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Unlikely realities

Something that occasionally can seem like lazy historiography to me is when scholars call something “unlikely” to explain why they think it probably didn’t happen. It’s a way to argue with something that may show up in a primary source without necessarily having to reason your way through the disagreement; oh, well, such-and-such gives X account of this event but that’s “unlikely”, so we’ll assume it didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing. At the risk of getting all Dr. Manhattan on both of my regular readers, “unlikely” things happen all the time. I am an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence, given who my parents are, their personalities, their respective stations in life when they met, etc. It’s highly unlikely that my randomly going to a party one night while nearing emotional rock bottom should result, six years later, in me getting married to a person I met there (principally as somebody another friend of mine had a crush on). It’s highly unlikely that a college choir director deciding she was going plan a European tour should start a chain of events that would result in a conversion to Orthodox Christianity nine years later. And yet, these things defiantly happen nonetheless with callous disregard to whether or not a historian will later believe that they did.

A couple of other fairly unlikely things have happened to me in the last two or three weeks: for example, Megan and I, along with our godchildren Matt and Erin and our dear friend Anna, attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production of Tales of Hoffman. Not necessarily unlikely in and of itself (but since the last time we went to the Lyric was 9 years ago for Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney Todd, certainly not a regular occurrence), but consider the following: Hoffman was supposed to be produced at my first undergraduate institution, Western Washington University, my freshman year. WWU had put on a production of La Boheme a couple of years previous that had received national attention, was developing something of a reputation for being a good undergrad program for people who wanted to do opera, and Hoffman was going to be the big followup that would prove that Boheme wasn’t a fluke. Well — as the story was told to me in dribs and drabs from a few different people — political, economic, and practical concerns meant that this didn’t happen. Hoffman was nonetheless on my radar for the first time, and in short order the 1989 recording with Placido Domingo was the very first opera recording I ever owned. That disc featured people I’d never heard of before like Edita Gruberova and James Morris, and I played it over and over again.

Somebody who was in my freshman class was a soprano and cellist named Erin Wall. She was in 8am Music Theory with me the very first day of classes, we were in the same voice studio, and she was one of a group of Canadian students who were in Western’s music department for voice. She had a nice, full voice at a time when there were a lot of soubrettes hanging around; the last time I heard her during my time there was when she was one of the Flower Girls in The Marriage of Figaro in 1996, but after I dropped out I believe she got to do the title role in Susannah. Over the years I found out she was having quite the meteoric rise; she was a finalist for Canada in the Cardiff Singer of the World, she was part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young artist program, and then she started to get really busy.

A few months after leaving Western in ’97 I went to work for a Major Software Company and, shall we say, did a reasonable impersonation of a tester for a few years while trying to get to the next step as a singer. One of the things I tested had to do with web browsing, and one day I happened upon a student website for a soprano at Rice University named Anna Christy. There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the website, but I always remembered that I had hit it, particularly when I started seeing her name in Opera News a few years later as somebody who would be singing at Wolf Trap and so on.

Fall of 2003, after just starting at IU, I was flown back to Seattle to sing as the tenor soloist for a concert of Bach cantatas with the Seattle Symphony, John Harbison conducting. It was the biggest professional thing I ever got to do, and except for the check, it was a real waste for me and for the Seattle Symphony people. I was cast in a role at IU that I was removed from over this; the Seattle contract had been signed months ago, and I was to be gone the second to last week before opening. I didn’t even know I was up for anything in this particular show, and I explained my situation as soon as I found out I was cast. “Take it up with the stage director when staging rehearsals start,” I was told. Well, as soon as the stage manager said at the first staging rehearsal, “We’re not excusing anybody for any reason from any rehearsals,” I knew I had a problem, and sure enough, I was kicked out. (This was, of course, considered to be my fault from the standpoint of the opera administration, but never mind that now.) Not only that, but as soon as I got off the plane in Seattle, I came down with probably the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and my ability to phonate, still reasonable at the first rehearsal, was in tatters by the concerts. It was the first (well, only) time I’d ever been on a gig like this, I had no idea whom to talk to or what to do, and while I managed to sort of scrape by in the concerts — well, funny thing, the Seattle Symphony folks never called me again. (My voice teacher in Seattle, who had sent Seattle Symphony my way in the first place, said that from what he had heard it wasn’t exactly a “He’ll never sing in this town again” kind of thing, but that I was remembered as somebody who had problems, and he’d have to specifically arrange an audition for me down the road when the time came. Needless to say, the time never came, and thank God.)

Anyway, the bass in the solo quartet was one Christian Van Horn, who had just won the Met auditions. I doubt he would have any memory of who I am, and if he did remember me I doubt he’d remember me well, given the circumstances, but he was a tough guy to forget — physically and vocally imposing, to say the least.

My second year at IU, a mezzo-soprano named Jamie Barton started her Masters. She distinguished herself quickly in operas like La Cenerentola, but she was also a frequent guest at Chez Barrett, back in the day when I used to host large gatherings of IU voice people over nachos on a weekly basis. (Hey, that’s how I made friends when I first moved here — I fed people.) She won the Mets a few years ago, and since then, she’s been one popular mezzo.

So Chicago’s Hoffman featured James Morris (from that first recording) as the four villains, Erin Wall as Antonia, Anna Christy as Olympia, Christian Van Horn as Crespel, and Jamie Barton as Antonia’s Mother. (As well as Matthew Polenzani as Hoffman, whom I had last heard ten years ago in Seattle as Almaviva in Barber of Seville.) And with me in the audience — what an unlikely confluence of people and circumstances! If I took a time machine back to that first day of freshman year in September of 1994 and told the 19 year old Erin what would be happening in seventeen years, she’d laugh in my face, I’m sure. (The set looking like it was reproduced from a Chris Van Allsburg book was also pretty unlikely. Fascinating looking at times, but unlikely.)

The second unlikely thing to occur was a week ago today. I’ve written here and there about my lifelong fascination with Batman; well, as I had known for some time, Michael Uslan, the Executive Producer of the Batman films starting with the 1989 Tim Burton effort — and really the guy without whom a modern Batman on screen doesn’t happen — was an IU alumnus. He’s spoken on campus a few times since I’ve been here, but I’d never been able to go, so when I heard that there would be a screening of The Dark Knight in the new IU Cinema facility with Michael Uslan introducing the film, I made it a point to clear my calendar for the day and to order a copy of his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batmanin time for the screening. As it happened, he gave a lecture in the afternoon in addition to the screening, and I was able to go to both. There is a brief account of the day here (hmmm — “RRB”, familiar initials, aren’t they?) so I’ll just say that the guy is one hell of an inspirational speaker, to say nothing of one hell of a self-promoter; he’s basically a comic book geek who has figured out how to make being so respectable, lucrative, and attractive. He was incredibly generous with his time at both the lecture and the screening; he kept answering questions until he was hooked off the stage, and during the book signing he talked to everybody.

So, chain of events — I find a book called Collecting Comic Books by Marcia Leiter at the Redmond Library in 1985, and my life is forever changed. Four years later on 23 June 1989, Batman introduces me to a way of thinking about movies that cares who’s in them, who directs them, who writes them, who designs the sets, who writes the music, and so on. I had been a Star Wars kid and then some, but I couldn’t have told you who George Lucas was. After the summer of 1989, though, damn skippy I cared who Tim Burton was and what else he had done and was going to do, who Danny Elfman was and what kind of music he did (followed by an obsession with Oingo Boingo for awhile), who Sam Hamm was and why it seemed he never wrote another movie anybody cared about, who Jon Peters was and why a former hairstylist was suddenly one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, etc. At the very least, without Danny Elfman’s score, my interest in classical music probably doesn’t happen. (And then there’s something about a girl in high school that gets me starting to take voice lessons, but that’s somewhat beside the point at present.) Anyway, I then go to Indiana University in 2003 for music, which just happens to be Uslan’s beloved alma mater, leading to last week’s events. Again — how incredibly unlikely!

No historian will ever care about any of these things, I’m certain. If one were to ever to try to reconstruct these chains of events and concurrences of people and places and things, surely it would strain credibility. This doesn’t mean we have to interpret all of these things teleologically, necessarily, but it also means that just dismissing them is not really reflecting on how life works and how things play out.

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3 Responses to “Unlikely realities”


  1. 1 Ben 4 November 2011 at 8:08 am

    Hey Richard,

    This was fun and interesting read – love how the various threads wove together to lead your the the Lyric’s Hoffman! You know Anna Christy and I were in the same studio at Rice, right?

    Anyway, fun stuff. When are you coming to Princeton again?

    -Ben

  2. 3 Ben 4 November 2011 at 10:53 am

    Great – looking forward to seeing you then.

    -Ben


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