Going to the Opera with My Mother

The main character in the Metropolitan Opera's Production of Prince Igor
The main character in the Metropolitan Opera’s Production of Prince Igor

We are the facilitators of our own creative evolution.Bill Hicks

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom-cat.

Stirred and Shaken

My mom loves opera. She’s loved it since her girlhood, listening to scratchy Caruso records on her mother’s well-worn turntable.

Until recently, the only opera I’d seen was Gilbert and Sullivan. (Not opera, I know). Puccini? Not so much. Obscure Russian operas that are rarely produced? Definitely not.

Although I can appreciate the beauty of the music and the talent of its stars, you could say, it’s really not my thing. (And you would be right.) Even though I love the music from Madame Butterfly, the whole opera experience — and its appeal — remained a mystery to me. I just didn’t get it.

However, in March, I ventured out with my mom — and a cadre of her opera-loving friends — to see Prince Igor. It was shown live from the Metropolitan Opera in NYC in movie theaters throughout the U.S.

The ticket was $22, which is a bit spendy for a movie, I thought; not realizing that the film would be five hours long.

A First For Me

We settled in with our cappuccinos and popcorn, and were first introduced to the emcee for the event (an opera star in his own right), then the plot line, the main characters, the back story and the way that this particular opera came into being since it was not completed during the composer’s life, but finished later by others.

The film gives the audience a backstage pass to the experience.

Over the course of the opera — which included two intermissions — we not only experienced the music, but also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, as well as interviews with everyone from the stars to the scenic designer and crew. We saw the sets put up and torn down. We watched interviews with the director and the conductor.

Poppies. Everywhere poppies.

For me, the story was a bit ‘operatic.’ (No pun intended.) It bordered on melodrama at moments, and then stirred one’s soul the next.

The set was, at first, a town square, as Prince Igor (pretty clearly a life-long loser) rallies his troops to take them into a disastrous war. The second act takes place in a poppy field — indicating delirium — that features Igor dancing, metaphorically, with his own darkness. The final act takes place in the same square where things started, only by then, it has been reduced to rubble. Igor returns to rebuild his country.

I didn’t get the sense he’d learned much from his folly. He understood the notion that all war is hell, but he wasn’t humbled by his defeat. He simply thought he could start over, as though none of it ever happened.

I found that a tad depressing. (I favor catharsis over kick-me-in-the-face-while-I’m-down tragedy, truth be told. Imagine.)

Peter Schjeldahl's hilarious summary of Prince Igor
Peter Schjeldahl’s hilarious summary of Prince Igor

Somebody’s Watching You

Although all of this was actually quite fascinating, what I liked best was watching my mother and her friends.

I watched them watch the opera.

Their rapt faces — sometimes awash in tears — and sometimes glowing in awe, were worth the price of admission, worth the angst, worth the five hours in a movie theater, feeling my butt slowly go numb. I listened in on their discussions at each break, and I witnessed their collective joy.

Every one of them was completely and utterly engrossed in the story, the movement, the call and response, and the winding voices of the characters. They were at the opera!

They’re all in their late seventies and early eighties, yet they were lit up by the experience.

Through New Eyes

I saw my mother the way other people see her: as someone with a life that is not about her children or grandchildren or the job she kept to pay her bills.

I saw her as I imagine she was when she was young – a gash of red lipstick, bobbed haircut, stylish taffeta skirt, ballet flats, and a beautiful shrug around her shoulders. I saw her as the young woman who studied ballet and saw The Red Shoes more than twenty times. I saw her as the one listening to classical radio beamed in from Canada, Caruso wailing from the stereo’s speakers, rain falling in rhythm to the music.

I love my mother so deeply; however, this is a part of herself she’s kept hidden. She didn’t have the money to see the opera or go to the ballet or the symphony. She had kids to feed as a single parent. She had responsibilities. We always came first.

Seeing that Secret Beauty

Now, she has friends treat her to things she could never afford. They give her tickets to the theater. They treat her the Harlem Ballet, to Giselle, to the opera.

And I see her bloom in their presence, and it reminds me that she, too, has a secret life that only she knows about. This is the place that is just for her.

I feel privileged to have caught a glimpse of it. 

© 2014  Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved

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One thought on “Going to the Opera with My Mother

  1. Oh, you’re right, I loved that. I loved the glimpse of your mother dressed in taffeta and ballet flats, red lips and bobbed hair. I loved watching you watch her watch the opera. Sweet.

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