For those of you keeping track, I’m pleased to announce that I can officially see the light burning brightly at the end of the tunnel! I’ve hinted at its supposed presence over the past few months, but it is time to publicly confirm its actual and blessed existence! Yesterday I spent 11 hours at the San Francisco Opera putting my first Octavian through his varied paces for our piano dress rehearsal. (And I’ve spent almost as many hours today recovering from said paces!) I’m still suffering from what feels like a mighty case of whiplash, considering that I had only 10 days of actual staging before running through the entire show yesterday on stage and in costume – which in my book falls into the category of one of those silly, pointless “Orange-Level Alerts”, but this time cautioning the on-set of possible insanity! The brilliant news, toasted over a rather large Weizen beer last night, was that I MADE IT TO THE END. I was able to get from the wonderful bed of the Marschallin and all its blissful sensuality, straight through to the profession of undying love to the pure Sophie (via a few detours in drag, mind you) without incident. At this point, that is a bonafide triumph in my book!
The bad news, which looms a bit heavily on me today, is that there is still an enormous amount of work left to be done. My goal is that through the next 2 days of orchestra work I can find that “Strauss Pulse”, which is a very different sensation of meter and flow than I am used to as in, for example, Rossini. All the pulsating syncopations and angular phrases of Octavian still have to be given a breadth and release that differs wildly from the type of precision you find in other repertoire. Musically it is truly another world (even from the Composer’s music in “Ariadne”), and I’m enjoying the learning curve tremendously. I’m close to finding it, but definitely need this next week of the orchestra’s texture and color underneath me to finally nail it down.
I also need to clean up much of the physical aspect of this character. What a juggling act this is. We meet him in the most relaxed, informal environment of his lover’s bedroom (an all-encompassing Paradise to him) where he can truly let his hair down; and yet he must remain at all times at one with the training and decorum of a true nobleman. However, he is only 17 years old (and 2 months, to be exact), so I must also capture the impulsive, awkward, immaturity of a real adolescent. He has all the Countly poise and etiquette in his physicality, but his emotional state is thrust into terrible confusion as the Marschallin casts him aside with little explanation (that he can comprehend, at least), as well as the dramatic moment of instant electricity with Sophie. His world dramatically, perhaps even violently, changes course twice within 24 hours, and his capacity to absorb it all is not immediately apparent. Ah, how beautifully art can imitate life!
But then let us not forget the country peasant girl – a role that Octavian gleefully and eagerly throws himself into. I’m still trying to find the elusive magic of comic timing on this one, and I’m pretty sure it will come down to simple precision. Finding the balance of ‘playing it’, but not overdoing it, as well as finding the clarity that when he has a moment to let down as the country girl, he immediately comes back into the physicality of an exacerbated nobleman. I find myself easily falling into a “Cherubino” physicality (floppy and petulant) rather than that of a distinguished, ‘nobly’ irritated man. It’s a DELICATELY drawn line, but it is vitally important to me that these distinctions be crystal clear in MY mind, second nature, in fact, so the audience then is free to draw its OWN conclusions. I’m close to finding it, again, but will cling to this next week of rehearsal time to make it more organic, finding my own sense of ownership of this glorious character, who has, quite simply, THE BEST entrance music in all of opera at the top of Act 2.
So, if you’d allow me to take a radical detour in the conversation, prompted by this talk of art imitating life that I spoke of earlier, I’m fascinated at how great composers and librettists have been able to capture on stage the wonderment of how swiftly one’s real life can change. While one takes place in a fabricated space, is (often) rehearsed vigorously, and plays out under bright lights in front of thousands of strangers, the other can hit you with one swift, solitary blow, singularly and privately, as the rest of the world simply marches on around you.
Three weeks ago I was walking down Broadway just before sunset on a crystal clear evening after a rehearsal at the MET, and I was checking my phone messages. The first one arrived: “Joyce, this is your sister, Amy. You have to come home now. Mom…well…Mom is in trouble. Come home now.” The second followed immediately, with that sterile voice announcing: “Next new message.” “Joyce. It’s Amy again. Call me.” I found a park bench in the median between NY’s East and West sides at 72nd and Broadway, set down my scores, and phoned my sister back, knowing instinctively that the news was to be final.
“Joyce, are you sitting down?”
“Is anyone with you?”
“No”, was my reply, but the reality was that there were thousands of strangers bustling to and fro all around me in taxis, on bicycles, and on foot, not a single one of them registering how my life was about to change. The memory I have is that unbeknownst to them, they all seemed to instantaneously burst into slow motion around me as the news arrived.
My Mom suffered from the same lung condition as my Father did, COPD, which affects all aspects of one’s breathing, and she had recently taken a turn for the worse -- however nothing signaled that her death would be expected any time soon – she was stable, and the doctors had said she could maintain this level for a long time. It had, however, become apparent that it was time for her to have 24-hour care. This strong, proud Irish woman was now face to face with her worst fear.
Well, as they wheeled her out to the car that was to take her to her new home, (one of "THOSE places"), she pushed herself up to get out of the wheelchair, and wouldn't you know it? She had a massive coronary on the spot. While on the surface she was willing to take this next step and fully understood it was really her only option, I think deep-down she had said all she needed to say, lived every minute she had needed to live, and simply didn't care to partake in those added, unnecessary moments of anguish and suffering. She passed quickly, in a blaze of glory, as seemed very fitting to a lady who had a real streak of fire in her breast.
Honestly, I can't help but envision my Dad hovering above her, knowing what awaited her lying in one of “those beds”, connected to more tubes than could possibly seem humane, and simply reaching from down the sky, pulling her to be close to him. In a million years, I can't see her leaving this world any other way.
Up until her final breath she had both her wit and her wits, her fire and her pride, and that beautiful, devilish grin planted firmly on her face. She knew all of her children were either by her side physically, or very close to her in spirit, and she had come to have a relationship with each one of us that seemed unlikely a decade ago. She could die in peace, knowing she was leaving her legacy behind: a family of seven children that is close, loving and strong.
It seems unreal that a human spirit can be taken so quickly. But what seems even more amazing to me the mark a single human life can make -- even a quiet, unassuming life lived out in simple sacrifice and dedication. She gave up so much of her unique identity to raise her seven children, remaining always by her husband's side - living through moments of incredible turmoil, rash misunderstandings, and painful silences, but also through uncontrolled laughter, quiet dignity, and examples of fierce strength and conviction.
Ah. Yes. Perhaps she actually found her unique identity through all of that.
I did not have an easy relationship with my Mom, and that's not easy to write. But I found my way through the difficult moments, and happily, willingly found a way to understand her, accept her, accept our relationship, and embrace it. I have an enormous feeling that I learned more from her than I ever gave her credit for, but she knew all that, and I believe she finally accepted that about me as well. That is a beautiful thing to write.
If I stop to think too much on the past year of my life, my brain seems to want to, well, put quite simply, to explode: I’m currently preparing my 5th new role in just 14 months, (not to mention having completed a full recording as well as an ambitious recital tour), I eloped, and I buried both of my parents.
I had a huge decision to make after receiving that call from my sister: whether or not I would perform the next evening as Rosina at the Metropolitan Opera. After talking at length with my family (“There is nothing you can do here, Joyce – you do whatever you need to do.”), I made the decision to sing. With the ENORMOUS help of the most generous and supportive colleagues ever...
(Laurence, Russell, John, Sam and all – I love you guys!), I got through our show with flying colors, even if I couldn’t make it through the curtain call, for it hit me with an enormous impact that my parents will never again see another performance of mine. They will never be 6th row and center to get nervous, to applaud, or to cry.
But it became immediately apparent to me that music would be a vast source of healing for me, as it always has been. Singing that night allowed me to physically release so much of the pain and emotion I was feeling, as well as to celebrate so much of what their influence and support has allowed me to do. It was my humble tribute to them, to thank them for their lives and their love.
I still cannot believe that my world continues on, and they are no longer a part of it. How SWIFTLY and COMPLETELY their presence is gone. Now I comprehend the adage of “life is short – enjoy it while you can”, and the value of treasuring every moment you share with a loved one. Now I begin to comprehend what the Marschallin tries to explain to poor Octavian, that “time is indeed a strange thing.” Hearing the great Soile Isokowski singing these words to me touches me so very deeply. How privileged I am to work through such complicated human emotion during the day, courtesy of the brilliant Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
I know this is a long entry, and most certainly a diverse one. But it is my life – this clash of worlds, this extremity of emotion and experience, this ‘adventure’! And most assuredly, life does not always stop to give you time to adjust and figure it all out – we sometimes have to do it on the fly (as Octavian learns as well!). I’ll get my most welcome VACATION at the end of this run to slow down, catch up, recoup and regroup – but until then, I welcome the challenge of this little Straussian Count, counting myself fortunate to be surrounded by such peerless colleagues, and above all, consider myself beyond blessed to be the daughter of such beautiful people, my Mom and my Dad. I hope my life will serve as a true tribute to their dedication and example.