By David Hyde
A bit over fifty years ago, I almost performed in an opera. It was the winter of 1965, and it had not been a real good year for me. During the summer I spent five weeks in the hospital due to glaucoma. The result was the loss of my little remaining vision. In schools for the blind at that time (or at least at mine), if you had some sight, you were expected to help those who had none. If you had none, you were expected to get helped. Those who could see were asked to do more things, and I had just been moved from one group to the other. I was not pleased, and in fact, was fairly upset by the change. After all, I knew what I could do, and I was determined to continue to do those things, even if I didn’t see any more.
One of the things I enjoyed was acting. We had a music teacher named Ardie Miller. She didn’t know much about teaching blind students, and decided that they should be able to do most of the same things sighted kids did in school. She put on musicals, both at the school, and in the community. Blind kids learned to act. We also learned to assemble sets, paint, do lighting, makeup, and move around the stage with confidence. I had participated in plays, starred in one, when I could see a little. At Christmas of 1965, I was totally blind.
Obviously Miss Ardie (we had another Mrs. Miller, so our music teacher was Miss Ardie) didn’t seem to think that I would have a problem. So, needing a boy soprano, she gave me the lead. We were to do Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, a Christmas opera that had been popular a number of years before. Amahl is a young boy who is crippled (the word used in the opera, political correctness came much later) and walks with a crutch. He and his mother live in a hut, and are visited by the three kings. In great operatic tradition, Amahl and his mother (obviously she needed no other name) are starving, and Amahl is sent out to get the neighboring shepherds to help feed the three wise men. A miracle occurs, and Amahl is healed and goes off with the kings on their journey. A friend of Miss Ardie’s Miss Yvonne, played the Mother, Don Mitchel played Kaspar, with Doug Daniels and Dan Hikkila playing Melchior and Balthazar. The rest were shepherds, with the exception of David Batin, who played the servant of the kings.
We practiced every day for about six weeks from the end of school until dinnertime, and again after dinner. I took the crutch home and practiced one whole weekend to learn to use it. The musical harmonies were intricate, the timing was difficult, and I had to learn to sing with emotion, use dynamics, and act all at the same time. I have never done anything more challenging on stage.
We got it down perfectly. Three- and four-part harmony, dances, moving around the stage, makeup, it was all together for the dress rehearsal Friday night. We would perform for the parents Saturday when they came to take us home for the Christmas break.
And then it snowed, and it froze, and it rained, and froze again.
Saturday morning it was decided to get students home, no matter what. The opera was canceled, and we never performed. I was devastated. I remember being almost inconsolable. All that work, all that involvement, and then nothing.
Fifty years later, I still remember parts of Amahl and the Night Visitors. I can’t sing soprano any more, and have a hard time reaching Kaspar’s range (a tenor), so if casting now would have to settle for one of the other two kings. What has stuck with me though, is the lesson that Miss Ardie taught me: I was the same person, with and without sight. I could do the same things I could when I could see a little. Opera is better when you do it than when you listen to it. And finally, sometimes even disappointments have a purpose.
So, I have plans for this weekend. I have a bottle of wine I have been saving for a special occasion. I’ve found a production of Amahl on YouTube. I’m going to sip my wine, listen to Amahl, and remember Miss Ardie and all she taught me about myself. Alas, she is no longer around to thank, but I have done my best to share her lessons with others. She had high expectations of us and, knowing no better, we reached them. I learned much more than opera in those rehearsals. Miss Ardie believed that how much or how little I could see wasn’t important, and that I was really the same student before and after my time in the hospital. So when I hear King Kaspar singing about the box of things he carries AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS - King Kaspar's "This is my Box" - Bing video, or the sound of the oboe playing that spritely overture Amahl and The Night Visitors - Trailer - Bing video, I think of Ardie Miller, and the many things I learned from her. I’m looking forward to the weekend.
David Hyde is a Parent Liaison and the Professional Development Coordinator at WCBVI. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (608) 758-6152 or toll free 1-866-284-1107 x6152.