My elder sister and myself didn’t get along well during our childhood and teenage time. We were so different, we didn’t understand each other, and being forced to share the same tiny room didn’t help.
But for the family and the friends of the family we represented nevertheless the very symbol of Harmony, for there was at least one liking and one talent we had in common: our love of singing.
This translated itself during our family travels in France through our many joyous songs from the back of the car (mostly to fight boredom…), a habit which enchanted our parents in the front – as a matter of fact, to hear us that way in the car made them always believe that we were more or less getting along in the same nice way in daily life too! We have been of course in all the choirs of all the schools we ever attended. Sometimes a grandmother or a grandfather succeeded in making us sing together also at home for some visiting friends, and let’s admit it, applause and appreciative comments were nice to hear, even from only such a small audience, so we allowed ourselvs to be convinced easier the next sollicitation…! At that time there happened to be a duo of two sisters, the ‘Etienne Sisters’, who were quite a hit on the radio, so the circle of our family friends soon called us enthusiastically the ‘(our family name) Sisters’, obviously promised to great celebrity too!
It is true that our two voices were matched remarkably well. I was usually singing the first voices, while my sister was very gifted for the second voices, improvising them if necessary as she had really a good ear and the sense of harmonious chords. Wanting to encourage our budding talent through the direct example of the most extraordinary talent the world of ‘Bel Canto’ was knowing at the time – Maria Callas – our parents had given us a whole album of her recordings, full of all kinds of opera arias that we listened to religiously again and again,.. to then try our best to reproduce them as perfectly as we could, including the Italian words we ignored totally the meaning of, so we never had any idea that through those words we kept repeating faithfully, it was mostly great outflows of wild passion that were being expressed by our candid and innocent voices!
This is how we grew up on that musical diet of the best known opera arias, plus the so moving, incomparable Edith Piaf, and after the period of the so-called ‘YeYe’ (!) singers, the languorous, charming voice of Marie Laforet, who had us both absolutely bewitched! (I still have one full album of songs by her that I brought back once especially from France…).
My sister got married, kept following her officer of a husband from post to post a bit everywhere. Their five kids and the various sport activities, particularly skiing, that she loved (the five tots going down the slopes behind her without batting an eyelid) didn’t leave much time to her for much else.
But once her two elder daughters were married, my sister, always the fighter, despite her age supposedly too ripe, decided to finally live her own life; her three younger boys in tow, she resolutely began the career she had always dreamed of: opera singer. And she succeeded! … She was first accepted in the Choirs of the Opera of Paris, but did not stay there because it did not pay enough, and then she did get a better job: she soon became part of the Choirs of the Geneva Opera, in which she stayed up to the age of retirement, official and inevitable this time, long and fruitful years later.
Sometimes returning briefly from my distant India, I was able twice to go visit her in the old, redone house she had chosen for herself just near the border, at the foot of Mount Saleve, with a stunning view of the Mount Blanc. As long as the three boys too remained in that new nest, they too shared gleefully in the artistic life of their mother, often part, for some little pocket money, of the crowds of extras always necessary on stage at every show. This could give rise to rather comical situations, especially with the robust sense of humor my sister kept, even when dressed up in the most regal costume for a role. One evening, for example, when I happened to be present, and attending the representation of “Attila”, I returned of course to see her in her dressing room during the intermission; she told me she was a little worried, not having seen that evening her eldest son in his usual role of an extra among the crowd of Parisians besieged by the fearsome and bloodthirsty army of cruel Attila. At the end of the show, when I saw her again, she said, laughing: “Well, do you know where he was, my son?! I spotted him finally: just imagine, he had gone over to the enemy! He was among the troops of Attila! … ”
Her love of singing was such a passion that all the obstacles that would have normally stopped it, weren’t enough to stop her, and for years she lived her dream: to sing those very opera arias the beauty of which had ignited our childhood . My own voice, as I chose a different life, I left fallow, but my sister, she has cultivated hers with this irresistible determination that I have always deeply admired in her. She even became Professor of Singing on top of it, sharing with others the knowledge and experience she had gradually acquired of her art. It was she who made me discover the wonderful movie, “The Music Teacher” (1988), that expresses the beauty of love for music, especially singing, when that love is not corrupted and destroyed by human vanity and greed, as is the case with many singers … for their own loss.
What my sister herself envied actually of me, she told me one day, was my natural tendency for spirituality, just as irresistible to me as singing was for her. I never had the opportunity to tell her, but in my eyes it is precisely singing, with its aspiration for absolute beauty through perfection of sound, and with the inner delight one gets from the perfect expression, which has in fact led her secretly as close as possible to the spiritual experience, without her knowing it …
A major incident which I think contributed a lot psychologically to the degradation of her health: A solo role that should have been the crowning achievement of her career was taken away at the last minute from her by a new director more concerned with appearances than real merit: he gave the role to another, coming from outside and better known, under the pretext that she was younger and would be more appreciated by the public. The shock of this blatant injustice, and the intense disappointment that the injustice caused to my sister have certainly shaken her down to her physical body.
Later, well, when the time for retirement came with the financial worries and almost inevitable narrowing of life the said retirement brings, it did not surprise me much that my sister soon fell ill, of a leukemia. As always, she fought as bravely as she could, and was near recovering her health, but a few months ago that son of hers with whom I communicated finally sent me the news of her death, surrounded by most of her children and other relatives.
At her funeral, many of her colleagues of the Opera Choirs of Geneva participated wholeheartedly with an “Ave Verum”, one of her favorite songs, so beautiful it left all the assistance in tears. This vibrant testimony from them showed me what deep friendships she had been able to create around her in this lifetime, in my eyes so fully used, that she had just experienced. Between us, the true reciprocal appreciation started only in adulthood, and late, because of my living far away from France. But then finally we did arrive at a feeling of real closeness.
I would never have inflicted to her the sheer torture of singing again with me as we had done during our childhood, because when I heard her once or twice singing solo I was so dazzled that I realized what gulf was now separating us, with the wonderful quality she knew now how to get out of her voice, and my own voice, still pretty for sure, but rather comparable, say, simply to that of Marie Laforet, our idol of yesteryear.
I was unable to join the funerals of my sister but in thoughts – spontaneously happy thoughts because she seemed to me happier now, finally rid of a physical body which occasioned her in the end only worry and suffering, and I thought she had nothing to regret from that life of hers, having always lived it as fully and intensely as she could.
And two nights ago, when I was singing as I often do just for myself, sitting at my little desk in front of my laptop, one of my dearest songs from “The Lord of the Rings”, sung towards the end of the last film by a real, very well known soprano, Renee Fleming, whom my sister too liked very much, I started singing as I usually do, with the average quality of voice that I have normally. Suddenly something extraordinary happened: the volume of my voice got incredibly amplified, the quality of tone also, I felt a large, stable, powerful column of air forming in my throat, which instantly reminded me exactly of the explanations received once from my sister, which I had never managed to apply successfully; and I felt, quite clearly, the presence of my sister with me, joining her voice to mine, using my own vocal cords, transforming my voice thanks to her own knowledge of her art, giving me the extreme joy of singing suddenly as well as herself … and giving us both the tender complicity of singing again together, united through Song as we had been so often during our youth.
May this little text of mine be my smiling and full of gratitude tribute to this sister, for this most unexpected gift on her part, after her departure from the physical life!…