Going to a classical concert can be an experience that crystallizes a moment in one’s life that, when viewed in retrospect, can be an irrevocably life changing. We hear of these awakenings in our musical circles often and for many, it can be such an intense bewildering occurrence. I remember such an event in my life when I was 12 and my father took me to an opera performance of Verdi’s La Traviata.
My father, Mack Harrell, was a Metropolitan opera leading singer and he must have used some of that pull for tickets because we ended up sitting in the second row (not exactly an easy feat in the late 50’s). Maria Callas was singing the lead role for this production and had garnered more press attention than usual by insisting that the roses on stage had to be real roses flown in from Italy!
My parents seemed amused at this, but somehow I knew the performance was shaping up to one of these crystallizing moments. Something was happening to my dad and to the audience, and to me as well. I don’t remember if my father told me the tragic story of the masterpiece of vocal art and psychological drama before the curtain went up, but somehow I knew that in the Germont–Violetta duet that a confrontation of some magnitude was brewing between a hapless young women, in love – true love for the first time in her life – and the staid socially stagnant old man, thinking of only appearances and his reputation forces her to give up the first meaningful relationship of her life with his son.
The fact that Violetta probably senses that she is terminally doomed, adds to the poignancy of this scene immeasurably. Germont cannot help himself; he is moved by her and probably sub-consciously loves her as well as his son. But he goes through all the motions of all the reasons for the split, not realizing that it is because of his simple respectability in society that is the reason he wins her approval. An acquiescence that she knows will kill her if her consumption won’t. He is a gentleman with manners and is an upright citizen – something that she wants more than anything else in the world now that her life has meaning. But that is closed for her: Prostitutes need not apply.
After the performance, I remember asking my father if he wished he was singing that duet with Callas. He acted in a way that showed humility; he ignored the question and simply responded that this was the greatest Violetta that I would ever see. And he, with tears in his eyes, gave me a hug. That day I learned one can simultaneously feel sadness and hope all while being bewildered .That music can – and does – speak of immense immeasurable things that are the very meat of our humanness and experience is what makes it a truly special to share.