MassOpera continues our Social DistanSing Concerts, most recently in honor of Veterans Day. Tenor, Omar Najmi, recounts in the guest blog below his very personal experience performing for veterans during this Pandemic:
I’m a little bit more nervous than I expected to be. I’ve performed for audiences of thousands, but somehow the uncertainty of performing for…well, I’m not exactly sure who I’ll be performing for! Our first stop is Atria Maplewood Place – an Assisted Living facility in Malden (conveniently just a mile from where I live) – and I’m unsure: will I be singing for a visible audience? Or will I be alone on the back of a truck singing to the wall of a building, presumably housing an invisible audience?
I’m also nervous because this is my first time singing live in front of a flesh-and-blood audience since February. In my decade-long professional career, I don’t think I’ve ever been off of the stage for quite this long. I hope I’m still up to the task. I hope I have something valuable to offer. Our performance celebrates Veterans Day, and yet I know precious few veterans. My grandfather served very briefly in WWII, but never saw combat. And as a deeply avowed pacifist, my relationship with global conflict and the military-industrial complex is, well – complex. (Sorry, I had to do that!)
My feelings about America on this day are also complex. A week has passed since the most important election in American history. Democracy has – at least on the surface – prevailed, but by a much thinner margin than I am comfortable with. As I mount the back of the truck – a truck proudly adorned with small flags celebrating the Transgender rainbow, Black Lives Matter, and more – I can’t help but wonder about my audience and who they voted for, if they voted. And indeed I do have an audience; a rapt, visible audience, mask-clad and seated outside on this blustery, but unseasonably warm November day.
I also have my own small personal audience of three: my husband Brendon, my local friend Paul, and my very small canine friend Kaya. Paul is not a musician professionally (though he’s a darned good guitarist!) – I always like to have some non-industry friends at my performances. It helps give me an objective read on how my performance is going over on the audience, most of whom (I assume) are also not professional musicians. Kaya might be a musical pup though – I think she’s seen more opera at this point than any human her age 🙂 She’s also a hit with our elderly audience – it’ll take a lot for me to pull their attention away from a tiny Havanese!
The set seems like it’s going over well. I open with an opera classic –“Questa o quella” from Verdi’s Rigoletto – and it almost serves as a clarion call to let any unexpecting passers-by know that a pop-up concert is beginning. The rest of the set is full of plenty of cheese, and I am here for it (in fact many of the cheesiest pieces were my own suggestions!) I can say that I am absolutely un-ironically living my dream: Standing on the back of a moving truck like a princess on a float, while singing Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love” to an unabashedly romantic orchestral backup track.
As we bring the set towards a close, there are two songs that make me reflect on the meaning of Veterans Day. The first is “Goin’ Home” – a setting of the slow movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony with text that speaks to returning “home” in death, reuniting with family and friends long-lost to mortality. I know Veterans Day – unlike Memorial Day – is to celebrate those who are still with us. But I think about the sacrifices, the loss, that even those living veterans have experienced or been too close to, and I consider: we should be natural allies – pacifists and veterans. We should be natural allies because we both wish to see the end of war. And as for America – and patriotism, which feels a little difficult for me to access at the moment – my final song articulates it perfectly: “No man, no madness, though their sad power may prevail, can possess, conquer my country’s heart – they rise to fail.”
The small (but distanced) crowd that has formed seems pleased – I hope I was able to bring them something valuable during a challenging time. I choose to be hopeful right now: in the midst of a global pandemic, an unprecedented president, a climate tipping into disaster – democracy has prevailed and art has endured. We have so much work ahead of us, but I’ll take a small win 🙂
P.S. – Paul, my audience plant, loved it! Hooray for making opera accessible!