Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Quartet and Some Thoughts about Opera


A more realistic photograph of the composer.


Verdi, who's birthday becomes the focus of this wonderful story.













I don't usually review movies, but the recent movie, Quartet, a movie about opera, opera singers, and so much more, has special resonance for me.

My mother was an opera singer. Not a famous one. You could say she was a failed opera singer. In her head she was simply an undiscovered one. She never got beyond parts in light opera at the Maya Theater in L.A., concerts in Mexico, and understudy at the San Francisco Opera Company for the role of Marguerite in Faust. The family legend was that she turned down that contract when she learned it meant she would have to put me and my middle brother out for adoption. (My older brother from a previous marriage was being raised by my grandparents in L.A.)

Opera never left my mother, not for a minute. A single mom raising kids from more than one marriage, ill-trained for the working world, she held numerous jobs through the years from clerking in music stores and bookstores, cashiering for the Greyhound bus station, playing piano in cocktail lounges, to sometimes opening vocal studios. All the while, opera continued to play in her head, exerting its promise over her imagination—overtures, arias, duets, heartbreak scenes, applause, curtain calls, the overall magic that made the stage more real than ordinary life.

Quartet, the movie directed by Dustin Hoffman, has a magnificent cast, glorious music, a tender plot, some funny, funny scenes, and a sweet, happy ending. But what moved me so much that I had to see it twice, was the way Quartet brings to life the essence of what opera means to the singers, and what aging means to someone who once held audiences in thrall by the delivery of an impeccable high note.

A group of world famous musicians live in a retirement home for opera singers. Each year on Verdi's birthday they stage a musical performance as a fundraiser for the home. This year, the home is in danger of closing. What to do? Then the diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) retires to the home, and the director of the performance, Cedric Livingston (played wonderfully by Michael Gambon) has a brilliant idea: Jean, along with 3 other famous singers in the home should perform the quartet from Rigoletto.

However, Jean was married to Reginald Paget ("Reggie", played by Tom Courtenay), and the marriage ended badly. The other two singers, Cecily Robson ("Cissy", played by Pauline Collins) and Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) offer humorous counterpoint to the emotionally fraught moments between Jean and Reggie: Cissy is on the edge of dementia and sometimes tips over into it in a way that is sweet and funny; Wilf is a wickedly endearing roué, always propositioning the female nurses and doctors. In earlier days, these four singers sang together in one of the most lauded performances of Rigoletto. They sang "the quartet", and it is Cedric Livingston's hope that performing it again will save the home.

Under Hoffman's direction and the splendid acting by all, Quartet opens up the world of opera that lingers long after the glory days onstage are over. Those days may be gone, but not a single singer in the movie has forgotten them. Cissy carries around and listens to a recording of their earlier Rigoletto. Jean furtively plays LPs of her own performances in her room. Each singer's room is decorated in posters and photographs showing their most famous moments. In the communal dining room another soprano, Dame Gwyneth Jones (Anne Langley), and Jean Horton trade snipes in cultured put-downs about high notes and curtain calls. Through it all, music continues to pulse through their hearts and minds, along with memories of their rarified lives. And rarified is the word. Instead of knitting for grandchildren, or making birdies in golf, their memories are about waiting in the wings, slowly losing oneself, then stepping out into the music and letting the voice blossom forth.

My mother once told me she only felt fully alive when she was singing. At first I found that melodramatic. But when I thought about it some more, it seemed a reasonable statement for someone who cared so passionately about opera: You could say when one plays a piano, the piano comes briefly alive: Hammers strike the hidden strings, and music flows out and touches listeners. When silent again, a piano goes back to being simply a piece of furniture. In opera, the singer is the instrument. Music flows through the chest, the throat, the face, making the singer a vessel, a conduit. In essence, singers breathe music. When the music is over, they simply breathe. Alive, yes, but not the same kind of alive.

When my mother was 83 in a nursing home, I arrived one day to take her to lunch. I walked into her room, and stopped. She was listening to the radio (on earbuds so as not to disturb her room-mate). Her face was radiant. After a moment (the music over) she took out the ear buds and smiled at me. "That was the Queen of the Night's aria," she told me. (From Mozart's The Magic Flute.) "I could follow along in my head," she exulted. "I didn't miss a single note!" And for a moment her face was young again, the future still a promise, the past rich with memory. Quartet gives you a kept promise.

If you haven't seen the trailer for this wonderful movie, go here: (Just be patient through a brief ad)

For some good listening you can hear the famous quartet here.


25 comments:

Richard Hughes said...

What a good movie review. Makes me want to see the movie.

Isn't it fascinating that your mother was an opera singer. Must have been an interesting life for you growing up.

Elise Fallson said...

How interesting your mother was an opera singer. My father loved opera, but he no longer listens to it because, he's lost his hearing and it's sad because I know he misses it.

A-Z participant blogging from Elise Fallson

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Richard, if you get the chance, go see it. It's really such a fine movie! As for observation about growing up with an opera singer for a parent, yes, it certainly was an interesting life! It fed the writer in me to say the least!

Elise, I'm so sorry your father lost his hearing, given his love of opera. I know how awful that would have been for my mother. It would be like a lover of visual art losing their sight. Or even someone who just loves to read.

S.P. Bowers said...

I love that your mother had a dream and that she followed it as she could. I hadn't heard about the movie but it sounds fascinating, thanks for the review.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

This was such an interesting read. I need to see this movie. My little niece has just gotten interested in the opera and she's been wanting to see her first "real" opera soon :)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, S. P. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, she always did follow that dream, and despite the hardships of her life, it's probably that dream that kept her going.

Optimistic, I think she would enjoy opera. I got started young, and it's a pleasure I've enjoyed all my life. The sooner the introduction to it, the better.

Julia Hones said...

I enjoyed reading this review and I liked how you weaved your mother's story into it. She was "in her zone" when she sang opera. It was her passion.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

HI, Julia, yes, that's a good way to put it. Opera was "her zone" for sure. Her passion. It gave her a lot of happiness.

Nick Wilford said...

I know a lot more about this movie now and I'd like to see it. Great review. I guess for anyone who has a passion it never leaves them and that certainly seems to be the case for your mother.

Old Kitty said...

I skipped the bits about the film because I am seeing it next week! Yay!! I can't wait!

Your mother is a true artist!! Her creative soul triumphed over real life intruding! Wonderful!! Take care
x

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Nick, yes, I think one's passion never leaves one. And I think one is richer for having a passion in life, although you can seldom measure it in money. :-)

Old Kitty, I'm glad you're going to see the movie. It's such a good experience. And, yes, my mother really was a true artist.

Theresa Milstein said...

How interesting about your mom's opera experience. I hadn't heard of the movie. Thanks for telling me!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Theresa, it's a wonderful movie. If you like Maggie Smith, she's marvelous in it, but so are all the other actors and actresses.

Lydia Kang said...

Great review! I'm going to have to see it sometime.

Lynda R Young said...

Music can have a wonderful impact on the listener

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Lydia, glad you stopped by. I think you'll enjoy the movie very much.

Lynda, I so agree. Music really sets a tone and/or mood. It gets inside you.

Kimberly said...

ohhh, that looks really good. I like those kind of movies and I like a lot of those actors!

I often walk around the house singing in an opera voice - my family (and dog) probably think I'm nuts. I always say I must have been an opera singer in a past life. hee hee

Carol Riggs said...

How lovely that your mother was an opera singer! I do like opera, especially Verdi and Puccini. :) Thanks for the video links!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Kimberly, sometimes I do that too: walk around the house and sing things in an opera voice. It really confuses my dog! :-)

Carol, Puccini is my favorite opera composer. I love La Boheme and Madame Butterfly especially. Glad you like the links.

Shallee said...

Thanks for this review! I haven't heard of this, but I love opera. I'll have to check it out!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Shallee, nice to see you here. What is your favorite opera?

Teresa Cypher said...

This is so beautiful, Elizabeth! What an amazing woman your mother was. Isn't sad--how we measure our success?

Look at you--the woman your mother raised! I think your mom was a great success!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks, Teresa, in many ways success eluded her, and she was well acquainted with heartbreak, but in many ways she was a success indeed. And she really was an amazing woman. I owe her my love of literature and all the arts.

Susan D Eisenberg said...

I loved QUARTET, and I enjoyed your recollections of your mom's passion. I studied voice for many years and performed a little, and I understand what she meant about being full alive when you sing. Think about the inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of breath, and that act is life itself; singing takes it one step further. Thanks so much.

Stephanie Cowell said...

What a beautifully written essay! I was so moved. I didn't mention my opera years in my interview, but they were a huge part of my life. I sang a lot, but like your mom never had the international career I wanted. When I wrote MARRYING MOZART, I suddenly got an e-mail from a famous soprano about it; her name is Sunhae Im and she performs the roles I specialized in around the world. Very moving for me! BEAUTIFUL article!