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.