Mom touches my hand and lets her head fall back in an exaggerated pose of pleasure, a midwestern lady’s gentle goof on the old-school flood of operatic emotion. I bathe happily in the pre-digital sound, my aural nostalgia adding sugar to one of Puccini’s sweetest lines. The old LP made it here after a distant relative’s passing, arriving in my stepfather’s van along with a Birdseye maple dresser and a surprising amount of other stuff. People can get funny about things when beloved folks or eras pass; we sometimes grab onto items as signifiers of something we loved, even when there isn’t really a place for them in our current circumstance. Sometimes the thing can help us work out what it is we want to hold onto, and sometimes it just takes up space.
I suspect there’s a hope that the opera recordings will go back to Ohio with me.
“Björling!” I say, hoping to compliment without implying consent. “One of the great tenors of the century.”
“He’s good,” says Mom. “I met his son, you know.”
So, fun fact: Anders Björling has a Swedish gift shop in St. Peter MN, where he settled after attending Gustavus Adolphus College in the fifties. Mom also had a Swedish gift shop here in Northfield twenty-five years ago, and they met up in “the cities” at market. She knew that Anders’ dad had been a singer. Which is why she wanted to play this Boheme for me, this Boheme from the house of a woman I never met.
I ponder this funny little link as Victoria de Los Angeles starts “Mi chiamano Mimi.” The phonograph needle pulls me back in memory to my parents’ living room and the few albums I played to death (Messiah, West Side Story, three Firestone Christmases) as this juicy Boheme knocks around in my head meeting its neighbors. A hundred pairs of lovers, a hundred bro quartets come to life behind my ears and eyes, familiar figures around whom circumstances constantly shift, from shiny performances to raw shows, from velvet curtains to warehouses, from generous rubato to pinpoint accuracy, from mid-century warmth to twenty-first century leanness, from the needle’s earthy hiss to digital compression. Everything changes, even as the lovers sit once again in the cold moonlight and begin to tell each other a version of themselves, even as I begin to hear the story I believe I know.
We’re listening to this Boheme on a morning in a week that feels familiar too, but not in a good way. The news of the pandemic’s new variant gets more concerning every day, and the industry pivots are piling up in earnest. The bros are off to Momus, zitti e discreti, as I open my email and read about the return of masking, restriction of audiences, and decisions to advertise performances on a monthly basis only as we wait to see what happens. I read posts about friends going home from festivals, news about cancelled and postponed performances nationally and internationally. I make plans to reunite with friends in Cincinnati, and they tell me about which restaurants will be requiring vax proof. I reach out to my fall employers, who are generous with information about the plans they’re not quite ready to announce. And I read a message from a friend who is sick as Jussi and Victoria ascend on love and head out to dinner, the pink bonnet, and disappointment.
Tonight, Mom and I have plans to attend an outdoor concert presented by the St. Croix Valley Opera, just an hour up the road. I don’t know anything about this organization, but when I found out that all four vocal soloists were friends I knew I had to go. The joy of this summer has been the slow, tentative return of in-person music-making, of reunion, and I’d be driving up the river to hear these friends sing no matter what. But today, inclement weather forces the concert inside a local church, and now masks are required and the audience size is capped. We interrupt Act 2, grab face coverings and umbrellas, and head out early. Immersing myself in the fun of a mother-daughter date, I can ignore the creeping sense of something slipping away.
At the church, Andrew Sun and Nathan Cicero share conducting duties from an electronic keyboard, and their ensemble of string quintet plus flute and clarinet (terrific players, mostly from the Minnesota Opera orchestra) sounds surprisingly opulent in tasty arrangements. The singers, Vanessa Becerra, Sarah Larsen, Andy Acosta, and Luis Orozco, are all in fresh, free voice. The program is a parade of chestnuts, opera and musical theater, which they deliver with warm sound, easy physicality, and deeply personal textual commitment. Two beautiful ASL interpreters share the spotlight. The masked audience is enthusiastic, happy to be there, to listen and respond with large applause. When Andy heads up for Nemorino’s M’ama, si, m’ama, my momma grasps my hand and lets her head fall back, this time in abandon. Anders’ dad has his place in history forever, but tonight, the beauty, heart, and ears are all in this room, at this place in our brief and fragile history.
The concert ends with Sarah leading the whole ensemble in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, which has become kind of a pandemic anthem. There are a lot of versions of it in my head, along with all those Bohemes and other chestnuts, the stories I think I know and understand even as practices and tastes shift, altering their presentation and changing their impact. Something like a pandemic can make those shifts pretty big. A person can be surprised, not by the nostalgia of a phonograph needle or a long out-of-fashion fermata, but by the way a familiar tune can be a knife to the heart.
When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high and don’t be afraid of the dark. Sarah’s voice trembles and steadies, and sharp salt tears burn my eyes. I lean my head on my mom’s shoulder and she takes my hand, an old story still being told, not yet memory, constant in the face of change.
I’m grateful to these musicians, those long gone and those beautifully present, for reminding me that we aren’t alone, that we are connected in ways we can never trace or understand, that these connections endure through the changing times. Walk on, walk on, with la speranza in your heart, right? I know this essay is nostalgic and cheesy and I guess that’s just how it’s gonna be. The storm clouds won’t lift for a while, so I hope you have a hand, a shoulder, a sweet silver song.