This article is part of a series about Lyric Opera of Chicago audience members we orchestra players get to know and care about.
Last Fall I was drawn to a quiet woman I’d seen three days in a row taking her break in the unusually pleasant October afternoons on Wacker Drive as our orchestra walked in circles on the picket line during the orchestra strike. Not knowing what she was thinking as I smiled at her, she surprised me when I walked up to her and she said, “I just love opera. I listen to WFMT all the time.”
I felt I had just met a friend I’d known for a long time.
I introduced myself and said I played the cello with the Lyric Opera orchestra. She told me her name was Grace and that her brother had played the cello. “He passed,” she said, pausing, “and I have his instrument and am not sure what to do with it.” We talked about ideas for that. She said she worked nearby and had the best boss in the world. She’d worked for her company for 40 years. I told her I was on year 43 in the orchestra.
I asked how she came to love opera. It was through her church, she explained — Woodlawn African Methodist Episcopal (AME). This intrigued me further, as my father and husband were/are United Methodist ministers. As a child, Grace and her six siblings attended the Saturday morning Operetta Workshop her aunt directed and taught at their church.
Eventually she said, “Michelle Obama is my niece. Her mom is my sister.” Everything about this encounter seemed magical. I told her I love Michelle and was reading her book, Becoming. I was grateful she trusted me as we visited further about her family. Soon she was picked up by a friend to go to an appointment. I didn’t have a card with me, and it felt too pushy anyway to exchange contact information.
I hoped I would see her again, but the strike ended, and the weather turned cold. No more chance encounters outside the Opera House.
Months later, I decided to see if I could find a woman named Grace somewhere in the office building where she mentioned she worked. With my husband’s help, we found her at her desk. Haltingly, I said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I met you last fall on Wacker Drive,” and she interrupted me with a warm welcome, telling me she’d been surprised that “you were there, and then you weren’t there. I thought I’d never see you again.” I introduced my husband, and this time we exchanged contact information. I told her I was part of our orchestra’s newsletter team and asked if I could write a story about her and invite her backstage after a performance, as we’ve been featuring audience members we get to know. She agreed, we parted, and the long, hard winter set in.
Now as the season is ending, and Spring is here, we’ve reconnected — a friendship blossoming. Grace and her sister, Marian, attended the final opera performance of the season, La Traviata. I visited her again recently and learned more about their rich musical background. WFMT played in the background, and Grace told me her two home radios are tuned to WFMT. She said she used to listen to the opening night live broadcasts of Lyric Opera (which have sadly been discontinued). Grace reminded me that some of the music from La Traviata is used in the movie, Pretty Woman.
I asked further about the Operetta Workshop her formidable and talented aunt, Robbie Shields, directed. Grace said her father would walk them to the bus on Saturdays to attend these classes, whether they wanted to or not. Her father’s passion was jazz, and he had a fabulous record collection. Aunt Robbie, of course, is the piano teacher they all took lessons from, the woman who was accepted into a summer music program at Northwestern University but then denied room in the dormitory and escorted out when they discovered she was African American. With the help of the Rev. Archibald Carey, Jr., they sued and won. She and many members of her family completed musical studies at Roosevelt University.
Grace said that as a family they listened to Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts as they did work around the house. “I was the one who was particularly interested in opera,” Grace said.
The youngest girl of seven children, Grace mused on the family quality she recognizes in all of them — going back at least to her grandparents — that of striving, ambition, excellence, and family loyalty and closeness.
Jack and Marian
Grace married the oldest son of 13 children, a man she dearly loved who was 18 years older than she. He passed away in 2004, and she said she thought she would die without him. She said she thinks of him every day. The extended family lived in close proximity to each other and still spend weekends together.
While at Grace’s office, I was privileged to meet the boss she loves and reveres, who clearly feels the same about her. “She’s the voice of the organization,” he said affectionately. A few of her colleagues are accomplished musicians, and all were obviously very fond of Grace. She said she never liked her name, but I think it is perfect — a most gracious and kind person who I’m grateful is also a part of our Lyric Opera family.