Sunday, October 28, 2007


When asked, one of the fundamental pieces of advice I offer to young singers about pursuing a career on the operatic stage is to evaluate WHY it is you want to sing. In my most humble opinion, unless you have a rather concrete, secure idea of why it is you NEED to sing, or why you must devote so much of yourself to music, it can be quite easy to stumble and fall, losing your way very quickly. I'm finding that after a few years in this profession, my ideas have perhaps morphed a bit, my goals and aspirations modified here and there, but in the tough moments I pose this question to myself and search for the answer -- it is this answer which keeps my determination and passion alive.

I've dreamed of posing the question, however, to YOU -- the general public, ,my fellow singers, the odd nutcase -- why is music so important in your life? I stand on the stage and look out at 'you', and I wonder, "Is this touching you? Is this bringing something to your life? It this really worth it?"

As a performer, it is quite easy to get bombarded with thoughts of chromatic scales, double consonants, the french portamento vs. an italian one: but surely these aren't the primal things that keep you coming back? How much is it REALLY about "PR" these days? How important is the perfect publicity photo? How primed does today's public need to be that the singer they are hearing is a bonafide (according to the press) "STAR", and how much can they rely simply on how that singer moves them? Is it really about the cleavage and the high "C", or is it also about honesty and generosity? Why does one thrill, and the other not?

I'm most curious, and would love your input!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I may be a bit cold, but am I insane?

One of the many elements of working in Europe that I relish is the relative proximity of things: the pastry shop just downstairs from my apartment that tempts each morning with the buttery smell of the freshly baked croissants wafting upwards as I hit the snooze button "just one more time", the park around the corner that announces the arrival (and soon enough, the departure) of a welcome autumn, and 'my office' which is either a 10 minute bus ride or a brisk 30 minute walk, offering the opportunity for a bit of exercise and solitary contemplation.

After a month here in Geneva I've succeeded most of these mornings in avoiding the little evil, flaky temptations, I've enjoyed a few quiet photo ops in the neighborhood park, and more often than not, even though the blustery arrival of winter came out of the blue at the end of last week, I still use the walk to work to ponder many things, amongst which is often those little black notes Handel scribbled for his hero, Ariodante. (Remember those school fundraisers where the teacher would put a bunch of jelly beans in a HUGE container, and for $1 you could make a guess of how many there were, and the closest guess to the actual number, without going over, would win the entire calorie-ridden jar? I should do that with Ariodante: make a guess of how many notes Handel actually wrote for his hero, yes, including ALL those da capos, and the closest guess gets an opening night ticket! Hey, I may be on to something! But, then again, that would mean I'd actually have to count them up...)

Anyway, since my ipod is on the fritz (conveniently giving me the excuse to ponder the purchase of the new 'does it scratch your back, too?" i-phone), part of my walk these days consists of going through this many-noted role, especially the arias where I haven't quite determined which variations I want to employ. So I bop along, my steps fulfilling the role of the sturdy metronome, putting myself through the musical paces of this character. It's all well and good, except for the reality that I'm usually quite unaware that I'm not doing this entirely in the privacy and silence of my own head: in fact, the odd glances I get from Mr. Bankerman on the street quickly inform me that I'm giving a free concert to folks whether they wish to attend or not! I hate it when that happens.

Indeed, it happened yesterday. I didn't realize that I was 'quite' so close in walking just behind a lovely lady carrying her groceries as I was working my way through the tricky part of "Tu, preparati morire", and I became painfully aware that she was glancing nervously over her shoulder, and then, clasping her bags a bit closer to her side, dashed across to the other side of the street, continuining to monitor my 'behavior'. (Did she speak Italian? That might explain it!) I'm pretty sure she thought I was crazy!

I'm also pretty sure that this isn't the first time someone assumed I might be one F# short of an octave. I thought a bit more about it, and really, is there any difference between what I was doing, in my 'own little world', and the folks you might see talking to themselves in rapid fire dialogue around Times Square that make you clutch your bag just a wee bit tighter?

Hmm. Actually, let's make that a rhetorical question - I'm not sure I could handle the truth!

*One of the last remaining signs of fall in Geneva
*My new best friend

Thursday, October 18, 2007


It's a good thing I welcome multi-tasking. Surely it's a trait I acquired from my Mom, who somehow was able to manage the rigors of a family of nine, (the laundry, the school lunches, the Brownie meetings, the grocery shopping alone!), and still manage to get her lipstick on for the evening's cocktail hour with her husband: the standard was a whiskey sour, but if she was lucky it would be an "Old-fashioned", with all the cubed bits of citrus crushed methodically by my Dad under the watchful supervision of his nosy 7-year old daughter.

My tasks fall into very different categories than hers did (although I still do like the occasional peanut butter sandwich, which often takes me back to the days of hoping dreamy Eric would come sit by me in the school cafeteria!), but the skill of managing the various facets of my life surely is due in large part to her expertise. I welcome this chaos, because the possibility of boredom simply doesn't exist.

Currently I'm in the trenches of rehearsing another new role, and you guessed it, it's real doozy. Just when I think I've discovered so much about Handel's genius and depth and BRILLIANCE, he goes and throws in a little "Ariodante". I'm tempted to don my sarcastic muscles and say, "No, seriously: ANOTHER heartbreaking, dissolve-me-to-blubbering-pieces, RIDICULOUSLY gorgeous aria from the cosmos?" I mean, sincerely, WHERE did this music come from? I've sung "Dopo notte" and "Scherza infida" a few times, and so those weren't real surprises to me (although they ARE, because to put them in the context of the entire opera brings an entirely different dimension to them.) "Con l'ali di costanza" is a constant surprise in the astounding technical demands it requires of the singer - but that's still a work in progress, and probably will remain so until long after closing night!

The real shocker for me? The one which in the early stages I would just sort of gloss over and think, "well, it's no 'Scherza infida', but Handel had to put something here, right?": "Cieca notte." We staged it yesterday, and it was as if a ton of "duh!" bricks fell on my head and slapped me upside it at the same time! The impression I have in the beginning stages of this piece (we still have 3.5 weeks to go, mind you) is that during "Tu, preparati a morire", in which Ariodante vigorously defends his love's honor, an odious poison begins to enter his veins - the poison of doubt and mistrust. He all too readily accepts Ginevra's apparent betrayal, which launches him into the famous paragon of arias, "Scherza infida". The poison now engulfs him, and in utter despair, he goes to end his life.

But this IS baroque opera, after all, and nothing is ever that simple -- that darn fate mercifully intervenes to keep him from dying, and consequently provide more music making opportunities. But herein lay the surprise for me, for in my quick dismissal of the next scene, I completely overlooked the necessary psychological conclusion of this wrenching poison. (OK, I'll be honest - in my preparation, by the time I turned the page on the 3rd act, most of my energy was being poured into the famous tune to follow, "Dopo notte!" Bad singer, I know!) So what did I uncover? With the crushing discovery that, in fact, Ginevra did not betray him, but instead he was the one who failed in his devotion and trust in her, the tragedy is actually far worse. Earlier he sings of her betrayal, of how he goes to die while the fault lies completely at her feet; instead, he now sees that HE is the one who has destroyed their bond. The anguish penetrates far deeper with this realization - and hence, Handel gives us a crushing, jagged "Cieca notte" for Ariodante to make this realization and collapse in shame and agony.

Luckily, he is the hero, so surely he will accept the responsibility and make everything better so we can have a cheerful, unifying chorus at the end, right? We haven't staged that part yet, so we must wait to see what happens...

This particular rehearsal process fascinates me, because the director has a very different method of working; aside from conversing in French, which is a small, but certainly surmountable hurdle, his language of theater and movement provides the bigger learning curve for me. My first instincts are never the reactions or impetus he is looking for, so I am relegated to a LOT of stripping of gesture and impulse (and I don't generally think of myself as being overly-dependent on operatic 'gesture'). The key element here is that while I may not initially understand what he is asking for, I do trust him - and without trust, we singers are flailing around naked on that cavernous stage -- we must have faith in what our directors are asking of us, else all coherence is lost. (Yes, this trust is rare, but that's a rather old story by now.) So this faith in Pierre is enabling me to take risks, and see where it leads. Finally, with our 3rd week of work I'm beginning to understand this language, and the challenge definitely intrigues me.

The juggling: while deep into the preparations for this role debut, I'm also performing a recital this weekend, working on new concert rep for the week after we close here, planning recital programs by sifting through piles of music, juggling the preparation of other new projects, trying to keep all the little black notes separate, all the while avoiding the pages of any calendar or scribbling of the date, for it reminds me there are still far too many days until I see my husband again. I plunged into the 21st Century with gusto this past weekend as I took a voice lesson with my teacher, Steve Smith, via SKYPE, the most brilliant invention ever for those of us that travel! It was a very needed lesson, as I can feel that there are some issues that need to be addressed, and via webcam he was able to see my problems in all their glory! This use of technology is a brilliant find.

Being a bit run down, it's hard to know whether to rest your voice, or vocalize attentively and work the new repertoire into your body. (It's that horrible singer psychology of: "I think I need to rest, but if I don't figure this out, I won't get it in time.") I'm in a bit of a quandry over it for the moment, but I'm certain that I'll find my way through it. My decision yesterday was to take the afternoon off and dive into the pleasure of my new photography hobby, enjoying a stunningly beautiful day here in Geneva. I finally snapped a photo of my favorite billboard ad I see on the walk to work each morning:

Loosely translated:
Guy on left: "I eat butter."
Guy (or probable steroid user) on right: "I don't."
"Butter. The rest isn't natural."


On a side note, I definitely want to thank Alex Ross, not only for his mention of this blog in the latest issue of the New Yorker, but much more importantly for his upbeat and critical assessment of the state of classical music and it's true potential in our modern age. It's such an exciting time to be making music - scary, yes, for I think there are a number of questions about where we will actually end up, but this is a subject for another day. Meanwhile, I've got notes to juggle: while I may not be able to boast of tossing 5 rings of fire in the air simultaneously while standing on one foot, or juggling endless loads of laundry with the creation 7 peanut butter sandwiches (some with jelly, some without), my brain does seem to be attempting a similar 'virtual' feat these days, so "thanks, Mom" for the example!

*Statue from Parc de Bertrand, just around the block from where I'm staying
*Park bench from Parc des Bastiens, in front of the Opera House
*Billboard ad, Avenue de Champel, and various other stratgic places in Switzerland, I imagine

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Straussian Splendor & Lists

It seems like just yesterday, but in fact, it was months ago that I first walked in Herr Oktavian's shoes, and I miss him!! Just in time for the melancholy to settle in, New York's radio station, 96.3 WQXR FM will broadcast one of our performances recorded live in June from the San Francisco Opera this Saturday, October 13 at 1:00 pm, Eastern Standard Time. I haven't heard it, yet, so your guess is as good as mine if I was "on" that day or not, but I can promise that I gave it everything I had! (If you don't live in the Big Apple, you can listen via their web site anywhere in the world!) I'll personally be attending a Flamenco Festival here in Geneva, so I will have to stay in my current world of Handelian bliss and leave Strauss as a souvenir for the moment!

However, I can tell you that having the chance to hear Soile Isokowski, Miah Persson, and Kristinn Sigmundsson in the leading roles is an event NOT to be missed, and that's not even taking into account the spectacular playing of the orchestra under Donald Runnicle's baton. Oh, I miss them all!

The other loose end is to thank everyone who took the time to vote for me for the "Gramophone Artist of the Year". I extend hearty congratulations to Julia Fischer for taking home the prize, and if you're interested in seeing how each country voted, you can click here. (Needless to say I send up a big "shout out" to the US of A and Italy!!) In all sincerity, I completely get the old adage of "it's an honor just to be nominated", for when I look at the other names on the list, I am taken quite aback.

And so it's back to the piano for a bit more work on Ariodante; we are full steam into rehearsals, which means adapting ornaments to the staging, adapting preconceived ideas of the character, and discovering a true masterpiece. Not a bad day's work!

Photos: Leonardo Vordoni

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I'm neutral now

Welcome to Geneva! This is my 3rd long stay in the lovely city, and this means an air of 'coming home' wafts about it, which is always welcome in my line of work. I know the grocery stores, I have my favorite Boulangeries, and the cost of things no longer sends me into cardiac arrest, for I know what to expect to pay for a measly "Coca Light"!

There are 2 things I love about being here: first, the crosswalks. Pedestrians are nearly worshipped here, for when one saunters across any of the numerous cross walks, EVERY car politely STOPS! No impatience, no gunning of the engine -- you just WALK! It's so civilized and decidely SWISS! I would like to thank all the courteous drivers for the stress-free walk to work each day!

The second thing I love, (at least for the first part of my stay): the quiet. The calm. The tranquility. The ease of life. Geneva sometimes gets a bad rap for being 'boring', but again, when you keep a rather hectic schedule, there is something calming and rejuvenating about being able to relax in clean air and beautiful surroundings. It gives you time to do inane things such as watch the following:

This was sent courtesy of a beautiful singer in San Francisco -- thanks, darlin'!