My first opera.
It is an unseasonably warm 50 degrees February 15, 2005 and the artist Christo has hung 7,503 saffron colored curtains above the bends and dips of Central Park.
The day begins laughing with my friend Rob over a cup of coffee about a recent episode of This American Life featuring a comedy duo from 1964 who have their ‘big break,’ on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s a gas!
Our coffee fueled conversations meander like we’re in a French Café in summer and not our school building waiting to teach first period. I’m really enthusiastic about this Christo instillation currently in New York that will only be up for the next two weeks and that’s what I mostly want to talk about. Rob who subscribes to Architectural Record magazine is familiar with Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag and suggests we drive up to New York after work to see The Gates in person and while we’re at it, catch an opera. “Opera will change your life,” he says. Change my life? I don’t think so.
Rob teaches music across the hall from my art class and has generously been introducing me to classical music. We are typically good friends but I like to say in September we are not friends at all, and for good reason. I keep my door shut tight and myself as far away as possible because the sounds from his music room sound like a gaggle of geese being strangled with vuvuzela soccer horns; there is a total identity crisis of beat and rhythm and his students couldn’t find a melody in a nursery rhyme.
By November, we are friends again and my door is wide open. Art is a process and so is friendship. I often drive home humming the honey melodies that, dare I say, his students under his tutelage, have now transformed into beautifully crafted ‘MUSIC!’
I am not surprised by the miraculous 180 of sound Rob is able to produce in his students, he is a superb musician himself, and when not at work can be found playing clarinet in the orchestra pits around Philadelphia. In concert you might see him: light reflecting off a studied score of Puccini, perfect posture, pressed tuxedo, mousey brown hair, roundish Lindberg glasses, and deft classical precision.
Our earlier conversations about Christo and opera has become an overture of unstoppable momentum through the day. We ‘re actually going to do it and pull out of the parking lot to leave a long day of teaching behind for a long drive to New York City.
Rob drives, we eat Japanese noodles, and we stroll in awe of how Christo has transformed a grey landscape into a realm of color. Beneath the tall banners I feel ennobled, this is what I came for. A Christian Monitor reporter picks up on Rob’s likability and asks for his thoughts. The reporter standing under a wavering halo of saffron thoughtfully jots them down on a small black notebook then disappears with his quotes beyond a darkening grey mound of bedrock. The two of us head in the other direction, toward the Metropolitan Opera, to hear what Rob still insists will change my life. Change my life? Opera?? I’m still not so sure about that.
The Metropolitan Opera is a wonder of verticality, like a church in its height and balance of stone and window. Inside chandeliers like starbursts hang above red carpets.** Despite the opulence and the formal dress of patrons walking around there is an inviting warmth. Upstairs you can’t miss the Marc Chagall paintings that are so big you can view them from the road beyond the fountain outside. They are open and storied imaginations about the gift of music.
We sit center balcony and when the music begins I am transported completely. Suddenly, that’s me on the roof top with Rudolfo and Marcello playfully crossing paintbrushes in a mock sword fight. That’s me falling head over heels in love with Mimi. By the time the stage transforms into a Paris street with real horses and a hundred children running around, I am stunned by the scope of the production. This is Opera? People from the audience are both crying and applauding. I have been deprived. Opera is a layer cake for the senses, but above all, the emotional content of the music is like a mirror to what it feels like to be human. I have never been so affected from a performance. I want more.
I think of Christo’s first gate, like my first Opera, as a point of passage. One that leads to a new place and maybe a new point of view. Then, there is a second passage, and then a third… and who can see now how far they might go.
So what’s La Boheme all about? A group of artists struggling to survive a winter in Paris during the belle époque era. Speaking to my heart as an artist, it opens with Marcello burning his own written play for warmth. The characters, having little else sustain themselves on the small pleasures of life. Rudolfo falls in love with Mimi and we follow their growing relationship through love and jealousy.
** Chandeliers by Hans Harald Rath
Notes on the production:
Composer……….. Giacomo Puccini
Mimi…………..…….. Ruth Ann Swenson
Rodolfo ………..…. Jose’ Luis Duval
Musetta ……….…..Patricia Racette
Marcello……….…. Dwayne Croft
Conductor……….. Daniel Oren
Production………. Franco Zeffirelli