Originally published in Omnivore Poetry & Fiction
My career as a classical violinist ended a lifetime ago. At least that's how it feels. I am in awe of my lack of attachment to a life I nurtured and sometimes hated for 28 years. Classical musicians start young. My training started when I was seven, but by the current yardstick, that's missing the boat. Today's young prodigies are veterans of the stage by the time they hit grade school.
Lips of Swine
by Lex Thomas
A lot of my professional career is a haze of performances, master classes, concert halls, endless tours, green rooms, and post-concert receptions. A couple of occasions stand apart in memory. Like the night during my tenure with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra when we performed for Queen Elizabeth II, a truly beautiful lady who glowed. The female orchestra musicians required special dispensation from Buckingham Palace in order to wear black in the presence of Her Majesty. And performances for the Queen don't exceed an hour. There's so much pomp and circumstance involved in simply getting her royalness into the concert hall and seated, that there's no way anyone's going to let her out for a pee and have to do it all over again.
And then there was the night in Toronto during a performance of selections from Franz Lehar's popular operetta The Merry Widow. Seated in the outside second stand of the violin section, I was less than six feet from the audience and mere inches from the singers, a chubby soprano and a lithe, handsome tenor who less than a year later was convicted of rape and spent the next six months practicing solfege in a jail cell.
It was a Saturday evening concert, the last in a long string of performances of German light opera classics to celebrate Oktoberfest. I had enjoyed some good cheer with my dinner, a heavy Teutonic affair of schnitzel, potatoes, cabbage, black bread, and salad with a sweet vinaigrette like my grandmother used to make. By the time I settled into my orchestra chair for the evening, I was feeling relaxed, sated, and happy with life.
The overture from Die Fledermaus had gone reasonably well until the last page when my fingers had some difficulty negotiating sixteenth-note runs in the low-oxygen range of the fiddle. No matter. I had a wealth of experience faking it.
Then, on came the singers. Currents of floral perfume and after-shave wafted by as they swept past me trailing tailcoats and crinolines, to take their places at centre stage. They bowed to the audience and to one another, then assumed their roles, gazing romantically at one another in preparation for the duo from The Merry Widow.
The conductor cued the orchestra to begin the tender instrumental preamble, the tenor inhaled deeply, and vibrated into the first words of the famous duo, Lippen Schweigen. I'd heard these words a hundred times before, through a hundred bland, uneventful performances. I knew them by heart. I don't know why I was even listening. But that night, in my tired giddiness, what I thought I heard was lips of swine.
Staring in wonder at the singers, who by now had moved well beyond these first few bars and were now in full warble, I shifted into a fit of pubescent levity. My eyes glazed over, my fingers went numb around the neck of my fiddle, and my bow grip weakened to the point that I feared the stick would fly from my hand right into the lap of some hapless and probably somnolent patron of the arts. Not a sound, not even a scrape emanated from me, nothing but a great guffaw exploding from the center of my being, somewhere around the solar plexus, audible right to the third row of audience seats. I froze, horrified. For the first time in my life, I feared for my job, saw my career dissipate into a worthless pile of smoldering ash.
I sat there, motionless except for the convulsions of uncontrollable laughter racking my body, tears rolling down my face. I was too afraid to look up at the conductor, whose eyes I could feel boring into my cranium, too mortified to look at the surprised audience, too stupefied to catch the incredulous eye of my stand mate.
Nor could I stop. No simple belly laugh, this fit of hysteria involved my entire physical being. It made me want to pee. I tried to think sad and serious thoughts. The plight of the homeless, starving children, native rights, my first encounter with death, and who shot JFK. Even the thought of having to give up my semi-lucrative orchestra contract and take up busking in the Toronto subways did little to assuage my mirth.
Any attempt to control my frenzied thoughts proved utterly futile. My inner poet overtook my mind, spewing out enough lyrics for a dozen absurd verses - Lips of swine, I'll make you mine, I love you dear / Ear of sow, You stupid cow, You smell like beer.
By now, tears and convulsions were not enough. I had added to my repertoire a series of snorts, each one louder than its precursor. My nose was running in great, snotty streams. Lacking a handkerchief, I was forced to wipe tears and mucus on the sheer lace sleeve of my concert blacks.
Finally, what felt like the longest aria in operatic history, ended. Spent, face stained with mascara-streaked tears, I shuffled off stage, amid the condolences and consolations of my orchestral colleagues.
I lost my musical virginity that night. No longer innocent, painfully aware of what horrors and humiliations could ambush an artist before the footlights, that concert gave way to a bout of stage fright that forced early retirement from an otherwise uneventful musical career.