Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beverly Sills, Higher Than Ever.

Beverly Sills died last night. She was 78, and besides Tony and Carmela, the only soprano who ever really moved me. I’m vowing today to stop letting chances go by to tell people I admire how much their work has meant to me.

I had nearly 30 years to tell Beverly Sills how she blew my mind one night, back when I was a 21-year-old college dropout whose favorite singer was Tom Waits and who mostly listened to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and The Beatles. And I never sent her that letter. I wonder what it would have said? Before I played the aria for a group of Hallmark word people at our annual coffeehouse last year, with a backdrop of a huge outer space photo--stars, galaxies, nebulae--this is part of what I read:

This song you’re going to hear is a silver arrow that hit me, pierced me, left me slain, in the rain of my own tears, in my bachelor pad, in a towel, just out of the shower, which was just a bathtub where I dumped water from a plastic bucket over my head — and now this music pouring down on me like light. Was it an arrow, or was it light? Or was I just so young and vulnerable, an open groove for the needle to slip into, record turning, world turning, needle of diamond, stars of dust wheeling above me, who will love me, 21, in a towel on the third floor of a big red house, dumbstruck, starstruck, gooseflesh rising, eyes blurring, everything I had ever lost returned to me, everything I would ever love already leaving, all that was impossible made suddenly real by this unreal voice.

How does a human voice become a willow tree and the bird in it by day, the stars in it by night? Both dark and light, particle and ray, longing and longed-for, everything and void. How can a voice waver on either side of a note but hold the note so true? And isn’t light that same vibration, too? How does music do this to you? What place inside does the bird find to light, the star to flutter and flicker its way to us? I don’t have a clue.

I confess that for years I used this piece of music as a litmus test of soul. If I played it and it didn’t move you, you were dead inside. It was alright if at first you laughed or fidgeted, because almost all of us come armored against the full-throated blast of old-time art-as-religion that is opera. But if by the end the music had not broken through your defenses, broken you down, opened you up at least a little, you were less than human.

I was young and stupid. I didn’t yet know that there are no litmus tests, no absolutes, no one true faith or song or voice or love. Coleman Barks had yet to translate Rumi, so I hadn’t heard of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I adored Tom Waits, but had yet to hear his anecdote about the first time someone played him the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. He said, “It was like giving a cigar to a five-year-old. I turned blue and I cried.” I hadn't heard much of anything, really. I certainly hadn't heard anything like this, a song debuted ten days before the day that I was born. It had been there, my whole life, and I had not known. I wept like a willow in my bachelor pad, the first place I called my own.

So that scene is set.

The scene for the aria is this: Leadville, Colorado. 1880. Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, “the miner’s sweetheart,” first woman ever to work in a U.S. silver mine, has her eye on silver magnate Horace Tabor. Both married to other people. Can't end well. Doesn’t matter. It’s destiny, and when she picks her moment, sits at a piano and sings where she knows he will overhear her, the song does to him pretty much what it did to me. If he’d been wearing a towel, it would have dropped right there. Or maybe she’d have torn it off him after his beautiful baritone reply. Anyway, it’s love at first song for Horace Tabor. And so it was for me.

Ladies and gentlemen, the “Willow” aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore and John Latouche, sung by the stratospheric Beverly Sills...

Then there was a little coda I'd written to wrap up with, but after I played the music, there was no point in reading it.

If I knew how to load the iTune on here so you could just listen, I would. That old footage isn't great. But who can deny the power of that big D (I think it's a D) she hits shortly after the video does that skippy little flutter? It still takes the top of my head off. I could tell that a few Hallmark people were knocked out, too, when I forced them to listen to it. But it's opera, man. Hardly anybody wants to kneel at that altar.

Why did I never send her a thank-you note for cracking me open enough to let a little light in? I still don't care for most operatic voices (can't stand Wagnerian opera, which seems preposterously self-important and repetitive to me), but every so often, I’ll hear something that gets through, thanks to Douglas Moore, John Latouche, and this amazing woman who put the color in coloratura.

She had a deaf daughter, an autistic son, and she finally saw her husband through the last stages of Alzheimer's last year. Through it all, she radiated joy, served her art, and took humanity higher, literally.

I just listened to the final aria, sung right before Baby Doe dies. Beverly Sills holds a note at the end that seems impossible. It’s still going. It will never stop.

Getting a little misty here. I'm just glad I got through that without calling her "Bubbles."

Next post: a list of people who are going to get gushy, big-ass fan letters from yours truly...


scotland said...

I'm reminded of Hazrat Inyat Khan's description of Sarah Bernhardt singing Le Marrseilles ,he used it as an example of the power of the breath in the human voice. It can create an impression so deep and strong that it will never be forgotten. I have an unsatisfied love of Opera,as I do of all musical theater. I never fail to fall in love with at least one of the women singers in every performance. Having had many such affairs,it would be immpossible to choose and leap to my death for any one of these singers over another. But if there is one who I could be with and see as I saw them then ,it would be Carmen Mcrae. Girls! you can have Mel Torme,Perry Como,Sinatra. I'll have a Manhattan-straight up-with a twist,and choose the goddess any day.
Once I had the privledge to sit and hear a performance of raga music given by Pandit Pran Nath, Hindustani Master. During the ragas he sang I heard over his own song a womans voice singing an octave above. It was not just some trick of overtones,as it had a full beautiful quality of its own. After the performance I spoke of this to the Guru's tambourist, wondering if the ragini(female spirit of a raga)had been awakened. He shrugged,said this was fanciful,but finished saying that someone else had just come to him and spoken of the very same thing.
Why do people sing in the shower? I would love it if I could hear almost anyone sing to the sound of splashing water from out of a cloud of steam. It seems very erotic to me. No I don't need the video, just the singing. Is this strange? Maybe it's time for me to throw in the towel.

I loved this post,good work SPH

Anonymous said...

Labvakar Latvieti

Meklejot "Willow, where we met together" ko noklausijos uz NPR
radio visa pilniba, ieskatijos tava lapa. Ieteiktu noklausities to. Velos nosutit draudzenei uz Latviju.
Beverly Sills bij mana miljakaa oper dziedataja.
Skumji kad vinja aizgaj no mums.
Man bij vairakas izdevibas vinju redzet Lincoln Centra jo stradaju isa vilciena celju no Manhatenas.
Aceros vinjas piezimi kur atskjira starpibu starp laimi un prieku.
Laime ir kad vis tava dzive iet ka velies.
Prieks ir ko izradi lai cik dazreiz dzive iet gruti.
Paldies par taviem vardiem, ari reizem man aizkustina kada melodija kura ilgu laiku skane mana atminja.
Kadreiz te pierakstijos bet laika delj nespeju turpinat.
Rakstu tev no NJ Atlantikas krasta
Ja velies man atbildet sheit mans
e-pasta adrese.

Visu labu

Anonymous said...



Jasph said...

Scott, I seem to recall Pandit Pran Nath as a collaborator with La Monte Young, who I once admired as a tinkerer with piano tunings and weird noise. But I might have the wrong guy.

There's an image that appears in some masculine poetry (Robert Bly, James Wright, a few other guys) of a female presence that is embodied by a moment of epiphany in nature. Maybe the same can happen in singing--if a male singer is truly expressing his entire humanity, maybe some aspect of the feminine shows up and starts singing along.

Zigrida, you're my first Latvian on Spulge Nine. No piermirseu necessary. In 1984, I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee and my surgeon was Latvian. He was superb. If I'd had a blog then, I'd have mentioned its popularity among his countrymen. Also, I'd have been the first blogger instead of the twelve millionth. That would've been cool.

scotland said...

Hey James, you could be right about the colaboration mentioned. Composer,Terry Riley was a principle among the western students who found their way to Pandit Pran Nath. Let me know if you ever translate Zigrida's comments. I sense poetry and passion. My sister has lived in Riga for some years. They recently left for Surrey,UK, saying they were tired of the "Wild East". I'll send you her e-mail. I'm sure she could make sense of it if you're interested. I did receive Fleeting Hope on the Hudson, and will respond at another time. Shalom SPH

Anonymous said...

Ah, that's so lovely. Thanks for posting it! I like opera, though I don't know that much about it. Maybe I will learn. Maybe I just will. So there.

I want to go back to the Chicago Lyric. I saw "La Traviata" there when I was in college and it was fantastic. I remember this part where she thinks he's dead, and he comes up from behind her and embraces her, and it's this electrifying moment, and she sings something incredibly emotional and heartbreaking, and then I think they both sing, WOW. I actually think people would like going to an opera even if they didn't like listening to opera in general, because it's such a grand spectacle.

Jasph said...

The old guy who first turned me on to it said that seeing live opera is like watching a competitive sporting event. Whoever gets through your natural defenses to being overpowered (and your learned defenses to classical music) wins.

Anonymous said...

Jas P,
I adored your tribute to Beverly Sills. Please write. I'm dying to talk.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jas P.

Do you still listen to Sills regularly? Her death has re-awakened my love for her artistry. I'm a music prof and am thinking of writing about the journey I've taken in reconnecting with her incredible music. Your piece on your experience with the "Willow Song" is beautiful. With your permission, I'd like to include it in my study (with full acknowledgment of you as author, of course). Please contact me.