It happened the night before last at Angelo’s Taverna on Sedgwick in Old Town. A light snow was falling as we tramped on the floor boards to greetings of welcome. The venue, narrow and small, was already getting crowded in anticipation of the Christmas show.
The only decoration was a string of white channel lights haphazardly tacked around the stage and a large red Chinese paper lantern that huge from the ceiling off to the side. The price is right. No cover, but the hat is passed when the set breaks. The group doesn’t have a name. They are a band of operatic voices plucked from the Lyric Opera, local church choirmasters and other operatic venues who come together for the love of music; an operatic jam session.
I have come to see and hear Jeanne Scherkenbach. Jeanne sang at my Mother’s funeral mass. I learned the love of opera from my Mom and on her hospice bed she knew someone from the Lyric Opera was going to sing for her the Gounod “Ave Maria”. She smiled that cat that swallowed the canary smile when I told her, and so now I follow Jeanne.
And love it they all must because they are in competition with dishes rattling in the kitchen, a parade of servers through the set and fairly bad acoustics. An odd setting for a woman who sang at the “Met” in New York and for the past 15 years has been in the chorus of the Lyric Opera in Chicago. During the break Jeanne tells me her story.
She and her then classical pianist husband, John, went to New York with $1500. He went on welfare and food stamps while looking for a musical break. A friend in the business invited them to stop by his set one night. Unable to afford it he fixed it with the waitress for them to sit in.
A grand piano was being delivered and John, with his tongue hanging out, asked if he could break it in after the show. Several hours and several hundred dollars later in the wee hours the couple had the luxury of a cab ride home.
At 9:00 the next morning Donald Trump called and made John an offer he couldn’t refuse. The venue they were at the night before was Trump Tower.
The Donald stole Jeanne’s accompanist, so feeling sorry for herself she decided she needed to find somewhere to sing. Jeanne came from a household of Broadway show tune crooners. Her brother sang on Broadway. So Jeanne went to audition at the Metropolitan Opera House.
“I don’t know anything about opera, I don’t read music and I can’t speak any foreign languages,” she tells me. And they hired her. And she knew they would because when lunch came they asked her to stick around and they fed her a hot dog. When they asked her for her operatic experience she purloined the names of operas she liked from the posters that adorned the audition hall.
Faced with the enormity of what she had done she put a voice activated tape recorder in her purse during rehearsal. Her debut was to be a Russian opera. Home at night she would listen to it over and over again until she could sing it phonetically. She proves she stills knows it as she belts out several measures at the table.
Some years later Jeanne’s parents were ill in Milwaukee. She locked her New York door behind her, left all of her belongings and her job of a lifetime, her lifetime contract at the Met, and came home to take care of them.
During the second set the audience got to sing Christmas carols with the “voices”. Groans emerge when tables are assigned responsibility for each day of the “On the First Day of Christmas”. Silliness ensues when “four calling birds” all stand and flap their wings during their verse. Jeanne sits at our table and we get “five gold rings”. Pandemonium reigns and spirits are high by the end of the song.
Jeanne reminds me that we have something in common when it comes to music. I too got a notion to sing opera. My secretary said she knew a coach. Bozo’s wife owned a voice studio in Winnetka. My cousin’s first husband was Wizo, the magician from the Bozo Show. Must be kismet. I too couldn’t read music or speak Italian or French, but I wanted to sing opera. And Barbara, my 70 year old classically trained Julliard debuted in New York coach said, “why not”. Oh, I didn’t sing at the Met, but I did get to sing next to a grand piano in a loft with a patio door that opened to a deck overhung with a gracious old tree that offered nourishment to nature’s song birds and it was a little bit of heaven.
And tonight I got to sing with professionals, people that were at the top of their game. The “voices” oddly assemble back on the stage to conclude with “Silent Night”. Jeanne races up fashioning her bonnet from Tosca. When a chorus of voices like that swells it fills your soul. Last week I brought caroling books and my home made Dickens caroling bonnet to a friend’s house to try and create a little bit of Christmas. Here, tonight, I feel like I am home.
The lady from the next table jostles my arm and says, “Do you take lessons? You have a beautiful voice; beautiful music coming from this table.” Only for fun and a long time ago.
A bit of Christmas happened in Angelo's Taverna in Old Town tonight. "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night."