All the World’s a Stage

Last night, in the intermission during a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, in which I was singing the role of the mischievous Alice, I was scrolling aimlessly through facebook, squirming in my uncomfortable and too hot renaissance dress and silently mouthing some of my lines for the upcoming act, when I saw a post on a friend’s wall alerting me to the death of Cliff Thomson.

I held my breath, did a brief query to verify that it was true, and then thought about how the first time I had heard Verdi was in his classroom, and said to myself, tonight’s show is for him.

I’ve written about Cliff Thomson in this space before, or “Mr. Thomson,” as I knew him, or just “Thomson,” or occasionally “Cliffo.”  He taught choir and drama at my high school.  He put on an annual Broadway Review, in which I had some of my first solo performances.  One year he did away with the Broadway part, and just did a pastiche of music from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  In my senior year, he taught a music theory class, without which I might have been hopelessly lost as a freshman in conservatory.

The way he taught high school choir was, I would discover later when comparing my experiences with friends’, unorthodox.  We never went near choral arrangements of pop songs or show tunes, and I don’t think I ever saw anything by Eric Whitacre.  Instead we learned Bach cantatas, Palestrina, the Fauré requiem, the Mozart requiem, the Schubert Mass in G.  We sang through, but never performed, the VERDI requiem, the Brahms Deutches Requiem.  We sang big, ambitious classical choral works, and we often sang them badly.  But that was ok.  The emphasis wasn’t on creating a pristine choral blend, it was more about developing an intimate relationship with this glorious music, and having fun.  (Well, I had fun. I’m sure many teenage choir singers would have preferred show tunes.)

I also credit Thomson with introducing me to the love of my life:  opera.  He sang in the Washington National Opera chorus, a gig that I thought was so glamorous at the time.  He would often talk about the star singers with whom he shared the stage.  He played us video recordings of operas, Otello with Placido Domingo in the title role, the Verdi Requiem conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with Leontyne Price as the soprano soloist.  This was the first time I heard real operatic singing and I wanted more.

His drama class began the same way every year.  Each student was to memorize and perform the same Shakespearean monologue: the seven ages of man from As You Like It.  I think I probably still have it memorized. Once again, the emphasis was on the classical, rather than the popular.

Thomson had a tempestuous personality that rubbed some people the wrong way.  His mood could change on a dime from joking and laughing, to shouting, spitting, and storming out of the room.  The joke was always that it was just time for his cigarette break and he’d be back to normal once he got his fix.  Yes, he was the only teacher I knew who made no effort to conceal his habit, on our “tobacco free campus.”

In the last few years I would occasionally search google, or ask friends if anyone had any contact info for him.  I felt this need to tell him what an enormous influence he had on me.  It’s funny, I often feel like I was this special student of his, like he took me under his wing as this special voice protegé.  But it occurs to me that there are probably hundreds of former students of his that feel that way.  Isn’t that the mark of a good teacher?  That each student feels like they are getting special treatment?

When I was making plans to go to college to study music, I came to him for advice.  I couldn’t decide whether to major in music theater or opera, and I’ll never forget what he said to me then:  “If you can do music theater, then you can do music theater.  If you can do opera, you can do anything.”

At the time I took it to mean that if you have training in opera, you can do any kind of theater.  But now I realize that what he meant is that opera is such a complex and difficult artform that if you can master it, then anything else  you attempt is a piece of cake.

Goodbye Mr. Thomson.  I hope you knew what a difference you made.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.





Kurt Knecht said Singing is Easy – He’s Wrong.

Every singer has had to deal with assertions that we’re lesser musicians.  It seems like the classical music community is beginning to move past this backwards way of thinking, but today, Blogger Kurt Knecht revealed that we still have some work to do.

I was annoyed when I read the title of his blog post “Are you a Singer or a Musician?” but I really started fuming when I got to this passage:

Over the last 20 years, I have worked for 6 or 7 different University music departments. Though there have been some very notable exceptions, I would say that generally speaking, the vocal majors didn’t work as hard to learn their craft as the instrumentalists. The vocalists didn’t understand theory as well, and they often didn’t sight sing as well as the instrumental students. It is a problem that needs to be addressed in our educational institutions.

When Kurt says that vocal majors don’t work as hard to learn “their craft” as instrumentalists do, he is showing that he doesn’t actually know what a singer’s “craft” is, or how it differs from the craft of, say, a violinist.

You see he’s right.  Instrumentalists are often better musicians than singers, and there’s a very real, very understandable reason for that.  To illustrate, I’d like to compare the hypothetical educational timelines of an elite singer and an elite violinist:

Age 5

A kid’s parents enroll their child in violin lessons, where she begins to make those first screeching sounds as she puts bow to strings, and she begins to learn the ABC’s of reading music.

Meanwhile, across town, another 5 year old who might become a singer one day is singing along with Disney movies on TV.  If she’s very lucky she has a school music program where she’s learning some music fundamentals.

Age 10

The young violinist is playing fairly advanced pieces with a decent tone and well-practiced technique.  Maybe she plays in a school orchestra.

The 10 year old singer might be in a school or church choir, where she learns her music by rote.  Maybe she’s brave enough to sing a solo once in a while.  Her technique at this point is simply “do what sounds pretty.”  She certainly isn’t taking formal voice lessons yet, and won’t be able to really get to work on the technical aspects of singing until after puberty.

Age 17

By the time our two imaginary musicians are graduating from high school, the violinist has played a variety of well-known symphonic pieces in an orchestra, and knows most, if not all, advanced technical skills required by her instrument.  She probably knows at least the basics of music theory and reads music with as much fluency as she reads words.  She’s applying to conservatory and her teacher has coached her on her audition repertoire.

The singer?  She’s starting to pick up some sight-reading skills in her high school choir. She’s becoming familiar with some major choral works, and maybe, if she’s taking voice lessons, is just beginning to learn the basics of classical singing technique. If she’s blessed with a nice enough voice then she might’ve had the lead in her school musical or an occasional solo in choir.

Age 18

So now it’s freshman year at conservatory.  The two are sitting down to take their placement exams for music theory classes.  Is it any surprise that the instrumentalists fare better than the singers?  They’ve had a years-long head start!  And all along the way, they are able to focus solely on musicianship and technique.  While singers are learning what it takes to be a capital-M Musican, they’re also learning Italian, French, and German at the very least, as well as acting, and perhaps dance, not to mention tackling the mysteries of singing technique!

Singers are the music world’s ultimate multitaskers.  In a fully-staged operatic performance, a singer must be aware of her surroundings, and respond to the situation.  Singers must sing with consistent, correct technique, and musicality.  Often they must deal with extraordinary physical demands, like fight choreography.  And, usually, do all of it in a foreign language!

This is, of course, why professional singers employ coaches to help  learn and perfect operatic roles.  We need that extra help because we have so many things to think about!

Before you say that I missed the point of what Kurt was trying to say, I did read this:

“I’m not suggesting that singing well is any easier than playing an instrument well. I am saying that singing well enough is easier than playing well enough. ”

And I suppose in a way he’s right.  It’s not difficult to join a choir and make decent music with little experience as an amateur singer.  But the next time you feel impatient with a singer who’s struggling with sight-reading or can’t tell a tritone from a triad, just remember everything that has to go into a singer’s “craft.”


In Memoriam

It wasn’t even on my mind until my necklace broke.

I got dressed this morning and finished off my outfit with a string of red beads that I salvaged from my Grandma Vivian’s jewelry box after the family had gone through it and divvied up all the nice, valuable pieces. I refused to let them throw out her cheaper, every day jewelry, and the necklace I had on this morning was just one of many mementos I took.

I was going about my business this morning when the necklace fell off my neck and red beads scattered across the floor and I remembered that Grandma died a few days before Easter ten years ago.

I still miss her. I talk about her all the time. How when we lived just a few houses down from her and we’d ask her to make us French toast and she’d say “bring me an egg,” so my brother and I would walk down the road to her house cradling a single egg each in our hands. Or how she used to put words to the birdsongs when we would go walking in the park—one bird, she insisted, shouted “Go Redskins!” And she would always warn me about the trolls that guarded bridges.

I vividly remember one snow day I spent at her house. I built a snow man in the front yard and when she came to assess it, decided that it wasn’t quite special enough. Together we gathered branches of off a pine tree and used them to make a hula skirt. Then grandma added two pieces of pine cone to give our snow-hula-dancer a set of buck teeth. Then we went inside for a bowl of “macaroni soup” (that’s plain chicken broth with a few fat macaroni noodles floating in it.)

Grandma loved Tiny Tim songs and John Phillip Sousa marches. She loved Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and would put on old cassette tapes of the show for long drives to Chincoteague. Grandma loved Chincoteague and took enormous pleasure in spotting the water birds, digging for clams in Tom’s Cove, and picking crabs for hours, coaxing every last little bit of sweet crabmeat from the shell.

When I was older, after our family had moved out to the rolling countryside of Loudoun County, I would often be delighted to come home from school to find Grandma’s Volvo parked in the driveway. I’d come in side and she’d be in the kitchen snacking on a grapefruit which she’d carefully peeled and pulled apart the segments, or maybe a thinly-sliced cucumber soaking in a bowl of vinegar. She took enormous pleasure in harassing our cats with brown paper bags or pieces of string.

One day when she was at the house I asked her if she had a stamp. She went rummaging in her purse to find one and pulled out an old business card. She showed it to me and told me the story of the first time she ever left her childhood home in North Dakota; she met a salesman on the train and spent some time chatting with him, and when he left he handed her his card. She wasn’t sure why she’d kept it all these years. And then she handed it to me. And I still have it.

business cardbusinesscardback

I miss Grandma.   I miss the sound of her scratchy voice singing, “Tea for two and two for tea! Me for you and you for me!” I miss the distinct shape of her salt and pepper hair. I miss her dismissing me over the phone as “a fountain of information,” when my apathetic teenage self didn’t know where my mother was or when she’d get home. I miss staying at home with her on a Saturday night watching Keeping up Appearances and As Time Goes By.

I gathered the red beads from grandma’s broken necklace off my office floor and put them in an envelope. Soon I’ll re-string them with a bit of thread and put them back in grandma’s old jewelry box (yes, I kept the box too) with her teardrop-shaped flower earrings, and her Smithsonian volunteer pin. I’ll think of her every time I wear her black knit wrap dress, or gaze on her favorite pair of alligator shoes which sit on a bookshelf in my living room, or spy on egrets in Chincoteague, or hear the Washington Post March, or eat a vinegary cucumber or . . .

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.”