Take a Deep Breath

Ok. So after yesterday’s particularly angsty post which detailed the three weeks I just spent crying and moaning and self-flagellating in an attempt to come up with some aria recordings I can use for application materials for YAP auditions and competitions, here’s where I stand:

I have recorded two arias that I am mostly proud of. They are a good representation of the kind of singing that I can do consistently and confidently. Would you like to hear them? Ok here they are:

Vissi d’Arte

Einsam in Trüben Tagen

And I have one recording that is pretty horrifying and will never see the light of day. I’m inclined to think that the particular aria is the problem with its high tessitura, exposed vocal lines, long phrases, and difficult coloratura passages, except that I have a recording from a coaching last month in which I sang the piece beautifully. I guess the low-pressure setting of a working session with a coach made it easier to just relax and let my instrument do its thing.

The reassuring thing is that the response to yesterday’s despairing essay showed me that all singers seem to have had similar experiences, even the really successful ones who have had robust opera careers.

So here’s what I’m telling myself: I’m a good singer. And I’m getting better. And I love to sing. I love to sing so much that I can hardly turn myself off when a song comes on the radio, or if I’m tidying up the house, or if I’m just sitting at the piano banging out a tune.

It’s scary to think that no matter how hard I work, no matter how flawless my singing becomes, I still may never have the kind of opera career I daydream about. But, as Mama Rose says in act I of Gypsy, “I at least gotta try!”

 

Singers’ Block

We’re all familiar with the term “writers’ block.” An author spends days or weeks staring at a blank page, or putting pen to paper only to read back over her words and scratch them out, or throw them in the garbage where they belong.

 

Well, I’ve come down with a severe case of singers’ block. For about three weeks now, as I’ve been preparing for the looming audition season, I’ve been unhappy with nearly every sound that comes out of my mouth, sometimes becoming overwhelmed with frustration to the point of tears. My singing has felt forced, pushed, and labored as I attempt to make my voice do what it is supposed to do—what I know it can do. Occasional moments of beauty get cut infuriatingly short as anxiety returns to my mind, and tightness returns to my throat.

 

How does a young singer overcome this sort of obstruction? I’ve tried returning to simple exercises to reground myself in technical fundamentals. I spent hours practicing until I’m hoarse. I took a day or two off from practicing to clear my head and rest my voice. I spent time studying the masters—listening to my idols, like Birgit Nilsson and Joan Sutherland. I tried singing through simple arias and songs that I know I can sing easily and gracefully. I tried silently imagining my way through difficult vocal passages. And then, when I come back to the audition repertoire I’m preparing, it all goes back to forced, pushed, labored.

 

Shriek. Scream. Bleat.

 

But I know what the real problem is. The problem is that I’m so caught up in the desire to be a successful singer. I’m obsessed with being accepted into this program or cast in that role. And I’m so terrified of the alternative: spending the rest of my life among “muggles,” making a living doing a job that I hate, and drowning in envy for the people who get to travel the world performing opera.

 

These thoughts are so all-consuming that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to just focus on taking a breath and turning that breath into music. I want to be able to just shut off the valve that controls that part of my brain while I’m singing, but the switch is stuck in the “on” position.

 

And I just don’t know how to unstick it.

The Wrong Ways to Talk About the Body-Shaming Reviews of Der Rosenkavelier

Have you been following the story about the horrendous, sexist, tasteless reviews of Tara Erraught’s performance last weekend in Der Rosenkavelier at Glyndebourne?  Of course you have, but if not, you can do some quick catching up here

Der Rosenkavelier

Tara Erraught pictured on left.

In spite of the fact this story is days old now, practically pre-historic in internet time, I have some more things to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters.  Mostly that I’m not entirely okay with the direction some of the (very-well intentioned) discussions of this issue have taken. 

Let’s have a look at each of the erroneous arguments that have been swirling around one by one, shall we?

1.  “Tara Erraught isn’t even that fat!”

This is most emphatically not the point.  Whether a singer is a little bit heavy-set, or morbidly obese shouldn’t matter if her performance is on point.  It seems to be widely agreed by Saturday night’s audience, and the cruel critics who railed against Erraught’s appearance, that her performance of the role of Octavian was, vocally and dramatically, excellent.  These stick-in-the-mud, middle-aged, white dudes, found it hard to believe that a woman as tall and thin and beautiful as Kate Royal’s Marschallin would fall in love with an Octavian that looked like Erraught.  This perpetuates the kind of bullshit thinking that leads to tales of karmic justice like this one  and the supremely frustrating phenomenon of men who love big women, feeling ashamed of their preference and trying to deny it or hide it. 

In case you didn’t realilze it, here’s the truth:  Women can love short and/or fat men.  Men can love fat and/or tall women.  It happens every day in the real world.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough in the movies, or on TV, or even in opera.

2.  “Skinny people aren’t as good at singing as fat people!”

Even though I adore Alice Coote, and respect her as one of the most intelligent singing actresses in opera today, this is a fairly problematic argument for several reasons.  First, it plays into the super annoying, never-ending discussion about how opera is being “revived” with a generation of young, hot, singers, which I belive to be utter bullshit.

Secondly, I’m not entirely sure I agree.  I’ve seen very thin singers put out lush, theater-filling sounds just as often as I’ve seen fat singers with lighter voices. 

And what about thin singers whose size has changed?  The terrible saga of Deborah Voigt’s weight loss surgery is well documented.  And what about Anna Netrebko’s weight fluctuations?  Does her move into more dramatic repertoire have to do with her new voluptuous figure, or is it a natural maturing of the voice that comes with age?

I think Jenny Rivera put it best on this week’s Opera Now! podcast when she said that a singer is at his or her best when their body is in its natural state.  That is, if you are someone who is naturally thin, then being thin probably won’t harm your singing, but if you’re someone who is naturally a little more meaty, then, in my opinion, pushing yourself with intense dieting and exercising to look like a model might have a less than desirable effect on your voice.  Basically, opera singers need to be healthy and strong, two words that are not necessarily in my mind synonymous with either fat or thin, in order to be able to perform the vocal athletics that our art form calls for.

3.  “The original Octavian was also zaftig.  That’s how Strauss/Hoffmansthall would have   wanted it!”

What if I said, “Verdi never intended for La Traviata’s doctor to be lurking silent on stage througout the entire opera, calling Violetta’s attention to a giant clock that is ticking down to the end of her life!”? (I know I reference that production constantly, but it is just my favorite, okay?)  My point by saying that is this:  Richard Jones’ interpretation of Der Rosenkavelier for Glyndebourne was hardly what you’d call “traditional,” so it is fallacious to apply the kind of curmudgeonly anti-regie arguments that get used so often to lament the increasing popularity of so called “eurotrash” opera productions.  Opera is a living, breathing, evolving art form, and we should keep experimenting with new takes on our favorite works, whether that means Valkyries on motorcycles, Gilda stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac, or (gasp!) an Octavian who isn’t tall and thin.

When Tara Erraught went onstage as Octavian last weekend, she didn’t look the way some critics expected an Octavian to look, that is, tall and thin.  But why should she?  She is not Joyce DiDonato or Susan Graham, she is Tara Erraught bringing her own interpretation to the role as Richard Jones directed it.  Do we really want to live in a world where every Octavian (or Marschallin, or Sophie, or, for that matter, Mimi, Aida, Siegfried, or Peter Grimes) looks or even sounds like a cookie-cutter cut out of the one that came before?  Art is about exploring possibilities.  It’s about imagining a world that could be, or a world that can’t be, or a world that we hope will never be, or even the world exactly as it is.  But it certainly isn’t about fitting in to a prescribed notion from some stuck-up opera critic about how it it ought to be.

Finally, to Terra Erraught and the fat and thin and tall and short and dumpy and black and white and latina and asian and gay and straight and trans opera singers of the world, I dedicate this song to you:

My Taste is Super Sophistocated and Edgy . . . Isn’t it?

After a beer and a snack at a Capital Hill dive bar that was, of course, decorated with vintage political campaign paraphernalia, my friend Michael and I headed into the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium for a concert of 20th and 21st century chamber music conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, because I see myself as an adventurous, open minded lover of an ever-evolving artform and I dig New Music. 

I look down my nose at the kind of snobby classical music curmudgeons who are prejudiced against modern or 20th century or contemporary or “weird” or avant garde or experimental music and just put it all into a box labeled “atonal,” and shove it into the basement, never to gaze upon it again. 

I crave new opera, like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys  or Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears; and new takes on the standard rep, like my beloved Willie Decker production of La Traviata. 

That’s of course, not to say that I love everything I see and hear.  I generally find most of what’s come out of the minimalist movement to be just plain boring. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through an entire performance of Nixon in China or Einstein on the Beach.  And I’m pretty sure John Cage is just trolling everyone.  But I certainly wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand without hearing it first. Of course I wouldn’t, and I appreciate these works, even if I don’t particularly want to listen to them. 

No really, please don’t make me listen to them.

There are just some tropes in modern music that I can’t get past.  I’ve always believed that “classical saxophone” is an oxymoron.  And what is with all the crazy-ass insturmention in contemporary chamber music?  You’re going to write a quintet for harp, oboe, violin, viola, and snare drum? Really?  And requiring pianists to get up, reach inside the piano and pluck the strings with their fingers?  (Don’t even get me started on “prepared piano.”)

I was discussing some of this with Michael, a composer of New Music himself, as we left the concert and walked back to the Metro on Tuesday night.  What was with the instrumentation on that Schoenberg Serenade?  I was giving major side-eye when a clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, mandolin and guitar took the stage.  Mandolin and guitar?  You could barely even hear them over the ruckus created by the other instruments. 

“Yes, but, get it?  It’s a serenade?”  He pointed out.

“Well, yeah, I get that, but. . .”

“And it did in certain moments sound sort of Italian . . .”

“In a distinctly Schoenbergian way,” I snarked.

As we walked, I mentioned that my favorite piece on the program was Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance, performed beautifully by Huw Watkins.  “But I guess that was the easiest to listen to piece on the program.”

“It really was,” he said.

And I complained that I was enjoying Tropi by Niccolo Castiglioni but it lost me when the pianist got up and started plucking the the strings.  “It’s just silly to me.”

 “I really like way it sounds.” my companion said.

“Well, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  I guess I’m a snob.”

To that, he bluntly said, “Yes.”

The Power of Sisterlove, or, Why I got so Emotional while Watching Frozen

 

Spoilers for Frozen below, but really it’s just Disney and in my opinion you can still enjoy the movie even if you know what’s going to happen, so read what I have to say.

FrozenSisters

“It’s a blonde sister and a redheaded sister!” I whispered, to my own redheaded sister, as we watched one of the opening scenes of Disney’s Frozen, in which the younger Anna eagerly wakes up her older sister Elsa, asking “You wanna build a snowman?”

We were at the theater on a family outing to celebrate my sister’s birthday.  She’s two and a half years younger than me, and I instantly saw ourselves reflected in the movie’s two main characters as they were introduced, and was holding back tears in the movie’s first ten minutes when the toe-headed Elsa accidently injures Anna with her frosty magical powers.  In the coming years, Elsa forces herself to withdraw from Anna in order to prevent a repeat accident, leaving Anna feeling lonely and abandoned.

Sisters

It would seem that if you spend enough time pointing out the kinds of messages that most Disney movies (and many movies for children) send to girls (and boys) about gender roles, eventually they will listen. Frozen delighted me in how it managed to take a pile of sexist fairy tale clichés and turn them upside down (while still telling a delightful, engaging, funny, sing-along worthy story at the same time).

The central relationship in the movie is between two sisters, neither of which was a villain, or even remotely evil.  When the younger sister, Anna, meets and falls in love with Hans at Elsa’s coronation (and performs the best love duet Disney has presented us with in years), and announces to her sister that they’ve decided to get married, Elsa immediately advises against marrying someone you’ve just met that very day, this sentiment is later echoed by the reindeer wrangling Christoph.  Then, when Elsa, after losing control of her magical powers, causing her Nordic fairy tale kingdom to succumb to an enchanted winter, retreats to the top of a mountain far away from civilization, it is her sister Anna, not a handsome young prince, who mounts a horse and embarks on and adventure to rescue her.

But the movie’s greatest flip-flop comes when, just as she had feared she might, Elsa accidently curses Anna again, this time “freezing her heart,” and causing her to slowly freeze to death.  Anna is told that the only remedy for a frozen heart is “an act of true love,” and she believes that act must be the magical “true love’s kiss.”  (She must have grown up watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast.) In the movie’s climax, Christoph is rushing to save Anna with the required kiss, but just as she is about to freeze over, Anna retreats from him in order to save her sister from being murdered by the movie’s villain.  As Anna steps in front of the villain’s sword, she freezes into a solid, icy statue, and Elsa (and I along with her) cries over the loss of her sister and the bravery of her sacrifice.  But it is this sacrifice that proves to be the act of true love that breaks the spell.  Anna is thawed, and Elsa realizes that she has the power to end the enchanted winter.

Allow me to break this down for you again, in case you missed it:  The heroic Christoph, as he rushes to save the day, is made superfluous by two sisters who discover that they can solve the problem on their own.  And then, at the end of the movie, just like so many action heros before her, Anna is rewarded for her valor by getting a kiss from the hot Scandinavian Christoph.

I don’t know what has led to this welcome change in tone from Disney.  Maybe it was criticism from Feminist Frequency and Advice from a Cartoon Princess, or the success of Brave, or the wild popularity of the Hunger Games (in which the lead character makes her own sisterly sacrifice)?  But I hope Disney keeps moving in this direction.  And I hope everyone takes their Daughters (and sons!) to see Frozen.  Or if you’re lucky enough to have one (or as lucky as me to have two!) go see it with your sister.

 

Singing in Church: The Musician as Tradesman

I don’t particularly like singing in church.  I don’t believe in god, and I don’t think that religion is a force for good in the world.  But I often find that I don’t always mind singing in church either.  The kind of skills required for church choir gigging feel to me like they are the very essence of what it is to be a professional classical musician: You are handed a piece of music, and, along with the rest of the ensemble, must be able to perform it successfully with little to no rehearsal.  There’s no applause.  No one person is in the spotlight.

This must be what it feels like to practice a trade that takes a great deal of study to learn and master, but once you do, it is routine.  You’re like a computer coder asked to write a program that will perform a certain set of calculations, or a surgeon tackling his 500th appendectomy, or an auto mechanic fitting a Honda with a new set of brakes. You know what to do, it’s a fairly simple task, and you try to execute it as elegantly and efficiently as possible.

And sometimes it feels like being in an exclusive secret club.  We have coded messages that we read from; the incredibly complex language that is musical notation.  There is a person at the front of the room, waving his hands in a semaphore you learned to understand in middle school choir, and learned to perform yourself, rudimentarily, in college.  And then there’s the subtler skill of finding yourself among a group of musicians that you’ve rarely, if ever, performed with before, and managing to integrate into a single organism by listening and sensing breath, pulse, harmony.

Of course, sometimes it just doesn’t click.  Last night, I was singing with a choir I’d had the privilege to join a few times before.  We started in on a wandering, ethereal piece of renaissance polyphony.  It quickly became apparent that we were not in agreement about tempo, thus the harmonies didn’t line up and fell out of tune, and the whole thing fell apart.  The conductor motioned us to stop. He signaled that we would try again, this time he would break up the pulse into four short beats instead of two slow ones. On the second try, the choral machine’s gears fit together to turn at just the right pace. When it was over, we exhaled, congratulated ourselves on the recovery, and went home

A Postlude of Clueless Grownups

That comment was one of the first to appear in my Twitter feed last night shortly after the Metropolitan Opera’s premier of the much anticipated Two Boys, a new opera with a score by hipster wunderkind Nico Muhly and libretto by Craig Lucas, began in a performance that was streamed live at the Met’s website.  I’m not sure if the above tweet’s author could foresee that it would describe perfectly the public’s reaction to the opera this morning.

I certainly didn’t.  I was surprised this morning, when, mind still fluttering with the swirling orchestrations, elegantly cacophonous choruses, and Alice Coote’s hauntingly beautiful singing that I had heard tell the darkly tragic story the night before, found Anthony Tommasini’s review on the New York Times website.  Then I read Anne Midgette’s take in the Post.  The reviews for the opera that I had been so enchanted by were largely negative, while the sentiments expressed in my corner of Twitter, populated by tech-savvy opera fans and performers, were full of nothing but adoration.

The cause for the sharp divide in how the performance was purcieved quickly became apparent:  reactions from the major news publications and the (beloved) snob contingent over at Parterre Box mostly panned the piece, while most of my peers and I were gushing.  One particularly vicious comment on Parterre outlined several seemingly carefully selected comments from twitter by “women under 30,”  side-by-side with comments from the Parterre’s chatroom.  The twitter comments basically amounted to “OMG THIS MUSIC IZ SOOOO GREAT!!!” while those from Parterre complained of how boring it all was.

In the words of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff:  “Parents just don’t understand.”

My friends and I agree that these guys just didn’t get it, and they didn’t get it because they never experienced it.  They don’t know what it was like to stay up hours and hours after your parents went to bed, sitting in front of the computer and communicating with strangers from all over the country or the world.  They didn’t know what it was like to hide behind a screen name and lie about your age and appearance, disguised as a fantasy version of yourself, and feel the virginal blend of curiosity, excitement, and squeemishness when the conversation became explicit.  You had heard the warnings about predators who lured young teens, but you knew you would never fall for that.

And maybe all the mature opera fans who didn’t care for this opera know all about the chat rooms of the late 90′s and early aughts, maybe they were there, having illicit conversations of their own, but they still don’t get it.  Why?  Something that I think people seem to forget as they grow older is how, when you’re a teenager, every experience is heightened.  Every emotion, every obsession, every crush, every anxiety, to a child of 13, 15, maybe as late as 18, has the gravity of a black hole in space sucking you in.  Those late night internet chats, to us, at the time, were enormously important, and Lucas’ libretto combined with Muhly’s score to recreate that feeling in a devastatingly tragic way.

So here are some choice selections from my own Twitter feed during the performance:

Now, the opera world has spent a lot of time lately wringing their hands about how to “save opera,” how to “attract younger audiences.”  By all accounts, the audience at last night’s premiere skewed much younger than the usual Met crowd.  If more performances like Two Boys is the bitter pill that can cure opera from whatever disease it is inflicted by, will the establishment swallow it?