Yesterday, I put on my old German Expressionism 1930s leather jacket and, full of questions and expectations, rushed to the recital being held in the diminutive upstairs Foro Cultural 81 concert hall at calle Positos 81, Guanajuato, Mexico—wondering whether I would find a seat, be able to see, feel ensconced, anchored, tethered to the mast in such a way that I could, if I had to, resist both high c’s and the overall complex seduction of opera. The occasion was a master class given by James Demster, an esteemed voice coach from Mexico City with a very long list of distinctions, among which—the one that caught my eye—is having been piano accompanist for Plácido Domingo. I suspect the event was arranged by city treasure Kate Burt of Ópera Guanajuato. Maestro Demster was a slim, refined looking man who clearly loves the human voice and, as far as I could note, guided each participant with equal gentleness and respect as he accompanied them on the grand piano. I have had the great privilege of having had teachers like him but in Latin, Greek, German and French—not in music, about which I know very little. Except that when I write my fiction, I listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or, best of all, to famous opera duets.
I sat in the front row. Which placed me about eight feet from each singer. A station that carries with it certain restrictions. I hesitated to wriggle or move, uncross and re-cross my legs while the young divas were singing, or clear my throat during a pause. I didn’t know whether to look at them, or look away. Because before each one began, she had to gather herself together, looking down at the floor—wrapped in a private moment of composure—then up again when she was ready for the maestro to begin the accompaniment. There were fourteen or fifteen singers, all sopranos with one or two mezzo-sopranos sprinkled among them. They came forward in an arranged order. The less experienced first; the more advanced, afterward. So no one had to follow a devastatingly stronger performance. I have been around long enough to know that it takes enormous courage to stand in front of an audience and try to perform to the highest possible standard. To render the music so that the notes are strong and gentle, absolutely in tune and rich in tone variations. I heard high notes that were strained, lower ones that were more beautiful. Each singer warmed up and did better and better as the moments passed. And I, eight feet away, was more and more conscious that something special was happening. The presentations became more and more powerful, more sure-footed. With me, they have the effect of calling forth figures from my past whom I had not expected at the recital. I thought lovingly of my father who was my extended family’s best singer, once someone gave him a beginning note. And my mother, who, in contradiction to all my fault-finding, would open her mouth and transcend her Puritan constraints in a voice that was clear and passionate and foreign to me. In that moment, she was someone who was not my mother, perhaps someone else’s mother, or not even a mother at all but an independent and unknown person, who led a secret life apart from my father, my brother and me. A life that was magical and beautiful. And unassailable.
Other visitors appear, from much further back. As much as thirty years back, I sat in the middle pews of in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, just after the fall of the Wall. It was late morning on a week day. A voice from above and behind me, in the choir loft. A woman’s voice, a mezzo-soprano, as exquisite as anything I had ever heard began singing “Agnus Dei” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the very church where Bach had been the Cantor for many years. It was a chance moment and as spiritual a one as I have ever felt. As if the Past were the Present, and as if I were inside the music Bach had written back in the first half of the Eighteen Century. Or it was inside me.
You ask, how can I compare that experience to the recital of the fourteen young singers at Foro 81? Easy. I sat right in front of the recitalists, and it was as if my ears were laid back by the passion coming at me from each one of them. That is what is grand about young actors and singers. And I suspect that is something Maestro James Demster may have taught them. That it is not possible to sing opera with complete sincerity without giving it everything you’ve got. Or, put another way, truly good opera will not be good opera if it does not come largely from the heart. The effect on me is transformative and I am back in a Thomaskirche and part of something so much greater than my own little struggles. Part of all the composers, singers and musician that ever risked trying to create beauty. I feel immensely lucky, privileged. And, for a man who is not religious, I find myself resorting to religious vocabulary. Feeling blessed. In a state of wonder. Being as close as I could imagine to that which is spiritual. Standing outside of myself, as in the Greek ecstatic. In a state of rapture and delight. Along with others in the audience, daring to softly cry “Brava!” over and over. Praise that surely registered with no one other than myself. But sincerely meant from someone who knows so little about music.