Friday, September 12, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part 1

Clue number one: don't look to my family. Dad played cornet in high school, Mom sang Rodgers & Hammerstein over the sink. Not much to go on. I do remember that Dad could listen to a song on the radio and weave whistling variations over the melody. It wasn't till twenty years later that I realized this was a pretty special talent.

But I seem to have developed a pretty good voice, regardless, and one day in high school my friend Maurice said that I wasn't "cool enough" to be in the Men's Glee. Seriously. At Peterson High in Sunnyvale, CA - alma mater to Brian Boitano and new opera librettist Amy Tan - the men's glee had 120 voices, and about half of the members were on sports teams. We were often invited to other high schools to encourage boys to sing. Once we were invited to Reno High to sing - and I swear, I had nothing to do with Sam Stegemiller winning all that money on the slot machines.

The reason for this freakish situation was Mike Patterakis, a Central Valley denizen who for some reason always reminded me of Jerry Lee Lewis. Mr. P transmitted to us the idea that singing could be a very cool thing, could even get us some wimmens, and filled our concerts with manly showtunes like "Hey, Look Me Over" and "My Way." We took it upon ourselves to do unspeakable things to "Winter Wonderland" ("Later on we'll get higher, as we drink by the fire, to face unafraid, the chicks that we laid, Tokin' in a Winter Wonderland"). At Christmastime, the glee joined up with two women's glees, the choir and the orchestra to present a concert that featured more than 500 performers at a school of 2,000 students. We also had a production of "Damn Yankees" nearly postponed because most of the men's chorus (including me) were actually on the baseball team. Thankfully, the league rescheduled our first playoff game, and the show went on.

I advanced to nearby San Jose State University - mostly because it was nearby - and klutzed into a gold mine: an honors humanities program that finally gave my writing skills a suitable challenge, an excellent journalism program, and Dr. Charlene Archibeque's Concert Choir, perhaps the best in the nation. I knew I was into something unusual when our first assignment was singing Berlioz's oratorio Lelio, in four different languages, at San Francisco's brand-new Davies Hall. At the end of the year we did Beethoven's Ninth with the fully professional San Jose Symphony.

Dr. A was a six-two blonde former fashion model. We sometimes referred to her as Big Bird. Years later, when I wrote my choral novel, Frozen Music, I declined to use her as a character, because I feared she wouldn't be believable. She rarely raised her voice, but she was always intimidating, and brought more music out of me than I would have thought possible. In concert, she was a stunning figure, still the most precise, technically perfect and graceful conductor I've ever seen. In my four years at State, I received an "academic concentration" in music - basically, twelve units in any music class - but I always refer to it as a minor, because I think I learned enough in choir to justify the term.

Paradoxically, the more I learned about singing, the more I realized that I did not have what it took to be a pro. I lacked the vocal talent, the discipline and the passion to pursue a carer that probably even tougher than writing. But something else popped up to take its place. Perhaps it began with my job as choir historian. I assembled a scrapbook of photos with an often-humorous running narrative that became a popular read among my classmates. My junior year, as a reporter for the Spartan Daily, my beat was the arts and humanities department, which led to a lot of features about concerts and musicians.

One week, I was sent off to the Concord Pavilion in the East Bay to cover an opera, something called Rigoletto, performed in English by the Western Opera Theater, the touring arm of the San Francisco Opera. The performance contained some wonderful news angles: a black baritone played the lead role, in a time when cross-race casting was still a new idea; an actual rainstorm bedeviled the partly-exposed Pavilion, lending a comic reality to the third-act storm scene. My resultant review, accompanied by an interview with the baritone, was roundly praised by our advisor for its vivid descriptions and sense of humor. I blushed for three days. At the end of the semester, I won an award for Best Entertainment Story, and was selected as arts editor for the coming semester.

In short, I had found within myself a rare ability. Blessed with some musical knowledge - but not too much - I was able to write about music in a way that was comprehensible to the lay reader. I've been doing exactly that ever since.

Next Chapter: Irene Dalis and the birth of Opera San Jose

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