Here’s a little fact that underscores how inexorably time passes and how I’m no spring chicken anymore. For 23 years now, Marshall and I have been season ticket holders to the Lyric Opera of Chicago . . . which means that we have been going to the Lyric longer than any of my students at Carthage have been alive. That’s a lot of opera- a lot of late nights (in the middle of the work week, no less) – and a lot of money . . . but the fever shows no signs of dissipating – especially when we get to experience performances like tonight’s. Our first opera of this newest season was Gounod’s Faust- a five act Grand Opera which certainly gives you your money’s worth, if you don’t mind four hours worth of opera in a single sitting. (I can think of some opera fans who find that to be too much of a good thing.) Marshall and I usually go on Tuesday nights, but our regular night would have been later in the run and a couple of significant cast members would have bowed out by that point (several weeks down the road) – so we opted to trade in our regular tickets for tonight, which also happened to be the first Faust performance of the season. And it was an incredibly glorious performance. . . easily the best of the four “Faust” performances we have seen over the years. . . with the three principal singers, Piotr Baczala, Rene Pape, and Anna Maria Martinez, delivering performances that were just about perfect – and gorgeously accompanied by the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus and conducted so sensitively by Sir Andrew Davis. It was, in short, just about as wonderful a night at the opera as one could hope for- and in our 23 years of attending the Lyric, this easily ranks in my top five.
One thing beyond all that stands out for me – and that is I found myself tonight especially grateful that I have had a partner with which to experience these 23 years of opera. I certainly have appreciated that fact before tonight but never quite so deeply. And the reason is that because Marshall and I switched to a different night, we were in completely different seats on the other end of the balcony, sitting amidst complete strangers. (We basically sit amidst strangers on our regular nights except for the friendly couple that sits just ahead of us, but we recognize a lot of people who come back year after year.) Somehow as I sat amidst completely different and unfamiliar people, I became acutely aware of how many of them were at that performance all by themselves. There was nobody beside them with whom to laugh, discuss the opera, or just chit chat. Not that any of them looked particularly sad or lonely. But they were indeed alone – – – and after 23 years of attending the Lyric with my good friend Marshall, I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to do this all by myself.
Which is not to say that it hasn’t occasionally happened. Sometimes Marshall has had a conflict back at Whitewater – and sometimes I have had a conflict at Carthage – but those have been rather rare occasions when we knew that the next time around we would be back together again. (Sometimes when one of us can’t be there, the other ticket has gone to someone we know. Kathy took Marshall’s place once or twice – trevor – katie nagao – lynn helmke – and even pastor jeff on one occasion have been there as well. those have all been fun nights at the opera.) But the thought of regularly trekking to downtown Chicago all by myself and seeing the opera alone is downright preposterous. Being together means you get to revel together in the glorious moments- and commiserate when you’re sitting through something painfully mediocre or worse. You get to answer each other’s questions about what tenors we’ve previously heard in “Faust” or if any of those performances included the usually-cut scene that opens act four. And maybe best of all, though I know this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, you get to discuss what you’ve seen and heard. . . what you liked about it, what you despised about it, and why. For us, this is one of life’s richest joys.
On a couple of occasions over the years, we have hooked up with other opera fans that we might have met through our Opera-L listserv or through some other means. . . but pretty much without exception we have realized that opera partners are a bit like tennis partners: it’s so important that you are a good, even match for each other. We don’t want someone who’s light years behind us in terms of experience and know-how . . . nor do we want someone light years ahead of us. We don’t want someone who is so easy to please that anything and anyone on the Lyric Stage is “the greatest ever” nor do we want someone who is so hard to impress that their face is frozen into a perpetual pout because no one has really lit up that stage since the days of Maria Callas. And we don’t want someone too casual about opera – nor someone who a raging maniac. I suppose it’s a bit like someone with whom you attend football games. You maybe wouldn’t want to attend with someone who has to ask if Brett Favre is a quarterback or a receiver. . . and on the other hand, you wouldn’t want to be with a know-it-all who quotes the completion statistics of Norm van Brocklin by memory- and without prompting. You want someone who is basically your peer, with whom you share an easy rapport as well as the same core values about the matter at hand . . . be it pro football, grand opera, gourmet foods, or whatever. I am coming to realize that I am an exceptionally fortunate person in this regard and profoundly grateful to the very core of my being that I have Marshall as my regular opera partner- because I learn so much from him, laugh so much with him, and find myself appreciating the glories of opera so much more deeply than I otherwise would. And while I’m on the topic of gratitude, I must say how thankful I am to have a wife who loves me so much and lets me do this crazy opera thing. She knows that this is my “duck hunting” or “wood carving” or “postage stamp collecting” – and she knows, too, how lucky I am to have an opera buddy who makes all of this better (and more fun) than it could otherwise possibly be. On what is an embarrassingly lengthy list of blessings which I deeply cherish and do not begin to deserve, this is towards the very top. And I don’t know if we have another 23 years in us or not (that would make us 72 years old, and those stairs at the Lyric are not getting any easier to climb) Neverthess, I hope there are many years yet ahead for Marshall and me and this thing called Opera that we love so very much.
pictured above: the entrance to the opera house in Chicago.