(Today is my grandmother’s birthday. I originally posted this on a now defunct blog http://twomatts.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/remebering-ruby-agatha/)
This past Saturday was my grandmother’s birthday, so it was fitting that I was in New York enjoying The Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra with guest soloist soprano Kristina Henry. My friend Sarah, who plays viola, invited me to attend, and since I have a soft spot for artistic events that feature my friends, I decided to battle the Bridge and Tunnel crowd on a Saturday night and head out to Park Slope.
I’m so glad I did.
The concert took place in the St. Saviour High School’s gymnasium. St. Saviour was founded in 1917 as a college prep school for women. Somehow that seemed ideal for the feel of the evening, that and the first snow fall of the season. The school fits so easily into the row of Brownstones that I missed it at first. Now if you think a concert in a high school gym sounds hokey, it wasn’t. The venue leant a coziness to the evening. And when Ms. Henry joined the orchestra of more 70 members to perform two of Verdi’s most challenging arias (“Caro Nome” from Rigoletto and “Ah fors e lui” from La Traviata), the gymnasium felt like a concert hall, but here everyone had orchestra seats.
I was skimming the lyrics when Ms. Henry burst (that’s the word for it) into song, so, for a moment, I heard her before I looked up and saw this beautiful black woman wooing the audience. I confess that for a millisecond I felt surprise when I saw Ms. Henry, but then I chuckled at my own assumptions, especially my assumptions. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to look up and see a black woman singing Verdi. As I said to my father when I told him about the concert, in my imagination ALL sopranos are black. Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves: all sopranos. All black.
Before anyone accuses of me of being a black radical, let me explain. The reason I’m more likely to think of Denyce Graves than Beverly Sills when I think of sopranos has everything to do with my grandmother, Ruby Agatha. She was born in 1911 in British Guyana. I’m not sure when she moved to New York, but I do know she graduated from George Washington High School, lived in the building where Fats Waller played the piano, and married my grandfather–the only man on the planet who meets my definition of perfection. She was a soprano. In my imagination she was THE soprano and a genuine diva. At her funeral, people remembered her for many things, but everyone seemed to talk about how she trilled her r’s and her amazing collection of hats. She told me once that she gave four recitals in her life, never mentioning that one of them was at Carnegie Recital Hall, on Easter Sunday in 1950. Tickets were $1.20 and 1.80 including tax. She sang Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Verdi and concluded the program with a series of folk songs.
My grandmother fit every image you have a diva—stylish, imposing, larger-than-life, and stunningly beautiful. She was a kind but not cuddly grandmother, and I always knew that she adored me. One day in church when she heard me singing harmony (I’m an alto), she beamed at me,and I felt I’d arrived. It is a fond memory because, unlike my other cousins, I didn’t grow up seeing her all the time. As an Air Force brat I was overseas more than I was in the states, so trips to New York to see my father’s family were infrequent, but when I did visit I knew I would go to church and sing, have a little culinary trip with my grandfather (he introduced me to Nathan’s hot dogs), and hang out with my cousins, all but one of whom were older and so much cooler than I could ever hope to be.
So when I think of sopranos, I think of my grandmother. When I went to see Kathleen Battle perform a Christmas concert, I thought of my grandmother. In grad school, I splurged on a ticket to see Denyce Graves sing Carmen at Tanglewood. A children’s choir performed with her; they were sitting too high to actually see her, but one little girl, a little black girl in pigtails, couldn’t help herself and kept leaning over to get a better view. I understood the impulse. And I thought of Ruby. I saw Denyce Graves again. That time I was with Will’s mother Jane, who made me grin with surprise when it turned out she knew all the words to the African freedom songs the audience was asked to sing with Graves and the orchestra. My grandmother would have scolded me for being surprised. After all, if she learned to sing in Italian and performed folk songs, there is no reason why Jane shouldn’t know African freedom songs.
I’m sure my grandmother would have loved Ms. Henry, who took to the small platform set up for her in a ruby red dress, swaying her hips, laughing during her runs, and flirting with the audience, at one point giving a red rose to a man in the front row. Her voice coach was sitting behind me, and he called “Brava Diva” when she finished, proudly telling me on his way out that she was only 26 and was going to be great.
This is not to the say that the evening’s performance was perfect. An unfortunate series of moments for the horn section in the third movement of Beethoven’s “The Erocia” caused me to blurt out, “oh dear,” which, in turn, prompted an unfortunate series of giggles in yours truly. My lack of control was not helped at all when Sarah’s husband poked me in the side and then started laughing. I thought of my grandmother then too. She was not, as far as I know, prone to giggles, but I think she would have forgiven me mine–especially since I wasn’t laughing at the soprano.