The Human Voice
There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice and that interests me… I feel I can go ahead without praise. –Virginia Woolf
She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room. –Ann Patchett, "Bel Canto"
In the midst of the pandemic, I started listening to opera, whereas in the beginning of the pandemic, back in March, I preferred mellow instrumental jazz. Though I grew up steeped in opera in a Viennese refugee household, I have always preferred pop, rock & roll, folk music and jazz. My mother's Saturday afternoons were spent listening to the Metropolitan Opera on WQXR, libretto on her lap. She did not sing along, but I could sometimes hear a thrumming in her chest. Was that her heart? Or the melody of her youth?
My parents had a subscription to the MET for evening performances and I occasionally went with my mother, even on a school night, if my stepfather was busy or wanted to stay home and read the paper. Was this coercion, obligation, or a gift? From the vantage of my maturity, I'd say it was a gift. The soaring voices, disciplined but transcendent, is what I remember when an opera is over.
In the silence that descended on us as the pandemic began, like many others, I fell into the vortex of social media, constant phone conversations, and ultimately, Zoom, but I missed the voices of my friends and family close up, in my ear, floating on the air in invisible waves. Who would have ever thought that these soundings could be dangerous, releasing droplets into the air and into us? Mandated masks soon muffled us, as they will for a while longer.
Most artists and writers I know resist silence, or perceive that they have been silenced. This perception, sensation or experience, is gender neutral. We may have been silenced by expectation and conformity, humiliation, abuse or neglect, self-loathing, hurtful criticism, exclusion or bullying. Not long ago, it was considered unseemly for a woman to speak up and speak her mind, or dangerous for a gay man to say, "I do," to another gay man. Finding our voices as writers is also a long process, even a struggle. What we write on the page—fiction, nonfiction or poetry—is the interface between our interior thoughts and the world. It takes courage to recover from the exposure that requires. Yet we continue to write, to sing, to paint and to sculpt.
Who is entitled to speak? Who is entitled to voice their dissenting opinion? To vote freely without restraint, to publish their writing without censorship or consideration for the marketplace? Whether we live in North Korea or the United States, silence is ubiquitous and must be broken. Thus, do we have the human voice—the embodiment of our freedom—that speaks and sings.