It was and perhaps is unusual for a sixteen year old to spend Saturday mornings deliberately listening to opera. Even in the context of a life already crowded with classical music and musicians and composers. I had heard opera in my family home, had been to a very few performances in our small city, in Detroit and Chicago on cultural/shopping trips with my parents. I had heard in person–and adored–Eileen Farrell, Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price. But I could not (and still cannot) pretend it was my first choice of musical composition and expression despite exquisite costumes and dramatic story arcs that usually involved grave dysfunction, passionate love with love triangles or worse, and shattering death scenes. The vocal prowess in these productions was overwhelming, in both a positive and a negative sense. And most of the time I could barely follow their vocalized lines–it was Italian or French or German, something other than English.
It was in the sixties and beyond playing my cello and singing art songs, I was becoming deeply engaged with folk music, musical theater and was discovering jazz and blues. I did not spend my slight free time studying opera, even if I did learn to sing art songs and an aria or two.
And yet there I was, sitting in a straight backed chair in a music room, operatic goings-on filling my ears via a fantastic stereo system. The room seemed in shadow; it was hushed despite an enveloping aria, the crescendo of the orchestration. There wasn’t lack of light or quiet in the usual way. It was the setting, the occupants. There were good sized windows with patterned curtains pulled back; sunlight threw luminescent stripes on plush carpet. I sat very still, as did the other two, though their eyes were closed or nearly so.
One of the others was a grown up, the kindly Mrs. B., mother of the second teenager present, whose name was W. He was also a cellist and I imagined I had been invited to the house because of that fact. Why, I didn’t really know. He was older than I by two years and about to graduate and attend a prestigious university music program. He played much better than did I, with fine skill and surprisingly rich and refined emotions for a boy, I mused whenever I heard him (sexist as it may have been, that was my thought). He was far, far quieter. He was very well off and his family was held in high regard. He was at least as academically capable if not more so. He was tall, possessed a gentlemanly air and very good looking and he was not looking at me, never had and likely never would. His honey colored hair was just long enough to fall forward and wave upon his forehead. W. looked wonderful with cello in hand. And when he walked and just sat there.
He was not far from me in the music room with a grand piano in the corner and morning light flowing into the tasteful room, with perfectly coiffed and dressed mother calm and composed as she sat back on the sofa. They were focused on the singers’ vocal gymnastics, the score unfolding with pomp and complexity. I tried with all my might to be still, too, and fully enjoy it. Each of us had a libretto, the words of the opera. They were Italian with English translation. It may have been Verdi’s or Puccini’s work, but I do not recall. I registered the beauty. And I kept wondering why I was there. had not invited me. He was always courteous in school hallways and during orchestra class, but he wasn’t looking at me as any potential love interest when he greeted or briefly chatted with me. There was something rarefied about his presence. Some perhaps found him remote or “snooty.” I saw him as intensely focused inward–on music, on studies. I recognized an introvert when I saw one, someone who pondered all kinds of matters naturally. He had an air of detached melancholia about him; I sometimes wanted to shake him up, wake him from his somnambulance. But he was far beyond my reach, older and so well behaved, at a distinct socioeconomic advantage, having an old world aristocratic air. He would soon leave our little berg, move onto greater realms.
It was Mrs. B. who had sent me handwritten correspondence on a creamy monogrammed note card, inviting me to join her son and herself (possibly her husband as well) on Saturday mornings to listen to operas. I looked at it again, turned the envelope over to study the address. Yes, it really was from that Mrs. B. of the city’s upper echelons (though my parents knew them due to their cultural support and talented children, they had economic status we did not) with her scientist husband. I had met her many times at concerts, at church and I liked being a tad intimidated. But more importantly, the note card came from none other than W.’s mother.
I showed it to my mother; casually, she looked it over.”Yes, I saw her the other day at a luncheon and she wondered if you might enjoy some opera. She mentioned then that she’d invite you to join W. and herself.” She caught my look of disbelief and smiled uncertainly. “Wouldn’t you like to go?”
“Well, she is a nice lady. And it’s a hand written invitation…how can I refuse that? I’ll call. There’s actually an RSVP on the bottom with her number. But I still wonder why she would think to ask.”
“I think she’s just being friendly, extending hospitality and music to you. And both of you kids play cello; you aren’t that far apart in age. I guess you’ll have to go see for yourself.”
I wasn’t sure about the whole thing. It seemed overly formal of her but what did I know about such things? There was W. There was their house–I so wanted to see the inside of their beautiful house, for even then I was strongly drawn to good architecture. My hometown offered many outstanding examples of wood/glass/stone contemporary homes as well as fine historical houses. The house was contemporary and eye catching viewed through a tree filled large lot. The shell of that situation was starting to fill up with possibilities. It was hard not to fantasize a meeting of eyes, then minds, perhaps hearts across the room from romantic-appearing but out of reach W. Hard to restrain my excitement at the prospect of being inside an arresting home.
I called to confirm. I tried to imagine myself there. At sixteen I was not exactly who my parents wanted me to be. It was a small town, and I was pretty sure most people knew I was swerving off the upstanding, preferred course, the path disciplined, well bred offspring held to without blinking. I had been dabbling with street drugs, already struggled with prescription drugs (Valium was a popular cure for any ailment and very addictive). I had been in a psychiatric ward. I knew anti-war protesters, had a fledgling interest in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In a family that was well trained and high achieving, I was the one running hot and wild, running a muck. From my viewpoint, I was sincerely trying to manage a life that was imbued with fear and grief but also a profound desire to live a creative life, to become spiritually true and brave. So it was surprising this family would welcome me in their midst, at that time.
Maybe, I thought, Mrs. B. and W. somehow understood. Maybe they were extending a kindness that might help me feel better. But probably they were only offering an opportunity to learn something about opera–which was neither here nor there for me as much as getting to see the house. I attended the next Saturday morning opera hour.
So there I was. The house was comprised of wood in and out with great rectangles of glass. Clean lines curved and cut through the interior with elegant simplicity. There was a surfeit of space, open stairways and a two-way fireplace. Sculptures, paintings perked up odd areas. Cathedral ceilings soared in a caramel brightness. Up an amazing set of cantilevered stairs Mrs. B. and I went, then along a hallway until we came to the music room. But it was a library, as well, three walls lined with books. Art enlivened the pale wall behind the grand piano. Mrs. B. served iced tea with delicate shortbread cookies. They sat on a china plate set upon an inlaid wood serving tray. I reached for one immediately and paired it with the tea.
W. came in a few minutes later.
“Hi, welcome to our famous opera hour. Nice that you came.” He smiled and took a chair.
I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or slightly mocking of this apparent Saturday tradition. I decided it was in between the two, being good-natured and tolerant of his mother’s passion even if he wasn’t always so thrilled. Or was he also? W. was, after all, a very good musician, so he was likely amenable enough.
The music was layered in colorful notes, a theatrical performance sung, not only acted. The voices were beyond perfect–incandescent, magnificent, full of despondency and rejoicing, alarm and longings and betrayals and desire. But there was a grand formality to it, a ponderous nature–aspects I liked less the more I listened, which I found amusing since I had my own penchant for drama. I already knew some of the form from experiencing opera before. It helped more to see it in its regal and bellicose antics on stage. But what did I specifically know about it? I gave in and closed my eyes as had they. When I again opened my eyes at a musical pause, I became riveted by W.’s distinctive profile, the curve of his shoulders as he leaned forward.
I knew there was no reason to believe he was interested, but I couldn’t entirely give up the idea. I needed someone who understood my yearnings, imaginings, ideas that seemed to thrive mainly among dreamy romantics, spiritual sojourners and debating philosophers in the making. Maybe we were simpatico! Surely he saw that I was not just sixteen and he was older–that I was someone who could keep up with him in rigorous discussion. Or did I look like a kid who was utterly lost in this world? This environment.
I took it all in, those fabulous books, that gleaming mammoth Steinway piano (unlike our old scarred baby grand, used for fun and good music alike). Their house was like an art museum with daring lines and beautiful objects. When the music was done, we talked awhile but mostly Mrs. B. explained a few things. I cannot for the life of me recall what they were, but it was arcane information about opera, the composer.
Then she asked if I was going to pursue music as a career, like W. was.
“I would like to be a singer, not a cellist. But I also love theater, art, dance and writing…
W. suddenly looked at me more closely.
I continued. I’m fascinated by architecture but also psychology, archaeology and linguistics, nature-I have way too many interests, I guess. Music will always matter, but sometimes I feel more like a writer.”
“One can never love the arts or learning too much,” she said.
I worried my words were like loose coins rolling about in a tin can but Mrs. B. was relaxed and smiling. W. appeared to be staring in my direction but I suspected he was looking right through me. I felt embarrassed. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, and I had to babble away. But maybe they got it, maybe they were the sort of people who understood what my peers did not–what excited me, what held meaning to me. Adults often understood such things better–and yes, W. did seem more like an adult, I realized.
“And did you enjoy the opera today?” she asked as we stood to go.
“I did, yes,” I said, half truthfully. But it was the stronger half of my feeling.
“Then we’ll see you next Saturday morning?”
I didn’t see W. often at school. He had classes in different corridors, different friends. I didn’t see the purpose in still nurturing a desire to know him better. I knew it was not meant to be.
But I showed up again. W. was there for part of it, then wordlessly left with a small nod in my direction. Mrs. B. and I talked afterwards. She was knowledgeable not only about opera but many things. They had traveled widely, had lived interesting places. She treated me with respect and acted so interested in my thoughts, told me she loved my singing and would like to read my poems sometime. Her demeanor seemed more reasonable, good-hearted. It was like being in a cocoon of gentility lined with decency and warmth. Dr. B. stuck his head in and waved, said hello, then was gone.
On the way out, I glimpsed W. sitting at a long table, ankles crossed, a book open in his hands. He was staring again at something, through a window or at a wall, or was daydreaming–who could tell? But his face, already gaunt, seemed drawn, muscles lax, expression unreadable. I felt a stab of worry for him and it struck me that he might be depressed, perhaps lonely, too. And wondering what was coming after graduation, what was possible out there for him and in life. He may have sensed me, as he turned. Our eyes met. Nothing was said. It was enough, that sharp recognition that he knew I more than saw him and I knew he was also seeing me. The real me. I felt a shiver. I lifted my hand to him. He nodded as usual but I felt him watching as I left.
I did not return. I found an excuse the next time, then called Mrs. B. and told her I appreciated her generosity but I had much to do every week-end, And perhaps I wasn’t such an opera aficionado.
“I thought not,” she said, “but worth a try. I think so much of your family and enjoyed getting to know you a little. I felt W. might appreciate opera company, too.” She let go a very small sigh then was her upbeat self again. “I wish you the very best, my dear, and send me a poem if you like. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.”
I don’t recall if I sent her a poem. I’m sure we saw each other at concerts. W. and I passed each other at school, were in performances together. We chatted a small amount, shyly, as if we’d revealed much in two visits and an unmasked glance. Then he graduated, was gone. I read decades later that he became a professional cellist; his photo showed a man contented, which gave me a smile. But I recall equally and with pleasure Mrs. B.’s gesture, her warmth and gracious home, the brief mornings rich music and challenges of opera. It was a world apart but worth visiting.
And I haven’t forgotten how a sudden look into a person’s eyes rendered instantly a humanity that felt profound, powerful. Vulnerable. As if the innermost door opened and truth stepped into light to allow me to witness it. It was not the last time for that to happen, but it was the last strangely lovely time with opera, W. and Mrs. B.