The Opelika Symphony Orchestra

When people think of music in relation to the South, images of country, blues, bluegrass, or Southern rock may be conjured. This essay instead explores classical music and a Southern small town’s reactions to it. In contemplating his decision to be a busker who plays opera outside of a Winn-Dixie grocery store, Fox challenges the myth, widely held in Southern culture, that the fine arts are not objects for our attention, as well as the narrative that classical music should only be played in certain places.

The Opelika Symphony Orchestra
by Jeffrey Fox

1. Bel canto man

I’m out here playing five pieces by Bellini on the flugelhorn. It’s hot, and it’s hard to see the music in the sun.

I need stronger reading glasses to see the notes, and the sunglasses aren’t a strong enough prescription. Well, I know these songs by heart anyway. 

I have no audience, because who else but me would be out here in Opelika, Alabama in the middle of summer, suffering through a 100-degree-plus heat index to belt out these melodies? The flugelhorn is pretty loud. I’m drowning out passing cars, police sirens driving by, airplanes on the way to land over at the Auburn airport, trucks braking and engines squealing. Ah, and there are so many voices of people, and laughter, small talk, whatever you might hear ordinarily on the way into the Winn Dixie, all of that is drowned out by my rendition of “Il rival salvar tu dei” from “I Puritani.

Yes, I am the Opelika Symphony Orchestra all by myself.

Today, the Orchestra is presenting these bel canto pieces to the Opelika, Alabama listening public, through the gracious support of . . . absolutely nobody, nobody but me, and that’s the way it goes in the life of the street musician. The street musician, who is known internationally as a busker, a term seldom used Stateside, and even more rarely heard down here in the Southland, is a distinct individual, to say the least. Ah, and that’s not all . . . because this is classical music . . . and, on top of that, it’s the opera, so how frequently is any of that heard down here? 

Yes, it’s only me, or Jeff, as I am known.

In fact, the busker is an anonymous person anyway. Nobody gets out here with a name tag. Music is my name. The classical musician is a sacrificial lamb anyway. Put that together . . . some man in the Deep South . . . playing a loud brass instrument . . . in public . . . in front of a Winn Dixie . . . and it’s classical music, and not just classical music, but the opera, on top of all the rest . . . and the audience is . . . well, passing cars that can’t hear it anyway, and the folks going in to buy ketchup, hot dog buns, instant grits packages, cheap domestic beer, 73% ground beef,  and other folks coming out with packages of eggs, chicken wings, collard greens, and dog food. So, in fact, I don’t have an audience

Well, I’m the audience, too, and I like it. I love this music.

These are very pretty melodies. In fact, these are gorgeous arias, and they sound great on the flugelhorn. Soon, I’ll switch to the trumpet and play the beautiful songs a little higher and with a thinner pitch.

Bel canto flourished in France and Italy from about 1830 to about 1850. It owed a lot to Mozart’s arias, and I play a lot of them, too. Rossini wrote some, as well, but the beautiful melodies that Bellini and Donizetti wrote, especially those two composers and their popularity with audiences, is are what forced Rossini to retire from the opera. Mozart had died too soon to add more songs. His twenty-three operas are a guide to how to write eternally gorgeous melodies, and you can hear his influence in every aria of Bellini and Donizetti. It’s especially that feeling that can be heard in my trumpet, and it can be really felt in those high notes I hit, and especially the long whole notes. That is where the bel canto spirit lives on.

Deep whole notes, long melodic lines, really pretty and soaring melodies ring out loud and clear. Some pieces from Bellini’s opera “Norma” are so pretty I want to sing them, but that’s futile. The voice doesn’t carry like the trumpet does. It gets easily drowned out. Above all, I am not really always a good singer, even though I need to give my lips a break sometimes, and so I do sing a few bars. Classical music isn’t easily sung. Notes are a serious affair in the land of Beethoven and Mozart. I know the words to the “Norma” arias, and that’s another issue about singing in French and Italian. 

That’s where the beauty of the trumpet can come out, in these arias, where you can imagine them being sung, and the trumpet brings out the vocal feeling. I hate the military style of trumpet playing, that bugle call-like staccato tonguing approach to the horn, and I refuse to play like that. These bel canto pieces are pretty songs and that kind of playing kills the feeling. Long notes, half-slurred or completely so, bring out the soaring beauty of arias from “Lucia di Lamermoor,” for example, Donizetti’s masterpiece . . . and he wrote many great songs in over seventy operas. 

I’m still out here playing, and I’m just getting good. It takes me a few bars, in my first piece of playing these melodies, to catch my stride.

2. Vestimentary considerations

The symphony orchestra concert is a formal affair. Conductors generally wear a special long tuxedo, and orchestral players are also in tuxedos and long formal dresses.  Of course, a dark tie and jacket can sometimes be spotted on players in the orchestra, and there is also a white jacket and white tie version for certain occasions, particularly in Summer. Anyway, this is the street . . . and because this is still symphonic music and because it’s summer, I’m going with a tie and a very thin jacket. I always play with a tie on. I need the suit jacket, too. So, I seek out the shade, and play better that way. If there isn’t shade directly in front of the Winn Dixie, I move a bit away . . . it’s so loud it doesn’t really matter, because the sound carries, and it’s a loud echo for yards and yards.

You can tell by the clothing what the street musician is playing. 

The raggedy look is for the rock, folk, soul, rap, pop, synth, hip hop and R&B groover, who really is there to belt out a few tunes, usually with a guitar, and even with a dog or two if this is a down-and-out affair. The tie is rather unheard of in the street music scene, as is the suit, clearly an extravagance that conflicts so strongly with the scene.

Jazz musicians, God bless them, defy the trend in concerts by wearing suits . . . but, of course, out on the street that is not usually the case. I have even seen the occasional classical violin out here, played by a lady in casual attire. 

Well, I’m sorry, but all of that Raggedy Ann and folkie look just isn’t for me. 

I’ll wear the business suit, thank you, especially the seersucker suit, blue, of course, because it is the classic Southern look . . . but I’ll go with the tan, and yes, even the red, why not? Nobody cares anyway, so you have to be yourself out there, and that’s me, after all Verdi, Rossini, Bizet, as well as the bel canto specialists Bellini and Donizetti would have insisted on a high level of performance and that high level goes with high fashion, and the suit is our 21st-century version of 19th-century fashion. Yes sir, yes ma’am!

Ah, the so-called Romantic era! Chopin belting out Mazurkas in the salons of Countesses who swooned over him and took him home and loved him and made him play later just for them! Franz Liszt, with his hair waving to the Marquise, and sleeping with all the ladies of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, while they all cried together over the untimely and sad death of their chou chou Chopin. Franz consoled all the ladies. They all played the bel canto arias on the stunning pianos of the still vibrant Aristocracy, the Kingdom giving way to the Empire and finally to a return to the Republic in 1870 . . . and through it all, when they stepped outside for some fresh air in their noble clothes, long frocks and stunning rumpled shirts and beautiful flowing scarves, and elegant dresses, I was out there on the streets playing the very same melodies on the newly developed valved trumpet.

I was out there?

Why yes, I was! When I put on my blue seersucker suit, and tie my tie, and playe my “Norma” arias, I am transported back in time to the streets of Auteuil and Montmartre, and yes, that is Franz Liszt stopping to throw a few Napoleons into my hat.

3. The Southland

So, what do we mean by that term?

Alabama is certainly the Southern United States. The residents seem to be descendants of inhabitants of the British Isles, as well as regions in West Africa, Sénégal, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Fasso, Bénin, Togo, Ghana. So, in fact, the folks aren’t really Southern at all . . . even though Opelika, Alabama is the deep, deep, way-back and out-of-here South. 

Well . . . the music you hear from me, as I play some Verdi arias to add a more dramatic turn to the concert today, comes from southern Europe. Yes, the South. The real South. People in Sicily, in Catania, Bellini’s hometown, are Southern by heritage and by geography. That’s the real South and the people are really Southern. To top off the Southern trifecta, I am playing some arias from “I Vespri Siciliani,” not one of Verdi’s most famous operas, but a good one. He wrote twenty-nine operas, starting out in the 1840s with a bel canto feel but evolving into a more dramatic style. His melodies do sound great out here though!

Verdi incarnates the South, too, even though he is really northern Italian and all that. When I play some Verdi arias, I always switch to Georges Bizet. “Carmen” also incarnates the South, with its Spanish touch. It’s a French version of the South. Bizet went South for inspiration… “The Pearl Fishermen” in the South Seas, and the African streets of “Njamileh,” as well as “Carmen” from the streets and bullfights in the arenas of Sevilla, southernmost Spain.

It’s all ringing out in the sounds of my trumpet, as I hit the notes of the Ségedille from Carmen, and the bullfight lingers, and the sounds of traffic, and people talking, and sirens blazing, and the whole modern world outside the Winn Dixie is drowned out as a single, solitary, stunning melody drifts through the air from the bel canto man’s trumpet.

Dr. Jeffrey H. Fox is Professor of French and Romance Languages at Tuskegee University. He plays trumpet and flugelhorn for real in many places around Auburn, Opelika, and all over Alabama . . . including even occasionally crossing the Chattahoochie Curtain to attack the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan region. With a long history as university professor in North America since obtaining his PhD from Université de Provence in the ’80s, Fox, with occasional alias Jean-François Renard, is also a published poet and novelist in French and English, with many titles, including his most recent novel Pamela. 

Lesson Plan: NH-MSF Lesson Plan The Outsider

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.