I walked slowly across the plaza toward the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Susan stopped several steps ahead and glared back at me. She knew I was not looking forward to five hours of a Wagner opera. We were in New York for a wedding. She was not an opera fan, but the New York Times story cited the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the best in the world. Susan insisted we stay another day in New York for this cultural experience.
We passed the fountain in the plaza in front of the hall with four-story, arched windows revealing crystal chandeliers and two white staircases regally carpeted in red and curving to the upper lobbies. The white marble walls and floor affirmed the grandeur of the hall. Silhouetted above the entrance, large block letters announced Wagner’s opera, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE.
After our tickets were scanned, we were directed to the parterre level. A young woman in a maroon coat with gray lapels asked to see our tickets and led us to a door she unlocked. Inside was an anteroom with coat hooks and a door to an opera box with three tiers and twelve straight chairs. I was relieved to see a small screen in front of each seat to translate the German to English. Beyond a low railing was the cavernous expanse of the hall. A wide curtained stage flanked by six rows of boxes like ours lined the walls to the ceiling. Crisp modern lines of gold trim on maroon reflected modern design. We were clearly not in the elaborately decorated, historic opera houses we had seen in Venice and Paris.
As I settled into my chair, I recalled snickering with my grade school buddies about “long hair” music. We must have seen pictures of Bach, Beethoven, and other composers with shoulder-length hair. This was before the Beatles and student radicals flaunted the establishment with their long locks. The foppish composers’ embroidered frock coats, ruffled blouses, and leotards amused us. We derided contemporary tuxedos with tails as “penguin suits” and dismissed classical music as old-fashioned and foreign to America in the middle of the twentieth century.
Opera seemed even more outlandish to us. We claimed that sopranos’ high notes could shatter wine glasses and even window panes. Some of us clowned with falsetto imitations of sopranos to the amusement of the other guys. We giggled about the male singers’ prominent codpieces although we didn’t know that term. Our images of Wagnerian heroines with armor included funnels for breasts, metal caps with horns, and a round, studded shield. Somehow we learned the phrase “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.” We didn’t know about the stout Valkyrie Brunnhilde, but we repeated it when Ohio State was losing in the fourth quarter or a poker player held a strong hand before the last cards were dealt. If my old buddies knew I was in an opera box tonight, they would surely snicker.
Classical music and opera were as foreign to us as the Gregorian chant and Palestrina motets Sister Miriam taught us to accompany Mass on Sundays and holy days. Initially these notes were as strange to us as reciting Latin at Mass, burning incense, and sprinkling holy water. Soon, however, all that became normal among us Catholic boys.
Before we were teenagers, rock and roll music reached us. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Chuck Berry’s “Rollover Beethoven” captivated us. We became devotees of a local disc jockey known as Dr. Bop on the New WCOL. The radio station identified itself as “New” for decades to promote itself as different to successive generations of youngsters coming of age. Dr. Bop was somewhat exotic as an African-American. He dedicated songs requested by listeners to “tan foxes” as well as “stone foxes.”
We followed the Billboard ratings of top songs the way we watched the football standings. We each had favorite performers and debated their merits at great length. We speculated about which tune would get to the top of Billboard’s list. Portable transistor radios allowed us to carry our music with us everywhere, even under our pillows, after our parents had ordered the radio off. These were small steps of defiance, pathetically timid in comparison to future generations of teen rebels.
We rallied to Elvis Presley despite, or perhaps because of, our elders’ stern disapproval. Grandmother conceded that he had a good voice, but objected to all that shaking and his pompadour. We had favored flattops, but we let our hair grow and defended Elvis’ ducktail—or duck’s ass as we boldly labeled it amongst ourselves. Sister Neri banned ducktails at St. Gabriel’s just as the girls’ skirts were required to touch the floor when they kneeled. Offenders were sent home with notes warning parents that their children could be expelled. We grumbled and combed our hair for Sister Neri in the morning and swept it back like Elvis after school.
Broadway musicals defined my parents’ taste in music. My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and The King and I were favorites. They imitated Henry Higgins’ accent and quoted his exaggerated pronunciation of “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain.” Dad hummed and sometimes sang Some Enchanted Evening and Mom liked the refrain Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair. They both liked to repeat the king’s use of “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” when his English failed him in The King and I. They assured me that rock and roll was a fad, and suggested I listen to Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Pat Boone.
In my busy high school years, my interest in pop songs faded, but my earlier prejudices against “long hair” music remained. I took a date downtown to Veterans Auditorium to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel and was offended when she complained about actors suddenly breaking into song and dance. When I mentioned this to Mom, she was pleased with my reaction. She said, “Musical comedies are an American invention, a modern version of the great tradition of European operas.”
My freshman history professor at Ohio State lectured for several classes on the evolution of political thought in the century following the French Revolution. Then he marched us to Mershon Auditorium where his wife, a pianist in the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, played staid Classical selections by Mozart, operatic music by Verdi, and stirring Romantic pieces by Beethoven. My professor and his wife explained how the music and popular operas reflected political trends from monarchy to representative democracy. This was an epiphany. Classical music and opera were serious and relevant.
I hesitated before venturing into the Music Room in the Student Union. An album cover on an easel at the entrance announced the music on the speaker system. Low slung chairs and sofas were clustered around coffee tables although no food or drink was permitted. The music was all “long hair,” but it blocked the distracting sound of conversations as a kind of white noise. I made it a practice to study there, often reading the notes on the album cover and placing the music in historical context and style. Over time I learned to identify Bach, Hayden, Schubert, Copeland, and other composers. Occasionally I leaned back, closed my eyes, and simply listened.
In my junior year, I decided to explore a graduate program in city planning as an alternative to Law School. A summer job at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Agency was one way to decide if I wanted to pursue this new field. it was there I met Matteo, a middle-aged immigrant from Bologna, Italy. Our mindless task of transcribing survey data to maps allowed us to talk and stay awake. On our first Saturday, Matteo brought a radio and asked us if he could play the opera broadcast. We were alone in the office. Matteo said, “Italian, but I will explain you. You will like,” he assured us in his limited English. We shrugged.
The announcer began by sonorously began by saying “Texaco presents the Metropolitan Opera from New York” and proceeded to introduce the featured opera and leading performers while the orchestra members tuned their instruments and the audience chattered in the background. After a hush, the announcer intoned, “Maestro Erich Leinsdorf is on the podium.” The overture flowed filled the room. Matteo smiled at each of us and nodded reassuringly. As the plot developed, Matteo explained multiple mistaken identities and misunderstandings that confused the characters as they pursued love. We nodded and grinned, but didn’t try to follow all the turns, twists, and trysts. The simple stories were similar to daytime TV soap operas I watched when I was sick enough to stay home from grade school. Those Saturdays with Matteo did not change my inclination to snicker about opera.
My interest in symphonic music, born in the Music Room, grew with a collection of record albums that included overtures from operas. I enjoyed these instrumental works, but recordings of the operas themselves did not find their way to my record shelf. A memorable performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at a Fourth of July outdoor concert in Baltimore concluded with restored canons. Overtures and instrumental versions of opera passages by Borodin, Mendelssohn, and Leonard Bernstein became favorites.
When my wife, Susan, and I visited France and Italy, we signed up for architectural tours of the great opera houses, the Palais Garnier in Paris, Theatre San Carlo in Naples, and La Fenice in Venice. Opera houses were not merely historic curiosities, but new modern opera houses debuted around the world in Sydney, Copenhagen, and Los Angeles. I noted how many people loved and supported opera, and wondered what appealed to them. Perhaps I was missing something.
On a trip to Paris, our traveling companions encouraged us to join them at a Verdi opera. We decided it would be a memorable experience—the elaborate hall with men in tuxedos and women in long dresses and fur stoles. We reviewed plot summaries in advance. After climbing the grand staircase and gasping when we entered the exquisite hall, we settled into our seats. The small screen for translation in front of us had settings for French, but not English. The evening dragged as we tried to match the acting and singing on the stage with what we could remember of the plot. Our friends spoke Italian. They loved this opera. But to us, it seemed interminable. I heard the fat lady sing. No more opera for me.
A week before the wedding, Susan put the article about Nina Stemme’s performance in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde before me at breakfast, and said, “We’ve got to see her! We’re in New York anyway for the wedding. How lucky are we?” I perused the article as she sat across from me with her arms folded. “Sounds great, dear, but we leave the day before. Really too bad,” I said suppressing a grin.
“I’ve already checked with our hotel and Delta. We can stay over a day. I’m going to call them. It’s a great opportunity. Why not?” she said as she picked up her phone. I hesitated, and she began punching the phone and walked out of the breakfast room.
After we sat down and took in the magnificent Lincoln Center Hall, I read the program about the Swedish soprano and a summary of the intricate plot. I was weary. The rehearsal dinner and wedding reception kept us out well after midnight. The thought of enduring the next five hours of opera weighed heavily on me. Susan showed me the subtitles were in English and beamed.
The conductor entered to applause, bowed and took his position in the orchestra pit, and the curtain rose. A significantly overweight Tristan began with a mournful solo, and Isolde trilled for a while in response. At least, she wore no armor. I settled in for a long evening of sturm und drang. Projected videos of waves and dramatic music conveyed the atmosphere of a sea voyage. Sailors entered from the wings to announce land was near and the king was on the dock. Rather than pulling hairs out of my legs to keep awake, I began to follow the rivalry between Tristan and the king, I found myself rooting for Tristan.
Susan and I compared notes during the intermission in the splendid lobby. A few couples were dressed formally, although a few wore Levi’s and sweatshirts. People sipped champagne and drinks. A scene of elegance.
Wagner’s lyrics captivated me with the Romantic era’s emotions of love and death. The lovers’ willingness to die to be together in the long darkness of eternity was gripping. I was fully absorbed in the drama and the singing. The remainder of the performance moved steadily toward a resolution with Tristan death with Isolde at his side at the end. The opera was almost over when Tristan, the fat man, sang.
I was a convert to opera.