Thursday, December 6, 2007

Maria Callas, I Ain't

I've always sung. I've always loved to sing. I was raised on the music of the 40s and always sang along with the likes of the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney. I remember my mother singing along with those records too. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my mother softly singing along with Bing Crosby.

In the summers, I would spend time with Peach and her family. She has a lovely voice and taught me the harmony to You Are My Sunshine. I drove her crazy that year wanting to sing it all the time. I loved the sounds that the blended voices made. I can remember humming it, hoping she would join in with me and having her glare at me and say "I am not going to sing with you again!"

I was greatly moved by the 1955 movie Interrupted Melody, with Eleanor Parker as Marjorie Lawrence, the Australian Wagnerian soprano who contracted polio. (I just discovered that there are only six copies available on Amazon, it's not out on DVD, and a used VHS is $35!!!) I can still see her now, in the immolation scene of Gotterdammerung, struggling to rise to her feet as her voice swelled and the flames grew higher.

After seeing that movie, I decided I was going to become an operatic soprano (ignoring completely that my voice is in the alto range...and that I have no more "operatic" talents than Marge Simpson).

I would sing at the top of my lungs when I did the dishes each night. My poor mother would finally beg me to stop singing. She didn't understand the extent of my talent!

The nuns in my grammar school didn't understand the extent of my talent either. We used to have music classes and the nuns would walk down the aisles between our desks and make sure we were on the right key. I always sang as loud as I could, waiting for them to pull me out and praise me for my wonderful voice, but they never did. When it came time to hand out solo parts, I was never chosen.

I had to finally accept the fact that I would be an "unsung" soprano, not about to make my debut at the Met, at least when it came to taking leading parts. In high school, I had joined the school choir and sang for all the events for all four years.

I loved Christmastime because the choir was busy singing Christmas carols. I loved singing in 4-part harmony. (It's surprising how those alto harmonies stick with you 50 years later! I still can't sing the melody line of Joy to the World).

When I moved to UC Berkeley and started going to the Newman Center I joined the choir, of course. These were serious musicians. It was a real struggle to keep up with the music and I was never sure of myself, so I needed to stand next to a stronger singer to make sure I was on the right note. But I loved it.

I even got as close as I was ever going to get to a "solo." We were doing a polyphonic Mass and we had no alto soloist for the Benedictus. The choir director decided that I, and another alto, could do the solo part. We were called the "Benedictus girls." I think it was only one line and as I recall, I felt I had done a terrible job, but I did it. My one moment of glory!

After we married and bought a home in Oakland, we attended St. Jarlath's church. St. Jarlath had a very good choir director, who was, I remember, already an old man (probably 65 :) ). We did some complicated music, but it was more a mix of the "easy stuff" and the "hard stuff."

Then we moved to Corpus Christi church, which had an emphasis on participation by the congregation and I was back singing the unchallenging sort of stuff that I had sung in grammar school. (It did give me the opportunity, though, to hold David during Mass. Everyone complimented me on how well behaved he was and had no idea that under my voluminous poncho, he was nursing through most of the Mass.)

Over the years I became uncomfortable singing. I remember Lamplighter sing-alongs where I wouldn't sing at all because of being surrounded by all these incredible singers and realizing my shortcomings.

One year Gilbert, who was the conductor of the orchestra and who, once a year, had a private party where the orchestra got to play things they didn't normally play. A few non-instrumentalists were invited and one year he decided he wanted to conduct Beethoven's 9th symphony, inviting anybody in the tiny audience to come on stage if they wanted to sing along with the 4th movement. I figured I would never have that opportunity again, so hopped up with everyone else. I was going to sight-read Beeethoven with a bunch of professional singers.

As we got ready to start the movement, Gilbert asked if the group wanted to sing in English or in German. They enthusiastically agreed on German, so I was trying to sightread unfamiliar music in an unfamiliar language. Talk about one of my most embarrassing moments!

I don't sing any more. When we first moved to Davis, there was no choir and by the time they had formed a choir, I was questioning whether I believed in the teachings of the Catholic church any more.

I still hum along with music if I'm alone and driving in the car, but I have no breath control at all any more and with age my voice isn't even as good as it was when I was shrieking opera while washing the dishes (and it was pretty bad then!)

I can carry a tune and I enjoy being in a group of people who are singing familiar songs, especially at Christmas time. Last year we went caroling door to door (for about a block!)

But I've had to resign myself to the fact that I will never make my debut at the Met, that I was never more than a mediocre singer at best, but I did enjoy blending my voice with those of others when I still could.

If you want to read a story every bit as sweet as A Christmas Story, check out my friend Ron's entry today.

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