Daniel Gundlach


Straight From the Heart
As published in Classical Singer magazine, April 2004

November 2003

My beloved grandmother, still sharp as a tack in her 96th year, experienced a rapid decline in the last 10 days of her life and died the week before Thanksgiving.

My life as an opera singer and as a gay man was as much terra incognita to her as her political views were to me. And yet, she was proud of my accomplishments, and we adored each other, less “agreeing to disagree” than simply recognizing in the other a shared feistiness, determination, bullheadedness.

I went back to the Midwest to visit her less than a month before she died. We knew the end was near. The skin on her hands was paper-thin, her icy blue eyes, though now unseeing, still had a laser intensity. Though her strength had failed, when it came time for me to leave, she held me with all her might. For one last time, she said to me, “Are you practicing my song?” We both knew what this meant: my promise to sing her favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” at her funeral.

My grandmother was no more obsessed with death than any other 95-year-old; she was more interested in asserting whatever control she could on her surroundings, even in death. It was very hard for her to let go at the end. The night she died, the hospice worker held the phone to her ear. Though she could no longer speak, she breathed in short gasps when she heard my voice on the other end of the line. Let go, I urged her; it’s OK; it’s time.

Her death hit me hard. Those next few days, I walked like a dead man through my own life, wondering how I would ever find the strength to fulfill my promise. Gma (as we called her) had requested not only “How Great Thou Art,” but also another favorite of hers, “In the Garden” (…and he walks with me and he talks with me…), which I found maudlin in the extreme. I wanted to offer something of my own choice in her memory, but in my clouded mental state, nothing appropriate came to mind.

The morning I returned to Wisconsin for the funeral, I stumbled across an anthology entitled “Wedding Bouquet,” while refiling a few strewn-about scores. Undaunted by the unpromising title, I opened the volume, and there on the first page was “Bist du bei mir,” formerly attributed to Bach. “If you are with me, I go with joy to my rest. How happy would be my end if your beautiful hands were to close my eyes.” Not terribly appropriate for a wedding, perhaps, but I thought of my grandmother’s beautiful hands and eyes, and knew that I had found my offering to her.

On my way out the door to the airport, I grabbed a CD of Mahalia Jackson and a few other books and CDs I hoped would help me face the next few days. Mahalia is one of my favorite artists, that rare breed who sang every word straight from her heart. On the plane, listening to her sing “Precious Lord” I was made aware again of the particular power of those old hymns and gospel songs, which call for alliance to a higher power that so many of us long for and so few find.

The day of the funeral, I woke with my voice in the basement. I told myself it was good that my voice was rusty, because only sheer technical willpower was going to get me through that morning.

I carefully parsed out my emotions as I encountered friends and relatives at the funeral home, many of whom I had not seen in years. The casket was opened briefly for family members only. Her forehead felt waxen to my touch, not in the least like skin at all. With her eyes closed, her spirit gone, this didn’t even look like the woman who had loved me my entire life.

The service began with my singing of “In the Garden.” My body wobbled, I felt detached from my surroundings. I thought not of Gma, not of my siblings nor my parents, not of Mahalia, not of the fulfillment of a promise; I just tried to keep breathing and to pronounce the words.

A psalm, a prayer, scripture readings, and then the Bach. This proved much more difficult. As I sang, I remembered how my grandmother pronounced German with a thick Bavarian accent. Born in this country, she learned a kind of pidgin German through her mother, who was bayerisch to the core. I thought of the maiden voyage my grandmother made to Germany 12 years earlier, to meet the cousins she had corresponded with and spoken to, but never met, and whose casket spray now adorned her coffin. I remembered my entire family coming to hear me sing a few years later at Skylight Opera, which helped them better understand my life as a singer. I thought of my grandmother’s piercing blue eyes and wished that I had been there to close them as in the song. Es drückten deine schönen Hände mir die getreuen Augen zu.

After a congregational hymn, “Beautiful Savior,” the sermon, and prayers, it was time for the moment that had particular significance for everyone there: “How Great Thou Art.” I can’t say that I sang particularly well. I was too choked with emotion. When I reached the refrain, not only did I hear her voice croaking out the tune, but my memory carried me back even farther, to my grandfather, her husband, dead now for decades, who held a little boy in his arms and sang “Oh Danny Boy” with the voice of a crow, the echo of that voice resonating from his chest into my ear—still the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

These persons, unschooled in art music, untrained as vocalists, gave me my first lessons in the power of song: words uttered from the heart, carried on a cracking thread of tone. There seemed something completely appropriate about my voice catching, nearly collapsing, as I sang the words “When Thou shalt come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” And it was also befitting that I should recover, that my voice should finally find its bearing, at the final statement of the refrain, my prayer of thanks for all she had bequeathed to me: fortitude, spirit, faith, clarity. And to that higher power for giving me the voice to express all those things.