When I was a kid, my Italian-American family gathered every night of the Christmas season, each time around a different relative’s table, to eat (mostly), agree (often), disagree (more often), laugh at the same old stories (always), and sing. My cousin’s husband played the guitar; others, the accordion, the harmonica, the piano. I mimicked the Italian words (comically, I’m sure) as I sang along. This is one of my earliest and most persistent holiday memories.
Our families lived modestly, but we were rich in all the important ways. I felt that, right down to my bones, at Christmas more than any other time. Then, sadly, we Boomers began to grow up and go away. The gathering, and with it the singing, stopped. Aside from the loss of family, I think I miss the music most of all. And I deeply regret that I could never duplicate the experience for my own children.
A hint of Christmas past came back to me whenever we visited the popular Italian restaurant Au Parmesan on Rue St-Louis in Vieux Québec, the “old city”. The food was always very good, but the music was the real reason we returned year after year. Italian singer/accordionist Sergio and a South American-born tenor, Mario, serenaded diners from multiple continents nightly, inviting them to sing along, like family, with all the well known Italian favorites. Every now and then, Mario would also thrill us with a special selection, like the hauntingly beautiful Mexican song, Cucurrucucú Paloma.* The crowded dining room would fairly roar with music, applause, and laughter. It was the closest I’ve come to recapturing the joyful experiences of my childhood holidays. Trusting that Au Parmesan’s owners won’t mind, I’ve snagged the cover photo from the restaurant’s website—it’s better than my own. One day, I hope we’ll be able to go back. That’s Sergio, far left, and Mario, right right.
Throughout this siege, I’ve been worried about singers. Since the choir practice in Washington State that ended in a COVID nightmare, singing, of all things, singing, has become a threat to our communal health. Our vocal artists have effectively been silenced, except for what they can do in own homes, in private studios, via online recordings and live-streamed performances (for which we are very grateful). But I think it’s important to remember that they sing not just to earn a living, but because it is their gift, because it is the language deep in their hearts.**
Singers who have already made their mark will weather the pandemic, but consider those who are still making their way…promising young singers who are sitting at home, musical careers interrupted, making whatever recordings they can on their own, hoping to maintain their trajectory. Hear Lorenzo Papasodero’s gorgeous Core ‘ngrato. Patience isn’t easy.
Thank goodness for YouTube. Many artists have taken to doing online recitals, on their own or under the auspices of performing arts organizations. We loved gifted tenor Andrew Owens’ recital of mostly Neapolitan songs as part of LA Opera’s at-home series. There’s a very poignant moment in that performance when Owens notices that his wife, flutist Jessica Warren, is crying. Because, she said, it had been so long since she’d heard him sing outside the confines of their home, so long since they were able to play music together. (By the way, Owens’ rendition of the gorgeous Dicitencello vuje is just perfect–you can hear it about a third of the way through the recital.)
That about says it all. Singers need to sing, and we need to hear their voices. You know how much I love opera—it’s in my DNA—but I love many other kinds of music, too. Singers of every interest and description have given us intimate, online performances since the first lockdown last March. Their voices, their songs, have fed our souls through nearly three-quarters of a very rough year. Singing is important. Music is important. If a singer or musician you love invites contributions or charges a minimal fee for an online performance, I hope you’ll support them. Remember that they need to eat as much as they need to sing, and more than ever, they need your encouragement.
And through all of this, I keep recalling the words of the round we used to sing in Girl Scouts:
All things shall perish from under the sky.
Music alone shall live, music alone shall live,
Music alone shall live, never to die.
*I’ve linked to my favorite performance of this beautiful song, with another Chilean tenor, the magnificent Juan Diego Flórez. Have a listen—it will make you smile!
**It would be so wrong not to acknowledge that the same is true for other musicians, for painters, dancers, actors, writers. Support them in any way you can, if only via a cheery word or “thank you” on social media. Without the arts, life is hollow.