Little Sir Echo and the Opera Singer

by Raymond R. Gilliar | 11/26/97 6:00am

For millennia, people have expressed feeling through music. Opera, one forum for vocal passion, rides on powerful booms (and satin-soft waves) of melody and harmony. The question is: Is opera as stentorian as, or any match for, a baby's yowl? Hearken to my story, a case in point.

Dartmouth College holds a host of activities for students. These can occur in various places (the confines of fraternities, dorm clusters...), and they provide erudition and sometimes amusement. A few weeks ago in the Collis Common Ground, Natalyn Cuevas '96 gave an opera performance. She was accompanied by a dapper man on piano.

Prior to the performance, two women, formally attired, served opera cake and champagne (or sparkling cider for those not yet of age) at the back of the room. This was my first experience with opera cake, and it was not without a ... peculiar savor. Opera cake (I am hoping the cake we were given is a normative example) has an odd combination of textures, in layers: granular white icing, spongy vanilla cake, brand-x pudding chocolate, semi-frozen strawberry paste, more cake, and so on. The cider was very good.

Cuevas opened the evening by singing "Una Donna Quindici Anni," which, thanks to my Italian class, I know to mean "a woman of fifteen years." It is a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and she rendered it deftly. Her voice commanded the space and silenced the audience. There was not a peep to be heard throughout the room, not a distraction, not even a whispered compliment. She was very good.

The second piece began without event as well, an exceptional work by Handel. The piano keys vibrated and Cuevas's voice resonated through the room, neither instrument knowing that they were about to be a trio. As Cuevas flexed her octaves, from a row at the front of the magenta chairs (right isle) came the sound of a baby's assertion. It was the kind of noise that makes you turn your head in a manner which implies "shush" and "awwh" in the same physical phrase.

Because this is a common response at any event where silence is de rigeur, where the air is thick, where the amusement level is down, where the pacifier is on the floor or the diaper is no longer pristine--because interruption is unacceptable, it was not interesting that a baby had joined the performance. Rather, it was amazing that he came in on cue. The infant was up to tempo and in sync with singer. He amplified the effect of her enunciation, contributing a cacophonous staccato, ever so unflattering.

When a baby is crying, or whimpering, or sending a message ("I need something! Get me out of here!"), the parent usually obliges straight-away in order to avoid inconvenience to the other patrons. If not, in a movie theater there is sudden anger from people who paid too much for seats, at a play there is snooty incredulity at the audacity of the progenitor (the baby-maker), and at a football game the baby is painted half green, half blue, with a block of cheese on its head, and no one cares. But this happened to be at the opera in Collis, on a college campus where curiosity supersedes umbrage.

The song ended, and this was viewed as the finale of the trio. Any need to remove the baby was forgotten. As Cuevas sipped water before her next song, the baby's silence seemed permanent.

After a short round of applause, Cuevas began her third piece, "O Mio Babbino Caro." The little guy up front was quiet. But I was still waiting, anticipating another outburst. At a fortissimo note, he cried out, once again in vocal lockstep with Cuevas. But this time he did not settle for one accompanying note. He followed the first with others, all seemingly in accord with the score, not by tone or even by note, but by timing.

The cry of a baby can change the course of an evening. Unlike the songs of crickets and birds that fill the air outside our windows and can be eliminated by lowering the sash, a baby's cry is never background. Yet, like birdsong, and opera, it is noticeable when it stops.

After the baby's third attempt at virtuosity, the person holding him went to stand at the back of the room. I was skeptical about this solution at first, but, after hearing several songs absent the babe, my doubts were allayed. The child was truly becalmed. I did not turn around to keep tabs, but I did wonder what had occasioned this tranquillity ... given their proximity to the champagne. I know it always makes me sleepy.