Living for more than a year in the reality of COVID-19 with its forced separation from people we love and things we care about and with its attendant anxieties and frustrations, most of us, I hope, have still managed to discover some good. Maybe it was the kindness of strangers or the inventiveness of our educational systems and workplaces. Maybe it was learning to live gracefully with quietness and solitude. Some of those discoveries have been life-changing, others insignificant. They all matter. I have been struck by a couple of things which definitely fall in the insignificant, though fascinating (at least to me), category. For instance . . .
Surely Midsummer Night’s Dream was among the plays we studied in my college Shakespeare class with Dr. Edward Pinckney Vandiver, who seemed to go into a swoon—ambling ever so slowly across the classroom to stand gazing out a window, holding his beloved book in his hands, to quote from this or that play. Why he carried the book I have no idea, because his eyes were closed and he entered a near trance every time he, oh, so lovingly quoted the great poet—and that was many times a day. I think dear professor was mind-traveling to far away places in far away times, across miles and centuries, picturing himself on the apron of the Globe theater stage with the bard himself standing in the wings or perhaps sitting in the center of the front row. Or maybe Dr. Vandiver transported himself directly into old Will’s brain.
Dr. Vandiver I remember, but I don’t recall learning anything about Midsummer Night’s Dream from my time at Furman University.
About ten years later, I auditioned for and was selected to portray Hermia in a Louisville Shakespeare in Central Park production of the play. Wemust have had discussions about the plot, but I don’t remember that either. Maybe it was just assumed we knew it. I do remember the character Puck and the actor who played him. And (unfortunately) I remember the less-than-stellar review of my performance. But that’s about all.
I think, however, that I have finally gotten a handle on the play.
For all of 2020—and so far for most of 2021—I’ve been learning and writing about my dad’s cousin Rae, an operatic baritone long associated with the New York City Opera Company. I have yet to set foot in an opera house, but I’ve been learning a lot about the art form from my living room. Lately, I’ve been studying up on the storylines of the operas Rae performed in so I can include short but accurate descriptions of their plots in my book.
Rae played Starveling in Midsummer Night’s Dream so I recently used a big chunk of one day to learn—or maybe relearn—the gist of the thing. If I got it right, Starveling and his fellow ‘rustics’, or skilled laborers, plan to produce a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. So, with Midsummer, we have a fantasy featuring a play within a play, always a mind-bending theatrical convolution.
I’ve made some other discoveries while working on Rae’s book. One is a reminder of how small our world really is and how closely we are all connected. You’re probably familiar with the six degrees of separation concept—that everyone is connected to any other person through a chain of acquaintances with no more than six links. An article in The Guardian a few years back confirmed that as unlikely as it sounds, the theory is probably about right—that each of us is only six introductions away from any other person on the planet.
Rae is separated from me by two degrees with my dad as our point of connection. Rae performed with many opera stars, including Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills, each of them three degrees from me. And Beverly Sills—well, she met just about everyone. So, through Dad, then Rae, then Sills, I am separated by only four degrees from, for instance, Pat and Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Rose Kennedy, Carol Burnett, Miss Piggy, and who knows how many other famous personages. In fact, because of Rae I am separated by a mere three degrees from Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Robert Shaw, and maybe Kristin Chenoweth.
Joe DeNardo, band director at Rae’s junior and senior high schools, was one of Rae’s music teachers. DeNardo was one-time student of Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. One of Rae’s voice teachers was Sol Cohen. Cohen was coached by one violinist who had been composer-pianist Franz Liszt’s touring partner and by another who had performed one of Johannes Brahms’ concertos under the baton of the composer himself. So I’m connected to both Liszt and Brahms by five degrees and Verdi by only four. How about that!
It’s just a silly pastime and means nothing about who any of us are, neither adding nor subtracting from our inherent value, but it’s still a fun little game, and it does manage to show what a small world we live in. And how the pandemic has led to new discoveries—of all sorts.
If you’d like to share some of your degrees of separation, drop me a line in a comment below. I’d love to hear about them.