“They did this?!” I remember thinking, overwhelmed by the voices onstage.
I sat in a distant seat far from the stream of music, song and action that crossed the stage below me. The darkness of the performance hall held me captive and the soft seat beckoned sleep, but I, even with my underdeveloped teenaged senses, could tell ART was happening onstage. A display of musical talent was happening right in front of me – Opera is gutsy – and as it turned out, I was the dull knife in the drawer unable to appreciate it fully. As I watched the singers perform my comprehension of that truth grew and as I realized the depth of it, my frustration grew.
Language was only the first obstacle but undeniably a large one. I had been in Germany a few weeks, arriving with next to nothing in vocabulary or language skills. My daily life was becoming a swirl of experiences where the only common denominator was my increasing language-less existence. There was much that could be accomplished each day using pantomime and pitiful looks. I didn’t always have to speak much. However the opera that played out below onstage was a dynamic verbal interplay that even a neophyte like I could see was an complex language engagement. I had no doubt I was missing all of the basics and for certain all of the subtleties the actors were singing out to each other. As the action played on the drifting feeling I had been experiencing since arriving in Germany began to evolve into a sinking feeling. I was in over my head. Way over my head.
The musicality of Opera was the next barrier my young brain and ears were hurtled against. I just had no reference for the genre past the four very quiet framed pieces that hung on the wall in my parents home in the US. Nothing in those sepia toned photographs of my great grandmother dressed in costume for her Opera roles suggested the volume of singing I was experiencing that evening. In my family home Opera was a quiet ghost, never departing the room but never fully occupying it either. Opera was respected but not played. It represented the lives and art of the family members who hung captured in the antique photos on the wall, but it wasn’t a current experience. We were related to people who had worked in Opera and that was deemed to be enough. The Opera days were gone.
But there I was, very much alive, ticket holder to one of the last Opera productions of the 1986 season in Frankfurt am Main (then of West Germany) and very much musically lost. Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier played out below and I struggled to follow along.
Earlier that week the mother of the host family I was living with offered to try and secure some tickets if I was interested in seeing some Opera. I enthusiastically accepted, thinking it would be nice to see an opera in a European setting, as maybe those framed relatives on the wall had experienced. Somehow I might have believed that one Opera show would explain their lifetime of work. But that evening, as the sinking feeling took hold, all I could think of was that I was woefully undereducated. I had seriously underrated my family in those silent photographs. I was left mumbling in simple fragments “huh, THIS is what they did!? How did they ever decide that?” Thus it began that I started to think more about my great grandparents Paul Eisler and Edith Vail Ross Eisler, as the musicians they were and the decisions that they made that became their lives.
Here is a 1960’s scene clip of ‘Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren’ from Der Rosenkavalier : Presentation of the Rose * Karajan.