The other day, I heard the song ‘Only a Rose’, sung by the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling and while I listened, I was transported backwards in time to the early 1970’s, when my mother and I would listen to ‘Your Choice and Mine’, a weekly half hour Opera show on RTE radio, presented by the incomparable Tommy O’Brien.
The opening line “Good evenin Listeners” with the g deliberately cropped off the end of evening, “Welcome to your Choice and Mine”, preluded a half hour of operatic bliss even to my young ears.
I am absolutely sure that Tommy had a love for all classical music, but it seemed to me that his show was a bit of a ‘Top of the Pops’ for potential opera lovers.
The music played was melodic and lyrical, performed by artists at the very height of their powers.
I was a, combat jacket wearing, long-haired hippie-ish type, with a liking for the music that went with that image, and those evenings, with the radio and my ma, were really my only exposure to an alternative musical genre.
Of course my liking for opera was a secret that I kept from my friends, who mimicked it as if mimicking the shrieks a banshee, or the caterwauling of a Tomcat.
Even for listening to RTE radio, instead of Luxembourg, I would have been slagged to within an inch of my life.
Bjorling was a great favorite of Tommy’s; he would pronounce the surname with a flourishing roll of the ‘Bjor ‘which sent my mother into paroxysms of joy.
Sometimes the radio was on in the background while I studied at the table in the small sitting room off our kitchen.
I would hear that the show was coming on and I’d call.
“Hey ma, Tommy O’Brien.”
Then I’d ‘higher’ the radio in time for us both to hear “Good evenin listeners.”
Tommy always gave a meticulous introduction to each piece.
First would come the name of the singer, then the name of the piece and some information on context.
Then sometimes overcome by joy, he might recite the first few lines of the aria,
in the language in which it had been written, the Italian beautifully transmuted into the purist ‘Tipperaryesness’ imaginable.
The record would play, minute pops and hisses an integral part of the performance.
Bjorling’s flawless voice, and the wondrous music, left us in no doubt of as to the emotions, in the heart of the singer.
Then, as the music faded away, Tommy might again give us some inkling of the emotions at play.
“Ah you, you are the splendor of my life”.
Ma loved Deanna Durbin’s voice, and while Durbin didn’t consider herself a great lyric opera soprano, she did record some operatic arias, and of course music was very much a part of her film career.
I once made a request for anything appropriate by the Actress/Soprano, and on the night that Tommy obliged, fortunately I had one ear tuned to the radio.
I excitedly called ma into the sitting room, and told her that Tommy had just announced, that he was going to play our request.
Well it wouldn’t be O’Brien if he didn’t give us, chapter and verse about the Canadian songstress and accomplished lyric soprano, despite her own opinion of her voice.
“Enjoy these two pearls Mrs Patty Nelson of Sandymount in Dublin. “
“On a medium priced Decca LP”
I don’t recall the pieces played, but what I think I recall is my mother, with hands
clasped to her heart, for the duration of the double set
Reaching back in time to those days when I was first smitten , I can almost hear that beautiful voice, and see the look of joy on my now long dead mother’s face.
Tommy O’Brien, with his infectious enthusiasm, stripped away snobbery and in his own inimitable style, laid the foundation upon which my love of opera and classical music was built.
Forty-five years have passed since those times when I was studying for my Inter or Leaving Certificates.
Trying to get my head around Ovid, agus Peig while listening for the opening “good evenin” and the much welcomed half-hour cessation of hostilities.
Mr O’Brien and his radio show left an indelible mark upon me, and the memories surrounding it are clear, bright and heart-warming, whereas the very examinations that I studied so assiduously for are lost in the mists of time.
So till the next time listeners.