June 21, 2015

That time Real Life didn't care I had a show to sing

My career path has been a little weird. I have three degrees in piano performance and studied with keyboard giants Jorge Bolet and John Browning, among others. But I haven't concertized in fifteen years, due to nerve damage in my left hand. I no longer teach studio piano, either privately or as a faculty member.
My dad, Glenn Winters Sr.

It's kind of odd that I ended up employed at a professional opera company, since I don't conduct, no longer play the piano, don't sing well enough to be useful and have no skills in the techie world. I get along on my public speaking skills and my flair for composing reliably stage-worthy children's operas for touring.

About my singing -

I'm a so-so singer with a light baritone voice, but have done more than my share of operatic roles thanks to my university positions and the endemic shortage of lower-voiced males at smaller programs. A few more professional gigs have come my way - comprimario roles at Virginia Opera and guest artist status at a couple of summer festivals in Italy (the latest one described in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates).

So between my ertswhile life as a pianist and my improbable outings in baritone leads (although I do think I made at least a presentable Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music) I have logged considerable time onstage in front of audiences.

This post is about the time I learned the obligatory lesson encountered by every performer the world over. Say it with me: THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

I really mean "the most extreme time", since difficult circumstances happen all the time. I played my Master's piano recital with a temperature of 100. I sang the role of the Marquis in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites when I was too sick to be out of bed. These things happen.

But the most trying was during a production of Rossini's Cenerentola.

This happened in 1998 when I held a staff position at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, directing a non-credit performing arts academy on campus. At this time, my parents were living in retirement in Williamsburg, midway between VCU and my home in Newport News on the Virginia Peninsula.

Health issues were taking a toll on both parents. My mom was afflicted with heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis, which taxed her with chronic pain. As for my dad, already a heart attack survivor, the spectre of Alzheimer's had begun to engulf him in darkness and confusion.

Following an episode in which he backed his car out of the garage without first having opened the garage door, not to mention the time he drove my mom to a hospital in Richmond and then couldn't find his motel, wandering on foot for hours before a compassionate stranger offered assistance, an appointment was made with his doctor to see what was going on. I went with him so someone clear-headed could recap the results for the rest of the family. Dad drove; he liked to drive.

Ever been to an Alzheimer's examination? It's both simple and eerie. After a few questions of a general nature, the doctor (who'd been treating Dad for a couple of decades) said "I'm going to name three objects. Then I will ask you to repeat them. Ready?"

Dad nodded.

"Okay", the doc continued, "here they are: apple, pencil, hammer. Now say those back to me."

I stared in slack-jawed astonishment at my dad, who was flummoxed. He couldn't even begin to summon the words he'd just heard five seconds earlier. He came up totally empty.  Oh my god.

I drove home.

So a new reality had settled in at my parent's house, with mom doing whatever driving was necessary, despite her pain and stiffness. 

At this same time, the VCU Opera Theater began rehearsals for Cenerentola, the annual full production with orchestra. I'd been assigned the buffo role of Don Magnifico, a role suiting me far less well than Fredrik. It's a huge role: two arias, pretty much every variety of ensemble imaginable, and bushel baskets of recitative, all in English. What I lacked in vocal power I tried to make up for with lively stage presence. In any case, rehearsal time flew by as it always does; suddenly, it was time for the excitement and glorious stress of Opening Night on a Friday evening in April.

That's when everything changed.

That afternoon, Mom and Dad had ventured out to the pharmacy to pick up some of their battery of prescription medications. While walking up to the check-out line, Dad suddenly weakened and staggered. It developed that he'd suffered a stroke. He was rushed to the hospital. Doctors were not encouraging about his prognosis. There was no guarantee he would live through the night.

And I was a full hour's drive up Interstate 64 in Richmond, a comic farce on tap.

I wasn't feeling comic.

Of course, there was no remedy, no convenient alternative; no understudy. In a daze, feeling detached and distracted, I got into makeup and costume. Around me, undergraduates and grad students were bustling about, giddy with pre-curtain nerves and excitement, cracking jokes and vocalizing and, naturally, oblivious to my situation.

Though I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, I did discreetly tell the stage director that a family health emergency was in progress and I wanted to go upstairs (we were in the basement of the Performing Arts building) to gather my thoughts backstage. It was a relief to escape all the youthful high spirits and endless iterations of "TOI TOI TOI!!!" for the sanctuary of the backstage area. 

The performance went about like it would have had no emergency arisen. With a role like Magnifico, there are no half-measures. Either you give it 100% or you don't do it at all. Muscle memory set in, as it always does. Actually, bellowing out all those thousands of syllables was a bit of escape from reality, although looking back on it, the out-of-body surrealism never completely went away. The burden of wondering whether or not my Dad was still alive hung over the evening like fog.

He did, I learned, survive the night. But that stroke was the beginning of the end. Over the next several months he bounced from rehab center to retirement community to nursing home until death took him. Those months were unbearable. The father I knew was gone. The figure that remained was one who at times kicked and struck his nurses in anger. He still knew my phone number, unfortunately, and would call at all hours to tell me in panicked whispers that he was at the Michigan Student Union and there were no taxis; could I come and pick him up? At other times he called to express his concerns that he was about to be fired from his job; the job from which he'd retired twenty-four years earlier.

Opera is wonderful. Alzheimer's is not. I wish for you Faithful Readers much of the former and none of the latter. 

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