The alternate title for this blog post was “Mom’s homosexual ex- husband”. If that sounds like a subject that would interest you, please read on.
My mom’s first love was Mike. According to her, they were married for ten years (I never quite know if she embellishes the truth but I think this one is factual). For nine of those 10 years, both my mother and Mike knew that Mike liked men.
My mom describes it like this: they were madly in love and were best friends. Mike loved Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland just as much as she did. In fact, as a wedding gift to my mother, he decorated their entire bedroom with Barbra Streisand posters.
As a kid, Uncle Mike was always a part of my life. He lived in the south and was working as a very successful Opera director. He was in a relationship with a wonderful man named Gary and the two of them came to visit now and then. I believe Mike’s mother was convinced I was his child, an error which neither my mother nor Mike ever had the heart to correct. In 2011 when my grandfather passed away, Uncle Mike was one of four men to carry his coffin down the church aisle.
All this to say, Uncle Mike has always been a member of my family. I never quite knew if he felt as organically attached to me as I felt to him until recently.
Namaste and please see below.
ON THE OCCASION OF EMMA’S BIRTHDAY, 16 June, 2016
Twenty-seven years ago last week on your actual birthday, June 16th , I was called out of a DON GIOVANNI dress rehearsal at the Cleveland Institute of Music to take a telephone call that would announce that you, Baby Emma, had stepped across the threshold from the nether to the human, arriving healthy and beautiful into the World.
After that call, excited, no, elated, I raced back into the theater, where it should have been my intention to put the information of the jubilant phone call aside so that I could return my full attention to the progress of this final DON GIOVANNI run-through without orchestra. Indeed, to allow the rehearsal to continue uninterrupted was my conscious intention, and for the first several seconds back in the hall, I stuck with it. But the news I had just received was so enormously happy that, like the peppy, busy, effervescent bubbles we have all seen work on countless sinks full of greasy dishes in myriad soap commercials, my excitement, that is, my ELATION quickly bubbled away at any focus I had managed to hold onto. Further, it sent swirling and whirling down the drain my conviction that the only time the word ‘stop’ could be applied to a dress rehearsal was on the rare occasion during which NOT to use it would almost certainly result in disfigurement or death.
Thus ecstatic over the news of your arrival, and having lost not only my resolve to focus on the rehearsal but also my commitment not to stop it, I was ripe to experience a startling moment of blind impetuosity, which lead, several seconds later, to the recognition of the ‘S Word’ as it flew from my mouth. Understand that to shout the ‘S Word’ in a conventional staging rehearsal is not something I have difficulty over. But, as was drummed from Day #1 into my understanding of the methods and techniques of staging a show, run-throughs and dress rehearsals are sacred events whose secrets are revealed in full via the continuity that can only come when they are allowed to proceed uninterrupted.
In other words (and if I have not yet completely made my point): to stop a dress rehearsal is a BFD.
It never occurred to me that, should the time ever come in which I had to curtail a dress rehearsal that it would an easy thing to do. But when, on your birthdate, I found myself doing exactly that, I was shocked that it happened with an effortlessness that had, no doubt, for centuries, inspired comparisons to everything from falling from atop a log, to the baking of a pie, to the recitation of the first three letters of the English alphabet. Unthinking, I had executed the unthinkable action, and it was an endeavor of such simplicity, that I entirely failed to be surprised by the result, which was, of course, that it worked: rehearsal stopped.
DON GIOVANNI is a magnificent work of art, and within the somewhat limited scope of the resources available to us at Lyric Opera Cleveland on that June afternoon, we (performers, Donald Sherrill, Connie Dykstra, Jody Peterson, Hillary Nicholson, John Vergilii, Dale Ganz and Richard Lewis; designers, Rusty Smith and Michael Baumgarten; conductor, Steve Larsen; chorus master, Marti Bein; a really good bunch of Apprentice Artists and myself) were doing our best to honor that magnificence. No doubt, the passing years have, to some extent, artificially magnified the degree to which true brilliance was achieved during the course of the production, but I think it is entirely possible that we were succeeding, at least to the extent that made stopping this dress rehearsal especially questionable. Under the circumstances, however, and as the seconds following my use of the ‘S Word’ piled up, it grew ever-clearer to me that I had made the right decision for some very important reasons.
In the first place, stopping the rehearsal was important because as soon as the news of your birth had seeped into the common knowledge (which, knowing me, would probably have happened before the next break), there would be no way to stay focused on the show. At least if I made an announcement, the event could be openly if briefly celebrated, discussed and digested, following which, we stood a much better chance of getting some work done.
Secondly, there was no better way to set up the GIOVANNI people (my intended audience) to receive a certain devastatingly clever, ha-ha funny, special, silly, thought-it- up-myself announcement that, given the occasion, I was dying to deliver. In other words, by stopping the rehearsal, I had created the perfect set up for a very silly announcement I had wanted to make since the day I found out that your Mother was pregnant. Here’s how it worked: I run out of rehearsal, take the phone call, ooh and aah appropriately, hang up, run back into rehearsal, call it to a screeching halt, muster up as much self-satisfied legitimacy as possible, then take my moment and intone to the entire company of Lyric Opera Cleveland’s DON GIOVANNI that, based on information from the phone call I had just received, I was proud to announce that:
You had been born
You and Kristen were doing well, and
I, at last, was a Fairy Godfather.
The third excellent reason for stopping the rehearsal was, in actuality, the only legitimate, serious one, and it revolved around the concepts of family and shared energy, and it celebrated the belief that anything is possible because everything in the Universe is not just connected to everything else, but is dependent for its survival upon that connection. I don’t know when this rather profound thought occurred to me, but I do know that sometime between the time I walked out of Kulas Hall to receive that phone call and the moment I invoked the ‘S Word, it occurred to me that probably every performing and design artist, technician and administrative staffer involved in my rehearsal that day; that is, everyone currently expending gobs of creative energy on Lyric Opera Cleveland’s DON GIOVANNI knew and loved your Mother; probably knew Peter as well. In addition, the vast majority of that group was surely aware not only of the fact of my graft- like existence upon your family tree, but also of a great number if not all of the details of exactly how, when, where and why I had gotten there.
So the main reason that I had to stop that rehearsal was, clearly, because even though I might have been the person most primed to receive the phone call that announced your arrival; and the one closest in relationship terms to the key personnel, it stood to reason that if I was, by extension, a part of the Blodgette-Atherton family, the same rights and privileges should extend, logically, to everyone currently in the room with me. I mean . . . it was a no-brainer. We were all beneficiaries not only of the news of Emma as blessed event, but also of the blessed event itself. It occurred to me that you, Baby Emma, had pockets of family not just in however many Blodgettes and Athertons were, at that moment crowded around your tiny self in Manhattan, but also in whomever was holding down the fort in Fairview Park, and among my family in Charlotte and elsewhere, and wherever else those in the know were tuned in to the pulse of your imminent arrival. Pondering the steady rise of the sheer number of connections that day brought me back to myself, and I realized all over again, that there was a whole stage-full of DON GIOVANNI participants, and, by further extension, most of the entire Lyric Opera Cleveland family from whom heartfelt offers of “Happy Birthday, Baby Girl” and “Congratulations, Kristen” were bursting to issue forth.
So, rehearsal definitely stopped, my ‘hilarious’ Fairy Godfather thing said (and greatly appreciated), the group excitement and an interlude of well-wishing and breathless questions began:
How was Kristen?
Boy or girl? What did they name the baby?
Does the baby have red hair?
Did she emerge wearing a PHANTOM OF THE OPERA SHOW show jacket?
Did she emerge wearing tap shoes and a straw boater?
Did she emerge singing ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’?
Did she emerge wearing tap shoes and a straw boater, and singing ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’?
There was much congratulatory hand shaking, many hugs, some misty eyes. Every little conversational group generated outbursts of laughter inspired in one cluster by the retelling of some of the great Kristen stories of the past:
Remember Schoenberg’s ‘Gorilla Eater’?
Remember the three-day/three ounce Ratatouille?
Does this SOUND like the Family Owl??
Remember ‘Allegro agitato, allegro agitato?’
Remember her sharing the keyboard with a very famous Broadway composer who, suffering a panic attack smack in the middle of a gala, public tribute to himself, deserted her onstage to finish it solo?
. . . and, in another cluster, speculations, now that Kristen would have a baby in tow, of the great Kristen stories that were yet to come:
Will Kristen take the baby to auditions?
Will she consult with the baby when she takes her to auditions?
Will Kristen have the baby in the pit with her?
Will NY State child labor laws apply if the baby’s only activity in the pit is to sleep? What if she sings? Plays the piano? Conducts? And what if she isn’t in the pit at all because she prefers Field Hockey, poor Kristen!
The interlude, happy, full of good wishes, of questions, and speculation and story telling was brief. There was work to be done, and everyone knew it. And so, as informative as the break had been, and as energetic and animated, it didn’t have the effect upon the resumed rehearsal that another, more typical unscheduled interruption might. I remember, as we returned to GIOVANNI mode, that the work energy had been strongly maintained, the group focus was sharp, and rehearsal resumed as if there had been no interruption in the first place. The whole rehearsal seemed, in fact, to be several clicks more advanced toward opening night readiness than it had been an hour earlier.
Then, several days later, when the Lyric Opera Cleveland DON GIOVANNI opened to enthusiastic reviews and great audience response, I remember thinking back to the phone call that interrupted dress rehearsal, of the joyous news shared, of the elevated levels of focus and energy that it triggered, and I also remembered the unshakable sense that the growth experienced that day was disproportionately high and had a far greater significance than one would imagine possible given the fact that the group population had increased in number by only one, tiny baby.
Given the identity of that baby, it could be argued, of course, that I might be just a tiny bit predisposed to read more cosmic significance into your arrival than might otherwise be noted under the scrutiny of a less biased evaluator. But it is not in the nature of a Fairy Godfather to be unbiased. It is, in fact, part of my job description to notice, in the case of certain, special people, certain special qualities. The GIOVANNI production was to be, in the course of things, one of Lyric Opera Cleveland’s proudest achievements, but to point that out in connection with the interrupting phone call would be to reduce your place in the story to merely that of, say, a favorable omen, and I think it is so much more than that.
From the day of the Emma phone call, let’s fast-forward twenty-seven years. Rusty Smith’s remarkable color set rendering for the Lyric Opera Cleveland DON GIOVANNI hangs on the wall above me to the left, and, at my right, on the desk, is a framed copy of the logo I derived from one of your baby pictures, years ago when I needed a presence behind the name of the baker/cater company I founded in Atlanta and called . . . well, you know, EMMA.
So, what does all of this mean, these thoughts and memories, these connected images, repeated themes and discernable patterns? And, really . . . these entities, are they really connected. Are there repeated patterns to be found among all that is random? Are images discernable amid incoherent streams of thought? Are they, these entities, in actuality, simply a collection of the great unconnected, pieces of a giant, disparate collage, globs and bits of the cosmic random onto which our brains, desperate to find a shred of logic here, a relationship there, or a clue (any clue) that will help project a big (bigger, biggest) picture in which, somehow, it all means . . . something.
Well, I certainly don’t know about all of that. I mean, not in the deepest, most cosmic of meanings. Life, I know, presents events and ideas and feelings, all of which we weigh in, categorize and assess in degrees ranging from those of most insignificance to heaviest profundity. Those things we deem most profound are those to which we attach the greatest significance. They get our attention and our energy, and, as a result, they have the greatest influence on our lives, or so it would seem. I mean . . . they exert the most gravity.
We are told not to sweat the small stuff, and, further, that it is all small stuff. But, on the other hand, is it not the small stuff, the wrong number, the missed train, the detail overlooked, the clue barely glimpsed, the almost perceived, the whispered, the misty, the random flash upon which we are most likely to obsess. Are these not the things in life that most populate our dreams, our hidden compulsions, our strange and inexplicable actions? So, I say, no, don’t sweat the small stuff, but don’t ignore it either. Acknowledge it as much as possible, and celebrate it when appropriate. Flout the common wisdom. Refuse to see yourself as one of many. Embrace your significance, understanding that your smallest actions are capable of generating reactions that reverberate unto the profound. We are all cause and effect. Just because we do not seem to have the capacity to track the affects of our energy doesn’t release of from the responsibility of acknowledging its power.
Our amazing, seemingly effortless capacity to generate connections, to form families, to exert influence should be one of our greatest qualities. Our embarrassing tendency to discount our own, individual worth, downplay the significance of our singularity, deflect attention away from our strengths reduces us to a population of unwitting saboteurs of the human condition. Yours, I think, is the first generation who can begin to save us the seemingly endless trend that focuses us more and more upon our selves and results in the Catch-22 of polarization we see all around us. You, by understanding the positive effect that the individual can have upon the greater good can start to make a change, to reverse our spiral into the relentlessly selfish before we all become, in sum total, our own Facebook page incarnate.
But finally (finally), if there is anything I think that you (and, while we’re at it, I) might benefit from having taken away from this philosophical ramble on the occasion of a birthdate remembered, it would be on the important, actually vital subject of family. I know that for you, at age 27, having grown up bombarded from all sides by the enormous amount of love and support that came to you from your immediate family, ever to wonder about or question the presence of family in your life must seem a ludicrous, highly hypothetical situation. And so should it seem that way. That, in a way, is my point. But, the notion of family, as I’m sure you must realize, can possibly extend way beyond attributes like genealogy and DNA. Family is also shared connections and history, the ability of one side to bring out the best in another. It is learning from and teaching to. It is about knowing that somewhere, somehow, you will always be a part of a bigger something whose every fiber resonates with you. It is the drawing out of inspiration and the ability to motivate the better parts of ourselves—all attributes of that day, just over 27 years ago when I got called out of a DON GIOVANNI rehearsal because I had received a phone call from which I was about to receive the most exciting news.
Happy Birthday, Emma, and much love from your Fairy Godfather.