NaNoWriMo: More About That Later, Chapter 11, Opera Man

So my sister, a charter member of the organization, said, “Come try out for the Honolulu Children’s Opera Chorus.  You might like it.”

At that time, HCOC met on Saturdays at the Church of the Crossroads next door to Varsity Theater – another one long gone – on University Avenue.  It was the end of the year for the group, and their Director, Eileen Lum, was looking for the next batch of budding singers.  For guys, if you enjoyed it once you were in it, being accepted earlier was better.  Once your voice changed it was all over.  There were no singers from tenors on down.

Miss Lum seemed very stern as she stared at me across the piano.  Her evaluating grimace was daunting.  I didn’t know what to expect in terms of tryout rigor, if I should have memorized anything or what.  I’m thinking my sister probably didn’t know either, otherwise I would have been prepared for what happened.

Actually, there turned out to be no song required.  What she had me – all of us auditioning – do was sing little warm-up type scales.  She would play a run of some kind, I don’t remember exactly how the notes went, and then I was supposed to sing the scale back to her.  This I did, even as the notes got higher and higher, maybe testing my range ability.  Once I hit my top, there were other runs to be done, maybe testing for my ear.

Whatever she was looking for, I guess I had it, and I began my three year HCOC tenure the following fall.  From 6th– – 8th-Grade, I had the time of my life singing all sorts of music, from classical, to religious, to secular, and it was indeed an education.

The concerts were exciting experiences.  We went all over town doing Christmas and Easter performances at places like Tripler Army Hospital, Pohai Nani and other senior citizen homes, and shopping centers, along with various churches.

One time we did a Catholic service – this was back when they were still doing the mass in Latin.  I remember two things about that one.  One, the language was strange and beautiful, and two, my knees – and even my back – were sore after what seemed like three hours of kneeling, getting up, and the getting down to kneel again.  And again, and again.  It was like warm-up drills for some sports event.  We were only there to do two or three songs, I think.  Had I known we’d have to sit through that length of athletic torture, I’d have voted we come in for the three numbers and then get back on the road.  We had an Ala Moana Center stage gig that afternoon.  No kneeling involved.

We even made a record.  I had a solo on it with spiffy backup from the rest of the gang.  I remember I had to sing verses that were a progression of money.  It went something like, “I like pennies, in my pocket, I like pennies, I like them yes I do.  I like pennies to spend, and pennies to lend, and pennies to save or throw away.”  Maybe it was give away, not throw away.  In those days, pennies could actually buy you things.

Anyway, the second verse substituted nickels for pennies, verse three was dimes, and the last verse – I think it ended before hitting half dollars – was quarters.

So the red light goes on and I sing, right off the bat, “I like nickels, in my pocket,” at which of course Miss Lum shouts out, “Stop, stop, stop.”

“Lanny,” she says, “it’s pennies, not nickels.”

I say, “Right, yes, I do know that Miss Lum.  Sorry.”

“Okay,” she shouts, clapping her hands enthusiastically.  “Ready?”  On goes the red light.  “Sing.”

And I sing, “I like nickels, in my pocket.”

“No!  Stop, stop, stop.  Lanny,” she pulls out her wallet, takes out a penny, walks over and puts it in my hand, “here, this will help you remember.”

I nodded, agreeing that this would indeed do the trick.

“Ready?”  On goes the red light.  “Sing!”

And I sing, “I like nickels, in –”

“No, no, no.  Christy, come sing the solo.”

It was like I was brain dead.  Maybe it was nerves, the recording and all.  One day many years later, I was in Froggies, a used book and record store, and I found that album in the bin.  I flipped it over and, bringing back doleful memories, I saw that Christy was listed as the soloist on the song, and obviously rightfully so.  But damn, that could have been me.  I could have been a contender.

This, however, was not my worst moment.  My worst moment was way more public than that.

There was a radio show, for many years, called “Hawai‘i Calls.”  It was broadcast live from the first large tourist hotel built in Honolulu, the Moana, in their beautiful Banyan Tree Courtyard, and it went out all over creation, one day a week.  Primarily a vehicle for bringing Hawaiian music to everyone on the planet, and hopefully dragging tourists here to spend money, there were, however, musical exceptions.  I mean we did maybe a Hawaiian song?  I don’t remember.  Maybe “Mele Kalikimaka.”   But our repertoire generally was not Hawaiian.

Our one “of color” hit was “Pablo the Reindeer.”  He was from Mexico, and took over nose light duties for Rudolph when Santa went south of the border.  Where there was no snow incidentally, as the song informs us.

Back then, and maybe even nowadays, I’m not sure, the signature song of HCOC, the song with which we closed every single program we ever sang, sung so much so that we knew this song like the backs of our hands, and I could even sing it for you right now if you requested it – yeah, this was our closing number that night for the whole wide world to hear.

So the idea was that I would sing the first verse solo, and then the whole group would come in on “with God as our father,” and then we’d do it as a group the rest of the way.

Okay, here I go.  For the whole world to hear.  “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”  So far so good.

“Let there . . . . . .”

Now there’s that wide-eyed distressed expression from Miss Lum.  And then with a sweep of her hand to get the attention of my fellow singers who are all staring at me, mouths agape, she sets them into finally coming in to save my ass because I couldn’t remember the one song we did at every single concert we ever performed.

Trust me, I was way more embarrassed than I was when I couldn’t remember that the smallest coin denomination is a penny, not a nickel.  This was for the whole wide world to hear.  And they’d mentioned my name as soloist too. I couldn’t even hide wrapped in the cloak of anonymity.  All my relatives were listening in, too.  This was a big deal program even locally.  Who knows how many people I knew had listened to me screw up.

Gee, no one asked my for my autograph afterward.  Miss Lum didn’t speak to me.  It would have been hard for her to corner me anyway, because I took off for my folks and hurried them out the exit.

They were sympathetic, but it did no good.  I felt like the dumbest ass in the choir universe.  It was a long time before I forgot that one.  Obviously, since I’m writing about it right now, I’ve not forgotten it.

I think it was a long time before Miss Lum forgot that either.  She never asked me to do any kind of solo ever again.  I could not blame her.

But there were great times too.  I loved doing the operas, learning the foreign lines and what they meant in English.  When we hit the stage at the HIC Concert Hall, I felt like a heavyweight champ.  We were important.  We were there to fill a specific need.  And people loved us.  They always love the kids who’re getting cultured.

As I said in the last chapter, although I loved the music of Puccini’s La Bohème most, it was Tosca, also a Puccini masterpiece, and Jean Fenn that stole my heart.

Let’s see, besides those two, I think I remember I was in Carmen, Il Trovatore, and Pagliacci.  It’s foggy.  Was that all?  I don’t know.  I remember Miss Lum farmed three of us out to sing the children’s role in some opera that Punahou School was putting on, but I don’t remember which one, just that we were performing at Punahou, the most prestigious private school in Hawai‘i.  Huh.

I fell in love, again, with a young woman, closer to my age than Jean Fenn, from Star of the Sea, a school out in Kāhala, one of the high rent districts on O‘ahu.  She lived out there too.  She was the sweetest, most beautiful girl I’d ever met.  We hung out together at practice – which had moved to the basement of KawaiaHa‘o Church immediately after I joined.  We hung out in between scenes of the operas we were in.  I was crazy about her, but I was an 8th-grader who went to a different school and lived way over in another part of town, so it was hard to date her.

And then it happened, as it does with little boys who grow older.  It actually happened right in the middle of what became my final opera, as I walked out on stage singing.  I remember it as if it were tonight.

I started singing as we paraded from the wings, stage right, and when the main lights hit me, I could not sing the higher notes.  My voice cracked.  Try as I might, it kept on cracking.  The kids walking next to me glanced at me.  Someone, maybe it was the woman whom I loved, whispered, “Just fake it.  Mouth the words.”

Whoever it was, she knew what was happening, as did everyone immediately around me.  The end.  That was my final opera.  And as that was the last season for me, so it was the last season for me and my then true love.

But it was a good run.  I would never trade those three years for anything.  If I’d liked singing before, I graduated from HCOC loving singing and loving opera.

I still love opera.  I went to the Metropolitan Opera the summer after I graduated high school.  My sister was at Barnard College in NYC, and she took me to see something, I remember not which opera.

Why?  Because I was traumatized.  Even though we were way up in the cheap seats, everyone was dressed to the nines.  It was tuxes, gowns, furs, and flashy jewelry all around, with me in my aloha shirt and jeans.  The looks we got.  I tell you.

Now when I watch videos of Met opera performances, I have to laugh.  There are very few people dressed like they were in 1972.  You can even see people in shorts.  Same for the Broadway theaters.  T-shirts even.  Everything is so relaxed now.  Unlike the way I was, tense and tenser as the night rolled along.

I never minded giving up my Saturday mornings in the least. I miss those days of HCOC.  I miss the great friends I made there.  I miss that little girl for whom I swooned.  I miss Eileen Lum.  She was strict, but man could she get great music out of such a disparate collection of kids.

We sounded good.  In my memory we were epic.

* * * * *

Aloha #WriterThursday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is


Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece somewhere I can read it. I would love to see what you come up with : )

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