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!


  1. I will learn it, but I'm singing along with Renee Fleming. Love her! Whether I send a recording...hmmm...we shall see.

  2. This isn't my favorite rendition either, but for some reason most of them refused to upload to blogger. So frustrating! But you get the gist, anyway. :)

  3. I believe that your parents are smiling in heaven right now!

  4. Megan,
    I wanted to thank you for the gentle encouragement in this blog post. Growing up in a small town with parents who had simple tastes, I have never been to an opera before. Upon beginning to educate my children using AO's curriculum,I have begun to be exposed more and more to different performance arts, and I am smitten! Upon reading your post, I decided to see what our city of St. Louis had to offer in the world of performance. Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of the local opera companies offered free attendance to their full dress performances! I was excited to find out their first opera this season is The Magic Flute, which is probably the only opera I actually have some familiarity with. After that, the shows are all new to me, so I am excited to expand our horizons! Again, thank you for the prompting!! Julie Z.