Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I'm not the bride, but I'm the groom-to-be tomorrow night.

I'm going to go ahead and make another confession, which may be even more shocking than the one from my previous post: I love Yentl. Yes, that's right--the movie featuring Barbra Streisand directed by Barbra Streisand as a girl masquerading as a yeshiva boy in turn-of-the-century Russia. It's a sentimental favorite. When I was a kid (and even into college), no road trip was complete without Barbra singing Michel Legrand at the top of her lungs. I'm fairly sure that on the other side of the tape with the Funny Girl songs on it was the Yentl soundtrack. I used to watch it on video on the little sepia-tinted TV in my grandmother's bedroom on Long Island, and now I own a copy of it on DVD.

If you look at the message board for the movie on the Internet Movie Database, you'll find numerous threads complaining that nobody would ever believe Barbra was a yeshiva boy, or any other kind of boy, for that matter. But that's exactly the point. Because she's dressed in men's clothing and she is the best pupil at the yeshiva, everyone assumes that she's a boy. Even the proprietress of the boarding house where Yentl--and Avigdor, played by a divinely bearded Mandy Patinkin--resides, upon feeling the "boy's" perpetually smooth cheek, doesn't think twice about his gender. It isn't until the very end, when she confesses her secret to Avigdor (everybody knew that was going to happen, right? If not, I apologize), that he realizes why his friend's face is so smooth, why his hands are so delicate and feminine, why he didn't want to go skinny-dipping, why he didn't want to marry Avigdor's ex-fiancée (long story...see the movie!).

In fact, it's not just Yentl that has this problem. How about Tootsie, or Some Like It Hot, or Shakespeare in Love (Gwyneth Paltrow just barely gets by because of her fake facial hair)? Victor/Victoria stars Julie Andrews as "a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman"--Andrews' Victoria Grant manages to flummox everybody with her disguise, but only because her alter-ego also sings and dances in drag for a living. One episode of Blackadder II features a woman pretending to be a man to get a job as Blackadder's servant; when asked her name, she says, unthinking, "Kate!", but swiftly corrects herself, "I mean, Bob!"

"People are blind," Yentl sings as she is being fitted for her wedding suit--"How else would everyone believe me?" In my case, people seem to be deaf. I had a coaching and an audition for a church gig today. My first coaching since February, and my first audition since last October. I sang a couple of Brahms songs in my coaching (Wir wandelten and Liebestreu) and "Piangeró la sorte mia" for my audition.

And I felt like I was shouting, pushing, muscling, working my jaw...all of those things that you're not supposed to do. I felt like my coloratura was woofy in the rather dead room where I had my audition. When I finished, my auditioner said that he loved my ornaments because they were so subtle and appropriate, and wondered if I sang the whole role of Cleopatra? Heavens, no--I'm only twenty-one and nobody would let me! He also told me that I should put my name in to sing in a Messiah downtown that a professor from my university conducts every year. After I did some sight-reading, I was ushered out of the room with a resounding, "What a great audition!" All of which led me to wonder, what on earth was the man hearing?

Sometimes, as my mom says, you just have to put yourself out there. You never know what you sound like until you are judged by people who don't know you, who are taking you at face value. Apparently, I sang a pretty darn good "Piangeró" tonight, no matter how hideous it felt in my head. I'm so used to my sound that all I can hear are the flaws, the little jaw wobbles and tensions that make this particular rendition of "Piangeró" worse than another one. But the auditioner didn't seem to have heard any of that, which makes me believe that maybe the flaws aren't as audible as I think they are.

Yentl, I'm sure, could never really see a man when she looked in the mirror--only a woman in men's clothing. She would see the smooth skin, the delicate hands, and the small stature as clues that point to her femininity. Whenever I sing, I am certain that what I'm feeling--the tension, the shaky jaw, the high breathing--will reveal to the auditioner what I perceive to be lousy technique. But it never does.

Maybe that's why I like movies about cross-dressers so much. Yentl and her cross-dressing cohorts could only have felt secure with reassurance from the unwitting public that their disguises were effective. In singing (or indeed, any performing art), that same kind of feedback is crucial. And as singers, we are generally more critical of ourselves than our listeners are of us. I think that periodically, we need to stop and realize that no matter how much we may criticize ourselves, to a pair of fresh ears, we sound just fine, sometimes even better than fine. Nobody but ourselves is going to point a finger and say, "She's a fraud!" What shines through, in spite of our own misgivings, is the natural beauty of our voices, and our future potential.


  1. Hey!!
    I forget the name of it! It'll be my first time there! Davenport?? Something like that

  2. Ah, cool. Well, let me know how it is--I love the sound of open mic night!