Monday, April 30, 2007

Sills & Thrills

Allow me to take you back to a day here in New York City, just over a month ago: the sky was pelting the downtrodden residents of the Big Apple with freezing rain, mercilessly reminding us that winter was to have the final word just then, and my cell phone rang. Now, in the apartment I’m currently renting, the best cell phone reception I can hope for is the occasional ‘single bar’ on my phone, which simply teases me into thinking that I may actually be able to carry on a live conversation; but mind you, it’s only a tease. In some ways, it’s a welcome relief. But not on this blustery winter day: as I attempt to beat the cell phone gods at their own game, I boldly answer, “Hello? HELLO!” and I catch just enough of the dulcet tones of this caller’s voice to hear:

“Hel.…is this……DiDona..?..…this is…everly Sills.”

I’m no rocket scientist. But it took me about .4 seconds flat to open my tiny window, stick my head into the pelting, freezing rain and say, “Ms. Sills? What? I’m sorry, WHO IS THIS?”

It was the smile in her voice that gave her away. I would have recognized it anywhere.

So fast forward through the jagged rain, the beating heart, the dry mouth, and the gaping jaw, and I managed to hear that she was presenting me with her award for this year. THE Beverly Sills award. This was huge. That conversation will last much longer in my memory than the terrible weather, for she was quite generous in sharing her reasons for choosing me as the winner for 2007, which I won’t bore you with here. Suffice it to say, hearing sincere compliments from the legendary, groundbreaking artist, Ms. Sills, is more valuable than any amount of money put on a check.

(With Beverly Sills, Agnes Varis, and 'the check')

Which leads to me to the not-at-all-small amount of money written on the check, which happened to be donated by one legendary lady in her own right, Agnes Varis. She was concerned a year ago that Beverly Sills secure the kind of lasting recognition deserving of her legacy, and so she gave the Metropolitan Opera a cool million dollars in her fellow Brooklyn native’s name, designating it to be for promising, young American singers, and insuring many years of such grants. You see, Beverly wanted to go to France in the early stages of her career to study French, but never had the means – it’s not surprising that she doesn’t want that to happen to other young singers.

Can I find the words to say how honored I am? How overwhelmed? No, not really. On so very many levels it astounds me. The only thing I want to say, apart from declaring the abundant gratitude I feel, is to convey what a privilege it is to be linked to these two Brooklyn Ladies (or perhaps two ‘firecrackers’ is a better description?) who have single-handedly accomplished so much for the past, present and future of opera in America. I take this award as a true charge to fulfill the promise and potential they see in me. I wouldn’t want to let either of them down.


But in the meantime, I’m back in “Seville”, and lo and behold, there is magic to report! I knew April 26 would be an electric night, however I wasn’t at all prepared for the sheer enormity of it. My dear friend, Lawrence Brownlee, was scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera Debut, and I was afforded the privilege of sharing the stage with him on that auspicious night. I knew he was ready, and I knew the MET audience would sit in that theater and not know what hit them.

(Larry and I in the lobby of the Teatro alla Scala in front of a statue to the one and only Rossini, July 2005)

However, I wasn’t quite ready! As often happens when one gets a bit run-down, the minute those dormant bugs sense an opportunity, they pounce. And sure enough, a good old-fashioned infection took up residence in my throat.

*Please touch wood while reading the following sentence:

To this day, I have yet to cancel a performance because of illness.

[Thank you. However, if you didn’t actually touch wood, please do so now! THANK YOU!!!]

In fact, I hadn’t seen an ENT for nearly 3 years! But I knew immediately that this had the potential to be a whopper! As the days passed and gallons of orange juice and zinc lozenges were ingested, I was on the mend; but I wasn’t at all sure how singing Rosina on the stage of the MET on a less than healthy throat would fare; so I put the MET staff on alert the day of the big debut, and they were quite wonderful and accommodating waiting for news of my vocal state. (I hereby nominate Sissy Strauss for canonization.) I had a major decision to make. On the doctor’s assurance that there was relatively little-to-no risk, I decided to sing. But I wanted an announcement made. I’ve never done that before, and truth be told, I still have mixed emotions about it, but the determining factor for me was the fact that because I had never sung ill before, I didn’t know what might happen - there was a big unknown walking out onto the stage. My thought was that IF something started to derail, the audience’s enjoyment of the show would not suffer much, if they knew ahead of time what the cause would be. So we did the announcement, I sang fine, and the audience probably scratched their heads wondering what the big deal was!

However, the “big deal” was about to make his debut! I knew from the opening bars that both he and Russell Braun, the new-to-this-production Figaro, would be on form. No worries. And as the show progressed it had a new, spontaneous vitality that was enormously fun to play. The audience was having a blast. However, anyone with a semi-working knowledge of the opera world was waiting for the BIG moment for the tenor – the famous ending aria that is so rarely performed, “Cessa di piú resistere”. How would this not-so-tall, African-American, not-Latin tenor stack up?

It was perfection. He reduced me to both a fountain of tears and a torrent of giggles at the same time. I’ve never felt such emotion for another singer on the stage before in my life, and I can’t imagine that there will be too many more moments like it in my career. Larry and I were both winners in the now defunct Stewart Awards back in 1998. I’ve seen his career go through many ‘downs’ at the start, to now what seems like a string of never-ending ‘ups’. We shared the stage at La Scala in “Cenerentola”, and I saw the hungry Milanese applaud him vociferously. I have only an inkling of some of the struggles he has faced, and we have tackled many conversations about the inherent difficulties of race or stature in this business (and in the world): he certainly is not the only talented singer to face an uphill battle. However, I have NEVER ONCE known him to make an excuse for himself, or to complain that he is all-too-often compared to other singers, or to agonize over a lost chance or perceived unfairness. I have ONLY known him take every comment or occurrence and ask, “What do I need to learn from this?” “How can I be better?” “How will this make me grow?” That is a lesson for not only every working singer, but for every human being as well, and is one reason I count Larry as a true inspiration.

(With Larry after the premiere of "La Cenerentola" in Houston, Jan 2007)

So when he took center stage that night, in front of a sold-out MET audience, but more importantly in front of, and dare I say in tribute to, his Mother and Father, he was saying so very many things for so very many people. This was HIS moment to shine. It was his family’s moment to shine. It was a true thing of beauty to watch a person step into the light, take their moment, share it with so many loved ones, and celebrate all that is beautiful in this world. How lucky I was to share in it.

Every single artist has what appear to be insuperable obstacles on their journey to achieve their dream. Let’s be honest: every single human being has them in their own unique way and time. Sometimes, an example is given to us, so that we may witness first hand, may concretely observe, that it IS, in fact, POSSIBLE to overcome those challenges that seem insurmountable. And not only to just overcome them, but to rip them to shreds in the process! I’m so proud to know someone who has the courage to do just that, and that shares it so freely with the rest of us.

I’m reminded of one of the most inspirational quotes I’ve ever come across. Please forgive me, because it’s been credited to both Nelson Mandela and Marianne Williamson, and I’m not at all sure who is correctly attributed. With due respect to both of them, I’m not sure it ultimately matters:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others."


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"La Maja de Kansas " -El Pais

(Photo: Ken Howard; Metropolitan Opera)

8 down, 2 more to go. Is it July, yet? I’m getting there! Someone told me a few weeks ago that there was definitely a light shining brilliantly at the end of this long, concentrated tunnel, and while I still may not actually see it’s welcome ray of relief, I sense the darkness is somehow giving way slowly, but SURELY! I’m counting on it. Now, because my seat on the train is facing backwards, lending itself towards a sense of nostalgia, let’s work that way as well:

Last night I stood in front of a near-capacity crowd in Madrid singing the great (and I do mean GREAT) songs of their Masters, selling myself as a “Maja dolorosa”, and it was quite nearly one of the most intimidating things I have ever attempted! I knew it was quite an astute audience, and a simple caricature of my “idea of a Spaniard” just wouldn’t cut it here (nor anywhere, of course!). I did trust very much in my passion for this music and in my feeling for it, but knowing I was daring to walk in the hallowed grounds of Teresa Berganza and Victoria de los Angeles (one of my true idols), hesitation gripped my throat just a bit in wondering if they would get any of the words or not, if they would find my presentation genuine, and if they would be accepting of my contribution to ‘their’ music. Nerves crept into my head a bit as I inverted the odd phrase here and there, inventing several words that I can only pray did not have a ring of “Taco Bell” about them, but overall I did my best to embrace every syllable and evocative emotion. The result? I can’t say that it was my most carefree performance to date, but I gave it everything I had, and throughout the evening they gave me a reception muy caliente, calling for 3 encores in the end. Few “Brava’s” have meant as much to me as those I heard after the de Falla and Montsalvatge pieces – truly, words to be cherished!

Previous to Madrid, it has been quite a dense and fulfilling tour. It was most special to sing a recital in Paris; as I said during the concert, I have always considered Paris my “European home”, as it was here that I really got my big breaks on the operatic stage, and I have had the opportunity to sing so many varied and rewarding projects there. The time had come to sing a recital for this warm public, and seeing so many friends and longtime supporters attend was such a gift to me.

Amsterdam was such a thrill, I cannot say. (But, naturally, I shall try!) The recital hall there must truly be one of the best (if not the greatest) in the world: it pulsates with a profound history and significance that cannot be feigned, and from the walls the unmistakable sense of a rich and noble legacy bleeds through each nook and cranny. I found myself overwhelmed with tears as privately I took my 30 minutes to warm up and feel out the space: to find yourself completely alone at a piano, ready to make music in such a hallowed space is an experience never to be taken for granted and always to be cherished. Wow. And that was even before the public arrived! Happily, they welcomed me with the warmest of Dutch arms and I was reminded once again of what a distinctive, extraordinary city Amsterdam is!

(The Concertgebouw)

What can possibly be said about the experience of singing on the stage of the Wigmore Hall in fair London Town? Yes, the hall is magnificent, if only for that grand dome alone; however, it is certainly the audience that furnishes the air of magic and possibility. Such a thing can never be manufactured and certainly it is rare, for they engage so directly in the performance, that a true duet is performed between artist and listener. The silent, electric hush that settles over the hall when the quietest passage is being sung intoxicates me beyond words. I think I told them I felt as if I was having a mad love affair with them – don’t tell my husband!

(The famed "Wigmore Hall Dome", cradled high above the stage, working it's accoustical magic)

Speaking of my husband, let’s talk about Moscow! Maestro Leonardo Vordoni and I made our debut concert together as the “Maestro and Mezzo Show” on April 3 in Moscow. I had chills as my plane touched down, for the thought that I could pass freely into Moscow and perform for this eager public in what was once a cold war enemy to my country dumbfounded me. What an experience to see such a colossal change in our lifetime. Now as I’ve said before, I try not to make this journal too weighted with things personal, as there is rightly another diary for that; however I cannot help but brag about what a fabulous job my husband did bringing Handel, Mozart and Rossini to a Russian Orchestra, eliciting them to play with real style and life. I know I’m duly biased, however, he was beautiful to watch and to make music with. It just flowed out of him. We made the very easy and singular decision early on that we would not entwine our professional and private lives more than we ever felt comfortable doing, and as a young conductor, it is the only option for him to start his career completely on his own and not ‘via’ my career (which is one of the gazillion reasons of why I love him!), however, this was a golden opportunity on which to capitalize and I’m so happy we did. I was just so very proud of him, and found him a brilliant conductor to make music with. Bravo, Amore Mio!!!

(Celebrating in Red Square -- what beautiful thing to be able to do!)

And finally, my bid for the Academy Award (eh hem!): As I flew home HIGH as the Russian Space Station from the final performance of Rosina at the MET, transmitted live across the world via radio and screen, I knew I should have sat down then and there to chronicle the events of the day; but as I said, I was simply too high. Melancholy actually set in not too long after the final cut-off, for it was hard not to think: “Well, that’s it then. That’s as good as it will ever get!” But I absolutely choose not to think in that direction. Instead, I choose to celebrate every single thing that brought me to that moment in time, and as fate would have it, most of those ‘things’ had purchased tickets to watch the show! I made a few phone calls as I was getting into makeup (my brother was pulling into the parking lot of the packed theater in Seattle, a sister was tailgating with girlfriends in KC, a friend was running late in Houston, and a husband, almost more nervous than I was gave me the pep talk of a life), but those nerves I felt were quickly settled by knowing that so many supporters were cheering us on from every corner imaginable. The buzz backstage was off the charts, as every cog in the MET wheel was set on hyper-alert, and we singers were all doing our best to not let the nips and tucks, notes and tweaks, cameras, microphones and overall frenetic chaos infiltrate our concentration.

(with John Relyea, Juan Diego Florez, and Peter Mattei)

From the opening chords of the overture I can usually tell what kind of show it is going to be, and I knew right from the start of this particular trip to Seville that everyone would be on top form, leaving nothing back in the dressing room. It was thrilling to watch my colleagues soar with such prowess, to feel the exhilarating energy from the audience pervade the theater, and to be so completely into the story and into the moment that the ubiquitous presence of those cameras and boom mikes seemed to simply melt away. Magic ensued. The fact that I was performing for so many people in such a larger-than-life way felt, on the one hand, completely natural, and on the other hand, beyond the wildest dream I could have ever dared to visualize. How beautiful to be given a moment such as that: one that united so many of my loved ones across so many miles, one which challenged me as a performer as never before, and one that will live in my memory for so many years to come. Profound gratitude is the only way to describe what I feel.

So, my train is nearly pulling into the land of the exhilarating Jota and of the inspired painter, Goya, and my once invincible laptop battery is drained, so it must be time to say adios. Not only Zaragoza calls, but also, alas, still begging for my attention is that pesky Octavian, not to mention a looming tax deadline (the extension has now become a celebrated ritual!), and the myriad other things that tend to eternally hover on my to-do list! I best get right to it, as I think it’s the only way to witness that burning, brilliant light at the end of this tunnel first hand – I sure hope it was worth waiting for!