categories: Cocktail Hour
[update, 6/5: got a note the other day from an opera singer named David Weaver, as follows: “Hello Bill, A friend, Kate Fox, sent me your piece about “Another Night at the Opera.” As it happens, I have done a number of roles with Opera Columbus. I was not in the 2000 Madame Butterfly you referenced – but I do know that the Pinkerton in that production was tenor David Corman. You were close about David being from Nebraska – he is actually from Kansas. He is now teaching music and leading the choral program at Odessa College in Odessa, Texas.”]
In the spring of 2000 a grad student in one of my workshops at Ohio State asked if she could bring her cousin to class–he was to visit Columbus soon. (I can’t for the life of me call up her name, and would like the help of any of you who were in that class.)[Update: it was Ellen Seusy, and credit goes to Jim Fox, whose face makes me remember quite a few others in the room]. I was like, well, I’m not sure. Because in the workshop we’d developed a level of trust and frankness that wasn’t like other classes. Maybe we should ask the group. And she said, “He’s a tenor. He’s going to be here to sing Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly for Opera Columbus.” I knew about the production, all right, already had my tickets, not great ones because the house was nearly sold out on subscription, but. Her cousin had sung all over the world and in all the best houses, even the Met. He had a portfolio of roles major and minor, but Pinkerton was one of his standards and kept him traveling season after season, to companies large and small.
To make a living singing opera is pretty impressive. To be able to perform the role of Pinkerton at all is very impressive. A company like Opera Columbus has its own stable of singers, many of whom are paid, a few of whom can hold their own as soloists across a range of productions. But the big roles often require experience and skill and level of daily training far beyond that of the Nationwide Insurance executive who also sings, and often beyond anyone at all who isn’t singing the roles regularly onstage. So I was impressed. The cousin lived in Nebraska, I think, a wonderfully unlikely home base for an international singer. (I’ve forgotten his name, too, and in a quick search haven’t found out who sang Pinkerton in the Opera Columbus production of Madame Butterfly, 2000–any help would be appreciated!) Then again, I had a snobby glimmer at the back of my left temporal lobe: an opera singer from Nebraska? But still.
Rather than a guest we framed him as a guest speaker. In the workshop, everyone aspired to writing careers. Maybe he could tell us about the kind of commitment and drive and luck and pluck it might take to attain and maintain a practical career when you weren’t the top dog, and maybe he could tell us just whatever else he could tell us about living as an artist.
We told the class about his coming. I asked how many were opera fans. One. His cousin. Two if you counted me. Okay then, how many enjoy opera at all? None additional How many indifferent? One. How many hate opera? All the rest, about ten talented young writers, pissing me off.
I made my case. An important angle for the writer when it comes to opera is storytelling. How are the acts arranged? How are the plot revelations parceled out? How does the librettist make us care about the people? What role the actors, the singers? How does the music change the stakes? And on and on.
So I assigned the opera, offered to buy tickets for those who couldn’t, knowing I’d have to buy one at best, not terribly expensive in the scheme of things, not like the Met (but more than, say, Berlin or Prague or any other civilized place, where the state subsidizes student tickets in the top balcony for one to five Euros–kids should get some culture, and why shouldn’t the state have a role in this? When the state fails to recognize its role, art, especially big-ticket art, withers to the dictates of commerce. I’m Bill Roorbach, and I approved this message). Several made excuses, couldn’t attend. Everyone grumbled. Why should an opera be required? It wasn’t fair. I knew better than to back off. If I backed off, no one would go. If I kept the pressure up, two or three might, and that would count as learning.
Our guest arrived. He was imposing, very handsome, a huge head, big shoulders, large upper body on a small set of sticks. Very modest, a little shy. He was there because he had an interest in possibly doing some writing, maybe even going for an MFA. Cool. We grilled him a little, questions about the itinerant life, which sounded hard. He was getting a little old for the travel, for one thing, and for some of the roles, for another. You have to be an athlete, all but. You train eight hours a day. You have to keep your looks. You have to keep your voice. You have to put up with all sorts of indignities in the provinces. And then there’s the competition. A tenor is out there by himself.
I asked if he would sing a little something for us. He demurred. “Oh,” I said, “just a sample?” Just maybe the first notes of the Pinkerton aria, “Addio Fiorito Asil.” (Here’s Placido Domingo singing it on YouTube –great performance–he tears open his naval officer’s jacket at the end to reveal a … screen-printed t-shirt? Well, at least it says USS Abraham Lincoln on it!)
“Well,” said our guest. “That one starts very quietly. And I’ve been talking so much that perhaps I’m warm enough. Hm-hm. A few bars, maybe. ….But we’ll have to open the windows.”
Frosty night. No matter, one of the kids opened the windows wide. Humor the neurotic singer, all that.
“It’s going to be loud,” he said. “There’s no way to sing it halfway.”
His prep took a minute or two, some humming and coughing and sitting up straight–he didn’t have to stand, he said. The grad students were all looking at each other half-impressed, half about to giggle.
But as soon as he began to sing, total silence, total attention. He looked at us one by one around the room, breaking our hearts one by one, total command, total presence, enough presence for ten thousand people and not just a dozen. He threw his head back, his voice wept, he gripped the edge of the conference table and we all did too. And it was loud, all right. The roof tiles began to vibrate, the windows to vibrate–he’d wanted them open to allow sound waves to escape. And he didn’t stop, generous man, but kept singing. By the first of the high notes in the middle of the song we were all weeping–there was no other response, that close to this modest greatness. People in the quad must have stopped in their tracks. People in adjoining classrooms must be standing as at a call to heaven. But we were there in this guy’s light, dazzling, really, emotion meant to travel. Close up, it was like being in a wreck. The roof tiles rattled, the chalk fell off the blackboard railing, your very bones rattled.
No one could clap at the end or move. Finally we reached for tissues, wiped out noses on our sleeves.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
And finally we could cheer.
Okay, now everyone was going to the opera. I had to buy eight tickets, but no worries. Boyfriends were going, fiances, roommates, opera haters all: the workshop had been sold.
Madame Butterfly is the perfect introductory opera. The story’s good, the music is very accessible, there’s drama upon drama and terrible deceit. It’s wonderful. The Opera Columbus production was beautifully staged, with a world-class local chorus and minor roles, principals as good as our new friend. After, I got to go backstage and meet everyone briefly, to shake Pinkerton’s hand. I actually felt mad at him for messing with Butterfly’s affections, couldn’t separate the character from the singer.
But the man emerged again, gradually. What a big, warm hand as I shook it, this poor exhausted guy heading for the airport and Beunos Aires, another performance one week hence, intensive rehearsals in the days to come.
Our writing workshop Tuesday was like a convention of the Opera Lover’s Society, no one indifferent anymore, no haters, only fans, big time: Butterfly was all we could talk about. And for the rest of the quarter our critiques including phrases like, “Open the windows! There’s no way to write it halfway!”