I saw my first opera when I was ten years old, at the Bucharest Opera House. At that time, life in my native country, Romania, was at the peak of oppression, and no one could have imagined that the Iron Curtain would soon crumble. My father had defected and eventually reached the United States while my mother confronted the persecution caused by his departure and did her best to protect me from the surrounding terror.
One evening she took me to the opera to see The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. From the beginning of the performance, I sat motionless and mesmerized. I refused to get up even during intermission for fear that those magnificent people who wore colorful costumes and produced miraculous sounds might come out from behind the curtain and I would miss them.
This was love at first sight. When my mother saw how enraptured I was, she took me to another performance. And then another, and another. My fascination with the singers emboldened me, and I would often sneak backstage to go to their dressing rooms. Most of them indulged the curious kid who called them by their operatic characters’ names.
My mother, an accomplished amateur pianist, was able to procure the scores of the many operas we saw. During freezing winter nights, we would enact all of the roles with each other, creating our own mini performances in the only room in the house that still provided some heat. In the two and a half years that it took the Romanian authorities to allow us to join my father in New York, our lives of uncertainty and oppression were transformed on countless evenings by the magic of the opera world in which both of us found a haven of enchantment, relief, and momentary safety.
So opera, for me, is much more than a passion. It is inextricable from my childhood experience of it: a fantastic universe, a refuge, a means of psychological and emotional survival in that general atmosphere of terror. Of course, at the time I did not realize the crucial significance of that two-and-a-half-year immersion in the opera world. I did know, however, that I wanted to sing. This surprised everyone as I had always seemed captivated by writing small poems and reading stories. I was not one of those children who have stage personalities and angelic voices. On the contrary, whenever I would try to sing, I sounded like Donald Duck. But I wanted to be those crystal-voiced, intense, larger-than-life women characters. I even wanted to be a few of the male characters. At the time, I believed that everything would be all right if I, myself, would find a way to sing.
And I did. When I was sixteen, a vocal teacher discovered that I actually had a voice. I pursued the path of studying, auditioning, and performing. Chasing this childhood dream opened up the world to me, and not just as a singer. I fell in love with traveling. I embarked on a personal pilgrimage to learn about living and working in the opera world from some of the top stars, general managers, directors, and conductors, which led me to writing for opera magazines, and publishing a book.
Gradually, I explored other musical territories and became a recitalist. I made my debut at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall with a pianist/composer for whose songs I wrote the lyrics, which propelled me into another artistic direction: writing lyrics, and eventually, my own songs. From my operatic beginnings to songwriting, from recitals to performing in musical theatre for kids, and even appearing in a French-Austrian TV miniseries, I have had a very eclectic performing career. I have also worked in higher education as Director of Alumni Relations, a role that I enjoyed and that allowed me to incorporate opera into it by creating special concerts for alumni with the Richard Tucker Foundation’s young opera singers.
Throughout my unpredictable, multi-faceted creative journey, there have been two constants. One is writing. Ever since I can remember, I have been writing, be it poetry, non-fiction or fiction. And the other is, of course, opera. While I now sing opera only on occasion, I strive to promote the art form and introduce others to it. I write about it. I present on it in colleges, schools, and public libraries.
When I experience the reactions of interest and wonder from those who have never been to an opera, my heart fills with joy. This art form is not an obscure, elusive, and inaccessible form of expression, a preconceived notion that, as several people have told me, has prevented many from taking a chance on it. Opera is about fundamental human emotions: love, anger, joy, sorrow, and so much more. It gives us the capacity to perceive emotions as though we were holding a magnifying glass over them while time stands still or moves much slower than in real life. If, through my writing and my talks, I can get just one newcomer to opera to take the leap and experience the profound magic of it, then my childhood dream is fulfilled yet again. It is a dream that has evolved into the ideal path for me who, at heart, has always been a writer.
Being able to use my words to tell you about opera, and classical music, and to invite you to explore these worlds is a privilege and an honor. For me now, it is the perfect marriage of my two loves. And for that ten-year-old in me, it is her way of saying ‘thank you’ to an art form that offered her protection and healing in a time of trials.
Maria-Cristina Necula will be writing about opera and classical music for Woman Around Town. Learn more about her on her website.
Top photo: Maria-Cristina Necula in the Sale Appollinee at Teatro La Fenice in Venice