As a historian and as an artist I have always been fascinated by antiques, heirlooms and old things made new. I have, for instance, some pairs of kid gloves that my great grandmother (on the Black side of my family) used to wear. I am fascinated by the fact that my hand fits easily into her exact glove size; slips into this quotidian relic of her life, even though my days could not be more different than hers. I feel the same jolt of connection when I hold a tie clip that belonged to my grandfather (on the white side of my family), a man I barely knew but remember the warmth of. Holding, wearing, and using the same artifacts and ornaments that were part of the lives of my ancestors gives me such a sense of connection and power. It’s as if the stories surrounding these items burst into vibrant bloom each time I revisit them. We enrich, repair and restore one another with each encounter. Have you ever had a clock that chimed through your childhood memories, or a desk that was your mother’s? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to write with Faulkner’s fountain pen, stand in Nelson Mandela’s cell, feel the weight of a priceless kimono on your shoulders, or hold the original documentation of Penicillin? Artifacts and heirlooms connect us and empower us. They remind us that we are not alone; that even the greatest of us were, on any given day, real and human.
The homecoming that I feel when my hand slides into the parchment thin leather of my great grandmother’s glove is akin to how I feel on the first day of rehearsal for an opera or a work that I have performed many times. Works like Puccini’s La Bohème, or, the Holiday favorite, Handel’s Messiah come to mind. Music for me is like a living heirloom; one that is refurbished and reanimated every time we gather to breathe life into its pages. Music isn’t finite, though, like a table or a portrait. Music infinitely lights up a runway in our brains and nervous systems for more memories to land and take hold. Dr. Anne Fabiny of Harvard Women’s Health Watch says “Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward. Two recent studies—one in the United States and the other in Japan—found that music doesn't just help us retrieve stored memories, it also helps us lay down new ones.” I can fully attest to this phenomenon as a performer. Not only does singing La Bohème or The Messiah or Beethoven’s 9thSymphony reactivate memories of all the times I have sung those works before, these works also have in them the power to create deep and lasting memories each time I encounter them. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, for instance, was the last thing I sang in public in March of 2020. I remember it vividly, and gratefully. I know that this “infinite heirloom” effect extends to audiences as well. Each time a work of art or music is performed and perceived it takes on more dimensions of soul, vitality and memory for having been partaken of. I believe we are woven into the art that we make part of our lives and it into us. This is the tapestry that keeps us warm when the world howls around our battlements.
Opera singers are often told that we “have a gift” because we have an affinity for and an understanding of this music and can employ a classical vocal technique. I would rather say that Opera is the gift. Musicians train, sacrifice, hope and struggle for the opportunity and skill to be able to be a conduit for that gift in our community. Have you ever considered, while sitting in a live classical concert or opera, that thousands of collective years of study, hours of practice and dollars in student debt have led to this one unique performance? What an incredible gift!
Every time those chiming opening chords of La Bohème Act II are struck, it’s Christmas Eve again in the Quartier Latin! Each time we hear the Baroque trills and stately choruses of Handel’s Messiah we feel wrapped in the velvet and brocade of an old world traditional Christmas. When a gospel choir stands up to sing, the heavens open up and our troubles fall away. The first recitation of the Ode to Joy in the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony invariably makes smiles break out, heads nod, hands reach for hands. Music is the gift that lights us up!
This holiday, as we miss our accustomed festive memory making, may I suggest that you give the price of a holiday concert ticket as a gift to your local performing arts organization? If you don’t have money to spare, let me remind you that words of encouragement, a meal, a prayer, or a promise to be in theaters again one day can mean more than you will ever know to an artist out of work. Share artist offerings like this blog, or the online offerings that so many performing artists have crafted this year to help the world cope. Your participation and engagement keeps our community striving, creative and with our hopes intact. Opera is a gift that singers, administrators and instrumentalists are preparing every day to give to you in the New Year.
I have never been clearer about how much I treasure my ongoing relationship with these great works of art. These works have soaked into my soul and my life like butter and honey into good bread. If nothing else, I want to break that bread and share that infinite sweetness with you.
I Thank you for the gift of your readership.
I Thank you in advance for all of the heirlooms and musical treasures we will unwrap, embody, and savor in the year to come.