Last night I ventured out to the opera.
Had I written these words in 2019, this would be the start of an opera review — perhaps a recounting of my bucket list adventure watching La Scala’s production of Tosca under starry summer night skies in Rome, or the haunting production of Jenůfa at the Santa Fe Opera that stays with me still. But COVID cleaved the world in 2020, and none of us is the same.
What has been striking for me in catching up with family and friends is how differently we have experienced this pandemic. I can only speak for myself, but as an educator, education administrator, and deaf bioethicist, the past two years have been the most demanding years of my life, rivaled only by that first year of being widowed with an infant and managing eight different legal actions. I write this not to elicit sympathy, but as a point of comparison.
I realize that my years of working 100+ hour weeks in the safety and comfort of my home are nothing compared to what those working on the frontlines of medicine and essential service endure. And I know that those who have lost livelihoods and much more are still suffering deeply. This pandemic has spotlit inequities that we already knew existed, and much work is needed to remedy them.
Over the last several months, I’ve been cautiously venturing out since getting vaxxed and boosted. (Aside, my autocorrect keeps changing ‘vaxxed’ to ‘vexed’ – I suppose there’s an irony in that.)
Early in the pandemic, I maintained my equilibrium with little walks in my beloved Barelas, masked and hypervigilant about physical distance spacing. Once we realized that aerosols were the issue, and once my workload eased, I ventured onto the Rio Grande Bosque Trail on my bicycle, mask on but lowered, letting nature work its magic on the stress that had parked itself in my cells. This small shift in activity felt a little like a ‘reopening’ of my love for nature, which had shut down with the stay home order that chained me to Zoom and my computer screen.
An anxious return to DC last summer heralded the joy of being back in the classroom. Yet masks made teaching stressful in a new way, occluding the grammatical markers of ASL and dampening the discussion. Students refused to wear the clear masks they’d been given on the grounds that they were uncomfortable and messed up their skin. As a faculty member, I felt obligated to wear the masks so that my communication was less impeded. The lively discussions of face to face discourse that I had imagined never really materialized. It may have also been the topic — perhaps it was too soon to offer a course called “Pandemic Bioethics” and expect discussion on the limits of liberty and collective public duty vis a vis masking and vaccinating as we were living it.
Back to the opera.
I knew from the steady stream of emails that the Kennedy Center was checking vaccine status/negative testing status of all ticket holders. I also knew that the age group with the highest rate of vaccination in DC (and also NM) were seniors — a demographic group that has long overlapped with those who go to the opera. I was an age outlier in my early twenties when I discovered this art form (thank you Mills College!), and even at middle age, continue to be an outlier. For perhaps the first time ever, last night I did not lament the lack of age diversity at the opera, but welcomed it.
There’s opera, and there’s contemporary opera.
Most people, upon learning that I, a Deaf woman, am an opera fan, immediately bust loose with a joke about not hearing and opera. (I’ve “heard” them all.) Others remark on traditional opera, with petulant divas, grand ball gowns, and prolonged ariatic deaths – usually by stabbing, sometimes by other means. I’m hardly opposed to traditional opera, but the works that make my heart quicken are contemporary operas — those that take on the heated social issues of our time and work through the complexity in song and simplicity.
A two hour opera production requires honing the elements of conflict to bone. You might think opera is just junk food for this ethicist’s brain — there’s something enormously satisfying about having the nuances of ethical conflict reduced to big picture synopses — but I aver that it is more than that. Last night’s performances in Written In Stone took on the ethical issues I teach on a regular basis — inequities and discrimination in gender, race, sexual orientation, and class. In each of these performances, all woven around the question of monuments and what they mean to us, there was a carving out of positions and a movement towards (but not concluding in) reconciliation and redemption.
As I sip my coffee this morning, my mind is still filled with what I took in last night, and I shall write and reflect more on this in the coming days. Yet what occupies my thoughts most this morning is a poignant musing.
You see, I mostly divide my opera budget between the Santa Fe Opera and the Washington National Opera. For decades now, I have attended with a distant ‘companion’ — the inimitable late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. As the years passed, her quiet entrance to her seat in the darkened theater became illuminated with the hearty applause of the audience. The last opera I attended in Santa Fe happened to be one in which RBG attended, and this time she received a standing ovation.
The late Justice was not in the audience last night, of course, but I like to think that something of her spirit for justice was. Last night’s production opened with an announcement that two members of the orchestra were Ukrainian born, and followed this with a stirring rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem sung by the Written In Stone lead performers. The audience stood, and though the anthem was unfamiliar to most, the sentiment of solidarity was palpable.
Later on, in the concluding lines of the one act opera “It All Falls Down”, the words of the majority opinion of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case rained down on the audience though song:
“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.” 576 U.S. (2015)
I dare say this is the first opera I’ve witnessed in my decades of opera-going that directly quotes from a judicial opinion. I wondered how many others in the audience were making the same connection I did, of the absence of one of our city’s most passionate opera buffs and how the threads of this production harkened to her legacy of justice.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also note the one act opera “Rise”, which tells the story of the Portrait Monument of 1921 of the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. This monument, unveiled in the Capitol rotunda, was moved to the crypt the next day, where it languished sight unseen for 76 years. It took an Act of Congress to bring it back to the public view. I’ve been in the rotunda enough times that I know I’ve seen this monument, but I have now made it a point to really look at it when we are allowed back in the Capitol. This is what good art does, isn’t it? It moves us to a different perspective.
As I began this post with, this isn’t a review of Written In Stone, but rather a reflection — on opera, monuments, and this monumental pandemic that has not yet passed, but may be shifting shape, not unlike those other ‘monuments’ that have been toppling during these times. (I’m not just thinking about those made of stone — I’d include the effects of #MeToo in this mix.)
Although it wasn’t always so, my life now reeks of privilege and I am made discomfitly aware of this. Philosopher by vocation, poet by avocation, I’ve spent this pandemic drowning in a sea of words — emails, scientific articles, bioethics writing, pandemic novels read to teach, meeting agendas, and bad auto captioning ad infinitum.
And yet I have only just started to think and write about this pandemic in a space once removed from the immediate urgent call to respond as a disability bioethicist. This is something of a first foray of sorts back into the terrain of writing for pleasure, not pandemic — a move that feels terribly indulgent and yet maybe even a little bit necessary for the soul, despite my unease.
Cleaved though we are by what this pandemic has wrought, I hope that each of us can find a thing of beauty — whether art or nature — that gives us the opportunity to pause, building fortitude for our monumental journey through these persistently challenging times.