Saturday, June 12, 2010

Opera comes to Fern Forest


When my short story collection, Full Bloom, came out in April with Brown Fedora Books, editor Jim DeFilippi said he liked the story “Crimson Flower” the best. So that’s the story I chose to read at the Spalding University MFA residency in Louisville last month. There’s a scene in the story when an ex-priest goes into a New Orleans bar (no, this is not a joke), and some old songs from the Vietnam era are playing on the jukebox, a Neil Young classic and “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I was to be the fourth reader, following two playwrights, and I figured if I sang the lines from the songs instead of just reading them, I’d stand a chance of holding the audience.

Problem is, I have a wretched singing voice. One of my brothers sang baritone with the Arizona Repertory Company—classical stuff—and was in big demand for musicals. Another brother was a member of an elite madrigal group when he was younger, and the third brother was lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Here’s how badly I sing. One morning in an expansive mood I was belting out a happy tune in the kitchen. I know I didn’t sound good because my voice cracked every time I reached for high C (the note, not the juice). At one point I stopped and complained, “I wish I could sing.” H responded, “I wish you could, too.”

With that veiled criticism, you can imagine my concern about singing in front of two hundred people. I found YouTube videos of the Shondells singing “Crimson and Clover” and covers by Joan Jett and Nicole Mauricio. I sang with Tommy and with Joan and Nicole. I tried to find the chords on the guitar. I even searched the house for an old pitch pipe I remembered having years ago when I thought I had a molecule of musical talent.

And then, in Louisville, I let her rip. Lots of people told me they liked the story because they’d been to New Orleans. One guy corrected me on my pronunciation of Chartres Street. Thankfully, no one mentioned my singing.

Last fall Chris stayed at the treehouse with his girlfriend Elisa, a fledgling opera singer. Of course I wanted to hear her sing, but I didn’t want to put her on the spot. I understand that circumstances have to be right for a singer to dig deeply into her core to pull out a big vibrato.

Chris is pure heart. He met Elisa in Ohio, where she sang with Opera Cleveland, and she convinced him to move to New York, the best place to get the big break in opera. Chris agreed and landed a job doing online promo for the Jewish Community Center, while Elisa crammed herself into a Manhattan apartment with several other young women aspiring to make it in New York. She worked as a receptionist, spending every spare nickel on voice lessons.


In April she was invited to perform with Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall. I can scarcely imagine that thrill. Then Middlebury Opera Company came calling, and Elisa was back in Fern Forest territory for a few weeks.

While I was stumbling through my own snippets of song in Louisville, Chris emailed H and asked to stay in the treehouse again. Elisa would be put up with the other cast members of The Pearl Fishers. H called me to say he’d gotten tickets to see Elisa in the opera. I was thrilled—if I can’t sing, at least I can appreciate a pitch perfect voice.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Bizet’s first opera, written when he was just 25, is in French, set in Ceylon. It’s a story of a romantic triangle in which a beautiful priestess drives apart two friends. The loser, unfortunately, is king of the island and condemns the couple to death but, unlike the tragic death of young lovers in many operas, King Zurga relents and allows Nadir and Leila to escape and then throws himself onto the flaming pyre he had set to execute Leila.

I hesitate to imagine what Bizet was thinking when he wrote the opera, but I suspect it had something to do with his feeling for his father. Nevertheless, the singing was sublime. In a solo, Nadir hit a high note that seemed humanly impossible and which a reviewer called a “cathartic reprise,” and Leila’s voice rivaled the hermit thrush songs that peal from the depths of Fern Forest. Elisa was in the chorus, raising and lowering gorgeous cloth sails of delicious colors with the five other chorus members and delivering a finale to the second act that a reviewer called “magnificent and spine tingling.”

I love it when a performance has me by the heart and I sit up straighter, tense and thrilled by every note. I loved it even more when the next day I heard two cars pull up the driveway—Elisa, Chris, and the other three sopranos from the chorus. Elisa wanted to show them the treehouse, and my camera captured them perching like delicate birds in the maples.


When I was in high school, I tried out for a part in a musical and actually made call-backs before I was eliminated. I sang “I’m as corny as Kansas as August.” My voice was corny, too, but it was loud enough to give the director momentary pause that maybe I was something he could work with. But then he changed his mind—too much work to be done on me. Just as well.

After the Middlebury performance, H and I went down to the stage to greet Elisa when she came out, still in costume. She seemed happy to see friends. Her parents were there, too, having flown in from southern California for the show. Afterward, H and I walked arm-in-arm back to the car, and I felt I’d just had one of those magic evenings that you tuck away to pull out when you need a sweet memory.


Much later that night we heard Chris come in. He wasn’t alone. Elisa had escaped the chorus to join him at Fern Forest for a little magic of her own.

p.s. Just found out that Chris asked Elisa to marry him...and she said YES (of course)!

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