Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Day at the Opera


My friend Janey and I went to the Metropolitan Opera in Asheville on November ninth. We were part of a full house of mostly gray-haired opera fans who came to see the simulcast of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which has one of the most dastardly plots, opera’s worst villain Scarpia, and some of Puccini’s loveliest music. Members of the board of the Asheville Lyric Opera served as ushers and cheerleaders.

I was frankly not certain I would have the stamina to make the trip, miss my lunch and nap in order to get there early enough for good seats, watch a movie for three-and-a-half hours, go out for supper, and then make the trip home. But I was determined to try. So I emptied my roomy knitting bag and filled it with my water bottle, high protein and high fiber snacks, my travel pillow, and a few other things for my comfort.

These simulcasts have been going on for five years and although I am devoted to opera, listen faithfully to the Saturday Met broadcasts, and have been to major opera houses in various parts of the world, this was my first time at the Metropolitan Opera Cinema. I had been aware of the dates and operas being offered earlier, but somehow I could never make it work.

Janey had once suggested that we go together sometime to one of these  simulcasts in Asheville. So when I realized that Tosca was on the schedule, I asked her if she would like to go and if she was willing to drive. And now the day had come. I had in mind the many telecasts I have watched on PBS Great Performances, some from the Met and some from the Philadelphia and San Francisco Opera Companies. I expected that would be the format and wondered if I would be able to see the performers very well in a film made on the gigantic stage in New York.

The curtain rose on the opening scene that revealed the size and power of the semi-abstract set and introduced one of the main plot lines. Then the tenor strode onto the stage and in just a few minutes—with the magic of new technologies—the camera zoomed in for a close-up. Thus began the flawless performance of Roberto Alagnas as Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi. He and soprano Patricia Racette in the title role embodied the glorious love duets with intimacy, humor, sorrow, jealousy and ecstasy playing across their faces and as they punctuated the lyrics with hand gestures. Being able to see the nuance and emotion in such detail made me briefly feel like an intruder.

The biggest surprise for me was the scene with the villainous Scarpia in his private den of pleasure. He is a character who has always seemed to be the incarnation of evil. But here we had George Gagnidze showing us a deep sadness in his consummate portrayal. It almost made me want to add Scarpia to my metta blessing list the next time I meditated. He did not, however, make the chief of police likeable and there were no redeeming virtues as he sang the remarkable music Puccini had written for this nefarious character.

I used my travel pillow as we waited for the opera to start as well as during each intermission when there was nothing on the screen but stagehands changing scenery—eighty-five of them we were told. I didn’t sleep but I did feel refreshed. I also took two corridor walks to keep my problematic knee from getting too stiff. I was well fed and hydrated and I noticed many of the other patrons had a similar bag of sustenance. Others bought snacks at the theater’s food bar, which had much more than popcorn and cokes. You can even get a salad!

At the end, theater patrons clapped along with the audience in New York where the three principles all received a standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo.” Janey and I floated out of the Carolina Cinemas and drove to the restaurant. After we ordered an early supper, Janey heaved a happy sigh and said, “I feel full.” Misunderstanding, I asked if she would rather not have stopped to eat. “I don’t feel full in my stomach,” she said, “ I feel full in my whole being from the opera.”

A few days before we went to “Tosca” I heard an interview with a man who has written a new biography of Bob Fosse, the choreographer and director. So much of what the author talked about was also descriptive of my multi-talented husband Bill. It started me thinking once again about the richness he brought to my daily life for fifty years as he was directing, acting, singing, producing, conducting, and playing the organ or piano. One of his favorite Saturday recreations was to sit at his baby grand piano and accompany himself as he sang tenor arias from all the major operas scores in his ample collection, including those Puccini composed for Cavaradossi. Usually I was his only audience.  Like Fosse, he also wore out his heart and died too young. The Saturday after Thanksgiving will mark the sixtieth anniversary of our marriage, and Bill has now missed ten of them.  But he was right there with me in the theater all the way through “Tosca” even if he was only in my heart.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Facing Challenges and a Moment of Clarity


From the age of seventy on, the pace of change may accelerate and those changes sometimes produce a loss of identity. This past year I have had two such challenges. In 1964 Bob Dylan wrote his song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as a commentary on civil rights and social change, but I found the first verse particularly apt for the upheavals I’ve been facing in 2013. He starts with a line about admitting the waters around you have grown and you’ll soon be drenched to the bone. Then he continues with advice that spoke to me:

If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

In the ambulance on the way from Tybee Island to the hospital in Savannah after I fell and broke my shoulder last January, I thought of Dylan’s song knowing my times were definitely changing. That fall had affected my confidence, feelings of safety, and sense of self.  I had believed that through discipline, mindfulness, and caution I would never have a fall or an accident with the car. Yet both those things happened in the space of nine months. I was comforted by my ability to cope, think clearly, take needed actions, and stay calm. However after my arm was safely in a sling and my broken big toe protected by a boot, I didn’t recognize the person who was timid about stairs, afraid to go out and walk alone, and unable to imagine ever returning to Tybee without a full time companion.  The fall was a blow to my self-esteem.

The issues were different with the car accident.  In 2011 I had begun to face the fact that problems with my vision meant I needed to curtail my driving and eventually would have to stop entirely.  For many months before I bumped into the end of a guardrail and blew out a tire on September 27, I had been tense most of the time I was in the driver’s seat. That day I was not distracted when I pulled out slowly from the stop sign and I was going only about five miles an hour as I turned too wide. I simply did not see the structure I hit. After I managed to drive the damaged car off the road, I sat quietly for a few minutes inside the car thinking, “I need to stop driving.” The full emotion of the event and its consequences didn’t hit me for about three days, at which point I asked Robin if he could recast the whole thing for me in a more positive light. After a little pause he said, “You’ve had a moment of clarity.”

When the vision problems first began to affect both walking and driving, I saw three different kinds of eye specialists as they sought both to fully diagnose the problem and to answer my question about driving. They all recommended that I not get behind the wheel if I felt uncomfortable and warned against driving in traffic, construction sites or when it was raining. Since then I’ve been driving to Burnsville on the weekends when the crews would not be working on the current major road project. Also I’ve been driving anywhere I wanted to go in Celo. In effect I was managing all aspects of my life except for the medical trips to Asheville or Spruce Pine when Tammy has been driving me. However, I have had numerous near misses and was often afraid because I couldn’t always overcome the double vision with logic, or judge spacial relations and interpret distortions quickly. It was an enormous relief to say that I would not drive anymore (except perhaps to the Celo Health Center).

After several weeks of euphoria and relief, I suddenly became morose again. I needed to arrange some rides and could not face picking up the phone and asking for help even from people who had offered assistance as soon as they heard the news: “Call me, I’ll help you if I can” was a typical response. It felt all right to request a ride from someone going to the same meeting or event, but I was reluctant to pick up the phone to ask someone do an errand for me in Burnsville.

As I got ready for bed, I was thinking about the next assignment for Scribblers (my writing group) on identity, which has certainly been subject to change as I have aged. In this case, I had already admitted that the waters around me have grown and accepted that if I don’t do something I’ll be drenched to the bone. Even so, I felt rough and uneasy emotionally. I was suffering from what felt like damage to my sense of self. I have no desire to get back behind the wheel but I couldn’t see my way clear to ask for help except from my children. 

The next morning I wakened with a new understanding and quickly wrote it down in my journal: “Buried deep inside me is a guiding principle of my life that had been instilled by my parents. I believe I should pay my own way, do my own errands, and drive my own car.” I have managed to maintain this attitude into my eighties without understanding it was a part of my identity. Once I recognized that, letting go was easy. But first I wanted to test the parameters of driving that I thought were reasonable for me.

There is something of a campus in the heart of Celo where the Health Center houses not only a medical clinic upstairs but also an acupuncturist, massage therapist, a Feldenkrais practitioner, and a large room for exercise classes downstairs. Across the driveway is the Celo Community Center where many activities, meetings and events take place. I wanted to continue to drive that far (about a mile and a half). So on a Sunday afternoon—three weeks after the accident— I asked Robin and Tammy to go along with me as I got behind the wheel and drove to the Health Center, telling them what distortions I was seeing and pointing out places that made me nervous. Their suggestions and affirmations enabled me to feel I could safely continue to drive to appointments on both floors of the Health Center plus interesting events in the community gathering place. The next morning I called several friends until I found someone going to Burnsville who could do my errand.

Clearly both my times and my identity are a-changin’ and I’m still on dry ground learning 
to let go of old habits and attitudes gracefully and maybe even singing a song.

Next Post:11/19/.2013