Friday night, just before 6:00pm, I was driving my son to the middle school he will be graduating from in a matter of days. Eighth grade dance night. He’s developing that closeness with his classmates, male and female alike, that I remember doing at the end of my own eighth grade year. In some ways, that golden, almost-summer, king-of-the-hill feeling at my school, coupled with budding other feelings, far exceeded anything socially or romantically I would experience for another three years. (The tragedy of the social disaster that comprised my high school years is best left undiscussed further. Call me a late bloomer and we’ll leave it at that.)
It was a particularly lovely evening, trees in full, green, leafy bloom, sun still high in the sky as though it were afternoon. It felt odd, driving along close to 6pm, this brilliant gold sun shining down during a time of the early evening where I expect the scenery to be obscured by shadows, the way it is the other 10 months of the year, here in the San Lorenzo Valley. It’s that “summertime” feeling, no doubt. And who doesn’t remember the golden feeling that came over you, maybe around age fourteen, maybe later/earlier, of taking that next step into young adulthood, via a dance, a romance, an adventure?
My son was sitting next to me in the car. He was pumped; you could tell. Although he wore the same jeans and tee-shirt as he might for school, he’d showered. He’d put on cologne. He was Ready for Anything. He was scrolling through his music on his iPod that was connected up to the car stereo. Such an important journey, that drive to the big Eighth Grade Dance, deserved only the best of music. Now, a few things. He is not a Classical Boy, much to my sorrow. He does enjoy listening to work by classically-trained contemporary musicians who compose background music for those utterly violent PC/X-Box games that his friends are allowed to own and he is not. The music, in truth, is quite good. (Ex: Hans Zimmer, Sean Murray, Michiru Yamane.) If I can’t have a son who listens to classical, I have to say, we have found a happy medium. And I, too, have stretched my tastes, and will now listen to pop, rap (you know, Eminem is really poetic and worth listening to) and some hilarious parodies that he’s found that are better than their originals. I like the raw, crass energy of much of the music he enjoys. I like liking what he does. It’s another way to bond. It’s nice.
So. Big night. There’s my son picking and rejecting tunes from his iTunes playlist. He does that channel-surfing kind of thing so that the piece of music perfectly reflects his mood. Tonight is particularly important, getting just that right feeling. A few boom-boomy songs. A parody song we both laugh at. And then, up pops “O Mio Babbino Caro,” new to his playlist last week. I don’t know how he got that into the mix. I only knew that it was a song I’ve always loved. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a well-known Puccini aria from his opera, Gianni Schicchi. It was the opening music for the Merchant-Ivory film, A Room With a View, decades ago. (Didn’t see the movie? Go see it. I’m afraid I must insist.) Since it was just before a teen dance and he isn’t a classical music kid, I thought he was going to scroll right past it and put on something more pop-music or teen oriented. Nope. He kept it there.
Oh, reader, I have to tell you. It was A Perfect Moment. Perfect happiness. You could feel it fill the air, the car, the valley surrounding is. This buoyancy that made you feel like your feet weren’t on the ground and that indeed, you didn’t need them to be, because you are flying. And the feeling wasn’t just a glimpse, a quick flash, the way life tends to dish up Perfect Moments as you grow older, less full of illusions about this life business. This was perfect, golden happiness that lasted the length of the song, as our car winded through the redwoods, the deep green profusion of trees around us now infused with gold from the sun.
The song came to its hauntingly beautiful conclusion. Regretfully. But that’s how it goes. Perfect happiness is so fleeting, like a butterfly landing on your shoulder, and you know there’s no point in trying to keep it there longer than it wants to stay. The song was over. But to my surprise, my son reached over to the control panel and pressed “repeat.”
I want you to listen to it again, dear reader. If it’s not too much of a nuisance. And here’s a very different version for your ears. (The first one, by the way, was sung by opera superstar and legend Kiri Te Kawana.) It’s a nine-year-old girl performing in a local singing contest in 2009. She’s heartbreakingly sweet to look at, and sings like an angel. Her performance lacks professional polish, and thank God for that. She’s got a nine-year-old’s set of lungs, not a seasoned professional’s. Her voice wobbles in the wrong way sometimes, and she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. But she’s all heart, she’s got perfect intuition on how to sing it, on the composer’s intention, and there is something so clenching-of-your-throat beautiful about this version.
The young singer’s name is Jackie Evancho, which meant nothing to me, until I Googled her afterward and discovered, to my chagrin, that she is quite famous and mainstream now, courtesy of a near-win in 2010 on America’s Got Talent. The whole world knows about her now. She’s thirteen now. Beautiful as a model, an actress, a professional. Oh, wait. She is those things now. I didn’t look at any of the other performance links, the glossy publicity photos of her, the press, her upcoming performances (Las Vegas!). I just want to remember her as that sweetly nervous nine-year-old girl in a sundress and plastic sandals, singing her heart out. I want to stay there, because it’s so similar to that lovely, golden place, of driving my fourteen-year-old son to his eighth grade dance, both of us so happy with anticipation over the good time he would have (and miraculously, nothing got sabotaged, ruined, like it tends to do with middle-schoolers, and he did have that dreamed-of good time).
“O Mio Babbino Caro” has just gotten one step more beloved in my mind.