When You Can No Longer Talk about It, You Have to Sing
An Essayby Irene Keliher
In 2009, the year that my brother died, I wrote my first opera. That is, I wrote the story, the words that would be spoken and sung. I was the librettist.
At the first rehearsal I attended, the singers ran through the same scene for hours. The scuffed room was scattered with pencils and water bottles.
The father character sang: “I need your help. My daughter is missing!”
His friend replied: “Forgive me for not coming sooner.”
These are words I wrote, I kept thinking.
The mezzo-soprano lead, Cecilia Duarte, began to sing the missing girl’s aria. It was the first big number. Her deep, downy voice evaporated like fog.
“We need more emotion,” the director said.
“How should I feel?” she sang. She shook her head, tried again: “How should I feel?”
This time the words rolled like water thick with salt. My entire body prickled with wonder and sorrow. I looked down at the white three-ring binder in my lap, which contained the score, and I cried, though so quietly that no one noticed.
I remembered telling my brother that words could heal. I sent him books in jail. “Writing has always helped me,” I wrote. My senior year of high school, when I was just beginning to imagine my life beyond our tiny Northwest town, I had written a paper on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I wrote about Lily Briscoe and the salvation of art. I got an A, but I didn’t know what the book meant.
I am not given to public crying. Even at my brother’s funeral I didn’t weep for long. I have never felt quite like I did in the moment I heard Ceci sing those lines, and I will never have the words for how it felt.
It was as though I had forgotten how to breathe, and then I learned again, all at once.