Some time ago, I happened to hear a recital by one of the great Metropolitan Opera mezzo-sopranos. Opera lovers will know her name well. When my wife and I lived in New York, she was one of our favorites at the Met.
The nice thing about a recital like this is that you get to hear all of your favorite arias all in one swat. It can, of course, be argued that this isn’t what opera is about — all icing and no cake, so to speak. It does a disservice (so the objection might run) to the real genius of opera to lump miscellaneous arias together like this, cut off from the whole musical setting that should draw the audience along toward the thrill of the aria. Nevertheless, such recitals are a great source of pleasure.
At the end of this performance, the audience rose for a standing ovation, which was quite the right thing to do in this case. The clapping and cheering went on and on, and the grateful soprano bowed again and again. Finally she signaled for quiet, and made a little speech, the theme of which was her overflowing love for the audience. "I love you," she told the people. "I love you."
One of the pleasures attending on these occasions — opera, theater, ballet, concerts, recitals — is this intense and happy exchange between artists and audience. We step out from the rigorous protocol that presides over the performance itself and give spontaneous voice to our joy, one of whose aspects seems to be this effusion of mutual affection. We feel that we do indeed love the artist, and she us.
The phenomenon raises an interesting point. The "love" that suffuses things in such a situation rushes upon us the audience in response to something gloriously executed. For the artist, it overflows in response to the outpouring of adulation certifying the splendor of her achievement. Most of us mortals will never know quite this happy experience since our own work is, more often than not, somewhat humdrum, and rarely entails much of an audience.
I found myself mulling over that "I love you." No doubt the woman expressed, quite sincerely and accurately, the feelings that suffused her whole being in response to the ovation. Why — all of these people here are clearly wonderful people, full of happiness and love, and they are so very generous in their appreciation for my own work here on the stage. How can I not love them?
Who will cavil?
The dynamics might possibly alter somewhat if she were to encounter me under other circumstances. She loved me while I was clapping: What about when I cut off her car in traffic, or cut into line at the grocery store? (This imagines that she drives herself and does her own shopping.) She loved me while I was clapping: Suppose her desk were next to mine month after month, and she found me querulous, petty, vain, and altogether tedious? She loved me while I was clapping: What if she discovered the sort of a person I really am?
She is not likely to be put to this test. But it does raise some piquant questions about the conditions under which we find ourselves able to say that we love someone else. For her that night, all was bliss, as it was for us in the audience. Love seemed to preside over the whole glorious occasion. Love was, shall we say, easy.
But would this love (our adulatory love; her grateful love) have sustained the tests that love worthy of its name is asked to sustain? St. Paul’s porcelain filter might bring on somber reflections.
Love is patient, he says. But the lady hadn’t been asked to put up with me. Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, believes all things, and never ends.
It may very well be the case that our mezzo-soprano is filled with just the sort of love of which St. Paul speaks. But her pledge to the audience that night scarcely needed to draw upon this heroic and selfless love — a point with which she would no doubt agree.
In the ordinary run of things, the school of love may or may not offer to us the blissful and intense moments on whose wings we may breathe out such happy and spontaneous exhalations. Nevertheless, to enter the long school of this love — it is the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost — and to reach the end of the course is to find a bliss unimaginable even to the happy moments like that recital, when "love" did not seem to make any very searching demands.
Thomas Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.