Why in the world would a 95-year-old-lady, doddering along with a cane, be asked to share her thoughts about the intricate world of opera? Because if you’ve traveled the world, as I have, to see 63 complete Ring cycles and countless other operas besides, you want the world to know why you’re so passionate about opera and why it’s so important to keep this priceless art form thriving. Opera has enriched my life beyond measure, and my financial support of San Francisco Opera—including my legacy gift—will help enrich the lives of others in the coming years.
When opera performers and audiences are on the same wave length, there is an excitement—a true electricity—in the opera house that is incomparable and memorable—like the Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne production of Norma in 1982. I recorded the radio broadcast of that production and relished their duets time and again. Or the premiere of Dead Man Walking—the audience was stunned. Sometimes you think you won’t like a production, but then it turns out to be a sensation that you talk about for years.
I started listening to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts while in high school in the early 1930’s. Later, I had the good fortune to marry an Italian who grew up with opera and whose mother sang in the San Francisco Opera chorus in the early days. We could not afford tickets but listened to our records regularly with the libretto in hand. After my husband’s stroke 45 years ago, I turned to opera. I took a 30-day, whirlwind tour and saw 21 operas! Eight were by Wagner, and seven of the eight were at the Bayreuth Festspiele, with accompanying lectures every day. I was hooked then, and have been ever since. You might not believe it, but I swear that opera has kept me alive and kicking all these years!
Der Ring des Nibelungen became a way of life, so much so that I saw my 63rd Ring cycle in Luxembourg last December. Why do I keep returning to the Ring? For one thing, I need my fix. But more than that, much like Siegfried, I want the answer to a question that Wagner struggled with all his life: What is it that will help mankind live in harmony with his neighbors? Yes, Brunnhilde ultimately reached enlightenment, but do we always have to go through such turmoil to be redeemed? The ending music in Götterdämmerung is uplifting, but the road there is too devastating for us ordinary mortals. I will keep thinking about this as I keep exploring different versions around the world. [Right: Verna is interviewed by television crews in Shanghai.]
There have been many adventures along the way. Two years ago I was in Shanghai to see the Cologne Ring. In Shanghai, elders are respected and revered, and I was treated like a celebrity, being interviewed on TV twice. And I was invited to see the Beijing Ring, which might happen as early as 2014. Of course I’m planning to go!
[Left: Verna meets one of her youngest fans at the Ring in Shanghai.]
In Luxembourg, a group of singers from Paris and instrumentalists from Portugal presented their Ring Saga, a 12-hour version of the Ring done in three days in eight cities, on consecutive weekends, with an orchestra of only 17 members. My seat was only two feet from the concert master—how hard he worked! The artists were wonderful! I visited with them during intermissions and asked the flute player to take a picture since I was too shaky. She insisted I sit in her chair, and the oboe player put his oboe in my hand—what fun. When invited backstage by the manager because she heard it was my 63rd cycle, the orchestra members wanted a picture with me. I was even given a bottle of their label champagne to take home.
[Below: Verna joins members of the orchestra in Luxembourg.]
Although I’m obviously a Wagner fan, I do know there is opera beyond Wagner: I’ve taught classes on Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, even Bellini. But never Wagner; I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Being part of the opera world has given me such a rich, exciting, and adventurous life. And I’ve loved supporting San Francisco Opera, which is why I joined the Bel Canto Legacy Society and made a legacy gift to the Opera. I know my gift will help enrich the lives of future audience members by keeping the opera art form alive and well.
So I hope you’ll join me during one of my future treks to see the Ring yet again. Coming up: number 64!