Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tender Affliction: How it Spread Like Mad and Infected my Children...

It all began when I was about eight years old. My parents were members of the Dallas Symphony, and they were part of the pit orchestra for the Dallas Opera's performance of Samson et Delia. Either my parents didn't believe in babysitters, didn't want to pay babysitters, or they just liked having me around. I'll never know. But they took me with them to the performance this time, and I was comfortably seated on a backstage stool when my dad took me by the hand and said, "Come with me."

It was intermission. He walked me across the stage and down the steps to the velvet seats in the music hall at Fair Park. "I spotted some empty seats, and it's so late now that I know they'll remain empty," he said. I sat down and smoothed my fingers across the soft, maroon-colored velvet. I rocked gently. The lights dimmed. The orchestra tuned. The opera singers took the stage.

I don't remember much about this night because all previous memories fled during the final scene where Samson cries out with a loud voice, sings his heart out, and shoves the pillars until the entire set falls to the ground with an enormous thud. I shivered. Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes. It was an incredible moment.

That was the night I fell in love with opera.

I know it's silly, but I just watched it again and cried. AGAIN. After all these years. That's the power of opera to move you. Here is that final scene:

And here is the famous duet from Saint-Saens' Samson et Delia, Mon Coeur S'ouvre a ta Voix. Hopefully, it will be familiar to you.

My heart was torn. It was diseased. Infected. Crushed. Pulsing with passion. I was afflicted with a malady that defied all eight-year-old logic. I was magically, completely, wholeheartedly in love with opera. And the disease was about to spread. 

Years later, longing for some deep music study for my children, I enrolled them in the Choir School at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. It was a tough program! They had to study hard each year to earn ribbons and progress through levels of music theory and its application. Not only that, they were required to learn solfege, to my great delight. Their teacher, Carol Lillard, was patient and kind but firm. And they learned. And grew. 

Then it happened. 

 The choir director was asked if his choirs might participate in an Opera Carolina performance of Tosca by Puccini. He said yes and off the children went to be fitted with wigs, costumes, and shoes. They rehearsed for what seemed like hours each day until they knew the piece backwards and forwards. It was called Te Deum. You can watch it about three minutes into the video below. But the version they performed here in North Carolina used lavish sets imported from Italy. The kids were in utter awe. Never had they performed in a professional opera, much less in full costume with gorgeous scenery. 

Here is Luciano Pavarotti singing one of the tenor arias from Puccini's Tosca. He's divine in the role of Cavaradossi and his most famous aria, Nessun Dorma, is also by Puccini, from his last opera, Turandot. Many thanks to Mr. Pavarotti for leaving us such a delectable legacy as this. Here is E Lucevan de Stelle, or I Never Loved Life so Much (sung on the eve of his execution). Can't get more dramatic than that, except, perhaps, the following gorgeous rendition of Nessun Dorma from Central Park in NYC. (below)

The kids went on to perform with Opera Carolina again, this time as supernumeraries, which is just a fancy word for people with a walk on role who don't speak or sing. Extras for crowd scenes. The opera was The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet. Once again, they were enthralled. The music, the singers, the dancers, the costumes, the wigs, the makeup (full body makeup so they would look Indonesian). Here is the famous Au Fond du Temple Saint duet from Bizet's Pearl Fishers. There's no video, but it's my favorite version because of the tone and technical genius of these two performers. Once you begin your opera journey, you'll start noticing things like tessitura and coloratura. And your personal preferences will develop alongside your love of opera. This performance is by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill.

Next, our daughters and one of our sons auditioned for the local community college's opera program. They sang entire operas as chorus members. What joy! Our daughter Hilary remained involved with Opera Carolina, performing in La Boheme even when she had to get there through a blizzard. She was almost the only member of the "band" there that night! What dedication. 

Pirates of Penzance
Tales of Hoffman
Marriage of Figaro

Their love was deepening. Crescendoing. It was lovely to behold, as a Charlotte Mason educator and as a parent. And, I should say, as the daughter of symphony musicians. My parents have both passed away, so I feel a tender whisper of delight brush over me each time one of our children performs in an opera, an orchestra, or any musical performance. Our youngest son is an excellent drummer, guitarist, and singer. The opportunities are going to be endless, and it all began with Samson et Delia in a darkened auditorium filled with a hushed audience in Dallas, Texas. Little did I know how deep the veins of gold would go within my heart and soul -- or how actively our family would mine them.

The Educational Bits

To address what Charlotte Mason would say about studying Music, Opera, and Composers in general, is simple. 

Go to live performances. Often. 

Listen to the works of the same composer repeatedly for a season until you develop a deep affinity for him (or her). 

I would add to that participating in operas, taking voice lessons, singing arias, and developing relationships with your local opera company, or even with a company further away if you live in a small town or rural area. Our family got to know Maestro Meena here in Charlotte through talks he gave before or after each performance. We developed a relationship with him. Then, to our great surprise, we discovered we had a mutual friend and ran into him at a party. What a treat that was. You'd be amazed at how open professional musicians can be to interacting with children who show an interest. We are raising the next generation of classical music lovers, and that interests them greatly. 

Here's a thought. Let's learn an aria together, just you and me. It's called Vissi D'arte. You can download the music here. And here it is in Italian, then in English:

Italian Text

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.

Sempre con fè sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fè sincera
diedi fiori agl’altar.

Nell’ora del dolore
perchè, perchè, Signore,
perchè me ne rimuneri così?

Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?

English Translation of "Vissi d'Arte"

I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

Won't you listen and learn with me? If you're joining me, please leave a note in the comments. I'd love to know! God bless you and have a great week!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Ragged Schools of Scotland: A Dickensian Dream fulfilled

by Megan Hoyt

Thomas Guthrie's "Ragged Theology" was a new concept in 1800s Scotland, but we see glimpses of it throughout Charlotte Mason's writings. Did you know that? I didn't -- until a couple of weeks ago when I fell in love with Ragged Schools! Gentle whispers throughout the pages of each of Miss Mason's volumes woo us toward magnanimous thinking, toward proffering ideas to children instead of speed drills, toward seeing the infinite value of a human being instead of his utility to the state. 

Miss Mason believed every living soul deserved to access the great minds of the past -- the great art, music, literature, inventions, poetry, and all the glorious ideas that came before them.  But just prior to the time she began saying such things, Thomas Guthrie and Andrew Walker were heading into Edinburgh's slums to offer the Gospel to those who thought themselves beyond reach, who others didn't even bother with -- the nameless, faceless poor. Guthrie wrote about one man's response to the Gospel in his autobiography. What a beautiful recognition this gentleman had! May we all have such tender souls as this grace-filled man!

"He rose, bowed down by a sense of sin, in great distress of mind; he would go to the church that day, but being a man of a very tender conscience, he hesitated about going to the Lords table; deep was answering to deep at the noise of God's waterspouts, and all God's billows and waves were going over him; he was walking in darkness, and had no light.  In this state he proceeded to put himself in order for church, and while washing his hands, one by one, he heard a voice say, 'Cannot I, in my blood, as easily wash your soul, as that water wash your hands?' 'Now Minister,' he said, in telling me this, 'I do not say there was a real voice, yet I heard it very distinctly, word for word, as you now hear me.  I felt a load taken off my mind, and went to the Table and sat under Christ's shadow with great delight.' " (Thomas Guthrie, Memoir and Autobiography, 1896, p 115.)  

Once I began reading about Ragged Schools, the idea clung to my heart. I hope one day to bring some level of hope to America's struggling poor, the way Andrew Walker did in Scotland: 

London City Mission Magazine  
for May 1, 1896

We have received intelligence also of the death of another servant of Christ, who at one time did earnest effective work as a London City Missionary. A gentleman in Edinburgh writes:-

On the 3rd of February there died at City Troy, New York State, at the patriarchal age of eighty-nine, Mr. Andrew Walker, well known fifty years ago as the pioneer of the Ragged Schools in Westminster.

He was born at Craigsford, Earlston, a pretty village in Berwickshire, July 20th, 1807, and partly educated in the village at the same school which the famous Dr. Waugh, of Wells Street, London, had attended half a century before.

When the time came for choosing a calling, he became, like Robert Moffat, a gardener. His first engagement was at Newton Don, his last in Scotland at Camperdown . . . From Camperdown he went to Hans Place, London. Wandering one day through the narrow lanes and courts of Westminster that lay to the south of the Abbey, he was so impressed with the signs of vice and misery all around him, than he resolved he would make it his life’s work to do what he could to bring light and liberty to the region.

He gave up his occupation at Chelsea, entered the London City Mission, November, 1838, and began his work within the district bounded by Clare Street, Orchard Street, Strutton Ground, and Great Peter Street.

Mr. Walker remained there for fourteen years, and during that time, by the blessing of God on his labours, effected a most remarkable change in the inhabitants. When he went there were six public-houses, one of them having a thieves’ training school attached to it, after the manner of that described by Dickens in “Oliver Twist.”

His first place of meeting was in an old stable . . . By the kindness of Lady Trowbridge, part of it was fitted up for girls. Lady Hope provided sixty of the children with articles of clothing. On the opening day many titled people were there, and Robert Moffat - home on furlough - addressed the children.

Mr. Walker was not long in finding out that any benefit given during school hours was neutralised by the scenes of home life. It was, therefore, decided to retain the young people there night as well as day and provide them with food and clothing - in short, to form a Ragged School, the first of the kind in Westminster. In this he was greatly assisted by Lord Shaftesbury - then Lord Ashley - who, by public speech and private influence, was the means of exciting interest and raising money. Mr. Walker’s next step was to secure the interest of the thieves in his Mission. The district was one of the headquarters of the “swell mob.” These he sought to influence, and accomplished it in this way. Securing a place of meeting in the upper room of one of the public-houses, he accosted some of them one day when they were playing “pitch-and-toss,” and invited them to form a Sunday afternoon class, to which none but those of their own fraternity would be admitted. They agreed, and next Sunday met for an hour in the afternoon for singing, prayer, reading, and explaining God’s Word.

Mr. Walker had many visits from those interested in reclamation work. In his journal he mentions meeting Charles Dickens and taking him round the district. The result of the visit was a powerful article in Household Words, entitled “The Devil’s Acre.” Another visitor was William Chambers, who came introduced by Lord Kinnaird, a warm friend of Mr. Walker’s. This visit was also followed by a paper which appeared in Chambers’  Journal, under the heading “A Visit to Westminster, but not to the Abbey.” His final scheme was to secure another of the public-houses, known as “The Green Man.” It also was fitted up as a Refuge, where trades of various kinds were carried on. Secular education was given during the week and, by the assistance of various ladies and gentlemen, Sabbath instruction also.

In due time the lads passed into the world to earn an honourable living, many of them going to Australia and the States.

After this arduous labour in Westminster, Mr. Walker removed to the Surrey side of the river and began the Wellington Nursery for the reclamation of the wanderers, where education and out-door occupation were combined. Here he was again visited by Charles Dickens, who penned another graphic article in Household Words, called “Tilling the Devil’s Acre.” Acting under medical advice he gave up this work in 1858, sailed for the States, and settled down in Troy City, where he became an active worker and elder in the United Presbyterian Church, carrying on his first occupation.

From Thomas Chalmers to Thomas Guthrie to Andrew Walker to the London City Mission of today, Charlotte Mason's revolutionary ideas about personhood and education must surely have been influenced by these few kindly gentlemen who looked and really saw, who cared and actually did something to help the less fortunate poor of their day. God bless them!