The example of Elaine Held’s mother shows us that it is never too late to reach for our dream. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Elaine Held
My mother was born in 1918 on a farm, near the smallest town in a nowhere place in South Dakota. How her passion for opera, of all things, started or grew she can’t remember.
My growing up childhood experience was so uniquely different from my friends that I was separated from them. On Saturdays, when most children were playing with friends, I was suffering through opera on the radio.
I don’t mean the type I could go out in the backyard and get away from. I mean the kind that would cause the neighbors a block away to roll their eyes. Mother would have neighbors calling Saturday mornings to find out which opera would be playing that day so they could be prepared.
My dad hated the opera and mother hated fishing, so Saturdays they went their separate ways. I think this is where my love of fishing began. Once a year, mother would go with friends to Minneapolis to a live opera performance. She would look forward to it all year and plan every detail of the day.
Mother had a beautiful rich, full, deep operatic voice. She had the kind of voice that caused people to turn and look for the person singing the national anthem at a sporting event. Saturdays she would sing along with the opera in a different language, not missing a note. She knew every opera.
My father was sixteen years older than mom and passed away when she was comparatively young. She moved to California and we lived together until I married my Bill. One day I came home from school to find mother running around the condo like a mad woman. She was yelling something I couldn’t understand.
I was concerned that California had finally been too much for her and she had gone over the edge. When she calmed down enough to make sense she yelled, “I am going to audition for an opera at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.”
Now there were two women running around the condo screaming. This was not your backwater Downey audition. This was the big time. I mean international big time. She knew she was not going to make it, but just the experience was enough. Mom had a friend who had a friend kind of thing who had arranged the audition.
Ten days later my 65-year-old mom was a wreck. She was so nervous she knew she wouldn’t be able to get a note out of her closed throat. I finally got her calmed down and off she went.
When she returned she was beaming. Again she knew she wouldn’t make it, but the process and venue offered an experience of a lifetime. I had been to the Orange County Performing Arts Center with my sixth graders so I knew what it looked like. Of course, 500 loud twelve-year olds did not give the same experience an opening night at the opera offered, but I knew the physical layout. For days I was regaled with the details of my mother’s audition.
Ten days later at school the phone in my classroom rang and they told me my mom was on the phone and I needed to come answer it now. I ran to the office and picked up the phone.
I heard my mother again screaming over and over, “I made it! I made it!” I was now doing a happy dance trying not to be too loud. The principal came out wondering what was going on. When I explained, she joined me. I could not wait to get home.
Rehearsals for just the chorus started. Mom would tell me every detail. Being coached by a professional on how to stand, how to have stage presence etc., was part of the rehearsal. She met new people who became friends and she finally knew what it was like to be a part of a live opera.
Now rehearsals started with the entire company. I was shocked the first night when she came home extremely upset. “Mother, did you get fired?” She looked at me like I was crazy.
“No, but I don’t think I can do this.”
“Elaine, I have to undress in front of everyone when we change costumes!” I fell on the floor laughing.
“Mother, you are in the big time now. This is part of it. These people have been doing that all of their performing lives. Was anybody looking at you?”
“Well, no, but...” She became professional about it and after a week was ripping off her clothes as if she were a stripper.
Opening night for an opera on this level staring my mother! That might be a slight exaggeration but that is the way I felt. I tried to prepare Bill, but he wasn’t aware of what was about to happen. When I got to the part where he had to wear a suit and tie, I lost him.
Finally, the big night was here. We parked with the crowd in my cheapy eight-year-old Toyota among the shining jaguars, Cadillacs and Mercedes. At least I had washed the car. It was when the car doors opened and the wealthy appointed opera lovers emerged that it began to sink in for Bill.
He whipped around with a look of panic. “You didn’t tell me they would be wearing tuxes!”
We walked across a bridge to the main entrance. This experience is one that you have to have once in your lifetime. The excitement and anticipation could not just be felt outwardly, but soaked into your very being.
We walked into another world. The exquisite clothing being worn by opera-loving wealthy people dripping in jewels was unworldly to us. The Orange County building is not particularly stunning until it comes alive on a night like this. The hum of opera discussion was joined with wine.
When the doors opened we found our seats and I explained the inside to Bill. The walls and ceiling are covered with a material that is the best in the world for sound. Even the configuration of the balcony is unique. It is true you can hear a pin drop on stage without the aid of a microphone. The lights dimmed and the hum quieted. The orchestra played the opening music and the curtains opened.
All else faded away and I sat alone among this extraordinary audience with tears streaming down my cheeks as I became an audience of one, immersed in the performance of my mother in an opera at a prestigious venue. An incredible joy flowed from her face as she lived her life-long dream.