Musings on my life as a busy opera singer, voice teacher, photographer and mom - not necessarily in that order! I consider myself immensely fortunate to have carved out a way of doing all of these things which mean so much to me - it may sometimes get a little crazy, but it's always worth it. Welcome to the madhouse!
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Monday, April 28, 2008
The show is pretty much on its feet and, while it would be foolish to be overconfident (not only is there "always one more glitch", but there is ALWAYS something to improve, refine and take further!), I'm comfortable with everything I have to do and looking forward to each of the next rehearsals to get up there and DO it. Particularly now that the allergy problems have been resolved after a visit to the doctor here last week I can relax and just get on with the job, which is a good mental state to be in for the final rehearsals. (For the record, it turned out to be not only seasonal allergies, but a lingering low grade pneumonia/bronchitis I didn't even know I HAD. But infection it must have been since 5 days of antibiotics and I'm good as new with my voice back to pristine health - thanks Dr Rubin!)
But with things onstage feeling fairly settled, I don't have so much to keep my mind busy and I...er... Start To Think. Suddenly the list of things I have to do when I get home starts to look daunting, but I can't do much about it from here so I just keep adding to the list and trying to refine it so I can hit the ground running, particularly as far as my students are concerned since they will be right into their final week of the term and will need as much of my time as I can give them.
My daughter's birthday is the day after I get back - her gifts are at home (although not yet wrapped), but I still find myself looking around here in the hope of picking up a few more little trinkets and fun things for her. But then... how to get them home? The airline changes its baggage rules on May 1st, and thus one can only take ONE checked bag without a surcharge (despite the fact my originating journey was before the change, of course, so who knows HOW that may play out). So what can I do for her special day, a day which, much though I'd like to make it exclusively hers, is already going to be somewhat invaded by other professional commitments?
Then there's yesterday's news about this local Gypsy Moth invasion and what appears to be the damage to our yard - will there be any trees left by the time I get home? What do I DO about it?
Plus a host of other things, largely things I can't take any kind of action on from here and thus can only think about... which leads to my running round in circles! Kind of mental freefall.
I suspect I'm no different than any other working mom, regardless of whether it's home or away, but it still makes for an interesting hamster-cage in my head! Once I get into the theater it's easy since I then switch my focus back to the job at hand, but these long days (we're only rehearsing in the evenings now we're in the theater) have a lot of time to think. It's dangerous!
In the meantime, however, I have learned that we have trouble at home in the form of a gypsy moth infestation. I had never even HEARD of gypsy moths before yesterday, but apparently they have defoliated at least one of our (many) trees and are still on the search for more to consume; it's apparently a particularly bad year for them. My husband is now going to be spending much of Monday contacting various county offices to try and find out what to do (and who needs to do it). The tree which was attacked is, in fact, one which probably should go anyway (it's in an odd location on the perimeter fence and just in the way), but we have two gorgeous and VERY large maples which it would be tragic to lose, so I'm hoping that we can take some kind of preventative action.
There's a learning curve here, obviously! And I can see that I need to add to my "to do" list for when I get home next week..... can't do much about it from here except read up on these rather icky critters which clearly isn't a whole lot of help!
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Singing with an orchestra is a very different experience: there's the difference of sonorities in the form of overtones and the much larger sound 50 instruments can produce than 1 piano, and also the different energy of that many musicians all focused on the same music, even though we all have our own distinct part in the fabric of the whole. No matter how many times I do it, whether the rehearsal is good or bad (and I'm happy to say this one was good!), this moment is always magical for me, kind of like watching a static picture coming to life right in front of me. I get an incredible buzz from the sounds, the group dynamic and just the sheer FUN of that kind of music making. Of course, singing with the orchestra sometimes requires some adjustments, too - tempi which seemed so settled in the rehearsal room may need to change, and there are often small vocal adjustments to make (or not make - one of the key things singers learn in their training is to trust the way it FEELS instead of the way it SOUNDS and thus sometimes one must steel oneself to not making too many adjustments based on the different aural feedback of the new space and instrumental sound, instead relying on the practiced sensations)
This is big, "Spaghetti Sauce" opera in the verismo style which isn't something I get to sing that often (there just aren't that many roles for my voice type in verismo - the soprano gets all the good stuff!) and I have to say... I know NOW why all my tenor and soprano friends are so happy singing Puccini! I love Verdi and many of the other composers I sing, but this impassioned, uninhibited, expansive music is just so much fun. I had a ball!
In the meantime back at the family ranch, my daughter had a big musical day today too: her childrens' choir was performing at an important gala, a performance that has been in preparation for many weeks. As with the school play, once again, I wasn't there to be involved (amazing that so many things could conflict in one week!) and felt that mommy pang knowing I wouldn't be there to share it with her in person. But at least on this occasion I felt a little more connected, since I had made her flower wreath long before I left, and we had chosen the dress and planned the (very specifically detailed by the organisation) "costume" for the occasion together. I'm still waiting for pictures, but I'm assured there are many - watch this space.
Friday, April 25, 2008
The museum is housed in a purpose-built complex in what SHOULD be the heart of this city's downtown area, but to say that downtown is "quiet" would be an understatement which doesn't begin to describe just how deserted it is. As I walked to the front of the building - this is on THE non-interstate "main drag" through town, remember - it was empty. Oh, there were a few cars, but not a single person; it was like being on an empty movie set, or walking into an episode of The Prisoner
I found this exhibit amusing (it's a Steinway grand, although obviously not the normal kind one would find in a concert hall!)
This is a complete room from a French Chateau (there were a couple of complete European rooms, but nobody could answer my question as to how or why they had been removed or transplanted across the ocean. Note to self: find out more!). What is of particular interest in this one to anybody with an operatic bent is that the frieze is a telling of the story of Rinaldo and Armida, a story which has been set by numerous composers, not least of which in an opera by Handel. I finally know what happens now!
What I think was my favorite item of the day - it was the first thing I saw as I came around the corner from the parking lot, and it brought a smile to my face (yes, it IS a marble bench in the shape of a polar bear!)
And lastly, this painting by Louis-Leopold Boilly. Whether because I'm missing my girl at the moment or just because it's a rather witty painting, this one wooed me over completely:
As always, the most effective Art (in any genre or media) has a universality that speaks to us at so many levels. This vignette explicitly tells us so much about the dynamic between the mother and child, and yet leaves so much about which we can speculate and interpret however we see it. I love it!
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
That said, modern communication makes this job so much easier. I remember mumbleumph years ago when on my first tour just after getting married, and our long-distance phone bill was - literally! - nearly my entire fee! With cellphones and the internet, being away from home is a whole different ball o' wax now and, while it's still hard sometimes, one never feels quite as "gone" as before we had these links to keep some kind of continuity going. I can read the same webpages, I can always be reached via email, sms or cell, and I don't even have to go out and find the newspaper - I just log on and read the same things from wherever I am!
So, while I felt every one of the miles I'm away from home today acutely, there was a happy and unexpected flip side: I woke to a lovely "warm fuzzy" surprise in the form of an out-of-the-blue email from a favorite student of mine from Europe with whom I lost contact when we moved back to the US 10 years ago. This past weekend she walked past the house where we used to live, googled me, found me on Facebook and sent me a delightful note with her news. It was lovely to re-establish contact!
Home may feel very far away sometimes but, thankfully, people can now stay close to us no matter where we are, and that's a very nice thing to know.
In the meantime, some random pictures:
Because this group does almost NOTHING except laugh (I was - quite literally - weeping with laughter when this was snapped)....
A perk to being in the Heartland: A REAL greengrocer! This amazing fruit and vegetable shop has the most FABULOUS produce at about half what I'd be paying at home!
For those not familiar with how it works in Operaland, here're some rehearsal room pictures (one seldom has the luxury of rehearsing in the theatre itself): no glamour, no pomp, no circumstance, just a largeish warehouse room with a piano, a production table (where the stage management and directorial team sit and do their work as we rehearse), a lot of tape on the floor ( the "mark-out" reflecting the exact measurements of the stage and set as we will encounter them in the theatre itself) and "rehearsal" props and furniture (ranging from plastic cups, folding chairs and music stands masquerading as doorways, walls and any other number of temporary "pretends" to create the scene until we get the real thing)
And so, to bed. More to come!
Sunday, April 20, 2008
These events are vitally important for the opera companies to extend their profile to new audiences as well as offer some added value to their existing sponsorships and none of us really "mind" doing them - we want people to support the art form as much as the companies want and need them to do so! - but typically they can be a bit of a bore for the singers, with little artistic satisfaction in being trotted out to give "the donors" a chance to see Real Opera Singers up close and personal. Some singers go as far as to call them a "dog and pony show" and, on occasion, it can feel rather like being the trained pet on display. Again, while we all recognise how very important it is to help educate new audiences and break down some of the perceived barriers newcomers to the artform may have, they can be rather wearing events!
So, when we arrived at the beautiful - SERIOUSLY beautiful - home of the hosts for the evening (KLS, I thought of you and mentally clocked many of the construction details!) and waited to be called to sing we were all expecting "business as usual".
Our performances were fine - I'm still fighting Allergy Hell, but everything worked tolerably well - and the others presented charming versions of their own repertoire. After we'd finished singing we assumed that would be it and geared ourselves up to go do our bit for King and Company with the snacks and drinks when we were all called back to the main room.
Our host announced that many of the audience were members of the same Mennonite Church (note to self: must learn more, because in my ignorance I had always thought Mennonites were just this side of the Amish in terms of leading an anti-technology and non-modern life, and this was most assuredly a very modern home and collection of folks!), and would now like to sing for us.
What followed the most extraordinary 4-part a capella rendition of a Mennonite hymn. This was choral singing of a standard I have not heard in YEARS but beyond the sheer musical quality of the singing, the enthusiasm, freedom of expression, and sheer beauty of this moment was beyond description. I admit it - it made me cry. As professionals, we so often forget the JOY in our music as we become bogged down in the business details, our own vocal technique obsessions, the pressures of "the career", and what a friend of mine calls "the shoulds", where we try to please all of the people all of the time and thus lose our own sense of artistry and motivation along the way. Hearing this spontaneous outburst of freely-given song was a wonderful reminder of why we do it; stripped of "the shoulds" and offered on its own terms without expectations or restrictions it was the purest form of musicmaking.
And it just shows how important it is NOT to assume, ever: far from being an imposition, or even a "typical donor schmooz", the entire evening was an inspiration - beautiful surroundings, a warm welcome, and an honest musical reminder of why we do this singing thing. What a gift.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
The challenge in this for me is that I've hit spring for the second time this year since the Midwest is about 3 weeks behind the East coast temperature-wise. Thus, I am fighting my truly dreadful tree-pollen allergies for the SECOND time this year! But figuring out how to sing under less-than-optimum physical conditions is part of the deal as a professional singer, and you just find a way somehow. It requires more concentration and can be a bit nervewracking when you can't entirely trust what your instrument is going to do, but... we cope! It helps that this group of singers and the administration here are delightful as well as supportive, and thus there isn't that sense of tacit "judgement" from my colleagues (real or imagined - we're a sensitive bunch about our singing!) there sometimes can be in these situations.
But it's a quiet day today and I finally had a chance to check out the very nice pool here at the hotel, and am using the time to do the truly banal: laundry! It's always so funny how these domestic chores become an almost reassuring routine when you're on the road (rather than the intrusion they are at home) and it will feel positively cozy to collect my drying and put it away.
My husband, bless him, has put together a timetable of absurd precision for the weekend to cover all the babysitting and transport requirements for our daughter and it looks like he's got it all handled beautifully - I knew he could do it! Although it's particularly complicated this weekend, I'm actually very glad she's busy - she's sounded completely content every time I've spoken to her, and I'm sure some of that is because she's busy with "kid stuff" and not having time to feel out of sorts. This is good!
And on that note, off to collect some clean clothes out of the dryer....
PS I know I trailed some artistic musings earlier in the week and I haven't forgotten - they will emerge at some point!
Thursday, April 17, 2008
The home front, however, is a bit more complicated this weekend. Apparently my daughter needs an Electric Eel costume by Monday. Thank goodness Grandma likes to do that stuff, and has already come up with a few different options for the occasion! Phew. However, add to that a weekend which includes rehearsal for her Children's Chorus gala performance next week, a dance recital which didn't make it to the calendar AND a Girl Scouts "field trip" to a rock climbing center as well as a gig for my husband and a few domestic requirements for him to see to (ok, I admit it: I've asked him to go to the county's annual sale of at-cost compost bins, which are well below half retail price) and it's a bit crazy for one person to handle! My initial reaction is one of guilt at leaving my husband to have to field this by himself, but (shhhh!) the Evil Mom in me has to giggle just ever-so-slightly, as these are the kinds of crazy schedules I juggle all the time and I I can't deny that it's nice to be WELL out of the chaosfor once! I'm sure they'll figure it all out (with some help from grandparents and neighbouring moms).
In the meantime, I've been asked to sing for a board function on Saturday night and realise I didn't bring any appropriate clothes for this particular event, so it's time to indulge in a little retail therapy. We have a morning off so... off in search of shopping I go!
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
But, the important thing is… here I am. Arrived. In one piece, with all bags intact.
Thankfully, I have a fridge and a microwave in my room – this really cuts down on expenses, and also makes it possible to eat a great deal more healthily. After 6 months of home renovation, including a substantial kitchen rehab, I find that an inner "organised and tidy person" has emerged and "a place for everything" is becoming much more important to me – I was surprised to find myself rearranging the small coffee-station in my typical hotel bathroom here to allow more efficient use of the vanity space, and I’ve set up a a whole “mini kitchen” layout over my little fridge! I don’t think I’ll be cooking any gourmet meals while I'm here, but I’ll manage very nicely, especially since there’s an excellent supermarket just down the road. It’s the little things that matter!
The first few days of rehearsals are always a bit more focused and often a lot of fun as everybody gets to know each other, establishes working styles, and learns what is expected of them regarding the director’s and conductor’s ideas for the show, ideas which then continue to develop right up to opening night. I’m happy to say that this is a delightful bunch of folks – singers can all-too-often take themselves terribly seriously, but this particular group (very much including Maestro and the stage director) has a great sense of humour and, while talented and committed, are also unpretentious, ready to work hard and have fun doing so, which is makes for a great working atmosphere.
As I unpacked yesterday morning, I found it amusing to note that – subconsciously, really – I had packed “The Uniform”. Black jeans, black leather coat, little black dress, black tshirts… Despite my best efforts to brighten up my wardrobe with some spring colours, I realise now that almost everything I've brought is the usual Singer Blacks, give or take the occasional bright scarf. Some things will never change! At least these days “Dressing Diva” doesn’t seem to be such a big deal in the US regional houses (except at the first rehearsal and the sitzprobe, where it's a sort of "unwritten tradition" in the US that although people tend to be very casual during stagings, at music and orchestra rehearsals people “dress up” a bit). This is very much a “jeans and sweater” kind of cast (no surprise given the kind of down-to-earth artists involved) and it’s nice to be able to relax into the working environment. Singers – especially the girls! – love their “Diva Duds” but when you’re rolling around on a dirty floor or standing for hours at a time it’s nice to be comfortable too!
News from home is good, including a nice job offer for next year, and (most importantly) confirmation that my daughter is doing just fine.
News from home is good, including a nice job offer for next year, and (most importantly) confirmation that my daughter is doing just fine.
The next entry may be a little less practical and more musico-philosophical, but … that’s part of the job too! As always, the duality of how my mind works means that all the time I’m fussing about domestic trivia I’m also thinking about how I can do my job better and what “creating art” actually means. Watch this space.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
But, for me, this requires actually doing it, not only studying it; I have to SING it to be able to retain it. Not only looking at it on the page, not only speaking it (although that can also be helpful, particularly if it's a language with which I'm not terribly familiar), not merely studying it but.... USING it.
On this occasion, I found myself running way behind schedule. On February 1st I came down with the flu which resulted in THE WORST laryngitis I've had in years - two weeks of total inability to phonate - which then morphed into 2 weeks of heavy bronchitis. By which time I was into rehearsals for my March production and, because the director kept me onstage a lot (that's not a complaint!), I spent more time in rehearsals and less time practicing than I had anticipated, thus leaving me a bit frantic!
Fortunately, this role isn't long and my "basic" Italian is good enough that I do actually understand what I'm singing about (which makes it much easier to learn than when it seems to be a bunch of nonsense syllables). A husband who's a pianist and willing to run the music with me while I drill myself doesn't hurt either! So although I was very worried earlier in the week that I wasn't on top of things, I'm feeling much better about it now; I'm just keen to start rehearsals tomorrow and see how "the team" will be approaching this music, which I've never performed before.
In any case, the laundry is as done as it will be, my bags are packed, and it's time to grab a cup of coffee, check out the garden one last time before I hand it over to my husband and daughter for the duration, and then... off to the airport.
I'm delighted that my daughter's ever-growing maturity has really demonstrated itself this time out, as during the last 24hrs she has been quite happy to say, "I'll miss you!" and come over for a big hug, but without any trace of concern, or upset. Even on overnight "away stays" in the past she's sometimes been a bit weepy, so I'm very happy to see her better able both to articulate what she's feeling and then use words to help her process and cope with it. Perhaps learning words isn't so hard, but using them is the important part!
In life as in art, I guess.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
My early career was on the road ALL the time since my first professional gigs were tours - in some cases lengthy tours with several months between opportunities to get home - but recently? Not so much. I've been immensely fortunate: my two "local houses" (solid A and B companies both within easy commuting distance) have been generous with contracts in the last couple of years and I've been able to sustain my career without being away from home very much; even my New York gigs have enabled me to get home pretty much every week in a "semi-commuting" manner, so it hasn't been the same as Going Out of Town.
Thus, being out of "road mode", I'm finding preparations to get out of town a little more challenging than I have in the past! Especially since I've just finished up a production here which kept me very busy for the last month, I'm feeling more than a little behind in my organising and packing as I try to get out of here with everything I need for a month of rehearsing and performing.
Transitioning from "mostly at home mom" to "travelling and away" presents some practical challenges, like dealing with mountains of laundry (my husband does wonderfully at keeping up with most domestic challenges while I'm away, but he's never been the best with washing machines and I prefer to do as much of it as possible ahead of time!) and ensuring that all the "mom stuff" is done before I go - I try to have childcare arrangements broadly speaking in place (thankfully, we live near family - it's the main reason we live in this town - but even so, it needs at least loose mapping out), and also arrange a few playdates and surprise "fun things" to happen while I'm gone.
But, above and beyond the logistics and banalities, "getting ready to leave" also means being sensitive to the fact that, while for me time away is a "new" adventure with the potential to be artistically stimulated, meet new people, and enjoy my work, for my family it's not so easy. I'm fortunate to have a spouse who supports my career and is a very "hands on" daddy at home, but still - it's a tug. My husband and I are used to it (professional separations have been part of our relationship from the time we met, and we've always dealt with it), but our daughter is having to learn how to adapt now. I think she copes with it ok, although there's a corner of The Mommy Mind that second-guesses every decision and reaction which relates to their child which of course makes me think, "How does this REALLY affect her in the long term?".
But, of course, we all manage in our own way; I can only trust that she knows she is loved no matter what kind of physical distance is involved and that the wonders of modern communication will make it as easy as it's possible for it to be. I know that as soon as I'm gone my mind will be focused on the job I do and, if prior experience is anything to judge by, my daughter will also find ways of coping for herself. One new wrinkle is that she is now au fait enough with email to be able to really exchange correspondence - she loves it, in fact - so I'm looking forward to being able to "talk" to her in this different way while I'm gone this time.
In the meantime, I still have to do all that laundry, pack, head out to purchase a birthday present for one her classmates, and even indulge in a farewell to one of my own domestic pleasures in the form of a newly-discovered passion for gardening. All in the next 6 hours! We'll see how far I get... ;)
I consider myself immensely fortunate in that my career is also my passion. Any love affair with the lyric stage is a very capricious and sometimes even unfaithful relationship, but I still love it, despite its unpredictability and difficulty. I love to get out there and perform, privileged to make some of the greatest music ever written with wonderful colleagues who never cease to inspire and amaze me. Those moments of pure joy are worth the frustration and hard work that often accompany getting there!
Of course, exciting and rewarding as that may be, the greatest role in which I've ever been cast is mom to my daughter, just about to turn 10. I've always said she was my professional "good luck charm", because although I had been working sporadically as a professional singer in the 5 years before she was born, my career actually crossed a Rubicon and made it to "full time" following an audition I did at 9 (yes, NINE) months pregnant and, somehow, managed to nail (it got me two significant jobs with a major opera company, although I still wonder 1. how on earth I did it and 2. what on EARTH the panel must have thought as they watched me waddle in to sing!).
I wouldn't give up either element of my "double life" for anything, but it does make for some interesting challenges! While it remains to be seen how faithfully I keep up with writing here, I know there are a lot of singers out there who are also juggling this same kind of "dual existence", and also younger singers embarking on careers who wonder how it's possible to have a "normal life" and sing around the world at the same time, but I think it's something that doesn't get talked about - at least on the American operatic landscape. Unlike Europe - where it is more easily possible to establish yourself with a single theater and "work from home" - the travelling nature of The Opera Business in the US means that family and career are (sometimes) perceived to be in conflict. Does it take compromises to make it work? Perhaps. But I consider myself fortunate to have carved out a way of doing both, however difficult it may sometimes be.
And so, I'm giving in to wanting to write about opera, kids, and my life in general. Welcome to the madhouse!