Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Where you come from, toast is a result of reflection and study!

One of my best friends from college, Cristina, is in Vienna right now teaching English and studying voice. Every few days we convene on Google Chat--we discuss dating, exchange recipes, and especially, talk about our singing. I know she reads this, so I hope I won't embarrass her by saying that she has a lovely light soprano voice with a stunning top--the lucky thing!

Yesterday, she told me that she was working on "Deh vieni, non tardar," an aria that I also sing, and struggle with. We were commiserating about the final section of the piece, with the leap from the F to the A. Cristina said, "Why is this so difficult for me?" I pointed out that it's difficult for everybody--"everybody has to push the toast down twice!" Which leads me to my second toast-related metaphor of this blog (for any new readers, the first one was in my first entry, and it was from The Birdcage).

A few years ago, I spent part of my spring break at Cristina's house in Maryland. I had brought my DVD collection along, and one night, we decided to watch Kate and Leopold. It's not really a good movie, but sometimes there's nothing like Hugh Jackman in period costume riding a horse around Central Park. In case you're not familiar with the movie, the basic conceit is that Meg Ryan's ex-boyfriend (Liev Schreiber) discovers a portal into the past on the Brooklyn Bridge, and then accidentally brings an incredibly good-looking 19th century nobleman back with him--that's Mr. Jackman, of course--where he has to negotiate Manhattan, and love, in the 21st century.

Which naturally includes kitchen appliances. Like the toaster. The first time Leopold tries to use Kate's toaster, he burns the toast beyond all recognition. He explains to Kate that the first time he pushed the toast down, it didn't toast, and then the second time, it burned. More specifically, courtesy of the Internet Movie Database:

LEOPOLD: That thing is a damned hazard!
KATE: It's just a toaster!
LEOPOLD: Well, insertion of bread into that so-called toaster produces no toast at all, merely warm bread! Inserting the bread twice produces charcoal. So, clearly, to make proper toast it requires one and a half insertions, which is something for which the apparatus doesn't begin to allow! One assumes that when the General of Electric built it, he might have tried using it. One assumes the General might take pride in his creations instead of just foisting them on an unsuspecting public.
KATE: You know something? Nobody gives a rat's ass that you have to push the toast down twice. You know why? Because everybody pushes their toast down twice!

Everybody pushes their toast down twice. It's not easy for anybody, no matter how it looks. This is an important lesson for me as far as singing goes, in the wake of this past weekend. I competed at NATS; it was not my best showing. I sang an aria that wasn't quite ready, had enormous memory flubs, and as a result lost my breath support. The girl who won my division was popping off high F's like they were nothing special, while I'm struggling to eke out a C# in my ornamentation and not look like I'm dying while I do it. But thinking about Leopold and his toast, I realize that it probably wasn't so easy for that girl to get where she is either. I'm betting that she has difficulty with other parts of her voice, and that this wasn't her first outing in a competition.

Singing is just plain hard, and it's our job to make it look and sound easy. Even people who seem like they've never had to work at producing a gorgeous, perfect sound have probably put in hours and hours of practice to get to that point. So I guess what I'm saying is, complaining about how hard it is isn't worth it. To quote another favorite girl movie that may eventually require its own post, "If it were easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

And since the fumes from the construction next door are starting to addle my brain a little (as Meg Ryan says in another chick flick, "My head's starting to get fuzzyyyyy..."), I'm going to wrap it up here by saying that I love toast, and that the prospect of always having to push it down twice--having to put in extra time and effort to make really GREAT toast--is totally worth it. I also just bought pineapple preserves from my favorite ethnic market, so that will make my toast even better (that part actually can't be translated into singing jargon--it's just a statement about toast).

Last but not least, a little ditty about toast. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This is my joy-day unalloyed.

Can I just take a moment to talk about how much I love Gilbert and Sullivan?

I really, really do. And it's funny, because I almost didn't. I almost never even got the chance. The musical my senior year of high school could have been anything--the two previous years we performed The Music Man and Into the Woods. But it wasn't just anything. It was The Pirates of Penzance. I remember when that was announced in October we were all crestfallen. Gilbert and Sullivan? Operetta? Who cared? (Actually, this was not my first Gilbert and Sullivan experience, but the theater camp production of The Sorcerer in which I was a member of the MALE chorus obviously didn't make much of an impression beyond "The eggs and the ham and the strawberry jam, / the rollicking bun and the gay Sally Lunn!")

But then I started listening to the D'Oyly Carte recording, with all the dialogue, and by the time auditions rolled around we were all hooked. I sang "And This Is My Beloved" from Kismet and was cast as Mabel. Our Pirate King had been waiting since having one line in Guys and Dolls in sixth grade to play the Pirate King--he actually lived that character all the time, so it wasn't much of a stretch. Boys who had never before shown interest in the musical turned up to audition, because honestly, who doesn't want to be a pirate? Even the girls wanted to be pirates. The Major-General had twenty-one lovely daughters, and the Chief of Police, who had never danced before, led a chorus of middle school girls (and short high schoolers) in wonderfully charming choreography. To this day, even after several college productions, our high school's Pirates of Penzance is still my favorite theatrical experience.

And it's all thanks to William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, who look like Jim Broadbent and Alan Corduner in my head, thanks to the wonderful film Topsy-Turvy, and who collaborated fourteen times for the Savoy Opera House--Pirates, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, The Gondoliers, Ruddigore, Patience, The Sorcerer, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Grand Duke, Trial By Jury, Utopia, Limited and Thespis (okay, yes, I had to go to Google for the last couple). These shows look like frothy confections with not much substance, and for the most part, they are, but they're also witty, blazingly intelligent, and sometimes scathing commentaries on English society--for whether Japan, Italy, or some fictional location, the Savoy operas were always about England at heart.

Now here's where I get to dust off the paper I wrote on Gilbert and Sullivan my sophomore year of college in music history. We were discussing national music (Smetana, Dvorak, Bartok, etc.) in discussion section, and when I wondered aloud if Gilbert and Sullivan could be considered England's national music, I was appalled to find that neither my TA nor my classmates knew anything about them. Not that I was such an expert, but I took the floor and explained the G&S phenomenon as best I could. And then I parked myself in the stacks and read.

My thesis, as I recall, was that it wasn't just the slightly snarky criticism of England that made the Savoy operas English national music, but the reverence for the English language shared by both composer and lyricist. Gilbert always wrote the words first--in Topsy-Turvy he is seen reading Act I of The Mikado to his wife, Kitty, and also to Sullivan. Once the libretto was written, Sullivan would begin to write the music. His chief concern in composing for operetta was the clarity of the text and simplicity of tune, so that the words could be understood and the music heard and remembered by even the least musical of audience members. (One can understand, then, Sullivan's ambition to write a grand opera, what with years of putting his music second to Gilbert's words. The Savoy operas, however, do boast some glorious music, and I think Sullivan would be immensely proud if he could see his legacy.) But anyway, he was very, very careful that the stresses should be on the proper syllables; people like Balfe were writing Italianate music that just happened to have English words, and there's a reason nobody remembers Balfe (the only reason I know about him is because of that one story in James Joyce's Dubliners where she sings "I Dreamt That I Dwelt"). And a lot of Gilbert's lyrics have similar rhyme and stress structures to English folk songs. I think that the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are some of the only "operatic" works in English that trust the English language to sing (I'd put Britten into the same category)--we tend to fall into the trap of saying that English isn't a good language to sing in. But Sullivan wrote English music for English text, and that's why we still love Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

That's also why they are SO catchy. I'm currently learning the role of Elsie Maynard in The Yeomen of the Guard, and I find it easy to memorize because of how much sense the words and the music make together. But honestly, what I really love about Gilbert and Sullivan is how funny the operettas are--straight up, please, I don't want any updates or ad-libbing or anything to interfere with my G&S. I still get a good laugh out of the "orphan/often" debate in Pirates (the original "who's on first?" joke!), the "two-thirds of a husband for each wife" bit in Gondoliers (an opera I know regretfully little about), and who doesn't love "To sit in solemn silence in a dull dark dock" in The Mikado? Not to mention all of the names that seem chosen specifically for rhyme value--"Frederic, save us!" "Beautiful Mabel, I would if I could, but I am not able!" or "Phoebe--who the deuce can SHE be?" Tee hee.

I have some friends who laugh at me for my adoration of Gilbert and Sullivan, but I just tell them to rent Topsy-Turvy and tell me if they can really resist it. I hope if anybody reading this blog isn't familiar with the Savoy operas, they go out and find their local Gilbert and Sullivan society, or even watch that episode of The West Wing called "And It's Surely to Their Credit" (Sam Seaborn, that most adorable of deputy communications directors, was the president of the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society!). The influence of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is everywhere, and I hope everyone comes to enjoy their operettas as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It's been a couple of months since I updated. But I feel like since I'm frequenting other people's blogs (mostly food and fashion!), I should at least oblige with some posts of my own.

I decided recently to re-read some books from my childhood. I was pretty precocious--I started reading when I was three or four, and never stopped. One of my very favorites was Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace--and, since it gets a shout-out in You've Got Mail ("In the second book, we meet Tib, whose real name, I'm sorry to say, is Thelma."), I thought I'd start there. What I discovered, happily, is that there are actually ten books in the series, not just the first two that I read when I was little.

The town of Deep Valley, circa 1906, where Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly (and all of their friends) live and go to school, is a beautiful place. It's a place where little girls can take their dinner plates outside and picnic on top of the hill, where an encampment of Syrian immigrants turns out to be home to a true-blue princess, where the snow is deep and pure, where everybody and anybody stops by the Ray home on Sunday nights for sandwiches and coffee, and where--and this is my favorite part--everyone and everything seems to sing.

Seriously. From the start, Betsy and Tacy are making up songs--most memorably, the one about Milwaukee and how exotic it must be. At Betsy's birthday party, chapter two of Betsy-Tacy, Lovelace notes that Mrs. Ray loves more than anything to play the piano. Betsy and Tacy sing what I'm hoping is Rossini's Cat Duet in a school assembly one year--and then every year after that. Shy Tacy even sings a solo at Rhetoricals, the yearly competition between Philomathians and Zetamathians, the school societies. Every time Betsy and her friends get together, they sing all the old songs, and the new songs, and songs that Betsy made up.

And then there is Julia, Betsy's older sister, who longs to be an opera singer, spends all of her allowance on opera scores (her favorite is La Boheme, and "Si, mi chiamano Mimi"), and constantly brings home beaux who sing duets with her. Even Betsy's friends come by to sing with Julia around the Ray family piano. And in Betsy in Spite of Herself, book six, Mr. Ray splurges on a trip to St. Paul for Mrs. Ray and Julia to see Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar sing Grand Opera. It's magical. When she sings or sees opera, Julia is rapturous, enthralled, carried away. She even forgets about her beaux--"Harry? Who's Harry?"--in the thrill of hearing glorious singing.

Somebody posted a query recently on the New Forum for Classical Singers, wondering, "Do you guys enjoy opera?" The answers are fascinating. Some people are obsessed with opera--they love to perform it, they love to see it, they spend all of their time learning about it and listening to it. Others love to sing it, but consider it to be more of a job than a passion. And others, like the original poster, decided that they didn't love it enough to pursue it as a career. I myself love some operas and dislike others; when I go to see an opera, I often fall asleep. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I don't listen to complete operas very often, mostly just arias or ensembles that I like. I like to think that I'm pretty knowledgeable about the repertoire, but I don't feel the need to know everything about every opera ever written. I think there is nothing in the world like great operatic singing, but half the time I would rather listen to musical theater.

But is this enough? Can we forge careers as opera singers without Julia's all-consuming passion for the art-form? With all of our internet access, Youtube videos, summer programs, classes and workshops, we know much more than Julia did about what it takes to become an opera singer. At every turn, we have people telling us that if we could be happy doing anything else, we should do that instead. Before we even start singing opera, we start wondering if we should be singing opera. I love opera, but really, I just want to sing. It bothers me when my teacher says, offhand, "I'm glad you don't want to do musical theater." Because I love musical theater, and I love operetta, and grand opera, and jazz and folk music and choral music. We are all SO serious. We worry that we're singing the wrong arias, that we should have high notes or low notes or a stronger middle register, and in worrying, we make ourselves crazy and don't sound as good as we could. I sound best when I'm tired and I can't get in my own way so much.

What I like best about the Deep Valley set-up is that everybody just SINGS. Julia is the exception, not the rule. The joy that Lovelace's whole cast of characters gets from singing leaps off the page and makes me smile. Tacy goofily sings tenor at a picnic, Betsy sings alto and slides up to the soprano part (and nobody cares), the girls walk arm in arm singing songs at the top of their voices, and everybody gathers around the piano on Sunday nights to sing old songs together.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How do you measure a year?

Well. It's been two and a half months since my last post here. I think I got tired of coming up with gimmicks to relate to singing, even though you gotta get a gimmick, as they say. So instead, with this post, I'm going to sum up this year, which has been one of the most eventful singing years I've ever had.

1. I learned, rehearsed and performed my first operatic role--Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Okay, so it's operetta, but it posed numerous challenges to me. I never realized how difficult it would be to get through even a pretty light role with nodes, but it was brutal. The first time we ran through the whole piece with the maestro, I had my period and had had a coaching earlier in the day where I sang through some tough Chaminade songs. By the end of the evening, I had no voice at all--literally, nothing above maybe a G above middle C--and I don't think I ever fully recovered. That said, it was also an enormously positive experience. I sang with some unbelievably talented people, sang a killer high C in public (pure adrenaline!), learned to can-can, waltz, and open a fan properly, spoke onstage in a French accent, did some very high-pitched giggling (harder than it sounds, believe me!), and wore a fantastic blonde wig. Oh, and made a whole cast's worth of wonderful friends.

2. I had surgery on my vocal cords. Actually, last night I dreamed that I was having surgery again--I think because I was having trouble sleeping and when I had my surgery in May, the doctor told me it would be the best sleep I ever had. Looking back, I really can't believe I'm seven months post-surgery. Remembering the pain of the first four silent days, recovering from anesthesia, and then beginning the painstaking process of building my voice from the ground up, it just seems like another world, another planet, some kind of alternate reality. I remember lip trilling up to a high F on my third day of vocalizing, a week after surgery, and thinking it was going to be a whole new world (it turns out that that F was a total fluke, and I haven't hit one since). It's been really exciting, from the endless minutes in the practice room working patiently through "Abendempfindung" and "Lydia," doing vocal fries and kazoo voice, all the way through starting to work on "Ach, ich fuhl's" this month, which would never have been possible pre-surgery. I sort of can't believe that I worked up the courage to go through with it, but I did, it was real, and now I get to write "microlaryngoscopy" on forms at the dentists' office when they ask "Have you ever had a major surgery?" Why, yes. Yes, I have.

3. I prepared and presented my senior recital, finally, November 7th, 2009. I was so sick of that repertoire by the time my recital rolled around. Honestly, the whole forty-five minutes that it lasted I was just aiming to finish it. I wasn't that excited by how it turned out, but my family was delighted, and that was more important. The recording is a testament to the wonders of modern science and laser surgery, and the DVD of the recital tells me that I've at least partially figured out how not to look ridiculous when I sing. So that's a positive thing for sure.

4. I applied to grad school. What a fraught experience--fraughter than I thought, as the song goes. When I started the process, I thought, well, I'll just throw together the applications, they're all online, all the same information over and over again, a couple of personal statements. But over this process I have had numerous crises of confidence, vacillating between desperately wanting to sing for my supper, so to speak, and wanting to chuck the whole thing and do something unrelated to singing. I took lessons with teachers at Mannes and University of Houston, both of whom seemed to indicate that I wasn't ready for grad school, and after a while I doubted it myself. When I wasn't granted an audition at UH, I thoroughly anticipated not getting any auditions. But lo and behold, I'll be auditioning for Mannes, Rice and Maryland in the coming months. I was kind of shocked, actually. I wasn't that pleased with my pre-screening recordings, they didn't really show any versatility, no coloratura, no high notes, and a lot of pitch issues, to my ear. But apparently it all worked out. I'm really looking forward to this.

5. I went to New York and auditioned for my first Young Artist Programs. Well, real ones, anyway--I auditioned for Brevard and the student section of Chautauqua a couple of years ago, to no avail. I have only heard from Green Mountain Opera Festival, who didn't offer me anything, but I have them to thank for resolving my confidence issues. When I sang for them in New York, they commended me on my honesty and my poise; I was told, "You know how you feel right now that you can just be yourself? Don't lose that." It was an important wake-up call for me. I think sometimes we get so wrapped up in the technical aspects of singing, with fixing things and polishing things, that we forget to take stock of the things we already do really well. I received compliments on strengths of mine that have nothing to do with singing, and I couldn't have been more pleased if they had offered me a role in their summer season.

For the moment, I think those are the big things. I've grown and matured a lot this year. I cut my hair from a bob to a pixie cut, then let it grow out a bit because I missed my curls. I read a lot of murder mysteries. I started tucking my jeans into my boots and aiming for sophistication at all times. I worked a day job that I hated, and I discovered that I can talk to anyone eloquently about almost anything. I went on a few dates. And I have really fun plans on New Year's Eve.

It's been a wild ride of a year. I can't wait to start the next one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

And when I got there, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going.

(Wow, it's been a while since I've written anything here! Hopefully after my recital permission tomorrow I'll feel less guilty about spending time on pursuits that don't involve memorizing Czech music.)

I have come to the conclusion that my biggest problem is overthinking. And a great non-singing example of that is my "what would happen if I just kept running?" approach to exercise.

A couple weeks ago, the day of the Northwestern-Minnesota game, I decided to go for a "run." For a little background, I decided over the summer that I was going to teach myself to run. I do not like to run. At all. I do not like the impact or the endurance involved--the elliptical is much more my speed, no pun intended. But the weather was gorgeous and the lake shimmered in the early-morning sunlight, and it was impossible to resist doing something good for myself. I started out this way: I would walk all the way to end of the fitness route, then start jogging, stopping at intervals to do lunges or wall-sits, whatever was prescribed by the fitness equipment. I felt great.

But then I suffered a set-back. I had been wearing the same pair of sneakers for years, Asics cross-trainers, and at the end of June, my ankles and heels began to hurt like the dickens. I went to Taste of Chicago with some friends and walked around for hours in terrible shoes, and the next day could barely flex my feet, and certainly not without wincing. The doctor at Northwestern Health Services said I had tendonitis, and recommended a new pair of sneakers. I dragged myself to Fleet Feet, off the Brown Line, and with a beautiful pair of sneakers with custom-fit magenta insoles, I started to recover. Needless to say, by the time I was pain-free, my enthusiasm for running had diminished somewhat.

I joined a gym and stopped running outside so often (working nearly every day also reduced how often I was able to go). I went back to the old elliptical. But a couple of weeks ago, the day of the Minnesota-Northwestern game, I decided it would be a great day to do my old fitness route. Unfortunately, there was a ton of construction around campus and I decided to bypass it by running straight up Sheridan. I took very small steps, and before I knew it, I had made it to the end of campus...and I thought, why don't I try running to the Baha'i Temple? My friends had been talking about taking runs to the Baha'i Temple for years, but I had never joined them because of my lifelong aversion to running. I knew where it was because I had been taking the 201 Central/Ridge bus home from work for weeks.

So I just kept running. And I made it. I had to sit down and put my head between my knees when I got there, but I got there. I felt unbelievably strong and powerful. And then I ruined it on the way back, when I ran into a group of my college friends who were tailgating and indulged in a piece of chocolate-covered peanut buttery Rice Krispie treat heaven.

I made this run again yesterday, same sneakers, same shorts, same Running Mix on my iPod. It's not a very long run, only about a mile and a half (but that's way more than I've ever run at once in my entire life). But somehow, knowing from the get-go that I was heading to the Baha'i Temple made it harder. Thinking about the destination made the journey there a lot more tedious.

In my voice lesson on Friday, while working on some Faure art songs (forgive the lack of diacriticals!), my teacher told me I was worrying too much. I was nervous about memorizing the music for my permission on Monday, and the stress was coming through in my voice. I just couldn't find the right placement. So my teacher pulled out the Faure book in the medium key. Being a soprano, it is very unusual to me to take things in a lower key, but I just went with it. And go figure, it was easier and sounded easier. In the lower key, I could tap into the correct high resonant space without stressing about the notes. The pitches that were flatting were in tune, the long notes that fell off the breath no longer did.

And I think a lot of what made it so easy was the unknown. One of the songs we tried in a lower key was one that I had sung for undergraduate voice auditions; I had been singing it in the high key for six years, with dubious technique. I had no idea what my voice would do with it a half-step down. It was bizarre--I felt like my voice had suddenly dropped into a contralto key, I was using my chest voice on the lower pitches, which don't go any lower than an E or F above middle C. But for all that, it was so much better. This confrontation with the unfamiliar forced me to notice every note I was singing, every word I was saying. I realized that I had been singing this piece on auto-pilot; I had lost the pleasure of savoring the notes that were good in my voice, and had progressed to worrying about the ones that were not. In the lower key, almost every note was good in my voice, so instead of stressing out about the destination, I found myself enjoying the journey.

It's tough to be spontaneous in singing. There are only so many ways that we can shake up the standard repertoire, and for the most part everything needs to be rehearsed. Sometimes, though, we can think about it too much, plan it too much, and forget to just let our bodies do the work so that we can live in the moment. The second time I ran to the Baha'i Temple, it was so much harder because I knew how far it was and that was all I could think about. But sometimes all we need is a key change, or an unplanned change in direction, to revitalize our purpose and make everything easier.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And you have your eye on the rabbi's son.

Well, it's that time of year again, and by that I mean the High Holy Days, when even the most lapsed of lapsed Jews find themselves in synagogue humming along to tunes they may or may not know and listening to sermons of dubious quality. It also means rabbinical students, whom I consider to be one of the more fascinating subsets of American society.

My junior year of college, I was at loose ends during the High Holy Days. That August, I had moved into an apartment with a roommate I barely knew and gotten my first ever part-time office job (from whose computer I am currently typing). School hadn't started yet, wouldn't start for another two weeks. And I had volunteered to read Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah...which would mean actually GOING to the second day of Rosh Hashanah, for the first time in my life. I also went to Friday night services at the student center, another first for me. And it was there that I met the adorable (and, regrettably, married, as I later found out on Facebook) rabbinical student from New York City who had been hired to lead the university's Conservative services.

Yes, that's right. I went to three services in a row, plus Yom Kippur the next week, PLUS Tashlich (where we throw pieces of bread representing the sins of the past year into the lake) and dinner at Hillel to satisfy a crush on a rabbinical student. I'll admit that it threw me for a loop. I've never been particularly observant, and I don't know if I could ever really commit to being more involved in Judaism (though I do feel very much connected to it, in my fashion). But the more I think about it, the more I find that there is something really attractive about somebody who can commit, and already has committed to a life in service of God and the Torah. I certainly don't want to be a rabbi, but I really admire people who find fulfillment in being spiritual leaders. Commitment, Abby, as they say in 1776.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if, on the first day of seminary, somebody stood at the front of the classroom and said to the eager young rabbis-in-training, "If you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, you should do that." Because that's what I've been told about singing. And really, rabbis and opera singers have more in common than they might seem to at first glance. Both professions require a certain amount of daily upkeep, if you will, though one is prayer and the other is practice. Both the rabbi and the opera singer must work well with others: the rabbi with his or her congregation and the opera singer with his or her colleagues or castmates. And both demand a colossal amount of commitment to sustain.

I think what struck me about meeting a rabbinical student, rather than an ordained rabbi, was that not long ago, he was a college student. He majored in history at Brandeis, probably spent a lot of time partying with his friends, playing ultimate frisbee, going into Boston to enjoy the night life. And yet he also wanted to become a rabbi. At some point, he must have said to himself, "I enjoy doing all of these other things, but becoming a rabbi is the thing I am meant for." The campus rabbi at Northwestern was a music major in college--euphonium performance. Ben Stiller and Edward Norton, as a rabbi and a priest in Keeping the Faith, play basketball when they're not working the room in their respective houses of worship. When I went to Israel, our bus rabbi danced on a table in Tel Aviv to the strains of "Billie Jean," and there are incriminating pictures of him in sunglasses on the bus the next morning, hungover. In other words, rabbis--and rabbinical students--are people too. Just because they ultimately decided to enter the clergy doesn't mean that they don't have other interests and talents.

One thing I have struggled with (one thing?!) since consecrating my life to music, so to speak, is whether or not I really want the life I'm embarking on. After they tell you that if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else, yada yada yada, they tell you that you won't know if you won't be happy as an opera singer until you have a career. It feels like we could get stuck, for good--spending all of this time, energy and money on becoming an opera singer, only to discover that we don't want to be an opera singer.

But before we start freaking out about this, think about the rabbis. Can you stop being a rabbi once you've been ordained as one? Once you have consecrated your life to God, can you un-consecrate it? Isn't there a story in the Bible about that, and doesn't it involve being eaten by a big fish? What singers tend to forget is that we can do other things. We are competent well-educated human beings. We learn quickly and accurately. We are probably poised and well-spoken (which is why my current job likes to hire singers to work as receptionists), and most of us speak more than one foreign language. What else could we do, if we decide not to sing? Why, anything! To paraphrase the inimitable Dwight Schrute, there is nothing but everything on our horizons.

Of course, none of these things influenced my High Holy Days crush. He was just cute, and had a nice singing voice, and looked great in a kittel and tallit. What can I say? Opera singers are only human, after all.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

This is Halloween, everybody make a scene!

On my way to work this morning, I discovered that they're putting a Halloween store in the building that used to house Pier 1 Imports. I had two reactions. My first was, "Yes! Now I don't have to go downtown to find accessories for my Joan Holloway costume!" My second was, "Right. Because Halloween costumes are way more important and useful than moderately-priced furniture."

Another switch took place in my own life this week (yes, you're just going to have to store away that story about the Halloween store--I'll come back to that). I'm planning on doing my senior recital on November 7th, and as such, I have to do a permission on October 5. In two weeks. Yikes! I decided, in the interest of time and my own fragile sanity, that it would be best to swap my set of waltzes by Chaminade, an impressively obscure French woman composer whose music was criticized for being too old-fashioned, for a set of Faure songs that I've been singing just for fun for years. Why not? Easier on me, and who doesn't like to hear songs they already know and love?

But one of my initial concerns was that a set of Faure would seem like the easy way out. What kind of impression would singing all of these old chestnuts put across? Wouldn't grad schools look at my recital program and say, "Wow, she isn't very creative, is she?"

Well, maybe. But I think it's also important to know all of the Greatest Hits. The French repertoire on my junior recital was cabaret songs by Kurt Weill, and I also sang Bernstein's Peter Pan songs. This year it's Faure and Barber, by way of filling out my familiarity with the standards as well as more obscure repertoire.

Not only that, but wouldn't we all rather hear a really well-sung "Ici-bas" than an obscure piece that sounds hard and stressful for the singer? I'm pretty sure the answer is yes. These songs feel like an indulgence to me, a nostalgic look back at all of our first forays into art song (see my earlier post about my Oberlin experience).

And that's why the Halloween store is a good thing. A silly thing, but a good thing. I'd be willing to bet that that Halloween store will do more business than Pier 1. College students are big Halloween people. Celebrating Halloween in college is like clutching at the last straws of childhood before we have to face the adult world. When I looked into the store this morning and saw the rows of wigs and costumes in plastic hanger bags, I had a little frisson of excitement and actually exclaimed aloud--"Ooooh!" Which is also the reaction I have when somebody sings one of my favorite songs on a recital. No matter how many times I've heard those old songs, a new rendition is always exciting and fun. It makes me think back to the first time I heard the song, the memories I associate with it.

Looking into the window of the Halloween store makes me think of all those times my mom wouldn't let us think about Halloween until after my brother's birthday on October 8th. I thought back on all of those costumes I wore--the bag of jellybeans, the Pillsbury Dough Boy ("Who're you calling chunky?"), the mime, Serena the Sorceress, the angel/purple-haired fairy.

But actually, singing familiar repertoire for the nostalgic and crowd-pleasing effect of it is more like buying furniture than shopping for Halloween (even if it resembles the latter in sheer happiness). Unlike a Halloween costume that we wear for one day and then never again, art songs can be forever. Even if I learned "En priere" for college auditions, there's no reason I can't sing it on my senior recital. I used "Vedrai carino" to audition for undergrad as well, but obviously somebody earns a living singing the role of Zerlina (and it will probably be me in the future). We can learn music at seventeen and sing it again at thirty. Once we've performed them, they're always in our repertoire, available to be dusted off and polished up should the need arise. Learning music is a free investment in our futures--just like buying furniture now means that there will be that much less furniture to buy when we move into our next apartments. The couch in my current apartment, which I purchased at nineteen from Pier 1, as a matter of a fact, will probably be with me until it falls apart.

There will be plenty of time later on to sing the complicated repertoire, the hard stuff that looks really impressive. But for now I'm happy to sing Faure's greatest hits and eat Halloween candy.