The Ravinia Festival is the highlight of my summers, bar NONE.
The place has such atmosphere and a feeling of joyful camaraderie you just don't get anywhere else. People sometimes feel inhibited at Lyric Opera or the Chicago Symphony. But, at Ravinia, everyone's inhibitions are released and true joy seeps out of every pore of the place.
I've gone to Ravinia every year since I was thirteen and I've seen (and met) some of the most brilliant artists of our age: Frederica Von Stade, Patti LuPone, Blondie and Melissa Etheridge, Steely Dan, Stephanie Blythe, Kiri te Kanawa, Patricia Racette, Susan Graham... the list could go one forever! The music I've heard within those confines will stay with me the rest of my life. But there is one encounter that will stay with me more vividly than any of the rest...
It was the summer before my freshman year of high school at Addison Trail, 2006 I believe. I was a small Lutheran school fish about to be dumped into a tank of piranha. My dad, possibly seeing the look of fear in my eyes, decided to take me to Ravinia for the first time. He knew and nurtured my love of opera and, seeing Renee Fleming was set to perform, got us tickets.
The second I stepped through those gates, my heart leaped with joy. I felt the history of the place, seeping from every orifice.
It also happened to be The Year of the Cicada and they were in full symphony (no pun intended) that very night. I was getting worried, as their fury was accelerating before "game time." The Chicago Symphony blared their first notes, the overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino. But yet, the battalion of cicadas showed no strain, continuing to play away as loud as the orchestra.
But very soon, after the overture, a beautiful flaxen-haired woman stepped onto the stage in a flowing turquoise gown, a radiant smile on her face. Her mouth opened, the first notes of what would become the fifteen-minute long musical monologue, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. And, I swear to God, each one of those cicadas stopped their protest at her first note, the dulcet tones lulling them into a state of leisure and carefree lethargy, as had happened to all of Ravinia's guests the minute they entered the grounds. I sat there, mouth agape, for the entire concert, which concluded with operatic arias of the highest caliber.
But here is where the very singular moment occurs. Earlier in the night, the management had announced that Ms. Fleming would be signing autographs after the performance in a little tent next to the stage, but she would not be taking photographs with fans.
After the last note had sounded, I rushed to the tent as fast as my little legs would take me (little being the operative word, because I was able to weave in and out of the adults who were pushing their way to the tent.) I made it to the tent and ended up being the second person in line. I waited feverishly for Ms. Fleming, my little brow caked with sweat and fear. What would I say? What would I do? Would I even be able to talk? Meeting her was like a Catholic meeting The Pope!
She arrived, resplendent and bright, as the first person in line approached her for an autograph, not dwelling and soon departing. I slunk in front of her, extending my book to her to sign, telling her who I was and that I, in fact, intended to soon train as an opera singer. Her eyes brightened even more upon hearing this, something I didn't even know was physically possible. She talked to me like a seasoned pro, sharing favorite arias and operas like two friends. Eventually, she put her arm around my neck and, looking at my dad, said "Dad, take our picture!" Here was this icon, this superstar, breaking the rules to take a picture with her little fan who loved her more than anyone in the world, at that point.
I was on top of the world that night and it has remained so vivid in my memory for so many years.
The moral of this little vignette is to visit this magical place this summer, as there are so many beautiful concerts to hear, excellent music to experience and plenty of room for food, friends and, something my little self wasn't able to indulge in that day in 2005... BOOZE. You never know what you are going to do, what surprises many occur and, as happened to that little opera fan in 2005, you may get to meet your idol in the flesh and have her berate your father for not being able to take a picture correctly.