Memories of a musical life

“The way The Music in My Life came to be is a story in itself. I wrote my recollections, in no special order, handwritten, double-spaced, and gave them to Doug. He typed them, I’d make some changes and we’d go back and forth that way, until it was exactly what I wanted to say. We had a ball!”  The book is an outspoken, surprising, intimate memoir of young Betty Powell, how she met and married Eugene (Doug) Jones and became an opera singer at 41, performing major roles in dozens of operas, in this country and abroad.

“It came from someplace, I don’t know where,” Betty says. “I just wrote and wrote and wrote. Doug had saved every program, every news item, every picture and that helped a lot.

I started as a painter and sculptor, but an art teacher told me ‘You can put a frame around anything and make it art.’ So I put a frame around the events of my life.”

Betty was born into a nurturing middle class African American family in Plainfield, N.J. Music was part of the household. Both parents played the piano, her mother sang, her grandfather taught music and conducted church choirs. As a little girl, Betty would entertain, singing:

“Hot ginger and dynamite,

They have it every night,

Back in Nagasaki,

where women chew tobaccie

and a wickie wickie wackie woo!”

The book recalls her tomboy childhood, her early school days, her scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College and the mischievous way she met Doug. As a talented engineer, he was given an assignment to build a water filtration plant in Liberia and he, Betty and their infant son Jeff, lived in Monrovia for 2 1/2 years. The Liberian memories are exquisitely told. Her daughter Janet was born in Monrovia and when they departed for Wilton, John, the cook, begged her to leave Janet with them. “Missy, you leave we Janet. We raise her good Missy.”

Wilton was destined to be the source of her operatic career. “If I’d stayed in Plainfield, none of this would have happened,” she says. She sang in the Congregational Church choir, the Wilton Playshop, the Darien Dinner Theater, with Danbury Symphony.  A neighbor heard her sing at a Wilton Congregational Church service and arranged for an audition with Sarah Caldwell, artistic director and conductor of the Boston Opera Company. As a result, on March 12, 1971, Betty Jones made her professional opera debut with the Boston Opera Company. She was 41. From then on, her life in music blossomed. She sang with the San Francisco Opera Company, the Seattle Opera Company, the Phoenix Civic Center, Boston Pops, New York City Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera Company and traveled abroad to sing in Europe and Australia. To crown her success, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts presented her with its coveted 1986 Arts Award, along with a 30 minute TV special .

She sang Aida in Seattle and Denver; Tosca in Germany; Die Walkure in Washington, D.C.; The Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, at The New York City Opera as well as Eva in Die Meistersinger, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera. In Los Angeles, she sang Odabella in Attila; then she performed Senta in The Flying Dutchman with Opera South in Jackson, Miss., and more.

One of the most endearing qualities of this book are the personal anecdotes sprinkled through its pages. How she flew from Germany to be at her daughter’s 21st birthday celebration and then flew right back for the next performance.

With its natural, conversational style and format, the book is eminently readable. “Opera requires knowledge of many languages,” she says, “but I’m adept at languages. After all, I’m Irish, German, Cherokee and black.” Betty’s remembrances of voice, language and dance lessons are vividly real. So is her frankness about conquering stage fright, and the amazing pressure of taking on operatic roles almost overnight.

Throughout the book, there is humor and wisdom, and many of the thoughts and sayings she has embraced : “The grass right next to the toe, as one walks life’s lawn, is more important than anything that exists on the other side.” “Segregation causes a group that is marginalized to be especially loving to one another.” About stage fright: “Just have a good time! As long as the audience believes the performer loves them — all else will be forgotten.”

My Life in Music may be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and is available for iPad.