06 September 2012

Blair P. Coleman

Ann and Blair, on the day he joined our family.

My godparents arrived at that designation rather belatedly and unofficially: it wasn’t until my godmother came to visit me at the offices of Opera News that she suggested the title change, since “my mother’s best friend who took me to the opera when I was 13” was an unwieldy introduction. (And that is, in fact, a significantly shorter version than the one I used as I introduced her to each boss and colleague in turn.) The more I thought about it, though, the righter the word seemed. Ann and Blair had, in various ways, been carrying out the duties of godparents for years already.

And not least in the realm of music. Ann and Blair had season tickets to the performances of the Metropolitan Opera on tour in 1975, and Blair knew far in advance that a schedule conflict meant he wouldn’t be able to use one of the tickets. So Ann invited me, with the result that I heard Beverly Sills — in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth — for the first time. I’d never encountered anything more thrilling in my young life. After the show, we went backstage to meet Miss Sills, and I remember quite distinctly that neither Ann’s feet nor mine ever touched the ground once as we left Fair Park Music Hall and crossed the parking lot. Physically, this was of course impossible, but physics don’t matter much when you’re an opera fan — and from that moment, I was one.

Yes, the credit here goes mainly to Ann, who chose me though she might have invited almost any other escort to the hottest show in town that night. But over the years I began to see that, culturally, I was in many ways created in Blair’s image. And as time went by he took greater delight in sharing with me the singers he loved. It’s because of him that I finally sat down and listened attentively to Leontyne Price and Eileen Farrell, for example, two artists whose work I’d taken (shamefully!) for granted until then. Blair scoured record stores and duped videotapes to improve my own collections — and then insisted on knowing my reactions to what I’d heard, because for him that was the real fun of sharing.

Blair P. Coleman, M.D.

It’s entirely possible that I’d have gravitated to opera sooner or later, even without the influence of Ann and Blair. As a disdainful East German (the worst kind) once remarked to a friend, “Oh, you Americans. Whenever you are ready to be taken seriously as intellectuals, you turn to opera.” Heaven knows, I have always yearned to be taken seriously as an intellectual: it may have been merely a matter of time.

But the reality is that, if I hadn’t gotten that early start, I might not have been up to speed as a young man, when my first job out of college was at the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. I might not even have recognized Teresa Stratas when she knocked at the door to my office; without Teresa’s mentoring, I’d have missed out on Rags and the adventure of a lifetime.

If I hadn’t gotten that early start, I’d almost certainly not have been qualified to work at Opera News, and so would have missed a privileged perch from which to watch countless performances that have enriched me aesthetically and also spiritually. I’d almost surely have been too ignorant to seek out Ewa Podles´ or Thomas Quasthoff, to name just two examples. I might never have attended the 9/11 benefit when Leontyne Price came roaring out of retirement to sing the pride of a wounded nation. For want of such experiences, I’d have been much less a person.

On vacation in Colorado.

In much the same way I’d have been less a man without the friendships I’ve found in Opera World, among those artists who uplift me even when they’re not singing. As Ann and Blair have uplifted me, too, and steered both my brother and me through stormy seas.

Did Ann and Blair have any idea what they set in motion the night they placed Blair’s ticket in my hand? Perhaps not — at least, not in any specific sense. But this is what it means to be a godparent or a mentor. You take charge of some aspect of a child’s life like a field of rich soil freshly tilled. You may scatter seeds more than you plant them. And then you watch them grow where they will. A tomato here, a beanstalk there.

“Careful the things you say! Children will listen,” Mr. Sondheim’s friends reminded me just a couple of weeks ago. I wound up listening to opera. Which led to languages and books, histories and paintings, lives and emotions I’d never have been able to imagine on my own.

Within months of Siege of Corinth, I was back at Fair Park Music Hall, sitting in Beverly Sills’ dressing room, conducting my first-ever interview and launching my journalistic career.

As I’ve played the role of godfather in the lives of my friends’ children — sometimes even less officially than Blair did in mine — I’ve been conscious of the power and also of the chance involved. You can give a kid the Oz books who’ll never crack the spines, and yet when the same kid takes his date to the art museum, you think, “Yeah, some of that inspiration may be mine.” One way and another, my godchildren love theater and old movies and great art and good cooking — and football and calculus, computers and kayaks. I’d hoped at least one or two of my godchildren might develop a taste for opera, but so far I’m still waiting. Patiently. Because that’s how this works. And by the same token, they’re still waiting for me to develop a taste for football.

It’s not about turning out a generation of Mini-Mes. But it is about turning out a generation that you’d like to sit back and have a conversation with. People you’re rather glad to know, and look forward to seeing. People who are — just maybe — a little bit better than they might have been, because of something you once did or said.

Blair at the Fort Worth Opera Festival,
with Ann, Darren Woods, and me.

Blair remained a music-lover to the end of his days. I held out the hope that he’d rally somehow and be able next year to make the trip from Wichita Falls to Fort Worth (as he did so many, many times) for my debut as the Major-Domo in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. He loved German composers, after all, and our opening night falls just two days after what would have been Blair’s 90th birthday — and 38 years after the night he gave me his ticket to hear Beverly Sills.

In some spirit, I know I’ll dedicate the performance to him. But, oh! How I’d have liked to have shared the moment with him, to give him a (gentle) poke in the ribs and to say, “Do you see what a fine mess you’ve gotten me into?”

With one of my godsons, Tom.
I’m sure I don’t know what you mean when you say that you see my influence.

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