By Giorgi Ben-Meir
Hand in hand, I walked with my older brother Sam into the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City. He was twenty-four and I was five. We were there to see Georges Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen. Sam had secured some tickets all the way at the back of the main auditorium, but none of his friends could make it. At my parents’ suggestion, he took me.
That evening ranks as one of my earliest and most cherished memories. I still remember the seemingly endless stairs I had to climb, the feel of the red velvet on my chair, and the awe the performance inspired in me. As the curtains drew back and the overture began, beautiful music reverberated throughout the hall and I was transfixed. After that evening, so my brother tells me, I pestered him endlessly to take me again. And so the opera became a way that my brother and I, separated by two decades and two different mothers, grew close.
At seven, I saw The Marriage of Figaro and was awed by Susanna, the countess’ maid. My dreams of singing her arias at the Met had already been my retreat from the unpleasantness of first grade, when my teacher was fired for mistreating students. I managed without her, since it was the opera that taught me to read, and I was inspired by Susanna, who manages all that comes her way. I would pore over the pamphlets detailing the season’s offerings, pointing at the titles I could “sound out” phonetically. Lincoln Center punctuated my weeks as often as Sam could find affordable tickets. The music of the opera became my solace and retreat.
At thirteen, I wanted to become fearless and independent like Carmen, and I already knew her arias well. Just like her, I yearned to be free. I felt disconnected from my peers, stifled in an academic environment that had little musical outlet. I wanted classical music to have a larger presence in my life. I wanted to study its technical aspects and theory. I researched schools that would let me do just that, which led me to LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and the Performing Arts. My skeptical parents finally let me be part of 350 strong contingent of students competing for the 15 available spaces at LaGuardia. I auditioned with one of my favorite Italian songs, Se Tu M’Ami (If You Love Me) and was accepted.
My audition piece includes the line “Non perché mi piace il giglio, Gli altri fiori sprezzerò” translated as “Nor because I love the lily, shall I other flowers despise.” Though this teasingly referred to the ability to have more than one lover, in a sense, it spoke to what I learned at LaGuardia: to be open to other things beyond my first love, music. Surprisingly, my intensive daily musical study made me more attentive in other subjects, and consequently, my academic performance strengthened overall. I discovered a particular passion for history, which complemented the music I was learning and gave me an historical context for the pieces I sang.
I know that my love of music will continue to inform and expand my life, leading me to new interests as it does at school. I continue to go to the opera with my brother whenever we can. And though the stairs at Lincoln Center are less daunting now, I am even more astounded by the operas I see there as a young adult than when I was five. Unlike my younger self, I now love the opera not just for its innate beauty, but in the way it helps me expand my thinking and appreciate the world.
Giorgi Ben-Meir, a 2014 graduate of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, began her freshman year at the University of Southern California with her first semester in the University’s study abroad program in Paris.