“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” -Elie Wiesel
I was coming out of the San Francisco Opera one evening, disappointed by the overblown performance that had no spark or inspiration. Wondering how such a huge expensive undertaking could fall so flat. Don’t get me wrong, I adore opera, and the San Francisco Opera is generally wonderful, but this one missed the mark.
I was in the cattle calls of well-dressed people who were all scurrying to their cars, hoping to get ahead of the rest of the mob. Detained together at a traffic light, a homeless man moved in and started working the crowd. He was an African American man, thin and wiry and seemed a veteran street hustler working us like a circus barker. He was trying to round us all up telling us he would sing for us to earn his money.
The whole situation was so uncomfortable that it caught my attention. This slick street guy enjoying having the brief upper hand of this well heeled crowd that was trapped at the light, everyone awkwardly trying to pretend he was invisible.
Instead of avoiding his gaze, as I was tempted to do, I looked fully at him and said that I would indeed like to hear him sing and put $20 in his hat. The light turned and the nervous crowd skirted away, leaving my date and I alone with him. He seemed caught off guard; fully expecting to hustle us but getting pre-paid instead. This was clearly not something in his usual repertoire.
What happened next was like a Susan Boyle moment. He stood there, closed his eyes and out came a phenomenal, huge, gutsy, bluesy, soulful voice that rocked us to the core. We stood stunned and mesmerized. Not only was his voice incredible, his performance was so purely emotional, raw and gut wrenching it seemed to pull us into his universe. Crowds started gathering, unable to walk away from this huge voice coming from the scraggly street guy.
When he finished there was a stunned silence. I don’t think anyone could register the mind-blowing performance they had just heard on the street. He opened his eyes and looked totally surprised at the crowd that had gathered. He sheepishly offered his hat and was rewarded for his efforts.
I stayed, feeling strongly that I wanted to let him know how much his singing had moved me.
I asked his name and how he had come to have such an incredible voice. His name was Matthew, he said, he had been the lead singer of his church gospel choir a long time ago. His demeanor now was completely different; the slick street guy transformed into someone rather shy and sweet. He seemed a little taken back that we were interested in finding out about him and his life.
He seemed intent on communicating that he had had a life before, had been somebody from somewhere, but it slipped away and his life had derailed somewhere along the way. He seemed perplexed as to how he had come to where he was now.
I told him that I was also a singer and had heard many great voices, but his was extraordinary, he had a rare gift and I hoped that he would keep on singing. I said it was ironic that no one in the four-hour overblown opera I had just heard moved me even a fraction the way his singing had. I had come to the opera to be inspired and I found it in him.
After a long pause he softly said maybe he would go back, join his church again, sing again. There seemed to be a sense of possibility in his eyes as we took our leave. I thanked him again, shook his hand and told him that hearing him sing had truly been the highlight of my evening. I hoped he would use his considerable gift and go on to bring joy to many people.
The encounter was very brief, maybe twenty minutes, but I have never forgotten it. How he seemed to transform into a completely different person just by being acknowledged and seen.
It never ceases to amaze me how magic can happen when I go with my gut and against the comfortable voice of reason. Had I done what I was inclined to do and avoided this uncomfortable situation, I would have missed the great gift of this sweet man with the angelic voice.
Joshua Bel, one of our greatest violinists who commands many thousands of dollars per performance took his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius to the D.C subway, pretending to be a street musician. Most of the people scurried by on their way to their busy lives, never even noticing the genius in their midst. He received $32. Only the children stubbornly wanted to listen, as their mothers pulled them away.
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