Kage Baker loved opera. She loved musical theatre. She was fond of the dear old recordings of Tubby the Tuba and Peter and the Wolf that adults gave us on purpose: but what she loved best her whole life long was classical opera.
When she was very small, she listened to the old glassy-fragile shellac 78’s in the cabinet upstairs by Auntie Anne’s piano, where she would sit on the Polar Bear rug, yclept Archibald. She liked to sit on his head and swing her feet, and her little red leather sandals eventually kicked a lot of his teeth out – Mamma carved new ones, out of the same sort of old-fashioned clothes pins I now give to Harry for chew toys. Weird how time brings so many things around again …
Lots of good old classic operas were Kage’s musical baby food; also, the recordings of Aunt Anne’s singing, since Anne Jeffreys was, in her sparkling youth, a noted opera and Broadway singer. She played the ingenue role in the original production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (it was written for her, in fact); and in her time memorably sang both Hajj’s daughter Marsinah and the slinky Lalume in famous productions of Kismet at the Greek Theatre.
Kage found an ancient volume of The Victor Book of the Opera (I’m not sure the dog at the gramophone had his eyes open yet when it was published) somewhere when we were small, and cherished it forever. I remember the leather binding was flaking into discrete muscle striations, and the book smelled inexplicably of grapes and incense. Though maybe the incense was from Kage’s adolescence, when she would sit in a cloud of it her tower at all hours listening to Aida and Carmen and Der Rosencavalier and Madame Butterfly and La Boheme and Sir John In Love and Rigoletto …
I preferred musical comedies, myself. In fact, I didn’t really get into opera until my teenaged years, when Kage decided to educate me. The trick was the librettos – she led me through what the words meant, reading out of that ancient book; and when I wasn’t howling with laughter at Gilda the Goat Girl and other lost gems, I learned to love the rich, psychotic gorgeousness of opera.
There was one summer in the 70’s when we were nuts over La Boheme, which I think has an especial attraction for young women. Especially if they lived in romantic, draughty apartments in the Hollywood Hills … We were able to buy modern vinyl records from time to time by then, and God! it was easier to listen to long-playing LPs than those ancient 78’s.
Anyway, one perfect hot summer night, there was a production of La Boheme at the Hollywood Bowl. We got our usual dollar tickets in the nose-bleed section, packed red wine and a pizza, and went off for a lovely evening. There was a full moon, the night was warm, and though it was a recitative performance – the principals not costumed, just standing there in evening clothes singing – the expereience promised to be grand.
We were a little surprised to discover that the Bowl, which will hold 18,000 people, held barely a third that many that night. In fact, as soon as the lights went down, we sneaked down to better seats, giggling and triumphant. They played the National Anthem, we uncorked our wine, and it was announced that tonight the part of Rodolpho would be sung by an unknown rising tenor making his Los Angeles debut – a young man named Luciano Pavarotti …
There is no way to describe the wonder that ensued. The Bowl was filled with moonlight, the crowd was astounded and then rapt; and so small, you could hear the gasps all over the audience when Pavarotti went into high gear on Che gelida manina. His was the voice of a young god that night, and we were two astonished shepherdesses on a hillside (in that Wood Outside Athens, maybe) listening to divinity on the warm night wind.
It was one of the paramount nights of Kage’s life, she always said later. I know the memory still brings tears and shivers to me.
Last night, idly following a link posted on Facebook by a friend, I listened to a young man named Jonathan Antoine audition for an absurd show called Britain’s Got Talent. I don’t watch this kind of thing; I had no idea what or who he was – although, given his youth (17) and looks (Falstaff in an XXXX Jimi Hendrix T-shirt), I figured he had to be either astonishingly good or astonishingly bad. He and his lovely 16-year old partner Charlotte sang The Prayer – and from the first note, I was thunderstruck.
Juliana Gaul, I should have known you wouldn’t upload something bad. Thank you. These children are a revelation of beauty – especially Jonathan. I tracked down all the other YouTube videos I could find, and sat here writing and weeping for an hour or more. His rendition of Time To Say Goodbye, young and rough as it was, nearly stopped my heart with joy.
I wish Kage had lived to hear him, see him, rejoice in his voice and the glory on his face as he sings.
It could only have been better had I been sitting with her. In the Bowl, in the moonlight, in the summer darkness.