Have you ever met someone that just knew you immediately?
I met Val when I was in the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, they call it “opera boot camp”, but I would say it’s more like Opera’s Next Top Model, in that you are constantly being judged on literally everything by just about everyone. You’re in rehearsals, lessons, coachings, costume fittings, meetings, etc, for around ten hours a day for three months. And then at the end, they invite around 3-7 people to become permanent young artists for the company. It’s a three month long audition, basically, during which you are highly scrutinized. And they often boast that the acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s.
The program can be extremely stressful. I, however, was super young, naïve as all hell, and really had no idea what I was doing. I was just happy to be there. I was one of 7 women and 16 men selected from thousands of applicants worldwide, and I wasn’t sure why I had ended up with all of these veritable operatic superstars, but there I was, and I was determined to do the best I could. I was learning, having fun making friends from all over the world, soaking up San Francisco’s art and culture, and most of all, just trying to keep my head down and not piss anyone off.
One day, I had a bit of a break, which was unusual. The opera house has a massive basement that you really have to see in order to appreciate (it’s like Labyrinth, you expect a bunch of puppets and David Bowie to pop out at any minute). It’s a maze of costumes, backstage amenities, a few kitchens and lounges, an orchestral library, locker rooms, makeup rooms, basically anything you can think of. The main lounge has couches, a ping pong table, vending machines, the usual lounge-y things, so I decided to head down there and relax.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I really love talking to people, and also that I’ll talk to just about anyone. (I feel like that last sentence was really palindrome-y, but it’s also true.) Especially if they seem sort of weird, or like they need someone to talk to, or if I forget to turn my automatic Southern California smile off and they just walk up to me and start talking. This was how I met Val.
Val was a member of the chorus, a Russian bass. He looked exactly how you would expect a stereotypical Russian man to look to any American: bushy brows that were constantly knitted in a look of fatigue/grumpiness, stocky build, and an angular face and jaw that made me think of an old Tsar’s portrait. His eyes were intense and very focused, as if blinking were a sign of weakness that he would indulge in only when absolutely necessary. He was maybe in his late fifties, but his hunched shoulders and bad posture made it seem as if he had done more living than the average man his age.
It should be mentioned at this point that I am obsessed with Russia, Russian history, literature, music and in particular, Soviet history. One of my first tattoos was from a Soviet propaganda poster that I was obsessed with in high school. I find Russian history so impossibly dark and fascinating that I can get lost reading about it for hours. The more I learn, the more I understand that culture and how difficult and hard life is there, and it has given me a great respect for its people-- particularly the older generation that lived through terror and discord, and yet somehow managed to escape and continue living after seeing things that we can’t even imagine. Of course, 2018 brings its own association with Russia, which is not important for the purposes of this story, so for once I won’t go into politics at all, and let it suffice to say that I still think Russia and its people are really amazing.
“Ah, Marina,” he said. “Tumultuous, like the ocean. One minute happy, next minute angry, then sad, all at same time. I know this, my first wife was named Marina.”
I didn’t really think much about the weight of that statement at the time. I think I laughed. When you’re mentally ill, tumult is your normal. Feeling emotions in quick succession is pretty much an everyday occurrence for me. When I was younger, it was much more intense and harder to control, but I still think I tend to feel things more strongly or viscerally than other people. I can’t change that, but what I can change is my response to those feelings, and I’m proud of how I handle myself. I don’t cry at work (at least not in front of anyone), I’ve never thrown a tantrum, and I’ve kept my composure even when I probably should have lost it. When you’ve fought for the will to live, or just to get through a day without tears or that empty feeling that comes with depression, a three month audition doesn’t seem as daunting.
We kept talking. I asked him what he remembered about Russia. “No food. Never any food. In America, everywhere is food,” he said in a thick accent. He grabbed his small potbelly, shaking it. “Too much food!” He told me about his grandkids, a hint of a smile creeping on to his face. We must have looked funny. I’m sure I was grinning ear to ear the entire time, but I doubt his strong façade ever really cracked, except for that one moment.
I don’t remember much else from the conversation, sadly, but we talked for almost an hour. He mostly wanted to know about my life, and I wanted to know about his. It was one of those moments I live for that crosses barriers that humans normally have with each other; different cultures, ages, world views. Two people with absolutely nothing in common with the exception of opera, learning about each other’s lives. I wish everyone could have these moments. I know I am so grateful for the ones I’ve had.
He was spot on, though. I am tumultuous. Like the ocean. I was aptly named. From marital woes to career woes, financial distress, chronic illness and mental illness, I’ve seen some things. The highs have been high, and the lows very low. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all made me stronger and wiser in the end.
But not as wise as Val.