the musics that assuage them, like this?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Music and Memory, Part 30: The Slovenly Wilderness

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Gustav Mahler going on a walking tour of the Austrian Alps with his protégé, the great conductor Bruno Walter. Walter, no doubt like most visitors to the Alps, was in ecstasy when he beheld the mountains' grandeur, and he waved his hands around excitedly. "Look, Gustav!" he cried, to which Mahler, walking on quickly with his head down, replied, "No need; I have composed them already."

As a child, I had all kinds of fantasies about what the unmediated, unadulterated natural world might be like, but my experience was mostly confined to yearly hikes at Bear Mountain, which my father, paraphrasing Marx, called a "Lumpenwilderness."  And anyway, it can seem Herculean at times to leave New York City and go into nature, or anywhere else for that matter. If you don't have a car, which is many if not most people, you have to rent one. For my set, that meant walking across the George Washington Bridge to the Rent-A-Wreck in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Then you had to actually drive out of the city, which could literally take hours, because, since you'd walked to New Jersey, you had to drive back across the bridge to get your stuff. And then there would be traffic and getting lost, which could not be avoided if your path took you through the Bronx at all. And then, if you weren't some sort of wilderness expert, what exactly were you supposed to do when you get there? You could luxuriate in the grass while trying to wipe the fear of Lyme ticks from your consciousness, or marvel at the unobstructed views of sky. But if you're like me, by dark you would be sweating in your bed because of the sonic emptiness, terrorized by the absence of the reassuring all-hours city din. As Woody Allen said, "I am two with nature."

It's much easier driving into nature from here, though. We're surrounded by state parks, all of them spectacular, the closest about twenty miles away (Bear Mountain was only a little further than that, but it could take two and a half hours to get there). This summer, trying to quell my fear of Lyme disease, I started to take my son with high-functioning autism into the woods on hikes. (Incidentally, though I fear ticks, I have no fear of mosquitos. I'm the carrier of a rare Mediterranean disease which, like sickle-cell anemia, is linked to malaria resistance, and mosquitos have no interest in me.) In the past few months, my son has had tremendous difficulty controlling his emotions. We've started him on medication -- and, pace the nostalgic authorities on boyhood who glibly insist that boys are being medicated for being boys, my son is being medicated to try to help him with his towering rages that keep building up over the course of a day, that cause him to scream bloodcurdlingly and prolongedly when something happens to go awry in the little ways in which things go awry every day, and that are making our family's attempts to live in peace extremely difficult. But when he's in the woods, he's better. I don't mean that he's not autistic, but that in the woods, his autism shines forth as a kind of intense and beautiful adaptation. He's calm; he writes poetry in his nature journal; he's a delightful companion. I haven't read Last Child in the Woods, but I'm starting to believe in the healing propensities of the natural world.

In the state park, my son tells me that he misses New York. He often says this, and he says he wants to move back. He was not yet three when we left, but he has an uncanny memory, and he's also been to visit many times. I think about a trip I took to coastal Maine with M. fifteen years ago, and how beautiful it was, and then, stuck in traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway after driving many hours, with the windows of the rental car rolled down in the heat and the tinny sound of a frenetic merengue played on a thousand radios pouring in along with the damp, sour smell of the hot summer pavement mixed with the odors of piss, stale beer, and the dank Harlem River far below us, how my heart leapt and thrilled to be home.

I mention instead to my son that in New York, it's hard to find a place as beautiful as the place where we are now. Places as beautiful as this are far away and hard to get to, and, besides that, there's so much traffic and noise there.

I remember staring in bewilderment when my my longtime recital accompanist declared that nature was more beautiful and more important than music. I'm still not sure I believe it. My kind of nature is the still life, the natura morta, as it's called in Italian -- the nature that is mixed, and even wrecked, by its contact with the human, or the nature that is furtive, appearing a little at a time to slowly and imperceptibly redeem the urban spaces that have ruined it, like the weeds that grow out of the sidewalk cracks or the iridescent pigeons -- all so different, all so lovely, though their detractors call them rats with wings -- that peck at the refuse carelessly strewn on the street. Perhaps, like Mahler, I believe that music is better than nature, that art enhances, ennobles, and supersedes nature. Indeed, Wallace Stevens wrote about this in his 1919 poem "The Anecdote of the Jar":

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Above: Corenlis de Heem, Still Life with Fruit, 17th century.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Holy Ground

Ten years or so ago around this time of year, I met a woman in the grocery store in my old neighborhood. I had been admiring her t-shirt, which was silk-screened with beautiful, brightly-colored playbill images from various Sondheim musicals. We got to talking, and she told me that she had worked as a lighting designer in A-level regional theaters, but had settled in the neighborhood and was the mother of a five-year-old daughter. She was active in my parish, where I had only recently started regularly attending mass after many years away. Her daughter, whom I had seen around the church and the neighborhood, had, she told me, been born with severe, life-threatening birth defects, but, because of the prayers of our fellow parishioners, was now healthy and thriving. "This," said my new friend, referring to our neighborhood, "is holy ground."

I'm sure she was right. How could it not have been holy ground? The body of a great saint was in residence there. The prayers of the faithful evidently rose up to heaven with great success from there. Untold thousands of people had suffered there in all kinds of unimaginable ways in their working-class apartments there, including me. Maria Callas had grown up there. Okay, that last was a joke, though Callas, born in Astoria, Queens, really did grow up on the same street where I used to live, a few blocks from my building, until she moved to Greece in her teens. But that penultimate was not a joke. We have it on good authority that suffering sanctifies -- makes holy -- the sufferer, so why would it not also sanctify the place of his suffering? We honor the dirt where a saint has walked, the very fibers of the clothes that his body has touched, assuming that the saint's holiness confers spiritual power upon these things. If we ask the dead to pray for us, including those who may not (yet) be in heaven, it seems logical that we should consider holy the ground where those who suffered walked in life. And many saints have walked the ground of New York City, and many perhaps walk there still.

I still miss New York terribly. I miss my life there, which was not just my life but felt to me as though it were a piece of a whole, one part of a vital community that I thought was fairly stable. But that community itself has dispersed more and more; more of my near and dear ones have left. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his voluminous journal: "Methinks my present experience is nothing my past experience is all in all. . . 'Our life is a forgetting' &c."

But I wonder if where I'm standing now might also be holy ground. I've found that, as dull and benighted as this area is, there are some bizarrely wonderful things here, things that don't reveal themselves readily at first glance. Our pastor is one. The church we finally settled on, after a few initial months of parish-hopping, is what passes here for an urban one; it's a largely Italian parish in the midst of what is now a slum, and, not unlike the well-known Our Lady of Mount Carmel not far from where I used to live in the Bronx, it's attended on Sundays mainly by Italian-Americans who have moved up and out of the neighborhood, and you can still hear Italian spoken out on the pavement after Mass. This is by no means a friendly crowd; if you're "from there," as they say, you will know that even proverbially close-knit Italian-American communities harbor a not-insignificant amount of suspicion, even hostility, towards outsiders. So it's not what I would call a "friendly" place, but our pastor -- young, smart, orthodox, beautifully well-spoken, and passionate about the faith -- is like a beacon shining in the gray decrepitude of the parish's neighborhood. Friends who came here from New York and Boston for Jude's baptism last year noted how lucky we are to have such a priest, and it's true.

Another bright spot is my son's violin teacher, one of the greatest musicians I've ever met, who ended up in this backwater through a complicated chain of events (I've written about him here).  There are other good classical musicians here, too, if none on his level, but the best of them suffer from a kind of self-consciousness that is probably endemic to aesthetic strivers far-removed from artistic capitols -- a self-consciousness that comes, I think, from a kind of uncertainty and insecurity about the choice not to go to one of those capitols, but to stay in a small place in which each year the audience for the arts grows smaller and smaller. V. is not like this, because he is the real thing; and musicians on the highest level usually don't care about these things, though this not-caring is benign rather than bitter. Musicians who are the real thing also tend, in my experience, to have some balance in their lives, and to put things both musical and non- into a right-seeming perspective. (I'm not saying that I'm one of them, because, in spite of the fact that I'm a skilled musical crafstman, my relationship to music is virtually entirely neurotic.)

And then it's so beautiful here in the summer, in certain places at least. The sky is so blue; there are so many trees. The heart of city itself is not beautiful; in fact, it looks exhausted and defeated, a victim of 1970s-era urban renewal and several generations of residents fleeing and decamping for the nearby suburbs, which are, in some ways, even worse. I laughed out loud when I saw postcards of the downtown for sale at a local shop, because they were probably the least-picturesque postcards I'd ever seen. But the wonderful library is downtown, as is the great independent coffee roaster who moved here on purpose after doing a demographic study and calculating that most of his trade was mail-order anyway. There is a farmer's market downtown, too, and the farms are just a ten-minute drive away; some are even in the city itself: there's a movement to establish a culture of urban agriculture here, which has a certain symmetry when you consider the generations of people and corporations that have left this place and so many places like it, leaving the buildings to crumble back into the earth.

The other day I was driving around on the slummy outskirts of my middle-class neighborhood, outskirts that are truly more impoverished than any place I ever lived or lived near in New York City, and I saw a patch of queen-anne's lace and chicory blossoms that had pushed up through the cracked sidewalk and grown so thick and tall that they looked as if they were about to overtake the lamppost they surrounded. For a second, I felt ecstatic. Thoreau also said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads, and I could see, as I witnessed this square foot of urban wilderness, that it was true -- this ragged little street-corner prairie was as beautiful, in its way, as anything I'd ever seen. If the combination of suffering and beauty can make a place holy ground -- or if suffering actually engenders beauty, which I believe it can do --  then even this decaying city might be, in its own way, holy.

Above: Moses taking off his sandals at the command of the Lord, who speaks to him from the burning bush (Michiel van der Borch, 14th century).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Poetry Friday: Autobiographia Literaria

I heard Billy Collins read this poem on The Writer's Almanac while driving this morning, and reflected that it was practically perfect.
When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out "I am
an orphan."

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!

-- Frank O'Hara, from The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara. © Vintage Books

Friday, June 21, 2013

Poetry Friday: Next Year

Next year, she says, I think I will be four,
And will I still live here,
she asks, in this house, and with you?
A funny kid thing to say except
she's from the orphanage so it's not funny
entirely, not entire comedy I'd say.
Of course I tell her
you'll live here
with me forever, until you kick me out,
until you pry me from your side
with your stubborn teenage body,
with your young adult scorn,
with your middle aged disgust,
with whatever weapon you try against me.
And even then we will not be parted.
It took a miracle to part the waves.
It would take a greater miracle to drive me from you.

-- Liz Rosenberg, from The Lily Poems, ©Bright Hill Press, 2008

More Poetry Friday at Carol's Corner.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

No Gay Friends

Having reverted rather dramatically to the Catholic faith about ten years ago, I have an interest in conversion narratives (an interest which extends to my professional life, since the book I'm currently writing for a British publisher, one of the reasons for my currently scanty blogging, is about religious conversion in Victorian England). In light of this, I got hold of a book that made a bit of a bump in the Christian press a few months ago, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, the conversion memoir of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a reformed lesbian and erstwhile professor of feminist studies and queer theory. (I like that her name means "rosary"; she is Italian-American and was raised Catholic, but her conversion was into a Reformed, i.e. evangelical Presbyterian, denomination.)

This is not a book review; I'm only a few dozen pages into the book. I have to confess to being slightly put off by its slapdash writing and virtually-nonexistent copyediting (though I suppose a small Christian publisher like Butterfield's doesn't have much of an editing budget), but the book is both more complex and more honest than most conversion narratives I've read. What interests me most, though, is what Butterfield, after her conversion, did with her past. After becoming a Christian, she felt constrained to jettison not only her career, but also her friends, and she writes: "I felt like a vampire -- possessing no reflection in mirrors. I realize now that this is what it means to be washed clean, to be truly made new again. The past really is gone. The shadow of what was remains, but the substance is truly taken away." But is it really?

One of the things that stood out for me in the early pages of Butterfield's book was her description of  hospitality in the gay community.  She describes how "[on] Thursday nights, I had a regular tradition: I made a big dinner and opened my home for anyone in the gay and lesbian community to come and eat and talk about issues and needs." Wow, I thought; it sounds so beautiful. It reminded me of Christ, after the Resurrection, cooking breakfast for his friends on the beach and calling them to come and eat. Why can't we have that? Why can't we do that? Or is such friendship and camaraderie, such openheartedness, the special province of the marginalized and oppressed? I felt myself filled with longing for the community that Butterfield describes -- the community from which (thought I haven't read far enough to ascertain this) I am assuming she later cut herself off completely.

The book jacket states that Butterfield now lives in North Carolina with her husband and children, and I suppose that this kind of fragmentation of a formerly sprawling community into a nuclear family is not only the (hetero-)norm, but also the gold standard for a Christian family, but it made me wonder nevertheless how well such a narrowing and siphoning off of a once outwardly-directed hospitality would work. After many years of commitment not only to a sexual identity, but also to what sounds like sincere friendship and generosity within a community of the like-minded, what would it feel like to become someone else, someone suddenly rootless? Does the new community of believers who are strangers successfully take the place of the old community of hardened sinners who are beloved friends?

And then there's marriage and home life. If you marry young, when you're still becoming who you are, you and your spouse grow together in mutual recognition and come to share a certain language, a particular lexicon of references. But if you marry later, when you are already essentially who you are -- as I have done, and as Butterfield must have done -- I think there's a certain area in which you must always be a stranger to your spouse, and a certain degree to which you will have to attempt to translate the understanding of the world at which you arrived in the past, as if it were in a foreign language. If Butterfield's former friends are now strangers, she must now be engaged in the work of turning strangers, including those in her own home, into friends. Does this work?

The person that I believe myself essentially to be -- a lover of beauty, an associater of the workaday and the pedestrian with transformative aesthetic experience -- seems distant now from the person who performs the actions of my everyday life. When I think about my old life, I feel a sense of profound dislocation from its suchness, which was mainly concerned with finding meaning and beauty in the mundane. Now, perhaps like Butterfield, my life is primarily taken up with attempts to get through the day, to fulfill my commitments, and to make friends of the strangers with whom I live.

It's tempting to make a little joke here about having no gay friends, which was a bon mot in the opera world back when I was in it, and referred mainly to sopranos who chose unflattering audition- or recital-wear: "She clearly has no gay friends," we would say, because, obviously, if she had any, they would have put paid to these unfortunate sartorial decisions.

But when I think about it, it strikes me that I too have made it a practice to jettison people, places, and things when I felt that they had become (to quote the Catholic writer who once asked me to marry him, and later denounced me as a blasphemer and a bad wife, mother, artist, and person) "detrimental to me spiritually," or maybe when I felt they had just grown a little tiresome. So often in my life I've wanted to change, to be different from what I've been, to become somehow better, kinder, purer, and more sincere; and getting rid of personal effects, or dumping my friends, or going to hang out in new places were symbolic gestures that helped me believe I was inching forward in what I thought was a good direction. I left a thrift-store men's cashmere overcoat hanging over a chicken-wire fence once, because I felt it represented a dark time in my life; I gave away the flowing hippie skirts I'd purchased in the hopes that they would encourage a certain man to love me, since they would signal to him that we wanted the same vaguely-conceived alternative lifestyle; I gave a pair of expensive earrings from Tiffany's to my neighbor because of their painful associations; I left boxes and boxes of books in the basement of my building for the taking. And I placed my first wedding ring on one of the side altars at my old parish church a few years after that marriage went awry, and just walked away.

And I received my conversion. And eventually I got married and had a family and then moved away in space as well as in time from the site of my old self and my former understanding. Am I like a vampire? Am I washed clean? I don't know; but I do know that, when I walk through my new neighborhood at twilight, I sometimes wish for my old life. I sometimes wish for one of my old, far-flung friends to be there, one who would understand perfectly the lexicon of this particular darkening cloud, of that particular warm light illuminating a room in a house and pouring onto the grass outside, of the scent of this particular mock-orange tree, and would say, "Oh yes -- that." I do not know yet if Rosaria Champagne Butterfield wishes for these things too. I have to keep reading.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Poem About Brahms

I was thrilled to read this poem today at The Writer's Almanac. Whether or not Brahms and Clara Schumann had a sexual relationship has been speculated about for many years -- it is undeniable that they loved each other profoundly -- but, although they burned most of their correspondence, the evidence is against it. Brahms biographer Jan Swafford has suggested that, after the death of Robert Schumann in an insane asylum in 1856, the younger composer had the opportunity to propose marriage to Clara, but instead left her disappointed. The two remained friends, and Clara, one of the greatest pianists of her age, premiered many of Brahms's works.

The Intermezzi mentioned by Lisel Mueller are opp. 117, 118, 119. Brahms called the three op. 117 pieces, which he wrote while Clara was in her final illness, "cradle-songs of my sorrows." Here is the great German pianist Wilhelm Kempff playing op. 117, no. 1, with beautiful directness and simplicity. The piece was inspired by the text of a Scottish poem, "Lady Anne Bothwell's Lament," and Brahms inscribed in the score an excerpt from the poem in Herder's German translation. The English words are:

"Sleep soft, my child, now softly sleep;
My heart is woeful to see thee weep."

And here is the poem about Brahms.


Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
The modern biographers worry
"how far it went," their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone's eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address, not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving nothing to overhear.

-- Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University, 1995.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Difference as Blackness

One of my son's "special interests" (as the autism/Asperger's people say) is the waterways of eastern North America. He has about two dozen books about the Hudson River, the Saint Lawrence Waterway, and the Erie Canal; he loves the classic Paddle-to-the-Sea; and he spends a lot of time drawing maps of the Great Lakes and the cities that are built on their shores.  As a reward for good behavior, I recently got him a collection of DVDs called "On the Waterways," which was apparently a PBS series in the 1990s, and is narrated by Jason Robards. The episode about the Mississippi, predictably enough, uses a clip of Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" from the great musical Show Boat, which, in the show, is sung by the dockworker Joe, and includes the lyrics:

Darkies all work on the Mississippi,
Darkies all work while de white folks play


Let me go 'way from de Mississippi
Let me go 'way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de River Jordan;
Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross.

My son turned to me one night after watching this and remarked sadly, "I don't like being black."  He elaborated, "I don't like having doors closed in my face because I'm black."

This interested me, since my son is white. It may have interested me even more because my grandmother and mother were committed to the cause of civil rights. What does being black mean to a white boy? Is blackness its own essential suchness? Is it a state defined through self-recognition, or is it a condition demarcated, even imposed, by society? (Interestingly, Show Boat raises some of these same questions.) And why does my son, who is not black, believe that he is?

I am convinced it's because he is starting to perceive himself as different from, as other than, and as outside of. And the most prominent and notable class of people who, in our culture, have been those things has historically been black.

Below is a clip of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the Dick Cavett show, with Lennon explaining the genesis of his controversial song "Woman is the N*gger of the World," and Yoko thumping arrhythmically on a tambourine. Lennon quotes a statement by California congressman Ron Dellums suggesting that, owing to their alienation and figurative disenfranchisement, "most of the people in America are n*ggers." Perhaps this is the real meaning of my son's self-perception of blackness.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Opera Singers

I've been scarce here lately for more than the usual reasons. In fact, I spent April doing something I never thought I'd do again in this life: rehearsing and performing a small principal role in a Mozart opera with a reputable regional opera company. To make a long story short, the music director of company in question, which is about seventy-five miles from where I live, called me when the singer who was originally cast was offered a more career-making sort of role with a different company, creating a scheduling conflict. I didn't know this conductor personally, but another conductor had recommended me. I demurred at first, because it just seemed crazy. I'm not in the game anymore, and it really wasn't the kind of role I would sing if I were; it's usually cast with an up-and-coming singer, whereas I am more of a down-and-outing one. I explained to the conductor that I don't do opera anymore, that I have children, and that it would be very difficult for me to make rehearsals because of the distance. I also told him that I could recommend two excellent colleagues who had sung the role. But it seems the referring conductor's recommendation counted for a lot, and in the end I was offered the job, and, after my initial protestations, I figured I should take it, because . . . . well, I'm not sure why. I had been strongly prevailed upon; the money was good; and it was the chance to sing in a Mozart opera. And I had been told that I would only have to make it to three rehearsals, which turned out not to be true. I think I had to make the trip back and forth from my home to the city where the opera company is located twelve or thirteen times, and as a result I had to make some creative child care arrangements, and I spent most of the month more sleep-deprived than usual, since I was getting home well past midnight and my children wake up well before six a.m.

During the production process, I felt like an undercover anthropologist. After so many years away, I was overwhelmed by how vastly different my life was from the lives of my colleagues in the show, and, indeed, how different my life is now from the way it used to be when I was pursuing an opera career. I didn't have the chance to get close to any of my colleagues, because they were all in residence at a hotel for a month, while I was driving back and forth, so I missed out on some of the best things about being an opera singer: the camaraderie, the jokes, and the friendships that form in the inevitable Canterbury-Tales/Gilligan's-Island-type scenarios that arise when strange singers find themselves together in a strange city (incidentally, there's a wonderful novel on this topic, Now Playing at Canterbury by Vance Bourjaily). My colleagues were uniformly the best singers I've ever worked with; out of the cast of nine, three had already sung at the Met, underscoring the current dire economic climate for opera, in which, because of multiple regional-opera-house closings, A-level singers are working in C-level houses, which is both a boon to those houses and a disaster for singers less-well established.

None of the other female principals was married. Only one besides me had children: a three-year-old, whom she'd brought along on the gig, and who was being cared for by babysitters in the hotel room. "I don't know how much longer I can keep doing this," the singer-mother confided in me. Two of the male principals did have children, but they also had wives to care for them back home while they were out on the road. I overheard one of the unmarried, childless female principals ask one of her male colleagues, upon learning that he was going to New York to see his wife on our day off: "Can I live vicariously through your sex life? Because it's going to be a lot better than mine, no matter what." 

I'm sure I've mentioned this here before: you can't really be a mother and an actively-careerist opera singer. Well, you can, if you time your childbearing perfectly, and if you're commanding fees that allow you to pay for nannies, two conditions which almost never happen singly, let alone simultaneously. Some haters who used to read this blog a few years ago left comments suggesting that I quit opera because I lacked talent. While I don't think that's entirely true, it doesn't really matter that much, because once you get to a certain level of the profession, it's not even about talent. I'd like to say that it's about hard work, and that's certainly part of it; but it's much, much more about a confluence of things that are out of the singer's control, including the stars aligning. And of course, you have to really want it.

One of the principal singers in my production -- one of the unmarried women who had sung at the Met -- is enrolled in a doctoral program in voice at a prestigious conservatory. Since I loved my own years of doctoral study, I was surprised, when I asked her how she liked it, to hear her say that it was a total waste of time, but that she needed the piece of paper to get a good teaching job. I realized that our reasons for getting our doctorates were very different: I had already transitioned out of opera when I enrolled, and was performing concerts of material I'd found in my own archival research, and I wanted to learn how to be a better researcher. She, on the other hand, is coming up against a wall in the business beyond which, since she's a lyric-coloratura soprano approaching forty, she cannot go, and she does not have a husband, and she realizes that she needs to make a career transition in order to continue to eat.

It is an unhappy profession, peopled by lonely, unhappy people.

When I told a friend, a Wagnerian soprano who left the career in order to have a family, about my recent experience, she wrote me:

I can't even imagine trying to go sing with the diva girlies now. I really think opera is a dying sport/art form, so it is probably worse now than it was when we were out there.

The best colleagues I ever sang with were Wagnerians, since they are too busy trying to get all their shit together to be prima donnas . . . and I generally found that they want you to know the stuff so that if they stumble, someone can help!

I think I acquitted myself without shame, and I'm glad it's over.