Night at the opera with Large Smelly Boy

A night at the opera at Keller Auditorium/LaValle Linn

By Laura Grimes

“It’s three hours long!” the Small Large Smelly Boy repeated what he had overheard in a low, urgent voice.

It was minutes before curtain at Portland Opera’s Pagliacci/Carmina Burana on Thursday night. I immediately shuffled the pages in the program to confirm it. He was dead right.

This was no small matter, and I could sense the growing unease we both felt. I already knew he was calculating the clock in his head, not only fretting about a long performance where he wasn’t sure what to expect but also what time he would get to bed on a school night.

He gets sleepy mid-evening, puts himself to bed and gets up on his own bright and early in the morning. He doesn’t like after-school activities because they get in the way of his homework. He long ago gave up on me getting him to school because he knows I cut it close. Instead, he shows up 45 minutes before the tardy bell and hangs with his friends. He is never late and is always orderly.

I, on the other hand, fight sleep like a toddler, except every morning. I’m not sure how he came to be my child (and I’m sure he often wonders the same thing), but because of him I totally believe that story about the Virgin Mary.

At that moment before the opera, I knew just what he was thinking. This was not his routine, we were being naughty, and it was all my fault. I privately worried whether he would stay awake. “You can deal with it,” I reassured him. “It’ll be worth it.”

Less than a month away from becoming a teenager, this was his first opera. (Read about his first ballet, with his dad, almost exactly a year ago here, a post that received a lot of feedback for a long time.)

To make him feel better about being there, I told him that Pagliacci was my first opera.

“It was? How old were you?”

“About your age, maybe a little older but not much. It was on a field trip from school.”

“You went to an opera? Why don’t they teach that now? They don’t even teach Shakespeare.”

Ah! He betrayed a slight hint that he didn’t mind being there. This was a step up from his being a crabpot only a few hours earlier when he complained he didn’t want to go and was a pill about taking out the garbage and recycling.

Knowing this puts a sharper spotlight on his sophisticated tastes and all the complexities that go with them. We have diligently nurtured his interest in Shakespeare, but we still bicker about a simple chore. He likes the idea of going to the opera, but when he’s tired and crabby that’s just not going to fly.

We quieted as Christopher Mattaliano, general director of Portland Opera, took the stage and addressed the audience. He said that for his 16th birthday he was taken to see his first opera, Pagliacci at the Met. He said that he was a great fan of rock ‘n’ roll, he was a big jazz buff, but seeing his first opera opened a whole new world for him — and changed his life.

I figured Mattaliano must have told that story hundreds of times, and probably mentioned it before the previous two performances of the production. And yet, a noticeable emotion welled up in his throat.

He paused a little and then he talked to the people in the audience who were about to experience their first opera. “I hope it changes your life.”

I know something about that. The Pagliacci I saw when I was about my son’s age was not a turning point in my life, but it was an important building block.

If I look back on my entire experience of fine art when I was growing up, I could sum up just about all of it in field trips.

I had grown up in nondescript neighborhoods at the outer edge of the suburbs, and I had spent all my time after school catching snakes, fetching frog eggs and playing every possible sport. I had spent weekends and summers camping and fishing. I could build blazing fires and point out beaver bites on trees. I joined my family every fall to cut firewood.

But ballet? I had seen one performance of The Nutcracker. Theater? I remember a field trip to see an excerpted kid-version of The Glass Menagerie. Symphony? Maybe. Paintings? Don’t recall. Sculpture? Forget it.

Pagliacci ranks up there among the few art experiences I had growing up that I can count on one hand.

When it came to developing an appreciation for the arts, field trips made all the difference in my life. That and my taste in boys.

When I was in high school, my boyfriend’s parents had season tickets to the opera and the ballet, which was pretty much unheard of in our far-off burb. Not only was it high-falutin’ culture, which was foreign to the rest of us, it also meant going to the Big City. And going to the Big City required a long trip on the freeway, which in our family was braved only to go out of town, to touristy sites, to sports events and to the airport.

His parents cranked up arias on the stereo and grew prize-winning roses. They were unlike any I had ever met. My boyfriend used his parents’ tickets to take me to The Nutcracker, and he talked excitedly about sword-fighting mice to persuade me to go.

After a few years of college, I pleaded with my parents, scraped together a student loan and flew to Europe for a year. Within days I heard a Bach cantata in a 12th century Romanesque church. I had to be there to fulfill a school assignment and I was worried about finding my way at night in a strange city, so I was completely unprepared for the rapturous, harmonic choral sounds that floated from the cloisters and resonated off the stone walls. They were part of the very Earth. They wrapped around the giant pillars and soared stories up to the arches before settling back on top of me in a magical haze. When the last notes lifted up, I did, too. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t move for a long time.

And then I couldn’t sit still. It felt like all the moments in my life had led up to this one. And this moment, this all-encompassing sound that filled every pore, gave meaning to everything that had come before it.

It didn’t just open up a whole new world. It was other-worldly. It now gives meaning to everything that has come after it.

I wondered: How did I possibly live for 20 years and not experience something like that before? How did I not know that existed, something that was so integral to the blood in our veins and the very air we breathe?

I vowed that my own children would never have that feeling of not knowing.

After that, I spent the rest of the year in Europe going to every performance and museum I possibly could. I toured every great building. I sucked up culture like a sponge. When it was time to go home, I felt like I was ready for the rest of my life. Every time I see a thick goo of green algae I still instinctively look for frog eggs, but now I know all the words to go with it.

At the opera Thursday night, Mattaliano continued to talk. He thanked the opera’s sponsors and I clapped soundly. When my son asked why, I told him it was important to thank the people who gave money to make the performance possible. I told him that without their generous donations, we wouldn’t have an opera.

The performance started and Mark Rucker, who plays Tonio in Pagliacci, began to sing. “I am the prologue.” Later I found out it was one of the Small LSB’s favorite scenes, and coincidentally I had written down a few snatches of the libretto:

… for men he must write, drawing inspiration from the truth.

… he wrote with real tears, and his sobs became the music’s tempo.

His other favorite parts? As I expected, O Fortuna, performed at the beginning and the end of Carmina Burana. I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist the big, propulsive sound. There’s no escaping it.

Also by sheer coincidence, I wrote down the final words in that part, and I had no idea how well they echoed the lines in the prologue in Pagliacci until just now.

Since I’m crushed by fate, weep with me, all of you.

The Small LSB’s take on the show afterward was that he preferred Pagliacci to Carmina Burana because it had a story he could follow, and he was proud to report that he understood what was happening in Pagliacci without any problem.

He has a penchant for ballet so I thought he would enjoy the dancing by BodyVox in Carmina Burana, but he politely said he preferred more classical choreography. Already discerning his likes and dislikes, his aesthetic is way beyond what mine was at that age, even though he has to ask what “aesthetic” means.

He did have one nagging question he jokingly asked repeatedly: “What’s with the ‘G’ in Pagliacci?”

After the show, we pulled into the driveway at 11:11 p.m. and excitedly pointed that out to each other. Within 5 minutes, the Small LSB was in bed. But he said one thing on the way home.

“Good thing I already know what’s going to be on the history test tomorrow.”

I like to think that now he has a good start on knowing both history and tomorrow, one opera at a time.


Caption: Many thanks to LaValle Linn for the très cool photo. She happened to be at the opera the same night we were, and, fortunately, she always carries her camera. See her visually stunning blog Portland Through My Lens, where she uploads her pictures every day. See if you can pick out the Chihuahua Mafia.