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The Burden of Bearing God's Gift


Years ago, in high school, I had a sweetheart who was a soprano. She mostly sang Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.

I recall asking her once how she came to have such a lovely voice. She replied that while singers needed to study vocal technique, music theory, foreign languages, etc., the voice itself was "a gift from God."

Like many gifted musicians, however, she was also talented in other areas. Eventually she decided to forsake an operatic career to teach American literature at a college in upstate New York.

I thought of her a couple of weeks ago when I attended the preliminary rounds of the annual Baltimore Opera Contest. The competition attracts singers from around the country who compete for cash prizes and contracts with the opera during its regular season.

Some people, I know, are put off by opera. But I've always been fascinated by the pomp and spectacle of the thing.

Since I don't speak German or Italian I usually have to rely on the surtitles projected above the stage to understand what's going on. Occasionally I get the recording and read through the libretto beforehand.

This strikes some of my friends as a rather tedious way of entertaining oneself. "Sounds like work," they say. I tell them, "It's worth it when the soprano hits high D."

Anyway, I had a particular reason for stopping by the opera contest this year: An aspiring diva from New York City whom I met a year ago when she sang at Howard University's annual "Black Stars from the Met" concert in Washington was to be among the contestants.

She commanded an imposing presence, being possessed of the kind of lush, dramatic voice that lends itself especially to portrayals of the famous Verdi and Puccini heroines. But she hadn't gotten her big break yet, despite having sung in the Metropolitan Opera chorus and performed important roles in regional companies. So she was counting on making a splash in Baltimore to get her career on track.

I wish this story had a happy ending, but the truth is she didn't win. Not surprising, really: More than 100 entrants competed for the three prizes awarded this year. Obviously, most were going to be disappointed even though they were all fine musicians. Still, I wasn't prepared for so much bitter heartbreak.

The contest was divided into three parts. Those who passed the preliminaries, scheduled for the middle of the week, advanced to the semifinals on Friday. The semifinal winners went on to the finals Saturday at Peabody Conservatory.

My friend was scheduled to sing in the preliminaries at 1:45 p.m. Thursday. She arrived from New York by train that morning laden with bags containing three days worth of costumes and clothing. To save money, she planned to stay with a girlfriend rather than in a hotel. But she still had to dip deeply into her savings in order to finance the trip.

I stopped by the preliminaries that afternoon. I recall watching one young tenor and thinking: "Yes, he's got the gift." But then I thought: What a burden it must be to spend one's life serving such a gift -- nurturing it, carrying it around from place to place trying to please people with it yet never knowing whether it would please enough even to earn train fare back home.

My friend came onstage and performed her aria, and afterward, rather than sit around biting our nails, we went to lunch.

We got back just as the judges were announcing the day's winners. When her name wasn't called I sensed the tears before I saw them. She was sitting very quietly as two glistening rivulets of water washed down her cheeks.

Then she rushed off to retrieve her bags from the dressing room. She was fumbling at the door of the hall when I caught up with her.

"If I hurry I can still get the 6 o'clock back to New York," she cried. "What a waste, what a waste!"

I drove her to the station and carried her bags on board. A little trail of tears fell on the carpet behind her as she walked up the aisle.

On Friday, the company's artistic director told the semifinalists: "I want you to remember that even if you don't win, you all have a wonderful gift," he said. "You have the gift of music, and that makes each of you very special."

A nice touch. But afterward he told me that one year a young woman had been so distraught that she committed suicide.

Oh yes: The guy who finally won was terrific. He bore the burden of his gift with great style and he was also lucky, as all winners are. My friend will be OK, too; she's tough and determined and understands that heartache comes with the territory. Still, I found myself wishing having the gift didn't so often seem to mean crying all the way home.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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