My friend George has an impressive musical repertoire and a tenor voice as smooth and mellow as good scotch whiskey. He also has a law degree.
I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years when he came round for coffee the other morning. He and his wife, Marina, a Foreign Service officer and colleague of my husband Ben, are moving to India at the end of the month, and life has been busy on the home front since we met a few years ago in Rome. For one thing, they now have three small children.
In his early forties, George has a handsome intelligent face, strong physical presence and loads of charm. When we first met, he was pursuing a musical career and trying to break into the Italian opera scene. But give or take a couple of successful gigs, that world proved to be a private club to which he didn’t have membership. Since then he and Marina have lived in Brazil and now they are back in Washington and about to move to India.
When he came over for coffee the other morning, with his two youngest children and a nanny in tow, I asked how his singing career was going. That’s when he told me, perfectly calmly, that he had given it up. Now he was making a handsome living as a contract lawyer.
George was giving up singing? Impossible! How could he deprive the world of his wonderful tenor voice, his commanding stage presence? How could he give up his high minded ambitions and join the other side. George of all people couldn’t sell out. I simply couldn’t believe it.
We sat in the garden. Everything was very green and the cardinals were flitting around and chirping in the treetops. George took up a croissant and broke some off and gave a piece to his little boy. “It was a prison,” he told me. “The world has told me that it doesn’t care. So I was in a self inflicted prison.”
“Prison?” I said. “Please, George! You were serving your art! Don’t call rejection over and over again a prison! We all know it’s what you have to put up with as a struggling artist. Rejection is our staple diet – it is the gruel we eat from year to year, always hoping for a proper meal. And it keeps us hungry, keeps us refining our craft.”
“I lived with so many restrictions,” he continued. “No dairy, no wheat. If my voice was to be in optimum shape, I needed at least eight hours of sleep each night. And the warm up every morning, the training, the hours of getting my voice in shape.” He went on to elaborate – discussing his library of libretti and ancient texts while I sipped coffee and listened. The trees cast shadows over the lawn. Now and again George broke off to tend to one of the children, to guide his three year old son away from a wheelbarrow of rock dust, or to move a breakable object out of reach. The nanny who had moved here with them from Rio, carried the baby out across the grass to the hammock while George and I continued to talk.
“I was always learning. Always trying to understand my art more clearly. As an example,” he said, “I probably have thirty recordings of La Boheme.”
After an hour or so, we decided to drop the nanny and children back at George’s house and continue conversing over lunch in a pub at Seven Corners. George and Marina had so many things to settle before they flew out to India at the end of the month. They had to sell the car. They had to work out transportation of their dog and arrangements for their Brazilian nanny. Her English was poor but she could understand Spanish as well as her native Portuguese. And she had an American boyfriend. She had a life here and wanted to stay in America after George and Marina left for India, but that depended on extending her visa. I hoped it would all work out.
We dropped them back home. The children were tired and needed naps. They had the pack-out to face in a few weeks time, bless them. It was going to be a busy month.
As George and I pulled out of his driveway he sorted through some cds in the glove compartment. “For example,” he said. “Before, everything I listened to had to have musical value to me as a singer. Everything had to contribute to the learning curve.”
He handed me a cd. “Rod Stewart?” I said in amazement.
“You see?” he said. “Now I can listen to anything. Now it doesn’t matter. It can be ear candy. It can be anything.” He was released.
“But George. Wasn’t it hard to change your identity so thoroughly? You are a singer. A wonderful singer…”
He shook his head very calmly. “No,” he said. “All the anxiety was leading up to it.
And Amanda, you have to remember, it was my chosen identity. I was the one who had chosen it. Others had not chosen it for me.”
“How did Marina react to all of this?” I asked.
“I think she was relieved,” he said, “to see me released from all that anxiety. The thing is,” he said. “I didn’t need more exposure. I’d had all the exposure I needed. I’d had my picture in the papers sung to large theaters – and I was just so tired of hearing ‘if you just sing this one more piece for free – if you will just donate your time, then this next one will be what makes your operatic career.’
“In contrast,” he continued, “Getting dressed in a 500 euro Armani suit, getting on a plane with my cell phone and flying to Milan for a meeting where I had to translate contracts from English into Italian, that,” he said, “was easy.” He paused with his characteristic charm and measured delivery. “It was easy, compared to singing Faust for 2000 people. The world has said it doesn’t care,” he repeated. And that is the part of our conversation that keeps coming back to me.
“But, George,” I persisted. “Someone has to stand up for these higher values. Someone has to nurture more rarefied endeavors – because your devotion to music has an affect on the mental atmosphere – it is a refining of the ethos and it’s very necessary – it’s crucial to the tone of our lives, not just as individuals but as a community. We can’t all be blunt instruments.”
George laughed. It was a peaceful and wise laugh. He was released of the obligation to be that person.
“What you bring to the tone of things,” I continued, “is terribly important. But I suppose you must bring all that to your work as a lawyer now.”
“Well, I guess you never know how it will play out.”
“All that dedication to your art, to technique, all that careful preparation, it must spill out into other things. Someone without your operatic training,” I said, “would have felt much more daunted getting on the plane and flying to Milan for that high powered business meeting.”
“Yes," he said, “It’s possible.”
Another thing he was happy to let go of: the unspoken criticism of close associates, and other family members who wondered how long he would continue to work so diligently, hoping for a lucky break, hoping to win the lottery before he gave it up. Why is he behaving like this, they seemed to say, spending hours poring over his libretti when he could be pulling in a six figure income as a lawyer?
“To be at last valued for what I do,” he said. “To be paid good money, is very rewarding.”
At the pub we ordered fish and chips. Afterwards the waiter asked us if we’d like dessert. George ordered apple crumble. “With custard or ice cream?” the waiter asked.
“It has to be the ice-cream,” George said with his beautiful smile.
Wow, I thought. George is eating dairy. I watched him finish his apple crumble and realized he was more at peace than I’d ever seen him. Our conversation turned to our children, and various milestones George and Marina were facing with theirs. I shared some of my own child-rearing war stories and we agreed that although careful monitoring was always important, the worry helped nobody. “We worry and we go on and on worrying,” he said. “We worry about our children and their progress – and people worried about us before. But ultimately it all works out. One way or another.”
George and Marina are about to face a 20-hour plane ride to India with three small children. When Ben and I started out in the Foreign Service, we had our share of long plane rides with small children – most memorably to Moscow and to Buenos Aires. But those were only 10-hour flights. God bless George and Marina, heading off to India. I don’t want to suggest to him that 20 hours is going to be a nightmare. He already knows that. When he thought about the flight he simply shrugged his shoulders. “That,” he said, “will have to take care of itself.”