SALUTING THE GENERAL,
I have loved two opera divas in my life (plus a tenor, but that's for another day). Years ago, the soul-stirring voice of the mezzo-soprano Eileen Farrell enchanted me beyond the power of words to describe. I bought all her records, including two amazing blues albums, even wrote her a fan letter and received a kind response.
Have toted that letter and the heavy cartons of records across every known time zone and back again. Recently read her frank, wise-cracking autobiography and found her as down-to-earth as expected. (An unexpected bonus was the off-the-cuff admission that she was a dowser--had always been able to find water with a forked stick. How's that for down to earth?)
And last night, I had the good fortune of sitting in on a master class of my other operatic love, the General.
Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, truly one of the grande dames of opera, has performed so many "trouser roles," in which a male part is traditionally sung
by a female, that she's been nicknamed "The General." When this little soldier learned that Horne was giving a master class down at OU in Norman, nothing could stop me from being among the troops--even though Mother Nature tried.
Maybe you've heard about Oklahoma storms? Then I won't bore you with details.
I actually drove to Norman through the howling, blinding downpour without incident, only to make every conceivable mistake trying to park VanGo in a multi-level garage. Went down the up ramp, then up the down ramp, tried to park in a slot that had obviously been downsized--I could have parked the car in the slot, actually; I just could not have then extracted myself from the van--and as a finale, I rode the elevator up and down several times, to the amusement of several giggling sophomores, only to find that it was not connected to the music center, only to the parking garage.
I was very early. The only other person in the hall was an odd-looking woman wearing a purple and green house dress, an orange bucket hat, and ten large
silver and onyx rings. (I counted them, having little else to do.) She occupied herself with a Bluetooth or a Blackberry or a Redbud--one of those. But from time to time, she glanced at me, and most likely made dubious conclusions about me, though I sported neither hat nor ring.
At 8 p.m., a man came out on the stage, studied his notes, and announced that Ms. Horne would be right with us, but had requested that everyone move to the front rows while we waited. Only then did he look up and realize that the hall was packed. "Oh! Never mind!" and he exited.
Then the General strode on, brisk as an Oklahoma wind, but full of sunshine and wisecracks. (She and Eileen Farrell had much in common besides their vocal range. ) She wore black slacks, a bright neon blouse, and sensible shoes. Smiling at us, she sat down at a folding table and waved on the first singer.
In a master class--at least in this one--each student gets to sing her aria through once, while the master teacher listens and jots notes on a pad. Then the master takes the aria apart, note by note and syllable by syllable. Two of the three women who sang last night were wrestling with German, and sometimes, German won. Frequently, the General would push her lips way out and insist, "EEWW! Eewww! Not "Oouu! " Then the student would sing the two bars over again. "Softer here, or you won't have enough breath!" "Louder--don't swallow that last word!" And the young soprano would try again. "Get the sound up in the mask!" Or "I want those notes in the chest!" "You're just singing words. Where's the emotion? You're dying to be this guy's hausfrau!"
Nor was the music all that received Ms. Horne's attention. To one statuesque blonde, she said, "Darling, you know I love you, but get your bangs off your face!
Try some hair spray. We need to see your eyes." And to another, demurely dressed in a snug black dress, but wearing very high heels with quarter-sized polka dots of yellow and red and green, she said, "My dear, without question we will award you the Shoe Prize, but don't those heels make your rear stick out?"
I agonized through the whole class. How could those young things stand up there before friends and family and strangers and have their performance dissected?
What if I had had an English major read an essay before the class and had then publicly picked apart rhetoric, coherence, and tone? Ah, but English majors don't generally perform in public, and these gifted musicians hope to do so for a living!
And clearly, having spent the previous two weeks working one-on-one with Ms. Horne, each soprano had fallen under the sway of her love for their common art and her affection for the student herself. Because both loves were obvious. The "General" was jolly, caring, congratulatory, and very, very demanding. And each singer ended her 3o minutes of fame with a warm embrace from a most gracious grande dame.
I drove home, not a drop of rain to be seen, surely the happiest monotone on I-35.