To Life, l’chaim!

Engagement toast Act 2 of Vanessa by Samuel Barber at the National Opera House, Wexford 2016. Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Engagement toast, Vanessa, National Opera House, Wexford 2016. Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL


What does the opera ‘Vanessa’ and the musical ‘The Fiddler on the Roof’ have in common apart from an engagement toast followed by a dance, a plethora of females, a tragic ending and heaps of singing? The answer is not much. When it comes to chalk and cheese, Vanessa has the stiff dustiness of the former and Fiddler the ‘smile!‘ of the latter. However, there is one notable character shared by both and it’s ME (of course!) – a secret diva masquerading as a humble maid/en. Perhaps, if you’ve met me, you thought I was a quiet sort of a person but truthfully, on the inside, I am one giant show-off.

So here’s a little story: Seventeen years ago my husband and I had come to the point where we were ready and willing to start trying for a baby. After a trying year with no success followed by a trip to the doctor, it was diagnosed that I needed to have a large ovarian cyst removed, and during the operation endometriosis was discovered and duly dealt with. A couple of months after the op, a friend remarked that typically, one has six months within which to fall pregnant following such an operation as after that one’s chances dwindle dramatically. My op was in January so by October I was feeling despondent and my head had turned to thoughts of adoption. ‘I’ll never have my own baby’, thought I.

At that time a colleague of my husband’s mentioned that he was auditioning for a local amateur dramatic group that would be staging ‘The Fiddler on the Roof’ and wouldn’t he like to try too? I went along for the trip and once there decided I would give it a shot. What had I to lose apart from a little bit of pride? (I had failed to get in to our school musical in spite of the fact my piano teacher was one of the auditioners.) We warbled our way through ‘Amazing Grace’, after which he was given a role as the beggar and I was awarded the role of the second daughter Chava – the one who loves books and leaves her family. I was quite amazed and I tell you it was some of the best fun! We messed about, sang, danced and met some wonderful people. The buzz and the energy being on stage left one giddy with excitement and on a high with adrenalin. The best part was the knowledge that we had worked hard on this together and produced something that thrilled others.

Have you seen ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein)? If not I’d highly recommend it. It’s ultimately a tragic story which is filled with the lightness of joy in everyday life within an orthodox Jewish community. There is a scene in the story where the older sister becomes engaged and it is the Hebrew custom on such an occassion to drink a toast with family and friends to l’chaim, which means ‘to life’.

Imagine my suspicion and disbelief when I disovered half way through the show when I saw two lines on the pregnancy testing stick! It was true, I was finally expecting, after almost two years of waiting and finally giving up. Our first daughter Eva was born the following May but it wasn’t until almost ten years later that I discovered that the Latin name Eva derives from the Hebrew name Chava which was mine in the play and which means to breathe or to give life!

After her there was no looking back really as we have four children now and actually our fourth was an unplanned pregnancy.

So here we are, October again, fifteen years after my stage debut (!) and huge surprise – I am back in the theatre. It has taken all these years for me to decide that I would be up for squeezing in all the many hours of rehearsals into the thick of family life. This time it’s way more serious as it’s opera so it’s a far cry from the jovial back-stage antics of AmDram. This is a professional stage and these are people’s careers. Once again I went because a friend suggested it and was a little puzzled when we were picked to play the parts of supernumaries (extras) in the up coming Vanessa by Samuel Barber in the Wexford Festival Opera 2016. Didn’t I tell them I don’t really like opera at all? What a shock, I have to pretend now to know how to act, nobody mentioned that!  Once again I’m a humble maid but this time of the type which serves. And please, I was asked by an assistant stage manager, not to sing, they have some famous folk for those roles.

But what a thrill and a delight – I’d like to say I am fully converted to opera! Now, I have no big announcement to make but something new has been born in me through this process.I have discovered the unexpected in myself and a depth of richness has been added to the kaleidoscopic colours of my life. Initially I thought the workings of this production were like a giant clock with all the necessary cogs playing their integral parts but have come to realise it’s much more akin to an organism which takes on a life of its own. Events seem to happen in spite of one’s actions and emotions are stirred up in one that are sometimes unwelcome.

When I played the daughter role in ‘Fiddler’ I had to say goodbye to the father which was difficult as my own father had passed away the previous year and I felt the grief keenly. Now, once again we have to bid our goodbyes on stage and there are moments when I have physically plumbed the depths of that grief. A joke was made about my tears and my friend said she doesn’t know how I managed it but I wonder at the wisdom of allowing myself to feel so much on stage in a role that is not real. The raw pain of grief is still an openable wound even after all this time.

And yet I feel the experience of death brings more starkly into light the joy and celebration of life which I choose to embrace with all the good that it has to offer. I hope that what has been birthed through this experience will grow to become something more wonderful than its humble beginnings. I’m not saying I’m going to be hitting the stage big time, I’m just a bit more willing now to take on new challenges! One thing I know for sure is that I owe a debt of gratitude to the director who picked me as well as the special friend who dragged me along in the first place. Thank you for showing me I could love something I thought was unlovable.

‘Life has a way of confusing us
Blessing and bruising us
Drink, l’chaim, to life
God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor
How much more can we be joyful
When there’s really something
To be joyful for

To us and our good fortune

Be happy, be healthy, long life
And if our good fortune never comes
Here’s to whatever comes
Drink, l’chaim, to life
May you both be favored with the future of your choice
May you live to see a thousand reasons to rejoice’

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