And by immersion therapy, I mean my own, not your immersion in the length of these posts! My! This is Part 1, with more to come…
My parents are both trained classical musicians, my mother with a master’s and my father a doctorate. I grew up surrounded by music, classical music: symphonies, operas, orchestral pieces, sacred choral works. Some of my earliest (and favorite) musical memories are playing on the floor next to my mom as she practiced the organ; later I would be her page turner. Another favorite childhood memory is lying in my bed at night while my parents practiced for a piano recital in the next room — duets, two pianos, four hands. They brought in an extra piano for rehearsing.
I first sang the Fauré Requiem in church choir when I was in 4th or 5th grade, my mom on the organ. I remember every Good Friday Daddy would listen to Parsifal (the whole thing). In 6th grade I was the best in music class at identifying classical pieces, because we had all the records at home and I could practice. This was probably not fair to the other kids in class, but oh well.
I started playing French Horn in 6th grade; then when we moved to Kansas, my dad began conducting the very local regional orchestra, which I joined in I guess 9th grade. There were only two horn players, the 1st chair grown-up, and me. Pretty cool, and I got to play some good music; I always enjoy it when a piece comes on the classical radio and I can say to my cielo, “Hey, I played that!” And of course, I had piano lessons from my mother from age 5 until I graduated from high school. By the end I was playing concerto movements for competitions.
In college I sang in the choral union, which was made up of vocal majors and anyone else who wanted to join. Choral union was required for vocal majors, which meant I was singing next to top-quality singers such as this one. Here I got to sing the Fauré again, as well as the Mozart and Brahms Requiems, Rutter’s Gloria (oh my god, that movement is sublime), and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.
My folks didn’t have much use for popular music — although I distinctly remember my mom saying she really liked “Yesterday,” and they made note of when John Lennon died, so it wasn’t completely outside their realm of existence. Nevertheless, we were a classical music household, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I really started exploring other genres.
In fact, it was my little brother TBro who introduced me to the Indigo Girls, when I was 21 and heading into my last year of college. He came back from boy scout camp, where he was on the summer staff, and said, “Hey, you should listen to this, it’s kinda cool,” and popped “Closer to Fine” into the tape deck. It’s not an overstatement to say this changed my life. The Girls saved my life, and their music led me to Nanci Griffith (ooh, complete with monologue!), Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, and, eventually, Dar Williams, the Dixie Chicks (I still feel this way, if you’re wondering), and Patty Griffin. If you’ve been around awhile you know this is music that has pulled me through some tough times.
It’s not that I got away from classical music, exactly. When we lived in Tucson I sang in the UofA’s Community Chorus (Mahler 2 being the highlight) and when we lived in Portland we went to the opera with some regularity (we got in cheap since we had friends who worked there). We have two CD racks, one full of classical, one full of the above singers (as well as some others, and Latin pop/tropical/Nueva Canción, jazz, and Sweet Honey In the Rock). Classical just didn’t have the same space anymore; that space was shared by the need to occasionally rock out, or have my heart cracked open by a high lonesome harmony, or to nourish my struggle against injustice.
And then, in January, I rediscovered opera.
Now as I said, I grew up with opera. We often listened to the Met radio broadcasts on Saturdays, and if there were operas on TV we’d watch those, as well. And of course there’s was Daddy’s Parsifal ritual. Mom would cry listening to “Nessun Dorma.”
One of my favorite memories is when my mom took me to Dallas to see the Met on tour in 1979, for my 9th birthday. This was back in the day when the Met actually took their productions on the road. We were originally going to see 3 operas: Don something (I forget now which of all the Dons), with Beverly Sills, who I adored at that tender young age; Tosca; and Tannhauser. The trip was really about seeing Sills, but Don something sold out, which I distinctly remember made me cry. So we had to settle for Tosca and Tannhauser (“Settle,” she says…).
Mom and I packed up the Pinto with food and all the opera books we had, and drove from our little town of Monticello, AR, all the way to Dallas. Just the two of us, the brothers stayed home with Dad! I read the stories of the operas from our books out loud to Mom while she drove. She felt it was better to know the stories going in, so you would know what was going on. So I read them, and we talked about them, all the way to Dallas.
We saw Tosca first. You can see pictures of the set here, thanks to the Met’s archive. As I mentioned, the production would have traveled, so what was seen at the Met was what I saw in Dallas. I was enthralled. I won’t rehearse the story for you, you can read it here, but I remember being on the edge of my seat, from the crashing, threatening opening chords all the way to the end, when Tosca throws herself to her death (what, you’re surprised? It’s an opera, somebody has to die, and in Tosca, just about everyone does…). It was the music, it was the story, it was the performances (Magda Olivero‘s swan song*, and Pavarotti** in his prime). It was the strong, powerful woman in charge of her own life. I was HOOKED.
*1960 performance, Act II, part 1, part 2, part 3 (the famous aria, which my dad says is bad theology but my cielo points out is a biblically sound lament. When we saw her in 1979, she did the whole thing on her knees, which, considering she was 69, impressed my mom and me very much.), part 4. Very cool; such presence in her voice. Basic summary of this scene: her boyfriend is being tortured in the next room, and she’s trying to convince the bad guy to stop it. Bad guy says he will, if she sleeps with him. Watch and see for yourself how it turns out. And you thought opera was boring.
The next night we saw Tannhauser. I feel asleep shortly after the Venusberg scene of Act 1 (er, that link is a not entirely traditional production. Maybe I would’ve stayed awake if we had seen this!). Wagner is pretty heavy for a 9-year old, and it could be that Tosca wore me out! I did wake up with the brass fanfare (traditional production) in the 2nd act, which was pretty cool.
My folks had the 1962 recording of Tosca, with Leontyne Price, Giuseppe di Stefano, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. 2 records, red box, with a nice booklet on how they did the recording. I listened to that album OVER and OVER and OVER when I was a teenager. My parents gave me the piano score for Christmas one year, and I used to play through the WHOLE THING at one sitting (knowing right where the spots were to flip the records). It was my escape, even if to a brutal, all-too-real place (sometime I will write about why I think Tosca may have primed me for my future justice work…). A few years ago, my folks transferred the records onto CDs for me, which I thought was fabulous.
I enjoyed other operas — the Puccini oeuvre, Verdi, Wagner (I grew into it, and besides, in my household, it could not be escaped), Mozart somewhat — we were more romantics in my house. I remember adoring the New Year’s Eve Met of the comedy Die Fledermaus, which was a riot, and starred Kiri Te Kanawa, who I promptly got a crush on (and oh my, the Met has put that performance online…goody!). And on into adulthood, I kept listening when I could.
But I think during seminary classical music became the background for studying, and less for really listening to. And with opera or longer orchestral works, I hate interruptions (I’m the same way about movies), so when I needed a brief musical pick-me-up, I opted for a few Indigo Girls or Patty Griffin songs.
Which helped. But I had forgotten what it meant to be immersed in music, whatever sort it was.
To be continued…