Monday, May 26, 2008


I remember one of many long, deep conversations with my Dad that started out, most likely, with how the Royal's pitching staff was doing, and wound its way through religion, faith, life, and the desire to always stay young at heart. This particular conversation found us debating the difference between "happiness" and "contentment", and how well I remember his saying that the former would come and go at its own pace and in its own time, but the latter was a state of being that could accompany you no matter what the present circumstances - for it implies a deeper, immovable force within you.

Well, personally I'm happy with both states of being, and I'll gladly take both - I'm greedy, I suppose! But from a professional standpoint, I can say there is a difference between the two: I can be "happy" that I got a contract, that I received a good review, or that the powers that be were pleased with my performance; however, I feel a profound sense of contentment when I know I've given everything I have in a particular performance, and that my preparation paved the way for me to be free and express all that I desired for that moment. Sadness can crush at will the sense of happiness, however, when the contract is given to someone else, the review is not exactly glowing, or someone "in authority" expresses indifference to my interpretation. But if I am truly content with myself, truly settled in what I gave, nothing can move me from that place. Perhaps that's what my Dad was speaking of?

I debuted the role of Roméo in "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" Saturday evening for the Paris Opéra, and I'm happy to say that I left the theater deeply contented. (I was also very happy, but that may have been directly tied to the champagne!)

Now that the premiere is behind me, I'll be completely forthcoming: I completely and totally underestimated this role. HOW that happened, I'm not sure - but I think one of the reasons is that of my inner circle of "advisors", for lack of a better word - they're not official, just my go-to folks - but surprisingly not one of them really knew this opera. (I know - how can I ever again refer to them as my trusted "Opera Queens"?!?!) But somehow, this opera just fell through the cracks, and no one leading up to this event was pumping me up with "You're going to LOVE this role - but watch out, it's a really tough one, it's going to take a lot of work", as they did non-stop with my first Octavian. Also, in my flipping through the score months ago to gauge how much blood, sweat and tears I would have to invest into these notes and words, I stupidly and naively looked at the "simple" (HA!) Bellini lines and thought, "Oh, this is a snap - a few low notes, lots of high notes, but all manageable, simple melodies, I'm good to go!", and out of necessity, immediately turned my focus to things like my recital repertoire and my first Handel recording - "the really hard stuff". Before I knew it, Handel was 1,000 light years behind me, and I was unpacking my luggage in Paris marching to the first day of rehearsal with a cavernous sense of "I'm going to be fired, because I am woefully under-prepared for this role. WHAT WAS I THINKING?"

That was the bad news. The good news was that I am known in this theater, so perhaps they hesitated a bit in actually asking me to "please quickly leave the premises", and I also knew the conductor and likewise, he knew my normal work ethic. After pleading for patience I threw myself heart and soul into finding this character, and didn't stop until I was in his skin. Yes, it's "an easy learn" - because it's Italian (which thankfully now comes more easily to me) and no, it's not complicated musically to pick up. But as they say, the devil is in the details, and that is what I relished about diving into this score - the tenuto, the accent, the stretch, the pull, the rests, the silence, the LEGATO - and always always always these tiny markings creating the heartbeat, the pulse, the tears, the desperation, the pleas of this character, Roméo. Even though I never would recommend preparing a role this way, I have to say that perhaps this full-on immersion was exactly the adrenalin and intensity I needed to find his passion and tenacity.

I'm just sorry that I didn't have a better cast to perform this role with. (Insert sarcastic icon here) I don't normally like to write too much about my colleagues here - so much can be misconstrued or misinterpreted, and I try to be very respectful of people's privacy - but I'll suspend that rule for the moment: Matthew Polenzani sang a beautiful Tebaldo (his role debut, as well) and brought his supreme musicality and rich integrity to the role. As the 2008 recipient of the "Beverly Sills Award" and also a fellow "Tucker Award" winner, I went to him after the curtain call and said, "You know, Matthew, I sure hope that Richard and Beverly are popping open a big bottle of Champagne and toasting us tonight - I think they would be very proud of us down here", and we both drank in the enormity of how those two American singers helped pave the way for the two of us to stand on that stage in that moment, and how, as winners of the prizes that celebrate their immense contributions, it felt quite magnificent to be "making good" on those votes of confidence given to the two of us over the past few years.

And of course, Anna Netrebko was making her Paris Opéra debut in this role, and she was a dream to share the stage with - from her beautiful singing, to her completely involved performance, to the hidden squeeze of my hand as I sang my final aria to her. She is a most generous colleague who enters onto the stage to tell the story holding nothing back, and I do believe it is one of the reasons she is an anointed star in this opera world - I think the audience feels and responds to her generosity and knowing that she is enjoying every note she sings.

As for me, even though it was a fast and furious journey, and even though I essentially had only one complete run of the role before the opening curtain, I felt ready, I was excited, and I held nothing back. I have never had a role ask so much of me in terms of the vocal range (as this one begs for a lot of "heroic" singing in the middle and low part of the voice), and I think it has been a wonderful thing for me to stretch into. I welcome the chance to find the balance between "experiencing" the emotion myself, and "giving" the emotion to the audience - ah yes, that's a terribly tricky line to walk in a part like this, but the reward is great. And I cannot wait to sing this part 7 more times. I will be very sad to say goodbye to him for the time being, however, I trust this feeling of contentment will last a very long time.

Photo Credits: C. Leiber/Opéra National de Paris


Gi said...

One can't go everywhere do everything see every show... Reading your posts is the next best thing. Thanks for sharing and making things come alive.

Mei said...

This is a humble post.

You're not the first singer that arrives to rehearsals that way, at least you put all your efforts and you arrived to the dress rehearsal and the opening night.

You always give emotion to the audience, this is one of your strong points.

PS: What about Berlioz's Béatrice?

sabauda said...

GENEROSITY....You hit the nail on the head. And Imagination, which you clearly possess in abundance! One of the wisest things John Copley ever told me, which he heard from his mentor Sheila Barlow:
The THREE I's of being a great performer:
and of these, the greatest is IMAGINATION

I wish I could have been there....congratulations on a wonderful success...enjoy it to the max!

Rachel said...

I wonder sometimes about the emotional balance in performance- between experiencing and giving. My friend Twyla told me once that realizing the moments of really FEELING would be few and far between had been a difficult pill for her to swallow, and would be for me as well. How often is it that you can FEEL as opposed to portray and is it possible to do both at the same time?

I know that, at this stage in my musical development, my thoughts are often purely technical- palate up, larynx down, breathe you moron, don't let your tongue fall back, etc etc etc etc. And it seems like when I DO lose myself in the emotional content of what I'm singing, the vocalism suffers from the physical effects of emotional involvement. Hard to sing with an open throat when your chest is tight with grief, hard to take a deep breath when excitement overwhelms you, hard to avoid oversinging when anger is involved.

So how do you become a vessel for those emotions? And how do you reconcile yourself with the fact that you may feel very little when singing? How do you find equilibrium between feeling nothing and feeling everything? I don't know.

And I'm TOTALLY rambling, my apologies.

Congrats on a successful opening!!

Carlos said...

THANKS Joyce! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, for your wonderful and stunning performance at the premiere and thanks also for sharing some photos of the performance.

Anonymous said...

If I tell you that the old operagoers --who always criticize every possible singer coming to Paris ::insert an annoyed icon::-- were speechless after la prima...

I've never seen the oldies being so full of praise after an opera. They compared the night of la prima (05/24) to the memorable nights when they experienced Caballet & Horne on stage. It was THAT good :)

To me --I know I'm repeating myself but still-- it was a totally unforgettable evening. Loved every second of it: all the buzz about Anna is 100% deserved, you girl ROCK [I hope you realize how truly loved you're in Paris by now.]

BTW, just got the ticket for Wednesday -- YAY! :)


Erin said...

Thank you for such an enjoyable and informative post. Glad you had such a great start in this role.

Yankeediva said...

Sabauda - how I ADORE John C!!! Love the 3 "I's"!!!

Rachel - the only way I can get around that is primarily experience - I learn so much each time out about balance, etc. But ultimately, the way I rationalize this, and to be very business-like, is that in actuality I am not hired to feel things. I'm hired to make the audience feel. I find that there are plenty of chances along the road for me to feel so much of what I do - but ultimately, it's not about me. And if I'm too intensely engaged in my own emotion of the moment, my ability to be a vessel in that instance is compromised. Technically, I find that I have to "go there" during rehearsals - to feel it all, to actually know what those emotions are and to live them out in a safe environment, using the rehearsal process to filter it down. By the time opening has arrived, hopefully I've learned how to put all that emotion into the text, into the phrasing, and let it pass through me.

Now, this is my GOAL. I can't say I always accomplish it, but it's what I'm striving for. And it's one of the trickiest things we singers have to sort of many, that is! I hope that helps?

marc said...

I could't attend the premiere [had to leave Paris], but was fortunate enough to see the general rehearsal. And that happened a few hours after chance-meeting you on one of the Opera's corridors - you were anxious about it and I only could say that you would be PERFECT. Maybe you don't like the word, but IMHO you were as close to it as humanly possible. And along Anna you opened a new dimension, a new space of a dream-world, where you took us all. Words are scarce to express the feelings. Only one can be added and from all our hearts: THANKS!!!!!

Rachel said...

Yes, thank you, that helps very much. A little hard to accept, maybe, but I suppose that's what differentiates the professionals from the hobbyists. Because you're right, it really isn't about us. It's about the music and bringing the music and all it contains to an audience of strangers so that they can experience it, be moved by it.

I'm still trying to figure out how to DO that though. Heh. I suppose it'll come, like so many things, with time an experience. (Side note- that drives me CRAZY. I'm too young to really do anything and it feels sometimes like all my life is spent waiting around until I hit some arbitrary number that says that I am "old enough" to do the things I want to do and sing the things I want to sing. When I was getting into this, nobody told me just how much PATIENCE is involved. I have more drive and passion and work ethic than I know what to do with, but because I'm 20, I can't really do anything with it. Frustrating.)

Anyway, thank you for you perspective and your answers to my questions. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who struggles to find emotional balance on stage. It's a thin line, I think, between feeling and making the audience feel. Seems that way to me, anyhow.

AL said...

I attented the première and I still can't realise how lucky I was !!!! I must thank you and Anna : it was one of the most beautiful evening of my life !
It was incredible.
I just can't imagine that you performed this role for the first time : because you were so great, so right in this Romeo...
It was the first time that I saw you both and WHAOUW !!!! That was so moving, so beautiful. The singing, the charisma, the acting... I'm not a pro, but for my humble opinion, it was perfect !!! I adored it.
It's tuesday and my head is still in the stars.

Thank you very much...
I hope that you know the pleasure that you give and that it somehow comes back to you !!!!

Moreover... I've discovered with this blog that you're not only a great, fabulous artist, but also a wonderful human being...

I just can't thank you enough for that wonderful evening ! I can't wait to see more of your performances.

Sorry for my english... I'm french.

Susan said...

I got weepy reading your post... I repeat what everyone else has said (although I wasn't there) and once again can only say thank you for keeping this blog, for sharing your feelings, your experience and your knowledge.