I've discovered myself a passion for Donizetti after I saw Sondra Radvanovsky in Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux at the Metropolitan Opera (it will be one of my great musical regrets that I've never seen her in Anna Bolena, whether at the Met or at the Washington National Opera a few years back) and ended up buying recordings of those operas with Beverly Sills in the leading role, as well as Maria Callas for Anna Bolena. If you're not familiar with opera, we are talking about a recording from 1957 (Anna Bolena), 1969 (Roberto Devereux) and 1971 (Maria Stuarda). You gain a curious respect for time and tradition, as well as an admiration for true super-stars, when you find yourself enjoying records older than you are.
As an academic, you always think you have plenty of time: professors rarely retire when they become eligible and instead many push on well into their seventies. We're encouraged to believe by their example that we can be at the top of our mental faculties for forty years. You rarely see your colleagues decline mentally. But opera has a shorter career span, and while Beverly Sills remains well-known today, she retired from singing in 1980 at age 51, served as the Chairperson of Lincoln Center from 2002 to 2005 and passed away in 2007. Of course, few professional career spans are shorter than athletes, and since I'm not much into sports, I think of dancers. I read the advice somewhere that they should dance thinking it is the last time, which it may well be, because of injury. You savor life differently if that is your frame of mind.
What listening to those opera records has taught me is a sense of how ephemeral certain qualities are, and yet how long-lasting accomplishments can be. Singers' voices don't remain beautiful forever - or at least beautiful enough to make a living from singing professionally - but Sills's and Callas's recordings still lead the field regarding Donizetti operas. In an odd way, they give me a deeper appreciation for the impermanence of life, something that has been on my mind lately for various reasons, including the fact that most of my closest friends from high school and college are turning 40 these days. (Not me, at least not this year.) Many of them happen to have been born in February, March or April, and it stuns me to think that people who were 20 when I met them in engineering school are now double that. (Yes, we're getting ancient.)
Some are happier than others, some have changed a lot. The friend who was the most strongly artistic got married first and went into a paper-pushing job with a nice title. A classmate who sang (pop) in a band quit engineering and decided to sing opera full time after several years in the insurance business. I write novels in my third language and have been nominated to two awards for them. Some of those past friends look closer to 50 than 40, others look like they're 30. I've stayed in touch with some and let friendships with others fade. I see some giving up on their dreams and detect hints of disappointment, although not yet bitterness. The advantage of living in the U.S. is that the concept of reinvention is taken for given, so that the disappointment is not quite as dire as among those friends who stayed in Europe. There is hope, always. But even there things are not always simple. People worry, sometimes, that the great things they were hoping for will never come to pass. You get out of college with big dreams and on occasion your upward path is cut short, or your career never takes off. The gap between the life you wanted to lead and the one you have becomes overbearing. I'm lucky that my day job has been going well and as a writer I can think of plenty of people who have launched their career late. The fact that old friends are turning 40 before I do helps me prepare for the milestone. But the best preparation is listening to Beverly Sills sing Elizabeth I, knowing she knew she wouldn't always stay at the top, and enjoying every moment.
Here is the Beverly Sills recording of Roberto Devereux (Charles Mackerras conducting) that I'm talking about. Listen to it. Sills's mastery will awe you.