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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

It's the first day of the semester at the music school where I moonlight as a receptionist (ordinary receptionist by day...ordinary receptionist by night!), and as such, somebody has brought in bags and bags of candy. I am unfortunately put in mind of last Halloween--me, an all-but-empty building, an enormous bowl of delicious goodies...danger, Will Robinson.

Last year on the first day of school, we offered Smarties. The students complained, but I was happy as a clam because, you see, I don't like Smarties. Which meant it was easy for me to sit at the desk with a big bowl of candy in front of me. But apparently the other campus puts out chocolate all year round, and this year, to curry favor with the student body, we have followed suit. And so I'm sitting here, methodically unwrapping one of each kind of candy...or two, in the case of Krackels and Reeses peanut butter cups, of which I'm particularly fond.

This variety has gotten me thinking about singers, naturally. All of them are chocolate. Most of them have some kind of delicious filling--peanut butter, caramel, peanuts, rice krispies, whatever kind of crispy goodness is in Crunch bars. I love them all. So what makes one of them better than another? For that matter, is one better than another? And can you really even compare a Reeses peanut butter cup to a Special Dark Hershey bar (oooh, that's one I haven't had yet!)?

Last summer, I went to a three-week training program for singers. My grandparents lived not far away and they would drive up for every concert. When they drove me to the airport after the program was over, they asked me who the best soprano was. I had no answer. For three weeks, I had listened to the same arias over and over--countless renditions of "Donde lieta," "Si, mi chiamano Mimi," "Io son l'umile ancella," "Deh vieni, non tardar" and The Presentation of the Rose, among many, many others.

(At this point, I interrupt the cosmic flow of my writing to lock the bag of candy in my boss' office. It's much safer there.)

Anyway, my point is that no two renditions of these arias was exactly the same. No two voices were exactly the same. I'm a light lyric/soubrette, for the moment, and I sang "Che soave zeffiretto" with a Countess who also sang "Io son l'umile ancella" and Song to the Moon. And we both had "Piangero la sorte mia" in our repertoire. A person might prefer one rendition to the other, or a larger-voiced Cleopatra to a smaller-voiced one, but in essentials, there is no tangible gauge of which voice is better.

And even among singers who are closer in fach than the two of us were, there can be a world of difference between one and the next. There were three wonderful sopranos in this program who performed The Presentation of the Rose from Der Rosenkavalier. They had similar repertoire, similar sounds, similar ranges, and yet three completely different presentations of the aria. And I'd be hard-pressed to tell you which one I liked best.

Nor is it easy for me to explain why I like certain singers. If somebody were to ask me why I like Krackels, my answer would be along the lines of, "Because they're delicious!" Not very subtle or nuanced, I know, but hey, it's chocolate (although as Julia Child pointed out, chocolate is much more complicated than anyone suspects). Similarly, I find it difficult to explain why I prefer Mirella Freni to Renata Tebaldi singing the exact same repertoire. I just do. Ask me why the mezzo-soprano on my recording of Beatrice et Benedict , Enkelejda Skhosa, edges out Susan Graham, and my answer will be something like, "I don't know...there's just something about her that I like better!" Why do I prefer Nicolai Gedda's "Che gelida manina" to Pavarotti's? Who knows!

And sometimes I think the first recordings of opera we hear color the whole rest of our operatic experience. When I had to learn Susanna in scenes from Le Nozze di Figaro, the recording I found at the library had Patrizia Ciofi as Susanna, Veronique Gens as the Countess, and Simon Keenlyside as the Count. Those are the voices in my head, and sometimes when I hear other renditions, they aren't quite the same and so I don't like them as much. My first "Sempre libera" experience was Beverly Sills. She's not my favorite singer, but now when I hear other version of the aria, they don't quite live up to the first one. That said, I love every recording of "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" that I have--I can't choose a clear favorite, though it might be a toss-up between Anna Moffo and Leontyne Price (and again, I couldn't quite explain to you why).

Remember the "Pure Imagination" sequence in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the kids and their parents are let loose in the chocolate room, and everything there is eatable--edible--I mean, you can EAT almost everything! It's hilariously low-budget, but who doesn't want to be in the presence of so many different KINDS of candy? (This phenomenon can also be witnessed in the opening "Candyman" sequence when the kids run around kind of ransacking the candy store.) There are gummy bears, candy canes, a tree that shakes down what look like M&Ms, enormous Pull-n-Peels, a whipped cream toadstool, and the unforgettable edible teacup and saucer. As singers, I think we need exactly that kind of variety and to hear a wide range of styles, timbres and interpretations in order to develop our own sound. The danger of listening to one singer to the exclusion of others is that we unconsciously adopt the mannerisms of that singer. A teacher told a friend of mine recently that she was singing "I Want Magic" from Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire like Renee Fleming; my friend replied that it was hard not to, when the only person you've ever heard sing it is La Renee. And I certainly don't agree that we should listen only to singers with voices similar to ours--when I discovered Eileen Farrell junior year of college, my coach said, laughingly, "You'll never sound like that!" (this, by the way, is absolutely true--the woman's instrument was like a Mack Truck). But that never stopped me from listening and loving.

Now that I've gone well and truly off-topic, I'm going to go have one of those Special Dark Hershey bars--the only kind I still haven't had tonight. :)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke, in this whole wide world there's no happier bloke!

I've been revisiting a lot of old favorite movies lately, whether on TV or from the discount DVD rack at CVS. And I've come to the conclusion that I have two role models for job satisfaction: Caractacus Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Fairchild from Sabrina (the new one, although the character isn't materially different in the original).

I'll start with the former. Played by Dick Van Dyke, Caractacus (as in, "and tell you every detail of Caractacus' uniform") is an inventor whose inventions, by and large, don't work. He does manage to come up with Toot Sweets, but purely by accident, and they turn out to be better for dogs than for humans. There's that "vacuum" that sucks up the whole rug, and the haircut machine that makes a guy at the carnival look like a Treasure Troll, and my personal favorite, the breakfast machine that makes eggs and sausage--Jeremy and Jemima get their breakfast, but Grandpa gets a raw egg. Oops.

What I admire about Caractacus' life is that he loves his work (I've just realized that I could write this same post about Bert from Mary Poppins, except it would be more about having a variety of interests). He wouldn't do anything else just to make money, even though he has no money and only makes enough money to buy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by singing and dancing "Me Old Bamboo" at the carnival, in true Dick Van Dyke style. Most of all, he believes in his inventions. When Truly Scrumptious comes into his workshop and laughs at his gadgets and gizmos aplenty, he defends them passionately. What he, Jeremy, Jemima and Grandpa may lack in worldly possessions, they make up for in imagination. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Caractacus goes up to tuck in his children, and they suggest that he sell their "treasures" to raise the money to buy the car. Things like a seashell, a rusty ring, a piece of coral...and he has to tell them that he thinks most people wouldn't consider these treasures, and wouldn't pay for them.

Sabrina is a movie that most people remember for the basic storyline. The chauffeur's daughter is in love with David Larrabee. She goes to France to find herself and comes back a glamorous, beautiful creature, and David, who is engaged to somebody else (and the somebody else's father is planning a merger with the Larrabee company), finds her irresistible. So Linus, the serious, workaholic older brother, is called upon to distract Sabrina from David. In the process, Linus falls in love with Sabrina, and finally follows her to Paris, where he had sent her to get her out of the way.

But it's the chauffeur who interests me for the purposes of this post. Recently I was looking through the original play, Sabrina Fair by Samuel Taylor, and I came across something that Sabrina says to her father that I thought was just brilliant. The scene is recreated in the remake of the movie.

Not that being a chauffeur is an entirely undesirable profession, but wanting to have time to read seems like a funny reason to choose it. And yet I completely understand his viewpoint. I'm currently working a job that I leave at the office when I go home. It's much different from school, where after class there was homework to do and papers to write. If I so choose, I can come home from work and read all evening. I can sing to my heart's content without worrying about saving my voice for the next day's singing. I don't have to think about work until I get there in the morning, and I don't have to think about it after I leave.

Given the nature of my work (and my mode of transportation), I've had a lot of time to observe people in jobs that I would never want for the long haul. I work in a more or less clerical position in the scintillating world of finance, and yet the people I work with deliberately went to school to be able to do what they do for a living. And then there are bus drivers, as I've already noted. Do people ever become bus drivers because they want to drive a bus? Because they're passionate about it? Did Fairchild become a chauffeur only because it would afford him time to read, or did part of him just love cars and driving? And is it worth it to work in an unfulfilling job if you can come home and do what you love to do?

I think the trick would be to combine Caractacus Potts and Thomas Fairchild. The ideal job, to my way of thinking, would be one that I'm passionate about, that I love to do, but that leaves me time for myself at the end of the day (or whenever the hours happen to be). If I ever get to be a professional opera singer, I will thank my lucky stars for my good fortune--to be making a living doing something I love. But I think that if traveling for gigs, rehearsals, shows, whatever, cuts into my "me" time, I might very well think about chucking the whole thing. And that's when it would be good to be Bert. Throughout the movie, he works four low-paying jobs--one-man band, screever (the guy who draws the pictures on the sidewalk), chimney sweep and kite-seller (he also mentions selling hot chestnuts). Like Caractacus, he has little money, but he seems to always be thrilled to be doing what he's doing--"Chim chiminee, chim chiminee, chim chim cheroo, / I do what I likes and I likes what I do!" None of these jobs are a back-up plans--he's equally passionate about all of them. I hate the idea of a back-up plan, because it's inherently something that isn't as good as what you originally wanted to do. Otherwise, why wouldn't you have done it in the first place?

My undergraduate experience was the ideal combination of these two characters. I started out in a five-year program because I didn't think that after working so hard in high school, I could possibly drop the liberal arts. But then I realized that I'd never have time to take the fun interesting classes if I had to squeeze a second degree into my schedule--so I dropped that BA like it was hot. And then when I was singlemindedly pursuing my passion, I discovered musicology, which I also love. So now I have a back-up plan that I can be passionate about, in case I find when I'm in the thick of an operatic career that the "posh, posh traveling life" isn't for me.

And if neither of those things work out, I think I could be content to live in a house with an egg-and-sausage machine, or to do something mindless so that I have time for myself.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Did you guys ever even WATCH the show?

This entry is for my mother, who believes that I can connect any subject to singing in some way or another. And her subject of choice, because it was playing on TBS on Sunday, is the movie Galaxy Quest.

This movie comes highly recommended from my whole family. It's about the cast of a once-popular science fiction television show, now somewhat washed up and at loose ends. Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith, who plays Captain Taggart on the show and always upstages his castmates when they make appearances together. Sigourney Weaver is leggy blonde Gwen DeMarco, Jason's one-time girlfriend whose only job on the ship was to repeat the computer ("I have one job on this lousy ship, and it's stupid, but I'm gonna do it!"); Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane, the classically-trained actor who plays Dr. Lazarus, an alien scientist with hilarious headgear. The crew also includes Daryl Mitchell as Tommy Webber, a former child star who drives the ship, and Tony Shalhoub as Fred Kwan, who plays Tech Sergeant Chen.

And then there's Guy, played by Sam Rockwell. Guy's only claim to fame is that he was an extra in Episode 81. He was the unnamed character who got killed to show how dangerous the situation was going to be (this is a paraphrase of his own description). He somehow manages to tag along with the actors when they get transported to an exact replica of their ship, the Enterprise, manned by the Thermians, an alien species on the brink of extinction, led by Mathesar.

Mathesar and his fellow Thermians believe that the old episodes of the show they've been watching are "historical documents"--they re-created the Enterprise solely from watching the fake ship on television. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie is when Jason has to explain to Mathesar that they don't actually know how to crew a spaceship because the whole thing is a lie.

Despite all the years that Jason and his fellow castmates played their roles on Galaxy Quest, they have no idea how the "galaxy" works. Except for Guy. Here's a snippet of dialogue from one of my favorite parts of the movie. The cast has landed on a desert planet to get a reserve Beryllium Sphere (apparently to fuel the ship), and they're watching from behind a rock as a number of adorable little creatures do...well, whatever it is they're doing.

GUY: I don't like this. I don't like this at all.
GWEN: They are so cute.
GUY: Sure, they're cute now. but in a second they're gonna get mean, they're gonna get ugly somehow and there's gonna be a million more of them.
GWEN: (making a move to approach the creatures) Oh, hey there, little guy!
GUY: (pulling her back abruptly) Did you guys ever even watch the show?

Being so wrapped up in how something is done can often obscure what is being done. Gwen could probably have told Guy what she was directed to do, she might have remembered how hot it was on the set the day they filmed a certain episode, but she wouldn't have experienced the terror of this situation. Just like Guy and the Thermians, we refer to our favorite television shows as if what we see is real. We experience it linearly, whereas actors would experience it in the order that they filmed it, or based on what techniques they had to use. The same thing happens with opera and theater. When people would comment on the Northwestern production of The Merry Widow in a similar way, I would counter, "Oh, you mean that part when my voice was about to give out?" or "Oh, yeah, that dance took us hours and hours to learn." We focus so much in how we've put it together that we forget to look at the big picture.

I have spent the last four years becoming intimately and technically acquainted with the art of singing. And because of this, I have also unfortunately become cynical. I'm highly critical, both of myself and of other people, because I know what good singing is supposed to sound like. Not because I always achieve it myself, but because I've been taught what not to do. I can ruin a whole performance for myself by finding one little thing to dislike--the tenor's high notes sound strained and strident, the soprano's diction is weird, yada yada yada. It's awful.

Sometimes when I watch a movie or an opera or a musical, I say to myself, I'd like to live in that world. That's how I think I would have felt about The Merry Widow if it hadn't been so rough on my voice, if I hadn't been constantly worrying about tripping on my train, or forgetting the steps of the can-can. I think one of the hardest things for singers is to stay in the moment and to believe in the action ourselves. We have so many technical things to think about, coordinating stage movement and acting added to all the stuff we have to remember about singing when we get up onstage. But if we could let ourselves get caught up in the action and believe that it's real, even for a few minutes, we'll make the experience more fulfilling not only for the audience, but for ourselves too.
In Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (yes, S-T-R-E-A-T-F-E-I-L-D), Pauline Fossil and her friend Winnifred are both auditioning for Alice in Wonderland; Pauline, who has never been in a play before, says that she would love to be Alice so that she could meet the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts and the Caterpillar. Winnifred needs the money. Jason, Gwen, Alexander, Tommy and Fred continue to keep up their Galaxy Quest personae to make a living, but the Thermians look to them as real-life role models. As the cast members realize that they're really in danger and that it's up to them to save the Thermians from the evil Sarris, they begin to shed the bitterness and cynicism born of years of D-list celebrity status. If they're going to win the day, they have to believe in the reality of the Enterprise and of Galaxy Quest as much as the Thermians do. In order to make opera (with its outlandish plots and unexplainable singing) believable to the unitiated, we, the initiated and trained, have to put ourselves in their shoes. We have to create a world that is so real that the audience forgets that the characters are singing and just sees people and relationships and stories. And to do all of that, we have to believe in it. We have to want to live in that world, however ridiculous it is, because it is important to so many people.

I'm hopeful that eventually I'll stop freaking out about my technique in the middle of a show and let myself just be in the moment. And someday, I'll train myself to just enjoy performances, without criticizing. I think there's hope--when I saw Opera New Jersey's Lucia di Lammermoor, I could find nothing negative to say about Lisette Oropesa's glorious singing and acting. It was perfect.

It's an uphill battle, but the struggle is towards a very important goal, for all of us. And always remember the motto of the ship Enterprise: Never give up. Never surrender.