Hating to Sing, Part II
Outside, the world was windy, cold, and wet. My parents didn't care to make me do chores. My brothers had been left to play. And so we had. We had battled each other in cribbage and rummy for hours. But the youngest had left the game. My middle brother wanted to read. Fortunately, I found there was going to be a Nova special I wanted to watch. I tossed down the curled-over TV guide and knocked on the door next to my bedroom.
Our house had two televisions. That Sunday, my father chose to watch Gunsmoke re-runs downstairs in the smoke-filled haze of his combination library and recreation room, which lay next to my bedroom. The air around him was so thick he couldn't see his show but it didn't matter. He didn't look up from his crossword puzzle. He'd seen every Gunsmoke episode dozens of times. He wouldn't let me switch to the Nova special.
"Not interested," he said. "Anyway, you've seen that one."
He wasn't curious to see a re-run of the Six Million Dollar Man, either, or the Muppet Show. It was too early in the day to lure him into Kojak or the Rockford Files, so I headed upstairs to the living room. There, to my surprise, I found my mother watching television.
"What is this?" I gestured to everything in the room. My mother never watched this television without my father's presence. She always worked outside instead.
"It's a rebroadcast of Pavarotti in an opera," my mother explained. She had a brunch tray in front of her, mostly finished. "I've been looking forward to it. I missed it when it was live. It's pretty good."
"Nova is doing a special on star formation."
"You can see it later. I'm watching this." Her tone was final.
For a while, I wandered around the house, banging on surfaces to have something to do, eating cereal, and eventually pulling cheese slices out of the fridge. I peered into my brothers' rooms as I ate cheese. One was asleep. One was reading.
I grabbed a tangerine and sat down on the couch in front of the upstairs television. As far as the house rules went, I was allowed to listen to classical music and to big band music if I could stand it. Radio shows from the 1940s were pretty much mandatory. Opera was permitted with the idea that it was classical. My father didn't care for it, though. I'd seen a ballet (well, I'd slept through four) but I'd never seen an opera performance.
We had an album of the H.M.S. Pinafore, which was passable enough, but no one referred to it as opera.
Partway through peeling the tangerine, I started to hate what I was hearing. Pavarotti looked like he was supposed to be playing someone young and poor but he was about two hundred pounds heavier than he should have been. He bellowed about the weather for a few minutes. He went on about an apple or a ribbon, too, or some other prop. The other actors pretended to chuckle for him. Everyone's acting was so bad that, aside from the fake laughter, I generally couldn't tell what emotion they were hoping to portray.
That was it for "La Bohème" and for all of opera, forever and ever as far as I was concerned. I grabbed another copy of the TV guide and thumbed through it. I noticed the Nova show would get repeated on a different PBS station in an hour. I could kill the time by re-reading science fiction books, probably. Or I could thumb through the library shelves and find something that had looked boring the first two hundred times. Sometimes it looked okay on the next browsing.
Most of the hour, I spent in silence. I secluded myself in the back corner of my room, far away from the noisy televisions and the billows of cigar smoke as I read my books.
"Is that Nova?" I asked when I came upstairs. I'd gotten lost in the cheap novels so I was a few minutes late for my show.
I got no answer. I was in the kitchen, where my voice sometimes didn't reach my mother or where other people could pretend not to hear. I ambled into the living room. There, in front of the TV set, sat mom with a plate of cheese and fruit. She was watching an opera. For a moment, I thought it was the same one. I asked myself how long operas ran. But no, the guide had said this one would end before Nova.
"The cast looks different." The music sounded different, too.
"It's a better opera," said my mother. "This woman is a gypsy."
"Ugh." She had never watched opera before. It seemed horribly unfair, from my perspective as a perpetually-bored teenager, that my parents should take up new, even more boring hobbies. They enforced more than enough tedium already.
There on the living room carpet, I glowered at everything. I scowled at my mother. I cast mental balefire at the television. For a while, I listened to Carmen. My mother was right. It was better. But I wasn't going to be seduced. I made up my mind to oppose this somehow. Enough with the fancy arts. Enough ballet. Enough opera. Enough slow, repetitive big band music.
Then Carmen started singing a new song. It was the best piece I'd heard in my limited opera experience. It was called the Habanera and the vocalist was fantastic as dancer and an actor. I'd made up my mind, though. I took a deep breath and swelled up my grudge against all of life. Then I began singing. Angry and fifteen and no vocalist at all, I made up lyrics as I went,
This song is boring.
It isn't Nova.
I should be learning
about star formations.
It's really boring.
Did I say boring?
Because it's boring
It's so very boring.
I kept it up, a deliberately awful parody, and my mother ignored me for a whole minute, maybe two. The actress in Carmen was so good. The music enchanted my mother. Finally, though, she snapped.
"If you don't like it, leave!" she shouted. "Go on! Get out!"
Still sulking and actually, still singing, I stomped from the living room to the dining room, where I bumped into my middle brother.
(An aside: Nowadays, when people ask me if my kids were difficult because they cut themselves up or got in a fight or argued about doing their homework, my answer always seems to go through a comparison of things like this I did and much worse things I did, too, when I was their age. So I usually reply with something like, 'meh, they're probably better than I was.')
When I say I bumped into my brother, I mean literally. He moved into my path, not out of it, and he had no problem with physical contact. He didn't seem as angry as I was, or as bored. He'd probably been hungry and helped himself to another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He'd been grazing on them all day. In fact, he did dodge a little at the last second. His gaze on me was wide-eyed and intent. His mouth fell open.
"What do you want?" I asked.
I moved past him into the kitchen. He followed me. His expression seemed even more focused, like a haunted child from a movie who hasn't got anything else to do but stare.
"Well, what?" I said.
"I think," he said as he blinked away some of the puzzled, unbelieving look in his eyes, "that you were singing."
"Huh." Come to think of it, I had seemed to be hitting the same notes as the woman in the opera. Well, an octave lower, maybe.
"Do it again."
"You're crazy." I pushed him on the arm, partly because he was reaching out to me and I wanted to keep him back with his weird, overly-intent expression but partly, too, because I worried that I had sung only once in my life. It seemed unlikely that I could ever do it again.
"I don't want to."
"But can you?"
"Of course," I lied. My mind reeled a few minutes back in time to what Carmen had been singing. Her syllables were like notes on the piano. I could imitate the notes. Better yet, I could make fun of them. That was the thing. I'd forget that I couldn't do it as long as I kept being insulting, as long as I was pulling a scam by pretending to sing. Only pretending. All I had to do was parody Carmen and poke fun at my mother. I could do that.
"La da da dee dah, la da dee dah." I started dancing like a gypsy woman. My brother laughed. It was working. "La da da dee dah da dee dum dum dum."
"I've never heard you sing," my brother said quietly.
"La da da dee dah, la da dee dah. La da da dee dah da dee DAAAAH da dum!" I pretended to blow him a kiss even more exaggerated than the actress had done. He made a grimace-smile because he knew I was trying to be funny but he didn't necessarily agree that I was. I had to admit to him, "I didn't know I could do this."
"You couldn't last year."
"Yeah." Maybe he had heard me chanting into the forest. Or maybe while he was in my room, I'd tried to accompany a pop song on my transistor radio and he had been a reluctant witness.
"But now you can sing."
"Yeah." It was a weird change to acknowledge. "I guess I can."
Making fun of bad music was the only way I dared to perform for about a year. Parodies were how I could sing in front of other people.
Satires of opera led me to a similar mocking of the Bee Gees, which led to me wailing like Led Zeppelin, which led to me deliberately mangling Grease. However, lots of teenaged girls liked the musical Grease and didn't enjoy me making fun of it. Anything that made girls frown, I shut down pretty fast. Eventually, I loosened up and sang to Abba hits along with the girls. That made guys frown but I wasn't trying to kiss them so they were welcome to scowl until their faces broke apart or we could fight about it.
One thing led to another. A high school director asked me to sing in a musical. I started working my way through college and found an opera coach who directed a choir and liked my voice enough to stand me next to his star (who went on to be a professional performer in operas, as I later saw in the newspapers).
In another college, still trying to hold jobs and manage to get through it all, I sang with a more contemporary chorus. We did complicated pieces (four P.D.Q Bach cantatas were my first) but they were fun. When I was tired of the bass parts, I decided to make my voice transition from low to high like Freddy Mercury. I had mixed success but it was just enough for the director to move me to baritone, then second tenor, and to occasionally give me solo lines. Over the span of a few years, she gave me the impression that she trusted me to sing.