A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


A Sad Rebecca - Aida Without Elephants Or Camels
Thursday, May 15, 2008

It was only in the last years of her life when my grandmother Lolita was in her 70s that she was no longer able to sing. She had forgotten who she was. I remember that she came back from Egypt where she had visited her son (my uncle) Tony. When she deplaned she looked at me and I saw nobody there. Before that whenever anybody in our family or a friend got married Lolita was asked to sing at the wedding. Her signature song was Francisco Santiago's Ave María. It is only in the research of this blog that I have found out that Santiago was born in Santa María, Bulacan in the Philippines in 1919. I had thought Santiago a Spaniard. Well into her late 60s my grandmother's soprano (with coloratura she always told us) was clear and beautiful.

She had wanted to be an opera singer. Her father (who had been a baker in Spain) said that people of social standing were never opera singers. But Lolita's sister Buenaventura was allowed to continue in her career as a concert pianist of note in the Philippines. I often wonder what would have happened if my grandmother had followed her star. Seen here is a picture of her in the early 20s when she (a recent widow) and her three children arrived in New York. By the end of the 20s Lolita was working for Winthrop, a pharmaceutical company. Her singing star had dimmed.

From Lolita I learned quite a bit about opera. I might have learned more if I had really been interested. But my ears would open when she told me of performances of Aida at the Met in New York that had live elephants and camels. She told me of going to a theatrical presentation of Ben Hur that had a fight involving galleys at sea (on stage!). Lolita would sing arias for me and some of her favourites were from Aida.

It has been a strange two months going with Rebecca to Opera Sushi after her Wednesday ballet class. The selection of operas on DVD at the restaurant are limited so we have been watching Aida in different stages but somehow (while we saw the beginning and the end) we had never seen the triumphant march until yesterday evening. In this 1989 Met version with Plácido Domingo as Radames, Sherrill Milnes as Amonastro, April Millo as Aida and Dolora Zajick as Amneris there are no elephants or camels. But Rebecca did brighten up when the beautiful white horses (with plumes) pranced across the stage.

I was struck by melancholy and I watched Rebecca's sad eyes. Her father had forgotten and not taken her last Friday to her ballet's school recital. All her dance mates had been given gold medals. She did not get a medal and her ballet teacher was furious. I grieved at a 10 year-old having to be unhappy. I imagined my grandmother singing the arias from Aida and Rebecca listening rapt at Lolita's performance. I wonder what it is that Rebecca will do some day. Will she be a dancer? A pianist? Or will she end up at a boring job and the very spirit that now shines through her eyes will be muted? At 10 I had no idea of these things. In this 21st century does one have to worry and make decisions much earlier?

I take heart in the knowledge that one of my favourite Vancouver modern dancers, Katy Harris-McLeod, right, did many things in her early life including tree planting and only decided to be a dancer when she was 27. I really did not become a photographer until I came to Vancouver in 1975. I was 33.


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