I was on the West Coast for a gig. We'd been married a little less than a year, and it was the first time we'd been apart for any length of time. Eric called and woke me up. "A plane just flew into one of the towers at the World Trade Center," he said. And I didn't get it at first. It was the same as when my world religions teacher announced to the class that the Challenger had exploded. In my sheltered little world, stuff that bad, that enormously horrible and ugly, just didn't happen. It took my privileged middle class white girl mind a while to wrap around it.
It's weird to me now to think that the young people, those who were little at the time or hadn't been born yet, don't *get* how much that day changed the world, changed America --- hell, changed the opera world --- and set in motion or at least added fuel to the events we're living through today. The Greatest Generation must feel the same about my generation and Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is just history to me --- I understand that it was devastating, but it's just so far removed. It's just the way of the world, I guess.
My grandmother would not talk to me about the Great Depression. All I know about my family's history with World War II is that I had great uncles who went to fight and didn't come back; that my French father-in-law was sent to the country to live with his grandmother and sometimes stole potatoes so they could eat; and that my husband's grandfather was a French Resistance hero who escaped a Nazi prison camp to join the RAF, where his plane blew up on the tarmac and killed the entire crew except for him, and due to a clerical error his family believed he was dead for two years.
But these are just stories to me, with no deeper emotions attached. They're often second- or third-hand. The people who lived them didn't like to talk about them much. They didn't need to relive those times.
I was on the opposite coast when 9/11 occurred. I watched the second plane fly into the tower on CNN. The notion of people jumping and falling was only a horrible rumor.
But I remember how lost and helpless I felt, we all felt. I remember wishing there were something I could do to help, like the violinist who went down to the wreckage every day and played for the first responders. The airports were a mess. I didn't know how I was going to get home, or if Eric would be able to come out and join me for a post-gig vacation as we'd planned. No one knew what was going on.
What did go on was our show. Falstaff, at Opera San Jose. I had a show the day after 9/11. It was packed. The cast came onstage to sing The Star-Spangled Banner before the performance. We always did that, but this time, as you can imagine, it was incredibly meaningful. We all went in to work that day wondering how we could stand on that stage and enact Verdi and Shakespeare's great comedy. How we could sing "Tutto nel mondo è burla". We found our answer in our audience, who, we --- or at least I --- learned, we were there to serve. I learned my real purpose as an artist that night. I learned that once I stand up in front of people, it's not about me. It's never about me. It is about the people who have paid money to see me. It is my job to entertain them, to move them, make them laugh and cry and think. To take them away from their lives for a few hours.
On 9/11, as it turns out, that was a very important service. I remember thinking, as we performed, "How can people even laugh right now? How can I do this, pretend like nothing's wrong?" And the answer came to me as I was performing. They could laugh because they desperately needed a laugh. They desperately needed to forget the horror for just a tiny bit of time. And we, the performers, we could give that to them.
Performing, making art, is often seen as selfish, but I am here to tell you that even under circumstances less dire, done properly, making art is an act of generosity. We give of ourselves. We open our hearts and souls. Of course we get back, but we give.
On 9/11, we gave, and friends, it was a small bit of healing for all of us. I can't speak for my colleagues, but by the time we got to the finale, "Tutto nel mondo è burla" was bittersweet but sincere. If we could find laughter in a time like this, we could find hope, and all would not be lost.
This is why I tell this story. Other people’s stories are much, much worse. Some of my friends stay away from social media and the news on this day. They were there. They lived through it. Like my love ones who survived the Great Depression and World War II, they can't or don't want to relive it.
I tell my story because I can. It is important to me that the stories of those of us who can and will speak, do. That these stories, and whatever lessons they may contain, are not lost. And so that I myself don't lose sight, in the busyness of life and in the ups and downs of my profession, what's truly important.
People. The way we treat each other. The gifts we are capable of giving each other. Living a life of conscientious love and kindness and compassion.
Maybe if we, as a nation, were better at doing that, we wouldn't be where we are today. But I can't take on a nation.
I can only try to do better myself.