A Little Rainy Night Music  — Judy Sutcliffe

A rainy night in Galena, a softly, slowly, pelting drizzle. A sweet bath for the few autumnal flowers still nodding in our garden, pink phlox in the sunny parts and clusters of white wild asters all up and down the scattered shadows of the woodland edge.

Sandy, my love, is off to the casino in Dubuque, and Diamond Jo will keep her intrigued and happy all night long. She’ll come home with the sunrise.

I sit, somewhat uncomfortably, at my computer, a little MacBook, on a slim, Shaker style chair my father made, years ago, from walnut trees in his Iowa woods. The seat is roughly woven basswood, inner bark strips, and I’ve piled a chair pillow over that, as it’s a bit rough, and then a gold and green yarn-tufted rug my mother made for me one Christmas. That layering of love is relatively comfortable, though the rug keeps sliding off.

I’ve been watching on the computer a new DVD I found recently in a catalog, the DVD version of an opera I have watched in the past on a little TV that plays VHS tapes that are nearing extinction.

It’s Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, and it’s the 1960 filmed version restored and starring Elizabeth Schwartzkopf as the Marschallin, a princess in her 30s but feeling age coming on; Sena Jurinac as Octavian, her 17-year-old enthusiastic lover who falls in love with a young innocent girl, Sophie, sung by Anneliese Rothenberger; and the catalyst who stirs everything up, the boorish Baron Ochs, oxlike in any language, sung in deep Deutsch baritones by Otto Edelmann.

I love this opera. It’s sad and sweet and hilarious and wise, and it’s about love and loving and letting go. There are no subtitles for the German in this edition, and I can only understand bits and pieces of the fast conversations that go on, some in high-toned noble speech and some in low-toned folk dialects. But I know the story well and can always read the libretto or a translation. It’s the music that is so exquisite, it’s crystalline, like an ice palace of transparent, translucent voices interweaving upward into unbelievably glittering heights.

And there’s a rollicking waltz motif that hovers gaily about paunchy Baron Ochs as he tries to catch a pinch of flesh of the maid Mariandel. It gets a little complicated here because the 17-year-old lover Octavian is sung by a soprano in a “pants role” because Richard Strauss wanted all these soprano voices in duets and trios. So we have the fun of watching a woman in sword-swaggering drag making love with the beautiful Marschallin, and then, because the Ox bolts into this intimate bedroom scene, he/she suddenly hides within a maid’s dress as she/he attempts to sneak out. But the Ox claps an amorous eye on the girl who’s a boy who’s a girl, and as the Marschallin winks and smiles at Octavian’s prank, so does the audience, enchanted.

I like lots of musicals and operas, but I absolutely love this one. I could watch and listen to it a hundred times and never be bored by it. Beyond its basic beauty, it is tasseled with tendrils of memory.

I moved to California and changed my life because a woman I adored spoke gently on a rainy night in Santa Barbara. “You are Quin Quin,” Liz said and kissed me. I didn’t know the opera then, but later discovered that the Marschallin’s pet name for her young lover was Quin Quin. And my friend had been an opera singer in Europe for a few years before the demands of children and husband forced her into a better paying, more down to earth job, complete with regrets.

Liz told me about an opera singer, Lotte Lehmann, who was especially known for her grand performances as the Marschallin in Europe and at the Met. She played some of Lotte’s recordings for me. And I moved to Santa Barbara. Years later I stumbled into a friendship with Frances Holden, born in 1900, the woman who had been Lotte’s companion from the 1940s until Lotte’s death in Santa Barbara in the 1970s. I spent many hours at that house, with room after room full of Frances’ books, with Lotte’s paintings and sculptures scattered about. For Lotte’s centennial celebration I helped with the design and typesetting of a new biography with a beautiful photo of Lotte on the cover, dressed in her costume as the Marschallin. During her long career she had first sung the part of Sophie, then Octavian, and for much longer, she was the Marschallin. During a Lehmann centennial trip to Austria, I met an elderly man who had been Lotte’s sound engineer in Berlin in the days of her diva prime. Later we corresponded and he told me of the love affair they had enjoyed when she was singing Rosenkavalier on the Berlin stage and he was just a year or two older than Octavian. She was the Marschallin both on and off stage.

Some years later in Santa Barbara, there was my Roger, mentor and lover, a stocky gruff personality with a black beret over thinning hair. He knew everything about typography, railroads and opera. We listened to Rosenkavalier together, and he pointed out, quite pointedly, how the overture is the sexiest thing in the opera world, it’s coitus musicalus, the rising ecstasy, the final thrusts, climax, then the rapidly descending, deflating melodic aftermath. Whereupon the curtain rises and there lie the Marshallin and Octavian in a sumptuous 1700s regal style bed. The secrets of opera! And friends who shared them with me.

And later yet, before I retired to the Midwest, I spent many evenings with an elderly German gentleman in Santa Barbara, Mr. Joseph. He had founded the Munich International Film Museum when he returned to Germany after the war. And he found there his longed for love, an actress for whom he had waited for many years and through a long marriage on her part. Together finally they found happiness in Italy until her death, so much happiness, that when Mr. Joseph and I one evening went to an Italian film, he shortly got up and said we must leave, the movie took place in the part of Italy he had shared with his beloved, and he could not bear to see it without her.

Mr. Joseph’s favorite opera was Der Rosenkavalier, and he thought it was the wisest of all operas, with quotable lines for all of life’s good and bad occasions.

All of those dear friends in Santa Barbara have moved into other dimensions of time and space, and they no longer are reachable by letter or phone, certainly not by email or texting. And I am sitting by a window in a small town in the Midwest, looking out at the darkness in the woods behind the house and at the bright spots of moving headlights occasionally washing the black asphalt of Dewey Avenue, as they pass our house on the darkened street below.

In a few hours Sandy will be back, with a Reuben sandwich in a white paper bag to share for breakfast, and our own love story will continue. No 18th century princesses, no swords, no oxen. Some wisdom, we hope, within us, women of today who wear pants.

The soft sound of the rain is thoughtful. I can hear its quiet earthly caress at the same time that tiny plastic speaker buds in my ears convey most intimately the Marschallin’s angelic soaring voice, saying goodbye one last time, letting Octavian go.

Many thanks to Ms. Sutcliffe for permission to offer the above story.