Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Miraculous Universal Language

I don't know that I've ever seen a better demonstration of how primal, universal and contagious music making can be:



That is a feel-good video if ever I saw one!

Yesterday was also a feel good day! I had the extreme luxury of sitting on the side-lines for the final dress rehearsal yesterday of Le Nozze di Figaro here in Chicago, and I can't remember the last time I sat to watch this piece. It never, ever gets old, and it's sheer mastery of fragile emotion and simple humanity only grows more profound for me with time.

As I was leaving the theater I was speaking with Maestro Davis, and we were both glowing about the experience of performing this masterpiece, and commented, "If I were forced to save only one opera for eternity, it would have to be this one." I think I have to agree with him 100%.

For those of you who might be eager to hear our opening "night", it will be broadcast LIVE on the local Chicago Station, WFMT, which you can access via your friendly internet connection! It starts here in Chicago at 2:00, so for you fabulous European dwellers, that's 9:00 pm your time!!! I'll be singing my heart out and hope you'll enjoy the timeless genius of Mozart!!!

CHEERS!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ah tutti contenti...

It never gets old.

Especially with a cast like this.

The notes. The intrigue.


The suspicion. The disbelief.


The searching. The study.


The determination. The humanity.


The disguise. The exhange.


The seduction. The deception.


The characters. The mastery.


It's all so very good!!! Color me lucky!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Those details wherein lies the devil!

One thing I've always told myself, is that if the payoff moment in a performance doesn't happen, none of this is worth it. (By "this" I mean the schedule, the travel, the absence, the luggage, the pressure, the stress, etc.) Let me clarify a bit: there will most certainly be "off-nights", and there will be rough patches to trod through, but in the grand scheme of things, if the opening of the curtain fails to bring me a rush and a thrill, and the closing of it brings relief more than ecstasy, I'll know it's probably time to leave the wailing to someone else. I try to do the work that I need to do in the studio that will enable me to let loose and enjoy the privilege of appearing on stage and performing. Perhaps I'm terribly selfish in the fact that I want to truly enjoy what I do! But come on - life is TOO short, otherwise!

But as great as the performance rush can be, my other great passion lies in the much less glamorous world of rehearsal. Collaboration: when it's good, it's so good! David and I spent 4 days in Madrid before our opening concert of this past tour. We had each been working in our own separate studios, preparing like mad: both translating all the texts, he working on fingering, me working on breathing, he sorting out pedaling, me sorting out breathing, etc. Then we meet! After hugs and gossip and "how's the family", he sits down to strike the first chords, and the business of music making and expressing commences.

It's a very thrilling but challenging moment, because we both have arrived with our own strong ideas of what these little pieces might mean, and yet the task at hand is to find a cohesive story that we both will contribute to - a mutual understanding must be agreed upon before unity on the stage can begin to emerge. The advantage of working together again, is that we already have a musical understanding of each other, and so much of the awkward "sizing-up" is way past. Scalpels are in hand, and we're searching for that musical/poetic bone marrow!

My favorite moments are those where a color he finds on the piano inspires me to try a different approach to a note, or a shade I find on a word ignites his imagination in a different way.

"Let's see what happens if we go piano very suddenly when I first say her name."

"Maybe the heartbeat figure comes back in a more anxious way on the 2nd verse."

"Oh, we definitely need to take time over this phrase ... oh no, that doesn't work at all. Now it's too indulgent. No wonder he didn't indicate a ritardando there...!"

Exploration. Experimentation. Imagination. Curiosity. Trial and error. GROWTH.

Ah...so sublime!

We spend hours and hours preparing a recital, and then (to put it rather crudely) we give birth to it on stage in front of hundreds (thousands?) of people, and it is officially no longer ours. It now belongs to the public, and we lose all power to interpret - if we've done our jobs correctly, it's up to the audience to decide what to feel and what our little shades and murmurs and hints meant to them. That's daunting, but ultimately it's incredibly freeing. It means we have had to let go.

Those moments in the studio, so intimate and intense, have taught me more than any school book ever did. We discuss the poetry, the meanings, the possibilities, and then we attempt to convey that through our music. This all was described so beautiful by one of the most beautiful musicians I have ever known, Leticia Austria, who was a coach for the Houston Opera Studio while I was there xxx years ago. Now retired from the opera world, she is also a wonderful poet and wrote the following poem (which she kindly gave me permission to reprint here.) I thought you might like to read it:

IN AN OLD STUDIO

There used to be a piano in this room,
a mid-size grand, whose lid was always strewn
with scores of Verdi and Rossini.
On the walls hung photos of the Tuscan hills,
a poster of a street in old Milan--
they've left their imprint, ghostly squares against
the graying of the years--and on this spot,
a music stand held up the legacy
of genius waiting to be issued forth
through chosen throats. Be still a minute. Listen.
Distant phrases of a long-lost life
will breathe across your brow and tell the tale
of striving for sublime exactitude,
of discipline and repetition, of
the just dissatisfaction with an end
that's less than art; then close your eyes to touch
the keys that are no longer there. And you
will hear the splendor that was crafted in
this room, and leave it with the cadences
of ancient passions sighing in your soul.


*Copyright 2009 by Leticia Austria

It's a mystical thing that happens in the studio, and I treasure those opportunities to explore and embrace the discovery of music, of the world, and of myself. In a way, sometimes it is an assault to go from the intimacy and safety of a private studio and be thrust onto the public stage where you can feel quite naked and vulnerable. But then the music grabs hold, and you realize it was never just yours anyway, and so you let it pass through, and let go.

There is one other thing I wanted to share, written by the great tenor, George Shirley. He's written an incredibly provocative article on the plight of opera today, in particular how it might affect African American singers, and you can find the full article here.

But one passage stood out to me like flashing Vegas lights. Young singers everywhere: print this off (crediting him, please!), and make it your guiding beacon if you're serious about pursuing a career in music:

"To young singers who desire careers, I say, “Be ultra-prepared.” In studying, build perfection in layers. Solidify your vocal technique; master every detail and nuance of every language you sing in; know the score as perfectly as the conductor; develop your interpretative ideas from the score and libretto so that you don’t arrive at the first rehearsal an empty vessel waiting to be filled; in sum, don’t give anyone a legitimate opportunity to criticize any aspect of your artistry. A tall order? Yes, but not impossible! See to those things you can do to become competitive, and don’t sweat the petty stuff!"

Could never have said it better myself.

Just a few random thoughts here as I shift gears from the recital platform back to the infinitely lovable Cherubino...better go check on those details!

Cheers!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Loving it


Home sweet home! I'm sitting in my very favorite spot, music playing, Christmas lights glowing (that's right: they're still up! I was only able to enjoy them for 3 days in December, so I fully plan on enjoying them for a few more nights while I can!), and a full day of productive errand-running behind me. Life is good. Those of you who have a home that you occupy most nights of the year, fortune smiles on you! I imagine you might take it for granted a bit, maybe only seeing the things that need to be cleaned or organized, but take it from this vagabond, you have it so good! Don't get me wrong, I have it good as well - but man, do I relish every single second that I get here.

My feeling of "aaaaaah" perhaps carries an exaggerated sense of proportion this time around, because I was in constant motion for the past month, never bothering to unpack my suitcase once, due to changing hotels nearly every 48th hour. But if I wanted to sing about love in so many different cities, it was a necessary evil. Astonishingly, considering the terrible weather that has claimed so many expectant travelers this winter, I must pay credit to the weather gods and thank them for not one blip of interrupted travel. I owe them big time.

I hardly know where to start in describing my last four concerts. Truthfully, I'm still overwhelmed at the reception. I knew from the start that this program would present a few challenges, but obviously, I've never been particularly hesitant to face obstacles in the past - actually, it's my nature to run towards them a bit. This repertoire is not widely known, nor widely touted for being part of the cannon of "greatest songs ever written". Yet in planning the program, each one of these tunes, in their simplicity and directness, seduced me. I've always been a believer that the most important component in presenting a recital is that the performer identify and love the repertoire they select - that a sense of needing to sing these songs be present, and that was my guiding principle with this recital. (Oh, also, I felt a need to show a different side from all that "Furore": "Amore", especially in the dregs of a grey and weary winter, seemed a most tantalizing venture! I happily embraced the opportunity to be a lover on the stage instead of a raving lunatic!)

Barcelona: oh how I have fallen in love with you! Thank you for the most wonderful reception. Thank you for making that huge theater feel as intimate as a salon with your attention and devotion, and for carrying on such an enthusiastic dialogue! I first sang on your stage a few years ago in my first (and most likely only) appearance as Fenena, with the epic performances of Leo Nucci and Maria Guleghina as Nabucco and Abigail. I'll never forget the roar of applause at the end of those concerts that went on and on, and I remember thinking, "This house is something special." Well, you certainly overwhelmed me with your reception, and I cannot wait to be back in your fair, picturesque city! (Sorry, no time for photos this trip, but I'll be back!)


William Lyne was the director of Wigmore Hall for over 35 years. He refurbished and revitalized it, loved and nurtured it, and as a result it is the most special and revered recital platform in the world. It's old news, but it was the scene of the crime for that rather famous critique leveled at me during the 1997 song competition: "You have nothing to offer as an artist" (which, while devastating at the time, actually fueled me on a rather great way to work my tail off to be sure no one could ever assail me with that observation again!) These were my 4th and 5th recitals underneath that gold frescoed dome, and as I mentioned in tacky "Academy Award Fashion" on Thursday, each time it means something more to stand on that stage and share music with such a beautiful public. I will not soon forget these two evenings on Wigmore Street.


Arriving in Brussels for the 4th concert of the week, David Zobel and I were a bit tired and run down, which, having unloaded our luggage at the hotel, warranted a big ol' pasta dinner: linguine with chevre and smoked salmon. The creamy carbs must have done the trick, for we somehow pulled together the energy for the eager Belgium crowd.

Returning to this theater brought forth a flood of memories, for it was here that I recorded the "Furore" disc not quite 2 years ago. That means the small things like the familiar dressing room, the welcoming faces, and the nearby restaurant I remember liking, all contributed to making me feel at home and relaxed. Even if it was the 6th concert of the tour, nerves are still present, and the expectation of wanting to please the audience remains quite high, not to mention dealing with a tired body which makes the challenge a bit more daunting.

I have to say that it was the MOST strange concert! I suppose at the start it felt as if the audience was quite timid - not sure of whether to clap or not, (I invited them to kindly save their energy and not tire themselves out), and David and I didn't quite know how to take it; we were slowly convincing ourselves that it was a disaster! At intermission, the powers-that-be assured us that this was normal, and that it was, in fact, going quite well. But neither of us was convinced. More tepid response in the second half really had us worried. It's a dangerous frame of mind to get into as a performer: the moment you start imagining that they don't like you, you can either start overdoing things, or giving up with a "why bother" shrug and try to finish without inflicting too much damage. But we really fought those temptations, kept giving all we had (both of us were sad that this was our last recital), and at the end were completely bowled over by the unexpected exuberance of the Brussels public. Truly - I didn't see it coming.

Just as performers have different personalities and quirks, audiences certainly do as well, and this one completely took me by surprise. In the end, it would appear that they whole-heartedly entered into the intimacy of our songs and didn't dare disrupt the mood. Well, my lesson is learned! You NEVER know what an audience is thinking or feeling until the end, (if, even then!) and if I'm busy gauging reactions and worrying if they like me or not, I can't possibly have my head in the expression of the music, for it's too busy analyzing what that *cough* meant.

That's a wrap for the moment, although David and I will revisit this program for Paris in June (Aaaah...Paris in June!), but until then, it's time for me to get my pants on and start flirting with anything that moves. Cherubin d'amor....!