Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Flower in the Garden of Delight

My Master hath a garden
Full-filled with diverse flowers,
Where thou may'st gather posies gay
All times and hours.
Where nought is heard but paradise bird,
Harp, dulcimer and lute,
With cymbal and timbrel,
And the gentle sounding flute.

O Jesus, Lord, my heal and weal,
My bliss complete,
Make thou my heart thy garden plot,
True, fair and neat,
That I may hear this music clear,
Harp, dulcimer and lute,
With cymbal and timbrel,
And the gentle sounding flute.

~ Anonymous

While I have been trying to process the passing of my friend, Raymond Martinez, the words of this anonymous Elizabethan poem sang themselves through my head, and suddenly the enormity this sorrow became clear to me, even dear to me –

But, of course, I must explain. (You knew that was coming.)

I don’t quite remember what year it was that I first met Raymond, but it was at a concert of French Baroque music in West Marin; other singer friends had invited me to come hear the program. I remember that when Raymond sang his solos, it was spine-tinglingly beautiful. And the inevitable duet, trio and choruses. I was introduced to Raymond after the concert, and we chatted for a while and then I was swept along to the reception. Before long, Raymond said, “You know, you should come sing with us.” And that was that.

That was that. For years and years and years, I would show up and it was “Oh, goodie!! I get to sing with Raymond, again!” And it was always a delightful time, whether it was sublime or ridiculous. We shared so many musical experiences that were sublime [Purcell: I was Queen Dido and Raymond was Aeneas, and it was exquisite!] or ridiculous [if you weren't there to see Raymond, dressed in a toga-esque costume with breastplates, head topped with a ten-gallon hat, make his grand entrance for "Oedipus Tex" roaring in on a forklift at Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, you missed a singularly triumphant moment of ridiculousness in the annals of chamber opera], or even a somewhat disconcerting mixture of both, I can’t begin to catalogue them. But Raymond remembered all of them, and as the catalogue of your history with him expanded through time, so did a small, highly personal language develop between you and he. Heaven help you if you sat or stood near him during rehearsals, because he was a merciless sotto voce jester to whatever comedies evolved in the rehearsal process. He had the most deliciously wicked sense of humor, and he was always pushing the envelope of what he could successfully pitch into the room. Many were the times when I could feel my face burning red, as I struggled to keep myself from exploding with inappropriate laughter. Raymond would toss a cue word, a code phrase or a little sound from the personal language over his shoulder toward you; each of these was a golden thread woven, by means of the shared history, into the ever-unrolling carpet of fun and music.

One might think, reading this, that Raymond was frivolous, but no. Raymond took everything seriously, though he might not always be willing for people to see his serious side. There were glimpses of it, and it was revealed through intimate conversations.

Seasons came and went. Flowers of all kinds came in and out of season. But singing was always in season. We sang church services, memorial services, sunrise services for Easter, and midnight services at Christmas. Summer festivals; winter concerts; Sunday afternoon salons; the odd pick-up gig, here and there; and weddings. Raymond sang at my wedding, along with three other beloved colleagues. Someone else has written about how welcoming Raymond was to everyone he made music with in ensembles; music was never about competition, always about collaboration. Singing and musicking, the moveable musical feast, always and ever in season. And where there was music, there was Raymond, your colleague, confidant, collaborator, even co-conspirator in and of beauty—and fun! And when he wasn’t singing, he was taking in the opera, the symphony, friends giving recitals or concerts, edifying trips to museums of every kind [one day, as I was heading into the Legion of Honor, I heard my name calledthere was Raymond! He'd already seen the exhibit and was waiting for a friend to come meet him for lunch. "Come this way— I know a terrific spot for getting pictures with the bridge in the background" So, I followed him. Indeed, it was a breathtaking spot, and he pulled out a film camera and snapped me with the bridge. Then his friend arrived, and after introductions, they went on their way, and I went on in to see the exhibit].

He loved nature; hiking; places of both cultivated and uncultivated beauty. God only knows how many miles he walked during his lifetime. He loved architecture. Life was all about being immersed in the ever transforming and informing experience of beauty. The back garden at Crescent Avenue was his hortus conclusus, a personal cloister of shade and green. He tended that garden, for as long as he was able, like it was a shrine, and shared it with friends as often as he could. As much as he loved this private sanctuary, he loved to happen upon beauty everywhere, and I truly mean everywhere.

Raymond may not have been all that handy with a computer, but his favorite piece of technology was the digital camera a singer friend gave to him. The right size to shove in a pocket, he was always prepared to experience and record his random encounters with beauty. Many of the subjects of the resulting photos were transformed into his superlative artwork, known to most of us through his business, Watercolors of the World. The last time I saw him, he told me about the condition of his health, asked me to pray for him, and then sought to soften this horrible blow by pulling out his camera and showing me the snap of an unbelievably gorgeous spray of flowers on a tree and a photograph of his latest painting, a giant succulent or cactus he saw in Golden Gate Park. “Do you know what species this is?” He asked me. I didn’t know. He knew far more formal names of plants than I did; he had to tell me that white flowers I’d photographed were freesias, not crocuses. But knowing the proper name doesn’t make the aroma of blooms sweet; they manage that on their own, whether we name them or not.

So, this brings me back to the Elizabethan poem. Those words were positively singing themselves through my head this morning, and I realized that Raymond, colleague and confidant, collaborator and co-conspirator, had also been the master cultivator, and of a garden much larger than the one at Crescent Avenue. Raymond spent his life cultivating a very great garden of friends. You and I, dear friends, each of us is a unique flower in Raymond’s garden; family, singers, poets and instrumentalists, all of us are in that great garden!

I think we can honor our friend Raymond’s memory best by being continually in season, blooming to bursting, and spreading, far and wide, our joyful noise of sweet and ever sweeter music.

© 2016 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Slowing to a halt,
though not a screeching one;
a quiet release
from the burdens and ties
of a driven life
into the arms of silence,
only for the sake of contemplation.

From within an apprehended softness and serenity,
the elements wait to cherish
and to be cherished by
this bit of earth,
embellished, molded and emboldened
into such glory of motion,
as can carry a beating heart that sings
 all nights and mornings meted 

during this most singular unfolding.

Chosen into silence,
more than choosing,
this respite from heedless racing
toward no-end-in-sight
is a mindful pause,
a backward glance,
a look 'round —
in light and dark,
at twilight and dawn
— to see that what there is
truly is there to be and be seen,
changing the yet unchanged,
unbidden and unrestrained.

This time is liminal,
a bathing in the spa of
all possibility,
a training and preparation for
that peace that will visit
when yet a greater silence invades,
enveloping comprehension
like a shroud.

© 2016 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Monday, February 8, 2016

“The Computer Kid’s Magic Night”; Finally, An Opera About Kids and Technology

The Computer Kid's Magic Night 
by Joann E. Feldman
Friday-March 4, 2016  - 7:30pm
Saturday-March 5, 2016  - 2:00pm

1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA
(925) 943-7469
Tickets on sale now at

There has been a great deal of discussion, among those in the opera community (Note: I am not addressing developers of the Opera search engine), about how to interest young people in the art form. The question is rhetorical, and we all know the answer: “Make opera relevant to today’s youth.” Easier said than done.

The smallest kids still enjoy “Hansel und Gretel” (Humperdinck), “Noyes Fludde” (Britten) and “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (Menotti). There are newer entries to the repertoire: “The Little Prince” (Portman), “Brundibar” (Krasa) and “Where the Wild Things Are” (Knussen). What all these pieces have in common is the propensity to limit thematic material to traditional or classic children’s stories and simple moral themes. That’s all good, but does modern treatment of an old story make it modern or relevant? From my perspective, as a parent, writer and singer, relevance must reside in the subject matter, not in its treatment.

There can be no more relevant topic for millennial families than our engagement with technology. Studies have been done, books have been written, online forums exist about this topic that is so challenging to the modern family. The term “screen time” sums up our conundrum with regard to the influence of technology on our kids.

So, I ask you: Has this relevant, modern topic ever been the subject of an opera?

If your answer is “No,” I am very happy to be able to reply, “You are wrong!”

As it happens, the subject features prominently in Joann E. Feldman’s “The Computer Kid’s Magic Night.” If you are surprised to learn this, you will be equally astonished to learn that this 50 minute opera is listed in OPERA America’s Opera For Youth Directory and that it had its premier in 1986. That’s no typo, folks.

Full disclosure: I saw the premier of this opera. My future husband had been cast in the production, offered at Sonoma State University, so I attended. A show about computers and kids! Wow! I found the music to be charming and engaging, the story clever and full of fun. At that time, I was a recent university graduate. I would not own a personal computer for another 5 years (a second-hand Macintosh Plus); I had typed all my school papers on an Underwood typewriter. The very thought of computers becoming ubiquitous, much less more seductive than television, was something I just couldn’t fathom (mainly because I didn’t play videogames and had had very little exposure to computers during my university days). But, I remember thinking, as I watched this show, “How prescient of the author/composer to have seen that the computer can be promoted as an educational tool for kids.”

Looking at the story now, with 30 years of computing life behind me and two teens in high school, I see the even deeper message: Technology is indeed a valuable educational tool, as long as it isn’t so intrusive that it replaces all other ways of learning, all other types of interactions, all other activities.

Parents, educators and kids, this is a wonderful show to spark thought and discussion on this very important topic!

Kudos to Solo Opera for being courageous and cutting-edge in bringing this very timely and relevant opera to millennial audiences, with updated technological references and a fine cast of singers!

~ Elisabeth T. Eliassen is a Bay Area singer (mezzo-soprano), writer (ASCAP), and parent.