The Arias Have It

Charlotte Self shares her passion for the opera. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Charlotte Self shares her passion for the opera. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

When Charlotte Self was growing up in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War, music was salvation for her. With her mother, a doctor, working covertly for the anti-Hitler resistance as war loomed, Charlotte — then barely ten years old — found at least temporary escape as part of the children’s ballet troupe at the a local state-run theater near her hometown in northern Germany. Operas were staged there, and it was there that Charlotte’s love of opera was born.

“We children from the ballet were part of the crowd scenes whenever we were needed,” Charlotte recalled of those days at the theater, with a strife-torn Germany as a backdrop. “After our performances on stage, I stayed on and watched from behind the scenes, to the end of the opera.” By the time she left Germany, when she was 17, Charlotte could sing from memory all of opera’s most famous arias.

After nearly seven decades of devotion to opera, Charlotte will share her passion for opera at the Blue Ridge Center For Lifelong Learning this spring, focusing on four of the repertoire’s best-loved works by three of its favorite composers — Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Bohéme. The course will include a general historical background of the opera form, a discussion of the life of each composer, and excerpts from each of the four works, including their most famous arias that nearly everyone knows even if they’ve never seen an opera. (Think of Rigoletto’s “La Donna e Mobile,” or Carmen’s “The Toreador Song.”) Students will be supplied with text to study for each of the operas.

This isn’t the first opera course Charlotte has taught for BRCLL. Tosca was the focus of a similar course last year, a work Charlotte chose because its HD broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera that season coincided with her course’s scheduled dates. “Most people on the program committee at BRCLL were quite doubtful that a class on opera would fly in Western North Carolina,” Charlotte says of last year’s course. “But when one or two people from our membership requested it, everyone looked at me.” For this year, Charlotte chose three works that consistently appeared on “most-performed” lists for the 2102-2013 season — that would be Carmen, Madama Butterfly and La Bohéme — and added Rigoletto when several people from her Tosca class asked for it.

Despite the initial doubts about opera fandom in the Carolinas, the Tosca course seemed to strike a chord. “I later learned that for quite a few members of the class, it was their first exposure to the form,” Charlotte says. “Later, I would see them again at opera performances at Brevard College and at the Metropolitan’s ‘Live In HD’ broadcasts in Asheville or Greenville.”

Carmen is particularly familiar to Charlotte, as it was a favorite during her childhood at the theater in Germany. “I sang in the boys’ chorus in the first act, and I was in the crowd scene and the ballet in the last act,” she says. “It was performed about ten times a season, so I’ve seen and heard Carmen at least 60 times.” That’s not counting her presence in the children’s chorus of La Bohéme, as a gypsy in Il Trovatore, as a prince dancing a minuet with the title character in The Bartered Bride, and as one of the Nibelungen in Das Rheingold. “I watched every opera from beginning to end,” Charlotte proudly points out.

Opera remained a key element of Charlotte’s life after leaving post-war Germany to earn a degree in microbiology and settling in Los Angeles where, during most of her 50 years there, she had season tickets to opera companies not only in Los Angeles but in San Francisco and San Diego, along with memberships in the Los Angeles Opera League and the Wagner Society. Even after settling in Hendersonville eight years ago, she drove all the way to Seattle to see the entire Ring cycle while regularly attending the Metropolitan’s “Live In HD” broadcasts closer to home.

“I’m not star-struck, which is very un-American of me,” Charlotte confessed when asked about her favorite opera personalities. “I know that if they’re singing at the Met, or in San Francisco or Seattle, they have to be pretty darn good.” Nor does she have a narrowly traditional view of opera, embracing contemporary composers like John Adams and his Nixon In China and Doctor Atomic.

Three years ago, Hendersonville honored Charlotte during a Woman Of Courage program, citing her for the undercover work she undertook with her mother in Nazi Germany, sometimes at great personal risk. It was an emotionally difficult part of her life that she had never spoken much about, but the one aspect of her life there, which she enthusiastically continued to indulge, was her love of opera. In her eighth decade of life, Charlotte lives very much in the present. “Keep active, volunteer, mix with people,” Charlotte says of her remarkable energy, “and thank your parents for your healthy genes.”

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