Personal Sabbath

In his essay on Sabbath, recounting a return to his family’s orthodox roots in Jerusalem, Oliver Sacks writes:

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

As a child in the Plymouth Brethren church, we were known more for what we did not do than for what we did. Like Orthodox Jews, our “separateness” was clearly evidenced by the clothes we wore, the company we kept, the head coverings worn, and for keeping holy the christian Sabbath: Sunday. Even today, as I sit writing this in my home a block away from the diamond district in Antwerp, I feel a certain nostalgia as I see Orthodox men and women on the street. I understand well the desire for clarity, for absolutes, and for structure. The community a
nd simplicity of an orthodoxy is appealing if you can get past the discomfort of never fitting in. Indeed, discomfort can be turned into contentment when we are convinced of our choice’s rightness. Our righteousness.

But my parents were realists. They had 5 sons they not only had to protect from the world, but they also had sons with talents that would be better used in a larger context than the Brethren and so they pragmatically sought to pick and choose the rules of our sect. Dependent upon pressure from the scrutiny my trouble-making father was under, Sabbaths were not a hard and fast rule. Corralling 5 boys every Sunday was a tall order when Mom desperately needed a nap. Under periods of more intense scrutiny from the elders we’d be deprived of the pool, or the TV hidden in the attic. But when no one was looking and judging the parents relaxed and boys could be boys. Under these conditions Sunday afternoons were the best day of the week, we could freely play. Under the more austere times, but the boys plight was painfully dreary. No games. No music. Naps were mandatory for everyone.

I have an aversion to napping. Always have. Resting has always been associated with wastefulness, missed opportunities. And that tendency was carried out into the beginning stages of my career. If something was offered, it was done. I broke every rule that would engender personal wellness and filled my time with work, and thinking of work. And the Sabbath of this year’s singing sabbatical and divorce finalized has led me to Sack’s questions:

What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

After pondering these questions, never in my life have I felt like I needed a nap more. What if, at the age of 23, i’d not been released from my church job in San Mateo Presbyterian Church for impregnating another member? What if, out of deep shame and fear, I had not married another who jumped to rescue me and ‘stand by me’ during this personally devastating time? What would have happened if my own family had had the forethought to insist I not get married under such emotionally over-wrought circumstances? Who would I be had I not given in to shame and the impulse to atone? What if I did not live to please others? I’d really like to know that person today.

After hitting my own rock bottom onstage a couple years ago, retreating and rebuilding was a necessity. The mistakes of the past cannot be hidden from, but can only be recognized and embraced. The principal of Sabbath had been preached into me from the Brethren’s Bully Pulpit but it was not something embraced. I think I’m ready to bring it’s principles into my work. Parameters and borders are a good thing. To last in this business, a singer can not entertain every impulse. To stay sane, our personal credo must be strong enough to stand up to the challenges we are faced with.

And so the practice of applying sabbath begins in my own professional life. As I reenter the stage, with the impending production of Fidelio approaching, I’ll try to address the excess we are faced with in modern productions on this blog.

In coming days, I’ll begin to explain where those mistakes were for me. Since I so heavily invested in the Theater of the Now — regietheater — I think it’s important to try to provide clarity to the pitfalls of modern opera-making. We may even have a very special guest in the next few weeks. Opera’s enfant terrible is in town directing Tannhaüser. I’m going to try to sit him down and get some insight to his motives and why he seems to intent on “tearing down the walls of opera.”

Stay tuned!

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