An opera changed my life.
In 1994, I was a fledgling opera singer, fresh out of grad school and temping in New York City while I tried to fit in gigs in the evenings and weekends. One organisation that occasionally offered me performance opportunities was American Opera Projects, who support living composers by showcasing new operas and works in progress. They asked me to be part of an evening of opera ‘readings’ – that is, concert style, barely rehearsed, nearly sight-read, public run-throughs of short scenes from new operas, many not even completed yet, so that the composers had a chance to hear their music performed live and (perhaps more importantly) potential sponsors could hear the works as they developed. On this particular evening, I had a few lines to sing in a scene from Patience & Sarah, an opera based on the novel by Isabel Miller. After a quick rehearsal in the afternoon, a group of opera singers stood, photocopied scores on music stands, in front of a small audience in a dance studio in SoHo, and read through our scene.
Two fortunate things happened that night: Patience & Sarah got picked up by a sponsor, which led to the opera being completed and premiered, four years later, at the Lincoln Center Arts Festival. And I met my future husband and father of my eldest son.
OK, so far, so romance novel…but wait, there’s more. My husband (he is no longer with us, but that’s a different story) wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t even American. He just happened to be visiting New York that weekend, and just happened to be friends with a woman from my temp job who I had begged to come to see my performance. If it hadn’t been for Patience & Sarah, I wouldn’t have moved to England, I wouldn’t be living there now, and I wouldn’t be mother to my eldest son (who I was pregnant with during the premiere performances of P&S four years later, but again, another story…)
Why am I telling you all this? Well, in 2014, I commissioned the composer of Patience & Sarah, Paula M. Kimper, to write some art songs based on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. I premiered these songs in 2016, and will be premiering two more as part of an opera/cabaret monodrama about Bishop’s life. It is called One Art, after her famous villanelle, and a line in that poem ‘Places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel’ reminds me of that life-changing moment in 1994, and the parallels between my life and Bishop’s. She never intended to spend 15 years living in Brazil, and her relationship with Lota de Soares would never have happened if Bishop hadn’t had an allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew. I wouldn’t be living in the UK now, if it hadn’t been for Patience & Sarah.
The reason I chose Elizabeth Bishop poetry to set into art songs was that villanelle, One Art. Like many fans of her work, it is my favourite, and like many others I feel I read deeper into it each time I encounter it. The art of losing certainly isn’t hard to master, and I can see many parallels in my own life to the cities, continents, etc that Bishop catalogs in her verse. We all can, which is why it is so widely admired. But along with the universality of loss is also the knowledge that we never know what events in our life will lead to, what is ‘just around the corner.’ In the end, it doesn’t really matter where it was you meant to travel, just where you ended up, and where you’re going next…
ONE ART: an opera/cabaret will receive its London premiere on 27 July, 8 p.m., at RADA Studios, 16 Chenies Street, London, WC1E 7EX. Tickets from https://www.tete-a-tete.org.uk/event/one-art/
Be there if you dare!