Monthly Archives: February 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day. Have Some Puccini.

Happy Valentines day, kiddos!  How about a little romance?  To me, nothing says romance like Puccini!

Ah…love at first sight.  If you ask me, it’s a myth.  But it happens on the world’s opera stages every day.  Here’s an adorable clip of real life married couple Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez singing Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s act 1 duet from La Boheme.  The text of the duet basically amounts to, “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but you’re going to be dead in act 3, so go out with me maybe?”

Here’s a cute video of a surprise performance in a British supermarket of the Act 2 finale from La Rondine, in which Ruggero offers a toast to Love.

Finally, what I consider to be the most romantic aria ever (sung by the dreamiest tenor ever):  Recondita Armonia from the first act of Tosca.  In it, the artist Mario compares the woman who modeled for his painting to his lover Floria Tosca, explaining that the women are both beautiful, but Tosca is the one who has his heart.


Marian Anderson

This morning, I received an e-mail from a very old friend, whom I recently became reacquainted with, containing some simple instructions:

“Google these three words and hear what happens:  Marian Anderson Primrose.”

What I heard was this:

Not a bad way to start off a cold, gloomy Friday morning!

And, as February is Black History Month in America, it got me thinking about the too-often forgotten role that Marian Anderson played in the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, paving the way for Leontyne Price who made her Met debut in 1961.

But Anderson’s heroism was established long before that.  In 1939, Marian Anderson was denied permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform before an integrated audience at their venue, Constitution Hall, where black audience members were required to sit in the back.  Anderson was also denied the use of a public school auditorium for the concert.

In response to the controversy, President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, worked with the NAACP to arrange a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Marian Anderson sang on Easter Sunday for an integrated crowd of over 75,000.  The concert was also nationally broadcast over the radio.

“I Wanted to be Beautiful. I didn’t Want to be Judged.”

Opera Singer Lucy Schaufer Discusses her Experience of Performing Nude

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re just going about your business, only you realize that you’re naked?  It’s supposed to be one of those universal dream scenarios, and is often rooted in deep anxiety about exposing ourselves, physically or otherwise.

And it’s sort of a funny thing, because we humans are really the only animals on earth that feel the need to cover up.  Clothing was probably invented out of necessity to protect ourselves from the cold or from the sun, but now in modern society, most of us only feel comfortable disrobing in the most intimate of situations, or in a place secluded from the opposite sex.

Then again, in an age where a great deal of value is placed on achieving a certain physical ideal, we are bombarded with images of extraordinarily beautiful (often impossibly so–Link NSFW) naked or nearly naked bodies.  They are mostly women’s bodies, but men’s too.  In the interest of realistically portraying certain scenarios in drama, it’s not too unusual for performers to be asked to disrobe.

As a performer myself, one who might like to sing Strauss’s Salome one day, I wondered what it must be like to appear nude, on stage, in front of an actual audience, an audience of both women and men.  I’ve written before about how annoying the talk of body issues has become in Operaland, but when it comes to singing in your birthday suit, it feels like a whole other thing.  I read this lovely essay by actress Louise Brealey about the time she did a bit of naked acting in a play called Trojan Women, but I wanted an opera singer’s perspective.  Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was very kind to share with me her experience of appearing nude twice(!) in the 1997 world premier of Hopper’s Wife at Long Beach Opera.

Lucy Schaufer as Ava in Hopper's Wife

Lucy Schaufer as Ava in Hopper’s Wife.  Photo by Keith Polakoff.

The opera explores the relationship of “high art” and “low art.”  In it, Schaufer sang the role of Ava, fashioned after Hollywood Golden Age actress Ava Gardner, who models for an artist, Hopper, in the opera. “As it was in the context of posing for a painting, it felt substantiated.” Schaufer told me, “The character of Hopper appeals to Ava’s inner beauty, saying she has ‘roses inside her’ and speaks of her ‘bloom’ – she buys it hook, line and sinker.”

In another scene, Schaufer sang an aria which describes performing sexual favors in order to get ahead in Hollywood, from a bath tub and, in her words, “Ended my aria standing in the bath tub, starkers with bubbles dripping off my nipples!”  That moment, according to a reviewer from the Orange County Register, “deserves a place in the operatic hall of fame.”

Now, when an opera singer prepares a new role, there’s a lot of work to be done on music, language, character development, etc., but for this role, Schaufer had a bit more to think about:

“I swam a bit, not much, and mostly worried about getting pimples on my back! Vanity, vanity, vanity.  Also, how to handle or not to handle pubic hair in this situation.  Set in the 1940s, well, a girl wouldn’t exactly wax it down to a Brazilian, would she?  Therefore, how au naturel does one go?  What is “comfortable” as far as how to protect your bits from wiggling in the wind when you’re naked, standing in 3 inch heels on a steeply raked stage.  Turn up stage and you’re gonna be winking at the audience.  I don’t mean to be crude but anatomy is anatomy.”

Having a fit, and well-groomed body is one thing,  but in a society where we’ve been trained to cover our bodies pretty much from birth, there can be another hurdle to get over. “I had a whole row of family out there watching this show,” said Schaufer, “My parents, my aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces – and it’s a strict Catholic family!  So shame was a personal issue I needed to conquer.”

But Schaufer found that her sense of duty to the production overrode that shame. “I didn’t want to be a sissy or a problem.  Get on with it and do it.  Courage!”

And with that, Schaufer took on the issue of getting herself used to it, and getting the rest of the cast and crew used to working with a naked woman.

“In rehearsal I selected the prettiest matching bra and panty set I had.  These were special and that’s what I went down to every time.  Then I bared all in the stage and orchestras.  Final 3 or 4 rehearsals.  First of all, in order to help the crew know how warm the bath had to be so I didn’t catch a chill, and then for the orchestra to get used to the fact that I was naked so they weren’t distracted.  You’d think it wouldn’t be a big deal but it’s like a car crash: you can’t help but look.  Same for my colleagues.  It is only a 3-hander but still, Ava has a whole conversation with Mrs. Hopper while in the tub and at one point I decided to flash her my crotch (covered in bubbles, of course) but she needed an opportunity to know what that was like so it didn’t throw her.  The more you do it, the more integrated the performance and the reaction belongs to the character, not the actor.”

Now, it seems like whenever you have live theater with nudity, the nudity itself can become the headline (and it is now occurring to me that this blog entry might be part of the problem).  Schaufer didn’t necessarily find that was the case with Hopper’s Wife, but one review of the production began by cautioning potentially sensitive opera-goers about the show’s nudity, pornography and…tobacco smoke?  Ok, whatever, but Schaufer did mention her frustration with the media’s obsession with nudity and sex, “I want the choice of being nude on stage or in film to be a question of the story telling, so I wish the media/PR people would get their collective heads out of their sometimes small-minded arses and stop sensationalising the beauty of the human body in order to drum up ticket sales.”

I asked Schaufer to touch on how performing in the buff might be different for a woman for a man,and she pointed out that there is a bit of a gender gap.  “We women have been objectified for so long that it’s not so much of a ‘big deal’ – we don’t see men’s penises on stage very often.”  She referenced the 2012 movie The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt plays a sex therapist who works with a man paralyzed by polio, played by John Hawkes:  “look at Helen Hunt’s performance in The Sessions – she’s full frontal.  Not so much John Hawkes, because that would have tipped it from an R rating to an X, I bet,” she suggested, “Again – not equal footing in the eyes of ‘censors’ or the law.  Infuriating and it adds layers of emotional baggage and garbage which doesn’t belong.”

Throughout the discussion, Schaufer seems to be of the opinion that nudity is a tool that can and should serve art and story telling, and perhaps we should all just be adults about it. ” We have no issue or giggle fest when we contemplate a nude in an art gallery.  We observe our common humanity.  So grow up and allow us to embrace all we are, wrinkles, lumps, bumps and boobs.”

She also noted that every performer confronted with disrobing on stage will surely have his or her own reservations about it, “full frontal for both men and women is personal decision.  Respect and dignity for all, please,”  before going on to explain how she felt about her decision:

“If I am totally honest and withhold nothing from you:  I was scared that someone might think I wasn’t pretty, that I wasn’t attractive.  Now, I’m not sure how much of that was me or Ava – probably both, but in the end, it is Ava’s story because that moment of “release” is all she has to hold on to in the years that follow.  Now, I want to be perfectly clear that I, me, Lucy didn’t want to be desired sexually when I was standing there naked.  I wanted to be beautiful.  I didn’t want to be judged.  So yes, scared, nervous, but I’m damn proud I over came any worries, delivered what was asked of me and accepted the challenge I had set myself when agreeing to sing the role.  I had said YES: I stepped through a barrier, a personal barrier which led to a sense of freedom of mind and body.”

Edward Hopper's "High Noon"

Edward Hopper’s “High Noon”


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THE Next Legendary Soprano Gives a Master Class

Around two weeks ago, the operatic twittersphere was reeling from the livestreamed master class given by the fabulous Joyce Didonato at Juilliard.  I love this kind of thing.  I’m hungry for as much as I can learn about how to do opera.  I’ve listened to all the famous Maria Callas master classes from the 70’s, and am always rapt during the intermission interviews of Met HD broadcasts with the hope that the singers will share some of their secrets.  So when I heard that one of my favorite singers, the one I’ve given the title “THE next legendary soprano,” Patricia Racette would be giving a masterclass to students in the Washington National Opera’s young artist program, I was one of the first in line to observe.Patricia Racette

And I knew that it wasn’t going to be a waste of time as soon as Ms. Racette stepped on stage in a pair of red and black python leather boots saying she hoped to make this a casual session.  “Sorry we don’t have drinks!” she quipped.

The first of four students stepped on stage to sing Morro, ma prima in grazia, from Un Ballo in Maschera.  It was a bit stiff, probably more from nerves than anything else.  When the young soprano finished her aria, Racette jumped right in with a discussion of dramatic focus, pointing out that as the character is declaring her final wish to her husband who is threatening to kill her, this young singer seemed to be directing her focus all over the place.  If you were pleading to gaze upon you son one last time before you die, wouldn’t you be intensely fixed on the one who has the power to grant your wish?

Racette then acted as a stand in for Renato so that the singer portraying Amelia would have someone “speak to.”  It definitely made a difference in the intensity of the performance, but in a recital or audition situation, we probably won’t have another character standing there.  Racette also   noted that if you’re going to make the choice to turn your focus inward, you have to do it completely.

The next singer was a baritone who performed Avant de quitter ces lieux.  Here, Racette reiterated something she had discussed with the first singer, which was that what this character is saying is so important, and that the importance of it ought to be communicated through the singer’s physicality and focus, and through musicality.  In this instance, using the steady, even quarter notes of the first phrase to show resolve.

She also spent some time on vocal technique with this student, encouraging him to close some of the vowels in order to focus the sound, which, in my opinion, improved this baritone’s singing quite a bit, especially in the upper registers.

Mi chiamano Mimi was sung by a soprano that I heard perform in another masterclass about a year ago.  She has an exquisitely rich, dark voice, but Racette warned her against getting too indulgent in it, lest the sound fall back.  “Don’t be droopy,” Racette said, pointing out that all the character is saying in that first phrase is “Hi, my name’s Mimi.”

Racette spent quite a bit of time with this student talking about the subtext of this first flirtation Mimi has with Rodolfo.

But the best thing that Patricia Racette had to say about performing this aria, had to do with the breath/pausa before Mimi sings “Ma quando vien lo sgelo,” where the musical landscape shifts quite dramatically.  Racette instructed the young soprano to take her time with this breath, inhale through the nose, perhaps taking in the scent of Rodolfo, and then, “make us beg for that moment.”

As a singer, I often feel hurried in these moments which can feel like a lot longer than they really are.  So the idea that you should leave your audience trembling with anticip (SAY IT!) pation, was a revelation.

Finally, a young tenor sang Una Furtiva Lagrima.  And what a voice!  Yuri Gorodetski is one to watch out for, folks!  Racette worked with him mostly on musical phrasing and legato.  Gratuitous use of mezza voce and piano singing turned this aria from “not another una furtiva, ugh.” into a breathtaking bel canto masterpiece.  Plus, this guy could really sing.  Really.

It was a pleasure to shake Ms. Racette’s hand at the end of the class and tell her how much I loved her Tosca last fall.  I’ll leave you with a few stray remarks she made that either made me laugh or made me go, “Oh yeah….”

  • “I can’t tell you how useful it can be to distract yourself from singing”  (that is, while you’re singing)
  • Something I seem to be hearing from everyone lately is making those Italian “ah” vowels nice and bright.
  • Activating your core for vocal support can also activate the emotion of what you’re singing.
  • She called out one singer for what she called the “carrying the wood” gesture.
  • “Do not send the task to throat central.”
  • “Sing like you’re not going to get to sing again for the rest of your life! …Levine told me that once and I was happy to learn that he didn’t mean what I thought he meant.”
  • “You want your larynx to stay in its throne while you’re doing something, really, quite unnatural to it.”
  • “Make music, not chemistry.”
  • “It is incumbent upon every artist to facilitate a variety of ways of doing things, and that’s how you’ll find your way.”