My Mom, Donna Brown, wrote and presented a humorous speech at Toastmasters District 16 on May 8, 2004 and then Area 0-4 on September 18, 2004 winning 1st place both times with this speech. Here’s that speech that she called “Out of the Closet”.
In Oklahoma we’re on a first name basis with our singers- Garth, Vince, Toby and Reba – and if someone perchance mentions the word opera, the likely response is, “Yes, Opry Land is great!”, or “I performed at Oklahoma Opry last month.” How do I tactfully break it to them that opera isn’t opry? When I returned to Oklahoma in 1981, I decided to come out of the closet and admit that I am . . .an OPERA SINGER! It’s a good thing I have fairly healthy self esteem because I was not prepared for how difficult it could be when everyone knows your secret.
For example, I accepted an invitation to sing in a Sunday School class. You need to understand that means a rather small room and I have a big voice. Well, what would you expect for someone who sings Wagner – you know – with a horned helmet, a spear and a brass bra? YOHOTOHO! A man I had dated a couple of times was present. Although we continued to see each other at church and single group activities, I really didn’t give much thought to the fact he didn’t call any more, until a few months later at a church singles retreat in Santa Fe. We were in a Mexican restaurant at a large round table with about fifteen of our friends, when this man said, “You know, Donna, I don’t think I ever told you why I stopped calling you. You remember when you sang in our Sunday school class? Well, when I heard you sing, I knew I couldn’t live with that voice; so I never called you again.” Thanks loads for the public announcement!
Not only did I get no respect from outsiders, but even my family seemed discouraging. One Sunday morning about 7:45 a.m., as I was vocalizing in the bathroom, my daughter tromped downstairs, stood in the doorway, hands on her hips and glaring at me, said, “Do I have to have a headache every Sunday morning?”
Even the cats didn’t take to this very well. I practiced daily, standing beside the piano with a kitchen chair in front of me. I would give myself a chord and begin a scale – ah——-. Then a new chord, a new scale and a higher pitch. My cat would step up into the chair seat and put her paws on my chest and look at me. When the pitches began to descend, she would relax and hop down. Remember, new chord, new scale, higher pitch. The cat would jump back up on the seat, paws on my chest and face closer to mine. Scale goes back down, cat relaxes and jumps down. Ah! New chord, new scale, higher pitch. Cat jumps back on the seat, paws on my chest, teeth on my chin. By this time, I was laughing so hard, the practice was over.
One of my first opera roles was that of the mother in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, written in 1893. (I’ll bet many of you thought Engelbert Humperdinck was a nightclub singer.) The mother is really witchy and Humperdinck characterized that by a torturous melodic line that is loud, high and shrieky as she sends the children out into the forest with a beating. My son was about five when he first saw the show. I asked him what he thought about my part, obviously expecting rave reviews from my adoring son. But he was totally unimpressed with me — he said, “You just sound like a mom!”
Even onstage, I was sometimes subjected to humiliation. There is a scene in Hansel & Gretel called “The Witch’s Ride.” The Witch picks up her broom and sings and dances toward the front of the stage. Just as she reaches the edge, the lights go out and she’s supposed to fly off into the night sky. Just at that moment of darkness, in our production, a second witch — me — dressed identically to the stage witch comes out from a hidden position in front and runs wildly through the audience, screaming, laughing evilly and shaking her broom at the children. At a grade school performance, I had run up the aisle and out the auditorium in the back and then back in the other side, still running and screaming. This was one of those school auditoriums that had a raked concrete floor — that is, inclined from the back to the front. As I was running down that concrete incline, I tripped, fell and slid all the way down to the front to the delighted cheers of a full house of grade school students. This run is done to music and the second witch has to be back in hiding just as the lights come up on stage and the on-stage witch enters singing. Lying there, I heard my musical cue nearing, so in pain and embarrassment, I jumped up, dived into hiding just as the lights came up and the amazed students saw the onstage witch emerge, with a full complement of breath, raise her broomstick and sing, “broomstick, high!” to much applause by the amazed youngsters.
My years out of the closet have been crazy, fun, and hard work, but I love it. I’m still out of step with many of my Oklahoma neighbors, yet it seems worth it all when you hear a “good ol’ country boy” express his appreciation for bringing opera to his small community by saying, “Thanks for coming — to bridge the gap between culture and agriculture. — Madame Toastmaster”
When my Mom died 5 months ago I knew to save her cassette and reel-to-reel tapes of her singing and a few weeks ago I finally found a small hand-held cassette player to finally listen to a recording of a concert she gave at Grey Stone Baptist Church in Durham, NC about 1975. When I heard her singing “Oh! Had I Jubal’s Lyre” I was flooded with so many memories of her practicing that fun song. I wish she could hear me say how fabulous she sounds to me today! Growing up I didn’t feel that way very often as evidenced by Mom’s retelling in her speech of one of my inappropriate comments to her when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old.
As I slept this morning my dreams were centered on work issues and at one point I came into consciousness and realized that there was singing I recognized in the background of my dreams. It was my Mom and she was singing the alleluia portion of one of the songs in that 1975 concert. It was a song I’ve heard her sing many, many times, called “The Birthday” by Alec Rowley. Below are the lyrics and an audio of my Mom, Donna Brown, singing it.
This day Christ was born, this day our Saviour did appear, this day the angels sing in earth, this day archangels are glad; this day the just rejoice, saying: Glory be to God on high, Allelujah!
Often we hear that allelujah means praise to God. It is a letting go of restraints and inhibitions, and, entirely depending on the heart behind it and can result in either a complete surrender to God’s control, or a detrimental flight without anyone at the helm.1 Hearing Mom’s voice, her melody, provides comfort & reminders for me to keep first things first in life.
The alleluia portion, as I heard it in my dream, begins at about :49. I will eventually get a much better quality recording from the reel-to-reel tape I have. For now this is what I have and I treasure it. Thanks Mom, I love you. Always.