When my older sister was in middle school, she was named student of the month for her academic achievement. The prize, aside from a certificate awarded at an end of year ceremony, was a profile written up in the school paper.
It was this article that created one of our favourite family in-jokes: somehow (and my sister swore that she had not said this) the interviewer got the idea that my mother had once been a professional singer, and the article stated that ‘her mother is a former opera singer.’
(Some background: my mother had a naturally beautiful singing voice, with real professional potential, but never pursued a career. Her first husband (my elder siblings’ father but not mine) did sing professionally in Europe, but it would have been unlikely for my sister to have mentioned him. The origins of this quote remain a mystery.)
Anyway, from then on we took great delight in reminding my mum that she was a Former Opera Singer, which in the midwestern town where we lived seemed about the most exotic thing you could imagine.
Fast forward 40 years, and I am looking forward to picking up my mother’s mantle, except in my case, it will be true. I may not be ready for the ‘former’ part just yet, but for the better part of three decades I have qualified for the ‘opera singer’ part.
Did I subconsciously set out to fulfil my mother’s accidental legacy? Who knows. I definitely inherited her vocal gifts, which gave me the foundation to study music and pursue a career.
And I found out, years after my sister’s profile appeared in the school paper, and after countless jibes about being a Former Opera Singer and how we could hear her voice ringing out over everyone else in the church choir (so embarrassing), that my mum had once thought about pursuing an opera career.
She had been the one with a steady job while her first husband studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and then auditioned for fest contracts in Germany. She’d even sung chorus and sewn costumes in their self-produced opera workshops in Philadelphia and New York before going abroad.
But she’d never actively gone for it, never sung a leading role, even in an amateur production. Soloist in church services, joining a close-harmony choir, and (both of us) singing chorus in a touring company’s Amahl and the Night Visitors performance were as far as it went.
One night in Philadelphia, where she had travelled from Ohio to cheer me on in the final round of the Pavarotti Competition, my mother told me she had always wondered what it would have been like to sing a leading role in an opera, just once. It was the closest she’d ever come to telling me she had any regrets at all, or that she might feel any envy for the lives her daughters were free to pursue. She had always been a cheerful, practical, and ‘look on the bright side’ type, quick to show gratitude and, while not exactly emulating Piaf or Sinatra, not one to spend any time regretting the past.
But there it was, the unfulfilled dream. And not the obvious ‘never gonna happen’ one so many of us might entertain: becoming a movie star or going to the moon; she had been around opera singers, up close and personal, and she’d possessed the talent.
When my time comes for retirement from this crazy profession, I will carry my mother’s ‘title’ with pride, finally, a generation on, making that student journalist’s hapless words true: I’ll be a Former Opera Singer.
(Oh, and…by the way: singing a role in an opera? It is kind of cool. Thanks, Mum, for making me appreciate it even more.)