Opera, Anyone?


So opera. Season ticket holders? Can’t wait for the season to start? Know when opera season actually is? Is it sorta like Chiefs or Royals seasons but different?!? True confession, I’m not a connoisseur of fine opera. I did not grow up being exposed to much classical music and certainly not having any sense *snort* of opera. And when I tried a time or two to figure out what opera was about and why anyone would voluntarily pay to attend one, I still couldn’t quite get my head around it. And I decided at that point I probably didn’t need to spend any more energy on it. It’s like the quadratic equation or the chain rule or organic chemistry – do we really need those to exist in our daily lives?

Face it, we’re a practical people with practical things to attend to that require common sense and hands-on commitment to concrete actions that move us toward the most efficient way of living. Right?

But where does beauty fit into that? Poetry? Music? Art? What was God thinking with that stuff? Probably that it’s more for the intellectual crowd. We farm girls from northwestern Kansas don’t really have a foundation or background for that which cannot be measured and limited and earned.

But then came Jayne. Isn’t it funny the people God puts in the paths of life that you somehow unseeingly and unwittingly stumble upon? I had agreed to play the piano for a summer camp when I was 19 and had just finished my freshman year of college. The pianist they’d already hired had an emergency that wouldn’t allow her to participate. In the course of time, an opera singer named Jayne Casselman was brought in to offer a music workshop for those young women who wanted to sing during camp, and as part of the experience, she decided to introduce them to her vocation. She kinda didn’t know her accompanist was clueless about opera as well.

She and I were rehearsing in the days before the campers arrived and she put an accompaniment in front of me unlike any I had ever seen. She simply went on talking about tempo and volume and “color” (of the music?) and feel and meaning and… finally she realized I was silent (I know, right?) at which time she asked if I’d ever been to an opera or experienced the music in any way. I puffed up my chest, told her how smart I was academically and how many free throws I had once made in a row after practice and how I’d once driven a pick-up two miles with my eyes closed just by following the directions of my best friend in the passenger seat to see if we could – but that no, opera had not been a part of my vast life experience. “OH GOOD!” she said, “then we can do whatever we want and the music will simply soar without our agendas.” Riiiiiiiight, I thought, Exaaactly, music without our agendas, that would be so great… IF I KNEW WHAT THAT MEANT!

But I smiled and she simply said for me to play what I saw and leave it to her to create the articulation of the story with the way she would sing. And she did. She. Just. Did. And the girls in that summer camp workshop and the not very accomplished accompanist received the gift of a small awakening to an expansive lifetime journey of learning how sometimes those things that cannot be easily measured, like poetry and art and music and yes, mathematic and scientific formulae, contain a beauty that somehow defies complete explanation.

“Siegfried’s Horn Call” by Wagner which heads this blog, is part of the Ring cycle which is one of the operas for which Jayne was most famous. She played the part of Brunnhilde, one of the most taxing for not only the horn soloist as you hear above, but for the soprano whose longest and most taxing aria comes near the very end of a very, very long opera. It’s quite a complex and intriguing epic story to learn and then listen to in operatic form.

Random, eh? A blog about Wagner and Opera and the Ring Cycle and the force of nature that was Jayne. She retired from the Opera a number of years ago and moved back to the States to finish a career doing some performing and teaching and last February died of ALS at 60. Some of you know pieces of that story and the gift it was for me to make part of that journey with her.

So her two young adult children happened to be passing through Kansas City last Sunday morning and I happened to have Sunday morning free from preaching (thank you for the brain rest, Grace) and we spent some time together over brunch reminiscing and grieving and laughing and re-connecting and experiencing the immeasurability of beauty and art and life and death and life beyond death both here and now and there and then, and somehow together I think we healed a bit. And today I can appreciate the beauty of Siegfried’s Horn Call (I absolutely love the French Horn). I’m probably not quite ready to listen to the Soprano aria that comes near the end – my heart hasn’t quite reached that strength. But the Horn Call causes me pause, and a smile at the beauty of two old friends, and two young friends, and a God who calls in all practicality and in all inexplicable beauty.