Five Years at the Opera with the Large Smelly Boy

Mixed-media collage by Laura Grimes
Mixed-media collage by Laura Grimes



It’s been only five years since I took the Small Large Smelly Boy to his first opera? It’s already been a whole five years?

During that time I’ve thought frequently about the post I wrote after I took him to Portland Opera’s double bill of Pagliacci and Carmina Burana in fall 2010, when he was 12 years old. At least a few times every year I think about writing an update: What’s he doing now? Did it take? What’s happened since then? How old is he now? Did that first opera change his life like all the ta-DUM-ing in the post?

That whole event back then seemed like just life. A night out on the town with my lad after he took out the trash. A quick documentation of a special occasion. But I had no idea how much it would resonate and grow long-long legs and, well, if not change the course of history, then at least skew its trajectory just a bit.

The lad is now 17 on the brink of 18. He’s in his senior year of high school and is looking at college and beyond. Beyond school. Beyond Portland, Oregon. Beyond the United States. Beyond childhood and the cocoon of growing up in a home with constant family. Beyond … me.

Which I love and hate. And hate and love.

But what happened after that? Did that night at the opera change his life?

Well, yes and no. As I type this he’s listening to Verdi’s Falstaff while he’s studying for a calculus test. But that night, of course, wasn’t a clear demarcation, the be-all end-all, a lightning bolt from the sky. It was a night among many in the marching space-time continuum of growing up, squeezed somewhere between playing with Legos and brushing teeth, significant only because it was a first live opera experience and I took note of it.

Looking back further into the past, Opera Boy, as I’ve come to call him (oops, getting ahead of myself), always had a penchant for beautiful, challenging music. When he was pretty dang young, elementary-school young, I would occasionally pop some rock-n-roll on the car radio just to shake things up and get a party going, and he would immediately complain loudly and ask me to change it. No, really, just listen, you’ll love it. But he wouldn’t even take a no-thank-you bite. I thought it was just a phase, an I-have-better-taste-than-this hoity-toity phase, an insistent inauthentic stretch to grow older faster, but it never went away. To my everlasting astonishment, it stuck. Somewhere along the way there was a natural imperceptible turn of his personality that I never saw coming.

This kid was super-glued to me since the moment he was born. He fit silently and unthinkingly into the crook of my arm and it was never a question. Our rhythms matched. Our breathing matched. Our talking and not talking. Our movements. Our pace. What we did when and how. He tagged along effortlessly with every motion and I naturally carried him along like an appendage I’d always had. We shared the same plate of pancakes in silence. When he was tired, he climbed in my lap and played with my hair, and I put him to bed without a fuss. That’s how the communication thing worked between us. (It’s not at all how it worked with his brother so don’t get any idyllic delusions.) So I thought I knew this kid. I thought I knew his thoughts and his likes and dislikes. Not that I expected him to be just like me, I just … got him. I understood both his sly sense of humor and his shy holding back. So when did all that become something else? When did my mom radar fail me?

One morning a few weeks ago, I was driving him to school and, like he always does, he punched on the classical radio station as soon as the car started up. Pleasant tinkly-tinkly sounds filled the car – I seem to recall a nice little Schubert piano sonata. He groaned. “Oooh! I don’t want to listen to early Romantic music on my way to school!” But he left it on because his only other choice was to turn it off, and he couldn’t bear to do that, so the radio tinkly-tinklied all the way to school.

As soon as he jumped out of the car and shut the door I punched the radio to an old-timey rock-n-roll station. Not that I minded the perfectly pleasant tinkly-tinkly music, but I just needed a moment to roll my eyes and be rebel mom. I even hated the thumping heavy-on-the-bass song, but I didn’t care, I left it on. Go ahead, cue the sitcom. Rowdy Mom with the Felix/Frasier/Monk kid. But I’m trade-marking it, copy-righting it, putting my legal stamp on it right now. I live it, so when the royalties roll in, I’ll be here to collect ’em. And, hey, didn’t Cher “only hors d’oeuvres will do” already pull that off in Mermaids? Did I just compare myself to Cher?

When I was pregnant with this lad and left work to go on parental leave, I came back a few months later to the same job but to a different desk on a different floor with a spanking new computer … and the internet. For me, it’s as if this child was born with the internet because that’s how it happened. I waddled away from my job nine months pregnant, leaving behind a dinosaur computer that had no outside connection and could only do interoffice email, and came back with a new baby and the world at my fingertips.

That’s his lens, his big infinity universe of a lens. That’s all he’s ever known. When he spouts some classical music minutiae I (first close my gaping mouth and then) ask, “How do you know all that?” He just looks at me, actually he stares at me with one of those confused everyone-knows-that looks and says, “What do you mean?” What a silly question, Mom. Information is easy to come by. I don’t think he can even tell me where he gets it, because so many sources are so readily available, they all just smoosh together.

And though music is digitally easy to come by, too, just a quick download, Opera Boy prefers CDs, because just behind the music, the second most important thing is the liner notes, and those don’t always come with the download button. (Vinyl? Yeah, we know. Ironically in so many ways, we’re old-school.)

During the past five years, as Opera Boy’s CD collection has grown, words have spun through my brain for a possible update but then they have sped by like a bullet train. Whatever was in my brain, all that was so yesterday, so last week, so moldy old anecdotes. Kids these days. They zigzag like pro evaders – just when you think you’ve dialed in where they stand they change the frequency.

But this isn’t a boy and his skateboard. No saggy pants for this kid. One week it’s all about stormy Grieg. The next the stormier Mussorgsky. Oh, look how Wagner uses leitmotif (yeah, I had to look it up in order to keep up, but I’m down with the homework now). Then it’s Shostakovich and that tonality. “Oh, I wish The Met would perform more Russian composers.” “Why can’t (the radio station) play Puccini overtures in the morning?” Don’t think for a 16th note that I haven’t heard it.

How to wrangle a speeding train and pin it to a post? Well, I had this snazzy idea to go through my backup Facebook feed and snag some of the snippets. It’s a chronological journal, of sorts. For friends who have been playing along at home all this time, this is nothing new, but it’s kind of gob-smacking to me to see how it’s all evolved, even if it just skims the surface in shorthand. So raise that baton. I present … Opera Boy through the past five years, which has been edited for taste and clarity:

July 24, 2011:
Nice to hear that after a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Small LSB’s shower whistling has gone from Nessun Dorma to Gilbert & Sullivan.

May 3, 2012:
The Small LSB has been reading Candide to prepare for the opera next week. So far he has shared with me the lineage of an STD and that a character is named after a certain part of the female anatomy.

May 19, 2012:
Götterdämmerungit! Sunny and high 70s, but oh no, that’s not gonna stop me and my hiney from sitting in a dark theater for 6 hours today. We could have bought tickets to The Avengers, The Hunger Games, The Dictator, Dark Shadows, Battleship, or – my personal favorite – Chimpanzee. But no, let the norns begin!

September 21, 2012:
I discovered this morning that the drive to school takes 7 minutes 39 seconds, or the exact length of the overture to The Barber of Seville. As the Small LSB put it: “This is that overture you hear on Doritos commercials.”

October 26, 2012:
Seven-minute morning drives to school with the Small LSB:

Wednesday: Half the trip was spent listening to (adolescent scatological) songs until I put on the classical station and then he named the obscure Russian composer I have never heard of and complained it was the version with the Ukrainian symphony where the tempo is too slow.

Thursday: He was politely silent because the Adorable Girl From Next Door was in the car.

Friday: (Adolescent scatological) songs sung to various tunes from Porgy and Bess and then a conversation about African-American vernacular used in the lyrics and how much was written by Ira Gershwin and how much by DuBose Heyward.

February 1, 2013:
Heading to the opera tonight with teen boys in tow. Me to the household aficionado: “Help learn me about Tosca?” Him: “No.” Me, taken aback: “Why?” Him: “It’s not Puccini’s best opera.” Me, trying to appeal to his teen boyness: “But she throws herself off the roof and everything.” Him: “No, do it yourself. I mean, c’mon, it’s not that complicated. Everyone dies.”

Update: I Charlie and the Chocolate Factoried with him, meaning (without being invited) I propped myself on the opposite side of his bed with pillows plural, a fuzzy blanket and my iPad so I could bone up on Tosca. I knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself. He played all the significant arias for me, explained the Wagner/leitmotifs, how the themes aren’t terrifically developed, and how Puccini had wanted to cut Vissi d’arte, one of the famous arias. He then recounted Puccini’s entire career. When we got up to 1910, I had to take a bathroom break. He sighed. “But my lecture’s almost over. Oh, alright, you can have a hall pass.”

March 2, 2013:
The Small LSB listens to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday morning. Today it’s Wagner’s Parsifal. Running time: 5:40. Did I mention Wagner?

April 13, 2013:
The Met Opera broadcast started at 8 this morning. Wagner. 6 h-o-u-r-s. I expect the Small LSB to send up flares. Maybe I should parachute in a care package. Maybe fresh underwear.

June 19, 2013:
Took the Small LSB to a movie. Did we see Man of Steel? Star Trek? NooOoo. We saw the Metropolitan Opera’s Carmen. We both pointed to a little girl, surprised to see someone there younger than he. Me: “I hope it’s not too racy for her.” SLSB: “It’ll be fine. It’s all in French.”

August 25, 2013:
More signs I live in a Frasier sitcom: Me: “Put on something raucous for while we clean.” Small LSB: “So you’re asking for Shostakovich? How about Bernstein? It’s his birthday. His Harvard lectures are pretty raucous.”

June 23, 2014:
Snap! It’s a buttastic day when you send your kid a link to a LA Times story about the controversy surrounding the Metropolitan Opera canceling its fall broadcast of Klinghoffer, and he replies, “The NY Times had something about this a few days ago.”

December 13, 2014:
Saturday morning and the Small LSB got me up and out the door earlier than a school morning with enough snacks for a marathon. Football game? Mountain climbing? No. Six hours of Wagner. Pacing myself and rationing my peanuts.

June 24, 2015:
Don’t come here. I mean it. Day 3 of wisdom tooth recovery for two LSBs camped on the first floor, all the shades are drawn, movie marathon has worn thin, and just when I think the high-powered meds should have that face pain licked, one of the LSBs (you know which one) broke out Wagner. The current first husband (you know which one) with a bazillion deadlines has fled to the shed, and after trying to blow the motor on every pulverizing machine we got (just like baby food!), I have a sudden and protracted interest in deep-cleaning the kitchen. Brünnhilde’s got nuthun on me.


“We need music!” I implored the manteen on one of those leisurely productive weekend afternoons recently, and he brought in a CD (remember those?) and put it on. It was perfect, familiar and alluring. I knew it but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

He went upstairs and I leaned over and whispered urgently to my current first husband, “What is this?” He tipped the newspaper aside, cocked his head and listened, then gave a little resigned shrug as he got up to check. “We’re such frauds!” he snickered under his breath. I stifled my own snicker because I could hear the manteen had slowed and stopped on the stairs, I’m guessing to try to overhear us. “It’s Scheherazade,” my current first husband quietly reported on his way back to his chair and a few seconds later we casually acted like we were focusedly busy when the manteen came back into the room.

Even though in certain territory Opera Boy often has the upper hand these days, I’ve conveniently begun enacting the I Don’t Know strategy.

“When does school start?”

“I don’t know.”

“That class fee is due.”

“That’s what your checkbook is for.”

“How much is it?”

“I don’t know.”

Speaking of school fees, our big East Coast college tour is coming up, which is thrilling, nerve-wracking, daunting. I can’t tell if it’s like waiting for one of those big glitzy Vegas boxing matches or whether I’ve already been pulverized and left bloated and bloody in a dark, back alley. Opera Boy is alternately talkative about the itinerary in small doses and a big fat evasive piece of dried nasal mucus in bigger doses. Which handful of schools out of dozens? What route? Where should I book hotels?

We have exactly one week to zero in on his whole future. Sure, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much. One week. With cross-country plane tickets booked and me trying to finalize plans, Opera Boy started to snail on me, hunkered in and refused to offer input, freaked that this was all getting to be too much. After a whole lot of coaxing and weeks of research, he finally settled on four schools, but we still had room in our schedule for one more. I wanted to swing by Amherst (excellent academics, big endowment, good scholarship potential, free reciprocation with four other good schools in the area, 98 percent retention rate for sophomore year and more than a 90 percent graduation rate within four years – hello, I’m right about this), but the idea just made him glower. “I don’t want to go to any preppy school in the boondocks with a bunch of elite snobs,” he spit over dinner recently. I tried a mixture of soothing and cajoling. “It’s much more diverse than it used to be. You can always say no. Just have a look.” Nope. He stayed quiet and pretended to ignore me. So rather than go another round I dialed down, relented, reached for my backup plan, my last card that I hoped was a worthy trump.

“You know,” I said casually, looking at my salad while I scooped a fork into it. “We’ll be near New York City that Monday night and The Met is doing Tannhäuser.” I paused a little to let that sink in, judged the time, and then looked in his direction. “Would you like to go?”

His shoulders visibly relaxed. He sat up (or rather unslumped), and his eyes lit up as he looked at me, properly looked at me for the first time in a long time. “Could we really? It’s got a great cast! James Levine is conducting and Johan Botha is the tenor.”

Sold. Feeling like I was raking in chips, the next day I bought two tickets, not the cheap-cheap upper tier so we could see, but not the crazy expensive orchestra level, either. And I used my internet consumer tricks to book a night at the Empire Hotel just across the way from Lincoln Center.


As I packed the mini binoculars into my satchel for the trip I thought back to my original essay. The tweenchild-at-the-time was glad he was prepared for his history test the day after Pagliacci and Carmina Burana, and as I put it: “I like to think that now he has a good start on knowing both history and tomorrow, one opera at a time.”

Now, five years later, the teenman stands at a major juncture – too big for his past but nervous about his future (Amherst be damned, I’m possibly sorry to say). In that time, opera – and music in general – has become more important than all that, though – not just defined by time anymore, not just a linear chronology pointing this way and that, showing where he’s been and where he’s going, and certainly not confined and limited to a certain set measure. It’s now not just a tipoff point or a learning curve, a matter of collecting facts and letting the brains do all the talking. It’s become something else, something more undefinable and unspecific. It’s become that deeper emotional massage. It’s become the warm bath, the balm that soothes and the oil that smoothly opens rusty doors to bigger passageways. It’s become that irresistible arts tug, that thing that we just naturally incorporate, whether we can help it or not, so that we can relax and sort our thoughts to be able to confidently move forward. It won’t be just a night on the town this time, but in both a simple clichéd way and something more profound, it’s become a matter of necessity – a respite from the scary and the slugfesting, a necessary hug, if you will, for us and between us (even if I have no blippin’ idea what Tannhäuser is about).

Don’t I know there’s no data point in the world where that can register on a college admissions application for Opera Boy.

The manteen hates being called Opera Boy. Of course he does. He hates any tag I put on him. It attempts to define him, tries to capture something fleeting that continually grows and changes and evolves, pigeon-holes him, smallifies his personality into a tidy little moniker. He’ll have none of it, and who can blame him? Holy Mother of God, he’s a TEENAGER who wants to DISAPPEAR into the netherscape and I’m shining a SPOTLIGHT on him, fingering him, naming him, invading his territory and claiming something I shouldn’t be allowed to know anything about. And perhaps, just maybe, I’m mercilessly taking a not so little something away in the process. Maybe to keep. Opera Boy? The very idea? I don’t know.

Just a few mornings ago he climbed into the car for our regular drive to school (don’t tell him, but I wouldn’t give up these seven-minute drives for the world), and, annoyed with the classical station, he punched on the jazz station. A cool, languid, seductive beat thrummed out.

“If this were a convertible, this would be a film scene right now,” Jazz Boy said, running his fingers through his hair.

“With the music?” I asked.


“I can see it.”

I turned the corner at the end of our street and accelerated up the hill.