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Susanne Mentzer

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Like "Hava Nagila"

Posted: 08/31/11 05:12 PM ET

Early this morning, as I snuggled in a white bathrobe waiting for my annual mammogram, the soundtrack in the facility played "Blowin' in the Wind" sung by Peter Paul & Mary, a Mantovani orchestra-type version of "Hey Jude" and then, of all things, "Hava Nagila."

Now, I have been known to cut a rug to "Hava Nagila" at the right moment, but was this really what I needed to hear while waiting for a breast exam? I found it hard to sit still and focus on the task at hand so I found myself pacing. I had to step back and ask myself, why? Is it because I am a classical musician and am, therefore, a snob? Then I started to think of life's soundtracks and how one is affected by them.

My dentist often plays a medley of opera arias while drilling away. I know some surgeons love to have classical music in the O.R. While driving I tend to listen to Classic Vinyl on Sirius Radio. Very occasionally I will listen to the Met Opera Radio Channel, but it is sort of a bus man's holiday because it is hard to listen without analyzing it.

I suppose opera makes some people squirm the same way this soundtrack did to me. Even my dog Charlie howls a perfect "oo" vowel when I practice. Children often giggle at the sound of an opera singer and Warner Bros. has made a pretty penny from its operatic send up What's Opera, Doc?

When I was little, my mother and I would clean house listening to the LPs of Oklahoma and The Sound of Music (the one with Mary Martin). An opera recording of Bizet's Carmen with the sultry, crouching Risé Stevens on the cover, was often on display, although I only remember ever hearing the overture.

Never having seen a real opera until I was in my mid-teens, I had the impression of it being a snobbish and boring snooze sung by old, overweight, non-acting singers. As a teenager my mother once dragged me to Los Alamos to hear the great singer Dorothy Kirsten in recital and it made me downright uncomfortable. I remember not what or how she sang, but only the pregnant pauses between each song during which she had to compose herself. I would not have been surprised if she had morphed into Norma Desmond right before my eyes.

Mom, who had a beautiful voice in her own right, suggested I usher at the Santa Fe Opera my junior year in high school. It definitely had the yuck factor until I realized that the hot guys from school were parking the cars and that I would have the opportunity to legally stay out until 1 AM. I jumped at the chance.

As I saw and heard the productions, instead of flirting shamelessly, I found myself wrapped in my usher's serape and black velvet skirt, hunkered down on the steps of the aisle at the rear of the auditorium, enthralled by the wonder of it. These were mostly young, good looking, golden-voiced singers who were making me laugh and cry in La Boheme and The Merry Widow. It was in the romantic setting of an outdoor theater with endless stars overhead and coyotes in the distance. My mind was blown. I even thought, "I can do that."

When I was sixteen my voice was loud and overly mature, unfitting for choral blending in school ensembles. (This is often the case for opera singers-to-be.) Relentlessly imitated and ridiculed by the boys next door, I had to close all the windows just to practice in the New Mexico summer heat sans air conditioning. I even shared my talent in the Junior Miss Pageant, singing the awkwardly paired "Wouldn't it Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady and "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. They gave me the consolation prize of third runner-up. I started voice lessons with a local lady who took me to ladies' club luncheons as her side-kick. I can still hear the words, "Very nice, dear."

During two years at The University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. majoring in music therapy (the "I can do that" thought had waned), I was encouraged to change to performance major and eventually transferred to Juilliard.

My very first job was with a now defunct group called Texas Opera Theater, a touring branch of Houston Grand Opera. We did a bus and truck tour of Texas followed by a 10-week tour of the states. "Bus and truck" is when the cast and orchestra ride the bus and the crew drives the truck with the set, props, music stands and larger instruments. The truck travels all night to the next location, sets up, runs show, loads out and repeats. The bus travels all day arriving about 2 hours before the performance at which time the performers all head to the theater.

When we played San Marcos, Texas, we all proudly sang the national anthem as we got word that the Iranian hostages had been released. Somewhere in Louisiana we postponed curtain time to show the cliff-hanging TV episode of Dallas, "Who Shot J.R.?" just to have an audience. We spread the joy of opera to many small communities and high school auditoriums, and for people who otherwise would never have seen an opera. Some audiences even had popcorn and soda during the show. Despite the fatigue and widened physiques from eating and sitting, a bond formed between all involved that lasts even now.

Early in my career I gave "Informances" (TM) as an Affiliated Artist in remote places around the country. The Affiliate Artist program sadly no longer exists. It paired an artist -- not necessarily only singers -- with a corporation that would sponsor said artist in their community. We gave two of these 45-minute presentations daily at locations as varied as social clubs, schools and workplaces. The artists would normally stay two weeks with a family and at the end would give a recital at a very affordable ticket price, say $5 per person.

Most of the folks I met had never been to a classical music event. Young audiences would put their hands over their ears or try to imitate me. I encouraged them. As C.C. Colton said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." I always made it a point to direct my Carmen "Habañera" to the lap of one rabble rouser in the crowd, typically a high school jock. The ladies in one local senior center never looked up from their Bridge hands as I ran my spiel, explaining and sharing my craft. It felt good to spread the good news of classical music, particularly so when singing in a hospital coma ward, only to see one patient open their eyes. Were they hearing me? Were they wondering "what the hell?" My music therapy instincts were at work.

Then again, maybe it was like "Hava Nagila."