Musings on m
y 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!

Friday, June 27, 2008

The apple falls not far...

Today was my daughter's camp performance. 'Nuff said!

Photos taken using Canon Digital Rebel XT w/50mm 1.8 or 70-210mm 3.5

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Connections and clothes

After a month of connection troubles we will be switching providers. We’ll see how quickly they can get us up and running, but in the meantime access is still somewhat limited (hence the sporadic posting).


A shout out to all the wonderful costumers, stitchers, tailors and wardrobe mistresses out there!

My latest show involves a lot of falling down onstage and, while I’m happy to do this for the director, it was getting a little, how shall we say…. PAINFUL. I was particularly worried about the costume since I was pretty sure they would be using a dress I had worn previously which had a (very period-correct!) steel-cage petticoat to create the period look (either 17th or 18th century depending on how you want to interpret it!).

(a similar shape to this drawing, but made with more narrowly-spaced and continuous rigid steel hoops - no gap at the front as drawn, but complete rings - hinged so they can move a little bit vertically, but not horizontally. You put it on over your head.)

While I’m prepared to deal with the occasional bruise, I knew that the physicality of the staging in that garment would be a genuine safety risk, and was worried that I’d possibly get caught between the director’s requests and the costume.

As soon as I got to my fitting, I mentioned the potential problem. Fortunately, the wonderful wardrobe coordinator for the show took it in stride and somehow managed to magic up two completely different dresses that were designed to go over a PADDED bumroll/petticoat combination, thus not only preventing me from injuring myself on the original petticoat, but in fact giving me some extra protective padding in the process!

All of this in the space of an hour-long fitting, and both dresses are perfect for the character, flattering and will fit like a dream once she's done the usual "nip and tuck" on them (it's assumed that if a costume was not made for an artist that it will likely need some alterations - it's very rare to have a period gown fit "off the rack"!). Granted, this is a full-service costume rental company and they do have choices available in stock. But given that I’m on the tall side at 5’9” and it can be hard just to find something long enough for me, the fact that she came up with these entirely character-appropriate new options on the fly is a real tribute to professionalism and skill for which I am profoundly grateful!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

An Open Letter

As mentioned in an earlier post, an opera singer friend of mine was recently featured in a New York Times blog-article (blogticle? Is there netspeak for that particular branch of journalism?!) for her 100lb weight loss. The article was upbeat, positive and insightful, just like the singer in question and, while there were a few comments which were pessimistic in tone, most of them were highly supportive.

However, several of those comments, as well as some questions recently asked of me in passing by non-singers, really made me realise just how many misconceptions there are about the modern opera career. There is so much people outside this operatic world DON'T know about what we do, particularly those of us in the trenches who are "working singers" rather than "household name stars". So, without further ado, a few clarifications!

1. Singers live a glamour lifestyle and have lots of money
Well, maybe for those at the very top of the profession that's true. But for most? It's good just to be working and paying our mortgages with our music-making (singing for our supper indeed!), and not having to fill in between singing engagements with other non-musical employment to make ends meet.

For many singers, the lengthy training process to reach "career ready" (usually by late 20s or early 30s) has racked up significant debt via student loans. The coveted spots at Young Artist Programs (summer, or occasionally year-long "internships" at opera companies for singers transitioning from student to professional) often pay stipends which barely cover living costs. Many singers are still living like students even once they've started working professionally, or at least spending their between-gig-times waiting tables or working in offices. And singing work is by no means "guaranteed", even for those who enjoy a degree of success - until the calendar is booked up years in advance (something becoming rarer these days as opera companies reflect global economic uncertainties) it's never a sure thing; health insurance, pensions or any of the other peripheral securities that many people assume go with any "career" don't exist unless we buy them for ourselves, and there are seldom any longterm contracts to a single house (except in Europe, where a "Fest" (full time) contract can give a singer some financial security). There is often an element of the Vie de Boheme until a singer is consistently engaged at the very highest levels!

2. It doesn't matter what you look like if you're an opera singer, because everybody knows that all opera singers are fat.
This is a hot-button topic in Operaland so I hesitate to wade in and discuss it at length but, suffice to say, looks DO matter these days. While vocal ability is still the single most important element towards making a singer a star, "type" plays into it more and more and singers have greater pressure on them to "compete" with media images of dramatically credible than has ever before been true. Any look at Anna Netrebko, Kate Aldrich or Nathan Gunn (just to pick three high profile names out of the air) makes it abundantly clear that looks DO count these days (these folks are all excellent and committed singers who have for sure earned their star status musically and vocally, but nobody would argue that they all come in a package that could just as easily be successful in Hollywood as onstage at the Met).

3. What's so difficult about being a singer? It's all natural talent - you either have it or you don't.
The basic talent may be "natural", but learning to use it is anything but! It's more like developing an athletic skill than any kind of magical inspiration, and takes years of physical (muscle) and musical (intellectual) training. In addition to training the voice itself, singers need to be versed in various musical styles and at least familiar with the major European languages (even if they don't speak them fluently or even conversationally, they need to be able to read them well enough to be able to look up literal meanings in a dictionary and pronounce them properly). Oh, and develop their stagecraft and dramatic sensibilities enough to be able to act out an operatic story while still keeping beautiful sounds coming out of their mouths... Add to that acting as their own CEO and marketing team (even the best agent in the world can't actually make our decisions or do all the on-the-job networking and schmoozing for us), and there's a lot to learn, develop and sustain in making this a career.

4. Being an opera singer means you have loads of free time
Not so's you'd notice! The actual musical preparation time involved in sustaining a career is significant even when not in rehearsal for a production (at which point it's a pretty consistent 4-7hrs of rehearsal a day, 6 days a week until the opening). An average "day off" (ie, not in rehearsal or performance) for a working singer probably includes 1-4hrs of actual singing practice, plus pretty much endless score study and research - translating a part, learning those foreign-language texts, researching the story, character and historical background... Many hours of work. Even when it's something you love, it can be a long day! Remember too that while working at "just a job" may mean that you clock off when you leave the office (or the factory, or the sales department), as a singer your voice is a PART of you - you can't put it in a cabinet until the next professional appointment and thus you are living with your career 24/7 and have to remain vigilant about caring for that instrument; this can be more wearing than you'd realise! Many singers also teach or have other professional activities in addition to their performing commitments, and those take time too; it can often be flexible scheduling for sure, but it's busy.

5. Dedicated only to their art and their voice, all singers are solitary diva/os
Well, as discussed, I think many singers DO have a single-mindedness about their singing, but that doesn't mean they aren't also pretty normal people, too. Vissi d'arte, but vissi d'amore and a whole bunch of other things as well. Plenty have families (I'm certainly not alone in being a working singer with children). And I sometimes think that "non opera folks" would be surprised how many singers spend their free time playing video games, woodworking, walking trails, volunteering for charity, breeding puppies and doing any number of other low-profile, "non diva/o" quite mundane activities (in fact, mundane and uncomplicated, down-to-earth pastimes are a wonderful antidote to the emotional intensity of opera, and I think many of us actively seek it out in "down times"!). There is indeed a conundrum between singing being a job that you DO and a vocation that you fulfil, but singing and real life are NOT mutually exclusive... even if they occasionally collide!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Who am I this time?

A friend recently sent me an email talking about how much we singers define ourselves by our singing and our success as singers. Is it true? Is it really possible that our entire lives can become that wrapped up in the sounds we produce in our throats?

There's an old saying that being a singer isn't what you DO but is what you ARE. While the old-fashioned view of a pampered Diva swanning through life in furs with her French maid, lapdog and swarms of adoring fans catering to her every whim is pretty much a fiction these days, there is a certain kind of hyperfocus that seems to be part of the makeup of the most successful singers: ruled by The Voice, The Demands of The Business, The Schedule and The Art (and I fear that all-too-often it IS in that order, much though I would love to be able to believe The Art is always at the top of that list), even the healthiest and most well-adjusted can get a little self- (and most particularly VOICE-) obsessed. And that's before we even start talking about when life starts to imitate the art we put on the stage.... (And at this point I must insert a plug here for one of my favorite films of all time, Being Julia: the wonderful exchanges between Julia (Annette Bening) and Jimmie Langton, her theatrical mentor (Michael Gambon) express magnificently how important is that line between what we express onstage and who we are... and how very, very narrow that line can be!)

Part of it, of course, is the physical aspect. I admit it: when I'm in vocal discomfort - regardless of the reason - I feel less of myself. I know I'm not alone in feeling like I'm wearing two left shoes when my voice won't work, even if I know it's due to something as banal and entirely out of my control as a headcold. (Of course, it's worth remembering that where for a "civilian" that cold would merely be an annoyance and a bit uncomfortable, for a singer it can be catastrophic, especially if it coincides with an important performance or audition.... and particularly if it results in cancellation!)Part of that is the practical problem of basic communication with a recalcitrant voice, but I think it's more than that; we somehow begin to devalue ourselves as artists and even as PEOPLE when we feel our voice is unavailable.

But it's not only physical. I know that my mood can change from cynical frustration to elation over something as significant as a job offer, or as (seemingly) minor as conquering a particular technical passage in a phrase of music. Or, of course, the converse - when I'm frustated with my singing (whatever that frustration may be) I know it affects everything about me . And while I think most singers don't put any significant store in reviews on the "if I believe the good ones then I have to believe the bad ones" theory (and many eschew them entirely, refusing to read any press about themselves), I don't think there's ANYBODY who doesn't react at some level to published comments and feel it somehow, however quickly the sting (or boost) may be brushed off and put in perspective.

I'm not sure I'm any less ruled by my throat and performances than any other singer, but the complex nature of my life as singer, mom and teacher at least helps me to keep some perspective, I think. It may not change that I perceive my life as A Singer (with all that implies!), but it does remind me there's more to it - and me - than ONLY that. I'm grateful.

And on that note, it's time to go do some more work memorising my current role for rehearsals which start on Saturday, to make dinner for the family, and to continue learning how to use a circular saw so I can fix my porch rail. If THAT doesn't bring me down to earth, nothing will!


To friend and colleague Cindy Sadler who was recently featured in the New York Times for her significant weight loss. See her blog at The Next 100lbs

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More flowers

(Dwarf Gaillardia - first bloom)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I'm so pleased for a happy outcome. The missing camera was FOUND! (Ironically - and HOW often does this happen to any of us? - it was exactly on her desk where we all thought it SHOULD be, but hidden inside a bag where an envelope had become wrapped around it, thus masking it. Both envelope and camera are white, and it just disappeared into it)

And to add to that good news, the temperatures have dropped 20 degrees following a huge thunderstorm last night and the predicted high is a full 10 degrees lower than yesterday (still hot, but 90 sure beats yesterday's 100+heat index!).

School's out today, but no vacation for me: I'm working away at the music for my next gig, rehearsals starting next week. That said, I'm anticipating a lot of summer fun on this one since it's a somewhat silly role and I'll be among good friends. It's been a good season all round.

Here's to the rest of the day continuing in the same vein!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Having it all?

A couple of recent online discussions about singing and having a family prompted me to think harder about all this, and HOW exactly does one do it? I do it each and every day, and each and every day I ask myself, "How on EARTH am I going to make today work?"

The answer is: I have no idea until I get there and do it.

Sometimes it's really hard, and I truly wonder how I can juggle the logistical complications, never mind finding the time and internal focus my professional and artistic life demands while still giving my daughter the attention she needs and deserves (and vice versa, because it does work both ways). But the deal is... it generally DOES work out, and I can say with absolute honesty that my performances have not suffered, and my daughter certainly seems a thriving and affectionate child so I have to assume that she doesn't feel slighted. Sure, there are compromises (usually me giving up something social, or my own "free time" rather than shortchanging my family or my career). But when the rewards from both parts of my double life are so tremendously satisfying, I don't generally find that a hardship. Complicated: yes. Depriving: NO!

One thing I HAVE learned since having a child is that I am capable of much, much more than I ever thought. Example: All my life, I have been the ULTIMATE "needs sleep" person. The running joke among family and friends was, "Let her sleep and nobody gets hurt"! Before having children, the thought of broken nights and sleep deprivation scared me half to death, particularly as a singer. How would I manage the physical requirements for my singing with limited sleep over long periods of time? Well, guess what - you do what you have to and, while I still prefer my 8+hrs a night, I found I was able to sing just fine even when I was tired and it was, in fact, a useful way to learn to cope with the less than optimum circumstances one often encounters while traveling or in high stress circumstances. If anything, learning to sing through the exhaustion was a help rather than a hindrance, and it taught me that I really CAN do a lot more than I had ever realised.

This past weekend's camping trip is another example. While I spent my teen years at the stables, turned into an enthusiastic fell walker in college and beyond and broadly speaking love The Great Outdoors, I don't like SLEEPING in it. Especially in 100 degree weather, in areas where my phobia - snakes - are almost certain to be lurking (and almost just as certain to make a public appearance). Add to the mix a need to be careful about just how much time I spend outside these days in order to avoid triggering allergy attacks (which of course interfere with singing) and it's just not really something I do.

In my post-college, pre-mom professional days, I would simply have said NO to any and all invitations to participate in something like this (especially in June!) but, for my daughter, I did it. And not only survived, but genuinely enjoyed the canoeing activities on offer, as well as the magic of looking up through the (mesh) ceiling of the tent at 2am and seeing stars and trees and nothing else; my "outdoor self" was sated in a way it hasn't been in years. And guess what? I can still breathe, I didn't die of heatstroke, I kept my panics at the multiple snake sightings broadly speaking under control (!) and I got to share something with my daughter which will, I hope, be a memory she can keep forever.

I can't claim it's always an easy coexistance - sometimes my work means I MUST say "no" to something for the family (for instance, in previous years I've had to miss the Camping Weekend due to performance dates) - but I'd like to think there's enough give and take between them so that, over time, everybody gets "a piece of the pie".

Tomorrow, I go back to memorising my next role, a day of teaching, and keeping my respiratory system indoors and away from pollen. And I know that, however hard it sometimes is to be pulled OUT of the somewhat self-focused world my singer-self inhabits, it's good for me - the more we have to enrich our lives (whatever that may be, whether that involves children or not), the more we have to bring to our art.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Random catching up

I've been kept busy by an audition out of town today, and preparing for my daughter's camping trip this weekend (yes, this diva WILL be sleeping on the ground, however trepidatiously!), so not much writing from me here the last few days; there will be more soon, however, as both activities have prompted much thinking.

In the meantime, the first flush of flowers from our gorgeous, beautiful Maiden's Blush rose bush (yes, this is the one that I thought was dead in March). The photo can't capture the fragrance, but it smells like it looks with the "tea rose" scent so typical of antique variety rosebushes. It's glorious.