Category Archives: Role Models

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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

 

One Singer, Two Masters

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of private master classes, one with a singer who is in the midst of a fairly prestigious international opera career, and another who is retired from one. For the first, I sang In Quelle Trine Morbide, from Manon Lescaut.  It’s probably my best aria right now.  For the latter, I sang Non Mi Dir, an aria that I’ve been struggling with.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get feedack on my singing from some experienced mentors who know the biz.  I’m so grateful to these singers for taking the time to listen to me and two of my fellow students and offer their advice and wisdom. 

Here are some takeaways:

  • I need to work on breath control and support.  I knew this.  Now I know it more.  “You’re not supporting well and it’s causing pitch problems.”
  • Nerves are also a problem.  I also knew this.
  • I should put Non Mi Dir on the back burner, and spend some more time with Dove Sono.
  • I need more coachings.  I should start doing them regularly.  I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it.
  • I have potential to be a proper dramatic soprano, but I need to stick to lyric soprano rep for now.  For the second time in my life I was told that I could sing Turandot one day.  In the meanwhile, I could look at the lighter soprano role from Puccini’s final opera, Liu.
  • “Get a girdle.”
  • I asked whether I ought to look at Mimi. “No one’s going to cast a big girl like you* as Mimi.  You don’t look consumptive.”
  • “You’re tall, good looking, and you’ve got a big voice.”  Thank you.
  • I need to trust my teacher. 

*I’m nearly 6 feet tall and 200 lbs.  Total Amazon.

The Album I Can’t Stop Listening To

Ok, as usual, I’m a little late to the party on this one.  I recently discovered that there is more to the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ouvre than the popular Thrift Shop.  I seriously can’t stop listening to their album The Heist.

Now, my knowledge of hip hop (I don’t even know if it’s supposed to be hyphenated or not?) goes just an inch beyond none, so I can’t really speak to the quality of the album or Macklemore’s rapping skills.  What I like about it is the way it paints a picture of the life of the struggling artist that I, as a struggling artist myslef, find wonderfully relatable and encouraging.  Even the very tongue-in-cheek Thrift Shop fits into this theme, as it addresses trying to look hip and edgy and current with very little money to spend.

The album opens with 10 Thousand Hours, an almost religious invocation whose titular hook references the concept popularized by Malcom Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours of dilligent practice to master a skill.  Macklemore brags that after years of working toward his dream he finally has the priveledge of doing what he loves for a living, finally getting an “iTunes check,” and “payin’ rent.”

10 Thousand Hours moves right into a relentless, fast-driving anthem about the thrill of performing.  Mackemore’s lightning-fast rapping about letting “the stage lights shine on down,” and “giving it back to the people, spread it across the country,” and then the hook comes in:

“And we go back; this is the moment;
Tonight is the night; we’ll fight till its over.
So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us.”

That song makes me want to dance until I collapse.

There is a track about the strain the pursuit of success as a performer can put on a relationship, a track about refusing to compromise your art for money, a couple very candid tracks about dealing with addiction.

Then there’s Jimmy Levine, a tense, high-energy epic, reminiscent of Eminem’s Lose Yourself.  It tells the story of breaking into the office of a record label in order to demand an audience with the president.  It declares “All I ever dreamt about was makin’ it.  They ain’t givin it, I’m takin’ it.”  It ends with a little twist that I won’t spoil.

I listen to this album and I think, Yes!  I can put in my 10,000 hours, and I can make the sacrifices I need to make in order to achieve the life I want.  Macklemore dreamed of being a rapper.  He and Ryan Lewis independently produced an album that, as of this writing, has sold over 600,000 copies.

I dream of being an opera singer, and making my living on singing.  I dream of traveling from opera house to opera house, portraying heroines like Tosca, Norma, Minnie, Aida, maybe even Isolde or Sieglinde or Brunnhilde.  The Heist makes me feel like I’m just 7,000 or so hours away from that.

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.

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.”

Role Models: Joyce DiDonato

Mezzo Soprano Joyce DiDonato has a new album, Drama Queens.  I was watching this promotional video for the album this morning, and it occurred to me that Joyce (I have a habit of referring to my operatic idols by their first names, as if we’re friends.  Joyce, Bryn, Renee, you know, the gang.) is exactly the type of artist I would like to be.  Not necessarily the type of singer I would like to be, her voice and repertoire are very different from mine, but they type of artist.

Well, exactly what kind of artist is she? (Or, probably more precisely, what kind of artist am I perceiving her to be?)

First of all, Joyce seems always to be absolutely delighted with what she is doing.  And why shouldn’t she be?  She’s a highly in-demand, international opera star!  I’m sure that just like everyone, she has bad days and gets down, but the public face she presents is one of joy.  She’s always excited about whatever role she’s singing, or laughing with her colleagues, or discovering  the city she is visiting.

Joyce is a scholar.  In the classical music community, there is a joke that there are musicians, and then there are singers.  I hate that joke.  If you are not a Musician with a capital M, than you have no business singing classical repertoire.  Still, singers have a reputation for not understanding music theory, or being unable to even read music.

That is simply not the case with Joyce.  This vlog on how she approaches learning a new role shows just how tuned-in she is to musicality, style, language, characterization, and she is focused on trying to interpret the composer’s intention.

Notice how she talks about being aware of the orchestration and what it says about the character or situation.  She is focused on details that many singers don’t even give a second thought.

Joyce gives back.  Her blog, Twitter, and vlog, all focus mainly on advising and inspiring young singers.  She makes it clear that she didn’t get where she is just by chance, but by hard work, study, and persistence.  She has often mentioned that she wished there was something like her blog available to her when she was starting out.

She also has an extraordinary knack for making opera accessible without dumbing it down.

Joyce is an absolutely captivating performer.  I had the privilege of seeing her sing in the Met’s The Enchanted Island last season.  The woman owned the stage.  I can’t explain it better than this:

Joyce has a sense of humor.  Some performers just take themselves way too seriously.  Humor is essential, especially when you’re, say, singing a Puccini role where you watch your lover die tragically of consumption every night.

Madame DiDonato’s hard work, study, joy, humor, and gratitude would be assets in any field, but in the world that originated the term “diva” they make her truly divine.  So, the next time I’m hung up on some kind of operatic conundrum, I’ll ask myself “WWJD?”  What would Joyce do?