The picture in the frame showed a young woman on a stage, not much older than me, in an opera house in Europe. The accompanying article read, “Miss Conway’s debut performance in Puccini’s masterpiece was nothing short of stellar. Her angelic voice soared over the audience, filling every corner of the hall. The audience was transfixed by her natural beauty and grace. She…”
I turned to see Miss Conway, white hair in a bun, enter with a crystal pitcher of water and two matching glasses on a tray. ”Good morning, Miss Conway. Sorry, I was just reading your clippings again.”
”That’s why I have them out, dear.” She put the tray on the table. “I’m sorry I’m running late. Maria has a piano audition soon and needed a few more minutes. Since you’re my last student today, I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“That’s fine. I always enjoy reading your articles and looking at all your students’ pictures. Although, I should probably get you a new one of me.” I glanced at mine, still with braids, braces and about twelve, and cringed.
She smiled as she poured some water. “You can bring me a new one anytime. We should get started.”
We ran through my warm-up exercises, with an occasional “watch your posture” or “support” from Miss Conway.
“Let’s begin with the aria from Madama Butterfly today.”
I nodded as I began to feel the panic inside, as I always tripped over the Italian words, making it impossible to catch those high c’s. I started, fumbling again, “I’m sorry, I just can’t get it. I hate singing in another language, I have no idea what I’m saying.”
“Did you research the piece like I asked?”
I flushed. “No, I forgot.”
She shook her head, as she handed me a piece of paper. “I thought you might. Read this aloud.”
I took a sip of water and cleared my throat. “Cio-Cio-San ("Butterfly") has been waiting three years for her American sailor husband to return to her. She chastizes her maid, Suzuki, for her prayers on her behalf; Butterfly rejects the Japanese gods to whom she prays: the god of the Americans is more powerful, but she fears he may not know about them.” * I sat down, “So, this is a love story?”
Miss Conway’s eyes welled up, “Yes it is. We’re going to try something different. Have you heard the quote, “Bach gave us God’s Word. Mozart gave us God’s Laughter. Beethoven gave us God’s Fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words.”
I shook my head as she motioned for me to stand next to her.
”We’re going to sing it without words, just focus on the melody. Use a warm-up syllable, such as “ah”. Close your eyes.”
We sang together, our voices in unison. When we finished and I opened my eyes, she had tears sliding down her cheek. To my surprise, so did I.
* New York City Opera Project, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, April 07, 2003, August 25, 2006,
< http://www.columbia.edu/itc/music/NYCO/butterfly/unbeldi.html >.
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