I started my first morning on this trip to San Francisco with a hike to an old favorite place, Corona Heights park. I failed to complete the short, uncharacteristically muddy scramble to the top in time to watch the sun rise, but the thick clouds afforded an incredible light show across the city as they began to dissipate. I sat in the cold, damp breeze of the morning, the sheen of sweat from the 17th Street hill drying on my chilly face, silent in the face of the sweeping beauty of the City and the Bay.
San Francisco (and San Franciscans) taught me how to fall in love with a city. She was, in 1991, the most multicultural city I’d ever seen. She taught me how to try new food and how to understand when it was great. She gave me the ocean and the hills at the same time. She held the opera house that gave me a chance to play in the big leagues of my profession. I found such large, daily joy in her, total exhilaration in sharpening all my palates, practicing and coaching all day and then going out to try sushi or hot pot or burritos. San Francisco was the wide world to me, and no matter what the day was like, she was there with her big views and white roofs and grandly crumbling Victorians and occasionally shaking streets, her prodigious, available beauty, daring me to keep trying.
The world is beautiful, and if you’re willing to sweat you can get the good view from the top of the hill: maybe that’s too obvious to deserve designation as a lesson. If San Francisco showed me that, she showed me harder things as well. She taught me things I hadn’t known about money, the signifiers of economic status and class, and that these were as important as any skill of text or tone in my career advancement. Her grand opera house taught me about compromise, and about where my dignity ranked alongside those with more fame.
San Francisco taught me about me. I learned how hard I was willing to work, and how much I was willing to compromise. A lot, as it turns out.
I’m here this time with Jamie, to do our feminist recital again; it’s the last one scheduled for the time being. It feels great to use our platform to lift the work of women. It feels amazing to share the stage with a younger colleague whose world is measurably different than mine was, who can be more freely herself than any woman of my generation working in opera. So, generations of women compromising in order to stay in the conversation seems to be paying off. This is the city, after all, that just chose a young woman as the music director of its A level opera house. So, progress.
It’s so tempting to focus on that progress to the exclusion of its cost, but these days I feel the cost with great sorrow and not a little fury. No system is perfect, and we consider it maturity to learn to accept the good with the bad. Even so, I can’t look away these days from the fact that, in order to stay in those important rooms and conversations, I turned my face from a lot of damage. I wasn’t alone in doing so. I’m still waiting to hear us talk about that, instead of debating whether our industry is being too hard on a handful of men who have already had their careers and made their indescribable amounts of money.
One of the reasons this is all on my mind is that, due to the magic of social media, my musings on this blog have gained me some traction as a writer and speaker on these issues in our business. My article for the AGMAzine will come out soon, and this summer I’ll speak at the national conference of NATS. I have a couple of appointments here in San Francisco to deal with related projects. It’s personally exciting for me, and gratifying to hear from people that this part of my practice has meaning for them. But, while this is happening, I read every day about how social media has compromised us and probably our entire system of government. I can’t separate my use of FB and Twitter from the engines of misinformation running on those platforms, and the collusion of their owners.
But I do separate that use, every day, as I used to lock up my own musical work away from the behavior of others. And I do it for the simple selfish reason that, in this moment, it is benefitting me.
As I walked through old neighborhoods I could never afford as a working adult, sipping my six dollar coffee, watching people asleep under cardboard and old coats in every available doorway, I thought about the compromises we make and why, what we fear, what we believe we are protecting. When I sat on the rocks at the top of Corona Heights park, I could see miles in every direction. The view was inspiring and brought joy on its own beautiful merits. But I was looking with all my might for something I couldn’t quite find.