Excerpts from a Life, with Marilyn Horne Wailing in the Background

I. Encounter

The kid is asleep in his bedroom. I am fourteen years old, babysitting in a strange house, free to change TV channels without distraction or judgment. In the early 1980s, channel surfing means kneeling in front of the TV and turning the knob through its twelve positions. I come across PBS, a channel that is never watched in my middlebrow household. On a stage, people are wearing fussy costumes and singing in a strange language, and somewhere out of sight an orchestra is playing. From what Bugs Bunny and The Muppet Show have taught me, I am fairly certain that this is an opera.

For a while, I kneel as in front of an altar, my hand still on the knob. Eventually, I let go of the knob and sit back on my legs. The main character, on whom I concentrate, has a voice that is clear, unaffected, and astonishingly large. She soars into its upper reaches, taking all of the bigness of her voice with it. Instead of sounding strained, it gains in brightness and power. It is akin to watching an elephant pirouette or seeing a tractor-trailer vault over a small building: exhilarating, exhausting, not to be believed.

Part of what makes this PBS program difficult to process is that the only category I know for such a scene is parody, and what I am watching is not a parody. In the suburban Midwest and Catholic school contexts in which I have been raised, bourgeois reserve and emotional constipation are held as virtues. As a serious proposition, listening to shrill, Valkyrie-helmeted porkers falls light years outside of the ambit of my pragmatic family. Opera is too alien to be despised, not because of its Utter Ridiculousness, but—the more morally significant category—because of its Absolute Uselessness. Thus, nothing has prepared me, as I watch, jaw agape, this ebullient diva sailing across the stage, belting out glimmering high notes, indulging comic shtick, and clearly having a splendid, guilt-free time of it all. I do not know what this is, I think to myself, but now that I have found it, I cannot live without it.

I watch to the end of the program and memorize the name of the singer as the credits roll by: Marilyn Horne. The opera is a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. But at the time such foreign words are too complicated for me to remember, and anyway I don’t care about the work or the composer. I only care about the singer. The next day I go to a record store and buy the only tape I can find with her name on it. It is a recording of a live concert given at the Met, duets sung by Marilyn Horne and Leontyne Price—another new name for me to memorize.

The tape is as astonishing as the television broadcast. I listen to it obsessively, with secrecy and a vague sense of shame. The shame is so low wattage that it only registers as avoidance. My parents have encouraged my musical gifts, even buying me a piano after I had begged for one. I can, and do, inflict on my family hours of pounding at the keyboard. (In the midst of such sweaty emoting, my suave brother chides me: “Take it easy, Liberace.”) Playing scales and slogging though Chopin’s filigrees carry with them an air of hard work, whereas listening to opera seems indulgent, and so I never put on an opera tape in the living room. My mother’s friend feeds my passion for classical music by loaning me albums from her extensive collection of LPs, but she only has piano and orchestral works, no opera.

To satisfy that lust, I have to buy more and more tapes, played in the privacy of my Walkman. I do not find complete recordings of an entire opera on tape—indeed, I do not realize that such miraculous things exist. As a result, I learn about opera in a fragmented way, through recital compilations, excerpts and highlights. Fragments relieve me of the burden of having everything explained; they consent to mystery. Excerpts teach me to be patient with the partial, the incomplete, so that when I am mature enough to approach artistic wholes, those monuments that encompass the entire world—Bach’s B Minor Mass, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wagner’s Ring—I am gobsmacked.

Unlike the scholarly thoroughness that will come to characterize classical CD booklets, the liner notes in cassette tapes rarely have the translations of the arias or even a summary of the story line. And so I learn how to hear the meaning of opera—its emotional impact—with no help, no mentor, no sense of the narrative. All I hear is sound, which registers in my gut. And my gut knows what it wants. It has always wanted this sound.

From the meager program notes, I quickly learn more of the trivia on which the budding opera addict survives: names of singers, characters, operas, composers, dates. My collection increases as my tastes widen. But I keep returning to this ur-tape of Marilyn Horne and Leontyne Price. Listening to the tape, my ear absorbs thousands of particulars: every tic and wobble, every inflection, every jagged cut-off. My future ear, trained in an undergraduate music program, will interpret them differently. What I initially hear as neutral details, I will later recognize as tiny errors in execution: the cost and the thrill of live performance. I will grasp that on this recording the orchestra is under-rehearsed, but that it makes up in panache and energy what it sometimes lacks in precision. I will also learn, with increasing frustration, that the voice is never exactly in tune with whatever accompanies it: there are only shades of good and bad intonation. But such falls from grace will come later. In the Eden of music, I hear only perfection, passion. Most of all, I learn that the glory of opera is the human voice, billowing out like a waterfall and curving on banks of sumptuous, unforgettable melody. My head rings with the sounds, day and night.

In bed with my Walkman, I listen to the tape at night, imagining what it would be like to stand on the stage of the Met and ride a high B flat at the end of “Pace, pace mio Dio,” while the orchestra races to the final cadence. I open my mouth as wide as I can. With my Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, I silently mimic Leontyne Price’s sturdy vibrato, Marilyn Horne’s fearless roulades. I am a fourteen-year-old with the covers over his head, writhing in what I imagine to be the posture of a soprano hitting a high note, when most boys my age would have been content to masturbate. I am sometimes struck by the ludicrousness of my play-acting, but it does not change my behavior or my obsession.

Opera sinks its roots so deeply into my body that when I join the high school chorus in sophomore year, it is the director’s undisguised pleasure to find that I have a surprisingly well-developed baritone: dark, projected, breath support to spare, and a trademark wide vibrato. (My college roommate’s later taunt: “You could drive a truck through it.”) I easily snag solos in the chorus and major parts in the musicals which my high school drama department puts on. Friends, relatives, teachers are astonished that my skinny frame can pump out so much volume. In spite of such public successes in high school—both “public” and “successes” imagined to be greater than they were—I privately compare my performances to the tape: the electrifying concert of March 28, 1982 at the Metropolitan Opera, when Marilyn Horne and Leontyne Price made opera sound like a carnal joy and a sacred calling.

On this tape, there is no selection that I prefer more than another. The entire text is scriptural truth. But there is a dramatic impact to the duet from Verdi’s Aïda that haunts me even more than the virtuosic scales of Horne’s “Vivi, tiranno!” or the lyric opulence of Price’s “Dove sono.” The duet from Aïda does not consist of continuously lovely melody. Rather, it takes dramatic turns, recitative alternating with song-like moments which are interrupted by a character’s exclamations as the narrative twists on its turn-about plot. It is fascinating music, and because I am so content to hear the sounds of opera, the idea does not suggest itself that I might understand the duet better if I knew what all the arguing, shouting, and exclaiming were about.

Some years in the future, in college, exactly this issue of content will occur to me. So I will go to the library and get my hands on the libretto. And for the first time since hearing the duet, I will figure out the story, lining up the dramatic turns of the scene with the music floating in my head. I will not need to consult the orchestral score: just reading the Italian words in the booklet will be enough to summon up the orchestration and pacing.

What will most interest me, as I connect Italian words to their English meanings, is that the content of the story will not surprise me. I will have already absorbed in my bones the viciousness, the longing, the deception, the fatigue, the arrogance, the begging. It will be a kind of reverse epiphany, realizing that the operatic emotions had been delivered on pillows of melody, the narrative sewn into the stuffing.


II. Excursus

That narrative is a juicy one. As with most nineteenth-century operas, it is about forbidden love, but one that is as inevitable as destiny. The duet in Act II between Aïda and Amneris explores how the dynamics of power try to subvert the natural paths of love. Princess Amneris (sung by Marilyn Horne) is determined to find out if her slave Aïda (sung by Leontyne Price) loves the country’s warrior-hero Radamès, and all manner of overwrought cattiness ensues. Amneris lies that Radamès is dead. Aïda despairs and then explodes with relief when she learns the truth. Amneris vows retribution; Aïda begs for mercy. Even if you know nothing of opera, the turns, revelations, and emotions of this scenario call out for some kind of accompaniment: slow, lyric melodies in a modest range for Aïda’s supplication, orchestral explosions for her relief, marching horns and high notes for Amneris’ arrogance, quickened pace and leaping melodies for their agitation. If you didn’t know that Verdi was such a great composer, you would think that the duet had written itself.

In the course of their long and fruitful careers, Marilyn Horne and Leontyne Price did not often appear together, but they had sung this duet in staged versions of Aïda, one of Price’s signature roles. And on my recording, they chew the scenery: Horne’s “Io t’ingannava” (“I deceived you”) is nasal and sleazy; Price’s “Vive!” (“He lives!”) is practically hysterical. As the duet reaches its melodic and emotional climax, Price rides the Verdian line up to a high C like a tidal wave. Another memorable figure is a rhythmically jagged, descending scale which Horne/Amneris sings in her fury to bring down her rival: “Trema, vil schiava!” (“Tremble, vile slave!”). It probably reveals something unflattering about my subconscious to admit that this vengeful melody is never far from my mind, even in pleasant moods. The Germans have a word for this affliction: ein Ohrwurm, or “ear-worm,” is a melody that sticks in your ear, presumably for a few hours or days. They must also have a word for a melody that rattles around in your head for thirty years. But whatever the Teutonic compound is for pride-revenge-control-guilt-fear-melody-ear-worm, I don’t want to know.

There is no better interpretation of the second act duet from Aïda than the one found on the RCA album Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne: In Concert at the Met. Though there are hundreds of recordings of the duet—of which I have heard twelve, perhaps—I can issue such an edict because opera lore is different than scholarship. For while opera fans may revert to facts, statistics, and details to shore up their reasoning, ultimately an argument about opera stands on feeling alone.

I once gave a presentation on opera to a class of sixth-grade African-Americans. I chose the Horne-Price recording of this duet mostly because of its dramatic qualities, but also because it would allow me to introduce the students to Leontyne Price, the great African-American soprano. Price often tied singing the part of a slave girl to her experience as an African-American at the height of the civil rights movement. I was used to students’ bemused tolerance of, or quiet antipathy towards, opera, and so I anticipated such reactions in my pedagogical setups, which mixed my own self-deprecating humor with my manifest love for the art form. On this occasion, a chunky girl with glasses had been staring intently at me, eating up all of my descriptions. Then I played the recording for the class, reminding them of the major plot points as they passed by. At the moment in the duet when Aïda cries out that her lover is really alive—here Price launches a rocketing high note over a booming orchestra—the girl could no longer contain her body. She leapt up from her chair, at the same time apologetically covering her mouth, her expression bug-eyed and ridiculous.

I know you, girl. I know who you are.

III. Excursion/Exclusion

At the end of my senior year of college, I went on an extended European tour with a choral group. Near the end of the four-week tour, we were on a train travelling through Italy. I had brought along my Walkman and several opera tapes as I could only make sense of the visual beauty of the country through the filter of its music. Staring out the window as the train ambled through the Italian countryside, I drank in Horne and Price, singing the duet from Norma—its ecstatic parallel thirds twining and flying heavenward, the aural equivalent of what I was seeing. And I’m almost certain I was listening to my Horne-Price tape a few days later when, sick of others’ company, I walked to a Roman park near Il Vittoriano and lay down on a rock amid the trees. One level below me I could see a semi-secluded terrace, where three young men, as if in some Merchant-Ivory film, were drenched in Italian sunlight, kissing and fondling each other—a scene that was both shocking and compelling to me, as it might have been to any American raised on cheery Disney films, and whose world had just been disoriented by Truffaut or Fellini.

Though it was my second European tour, I was still conscious of my luck at having landed a full-ride scholarship that sent me to a university I could never have afforded. In high school, I had been scoping out local state schools, anticipating the encumbrances of major debt. Instead, I had been graduated from the University of Notre Dame, and was now wandering lazily around Europe for a second time, with the guilty pride that comes of sudden entitlement.

I loved the idea of Europe only the way an Ohio boy with paltry French skills can: as a land of beautiful treasures that had been cruelly, if unsuccessfully, hidden from me. That this feeling was entirely unfounded—my parents had lived on Army bases in Europe before I was born, and the house was filled with pictures and souvenirs of their years there—made no difference to how I felt. Art was now my religion, and Europe was its Vatican. Like any recent convert, I sometimes thoughtlessly bragged about my travels. Working at a summer job, I must have mentioned Europe one too many times. “Is that part of the ‘finishing process’?” my boss sneered, imagining I had been bred for social prestige.

But I had not anticipated such entitlement. I was a scholarship boy in no small part because of my driven, musical obsessions that lent purpose and direction to my talents. I had pursued the territory known as “classical music” out of pure love, not because I had wanted to impress anyone or because I longed for the wealth and status such interests connote. I both resented this impurity in my new passion and was secretly pleased that it was aligned with power, cultivation, and old money.

When I began teaching a course in music appreciation at a community college, I could no longer pretend to ignore the fact that such a love was complicit in shoring up the class structure. For my working-class students, the exclusionary politics of classical music emitted a static that was louder than any operatic bombast. Students’ written reports of their required concerts often commented less on the music they heard and more on the social atmosphere of the concert hall and their discomfort at intermission. Some of the students in my music appreciation class were bound for four-year schools and thought of themselves as traditional college students, but a significant number were vocational students resentfully fulfilling a fine arts requirement. I taught Bach and Wagner to rows of sturdy-looking men with grease on their forearms. When they signed up for the John Deere tractor technician program, they had no idea their training would include terminology like castrato, sonata-allegro form, or dramatic soprano. If anything had prepared me for such a formidable pedagogical task, it was opera—that realm where the serious mingles with the absurd.

IV. Excess

Marilyn Horne has a magnificent, technically polished voice that she deploys with a supple musical intelligence and an omnipresent sense of line. The voice is rounded and full, and even in pianissimo passages it retains its core. Her vocal range, power and flexibility are beyond dispute. She has even been denigrated for having a technique that is too good. Her high notes gleam and her low notes thunder. The evident pleasure she gets from slamming into, and then sitting on, low notes once earned her the nickname Fog Horne from one disgruntled critic.

Critics are not in agreement about what to make of her tone color. Many characterize it as beautiful or opulent. In The New Grove Dictionary of Music (1980), Alan Blyth describes the instrument as “rich and tangy in timbre.” To my ears, this praise does not quite hit the target. Perhaps to qualify such a commendation, Blyth circles back to the issue of her tone color: “In flexibility her singing makes up for what it sometimes lacks in variety of colour.” But as another critic has noted, this last sentence is expunged in the second edition of 2001, leaving her timbre an unqualified “rich and tangy.”

Some will describe Horne’s timbre as metallic or snarly. For me, the tone color of Horne’s voice is not particularly appealing. The color is not ugly (as is Maria Callas’) or hard-edged (as is Birgit Nilsson’s). But when I want to hear a creamy mezzo sound, or a cushiony, golden tone, I don’t turn to Horne. For it is Horne’s technique that astonishes, her musicality that convinces, not her tone color that seduces. Who wants to listen to a recording of Horne singing Bernstein’s “There’s a Place for Us”? Let lesser artists with conventionally pretty voices take on such hack-work.

Because Horne’s is such a big sound, the florid passages for which she was famous brought audiences to their feet. Horne, along with Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, helped spur the revival of the early nineteenth-century bel canto operas that had fallen out of favor: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti—those Italian composers Wagner so detested, with their heavily ornamented melodies and their strumming, “big-guitar” orchestras. Unused to such runs, roulades and embellishments, audiences of the 1950s and ’60s were certainly helped along in their accommodation of the rediscovered operas when they were performed by Horne, who had a flair for such vocal fireworks. On my duet tape, she rips into “Vivi, tiranno!”—a baroque warhorse—with the conviction of a pit bull. A less flattering description of Horne’s coloratura, pronounced by my college roommate (he of the truck-wide-vibrato jibe): “She sounds like a pig being tickled.”

Some critics describe Horne’s coloratura as effortless. But what I first heard as amazing breath support and stupefying technique revealed itself to have a barely detectable problem. After repeated hearings, and after my own increasing skill at tossing off roulades, I was able to hear that Horne’s florid passages are never exactly in sync with the accompaniment. Whereas a singer like Cecilia Bartoli can precisely machine-gun scales as if she were yawning through them, Horne has to work to make it to the next beat in time, to get her big voice to dance around all those little notes. The almost-ness of her coloratura derives from the too-muchness of her voice. And it’s that quality of almost-ness that lends an air of risk to Horne’s florid work.

High notes are another danger in opera. Money notes, they’re called, assuming you can hit them consistently and beautifully. There is a principle of vocal compass that goes like this: just because a mezzo can hit a high C doesn’t mean she should. This rule is waived for early- and mid-career Horne. Her high C—a troublesome note she retired long before she herself walked off the opera stage—is not a sound that she can entirely control, but rarely is it shouty or frayed.

But within the discussion that Horne’s voice has inspired, I have never read a critic who commented on how she places her vowels. All singers have to modify vowels as they ascend the scale. The larger the voice, the more such modification is necessary. But Horne’s intermittently swallowed vowels are independent of intentional modifications, a quality that I began to hear in Horne’s singing only after I had begun voice lessons. In shaping up my own sloppy technique, various voice teachers had tried to ease the constricted darkness of my timbre and to ratchet the vowels up into the front of my mouth. One day, listening to Horne on my CD player, I realized that swallowing vowels was a bad habit that I had picked up from her. But I had picked up the habit without picking up the reason for the habit. And so it merely sounded constricted in my voice.

What I had at first heard as clear and unaffected in Horne’s voice turned out to be more complicated. Her voice instead consists of a battle between light and dark sounds, a tennis match in which the vowel is tossed between a bright, forward placement that gives her sound clarity, and a darker, backward placement that lowers the tongue and gives her sound thrust. The “ah” and “aw” are the trickiest vowels to place precisely. And Horne’s are lubricated in such a way that, though they might start on the middle of her tongue, they will often slip down her throat, like vowel-oysters, only to come plunging forward on a bright “e.” To listen to Marilyn Horne sing is to be batted back and forth between her lips and her larynx.

V. Extension

As with any juvenile obsession, the fixation will run its course and possibly blossom into related interests. The primacy of my Horne-Price tape eventually ceded place to other CDs, and eventually to life, as I figured out that there were other things worth living and dying for. Opera is still a love of mine, and when I have to travel, I will often plan a trip around an opera schedule. But I rarely buy full-length recordings of opera anymore, and I view this old love of mine with indulgent nostalgia. As a professional choral singer, I have come to prefer lieder, oratorios and choral-orchestral works—compositions in which a composer meditates on a poetic text without the farcical constraints of operatic pacing and theatrical requirements. Though I majored in music as an undergraduate, I have neither the pipes nor the temperament for professional solo singing. And being in a symphony chorus gives me all the thrill of performance without the dry mouth of stage fright or the post-concert loneliness of hotel rooms that is the lot of the jet-setting professional.

One of my preferred ways to waste time when I should be writing is to surf for loopy bits of opera in pop culture: Beverly Sills singing on The Muppet Show, Joan Sutherland knitting like a dowdy housewife as she is being interviewed, Carol Burnett hamming it up on the stage of the Met. A YouTube playlist called “Perle Nere” (black pearls, or operatic disasters) is a particular favorite. The hazards of live performance are lovingly documented there: a gruesome, cracked high note; a spectacularly drunken Carmen; a distractingly off-key Rigoletto; and other wild errors in timing, intonation, or judgment. The list of YouTube clips in which Marilyn Horne appears is a long one—including her own charming cameo on Sesame Street singing “C Is for Cookie,” and an unwise moment singing “People” on the old sitcom The Odd Couple.

But my interest in opera is not limited to the musical or pop culture parts of myself. Opera—and by extension, musical performance—has colored my intellectual interests, even when I am teaching or writing on literature, my primary academic home now. Whenever I rehearse as a musician—either for solo vocal parts, choral roles, or at the piano—I always imagine an audience, even when I am entirely alone. For I am not merely interested in technical questions—how to shape the mouth for a high note, where to place the tongue, how to preserve breath for the end of a phrase. Equally interesting is the problem of communication and the matter of an audience’s reaction: there is an element of sport in watching a singer strain for a note or a line. But if a soloist plays too much to this desire, the pandering is distracting. When I attended graduate school in English literature, this interest in audience led me to specialize in rhetoric—that field of communication that includes not only the written matter on the page, but how texts imply their audiences, how delivery is not just a matter for orators and singers, but for writers as well.

Though my high school heart sang to the opera and poetry of the nineteenth-century, by graduate school I had developed a taste for prickly modernism, and I wrote my dissertation as a comparative study of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. I was trying to puzzle out the problem of allusion in both poetic and musical texts in order to understand how readers/hearers make sense of references to a text outside of a text. Almost against my will, one part of my dissertation was drawn into a tussle with Leonard Bernstein, who believed that Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex evinced coded references to Verdi’s Aïda. And so I had to pull out my Verdi score, sort through Amneris’ chords and Aïda’s motifs, and place my scholarly intervention inside Bernstein’s conversation. The last place one would have expected to find the melodramatic duet from Aïda was my theory-drenched dissertation, which explains the rhetorical effects of difficult, twentieth-century texts. And yet even there Amneris appears, that nineteenth-century frump—who is always Marilyn Horne, even when she’s not—wailing in the background.

VI. Excavation

After I had had my duet tape for some dozen years, I happened upon a table outside a record store in Ann Arbor, where a CD version of the recording was for sale. I did not think to buy it, because I had stopped listening to the tape regularly, and I did not think I would ever want more than the tape I already owned—a quick decision I regretted for years. Once I started to worry about my tape’s ability to weather the ravages of time, I dubbed an extra copy for use and retired the original. In the meantime, I tried to assemble the parts of the recording from other CDs that contained some of its tracks. I once bought a recital album of Horne’s simply for the aria “Vivi, tiranno!,” which she had sung so memorably on my ur-tape. But the track on my newly acquired CD turned out to be a different recording of the aria. Though Horne is in top form, the conducting is limp. And the orchestra evinces a slackness which leaches the performance of the thrumming bounce of the live concert of 1982. I could not bear to listen to it again. (I am not the only one who has a special fondness for this 1982 recording of Horne’s “Vivi, tiranno!” For the companion CD set to his book The American Opera Singer, Peter Davis sampled the best recorded voices of the past century, giving one track to each great singer. Of the hundreds of recorded hours of Horne’s singing, Davis picked her “Vivi, tiranno!” from the Met concert of 1982. And in David Daniels’ own recording of the aria, I hear a subtle form of homage to Horne’s interpretation, though Daniels is scrupulously original.)

Once online booksellers started selling used recordings, I occasionally searched for a digital version of the album over the internet. When I was living in Chicago, I discovered that the Harold Washington Library owned a CD copy. After a fruitless afternoon spent digging through their jumbled piles, I figured out that their copy of the CD was not part of the lending library but a non-circulating item in their archives. I called the archives to find out if I could listen to it using my computer disk drive. This was a ploy. I had been considering subterfuge, wondering about my chances of being caught if I tried to burn the CD. This possibility was ironic, since I often began discussions of plagiarism and academic honesty with students—a generation that grew up burning CDs and downloading illegal music—by baiting them about their casual copyright infringement. (As a publishing scholar who writes on music, I could have legally made a copy for private study if I had sought the permission of the archive and they had conceded. Or maybe I protest too much. In any case, I didn’t do it.)

Around this same time that I started looking online for a copy of the CD, I recalled that the concert had also been broadcast on television, a broadcast I had never seen except for the still that had been used as the album’s cover photo. Someone, somewhere, I thought, must own an old VHS tape of it. Even better, I found the reference for the DVD in a database, but various attempts to borrow it through interlibrary loan failed, and eventually I forgot about it. I thought to myself that it would have been strange and illuminating to see the visual version of something I had known so intimately in its aural version.

In the meantime, one day a used CD of the concert appeared online, and I ordered it immediately. When it arrived, I downloaded it on my iTunes and reacquainted myself with what I had always known.

VII. Ecclesia

In 2003, when I was thirty-five years old, I quit my job as a professor of literature. I sold my house, entrusted my basset hound to my brother’s family, and gave away all my belongings—save fifty-some boxes of books—to join the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order more commonly known as the Jesuits. I am what is called a “late vocation.” Though a Catholic from the cradle, I had mainly known diocesan priests and did not get to know Jesuits until later in my life. If I had known as a teenager that priests were allowed to be gruffly sarcastic, I probably would have joined the Jesuits years earlier.

In the novitiate—a two-year period of testing before taking vows—novice Jesuits are sent out on experiments to work with the poor and to do the kinds of pastoral or teaching activities that are common to Jesuit life. My novitiate class spent six weeks in Peru learning Spanish and living with Peruvian Jesuits in formation. Before leaving for Peru, we had idly speculated about who would get sick first. Not forty-eight hours off the plane, I was barfing into a toilet and crapping my pants uncontrollably.

There are Jesuits and other missionaries who visit developing countries and are starry-eyed at the beauty they find there. They find their vocation working with the poorest of the poor. But while I have come to love the poor in a concrete way, I’m not a third-world kind of guy. I do not have an iron stomach, and I tend to need things like sidewalks, bookstores, and air conditioning in my life. And while our neighborhood in Peru was roughly middle class, the stench, misery, and despair of Lima were impossible to escape.

So I was taken aback when, a few months after returning from Peru, my provincial superior told me that he wanted me to spend three years teaching in Latin America. It seemed a reasonable proposition, considering that my novitiate experiences working among Latinos had been edifying. And I had indicated an interest in working for justice with Latinos in the U.S. Another reasonable consideration in sending me to Latin America was that any work with Latinos in the States would require a better command of Spanish than I had, and the best way to learn a language is through immersion. But still . . . hadn’t my provincial heard that my brother Jesuits had voted me Least Likely to Survive in Latin America?

I had taken a vow of obedience which—contrary to popular conception—did not mean I had to execute unthinkingly all commands. Jesuit obedience takes as its context a relationship of love, trust, and meaningful conversation with a superior about the desires of our hearts. If I had balked, or remained terrified at the prospect of going to Latin America, my subsequent conversations would have taken a different turn, with my provincial reconsidering why he was sending me, or the importance of doing so, and with me reconsidering my fears and resistances. But after a week of getting used to the idea, I decided that I liked challenges even more than comfort and routine. And so I set about getting ready.

Aside from such practicalities as getting my documents in order, I was also preparing myself emotionally for three years in exile. One young Jesuit, annoyed by something arrogant I had said to him, flung my fear in my face: “You’re going to go to El Salvador, and you’re going to suffer.” I don’t begrudge him his retaliation, but it was not news to me that I was going to suffer. The question was how I was going to handle the suffering of others, especially as I react viscerally when I see others in pain, an inconvenient trait when leading a funeral congregation in song, or trying to remain dispassionate when others agonize, weep, or despair.

A Mexican friend, who knew my reasons for both dreading and desiring my time in Latin America, helped me reframe the problem in which I was stuck. “No,” he said simply, “you’re not going down there to suffer. You are going to find the face of Christ.” Psalm 42 cries out with this longing that borders on pain: “My soul is thirsting for God, / the God of my life; / when can I enter and see / the face of God?” The desire to see the face of God is not literal, of course. The God of Exodus allows Moses only to see his backside, warning: “But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives.” The contradiction between the Psalms and Exodus is part of the dialectic between wanting to know God as personal and needing to allow him his Godhead, his mystery, his above-ness. Both desires are properly a longing for God’s self, for her transcendence and her immanence. Hobbled by language, and limited by our paltry experience of intimacy, we can only put a human name to our desires: we want to see the face.

VIII. Exile

In 2007, I moved to El Salvador with three suitcases filled mostly with books. El Salvador and the Universidad Centroamericana—the UCA, where I worked—were places of particular interest to me because of the six Jesuits and two housekeepers who had been killed there in 1989 during the civil war, an event I remembered well. Jesuit formation involves some reading on the lives of Jesuit saints dating back to our founding in 1540. But the martyred Jesuits of El Salvador—as well as the four churchwomen, one archbishop, and tens of thousands of civilians—told a story whose blood has not yet dried. The gross injustices that provoked the war are still unresolved in spite of a peace treaty signed in 1992. And though there is no more open warfare between the military and its opponents, the country is a victim of economic paralysis and ineffective government. And political killings are still commonplace: paid for, accomplished, and hidden through the immunity of the chaotic drug trade.

I lived in the house on the UCA campus where the Jesuits had been slaughtered, and where the survivors and other Jesuits continued with the work of teaching and social justice. My direct superior in El Salvador had been provincial at the time of the murders and had helped to direct international attention to the assassinations. I was living with heroes of mine, but on cramped terms as a result of my useless-gringo status and my poor language skills. Jon Sobrino, the famous theologian, would be discussing politics or theology with other Jesuits, and I would be struggling to cobble together a sentence in Spanish whose end result might bring the rice down to my end of the table.

For my first three months in El Salvador, I took Spanish lessons at a language school an hour away from the UCA. In the early morning, I took buses that were disgusting, crowded and unsafe. But each smog-spewing bus was brightly decorated by the drivers with their soccer team’s colors or gaudy pictures of Guadalupe. One day, I was groggily staring at a hokey sticker on the back of the bus in front of us. It was an outline of the lachrymose face of Jesus in thorns, with the caption: “Estoy buscando el rostro de Cristo. Por eso vine.” I translated it in my head: “I am searching for the face of Christ. For this I came.” But when I looked back at the picture again, there were no words underneath it.

Difficult though my time in El Salvador was, I could at least turn my outsider status to humorous account. When I had lived in rural Texas for a few years before I joined the Jesuits, I had entertained my friends and family with mass emails that played up my urbane foreignness. Thus, my dispatches from what in worse moods I called “la-la-Latino land” were eagerly awaited by those on my listserv: the two-year-old who took a dump in the aisle during Mass; the goat that wandered up to the altar; the machete-wielding drunkard who attacked the side of my Jeep as I drove by; a Jesuit friend mugged at gunpoint by a twelve-year-old; the illogic or mayhem that attended any simple event such as driving in traffic, waiting in line, or going to the post office.

Such jocular emails were all crafted for one purpose: hey, it’s weird down here, but I’m doing okay. Tales of my alienation and loneliness, of passing desperate beggars, of witnessing despair and nearly collapsing on the street were told to the few American Jesuits in El Salvador who kept me sane and gave me perspective. And these few friends also heard me speak of finding the face of Christ in the poor, especially one family whom I would visit in the campo. Their beloved father had gone to the States to find work in order to support them. Even though he sent money back to them, and even though his wife and children spoke to him regularly on the phone, they were crazy-lonely for him, and they knew the consequences of a malfunctioning immigration policy. As long as he had no opportunity to get a green card, he could never afford to leave the United States. This is love in its most brutal form: a man who loves his wife and children so much that he risks his own life to cross the border, willing never to see them again in order to take care of them. It was often hard to know what I felt or thought when such sentiments as I love these people existed in the same part of my heart as this country is a filthy hole and a political train wreck.

I lasted a year. For the first few months, my health was fine. But one by one I caught all of the food-borne illnesses it was possible to get in a Latin American country. Each illness called for a few weeks of recuperation, to be followed by some worse disaster. My third major illness landed me in the hospital for a week, where I wasted away to an alarming slimness and learned the Spanish words for the four different diseases that were battling inside my intestines.

The morning I was released from the hospital, I called my formation director in the States—the Jesuit superior responsible for placing me in various stages of formation. He had not been particularly excited about sending me to El Salvador in the first place, but my provincial and I had convinced him of the appropriateness of the challenge. He had known I was in the hospital and was expecting my call. I told him that I did not want to make a decision in the immediate wake of yet another health catastrophe, but clearly my body was not able to handle life in a developing country. I asked him for two weeks to recuperate, think, pray, and ask questions of other Jesuits, to discern whether I should return to the States or whether I should stay—and if I did stay, in what capacity I might stay, protect my health, and still be of use to the Jesuit institutions where I worked. He listened to me patiently, and then said: “Oh, for God’s sake, buy a plane ticket and come home.”

This was liberating. Because of my sense of obligation to the UCA and the Central American Jesuits, it would have been difficult for me to insist on leaving, even in the face of unignorable evidence. My formation director’s response released me from the guilt of failing at my assignment in El Salvador. I spent the afternoon in a state of calm relief, relaxing and catching up on email.

The internet access in the house at the UCA had always been sketchy: electricity blackouts, power surges, and general disorder all contributed to the unpredictability of the web. Whenever a friend would send me a link to a video clip, it would fail or take hours to download. Thus, surfing YouTube for comedy bits was a pastime I had left behind in the States. I do not recall why, but on the afternoon that I came home from the hospital I found myself on YouTube. And for some reason, the bandwidth was wider, or some internet gremlin was in a good mood—I don’t know how to describe such things—I could watch video clips with ease.

I polished off the backlog of clips sent to me by friends, and then I searched “marilyn horne” and got a familiar-looking list. But one video appeared which I had never seen before on YouTube. From the still, I could tell that Horne was wearing a dress like the one she wore on the cover of my duet tape. Just in the past week, someone had uploaded video clips of her concert of duets with Leontyne Price. All of the arias and duets were there. Or almost all of them, I can’t remember. I kept leaping from one to the other.

And what I saw, as I slowed down and watched them in order, did not surprise me. I had already imagined it all in my head. Here was Marilyn Horne, approaching a long note, settling the voice around the vowel, and then trumpeting her lips to focus the sound. Because of my own experience of vocal production, I knew that a subtle shifting of the lips outward focuses the sound, a technique that works best in medium and loud dynamics. It is a technique that I use when I sing and one that my ear can hear when other singers use it. My ear had been telling me for decades that Horne trumpets her lips on that very note, and now I was watching it.

Such shifts and accommodations are of the sort that a trained ear can hear without seeing. More strange was that my visual imagination had also anticipated the kinds of gestures singers make that have no effect on the sound: the way Horne raises her eyebrows to secure a note above the passaggio; the way Price turns her head from one side to the other to keep her neck muscles relaxed; the deep, quick breath and shoulder spread that prepare a high note or long phrase; the slight, backward tip of the head when releasing a loud note. When Price pierces the air with a high note, exclaiming her joy that Radamès is alive, I now matched a visual image I had never seen before to the note I had heard hundreds of times: Price tilts her head back as she gets a breath, quickly turns her head from left to right as she releases the note, and accompanies the sound with a firm maintenance of the shoulder stance—slightly thrown back and apart to keep the air cage high. Yet in spite of these congruences I had envisioned, my imagination did not match the reality with perfect accuracy: I had also imagined Price making a small, operatic gesture of moving her hand away from her body, a gesture which upon rewatching was not to be found at that moment.

As I had also strangely anticipated, on the video recording neither Horne nor Price delivers much histrionic gesture. They sing to the audience, not each other. And for the most part, their facial expressions are neutral. It is a concert recital, not a staged opera, and so they sing for the ear, not the eye. The acting is all in the voice. The delight of watching the video clips was not that they gave me new visuals. The reverse-epiphany was that the clips were a visual corollary for what I had already imagined.


IX. Exemplar


Now if there’s anything a Jesuit likes less than chat of God, it is having to listen to the religious enthusiasm of a layman.
—Gore Vidal, “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self”


One of things that attracted me to the Jesuits was their impatience with spiritual bullshit. As a publicly identifiable man-of-God, I am often subjected to tales by the certifiably insane that begin: “I wuz prayin’ to Jesus, and he tol’ me that I should . . . [insert preposterous idea here]”; or by the quietly pious that begin: “In my morning prayer, the Lord asked me to . . . [insert less preposterous idea here].” But while I can grant to others the idiosyncrasies of their prayer, this is not how I communicate with the Divine. Making up conversations in my head with a God for whom I presume to speak makes no sense to me. And to anyone who casually tells me of their conversations with Jesus, I will offer a smile and quietly edge away, as from a rabid animal or a serial killer with toxic breath. It is not because I believe that theology should be left to the professionals; neither do I dislike “chat of God,” as Vidal puts it, whether with lay people or fellow Jesuits. It is that unless I know and trust a person, God-talk from strangers’ mouths often sounds like holier-than-thou hooey.

Of course, even for those who are only nominally Christian—as opposed to those who feel they have a red telephone to God implanted in their skulls—the God of the Christian religion is an incarnational one: the Word became flesh, as the Gospel of John has it. He communicates; he intervenes. He is not the Deist Creator, silently paring his fingernails and impartially watching the bizarre reality show we present to him. For any thinking Christian then, the question of how we hear God, of how we know what she wants and how we avoid projecting our prejudices onto her is a crucial one.

So anyway (there’s really no better way to introduce this), on the evening of the day I got home from the hospital—a few hours after my superior told me to come home, and a few hours after being transfixed by the clips of Marilyn Horne and Leontyne Price, in which the visual element had been connected after a twenty-five-year delay to the aural and the emotive—I went to bed, my head filled with notions of hearing, seeing, longing, relief, and failure. In a short prayer I said before I fell asleep, I asked for the gift for which I had been asking for years: to see the face of Christ.

And I saw it.

Like most gifts from God, it was both astonishing and natural. It was not an apparition, but an act of imagination, like a dream over which I had no control. We were standing together outside on the porch of the kitchen-dining room, a few feet from the garden where the Jesuit priests had been slaughtered in 1989. He was shorter than I, which was odd—shouldn’t God be taller?— but probably historically accurate. And he had long hair (expected) but no beard (definitely ahistorical, not that I was complaining). I had never seen his face before, or imagined it in detail. It was no composite of faces I had seen, nor anything resembling what centuries of Western artists had settled on as the semiotics of Jesus-ness.

What interested me and also bothered me about the face I was seeing was that it was clearly the face of a distinct human being, not the generically wise thirty-something of most crucifix Jesuses. His face seemed younger than mine, and as with the height issue, I was puzzled at its lack of authority. No stern, Byzantine Jesus he. It was a serious face, capable of pain and even a smirk. But it was hard for me to connect this face to the theological Christ of the Last Judgment, or to the Second Person of the Trinity. This face was all too human, as if his name should have been Mike or Bob.

He said nothing to me: a good thing, considering I would not have believed anything he said. But he was waiting for me to invite him inside to sit down. He was waiting for my invitation, and he seemed not to know where the kitchen was. He needed me to invite him in and show him where to sit. (Mulling this over with a Jesuit friend, I said: “He’s the King of the Universe, and he doesn’t know where the fucking kitchen is?”) In experiencing the contradictions of this image, I was struggling to reconcile the qualities of a human—qualities I associate with hesitance, uncertainty, imperfection, incompleteness—with the qualities of God, the same paradox that has set theologians singing, heretics scribbling, and swords, literal and figurative, flashing.

God is not an alien force that enters us in ecstasy or despair, as an answer to doubt or a reward for faith. God is already utterly familiar, revealed as something endlessly longed for and already known. The book of Deuteronomy gives a remarkable description of God’s obviousness, his nearness. Moses speaks:

For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, “Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?” Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?” No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out. (Deut. 30: 11–14)

God’s command is not remote. It is not a destination involving distance and struggle. It is “already in your mouths and in your hearts.”

Mark Ravizza, an American Jesuit who helped me sort through many of my experiences in El Salvador, had asked me to consider the timing of this gift. It came at a moment of great poverty for me. Unlike my accomplished identities in the States—respected Jesuit, published scholar, engaging teacher, talented singer, witty conversationalist—I was none of these things in El Salvador. My Spanish was halting, my contribution to the UCA was negligible, my body was giving out. Not only was I of little use to anyone, it pained me to be so dependent on, and troublesome to, the men I lived with, especially when I was ill. Once more battling stomach problems, I passed out in a chair while five Jesuits—a philosophy professor, a scripture scholar, a moral theologian, and two brothers—argued at top volume about the best course of action for me. If only it had been a comedy instead of my life, it would have been hilarious.

The sense of my uselessness was probably more perceived than real. For several months up in the mountains, I had taught basic English to the poorest campesinos. And for several months afterwards, when I had returned to the campus of the UCA, I had taught a number of advanced ESL classes to enthusiastic students who were thrilled to have a flesh-and-blood norteamericano among them. I taught them the nuances of American idioms, and they taught their Jesuit professor the subtleties of Salvadoran cursing. But the primary story with which I recall my time in El Salvador is the experience of my weakness and my powerlessness. It was then that I saw the face of Christ—or Mike, or Bob, or whatever a better name might be for someone so real, so particular, so imperfect.

X. Exception


For if the image of some place, or of a man, or of any body whatsoever shall appear the same to our eyes as it appeared to our mind when we were thinking about it before we had seen it, we are moved with no little wonder, for such a thing rarely or hardly ever occurs.
—Augustine, De Trinitate, VIII.5

When I first heard Horne’s voice, I thought that I loved its perfection and its passion. But after a “long, loving look at the real”—Walter Burghardt’s description of prayer—I discovered that it was Horne’s passion for and inability to reach perfection that kept me returning. Hers is not the voice of an angel but the voice of a human struggling to sound like one. It is not the achievement of perfection that is artistically interesting. Rather, it is that gap between the ideal of perfection and the human cost to attain it (what we heartlessly call “technique”) that makes opera riveting, as it turns on the human voice, that most fragile and expressive of instruments.

With the exception of her highest notes, Horne cannot attain brightness and throaty power at the same time. And in this accommodation lies the interest of her singing, for her technique is always a compromise, ever imperfect. Vocal technique, I think, is different from instrumental technique. One can get better at keyboard figurations, for example, by slowly playing scales and then ramping up the tempo—there are entire series of books on such technical matters. But for the voice, once you’ve got the basics down, everything else involves the fine tunings of compromise. Opera singers are legendary for ignoring consonants when they get in the way of turbo-powered sound. And beautiful tone color is often sacrificed for other effects. As the comedian Anna Russell jokes:

[ . . . ] to be a dramatic soprano requires not so much the attributes of a singer as those of a successful auctioneer or hog caller. I mean, to blast your way through a Wagnerian orchestra, for instance, a beautiful tone is an absolute waste of time. You’re much better off with the factory-whistle or buzz-saw-type of voice, with a good cutting edge.

And if you don’t have the sinuses and the vocal cords for clarion high notes, then no amount of voice lessons will get them for you. And if you don’t have a beautiful tone, neither will the most brilliant technique help you. Like Maria Callas, you would have to prove your mettle through the musicality of your legato and the dramatic force of your characterizations.

For singers and other artists, the quest for perfected technique can become warped—missing the mark by trying too hard—a corruption that accounts for why so many professional choruses fail to grab my attention. Their directors leach the sound of all vocal distinctiveness, all color and vibrato in search of perfect balance and intonation. They achieve a whitewashed perfection at the cost of human particularity. As if conscious of such limitations, such directors often make up for the machine-like quality of the chorus by insisting on a finicky attention to consonants or by dolloping on mannered inflections, as if stressed delivery or word coloration could make up for a deficit in rhetorical conception. In the realm of art, robots are uninteresting. And robots that simulate lovemaking or execute random gestures approximating pathos are even less interesting. How such anemic groups as the Dale Warland Singers and the Gregg Smith Singers continue to sell recordings is a mystery to me.

It is mud, particularity, human messiness that has always interested me, which is why I spend my days with literature and music, rather than philosophy or theology, even though the latter disciplines are more often associated with Jesuit professors. I am drawn to characters not claims, to images not explanations, and so I am alive to what doesn’t fit, to what is exceptional. Even though I am allergic to systematizing, I must admit that as a critic, teacher, and homilist, I do a fair amount of it, poorly and haphazardly. Even in negotiations involving my own writing, I am irritated by editors who chop up my long-limbed sentences into discrete, journalistic phrases, cutting out my dashes and parentheses where I interrupt myself or circle back to something I hadn’t said adequately.

This gap between the perfect and the passionate is most pronounced in an artist like Callas, which is why her vocal flaws have gained her such a devout following. Opera singers, especially those who specialize in the exposed lines of bel canto opera, are expected to have beautiful voices. Callas’ exception—the very unpleasantness of her timbre—taught her fans that the shattering terrors of pathos were worth more than the polite measurements of beauty.

Bill Matthews’ poem “A Night at the Opera” considers a related problem, though one that is more often commented upon: the phenomenon of opera stars who are too fat, old, or ugly to represent passionate young lovers. The poem resolves the problem in similar terms to what I offer here:

Their costumes weigh
fifteen pounds apiece; they’re poached in sweat
and smell like fermenting pigs; their voices rise
and twine not from beauty, nor from the lack
of it, but from the hope for accuracy
and passion, both. They have to hit the note
and the emotion, both, with the one poor
arrow of the voice. Beauty’s for amateurs.


XI. Ex Gratia

There are certain kinds of opera fanatics who tour the world scraping up autographs of famous singers, a pastime that has never appealed to me. It is not because I am immune to power or fame, but more simply because the genius of a diva resides in what she does on stage, not in her entourage, jewelry, or stories about her cats. I don’t want to make small talk with a diva. All I want is her public self: that she stand on stage and pour herself out. Though I have sung in the chorus behind many great singers, rarely have I wanted to greet a star. Once was at the end of a dress rehearsal, with an exhausted, drenched-with-sweat Ewa Podlés, an artist whose large sound and passionate commitment can shade into the vulgar. I offered her my hand and said: “You are magnificent.” She smiled wanly and replied: “Think yoo vidy mach.”

And so, when I was warming up with fellow choristers at Carnegie Hall and a colleague told me he had run into Marilyn Horne on the elevator, I felt no urge to chase her around the backstage area. I had already seen and heard her live, during her prime, in opera and recital. But it was pleasant to know that she was here with us, even if she was going to a recital in a different auditorium in the building.

At the time, I was singing with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, on tour in New York—the kind of tour that orchestras take every few years to reassure themselves and the world that they are still as great as they think they are. The orchestra had been there for a week of concerts, and the chorus had been flown in for the final concert, to sing Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a wonderfully weird and little-performed piece. We had nailed it a few weeks earlier in Cleveland, where the level of music criticism is notoriously low. But now we were in New York, and its reviewers and critics were listening. Perhaps as a result of such tension and expectations, none of us—including the conductor—was in the best shape. The chorus, for its part, missed an entrance, and a two-bar exclamation zoomed by unsung. So in spite of the glowing review in the New York Times and a general sense that we had performed admirably, we gnawed at the bone of our disappointed perfectionism.

At the next rehearsal, our director cheered us up with the news that he had spoken with Marilyn Horne backstage. She claimed that she had heard the concert, which she had loved. In their conversation, she had particularly complimented the tone color of the chorus. Continuing with his story, the director said, “Now, if Marilyn Horne says we have beautiful tone color”—imagining that Horne’s authority on such matters was beyond dispute—“that’s a compliment I’ll take.”

In spite of his report, I’m not convinced she was at our concert, and I prefer not to know the exact truth. It’s certainly possible that, after the recital she attended, Horne stood in the wings of the Stern Auditorium and listened to us. I almost believe this. But it also strikes me as the kind of thing a gracious celebrity, caught in transit, could safely say of a well-known chorus: what beautiful tone color. I’ve sung with more ensembles than I can count, from the Grammy-winning expert to the ad hoc shabby. But of the many strengths of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, beautiful tone color is not one of them. Still, it’s lovely to think that my singing—however communal, however imagined—had pleased Marilyn Horne, that she had recognized a sound she liked, or heard something she had heard before, all those singers pouring themselves out, all those glittering vowels struggling between light and dark.