By Sasha Henriques
There are few points in my life where I’d honestly wished to myself that I’d had a normal American childhood. These points are rare and often very fleeting, but every once in a while, I’ll look upon wholly American teens who’ve had the experience of soccer practice and outdoor barbecues and I will feel slightly jealous.
My mother, an immigrant from Ukraine, never really forced me to accept my culture when I was a kid. I was disinterested - I never learned to speak Russian, I didn’t care to learn about Russian history (except for one of those Royal Diaries books about Grand Duchess Aleksandra Nikolaevna that I seemed to be obsessed with until I lost it on a plane ride). But my mother, in her subtle ways, would try very hard to, well, “culture-ize” me. She put me in piano lessons as soon as she found a studio in my town, and pushed me to continue playing, even when I really, really wanted to quit and take dance lessons instead. I wasn’t allowed to play any pop music - only classical. Likewise, when I decided to learn the violin and join my school’s orchestra, she never took it seriously. She would give me dirty looks if I tried to practice my violin in the house, so I didn’t practiced my violin for nine years (which makes me seriously question why I was good at the violin, but perhaps I just have my Russian-Jewish genes to thank).
I grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut. My mother definitely took advantage of the proximity to the city. We would jump on the Metro North train, dump our bags and suitcases at her brother’s bachelor pad, and take a taxi to Lincoln Center, where she would drag me several times a year. I remember my school’s orchestra took a field trip to the Philharmonic one year. Students were amazed at the splendor of Lincoln Center, many of them yelping in excitement over their first trip there. I shrugged, telling them all that I went there all the time.
Ballets and operas were the cultural highlights of my childhood. My mother seemed to have surprising amount of faith in my ability to sit still and shut up for four hours straight. She started off easy, just in case - she brought me to see The Magic Flute, one of the most kid-friendly operas. It progressed through yearly visits to see the ballet The Nutcracker, various other ballets and operas, until one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life - sitting through Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin. (Please, don’t ever do this to your children.) I remember the torturous experience. The drama was too adult for me to understand, the experience too dark and scary. The only thing I remember is a horrifying two-man duel with a snow-filled stage and fake leaking blood.
It was definitely strange to other American children that I had seen at least 7 operas and ballets by the time I was 12. I thought it was strange. And it seemed my mother has no intention of stopping - until my little sister was suddenly old enough to come, and, let’s say, didn’t have the easy graces that I had in sitting through a four-hour opera. She wiggled in her seat, poking my mother and me. The opera was not very pleasant for her. Suddenly the city-visits to Lincoln Center stopped. I didn’t think I missed them very much until I came to Columbia.
I found myself shocked one morning after I had waken up early to get a standing ticket to go to the Met. The opera - after all of these years I was going back to the opera. I didn’t know exactly what drew me to go there, especially on my own on a Friday night. I saw this season’s Anna Bolena. I stood (painfully) through the first act, finding that I actually enjoyed the opera. During intermission, I stood alone in the back of the standing section, flipping through the playbill. An older couple, dressed to the nines and clearly from the orchestra section, came up to me and asked if I was standing section. “Oh, yes,” I replied simply. They explained that they were leaving, and offered me a pair of orchestra seat tickets. I spent the second act of the opera sitting eight rows away from the stage in a $200 seat, grinning until my face got sore.
I continued going to the opera, often getting a standing room ticket (I always went alone) in the hopes I would once again strike it big and get a free orchestra seat. Last week, I found that an acquaintance was selling a Family Circle ticket for ten bucks. Not one to pass up an opera opportunity, I dropped my commitments and went to the Met once again.
I arrived just as the big crowd was settling and being swiped through the grates. I rose the elevator to the very top, a small girl pushed to the back corner of the elevator, glancing at the other opera goers with wide eyes and a small, excited smile. I took my seat just as the show was about to start. The infamous chandeliers were rising, the stage getting dark.There were two empty seats next to me. Someone was going to be late.
Suddenly, my two seatmates arrived - with their mother. The two girls were beautiful - tight curls and luminous dark skin, and probably no more than ten years old. Their mother was clearly Caucasian. I thought nothing of it, thinking perhaps the girls were adopted. They shimmied past me with their booster seats, and their mother sat in an empty seat in the row in front of me. Of course, like the other opera goers, I was slightly miffed - I came to enjoy the show, not to have two stupid kids jiggling and giggling in the seats next to me. Increasingly angry thoughts continued to run through my mind - until their mother turned around and spoke to the girls in Russian. I think at that point, I did a double take. These girls did not look Russian in the slightest. They were American children! But I could no longer ruminate about it, because the overture began and curtains raised.
During the first act, the girls’ mother would turn her head around to check on her children every twenty minutes or so. I would subconsciously check on them myself. They were surprisingly still for children sitting through an opera in a different language, much as I had been when my mother took my to the opera all those years ago. I took a liking to them, and I defended them in my mind when the woman sitting in front of them yelled at them to stop kicking her seat (they weren’t, but there’s always going to be prejudice against kids at the opera). During intermission, I struck up conversation. I said I noticed that their mother spoke Russian to them; they said yes, they spoke Russian. I offered them to poke my shoulder whenever they wanted to borrow my binoculars during the show. The second act started, and every once in a while I would feel a light tap on my arm. I would pass my binoculars to the older sister for about 3 minutes, she would pass the binoculars to the younger sister for a while, and then they would be passed back to me.
The finale finally came, and after a great swell of music, the applause began. I started to get up, hoping to get through the doors and to the subway before the rush began. I turned to leave, and then turned back, towards the girls. I smiled, and in Russian, I said, “It was very nice to meet you, girls. Goodbye.” I passed their mother on the way out of the row and to the aisle. I’m not sure if she heard me speak Russian to her children, but I imagined their ride home, when the girls would tell their mother that a nice Russian girl was sitting next to them and let them borrow her binoculars.
I don’t know why these girls made me as nostalgic as they did, but I think it made me appreciate my heritage even more. I remember seeing them for the first time, how surprised that they were coming to the opera wearing pink sweatshirts and Uggs.
I’m planning to go to the Met many more times over my life in the city. Who knows how often I’ll be able to come, or where my seat will be, or if I’ll enjoy the performance or not. But I’m making a promise to myself that one day, if I have any, I will drag my very-American children to the opera, too.