This isn’t about my sister Selma.
It isn’t even really about eavesdropping on Selma and her friend Ellen.
It’s about girls and giggling and what a cultural barbarian I am and how inexcusably irreverent I can be.
I haven’t thought about opera in years and years and years, even though I would never turn down a good listen-to if someone offered me an earful of Puccini with a cup of tea.
Madam Butterfly could never die too dramatically or Mimi cough herself to death too tragically for me. Hell, I can even spare a groan of compassion when everybody seduces, betrays, and jams daggers into everybody else in Pagliacci.
I am not very good at following the storylines, and unless the music is particularly melodious, my attention does have a tendency to wander. But I have, had, should, shall, will, would, did, and do have something in the nature of a vague acquaintance with the art form, per se.
I heard my first aria when I was reclining inconspicuously on the window seat behind the sofa in the living room of the house where I grew up. Selma and Ellen, good students, best friends, and in the cultural avant-garde of our family, were sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace, listening to ... I’m not sure which opera it was, but let’s say that it was La Bohème.
Younger sisters, as a rule, idolize their older sibs. I was no exception. Selma got good grades, won spelling bees, was on the debating team, was pretty, and even had a boyfriend who was a lifeguard. It just doesn’t get any better than that. So, of course, I considered her the be-all and end-all of wisdom, class, and savoir-faire.
There they sat (I peeked periodically over the back of the sofa), expressions of great spirituality on their faces. Music soared, drums roared, and voices lifted exultantly as two great lovers – spinning at 33 1/3rd rpm on our record player – were about to achieve a tragic crescendo resulting in certain death.
I don’t know if it was Selma or Ellen who started to giggle first. The progression of their outbursts was usually both Olympian and predictable, as smooth and seamless as synchronized swimming. This particular eruption began hesitantly, with the dubious tenacity of tippy-toes testing the elasticity of thin ice. Then it gained bravado. Got wider and fuller. Happier and sillier. Less and less reverential.
Giggles turned to laughter. Laughter took over. All control was lost. They flopped hysterically against the floor, stamping their feet, pounding their fists against the rug, tears streaming from their eyes. Laughing so hard that they cried.
Eventually, of course, the eruptions dwindled to chortles, to chuckles, to low-level levity. Then one of them, (they never knew I was there), gleefully whimpered, “All that tragedy. I mean, how much can anyone take!”
That happened when I was about sixteen. I hadn’t thought about my sister’s and her friend’s sacrilegious responses to Puccini for years and years and years.
Until last night.
I was watching a PBS special on something that no doubt has made me more aesthetically refined when, smack dab in the middle of all that brain enhancement, a faintly British voice announced that at 8 p.m. the next day, Great Performances would present the Wagner opera Tristan and Isolde. Layered over the low tone of that announcement were the opulent lyrics of the libretto, sung by voices crafted by the Gods. Melody. Lyrics. Depth. Meaning. Joy. Sorrow. Triumph.
Then, several seconds after all of this mellifluous artistry started to drench the stage, the two singers from whom those glorious sounds emanated waddled in.
She seemed ... She looked ... She was extremely ... large.
The word linebacker comes to mind.
He seemed ... He looked … He was extremely ... rotund.
The words Butterball Turkey come to mind.
There was distress etched onto their faces; there was sorrow battering down the hatches of their hearts. They waddled closer and closer until ... Boing!
My unfortunate mind began to imagine the dénouement.
Those two enormous blimps bounced into each other.
Like two bumper cars at Coney Island.
Isolde – a linebacker wearing way too much lipstick.
Tristan – a seven course Thanksgiving dinner in tights.
First, I chuckled. My chuckle glanced around to see if anyone was looking. Then it crashed through a window and broke into the laughter bank. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Until, of course, (Selma and I aren’t sisters for nothing), I cried.
Aha! I know what you are thinking. That I am an albatross around the neck of culture. That if I had any intellect, I would accept those voluminous vocalists as symbols of the roles that they were interpreting, disregard their ponderous proportions, and suspend my disbelief.
And you are ... you are ... you are ... I was going to tell you that you are absolutely right.
But I just can’t stop laughing.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com