26 December 2007

Passing Fathers

Henri Boutrit’s beech-grove, l’Enclouze, Boxing Day, 2007

I have lost a brace of quasi-kinsmen lately, a band of surrogate fathers: Henri Boutrit, Dick Dennis, Don Goodman, and now Alan Wagner. The world is a good deal lonelier without them. It is the season of my life, a passing of the guard from one generation of fathers to the next; soon enough, it will be my own father’s turn. Yet more important than the loss of each man is the awareness that I have learned and inherited something valuable from each.

Each man was a prodigious host, welcoming me not only into his home but into his family. Don Goodman announced upon meeting me that I was to call him “Uncle Don,” and by golly, I did and still do. That he was not, in fact, any kin of mine now strikes me as an alien and rather hostile notion. Only someone who wishes me ill would dare to point out such a thing. Dick Dennis shared his Thanksgiving table with me for more years than my own family has managed to do. Henri Boutrit threw wide open the larder of l’Enclouze and indeed of all of France, gleefully offering me regional delicacies, explaining them to me and demonstrating the correct means of their consumption.

The glimpse I got of Alan Wagner was almost magical: his home was an enchanted grove, with opera records tumbling out of every available space while loving attendants (his wife Marti and daughters Susan and Liz) stood by. Music was part of the fabric of the family, in a way that would have been unimaginable to me when I was a kid, and when my burgeoning love of opera set me apart from almost everybody else I had ever met.

Alan was a regular panelist on the intermission features of the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and by chance I reconnected with Liz, a friend from Brown, just as I was beginning my career at Opera News. It took no great intelligence to ask Alan to write for the magazine, but my colleagues found the idea terribly clever. Alan had been a driving force behind Sills and Burnett at the Met, a show that I’ve seen precisely once, at its original airing 30 years ago, and that I remember now with crystalline clarity: “We’re only an octave apart,” Beverly sang, explaining to Carol that their voices were really not so different, “Just eight little notes on the musical line — eight little notes between your voice and mine.” Alan and Marti were great friends of Sills, and of the soprano Elisabeth Söderström, as well, and their anecdotes of life with these artists are seasoned with affection and insight.

One doesn’t need to be a musician to care deeply about music, and about musicians, as Alan showed me. I try to be like him. And yet the extraordinary devotion among the Wagners was a kind of music of its own, a little masterpiece of intertwining melodies in the service of a mighty theme, performed by a virtuoso ensemble.

Uncle Don and Nate Goodman, Philadelphia, March 2007

Music was important to Uncle Don, too, who when we met was almost obsessive about scheduling his day to accord with the programming on the classical-radio station. He was an amateur composer, too, and I’ll never forget the night of his son’s first wedding, under a starry Los Angeles sky, when Uncle Don turned to me and urged me to pay close attention to the band’s next song. “I wrote it,” he said, “when I married Libby.” And with that, Uncle Don took in his arms his bride, who is to this day an almost startling beauty, and he and Aunt Libby went off in sweeping circles under the stars, dancing to a melody that belonged to them. It was, as Uncle Don himself might say in his Philadelphia accent, “beauty-full.”

(Uncle Don was as keen to share the bounty of Philadelphia as Henri Boutrit was to share the bounty of France. One day when Nate and I visited him at his office, downtown, Uncle Don was shocked to learn that I’d never had a cheese-steak. He threw us into the street, ordering Nate to get me a sandwich, now. Not a second could be wasted; my future depended on it.)

Dick Dennis loved jazz, and there was something wonderful and intensely moving to see this tough, powerful man melt as he listened to a favorite singer, with a glass of good wine in his hand, in the Vermont countryside. He worked hard to savor those moments. As a young executive with a family in the New Jersey suburbs, Dick often indulged in the highly, highly suspicious behavior of Driving While Black in order to come home in the evenings. He was regularly pulled over by the police until one evening when he politely, perhaps even gently, but very firmly explained that the cops by now surely recognized his car and his face, and that if they continued to pull him over, there would be hell to pay.

Jazz was the right music for Dick, for not very far beneath the playful surface of jazz lies a drive to seize the established order and to reinvent it as something more personal and expressive, more complex and also more satisfying. Some see jazz as an act of rebellion, and often it is, though I find that jazz seldom gets enough credit for its discipline and precision, two qualities not often associated with rebellion. But in any case jazz represents a defiant statement: “This art belongs to me, too, and here is the proof.”

Music played a different role in the Boutrit household, when I knew it: very seldom did I enter l’Enclouze to find the radio playing, for example. Music was really the province of Denise Boutrit, who played piano and who’s known as “la Danseuse” at the nursing home nowadays. Henri’s special music was the French language, and his conversation, his arguments and tirades, were symphonic in scope. He relished odd vocabulary in the Charentais patois (of which enclouze is one example), and he beat the pants off me at Scrabble — in French. Only when he was feeling very, very charitable did he permit me to consult a dictionary. But I’m proud that, the last game we played together, he and I were a team. And we did not lose.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” as the saying goes, and although I was grown when I met these men, each of them helped to raise me. Maybe it’s my upbringing as a Christian, but it comforts me to think that, to the degree that I can carry forward the gifts they shared and the lessons they taught me, they will never really leave me.