YOUR Stories: Cheating Death in a Blizzard...with Opera

by Jason Haaheim, principal timpanist

It was about 11:40 PM on Saturday night, May 3rd, 2014, and the sweat was already beading up on my forehead. We had just finished our eighth performance of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, and Maestro Levine had just left the pit, flashing me his signature thumbs-up and ear-to-ear grin. As I quickly packed away all of my timpani gear - mallets, drums, and hitty-thing accoutrements - the next phase of the evening had already started without me.

With the 2013-14 season drawing to a close, we MET Orchestra Musicians were making a point to engage audience members in the Lincoln Center Plaza after performances. We saw two opportunities in doing this: to let our audience know about our website, which is a newly-expanded repository of articles and behind-the-scenes stories about life in the MET Orchestra; and, more importantly, to have a chance to interact with the remarkable people who attended some of our 222 performances this season.

As we perform in the pit night after night, it is easy to forget that what we do can have a life-changing impact on people. For our fans, opera - and the music therein - can be a source of profound meaning in their lives. For the musicians, knowing how we can affect our fans should be a source of profound meaning in our lives. But we were frankly unprepared for the amount of passion coming from our amazing fans, and the compelling stories they carry with them into the opera house. Music is ultimately about connection, and it is our hope that interacting with our audience intensifies a connection catalyzed by our playing. Moreover, the richness of that connection can be as nourishing for us as it is for our audience.

It was with all of this in mind that I approached a dapper fellow with the question, “So, did you enjoy the orchestra this evening?”

“OH. MY. GOD. YES!  It was AMAZING!”  he exclaimed, stretching his arms wide from the sheer thrill of the experience. “You have no idea how meaningful this was to me. Opera saved my LIFE!”  That is how I met Daniel McCaughan, an Air Force veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, works with the Wounded Warrior Project, and is currently the CEO of Philadelphia-based Pilgrim’s Promise, LLC. We’re honored to share his story here:

 

Ever since two of my sons relocated to Seattle, Washington, to work as video game developers, we had always admired the mystery and wonder of Mount Rainier. Ascending to 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier stands as an icon in the Washington landscape.

On Friday, April 13, 2012, having planned our journey for months and provisioned only with minimal climbing gear, a basic overnight pack, and one overnight shelter, my two sons and I motored our way toward the base of the mountain.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier

Our journey eventually went off-road as we followed animal trails. These eventually delivered us to a mountain stream feeding from the snow runoff of Mount Rainier. We knew we were on the right path.

We eagerly began our climb. After about seven relatively-easy hours on the ascent, the terrain began to shift and we realized there was much more snow and ice than we had originally anticipated. With nightfall quickly approaching, and with a sudden, violent snowstorm beginning to envelop the mountain, we decided to abandon the climb. We had begun making our descent when we were overcome by the storm. Having already planned to spend a night on the mountain, the blinding whiteout conditions made it necessary to deploy our shelter and emergency survival gear.

We hunkered down into a small crevice adjacent to a glacier. With the storm to our backs we dug out a snow cave from the hard pack, and set up our gear inside. We settled in for our night on the mountain.

*   *   *

The following morning, we awoke to find that the snowstorm had become a full-blown blizzard. I’d been mountaineering in the Swiss Alps, but this type of sudden, severe springtime weather was altogether new to me. Our snow cave was still solid, but the whiteout conditions outside were intense. We were not getting off the mountain any time soon.

Several hours passed with intermittently stormy conditions. It was at this point that I became concerned for our safety. We had limited food and water, and these blizzards can sometimes last for days. As a military veteran, I had been in many precarious situations before, but now I had my two sons with me. As strong and experienced young men, they were well-suited for the physical challenges of the trek, but I could not help but feel paternal concern for their safety. Trying not to give away any indication of my growing concerns about our situation, I began formulating various plans for an emergency evacuation.

Such an evacuation would require a break in the weather long enough for us to get below the storm line. I began scanning with my hand-crank emergency radio in an attempt to find any weather report relevant to the conditions on the mountain. Stopping only occasionally to crank more power, I listened intently to whatever stations I could pick up. The din of the outside storm howled across the mountainside and the only chatter I could hear on the radio was riddled with static.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier

Growing increasingly fearful, I suddenly picked up a radio station that was coming in more clearly than the rest. It was not a weather report, but music - elegant, with the sounds of beautiful voices. It was opera. Listening, I found myself in an increasing state of calm. As the music played out on the stage before my very ears, I realized that we were going to be fine. There was no need to panic; like all other storms in life, this too would pass. I settled back and began to simply enjoy the sounds of this fine cast of singers and instrumentalists.

Mere words cannot describe the joy and peace that overcame me. It was sublime. Before, all of my energy was going into planning our emergency escape and trying not to ponder our possible demise, but suddenly, as I lay there in a snow cave, I was warmed and comforted by the simple sounds of serenity. Who could have known that this beautiful performance would be intercepted, all the way across the country, by my tiny survival radio on top of a suddenly-unforgiving mountain? I shared the sudden fortune with my sons, and we took turns passing the earphones around to one another, enjoying the wondrous reactions on each others’ faces.

Intermission came and a colorful commentary began, and with that, I learned that this magical radio transmission was the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday Matinee Broadcast of La Traviata, conducted by Fabio Luisi. It was also around this time that I realized, with all of the wonderful and amazing things I had experienced in my life, I had never been to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I had read and enjoyed the stories of opera for many years, but had never actually attended a performance at that grandest cathedral of American opera: the Met. At that moment I made two solemn vows to myself: that we would safely get down that mountain, and that I would someday attend an opera at the Met.

We spent the remainder of that afternoon listening to Verdi without a care in the world. By the end of Act II, the snowstorm had subsided and sunlight was gleaming around the summit. Our path down the mountain illuminated by rays of sunlight, we struck our camp and quickly descended to the base of the mountain.

*   *   *

Daniel McCaughan and principal timpanist Jason Haaheim in Lincoln Center Plaza

Daniel McCaughan and principal timpanist Jason Haaheim in Lincoln Center Plaza

Several weeks ago I telephoned the Met in order to determine how one actually attends the opera. Upon speaking with a friendly employee, I purchased two tickets, which were all that remained for the upcoming performance of Così fan tutte by one of my favorites: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Once again I embarked on a new adventure. Driving from Philadelphia to New York on a Saturday night, I began my ascent, climbing the stairs of the Met up into the highest rows of the highest balcony. I nestled into my seat and began the completion of that vow I had made to myself on that mountaintop. I gazed around the lovely auditorium, that magnificent culmination of grand theater and grand music. I simply could not stop smiling. I was at the Met! I was about to see the opera! I had survived! I had arrived!

*   *   *

Of all my life’s adventures, my pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Opera was, without a doubt, one of the most significant and deeply rewarding. The inspiration and comfort I experienced while listening atop the mountain is simply indescribable. To sum up my very own “Night at the Opera” in a single word: Glorious. 

Thank you to all the wonderful people who make the Metropolitan Opera possible. A special thank you to those who made possible the radio broadcast that reached all the way to a mountaintop. One never knows all the people one reaches and what impact one has on their lives. As Clarence, from Frank Capra’s immortal classic, It's a Wonderful Life, tells George: “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”

Often, those touched by the fine people and supporters of the Metropolitan Opera are people they will never meet. Until recently I was just another member of that anonymous, appreciative legion. Now, with my newfound voice, I say: Thank you.

 

Sincerely,

Daniel McCaughan

Daniel McCaughan (far right) with his sons, participating in Tough Mudder, a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project held in the shadow of Mount Rainier (September 2012).

Daniel McCaughan (far right) with his sons, participating in Tough Mudder, a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project held in the shadow of Mount Rainier (September 2012).