She was a prodigy who’d skipped second grade and finished third in her graduating class, a feminist before the rest of us knew what the word meant and a classically trained singer. Rosalie Sullivan would have been reigning diva of our high school had anybody appreciated her merits.
I certainly didn’t. She inspired me with feelings I’d later recognize in Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd”: “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I had never seen you. Having seen you, what choice remains to me? None, none! I am doomed to annihilate you; I am vowed to your destruction!”
For most of my life, I’d been known as the Pianist, the Brain, the Most Likely to Get the Hell Out of Dodge. That is, until my senior year, when months of bewildered hammering at Rachmaninoff and several humiliating auditions brought home the realization that I was tone-deaf: Though I could read music and memorize finger positions on the piano keys, I literally couldn’t distinguish one sound from another. After flunking two AP exams, I also realized that, while I could spit out physics equations and Latin verbs, my brain blanked on new ideas, new problems and the prospect of framing original thoughts. I didn’t know how to learn, and what I already knew was second-rate.
That year, when I fled my last-ever piano competition in tears, with a high mark of four out of ten, I sat, red-faced and shaking, in the audience while another performer took her turn. Rosalie. She sang — Mahler? Something that brought out a dark, gleaming intelligence in her voice, something too terrifyingly sophisticated for me even to hear.
At this auspicious juncture, my piano teacher made me watch the horror movie “Amadeus,” based on Peter Shaffer’s play. Then I knew myself. The third-rate composer Antonio Salieri, railing at God for depriving him of genius, was my kind of people, the patron saint of mediocrities: yearbook deputy editors, marching band auxiliary percussionists, Salieri partisans. (Salieri partisans: I know the fictional “Amadeus” trope upsets you; I want you to know that I note your concerns.)
And I knew my Mozart. “Highlander” had taught me that there could be only one. I couldn’t behead Rosalie, so I snubbed her in the cafeteria. I didn’t invite her to diner or mall outings; I fixed my lipstick during her solo in “The Pirates of Penzance.” We belonged to the same tiny nerdy, artsy, coffee-drinking clique, yet I managed never to have a personal conversation with her. She didn’t react: that was another mark of her greatness. When she scribbled in my senior yearbook that she wished she could play the piano like me and thanks for the memories, honesty forced me to admit that she wasn’t sticking it to me: She truly meant it. Rosalie, more lovely, generous, and unaffected than any teenager had the right to be, had never heard of schadenfreude. After all my talent show failures, she’d remembered only the sweet notes.
Like the eponymous Loser of Thomas Bernhard’s novel, stunted by his brush with Glenn Gould’s genius, I felt a wee bit negative.
* * *
Twenty years later, I’m attending the Metropolitan Opera’s cinema broadcast of “The Merry Widow” when I yelp, “Holy shit!” — 100 opera fans shush me — “that’s Rosalie!” Just past Renée Fleming’s shoulder, there’s Rosalie, beribboned in Pontevedrian folk costume, singing “Vilja.”
Two weeks later, I see her sing and dance at Zerlina’s wedding in “Don Giovanni.” For Rosalie Sullivan, mezzo-soprano, has sung her way through a Santa Fe Opera apprenticeship, San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and Mozart’s “Requiem” at Carnegie Hall to become a full-time chorister at the Met. She’s one of those rarities: fully employed, no longer juggling temp jobs to pay her rent, even unionized. She sings in Italian, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Czech, and English; gives 165 performances in nineteen operas this season; and does solo work during her summers off. Last year, Maestro Donald Palumbo received 800 résumés, invited 400 singers to audition for the Met’s Chorus — and selected seven.
While Rosalie’s been busy becoming an opera singer, I too have been busy, smuggling PBJs into the Met’s Family Circle for matinees. Falling in love with opera wasn’t something I chose; opera chose me, battering my heart like a three-person’d God (Wagner-Verdi-Puccini). I didn’t want to spend this past decade sitting in the darkened house, obsessed and baffled, retraining my ears to distinguish notes, any notes. I didn’t want to keep asking, “Wait, was that the mad scene?” while everybody else screamed “Brava!” But I did, because art doesn’t always choose the worthiest devotee. Sometimes art favors the tone-deaf ignoramus who staggers home after the first act of “Tristan und Isolde,” annihilated, because, finally, “I heard the Prelude! I heard it!”
Grudgingly reassessing my attitude toward Rosalie — which is another form of annihilation — I spam her social media accounts, inviting her to lunch.
* * *
Rose is still lovely, generous, and unaffected. She hugs me tightly — not just one of those social hugs — and thanks me for coming to see her. We talk over the past twenty years, New York and running, and I elicit her admission that she’s entering the NYC Marathon lottery. Oh my god. She explains, self-deprecatingly, that she needs the strength in order to sing for hours, standing on a raked (inclined) stage, in heels, in a twenty-pound costume. And for relaxation, after being stuffed into “The Domes” — “up these narrow crazy stairs, way up above the chandeliers, there’s this tiny space like a one-room schoolhouse, called The Domes. That’s where we all huddled on long benches and sang ‘Parsifal,’ with three hours between entrances.” She sang in “Parsifal.” Oh my god. And I’m the person who fantasizes about dinging the bells to muster audiences after intermission.
So I ask her: how does it feel to be Mozart to my Salieri? (I gloss over the fact that, in the annals of music history, I won’t even rate as a Salieri, because nobody’s asking me to be anybody’s Kapellmeister. I’m more like Salieri’s publicist’s summer intern.)
Rose’s smile strains. My question mortifies her — and, though she won’t admit it, creeps her out. Salieri did terrorize Mozart into a pauper’s grave. “I’d like to go on record saying — this Mozart-Salieri equation? I don’t feel worthy! I’m not worthy!” says Rose. “Maybe I could be Mozart’s schedule-keeper and expenses tracker? I’M NOT WORTHY!” She describes her long route to the Met: After the Merola program, needing to earn more than $180 a week, she was a corporate schedule-keeper and expense tracker.
“My first assistantship was a block from a church with a weekday music series,” she explains. “I rented practice space with them. I’d spend the morning juggling meetings, then dash there to sing for forty minutes on my lunch hour. But I was killing myself trying to juggle both lives, so I proposed job shares, where I worked my whole job in four days. Sometimes I cut back on work, and money, for more practice time. I was fortunate that my employers supported my aspirations, but those ten years felt like a hamster wheel.
“To be released from that, and wake up every day of my life knowing I’ll have the privilege of making music at this level, with these people…It’s an amazing gift. I never expected that. I’m very lucky.”
During that time, Rose herself was a Met devotee. “Every single time, the chorus blew me away. “Khovanshchina.” The final men’s chorus in “Pique Dame.” “Nixon in China.” “And you — tell me more about how you came to opera,” she asked me.
I tell her that for me, every hard-won note is a Liebestod (the climactic love-death that Wagner’s “Tristan” fights toward for four hours). That I feel fraudulent as an opera lover, but I just can’t resist it. She nods; she may not understand my inadequacies, but later she’ll email me to say how moved she was that I work so hard to understand the thing that she, too, loves. I ask her if she’s ever felt imposter syndrome. She bursts out laughing. “EVER? Of course, all the time! Throughout my whole life as a singer! The only way I can tackle it is to be totally upfront: Is it possible…how on earth…I grew up in Newton, New Jersey, and who am I to say I know anything about Mahler or Verdi?”
In her first couple weeks in the job, the chorus sight-read fifteen scores in nineteen afternoons of three-to-four-hour rehearsals. “I wanted so much to do a good job, but every Thursday, around four o’clock, I got to a place where I couldn’t see ledger lines anymore, or count to four. My brain was melting, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never seen a piece of music before, I’m hopeless!’” The chorus executes at that level six days a week: In one day, they might sing six scores, in five languages, and in as many styles. “We’re staging “Carmen” in the morning from 10:30 to 1:30, then music rehearsal from two to five, focusing on one score. Or, we cover “Pagliacci,” “Ernani,” “Manon”; then Maestro Palumbo says, ‘Can we look at that phrase in “Macbeth” at the top of page 243?’ Then the room erupts: like a human drop-the-needle, right into another scene in a totally different score. Then that night we go onstage with something else. Nothing can prepare you for it.”
Her prowess doesn’t surprise me. I describe how I saw her in high school, leaving out the resentment, not to spare myself, but because there’s something very open and sensitive about Rose. I don’t want to shock her. Even so, she cringes. “That’s hilarious. Diva, prodigy, feminist? No, no, no! I was the nerdiest, most socially awkward, inept fifteen-year-old! Totally insecure.” Rosalie quickly changes the subject. “I fell in love with opera because of Jussi Björling’s recording of “Cavalleria.” I was fifteen, and I wore it out. I thought, ‘He’s scowling. How do I know that? I can’t see him, I don’t know Italian, but he can communicate it to me!’ So this season, in ‘Cavalleria,’ there’s not a rehearsal where I get through the ‘Easter Hymn’ without crying. It’s so much a part of my fifteen-year-old self who fell in love with opera! Every time! I choke up every time!”
We talk for a long time, and something Wagnerian happens to me: “Winter storms have vanished before May / Spring shines out in a gentle light!” It’s an aria about falling in love with your sister—but it works. Even if Rose weren’t so charming, no lingering teenage resentments of mine could withstand her talking so familiarly and passionately about this art form which so very few of us adore. It’s obvious to me that, if I’ve fallen madly in love with opera, then the next step’s to fall madly in love with Rose.
But while opera matters to me, it’s her life, and she’s apprehensive about the fact that I’ve chosen to include her story as part of a theme all about divas. “About this divas theme….” she hesitates. “After I got your email, I thought, let me look it up. The OED’s tertiary definition for ‘diva’ is a self-important person who’s temperamental and difficult to please. But as a member of an ensemble, there’s just no room for ‘diva’ behavior. We’re a collective: We function together, breathe together, make music together. Especially as someone who’s new, I rely on my colleagues for support. I’d rather be an anti-diva, or at least someone who embodies the positive connotations of the work. I work very hard to cultivate behaviors that run counter to the negative associations.” As I transcribe her words, she becomes increasingly anxious, not for her own sake, but for that of the Metropolitan Opera, her team and the art form itself. The entire framework of this interview troubles her, I can tell, but she’s too polite to say so.
“What I love about opera is that it has something noble and heroic,” she says. “What’s more heroic than Sondra Radvanovsky singing ‘Casta Diva‘ at the peak of her vocal prowess?
“To navigate that space of emotional investment and involvement,” Rose enthuses, “where you’re giving as much as you can give, but it doesn’t interrupt the mechanism — that space is a hair’s breadth — that’s Jonas Kaufmann singing Werther, his willingness to take chances with his dynamic range. I start weeping at his entrance in the garden, and from then on I’m ruined! And Johan Botha singing the ‘Prize Song’….”
Rose’s wariness subsides; she’s inside Meistersinger’s rosy morning light, the air heavy with blossom and unlooked-for joy. It’s more than just love of the music: it’s love for her fellow-choristers, the orchestra, crew, costume designers and wig department, whose expertise and dedication she vaunts. “I can go into the pit during ‘Iolanta,’ listen to the incredible musicianship of the orchestra,” she marvels, “the clarinet intro to that lullaby we sing, and the cellos’ glorious phrases later on…one night I woke up at two in the morning, asking, how did Tchaikovsky make this so wonderful?
“When I discovered opera, something just…woke up, and opened, the best part of who I am.” She slows down, intent on getting this right. “I don’t know who I’d be without music. For so many years, it’s brought me painfully up against my own limitations, given me the impetus to figure out if I could or couldn’t get around them—and given me a reason to strive, for my entire adult life, towards the best of what’s possible for me. Everything about this art form for me is connected to…almost what I want to call —” she hesitates, “— a vocation. I try to hold an attitude that allows these moments of transcendence, when they come. ” Then she beams at me, hugely, transparently. “So, egocentric diva behavior? There’s no room for that stuff!”
Right before my eyes, in an Upper West Side bistro, Rose has done it: She’s bared her most intimate feelings, from a position of utter vulnerability and sincerity. It’s as though she is at the Met — not the glamorous, expensive face of the Met, but the vast emptiness of the stage, where there’s no amplification or editing to cover mistakes, where audiences have viciously booed singers for a crack or quaver, the least signs of human weakness.
Suddenly I realize that I actually do have the power to harm her: to label her a diva, to skewer her for saying “transcendence,” to misrepresent her words about her career and her new colleagues. Also-rans have always resorted to the tyranny of the bad review. I realize, too, that she already knows this; she knew, from the moment I first mentioned Salieri.
But Rose has trusted in her love for the music — and mine — to carry her safely through. Because she has no room for self-consciousness, embarrassment or fear in view of the transfigurative possibilities of art.
That’s not divadom. That’s divine.
* * *
In “Amadeus,” Salieri narrates the conclusion of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” when the Countess forgives her philandering husband, suffusing the house with absolution. But Salieri doesn’t acknowledge the terms of the Countess’s pardon: because “Più docile io sono.” I am more gentle/peaceable/nice (than you). In docility, the Countess asserts her superiority, her sublimity.
Life doesn’t evenly bestow the gift of genius, or, for that matter, grace and strength of character. But Salieri had — I have — the option to honor the sublimity of others, to choose radical admiration. If Rose has grown into an artist, a god in my personal Valhalla, perhaps someday I’ll come into my own as an admirer. Not the most learned, certainly not the most perceptive of listeners — but hopefully transformed by humility, application, and love.
As Rose herself can teach me. Before she runs off to Pilates, I ask about her “Merry Widow” close-up: What was she thinking about?
“A coach of mine said, ‘when there’s a passage where you’re not singing, you have to trust that by actively listening to the music around you, that’ll communicate to the audience,’” Rose answers. “So I was receiving the colors from the pit and what Renée was giving, letting it wash over me, being present. That was giving what I could. That was enough.”
Listening to Renée Fleming, Rose’s eyes had shone, as though, once again, she were overcome by the beauty of it all. Her face had filled with emotions I could only guess at, but they’d made me want to cry, too.
Then she’d sung. And I’d listened.
* * *
Rosalie Sullivan’s solo performance schedule and audio clips are available at www.rosaliesullivan.com.
Alison Kinney’s nonfiction book, Hood, will be published by Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series in January 2016. She’s written previously for Narratively and for The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, The Mantle, Avidly, New Criticals, and Madcap Review. Twitter: @Alison_Kinney