I finally got around to participating in another storytelling open mike night at my local community center. The last one I participated in was held in February, 2020, right before everything went dark.
This open mike night was supposed to be held outside, but an unexpected storm blew up and everyone masked up and went inside to the newly restored, and very beautiful, auditorium, sitting an appropriately socially distanced space apart, removing masks only when onstage. After finishing their story, each “teller” was handed a fresh little “shower cap” kind of thing to cover the microphone so they could remove the one that was on it while they were speaking and replace it with a fresh one for the next “teller.”
Here’s an approximate transcript of the story I told–it is also an adapted version of an episode from my memoir. Read it as if you were speaking it out loud in front of an audience. Hope you like it:
On one of the last days of my father’s life, I pulled up a chair next to his bed, and I sat down and I sang to him. I sang “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” That was one of his favorite songs, because he loved that scene in An American in Paris, where Gene Kelly sang it right before he danced with Leslie Caron on the banks of the Seine. Dad was a WWII vet and, (allegedly, he was quite a storyteller), worked his way across the Atlantic on ships during his law school summers in the early ‘50s, to live in Paris, eating bread and drinking wine, maybe painting a little, and dreaming in French. (That was back when the French actually liked Americans).
A few days after my Dad died, I was sitting in our little library room, crying, and my husband Mike and our daughter were listening to a cable music channel in the front room on the opposite side of the house. Between my sobs and sniffles, I noticed the music channel was playing “Our Love Is Here to Stay”–but it was this happy, peppy, uptempo version I’d never heard before or since. Usually it’s slow and swaying, (singing) “it’s vereeeee clear, our love is here to stay….” but this version was (singing and scatting) “it’s very clear boodley bop zippety zop our love is here to stay biddley diddely diddly dop.” I got up and went into the front room and stared at the TV and said, “Dad?”
On the last day of Mike’s life, I pulled up a chair next to his hospital bed in our front room and I sat down and I sang to him. One of the songs I sang to him was “O Mio Babbino Caro.” You know that one – (sing first phrase) it’s been used in commercials a lot, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. One of the greatest things about Mike to me was that he liked my singing – he complimented me on the high notes and told me I had missed my calling, and he never complained or shushed me, even if I was blasting the high b flats at the end of Musetta’s waltz all over the house. So I knew he would like to hear an aria. I sang it softly, and I was sitting down, but I still think I sang it very well.
A few days after Mike died, I was on the phone with the cemetery people, making arrangements to come and select a burial plot. While I was on the phone, I had WFMT, the Chicago classical music station, on in the background. It was pretty much always on in our house whenever our daughter wasn’t home, out at school or a social event. Just as I ended the conversation with the cemetery guy, I noticed that WFMT was playing “Oh Mio Babbino Caro,”– but it was this lush, over-the-top, schmaltzy, piano-only version I had never heard, before or since. And I ran and stood in front of the radio and said, “Mike? Oh, honey! Oh, thank you, loves!”
Mike knew the “Our Love Is Here To Stay” story, and he saw me come into the front room and ask if Dad was in the TV. Mike and I made a deal when he entered hospice—we each had our own idea of what the next world would be like, but whatever it turned out to be, I knew it existed, and I told him, “you call me when you get there.”
But it didn’t stop there. Right after Babbino, they played a lush, over-the-top, piano-only version of “Visi D’Arte.”
Now, I can’t sing “Visi D’Arte.” I never tried to learn it. It’s a sort of Mount Everest of soprano arias. But I’m certain that when I was flipping through my binder of songs to sing to Mike , I mumbled out loud, “hmm, Visi D’Arte. Better not try that one.”
And finally, after “Visi D’Arte,” they played a Placido Domingo version of “Nessun Dorma.”
I’m sure you know that one too. Everyone under the sun has recorded Nessun Dorma, including Aretha Franklin. The most famous part is the last sung phrase, where the tenor musters all the power he’s got, squeezes his glutes as hard as he can and belts out a high B, “Vin-CEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-ro-oh-oh!!!!” as the orchestra rises to the end of the aria (and the crowd goes wild!)
“Nessun Dorma” itself didn’t really have anything to do with Mike and me, although we did go see “Turandot” together ages ago.
No, this “vincero,” I was sure, had to do with the time, just under a year before Mike was diagnosed with cancer, when we went to see a stellar performance of “The Barber of Seville,” in a wonderful and hilarious production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Now, when you buy just two tickets in a six-seat box at Lyric, it’s a crapshoot who’s gonna be in the other four seats. For Barber, we were joined by a profoundly drunk Japanese couple. They both seemed to be under the impression that this was a serious, dramatic, tragic opera, not the light-hearted comic opera it is. Even though everyone in the house was laughing, they became increasingly agitated at my laughing. I wasn’t honking or guffawing or anything, just laughing along with the rest of the audience…I think.
Eventually, the lady began shushing me, even though people right in the next box were also laughing loudly, and then, during the hilarious singing lesson scene, where the singing teacher had a Pinocchio length nose and a ridiculous, nasal twang, the ingénue was singing a snippet of of an aria with the word “vincero” in it, and the lady got into a vehement argument with her husband over the meaning of that word in English. She didn’t like the super-title translation, which must have been something like “victory is mine” or “I will be victorious.” But the Japanese lady kept insisting, loudly, to her husband, “No, no! “Vincero” means, I WIN! “Vincero” means, I WIN!”
Finally, Mike couldn’t take it anymore and asked to leave. I wanted to stay for the final tenor aria, which isn’t often performed, but I could tell Mike was getting dangerously angry, so we got up to leave. But just before we left, Mike gently laid his program on top of the lady’s head.
Which didn’t sit well with her husband.
He followed us into the pitch dark coat closet, demanding satisfaction from Mike, “why did you put the program on my wife’s head? Why did you put it on my wife’s head?”
All the while Mike is almost yelling at me, “where’s the light switch? I can’t see!” and I’m trying to tell him that all he has to do is open the door to the lobby to turn on the light, but he can’t hear me over the Japanese man’s demand for an explanation, so I finally grope my way over and open the door, which turns on the light, and at that very moment the Japanese lady comes flying through the inner door right at me—really, it seemed she was flying horizontally at me, like Doug Plank of the ’85 Bears, screaming, “You’re white trash! You’re white trash!” and her husband catches her mid-flight just before she blindsides me, and Mike and I make it out the door and close it behind us (leaving the angry couple in the dark).
We explain to the stately old usher out in the lobby that there’s a very drunk and disruptive couple in the box, and we almost got into a fight and he says, slowly, sadly and calmly, “oh, yes, that’s been happening more and more since they started selling the seats individually (rather than back in the day, when rich families bought “their” box at the opera, securing all the seats, and the box stayed empty if they didn’t attend, and when somebody died, families got into fierce fights about who inherited the tickets). You can step into any other box to see the rest of the performance.”
We did, for a few minutes of the final rarely performed tenor aria, and then we left, marveling at how close we came to engaging in “fisticuffs at the opera” and causing an international incident.
And here now, a little over two years later, three days after Mike died, was Placido on the radio, singing “Nessun Dorma,” and blasting out that final “vincero.”
“I will be victorious.”
“Victory is mine.”
Oh, hon, oh, my love, you made it.
Thanks for calling.
They do these storytelling open mikes quarterly, and I have a few people I can call on to keep Angelic Daughter company when I go, or if I ever want to try a session downtown. Suffice it to say if felt great to be back onstage again, which is the one place in the world I feel truly at home and comfortable. So I’ll definitely be back for the next round.
Until then, I remain,
Your not-particularly-humble-or-obedient, singing storyteller,