My fear of missing out is nearly fatal, especially when it comes to opera. Each performance is a once-in-a-life time event in which the singers risk everything for the audience. Some nights are good, some are not. Then there are the nights that seep into your marrow and become a part of you, a part of your story. And I live in fear of missing out on those nights, going often and faithfully like a pilgrim to a shrine, just in case.
So you can imagine my distress when I woke up last October with a fever the day I was to journey from New York to Detroit to see Christine Goerke, the American soprano of our generation, sing the title role in Strauss’s Elektra.
I get fevers a lot, but they never last long. I take two Tylenol, swallow an orchard’s worth of grapefruit juice and get on with my life. But this fever was different.
Just the day before, I had read about a New York City doctor who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa and was diagnosed with the illness AFTER gallivanting around Manhattan and Brooklyn for a week. He lived in the West 140s. I LIVED IN THE WEST 140s. He took the 1, A and L trains. I TOOK THE 1, A and L TRAINS. I was fairly certain I hadn’t touched any stray bodily fluids on my daily commute, but my mother had raised me a devout hypochondriac so I came to the only logical conclusion: I had Ebola.
I jumped out of bed and exclaimed, “NOT TODAY EBOLA!” before sinking to the ground in feverish delirium. I was not going to miss Goerke in her signature role. It was going to be the event of the season. The opera lasts about one hour and forty-five minutes and is performed without intermission. The soprano singing Elektra is on stage nearly the whole time, obsessing over the death of her father, confronting her murderous mother and dancing herself to death. The singer has to surrender their entire physical and psychological being to the story. And Goerke was going to sing the role twice in less than 24 hours. That’s like running two full marathons in one weekend. If anyone could do it and do it well, it was Goerke. I had to be there to witness the triumph.
My fear of missing out overrode any concern I had for my health. At 6:00pm I downed three Tylenol and got into a cab for LaGuardia. By the time I landed at O’Hare three hours later, my fever had cooled. Maybe Ebola wasn’t that serious after all. My partner-in-opera, Chicago’s very own Leopoldine, picked me up and showed me to her guest room. I flopped onto the futon and swaddled myself in every blanket she had. I was going to sweat the Ebola out in time for tomorrow’s drive to Detroit.
I awoke feeling weak but confident that I had rid my body of the only obstacle standing between me and some Elektra double-feature realness. Leopoldine and I fortified ourselves with a lunch of fried salami and matzo ball soup and hit the road.
We had just left behind the fumes of Indiana for the Michigan greenery when my headache returned. My head felt like it was full of wet cement. Beads of cold sweat gathered at my temples. Ebola was not done with me yet.
Mercifully, Leopoldine stopped at the next gas station to fuel up. I got out of the car and stumbled inside. It was 60 degrees that afternoon but I was freezing under my jacket, and my hands shook as I reached for the extra-strength Tylenol.
It suddenly occurred to me that I was going to die, right there in Michigan, from a viral hemorrhagic fever I had contracted on the L train. I could just see the headlines: “Opera Queen Brings Ebola to the Midwest.” Yes, I was being dramatic, but my literary heroes are all 19th-century women who died of communicable diseases. In a way, I was living the dream.
Back on the road, the drugs kicked in. I felt my life, and my rational self, return. We rolled into Detroit and checked in at the St. Regis with three hours to spare before Elektra Round 1. I crawled into my hotel bed, burrowed under the thick comforter and took a sweat nap for the ages while Leopoldine, exhausted from her role as chauffeur to the infirm, collapsed onto her bed.
Two hours later, I awoke to my sweater sticking to my chest and back. The bed sheets were saturated with my sweat. The air felt cool against my wet forehead. I walked slowly to the bathroom and my legs obeyed without resistance as I stepped into the shower and washed that Ebola right outta my hair.
To celebrate my return from the sick bay, I draped a scarlet pashmina around my shoulders and went to wake Leopoldine. We had an opera to see.
Amid the cement ruins of a city used and discarded, the Detroit Opera House broadcasts Detroit’s glorious past and its promising future. Leopoldine and I entered its gilded lobby as if entering a crowded Moroccan bazaar. We could barely squeeze past the masses of people, young and old, garbed in suits and gowns, button-downs and jeans. Many were Detroit denizens, but we spotted more than a few folks who looked as if they too had made the long journey to bear witness.
The air in the theater buzzed with a sense of daring. Not only because of the feat Goerke was attempting but because this was the first time Michigan Opera Theatre had ever produced Elektra. The opera requires an enormous amount of resources and the projected ticket sales are not as promising as a production of, say, La bohème. For any 21st-century opera company, this was a gamble. For a company in a city as financially beleaguered as Detroit, it could mean suicide. The packed house seemed to be the company’s reward for investing in itself and in its city. Opera rising like a phoenix above rusting car parts.
Leopoldine and I took one look at our balcony seats and headed for a pair of empty seats in the mezzanine. Opera outlaws, but my brush with death had heightened my sense of adventure.
The timpani rolled and the brass sounded the Agamemnon motif. Agamemnon, the King who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, who was slaughtered by his grief-stricken wife Klytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Agamemnon, whose spirit haunts Elektra and awaits revenge from his missing son, Orestes, the brother Elektra sharpens the axe for.
“Agamemnon!” The first word Goerke sings as she emerges from behind one of the trapezoidal platforms on stage. She is no longer Goerke. She is now Elektra. You can feel it in the fire of her dark voice which fills the Detroit Opera House. “Agamemnon!” She repeats, raising her arms imploringly. Leopoldine and I glance at one another. Yes, this would be worth it.
For one hour and forty-five minutes, Goerke gave it all to us. Pathos, desperation, hope, rage and, at last, catharsis. Orestes had returned. Klytaemnestra and Aegisthus were dead. Elektra, the orchestrator of it all, collapsed in ecstasy, her mission complete. Agamemnon was avenged. When the curtain rose, Goerke stood before us again, triumphant in the applause, ready for Round 2.
After a morning spent at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Leopoldine and I returned to the Detroit Opera House. This time, I was high on caffeine and Diego Rivera, not Tylenol. We couldn’t imagine that Goerke could possibly have anything left to give after the previous night’s performance, but she is a limitless reserve of energy. In Round 2, the stakes were raised and she sang Elektra’s difficult music with an ease and recklessness that was terrifying and heartrending in its intensity. This was no longer an ancient Greek play but a 21st-century story about revenge, justice and the tangled catacomb of family ties. Goerke had dared to scale a mountain many deemed too dangerous to climb, and she brought us all to the summit with her.
Leopoldine and I went to talk to Goerke in her dressing room after the opera. Leopoldine and Goerke had known each other since the days of AOL opera chat rooms, and the three of us had worked together at the Glimmerglass Festival in Central New York that summer. “Did you see what I did there?” Goerke asked, before listing all the pop culture references she had snuck into Elektra’s death dance. “Single Ladies, Gangnam, the Carlton? I’m especially proud of the Carlton,” she said while handing us each a Michigan-brewed beer.
Within an hour, Leopoldine and I were on the road back to Chicago, reminiscing about our favorite moments from both performances, still drunk on a weekend of Strauss, Goerke and near-death experiences. We threw around buzzwords like “Definitive” and “Legendary” and enunciated every syllable.
“Hey,” I said, “Do you wanna listen to Elektra on the way home?”
Leopoldine turned to me and pronounced a definitive, “No.”
We spent the next four hours listening to Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, the perfect post-Ebola digestif. I relaxed in the passenger seat, my body purged of Ebola and the fear of missing out, and allowed the memory of the weekend to imprint itself on my bones.