The Letter opens on Saturday, and I find it harder and harder to think or write about anything else. Among other distractions, I have two pieces due this week, a “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal and an essay about Alan Ayckbourn for the September issue of Commentary. Needless to say, I’ll get them written–I don’t miss deadlines–but in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have anything to do but eat, sleep, and rehearse.
The Santa Fe Opera makes such single-minded concentration easy, for its headquarters is a campus-like complex of buildings located atop a seven-thousand-foot-high mesa north of town. Between rehearsing, eating in the cantina, and lounging by the company-only swimming pool, it’s perfectly possible to spend virtually all of your time in Santa Fe at the ranch (as we opera types call it). So far I’ve also managed to hang out with one old friend and one new one, buy a copy of the new Elmore Leonard novel at Garcia Street Books, and eat a green chile cheeseburger at Bert’s Burger Bowl, but otherwise I haven’t done much of anything since arriving in Santa Fe that wasn’t more or less directly related to The Letter. I haven’t even taken time off to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which is quite an oversight on the part of an art-loving boulevardier.
Why am I so wrapped up in The Letter? My work on the opera, after all, is all but done. I’ve rewritten one line of the text and signed off on two cuts since arriving in Santa Fe last Sunday, but that’s been about it. The cast and production team don’t really need me, and I’ve mostly been trying not to get under their feet. Yet I went so far last night as to spend two hours watching a lighting rehearsal of The Letter, when I could have stayed home and read Road Dogs instead. (“I can’t believe you’re here,” said Duane Schuler, the lighting designer. “This is like watching grass grow.”)
What is it, then, that keeps drawing me back to the ranch, and to the men and women who are bringing The Letter to life? Part of it is that they’re all very nice people–I’m a bit surprised by how straightforwardly companionable my colleagues are–but the biggest reason, I suspect, is that I find it both exciting and reassuring to be in the presence of the work of art to which Paul Moravec and I have devoted so much of the past three years of our lives. Right now I want nothing more than to hear and see The Letter as often as possible, not on my iBook or in my imagination but on the stage of the Santa Fe Opera. Only then does it become real.
If The Letter were a painting, I could hang it on my wall and look at it as often as I liked, but an opera, like a play or a ballet, is nothing more than a set of instructions, an idea that must be brought to life through the act of performance. If music, as I have remarked on more than one occasion, is an art form whose meaning is radically ambiguous, then theater is an art form whose content is radically evanescent. The Santa Fe Opera will perform The Letter six times, and it’s entirely possible that it will never be seen again after that. Even if it should be taken up by other companies, it won’t be done in the same way that it’s being done here and now. Is it any wonder, then, that I want to hurl myself into this unrepeatable, irreplaceable experience–that I want, as actors say, to be as “present” as I can possibly be?
Henry James said it: we shall never be again as we were. That’s true of every moment of our lives. Of course they should all be infinitely precious, and of course they’re not–we toss them aside heedlessly, charging on to the next experience. For me, though, these particular moments are different. Yesterday I found myself thinking of these oft-quoted lines from the last scene of Our Town:
EMILY Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER No.
The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.
I’m neither of those things, but I do know what’s happening to me this week, and I think I’m realizing as much of it as it’s possible for an ordinary human to grasp. I only wish it could go on and on and on.