June 16, 2013

The opera my mother ran out of time to love

What kind of goof-ball posts an operatic memoir about his mother on Father's Day?

That would be me.

Allegra Winters in retirement - before the darkness fell.
You'll have to excuse this indulgence. I'm in a "mom" frame of mind as this past week my wife and I lost her mother, who passed away after a short illness at age 89. The emotions of this week stirred memories of the passing of my own mother in 2009. And therein came the idea for this post, as opera was a constant presence in my mother's life until one of Nature's cruelest tricks left her unable to be aware of that presence.

Alice Allegra Hayes Winters, Allegra to family and friends (she was named after "grave Alice and laughing Allegra" from Longfellow's "The Children's Hour"), was blessed with a fine, natural, vibrant soprano voice. Offered a scholarship to study voice, it was her misfortune to be the child of rigorous religious fundamentalists who regarded music as an "improper" pursuit for a respectable young lady.

Denied this opportunity to follow her passion, my mother coped with residual bitterness and resentment for much of the rest of her life. Cast in the conventional role of housewife and mother of four, she settled for being a beloved church soloist in a succession of churches in the various communities where the family resided. When I showed early signs of musical talent, she quickly evolved into a classic "piano mother", riding herd on me, taking notes at lessons, sitting with me as I practiced and suffering agonies of empathetic nerves in all my youthful recitals and competitions. She found, in my activities, the vicarious experience of the musical path unavailable to her.

And she really did have an exceptional voice. Had she studied, she would have made a classic Puccini lyric soprano, ideal for Mimi or Liu. Her face came alive when she sang for others, with a gift for personalizing whatever she sang; making the notes come off the page in a way that reached her listeners and touched them.

Of course, she was mad for opera. Whether my dad shared that love in the same way or was simply willing to accomodate her tastes, they attended the opera faithfully and collected as many records as household finances would allow. Their tastes ran to conservative repertoire; both my parents considered Norma to be the most beautiful music ever concieved. For Mom, harmony in thirds such as in the duet "Mira, O Norma" was optimal music. Anything composed after the death of Puccini was labled "nervous music", which was a fatal condemnation. "Nervous music" was held in low esteem in her household.

My mother's opinions on singers, particularly her fellow sopranos, were strong and colorfully expressed. You didn't want to mention Maria Callas in her presence unless you were ready for a five-minute rant. Mother couldn't stand her voice. "She sounds as if she's singing with a mouthful of mashed potatoes!", she would sneer with utmost contempt. No, her tastes ran more towards singers whose voices fell more easily on the ear: Tebaldi, Freni, Sutherland.  She wanted to hear a voice of purity and clarity; imperfect timbres were dismissed with this typical put-down: "I don't like a voice with a hair in it."

She adored Marcia Davenport's novel "Of Lena Geyer", a psuedo-biography of the life of a fictional prima donna. She likely identified with the heroine, perhaps fantasizing about Geyer's rise from humble beginnings to adored diva.

Mom played a role in the awakening of my own love of opera. A talented child pianist, I was by age 12 arrogantly disinterested in opera (an early crush on the TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors notwithstanding). When my seventh-grade music appreciation class (do they even have such classes anymore in public schools?) came to an opera unit with a study of Madama Butterfly, I was a brat and spent my time staring out the window, lost in a dreamworld as usual. I *cough cough* failed the unit exam; unusual in a geeky little student who reliably pulled A's and B's.

For my mother, this simply would not do. She dragged me into the teacher's office for a conference. Under my mother's prodding, we were told that if I would study the opera on my own, I would be allowed to re-take the test. That very afternoon we purchased the Tebaldi/Bergonzi/Tulio Serafin boxed set, and in no time I had my BIG EPIPHANY. I've never looked back.

In my college years at Indiana University's School of Music, I sang in the chorus of the celebrated Opera Theater. By now, however, my parents had retired to Virginia, meaning my mother was unable to see her son live out her dream of singing on the opera stage. As long as her health permitted, she and Dad were faithful, front-row subscribers for every performance of Virginia Opera, the company that would become my employer decades later.

Her health declined. Rheumatoid arthritis decimated her hips, knees and neck, reducing life to an exhausting battle with chronic pain. By now, I was working at Virginia Commonwealth University and helping out the baritone-challenged opera theater by singing principal roles in their productions, but my parents weren't up to the trip up to Richmond to see me.The stress of my father's stroke and ensuing dementia wore down what remained of Mom's physical reserves. Following his death in 1998 she moved into a retirement community where my wife and I, now Virginia residents living twenty miles away, visited and fretted over her weakened condition.

Inevitably, the curse of Alzheimer's fell on her. As we all know, it is a merciless condition that loves to toy with its victims like a cat with a mouse. Some good days brought relative lucidness; other times, my mother did not know exactly who I was, though she knew I was familiar to her in some way. Pointing to a newspaper interview of me she'd framed and placed on the wall of her Assisted Living apartment, she proudly confided to me "That's my son!" Did she know she was saying it to her son? Was she being cute? Or, more likely, was she bragging about her musical child to an amiable stranger?

After I'd worked for Virginia Opera for a few years, I was commissioned by the company's Education Department to compose words and music for a couple of short operas to be performed on state-wide tours by young professional singers chosen for the Emerging Artist program. The second of these, Tales From the Brothers Grimm, is a piece I'm particularly proud of. One afternoon when my sister, the Rev. Alice Ann Winters was visiting on a furlough from her post in Colombia, South America, we gathered at Mom's apartment for a partial family reunion. I brought along a just-recorded CD of my opera, hoping to bring my mother an operatic apotheosis of sorts: hearing a successful opera composed by her son; the son she helped introduce to the ruling musical passion of her life.

But the confused sensibilities of what was left of her mind denied her this pleasure. We adjourned to a quiet lounge with CD player all cued up to the first section, "Dr. Know-it-all". The music rang out. Mother was smiling vaguely; she turned to Alice and began asking her something - perhaps if it was yet time for lunch.

"This is Glenn's opera, Mother! Doesn't it sound great?" encouraged Alice. Mother, with no answer regarding mealtime, turned away. The music played. Mother's head began to droop onto her chest. Her eyes closed. She was asleep, oblivious to the stimulation of a performance which, years earlier, would have brought tears of joy and fulfillment to her eyes.

Alice and I exchanged a look. I switched off the player. We guided her wheelchair back to her room where the slumber of a disappearing mind continued on a sunny, empty afternoon.

Now, with Mom four years gone, plans are underway for gala performances of my latest commissioned opera, Katie Luther. This coming October will see five simultaneous premiere performances in five cities: Albequerque, St. Louis, New Orleans, Ft. Wayne and Baltimore. The Baltimore performance is at the invitation of the Artistic Director of Lyric Opera of Baltimore; the St. Louis performance will be sung by a veteran soloist of the Metropolitan Opera.

Does my mother know? Is she proud?

Oh, and Happy Fathers Day, Dad - you too are missed, these fifteen years after your passing. And to all the fathers among you Dear Readers as well!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for describing your mother's love of singing so beautifully! I enjoyed this post.