On wings of song

Birds, like operas, are an acquired taste. Neither, it seems, holds much interest for the young. When FM radio and I were kids together, the Saturday afternoons of Verdi and Puccini from the New York Metropolitan would send us into gales of laughter. All those deep-throats and shriekies, carrying on in a garble of unknown languages, cried out for a parody which our boorish young voices easily supplied. ''O scaleratto,'' we would howl, inventing words as we went along, ''Pookay swint la grambita--fadoh!'' (with a sudden swordthurst on the final syllable). Culture, even in Massachusetts, was pretty delicate in those days.

But even if no one is born cultured, some (to paraphrase the bard) achieve culture and some have culture thrust upon them. The taste for opera came gradually, after my wife and I moved closer to New York. Down the road from our Connecticut home was a grand couple whose fourth-row-center season tickets to the Met had apparently been in the family since the tuba was invented. I was a graduate student in literature - perhaps they took pity on our poverty and my relative bumpkinhood. In any case, they regularly thrust upon us their tickets, pleading exhaustion, ennui, or other obligations.

So it was that, scrambling together such decent clothes and jewelry as we had , we dashed into the city on countless weekday nights, parked as cheaply as possible, and sat among the furred and rubied listening to such luminaries as Richard Tucker and Zinka Milanov. So it was that we came to love the ever-fresh and tuneful enactments of the old and archetypal plots.

A love of birds, too, is apparently not innate. At least it wasn't for me, who grew up finding more to chuckle over than to respect in feathery pursuits. My parents, however, are inveterate birdlovers, for whom a finch on a feeder or the reedy, bell-cool song of a white-throated sparrow across a Canadian lake were reasons enough to guillotine a conversation into rapt silence. I suppose I borrowed from them, almost unaware, some feeling for species less common than sparrows and crows. Enough, at any rate, that one summer (again in Connecticut) my wife and I innocently offered ourselves as teachers at a local nature center. When we weren't tracking raccoons, or turtles, or three-foot-tall youngsters in four-foot-high grass, we now and again led a bird-watching class. Its one student, however, knew more about birds than both of us. We lost her trust at 5: 45 one morning when the towhee we had stalked for fifteen minutes turned out to be a robin. We never did see a towhee-nor, after that class, the girl.

In fact, we haven't spent much time with birds since. But one day recently I got to thinking about them again. It was a leathery, overcast day, the kind England is good at producing, and we went for a tramp through the gloriously unkempt meadows of Richmond Park to a pond. On the bank, among a lifelessness of sticks and dead leaves, we stood watching the waterbirds - just stood, as though time had no call on us and life no higher calling. Had we been expert, no doubt we could have charted markings and noted sizes. We would have spotted a speckle here, a wingbar there. We might have come up with twenty different names. But we weren't. So we simply stood and admired.

What was it, I thought later, that made those birds so appealing? They were not great singers: a few quacks were all they had on offer. Nor were they particularly beautiful, all fuzz and tufts like untrimmed hedges. Nor were we awed by their wild power. They were tame things, paddling bright-eyed up to the shore whenever they spied promising figures coming along with breadcrumb-shaped bags.

No, what appealed was something greater. Yeats, who loved birds, groped for a definition of it in his poem ''The Wild Swans at Coole.''

''Now they drift on the still water mysterious, beautiful.''

Simple lines, those: nothing you can unbolt with the wrenches of literary criticism and say, ''Ah, yes, here is what makes this poem tick.'' But somehow they stick in my mind. The poem is artfully enigmatic: clad in its own evasiveness, it successfully resists all the most sophisticated tools. Mysterious and beautiful itself, it raises more questions than it answers about the ephemeral nature of daily life and about man's almost-vain attempts to capture it in literary art.

Which brings me back to opera. It, too, has a mysterious and beautiful quality for me - something which so defies logic that I frankly find myself, in its presence, washing along on my own rivulets of thought past great patches of its drama without taking in a thing. Like Yeats's birds, I simply drift. I suppose that's a scandalous thing to say: seasoned opera buffs would doubtless have me subjected to the torments of Faust for admitting to it. But it's not that I am inattentive: I simply find that opera stimulates all sorts of extracurricular thinking. In its presence, the demands of the get-on-with-it world wither, and a productivity of the imagination displaces the more mundane productivity of accomplished action.

Is that typical of acquired tastes? It may be. These are the days of the ascendency of the rational: and rationality (though some would dispute it) may in fact be more genuinely innate than a wholesale trust in the imagination. Finding the time and the willingness to be still, to cease from taut analysis and open oneself to inspiration, is something one warms to slowly in a sometimes lean and hungry age. It has to be acquired. It is akin to song - or to what Keats called ''negative capability,'' which simply means a conscious recognition that one needn't know all that can be known about wing bars and arias, and that there is a certain value in that ignorance.

So I've come to appreciate birds. They seem to involve us in their lives - even in their ignorance. That day, the pond was their stage. The score they moved and sang to was a natural one. Selflessly, effortlessly, they bore witness to a constantly varied but perfectly controlled design. As individuals they might fly away and settle on other ponds. And as individuals we onlookers would soon find ourselves in other theaters. But the pond would continue to collect nameless waterbirds and anonymous watchers, assembled to participate in a kind of rural communion that hardly varied from year to year.

Where are those waterbirds when we're not watching them? Where is the opera when it is unperformed? Where is the aria when the radio is off? I'm not sure those are rational questions. They are probably susceptible only to imagination's mysterious and beautiful drifti - if, that is, one has acquired the taste for that sort of thing.

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