I grew up in a very musical family. Mom played the piano and sang. Dad and my older brother, Hal, both sang and played the guitar. Hal had at some point studied both trumpet and piano, but I wasn’t around for those. (While an amazing musician, he never learned to read music.) I was the family overachiever, I guess, seriously studying voice, piano, and guitar. We would gather in the living room and have musical evenings with Mom or me on the piano, the others on guitar and singing in four-part harmonies. I grew up thinking that every family did that. It was a bit of a surprise when I found out otherwise.
The year that I was nine was a busy one. My school announced that they would be doing Hansel and Gretel in the spring. Hansel and Gretel, besides being a fairy-tale, is an opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, the German composer who was born in 1854 (not the British singer born in 1936, real name Arnold George Dorsey). (Hmmm. . . Word knows how to spell Humperdinck, but Engelbert gives it fits?!?) Anyway, my school was planning on a shortened version of the opera, all in English and with spoken parts as well as sung.
I was so excited! The auditions were going to be open to all kids 3-6thgrades. I went home and told my folks, and Mom immediately pulled out her copy of “Evening Prayer,” one of the songs that the two titular characters sing. (It is actually a duet, but Mom had it as a solo.) We started work on it that evening. The announcement had not said when auditions would be held, just that it was coming up. So, the music started going to and from school daily with me.
I have no idea how long it was between that first announcement and the second, but it felt like months. It may actually have been a few weeks.
Finally, one morning came the second announcement, saying that auditions would be that afternoon, but they would only be open to 5thand 6thgraders. I was devastated. I remember working very hard on not crying at school, where I knew the others would make fun of me. But the minute Mom picked me for lunch, the waterworks opened up. As soon as we got home, she hit the phone. Given that this was Mom calling the school, and not Dad, there may have been some yelling. But, when she got off the phone, I had an audition scheduled for that afternoon, just after school.
I went into the old auditorium where the music teacher was. She and I were friendly—she knew me from class. I remember her talking to me for a few minutes to make sure I wasn’t too nervous. I think I was too young to be nervous. It had honestly never occurred to me at that point in time that I might not sing well. It wasn’t an ego thing; it was a youth thing.
When I left the audition, I was in the angel chorus that comes in after Hansel and Gretel sing “Evening Prayer,” and basically just repeat the entire thing. But, since I already knew the song, she also wanted me to help teach it to the other kids, all of whom would be older than me. I often got tapped to help teach music to the rest of the class, so it didn’t really occur to me that the older kids might not like that.
Later that evening, after dinner, the music teacher called the house with the stupendous news. I was not going to be in the angel choir, although she did still want me to help teach it to the others. I was now Gretel. One of only two 3rdgraders in the entire production, and I was Gretel. (The other was in the gingerbread chorus.) (Much to her chagrin, Mom was asked to play the piano, something she did not enjoy doing.)
After the first week of rehearsals, I came home with a new ruffle, one that I knew was not going to go over well. We had to provide our own costumes. My mother hated sewing. In fact, she flat-out refused. If she had to sew then I couldn’t be in the play. Dad came home from work to find her in the living room, fuming and me in my room, crying. (A not uncommon way for him to come home.) But he had an easy solution: he would sew my costume. And he did. (Dad actually taught me the basics of sewing, crochet and cooking. He was far more domestic than Mom.)
The play was a huge success. I had a blast and loved every minute. I had thought about being a librarian, but suddenly singing and acting called to me. Musical theatre—here I come!
Then Dad got tickets to drive up to Pittsburgh to see Puccini’s La Boheme. I had a vague idea of what opera was because Mom and Dad would listen to Mario Lanza, Sergio Franchi, Maria Callas, and Beverly Sills, but this wasn’t really something that I paid a lot of attention to. But I studied the plot synopsis of Bohemeand listened to the few recordings we had. Nothing prepared me for that moment when the very short overture rolls up out of the orchestra pit and sweeps you off your feet. (Yes, I know that you are sitting when this happens.) I remember that Mom was really looking forward to Rudolfo and Mimi, who were an Italian husband and wife, playing the young lovers. But I remember nothing about them. The opera started for me the moment Musetta strolled on-stage. She was tall, thin, dripping with furs, and had two afghan hounds with her. The singer was Patricia Wise, and we were to see her in several more operas throughout the years.
I knew, at that moment, that opera was what I was meant to do. It had everything that I loved about musicals but even more! And there is something challenging in not only learning a part, but learning the original languages, too.
Was the road easy? No. Was it everything I dreamed of? Good heavens, no! Would I trade a moment? No. Well, the kids howling outside the back door as I practiced as a teenager—I could have lived without that.
I have never played Musetta, although her waltz was the first thing I studied. At 9. A bit young for a full aria, but I was determined. I have played Mimi, and I love her. I mean, really, why turn down the chance to die onstage?
Do you love opera, too? Or do you hate it? Tell me in the comments below, share a story about an operatic experience you’ve had. I’ll be playing some operatic music on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so check those out.
Until next time!