Merle, Mozart and Me

I’m not what you’d call an avid country music fan.  Nor would I consider myself to be an opera expert.  The thing is, I like some country music.  I mean real country music — George Jones, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson — not the pop music stuff that’s widely heard now.  (I don’t believe Taylor Swift is a country singer.)   I also enjoy some opera.  I prefer what’s called “bel canto,” Italian for “beautiful singing.”

My uncle was the first person I knew with a high-quality component stereo system comprised of an Acoustic Research (AR) turntable, a pair of AR speakers and a Sherwood receiver.  (I think it was a Sherwood.)  He was, and still is, a classical music aficionado.  Other than the occasional Maria Callas or Beverly Sills appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, my exposure to opera and classical music in general had been limited at best.  My uncle Gaspare introduced me to the soaring dynamics of symphonic music and opera on that audio system.

But I was a mere teenager and my main musical interest gravitated to rock ‘n’ roll, thanks in part to a birthday present of a transistor radio that pulled in WLS in a scratchy-sounding way.  Sometimes I’d hear a country and western song that sounded pretty good, but I’d never admit it to my friends.  Likewise, I’d hear some version of Sabre Dance or Flight of the Bumble Bee and find out later it was really a classical music piece often used as background music by an acrobat or a juggler on TV.

One Merle Haggard song I recall hearing was performed by the Grateful Dead.  It wasn’t until I read the song credits on their live “Skull and Roses” album that I learned Mama Tried was Merle’s song.  That was when I first recognized “crossover” music — songs originating in one genre and becoming popular in another.  Years before, I’d heard Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire on top-forty radio without making that crossover connection.  With Merle Haggard’s recent death, I was reminded of his songs I liked, including Today I Started Loving You Again, Mama’s Hungry Eyes and Mama Tried.

What does this have to do with Mozart?  The honest answer is — not much.  Except, all songs tell a story.  Stories of love, work and play, and of trials, gains and losses.  Opera is no different.  This past week, we attended a performance of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute.  It was sung in German, but there were projected English supertitles.  A far cry from the simple poetry and three-chord progression of country and western music, the more complex orchestral score and voices ranging from a sonorous baritone to a lilting soprano portrayed the same sentimental stories of searching for love and other tribulations, just in a more flamboyant way.

How fantastic would it be to slip the song Today I Started Loving You Again into the plot of an opera like The Magic Flute?  Or perhaps envision old Merle belting out Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (A Girl or a Woman) during a set on the Ryman Auditorium stage?  Yeah, I guess either scenario would be pretty much out of the question.  But from a purely show biz perspective, a country singer with a black cowboy hat slung low toward his tinted glasses holding a guitar isn’t that far removed from an opera singer in a feathered headdress and mask holding a magic flute, is it?

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