Friday, May 20, 2005


Chamber music: is there anything more satisfying to perform? (Well, I suppose if I’m really honest I could ask the same question about singing Handel or Mozart, but I’m in Chamber Music Heaven right now, so I’ll bask in this moment for the time being!) Last night I had the immense pleasure of singing two completely different works for the first time, and it was an evening that will stay with me for a long time. I’m here to sing with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and to make music with such esteemed players really is a joy. It’s the interplay that you can achieve with a chamber group that I just adore: in opera, we stand on the stage, towering (or so it seems) high above the orchestra, which dwells in the depths of the orchestra ‘pit’, and it can feel nearly impossible to achieve a sense of unity. Sadly, I find that often an atmosphere of “us vs. them” seems to emerge, which makes it hard to feel as though you’re working toward a higher cause. However, with a group of 25 players, a conductor and the singer — we all stand on the same level, play for the same purpose, (we can actually achieve eye contact with each other), so the sense of creating a piece together can bring a real excitement. When you have players as generous as in this group, the energy can be electric.

The other electricity of the evening was propelled by the debut of Jake Heggie’s new orchestrated version of his “The Deepest Desire” song cycle. He originally wrote this piece for piano, flute and mezzo, and the St. Paul Orchestra commissioned a new orchestration of the piece (at conductor Patrick Summers suggestion). The result was simply out of this world. I’ve performed the cycle of number of times in recital and have actually recorded the piano version (for release later in the summer!), so I know the work well — but let me tell you, singing it with an orchestra is a completely different force! Jake has orchestrated it so colorfully and hauntingly and thrillingly (what an atmosphere the alto flute can create!), that the result seemed to hold the audience in a state of rapture. I wish I could describe perfectly the feeling of breathing life into a work for the first time. This is a piece that had never been heard before; we were charged with bringing it to life for the very first time — creating these words and phrases and music that had never been heard before, and it is such an exhilarating feeling when you know it is reaching and touching the audience in front of you. This is the very reason I do what I do.

I’m certain that this is destined to be a very significant new work for singers and orchestras to perform — it’s American, poignant, beautiful, memorable, and uplifting. Thank you to Patrick for championing it, to Jake for writing it, to James Kortz, the orchestra’s librarian, for commissioning this piece in honor of his wife, Catherine Shipman Kortz, and finally, to Sr. Helen Prejean for sharing her moving, inspiring words with Jake — the foundation of this entire piece.

The second piece, I was singing for the first time was Rossini’s cantata “Giovanna d’Arco”. Someone help me out here, as we were trying to surmise over dinner if this has been performed — in it’s orchestral version — in the United States before. We’re not sure at all, but we may have just given the North American Premiere of this monster!! Like Jake’s cycle, Rossini composed this work for piano and voice, and upon Teresa Berganza’s request, the Rossini Festival in Pesaro commissioned an orchestration of it back in 1989. It is a 16 minute ‘mini-opera’, and it is one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever sung. (But I can understand why it’s not sung too often — it is also one of the most difficult things I’ve ever undertaken!) I came off stage and was just shaking with adrenalin and energy, and very nearly ready to go back and sing through it all again!

But once again, I had the sense, since it is so rarely performed, that people were experiencing it for the first time, and truly discovering this piece along with myself and the orchestra. This is the sensation I aim to achieve each time I perform — especially if it’s the umpteenth performance of Rosina or Cenerentola or Cherubino: I’m certain that there will be at least one person in our audience that has never before experienced the delight of discovering the brilliance of these works, and I am the person who has been charged to introduce them to these masterpieces. I took my niece, Kelsey, to see Le Nozze di Figaro in Kansas City a few weeks ago. I purposefully didn’t tell her a word of the plot, and was curious to see if she would follow it, ‘get it’, or even enjoy it. I had forgotten how surprising it is to watch the Count discover Cherubino in the chair, to see how Figaro squirms his way (just barely) out of all his jams, and to feel the deep, deep pain the Countess encounters in scene after scene — we take it for granted far too often that we all know ‘how it goes’. This is what singing new works has taught me — I don’t ever want to take one note for granted.

The final thought about this great weekend (which isn’t over yet, we do concerts tonight and tomorrow), is what a JOY it is to make music with friends. Both Patrick and Jake are men who are in music because they believe deeply in the power of it’s language and because they believe deeply in the human spirit’s NEED for it. To be a part of a project with people like that is a rare, precious gift!

Truth be told, however, as much as I love these concerts, I’ll be very happy to get back home, because I have 10 more days free to finish painting my loft!! My time at home is so limited that I become a bit like Martha Stewart on steroids and aim to accomplish as many projects as possible, (in amongst seeing family and friends, studying, catching up on my Royals, and telling myself I should rest a bit)! So far, I’ve gone through 5 different colors of paint (finally settling on orange and red…), and WAY too much blue painter’s tape. It’s been heavenly! I am sure that after all the paint fumes I’ll be more than ready to get back to work and spend the summer with Rossini in Italy! Fra poco…

(Photos: With Patrick Summers, Jake Heggie, James Kotrz, and a private ketchup bottle joke; my painting 'masterpiece' - my art is the color of the wall, the actual hanging art work is by none other than Patrick Summers! )

Sunday, May 1, 2005


May 1, 2005

Well, my head is simply spinning in this moment — I’m on a plane, just having finished participating in the gala weekend celebrating Houston Grand Opera’s 50th Anniversary. It was a truly extraordinary event.

One of the reasons I love this profession is that at every turn, in every moment, something begs to be learned. This weekend was no exception. To be surrounded by such amazing talent, by such a varied and important history, and by the myriad of people who make a theater thrive — well, as I said, my head is simply spinning.

I trained with the Houston Grand Opera Studio for 2 seasons, from 1996-98. Without a doubt, my training there is a significant reason I am having a career today, as it was the training ground where I bridged the enormous gap between academia and the professional stage. My allegiance runs deep to that institution, to the many people who had a hand in my progress there. (Gayletha Nichols has my eternal admiration and gratitude!!) You see, I recognize that I am now a part of the history of that amazing training program, a major component of what makes HGO so great. When I was accepted (barely!) to participate in the studio, I was one of only EIGHT singers chosen from literally HUNDREDS of applicants from across the country. Immediately I knew the magnitude of that offer, and I knew that I had been handed a golden opportunity. Recognizing the responsibility of such a gift, I pounced on every single thing they had to offer in the way of stage experience (very limited my first season there — unless you count my 14 performances of Kate Pinkerton!), language training, voice training, etc. But I still say the most priceless part of that time was watching the great singers rehearse. THIS is where the craft is born: in the rehearsal room -- you watch a great singer dissect a role from start to finish and you can witness the process of how their starring turn is born on opening night. OR, conversely, you see the singer who walks through rehearsal investing very little of their mind and soul into the process, giving little to nothing to their colleagues, and you see how their ‘starring turn’ leaves you as cold as ice when the curtain comes down. Sometimes I wonder if the audience feels it as well — if they know sincerity from ‘gimmickry’…

But, I digress! I just wanted to show what an impact this program had on me as a person and as a developing artist. This is why being invited to participate as a featured singer on this weekend meant so much to me.

The gala weekend commenced with a brilliant, immense, breathtaking performance by the truly great Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. There was not ONE SINGLE FALSE SECOND in that performance of his. Every vocal nuance was tied unquestionably to each physical movement, which was linked indisputably to every varied emotion, which lead directly to one of the most complete performances I have ever seen. Can you tell I’m a big fan? I won’t even go into how great a guy he is, but suffice it to say anyone who shows up to a gala dress rehearsal wearing a t-shirt from Wrigley Field, has my full admiration!

It was a sublime performance and I’ve never heard the HGO orchestra sound better!

The rehearsal for the Gala was one of those great moments that we as performers tend to be very ‘giddy’ about. When I wasn’t singing on stage, I glued myself to a seat in the auditorium, along with the terribly enthusiastic chorus folks (who were AMAZING last night, by the way — congratulations!) and was able to watch a great parade of singers working. Again? Priceless. What I saw was a vast variety of temperaments and approaches and personalities, and I realized, one of the reasons that what we do is so damn hard, is that the only thing we have to truly offer an audience is our unique, honest self. And it is entirely possible that they, the audience, will not like it. Not at ALL. We walk out onto the stage, shout to the world “here I am, and here is my voice”, and people will either love you, hate you, or, perhaps worst of all, simply be indifferent towards you. And it struck me that I believe a large part of the singer’s battle is truly finding comfort in presenting themselves without any kind of barrier or defense whatsoever — simply allowing the audience love them. Or hate them. Or take no notice of them at all. It might be the hardest thing of all to learn.

Now, in all honesty, one of the biggest thrills of the night was watching Sir Elton John perform. Yes, he was the featured guest of the evening, and let me tell you, it was electric! I was BACKSTAGE (Can I write that again? I WAS BACKSTAGE!) watching him improvise brilliantly on the keyboard to ‘Benny and the Jets’, ‘Rocketman’, and ‘Your Song’ (with arrangements by the super-talented Jim Lowe!! Bravo, Maestro!) I admit it, I was screaming as if I was 10 years old again at a Shawn Cassidy concert, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! It really was thrilling — and again, I learned a great lesson — excellence in any shape or form is inspiring.

I would hate to forget to mention the fact that I also made my debut as a “Bond Girl”. (Can I write that again? A BOND GIRL!) Sir Roger Moore was the elegant, suave, and charming master of ceremonies, and I was more then happy to be escorted out by him for the final bow. I just may have found my second career! I met the Duchess of York, who could not have been more gracious and beautiful, celebrated with old friends from the studio who are some of my biggest cheerleaders, the staff that makes that theater click (and goes entirely too unsung!), the great crew (who all cleaned up very nicely, each sporting a suit and tie for the big event!), my old coaches who are some of the best in the business, and generally soaked up every single moment of this great event.

And through all of the glamour and the glitz and the paparazzi and the gowns and the stars and the jewels and the confetti, can I share the one, solitary moment that was, for me, the moment that made time stand still amongst all the cacophony? It was watching the curtains slowly part to reveal a slender, beautiful figure on the stage in a single follow spot: she took her breath, opened her heart and with a voice full of pathos, splendor and experience, sang “Isn’t it rich…?” It was Frederica von Stade giving the audience her reading of “Send in the Clowns”. This is a woman, an artist, a humble human being who has given so generously to the world of her beauty, her joy, her raw emotion and her singular vulnerability time and time again. This is an artist who has made the world a much, much better place. This is a woman who stands in front of us, completely open and giving, sharing her very true self with us, willing to let us either love her or hate her, asking for nothing in return — and precisely because of this, the world loves her. She is a treasure, and sharing the stage with her is gift that I will hold very close to me, always.

That was my weekend! So now I’m flying on about 3 hours of sleep to Salt Lake City where I will work with the young artists of that company’s Studio Program. I love it when you see various circles in your life winding their way around you, opening and closing in diverse ways. It seems only yesterday that I was the scared apprentice asking a million questions to the ‘masters’ of these classes! But tomorrow, the questions will be pointed at me, and I will have a lot of fresh thoughts to share after this experience in Houston! Until the next time…

(Photo: from the window of my apartment on a spring evening)