Santa Fe’s Open-Air Opera

My wife and I made a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico during the summer of 2014.  She had been to the town several times, but I had not.  We both love art, culture, and the southwest, and Santa Fe is one of those places where all three intersect.  We stayed in a lovely, rambling house just off Canyon Road, which placed us in walking distance from the major downtown attractions and more art galleries than anyone could possibly explore in a year’s time — alas, we were there for less than a week.

We also took some excursions outside the town to places like Taos, a famous haven for artists.  I went out to the center of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 7th highest bridge in the United States and the 82nd highest bridge in the world.  We ate incredible, authentic Mexican food at a little roadside taco stand.  We flew in and out of Albuquerque, so we were able to see some of the state’s desert landscape on the road between the two locations.

We met up with some friends one evening who live in Albuquerque who routinely make the drive up to Santa Fe to attend the opera located just outside town.  They invited us to go with them.  I was not raised with any exposure, appreciation, or understanding of opera.  I was raised with the music of the Allman Brothers  (outside of church, that is); the singing of Elton John; the acting of Robert Redford.  The closest I came to an opera performance was a Bugs Bunny cartoon or a Disney movie.  Even as an adult, although I am more familiar with famous operas, I still don’t know much about the art form.  Unfortunately, my cultural horizons don’t expand very far beyond literature and the thick forests of popular music, theater, and cinema.

For those who fall into this same category, I have good news.  There is a place you can go to appreciate opera even if you have no interest in it whatsoever.  The Santa Fe Opera House has been attracting audiences to watch performances and take in the magnificent views of the mountain ranges of northern New Mexico since 1957.  According to its website, more than 2,000 performances of 164 different operas have been given here, including fourteen world premieres and 45 American premieres.  Many singers whose names are now found on the rosters of the world’s leading opera houses began their careers in Santa Fe.  The company was founded by the late John Crosby, a young conductor from New York, who had an idea of starting an opera company to give American singers an opportunity to learn and perform new roles in a setting that allowed ample time to rehearse and prepare each production.

The Crosby Theater was built in 1998 and takes the idea of “open air” to a whole new level.  The modern structure features white sail-like wind baffles, a clerestory window for light, and a backstage that is almost completely open.  The sides of the theater are also open, so the audience can see the mountain peeks rising many miles away.  The breathtaking views are enough to distract even the most devoted opera enthusiast, but for someone like me who is a bit less than enthusiastic, this venue became the attraction.  We had a lovely dinner on the grounds of the opera before the performance.  The show we saw was a comedy, all in another language, of course.  There were hilarious parts, the orchestral music was excellent, and I ended up enjoying it more than I had anticipated.  Still, I can’t imagine a stage performance anywhere in the world that could be more impressive than the setting of the expansive desert as night approaches.  If you love opera, you have to go to the Santa Fe Opera.  If you don’t love opera, this is where you need to go to start appreciating it.

Santa Fe Opera House
Santa Fe Opera House

Worship Without Music

As stated previously in this blog, I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC).  Generally speaking, Southern Baptist worship, especially during the main service on Sunday mornings, could be described as a passive experience by the majority of people present, namely the congregation.  There are a couple of exceptions.  In recent decades, it has become popular to insert a time of greeting around the midway point of the service, which involves handshaking, hugging, some folks walking all around the sanctuary to apparently greet as many people as possible until forced by embarrassment to finally get back to their seat.  This practice is not limited to the Baptists either.  The only other part of a SBC service that encourages participation by everyone in the sanctuary is music, and for Baptists, music is a central part of worship.  SBCs give music a lot of space and time, from large pianos and organs for traditional worship services, to full-scale bands for “praise” services, and even small orchestras for the mega-churches.  They include several hymns for the congregation to join together singing.  SBCs also tend to employ full-time ministers of music, who typically are paid better than other support staff in most denominations with comparable-sized churches.  They typically have choirs for all age groups, along with an adult choir that practices weekly to present calls-to-worship, anthems, benedictions, etc.  Some churches even have special musical groups like hand-bell choirs, vocal or instrumental ensembles, and pop bands.

The format of worship in a SBC was certainly a suitable environment for my development with respect to the central role of music.  I was raised in a family that appreciated music, had some musical abilities, but above all encouraged musical skill and performance in my generation of youngsters.  My sister and I both took music lessons — she with the piano and I with the guitar.  I was brought up to sing church songs from a very early age, even before I can remember.  My earliest memory of singing was when my mother and grandmother took me out in the countryside to visit a bedridden relative of my grandmother (a sister or cousin, I’m not sure which), and I was instructed to sing a short song I had learned in Sunday School.  The song was titled “He’s Able.”  I still remember the words and the tune to this day:

He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through
He healed the broken hearted, and he set the captive free
He made the lame to walk again, and He caused the blind to see
He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through

As I became a teenager, my guitar skills developed enough that I could accompany myself singing, and could also play for youth group gatherings in my church.  My voice also matured to a fairly solid tenor, perhaps with a higher range than most guys my age.  I sang in choirs, performed at church functions (often with my sister and a cousin), and eventually reached what some would have considered the pinnacle of the music scene in a SBC — presenting “the special” during Sunday morning worship.  This song, typically a solo but sometimes a duet or trio, was usually placed in the service just before the pastor’s sermon.  For the 40+ years I was in a SBC, that part of the music service was always referred to by ministers and congregants as “the special” or “special music.”  Unfortunately, a label like that can encourage a certain sense of pride, if not arrogance, by the person offered such a place of distinction.

My love for music at an early age, combined with the ability to play the guitar (fair, but not very skilled) and a voice that my friends and family thought was pleasant, presented me with the opportunity to be a regular part of the special music rotation, almost always as a solo.  As I grew to adulthood, moved away from home, and started a family, I settled in another SBC where I continued with this practice.  I taught myself to play the piano and eventually began to accompany myself with that instrument.  It is with humility and perhaps some shame now that I look back on the decades of my musical contributions as a soloist because I realize that, all too often, I know what I was doing more than anything else was performing.  More than providing a meaningful worship experience for myself and the congregation, I was seeking to be an entertainer, to impress an audience, to attract their attention, to win their love.  So many people in SBCs will tell you that music is essential to their worship experience.  They will boast about their choir and exalt their music ministers.  But, they usually reserve their highest admiration for the people who perform special music, posting or sharing videos of them on their social media pages.  I enjoyed this kind of adulation all the time, and it was a rush.  My fellow church members were kind and gracious, and I have no doubt they were perfectly sincere when they told me how much a song I sang or wrote meant to them and enhanced their worship experience. I was touched by their encouragement, but what I craved was to amaze them.  Alas, I am vain.

After a divorce and a time of transitioning away from the Baptist church (I had left it theologically many years before), I met a beautiful Episcopalian.  And then I married her.  Everything changed, and for the better — much better.  I found a home in the Episcopal Church, with a theology that I could embrace without too much difficulty.  My wife introduced me to an early morning service at our small town church that she really liked because it was quiet, peaceful, reverent, and completely without music.  I had never been to such a service, and much to my surprise, I loved this style of worship.  After decades of being in churches where music was so central and where I was such a visible participant, it took me a while to understand why I was attracted to a service without music.  I think it is because I know that music was too often a distraction for me.  Instead of helping me get beyond myself to seek communion with the divine, it fed my ego and kept me in the foreground.  Performing caused me to focus on technique, style, quality, and even appearance.  It was way too much about me.

My wife and I have moved and are at another parish now.  They don’t have a service without music yet, although the priest has talked about introducing one.  There is resistance from the parish, which is to be expected.  I hope we can try it at some point. I will never stop loving music, and that includes church music.  And, I can certainly enjoy a worship service with music, even if I’m not at all familiar with so many of the songs from the Episcopal tradition.  In a way, that’s a good place to be.  It’s awfully hard to perform a song you don’t know very well.

We Liked Grandma So Much Better Without Teeth

I introduced my maternal grandmother in an earlier post.  From my description of her then, it should be apparent that my grandmother had an incredible sense of humor, a trait I would like to think I inherited.  She had five grandchildren.  I was the last and the only male.  She absolutely adored me.  For most of my childhood, she lived in the house with my family (my parents and my older sister and me).  Both of my parents worked, so she served as a live-in nanny.  She also did a good portion of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.

She received a great deal of pleasure from making my sister and my cousins laugh to the point of losing our breath.  If we wet our pants, she probably secretly considered herself victorious — mission accomplished!  She would stop at nothing to entertain us, including removing her teeth, putting a nylon stocking over her head, and then pulling it up while dragging the skin of her face up with it to distort her features to almost frightening proportions.  Some years after her death, my memory of these times became almost nostalgic, and I decided to write a funny song about her.  It must be fairly entertaining, as I have been asked to perform it many times for groups of people who never knew my grandmother or any other members of my extended family.  I include it here as a way of recording it and as a tribute to someone whose impact on my life was far greater than I realized when she was still with me.

WE LIKED GRANDMA SO MUCH BETTER WITHOUT TEETH

I recall the trips to Grandma’s house when we were little boys
Lots of food, candy, cakes, and pies, and she always gave us toys
And she told funny stories that would nearly split your side
But when she pulled her dentures out, we laugh until we cried

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
And when she sang her mouth was just as round as a wreath
We liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Now there’s something about a toothless grin that I just can’t explain
But when Grandma turned and gave a smile, we nearly went insane
And if she used her Polygrip her speech was never slurred
But Lord when she forgot it we couldn’t understand a word

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
A handmade set of ivory chops just simply can’t be beat
But we liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Now I know you love your grandkids and I’m sure they love you too
So if you want to see them giggle, then here’s what you must do
It sure can be depressing when your hair gets gray and thin
But when your molars start to go that’s when the fun begins

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
I’m sure it was a challenge when she tried to chew her meat
But we liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
Couldn’t have loved her better had she been cursed with stinkin’ feet
We liked Grandma so much better
Oh I wish you could have met her
We liked Grandma so much better without teeth

The Legend of Bob Dylan

My older son and I recently saw Bob Dylan and his band in concert.  My son is quite the connoisseur of classic pop music going back to before he was born, and to some extent, before I was born.  Going to this show was what he requested for his birthday because he feels certain that there won’t be too many more chances to see Dylan live, and judging from how frail the aging rocker looked on stage, I would agree.  While 73 doesn’t seem so old when considering how many of his contemporaries are still touring extensively, Dylan doesn’t seem to “get around” with the same agility of guys like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney.

Just before the show began, the house lights went out and the stage was dark.  A single member of his band came out in the dark, picked up a guitar, and started playing a gentle, folksy tune.  It was like being in church.  When the lights went up, the rest of the band was in place, wearing matching outfits.  I leaned over to my son and said, “How often do you see band members dressed alike?”  He replied, “I never have.”  They were definitely representing a different era, when rock-n-roll was reaching adolescence and getting more rebellious, but there was still a touch of class and style left over from the very early days of the bands that accompanied Buddy Holly and Elvis.


President Barack Obama presents Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom (May 29, 2012)

Most people don’t become legends during their lifetimes, nor do they become iconic.  Bob Dylan is an exception.  Some of his songs clearly define the rock-n-roll era, especially the elements in the genre that are most significant historically: protest, reflection, freedom, and change.  More than any other popular musician and songwriter from my generation that I can recall, Bob Dylan has proven over and over again that rock-n-roll was never just about the music, and certainly not about beautiful voices.  Hell, he never even tried to make pretty sounds with his voice, that is, on the occasions that he decided to sing instead of speak his songs.  But I would argue with anyone that his lyrics were some of the most powerful and moving of that generation.

At this particular show, Bob Dylan sang an incredible variety of music in a short time. He was probably on stage for less than two hours altogether, but during that time, we heard folk, blues, country, reggae, and rock.   He never picked up a guitar, but he played a miniature grand piano, and of course, the harmonica.  The instrumental variety from his band was impressive, including tunes using a violin and a huge string bass.  It was clear that he was playing what he wanted to play, not what the crowd expected or necessarily wanted.  He didn’t include “Like a Rolling Stone,” which no doubt irritated some of the audience.  But he did play “Tangled Up In Blues” and “Blowing In the Wind.”  Dylan performed that last song as his finale for the single encore he gave, and true to form, he used a variation so different from the original recorded version that I didn’t even recognize it until he was into the chorus.  I leaned over to my son and said, “I almost didn’t recognize this one, the way he’s playing it.”  Looking straight ahead to the stage, admiring the legend, my son replied, “He’s earned the right to do it anyway he wants.”  I couldn’t agree more.