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Starting Point

Flavored by cherry red candy


In my 52 years I have gone to one opera. It was a production of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I cannot remember the name of the opera or any of the arias. I cannot remember the stage settings, the names of the soloists. I cannot remember if I went by car, bus or magic carpet. I do not know if the fat lady sang at the end or if there was one at the beginning. I do remember feeling very cultured, sitting up in the balcony with people who looked rich, dignified, limousined, furred. I looked all around me that evening, which is why I do not remember much of anything else. I had no interest in the libretto, and it was too dark to read it anyway.

But here is what stands out most sharply in my memory of that night. I pulled a candy out of my pocket. It was cherry red. It was wrapped in cellophane. I instinctively knew that the slightest noise in an operatic milieu was uncouth, unforgivable, gauche, low-life, off-the-street behavior. But I wanted that candy so badly. So I unwrapped the cellophane with the delicacy of a brain surgeon’s hands. But there was a crackle. And then another crackle. It was too late to re-wrap it because that would have caused more crackling. So with a flourish and a clenching of my teeth I went for it and tore the rest of the wrapping off.

Heads turned and eyes glared at me. There were a lot of tsks, even a hiss. Some lady in front of me shifted back and forth in her seat, silently sending me the signal that she had just experienced some sense of discomfort in or near her rear end. I was her discomfort. The candy didn’t taste so good anymore. The crowd didn’t look as good as it had earlier. I missed the outside. I knew I did not belong. I was out of my element. I guess I am a street opera kind of person.

To this day I wonder at the sacrosanctity of silence at the opera. Not many yards from where I sat that night in the balcony there seethed all the glories and tragedies of real life and death Manhattan. That was where the real opera was, minus the silence, the hush -- but no less deserving of awe, no less beautiful, no less tragic. And free.

Well, maybe people can better listen or think at the opera if the folks in the aisles are silent, like in a huge cathedral. I can live with that. But if I am ever again given a ticket to the opera, I may just give it away and sit on a city street that night, popping candy after candy into my mouth and watching with awe the mystery of life sweetened with the flavor cherry red.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His new book, Memories of Grace: Portraits from the Monastery, has just been published by ACTA.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001