Visiting the Past

28 years ago, the summer I turned 21 (go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind!), I spent 3 months as part of the Opera Company at Chautauqua Institution, in south western New York.

For those of you who don’t know about Chautauqua, their mission, as noted on their website, is as follows:

Chautauqua is dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times; stimulates provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to such issues; and promotes excellence and creativity in the appreciation, performance and teaching of the arts. – See more at:

There are arts and entertainment for the Summer Season, from mid June to late August; activities include lecturers discussing various topics, workshops, special guest concerts at the open air ampitheatre (possibly my favourite venue of all time)) a selection of plays put on by the Chautauqua Theatre, and of course the Operas from the Chautauqua Opera Company.

It was a long time ago that I was part of the Opera Company, and while I’ve been back a handful of times for various concerts and, yes, an opera or two, I’d never gone back for more than a few hours, and always with someone who had little time to or interest in reminiscing.

This past weekend, that changed, and my sister Barbara and I went back for a long weekend.  We stayed at a hotel in nearby Jamestown, NY (accommodations are available on the grounds of the Institute, which is the oldest gated community in America, but they are on average over $200 a night), and commuted each day the 20 minutes or so to the Institute.

While at Chautauqua, we saw the All Ladies Big Band and fireworks on July 4th; the wonderful opera Madame Butterfly, performed in English (all operas at Chautauqua are performed in English, per the conditions of the bequest that founded built the opera house).  We visited the amazing Chautauqua Bookstore, and wondered around the large grounds taking pictures and yes, reminiscing.

The first thing I noticed, and that Barbara noticed (she used to drive to Chautauqua regularly to attend the lectures, theatre and opera before she moved away from Erie 20 years ago) was how much the trees had grown.  We both remembered them smaller, less inclined to block the sun.

Chautuaqua House and trees, copyright 2014 A Halperin

Chautuaqua House and trees, copyright 2014 A Halperin


We separated for a time, she to explore the Bookstore, I to find some of my old Opera haunts.

I was part of the Young and Apprentice Artists program — no, not as a singer, I’m pretty much tone deaf; I was the Assistant Stage Manager for the Opera Company, working almost exclusively with the Young and Apprentice Artists.

We’d practice in small buildings we used to call the Slave Quarters or the Sweat Shops.  Small, wood, the largest of them probably not more than 14’x20′, many not more than 8’x8′.  One door, one window that might open, elevated about 6 inches or so off the ground.  Hot, smelly, sweaty and uncomfortable, and the home for us to practice in 4 to 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Artist Rehearsal Space aka "Slave Quarters" Chautuaqua Institute. Copyright 2014 A Halperin

Artist Rehearsal Space aka “Slave Quarters” Chautuaqua Institute. Copyright 2014 A Halperin

I found those buildings — they weren’t as isolated or as far from Norton Hall, the opera house on the grounds, as I’d remembered, but they were just as small and dark as I recalled.

I snuck into Norton Hall (they were doing early rehearsals), and took pictures.  Norton Hall was still un-air conditioned.  The portico is still a lovely shade of pinkish lavender, and the distinctive  wall light sconces were still the same.  Even the pink/purple  carpet and wooden seats were the same.


Chandelier, Norton Hall, Chautuaqua Institute Copyright 2014 A Halperin

Norton Hall, Chautuaqua Institute Copyright 2014 A Halperin

Norton Hall, Chautuaqua Institute Copyright 2014 A Halperin

There used to be a huge, gravel drive behind Norton Hall, largely gone now and replaced by a lovely garden.  And, of course, the trees were taller.  Otherwise it was all the same.

New Garden behind Norton Hall, Chautuaqua Institute  Copyright 2014 A Halperin

New Garden behind Norton Hall, Chautuaqua Institute Copyright 2014 A Halperin

For an hour or so, I was 21 again.

I wish I could say I’d formed lifelong friendships that summer.  I didn’t.  I can’t even remember the names of the artists I worked with, but I stood there in the lobby of Norton Hall, and I could hear their voices, and their laughter, and I could remember the lighting cues I called each night.  I remember the songs my Artists sang, swing and big band standards like Steam Heat and A Nightingale Sang in Barkley Square (we tried to do that one a capella, but had to have a general keyboard underneath the song, because our youngest artist couldn’t stay on key without accompaniment).

I remembered going “over the wall”, as we referred to leaving the Institute grounds, to help one of the other Stage Managers and the Set Dresser pickup props from antique shops in the surrounding towns.  I ended up driving the Opera Company’s only van, as I was the only one in the Company who could drive a stick shift.

I remembered looking forward to every Sunday afternoon, when my mom and stepdad would come to visit and take me off the grounds for dinner because (as my mom still loves to tell people I would always say), there was “a reason they called it an Institution”.

Some things had changed, of course, besides the trees.  There had been a cafeteria we all would eat at; in 2011 it was turned into condos. Most of the houses, the majority beautiful Victorian ‘gingerbreads” over a 100 years old, had been repainted, including the house where, for one hot wonderful summer, I rented a single bedroom with a shared bathroom on the third floor.

I’d shared that small room – barely big enough for a twin bed and a chest of drawers, with the two kittens I’d adopted,   I had purchased one male tabby from the owner of the deli that was run in basement of the Arlington, the house where I rented the room (all the houses at Chautauqua have names, as well as street addresses).  The cat belonging to the deli-owner had had kittens, and by the time I moved in all but 2 were claimed, the male tabby and a female, white with tabby patches. As I said, I only purchased the male tabby, and when I headed up the stairs to my room, caring my new friend (“Pita”, according to the deli-owner; I renamed him within a day to Andrew, or Roo, for short), and was followed by a peculiar set of sounds:

“Meow!” BANG.  “Meow!” BANG.  “Meow” BANG

The Arlington, Chautuaqua Institute  Copyright 2014 A Halperin

The Arlington, Chautuaqua Institute Copyright 2014 A Halperin

I looked back down the stairs, and there was the female kitten, using her tabby-tipped front paw to try to pull open the screen door (gone now).  I sighed, went back down the stairs, and picked her up.  I returned to the deli and said, “apparently, I just bought a second cat.”   I named the female Ashley, after the Ashland house across the street from the Arlington, because all the Young Artists in the Opera Company lived there.  (I thought about naming her Ashland, but all the other cats would have laughed at her).

I would have those two wonderful, highly entertaining cats for 7 more years before I moved to the big city of Cleveland.  I guess I did make some lasting friends that summer, after all.

It was a wonderful weekend, and a lovely trip to the past.

We should all make it once in a while.