Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Day 8: Il Finale

All that remained today was an attempted (and failed) incantation, and an attempted (and, again, failed) seduction, resulting in a fierce and fiery curse. Oh, it’s good to be bad!

As ‘luck’ would have it, I had a rather unsettling phone call from my manager before leaving my hotel room to record for prosperity these final, demented scenes, and I found that the frustration which welled up in me, actually fueled a bit of extra rage and fury during the taping, hopefully making for a thrilling account of the accompanied recitative before “Ombre pallide”, and for the raging aria, “Ma quando tornerai”. The uphill walk to the church consisted of a self-pep-talk along the lines of “you have work to do – don’t worry about things you cannot control.” Come to find out, even when things are going well, this business remains quite a challenging one to stomach much of the time. But happily, the music, once again, barreled into my consciousness and saved the day!

The dynamic of the recording shifts drastically on the final day of taping, I’ve found; while on the one hand everyone is exhausted, fatigued and utterly drained, we are somehow also charged up knowing that we are nearing the end of this adventurous journey together, and if we can just push through, we’ll be on the other side of a rather enormous accomplishment; and when a group has such special chemistry as this one does, magic can actually happen.

Immediately we found a wonderful atmosphere for the recitativo “Ah, Ruggiero crudel”, which assaulted the silence with its intensity and urgency, countered immediately with Alcina’s desperation and fury at not being successful in her summoning of the dark forces around her. It’s Handel at his wicked best, and it gives a singer so much astounding material with which to work, every measure rich in possibility. Perhaps my voice teacher wouldn’t approve of all my technical choices, but this is a case where you simply cannot hold anything back, where everything in your arsenal of expressivity must be employed – the character, the drama, the composer demand it!! Ah, it’s just a dream for me to be given a character like this to sink my teeth into. (You compare this kind of recitativo to the continuo aria, “Si, son quella”, and you have the only demonstration necessary of why Handel’s genius is so vast and awe-inspiring!) I was in heaven.

And last, but certainly not least, the final piece of the puzzle: the raging, scorching aria as Alcina relentlessly thrusts her fury toward Ruggiero. The gloves were off, we dug in, and we went for it with everything we had. It cost a bit, as all of us definitely felt the fatigue in the end, but there was a determination to make the most of this violent number, and my hope is that it will have the desired effect of truly showing the fury of a (perhaps, ‘slightly demented’) woman scorned.

And so … there is my Alcina.

Now I must turn it over to the powers that be, let them work their magic, and wait eagerly for the release. It’s interesting to project myself into the future and think of the moment when the first copy will arrive in my mailbox: will I even remember the emotion that has stirred in me over these past 8 days? Will I be disappointed in the final cut? Will I be surprised? Will I hear it and think, “Oh damn, I really missed the mark on that aria”, or think that I did way too much, or far too little. See, here is what I love about what I do: it constantly teaches me about life: I’ve done the very best that I could with what I had at my disposal in this moment in time – now I must let go of it, and what will be, will be. Between now and the release (probably the beginning of ’09?), so much of my life will have unfolded: new roles, new cities, new experiences, bad days, beautiful days, heartbreak, success, failure – I will surely be a different person when that first copy arrives than I am today, and unquestionably I will wish I had done many things differently.

But in the end, I know that I did all I could do, and after the first or second horrendous listening (the first listen of a disc is always pure torture and agony for me), I’m sure I’ll start to come back to this moment in time, remembering the wonderful quality of work, recalling the sweat and the fear and the joy and the discovery, and I’ll feel such gratitude, as I do today, for having spent 10 glorious days surrounded by a wealth of beauty and creativity.

Well, that’s a wrap.


*Part of our basso continuio group: Davide & "It's only a half-step" Nils ;-)
*The parting view from my window

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Day 7: The Work

One thing I might have failed to mention in my previous post was that after the concert, I got to bed around 4:00 am. You see, we sang in Viterbo, which is roughly a 45-minute bus ride away from Tuscania. We also started the concert at roughly 9:15 pm. Remember that Alcina also happens to be a VERY long opera. Throw in a lot of pulsing adrenalin after the concert, and well, you can do the math!!

But there is no rest for the weary when a recording is involved – so today it was back to the studio for the aria, “Mi restano le lagrime”. Alcina has just realized she has once and for all been completely rejected by Ruggiero, and she cries out that all that is left for her are her tears; that all her pleading to the gods has gone unanswered – she has been shown no mercy. In the glorious and surprising B section, which turns to the major key, she says, “If only I could die – for then I would be granted relief.” But she doesn’t – in fact, naturally, she stays alive to sing the da capo! It’s a wrenching aria, written in the elusive tempo marking of “larghetto”, which can be interpreted very broadly, often never settling into something convincing.

In fact, it took us some time to find our ‘groove’ as an ensemble. I think some of the problem was over-all fatigue (I know I woke up this morning feeling as if I had run a marathon yesterday – everything in my body was exhausted), and surely the orchestra was spent, as well. On a day like today, it’s definitely a ‘low energy thing’. But it also happens to be the trickiest aria for me vocally, as the tessitura is relentlessly high, and so today was definitely HARD WORK. It’s tricky to come off of such a high as last night, and recapture that energy you need, to be back fully into the character’s story, however if you work at it, you CAN find your way.

HOWEVER, we are all professionals, and we really summoned our forces and upped the concentration quotient and were able to finally find the magic! Once I stopped dragging down the tempo (that’s that dreaded ‘larghetto’ for you!), and once the producer found the key word (“It’s missing the TENSION it needs”), THEN things snapped into place. They needed to, because this wasn’t an aria I had the luxury of recording take after take: I needed it to be economical. Again, that’s where the professionalism comes in, you summon all your strength and force and concentration, and you DO IT!!

I would never want every recording day to be like this, but there is a certain satisfaction in doing the hard work, having it pay off, and calling it a day! “It’s a day,” and there is a beer somewhere with my name on it!


*From a local hybiscus bush on the way to the recording
*Part of the convent where we are recording - an old abandoned convent which is for sale, I hear!

Day 6: The Puzzle

What a RUSH. Last night I had the opportunity to put all the pieces of the Alcina-puzzle together, and it felt AMAZING! Try as one may, it’s impossible to know how a role will feel in its totality until your perform it from top to bottom, feeling the arc, the ebb and flow of the character’s ever-changing situation, and feeling how one scene affects the next in the context of the entire evening. What an astonishing character this Sorceress is!

I’m very happy to report that I felt my approach was really valid, and actually worked to great effect in the end. It finally hit me what it is that I LOVE about this woman: when she is strong, a wavering frailty and vulnerability lurks right beneath the surface, and when she is weak and fragile, a pulsing intensity and strength relentlessly pushes her on. She is a real woman. I did an interview this morning, and the German interviewer asked me, “Do you think Handel understood women?” And I had never thought of it in those terms, however to my sensibilities, without question, he GOT us (just as Mozart miraculously understood the Countess in Nozze di Figaro.) I’m not sure how a man of his standing, and with his ‘reputation’ possessed such a comprehension of the female complexities, but that’s why the journey I took last night was so gratifying – he understood this delicate, powerful woman.

It’s a rather strange phenomenon performing an opera in ‘concert version’; it’s a real pastiche of intimated drama, intensified music making, and raw emotion. I find that as a performer, a million different thoughts go through my head, because where I would normally be off-stage during the course of the show, in this case I’m sitting there in plain sight, hearing the conversations my character is not meant to hear, essentially joining the audience in rapt attention. In the case of last night, I found myself marveling at the energy that is transmitted from the orchestra alone (and this is what I LOVE about baroque orchestra musicians): each solitary player is completely and utterly committed to the performance. Each instrumentalist is listening with such attention to the singers, and to each other, but above that, they each are WILLING the performance to be special. There is such a dedicated commitment from every single one of them, which is quite beautiful to witness, for sadly, I find it can often be missing in ‘standard’ orchestras. This group is something incredibly special, and it has been an honor to make music with them – thankfully, I’m not done, yet!!!

Tomorrow, it’s back to the microphones!


*Since I was rather preoccupied last night at the concert, I didn't get any photos, but I do like this photo of Davide's double bass which I shot during the recording sessions

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Day 5: Rest

So it’s not exactly the 7th day, but the boss decried it a day of rest anyway! Actually, it was more the luck of the draw, as most of my recits have been recorded already, and they needed to play catch up with the others, and since we’re saving my last 2 arias for the final 2 days of recording, my day was FREE! It’s good timing, as we have the first of our 3 concerts in Viterbo tomorrow evening, and so it gives me a chance to stay quiet for a few hours, which I happily did.

Today was a day to catch up on a load of email (courtesy of our VERY slow internet connection here at the hotel – remember, we’re in Italy!), to read a bit more of Sidney Poitier’s gripping autobiography, “The Measure of a Man” (stunning and inspiring!), and to plunge forward into the land of Ariodante which starts immediately after the Paris concert. How strange to have the world of the feminine Sorceress, Alcina, clash mightily with that of the masculine hero, Ariodante – both by Handel, and yet a universe apart. (Or ARE they?)

I’m having a hard time putting my mind into the character of Ariodante for the moment, because at this point it’s much more about the dry, technical preparation of drilling notes, speaking the text, etc. To be walking side by side with both of these roles simultaneously highlights for me the different stages of role preparation: I’m completely engrossed in the psychology of Alcina at this point, having already done the ‘dry’ preparation, and it’s so satisfying to feel as if I’m really in her shoes! Then I open the Ariodante score, and I’m frustrated with how much groundwork must be laid to arrive at the ‘fun’ part of character exploration. I almost always feel this way (impatient!) with a role when I’m REALLY eager to plunge full-steam ahead and create a real, 3-dimensional character – but the reality sets in as I plunder my way through some quick passage work and it’s a 7-car pile-up-mess-of-a-wreck, that I must be a ‘good singer’, and go back and work the fundamentals. (I suppose this is the discipline my college teacher always talked about!)

Slow and steady definitely wins the race on these things!

Someone must have heard my prayers, because the menu this evening was “Spaghetti alla chitarra con TARTUFFO”. Mamma mia, CHE BUONO! Il secondo was “Bresaola con rucola” which is always a treat, garnished with just a spritz of lemon juice and olive oil. What ever more could you ask for?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Day 4: Humilty

Did I mention that I think Handel was a rather sadistic guy? Brilliantly sadistic, but sadistic nonetheless! Day 4 brought “Ombre Pallide”, in which Alcina finds herself impotent to her powers: she cries out for the “haunting spirits, the night ministers of vengeance, and the blind cruel daughters” to all fly to her side and aid her in her desperate attempt to keep Ruggiero from fleeing her side. She is left feeling completely powerless and abandoned, not only by the man she loves, but also by all the magical forces she is normally able to summon. What follows is a haunting, perhaps paranoid, insistent aria of “pale shadows” in which Alcina cries out, “I know you HEAR me, you’re all around me, and yet you hide yourselves from me and remain deaf to my pleas.” It’s part pathetic, part heartbreaking, part haunting – and the very kind of aria Handel excels in!

How does he accomplish setting such a diverse spectrum of disturbed colors? By employing what may be most singers’ worst nightmare: CHROMATICS! He inches along, (‘millimeters’ along would actually be more accurate, if only that word existed), letting the orchestra and singer ooze through the scale in unexpected directions, swelling here and there in perfect unison. He has the orchestra balloon and wander and drift and heave to invoke what I hear as images of slinking serpents and flying bats and shadows howling all around her head, and she pursues them all in vain. Here is a woman who has only known power her whole life, who is experiencing powerlessness for the very first time. What a fabulous ride!

To say it’s a challenge, musically speaking, is an understatement. There are some vocal lines that he weaves which truly feel as if they were written for a violin or oboe in mind – not the human voice. If only we could work out a particular ‘fingering’ that made the phrase easier to manage! But we are left simply with this invisible instrument located somewhere in our throats, and must rely on the brain to fill in all the blanks! Again, it would be easier would he not have doubled the vocal line ONLY with the first violins playing in ‘perfect’ unison with the voice, and nothing else. One misstep, and you’re done.

Well, happily the first roadblock did not exist: this orchestra is playing so well, that any issues of pitch amongst themselves were simply not in play: they played it seamlessly and beautifully. So it was left to me. It was immediately apparent that in this particular setting of the church, and how the microphones were arranged, that I could not hear one sound from the violin section while I sang these famous unison lines, for they were playing a beautiful piano, and while singing, it was just covered to my ears. So, imagine being in Times Square at rush hour, standing at, let’s say 42nd and Broadway, completely naked. Utterly, wholly, entirely without clothing. And nowhere to hide. That is the precise sensation which washed over me during this recording session. I began to second-guess each half step, each sharp or flat, each little note, because I had no reassurance around me that I was singing correctly at ALL. I began that dreaded inner dialogue that can plague us singers (at least I hope it’s not only me!), where you are singing, and at the same time you’re speaking to yourself, “That was horrible … Ew! ... So out of tune there … Wait, you completely missed that F# … (and maybe the most brutal of all): The orchestra is going to think you are such a bad musician!”

Of course, because I have recorded a number of times, I know how it works, and you’re not really allowed to stop an expensive take because, “I think I suck.” You keep going, because perhaps they will have a few lines that went well on that take which they may need to plug in somewhere else, so you march on. But it’s quite a circus in the mind when you’re juggling chromatic scales, working to create the character, all the while scolding yourself in your head over and over! (And people think singers are stupid!!!)

Luckily, I’ve declared war on that inner game I used to play with myself. (But that’s a story for another time.) So I was able to slam the emergency brake on that unfriendly inner dialogue and get back into the game. And MUCH to my surprise, at the end of the first take, everyone said, “Wow – brava!” Even the producer! I tell you, I was shocked, and I thought, “Surely they are just trying to make me feel better!” What I learned was that usually it’s never as horrendous as we think it is, and even if it is, we must keep going, eh?

So, while the mood may have been good, etc, there was still work to do, and yes, I had to woodshed some of those nastier phrases, but they kept reassuring me that I was in tune – and I kept protesting, “but I can’t hear the violins!” In the end, somehow, it all came together – and it simply became a matter of trust. I trusted my preparation, I trusted their ears, I trusted that they were THERE, even if I couldn’t hear them. That leap of faith, that act of trusting, it simply felt GREAT.

So, 4 arias down, 2 to go: tomorrow is a light day with some missing recitatives, which gives me a chance to have some mental and vocal rest before our first concert on Saturday in Viterbo. I’m still astonished at the power of Handel’s music, at the depth of emotion he sculpts, the sheer beauty of his music, and how humbling it is to sing. Now I’m getting VERY eager to see how it all comes together!

Afterwards the cast of singers went for a pizza – but not just any pizza. This was an ultra-thin-as-paper, crust spread out over 2 dinner plates! The most enormous pizza you can imagine. As the waitress set it down, of course we all protested that we wouldn’t be able to eat it all – and certamente, we all did! I had the ‘primavera’ with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and rucola: PARADISE!

*The 2nd Violin partitura

*Andrea Perugi, the colorful and brilliant cembalo player (always with a wink in his eye!) who always makes me think of Supertramp!

*Davide Nava, the youthful and EXPRESSIVE bass player, both of these enormously talented boys have been on all the recordings I've sung with Alan. They're my baroque family!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Day 3: Marathon

That Handel! Boy, he must have had a slightly sadistic side to him, that guy. Day 3 brought the wonders of “Ah, mio cor”. Alcina has just discovered that her lover, Ruggiero has betrayed her and plans to flee her island, her power, and her love. It’s fascinating theatrically because the recitative that leads into this heart-wrenching, penetrating, disturbing aria, is quite fearsome, as she declares “Farò vendetta, io giuro!” (“I will have my revenge, I swear it!”) One would expect him to plunge us into one of his brilliant revenge arias of rapid-fire coloratura and flaming vocalizing; instead, he gives us a jagged, pointed chord structure, a painfully restrained tempo and relentless bass line, over which soars a broken hearted, collapsed woman singing, “My heart, you are betrayed; I loved you so, HOW can you leave me alone in such tears?” It aches, it throbs, it soars, it cries out – it’s the perfect realization of her pain and utter desolation.

But Handel is not satisfied with that. Oh no.

He is always thinking theatrically, and just as the end of the first section reaches its tragic conclusion, when most of us would have been satisfied with such an outpouring, he LAUNCHES us into “the B section”!!!! Alcina declares, “But wait – Alcina, what are you doing? You are a QUEEN! There is still time”, as she regains her sense of power and potency, “He will either return to you, or he will DIE.” Ah, yes, THERE she is! Here is the fire and the combustible might we’ve been yearning to see from her! No question about it, she is BACK and she will compel that revenge to emerge! We are left with no doubt by the end of the famed B part that she will be the victor. (“I am woman, and hear me roar!”)

But wait … not so fast. Without any return to an orchestral prelude, Handel heaves us right back to where we were, only quite worse off. Even after realizing she is a Queen, that she has power and might, the ache in her heart remains – and it must surely be so much worse, for she senses she may be, in fact, impotent to change it. She revisits the same heartache from earlier, only her suffering has greatly multiplied, sinking even deeper into her core.

What a master. What a craftsman Handel was. How wonderful that we can experience this torment, this desolation and eventual collapse which this man pulled from thin air, put down on paper, and has been brought to life by so many different women through the centuries! I find that utterly amazing. I also find it rather astonishing that a man could have such a grasp of the fragility, rage, despair and more that co-exist in some mystical communion in a woman’s heart; not just an understanding that would allow him to ‘relate’ to a woman, but with this aria he crawls up into the inner-workings of her mind and heart and actually, truly GETS it! Damn. Oh, right – I almost forget, all of this ‘comprehension’ is enveloped in just about the most beautiful piece of music ever written. Right.


So, here I am; little ol’ girl from Kansas left to have a go at it this master’s music from another world, another time and place. I don’t think I’d be too out of line to say that even sopranos struggle with this aria, for it remains quite in the upper part of the voice for quite nearly the entire 9-minute scene, which means endurance is a real factor, and finding a way to sustain the intensity and emotion, never letting it sag, or become predictable of course is a challenge. To resort to another sport’s analogy: this one is the marathon. Especially when in a studio recording setting, because you have the luxury of working at it until you get it right. In this case, this 9-minute tune took nearly 2 hours.

We attacked the A section first – the first time through we hear her pain. I was really stiff the first take, because I was very concentrated on the vocal aspect of it, the technical challenges, etc, and it was FINE, but it didn’t have any of the emotion. Next time through the emotion was there, but the technical things went out the window! (See what I mean about pacing?) After another take and a few more corrections, we had it, but for some reason I still wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be with this masterpiece.

We had discussed going right to the da capo to get that down on tape as well, but I said, “Alan, can we just sing through the B section, and then see what happens?” Well, I affirmed my belief in always following your gut: the orchestra really got into it, I was on fire, and it launched me RIGHT into the cadenza for the da capo, and we let the tape run. After the red light turned off, telling us the stop button had been pushed, we all sort of held our breath, knowing we had got it!! (Nearly.) Finally all the emotion was there, the MOOD, the inspiration, the drama – I was feeling it, and I had let go of the technical worry.

You would think we would have then gone to dinner, but no – this is a recording, and there was still a lot of work to do. It took me a number of times to get the final cadenza to arrive at that great union of emotion and vocal precision (I was flat a lot!), and then we had different spots where one note was missing here or there, or the orchestra needed more time to find their groove, as it’s a very tricky piece for them. It was quite tiring, but we were all feeling it, and there was a real sense in the room that we WANTED to GET this, and I certainly hope we did. One thing that I really like about working with this producer is that he isn’t looking for the perfectly executed take, he is looking for things to be correct, but ONLY under the umbrella of being dramatically compelling and emotionally involved. Vocal perfection doesn’t interest me (although I’m always striving for something approaching that), but I want my voice to tell the story and be the vehicle for this woman’s emotion and the drama Handel was going for. I cannot believe that the thing that thrilled Handel was simple vocal perfection – I have to believe, by the way he wrote, that the thing that ULTIMATELY thrilled him, was the theatrical viability of beautiful singing.

And so I did my best. And it was amazing how charged up I felt after running this vocal marathon, draining my mind of all concentration and intention. It was a good day’s work. And while I profess to hating Handel for being so sadistic in writing such a difficult and demanding piece to sing, ya gotta love the guy, as well. Damn!

P.S. The dinner should have been SO much better than it was after a session like that, but alas, it was minestrone soup, sadly in need of some flavor – at the least, a little more salt, and turkey something or another. Very disappointing. I asked for a salad, knowing it was good for me, but secretly longing for another huge plate of that Truffle pasta from yesterday!

*Views of beautiful passion fruit flowers, taken from a trellis on the road to the recording

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Day 2: Pacing

I remember the shock setting in during the process of my first studio recording (the Handel duet disc, Amor e Gelosia) of how utterly exhausted I was at the end of each day. It wasn’t so much a vocal thing as a mental one: the amount of concentration and energy required to achieve ONE track on a disc is overwhelming. I’m not really sure why, exactly, but the mental exertion feels so much greater than singing that very same scene on the stage; I’m sure the adrenalin which overtakes you on stage, and the ‘groove’ that you hopefully get in, must help immensely – let’s use that ‘swimming with the current’ analogy. But in the studio, ALL of that energy and ALL of that adrenalin is condensed into a single 30-second recitative, which you must summon the mighty energy for over and over until you’ve GOT it. (However, maybe YOU got it on that take, but your partner in crime flubbed a word, so we must start again; and this time HE nails HIS intent and Italian, but you’re flat on the top E-natural. Start over. You follow?) It’s terribly exciting, and always feels like you’re on a tightrope high above starving, rabid dogs with their foaming mouths just beckoning, and I love it!

The other trick with pacing, is that everyone involved in the recording process knows that we’re on a very tight schedule, and should one cog in the engine get pulled out of place, the entire project could be in jeopardy. It’s not really something that we discuss amongst ourselves– Murphy’s Law and all that, but it means that in the first days of the process, we’re cramming in all the recitatives we can (in case one singer falls ill, we’ve got all the group material ‘in the can’), and working at a rather frenzied pace. A tight schedule means there is no luxury of taking an extra 5 minutes to REALLY nail that cadenza; you’ve got to make every take count, and aim to give the producer the maximum number of choices for him to use in the editing process. It means every take, essentially, has the urgency of stepping into the batter’s box in the bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded, 2-outs, and 3 runs down, and I love it!

Day 2’s session offered Alcina’s 2nd aria, “Si, son quella”. Now both Alan and I agreed about this aria from the start (which relieved both of our anxious minds, I think!), in that we both believed that it was NOT the moment where she is feeling sorry for herself. It is not her moment for despair, for goodness knows that comes in spades later! I wanted to find a way where it was sincere at the beginning, but then morphed into a rather manipulative, passive-aggressive treatment of the piece. I think it gives a lot of dimension to the character. It also, once again, demonstrates the BRILLIANCE of Handel, for in these long da capo arias, he gives you the time and the space to develop something that is quite complex psychologically and emotionally. We don’t have to have it all figured out in one line of text – he gives us 6 minutes to explore what is really happening with this scene. It’s just as unfolds in real life: we don’t always know where we’re going with a particular train of thought, we often discover what we REALLY mean as we go along. It’s quite a lot of work to dig and dig and chose which variation evokes the particular emotion you’re searching for, and whether or not you want vibrato in a tone in order to paint a particular color; it’s quite a complex, intense process, and I love it!
The second half of my recording session involved nearly all of Alcina’s most dramatic recitatives. I’m glad we ordered the day as such, because I didn’t have to concern myself with ‘saving my voice’ for the aria afterwards – I was able to let ‘er rip! In working these through, it is quite obvious to me that there is a real disintegration to this Sorceress, and it’s delicious to search for the colors that will bring that fall to life. I marvel at the way hard-core baroque musicians, like these of Alan’s band, micro-manage each and every piece. It is quite a democratic process, with a lot of discussion between the continuo members (cello, bass, lute and cembalo) as they work as a true cohesive unit to breathe life into these scenes: sometimes it involves reacting to what we say, other times they initiate an event which we are forced to respond to, but always they keenly listen and color their playing to the story we are all aiming to tell. It is one of the most vibrant, interactive and exhilarating ways for me to work, and I love it!

Tomorrow brings the trio and the grand aria, “Ah, mio cor.” I best get my rest!

P.S. At the hotel where we are staying, we all dine together, inhaling whatever the resident cook whips up. It’s a little hit and miss, (there is always the primo [most often pasta] and secondo, [always the meat course] so my efforts to win back my pre-vacation figure are most certainly being sabotaged!), but every once in awhile paradise descends onto our china. Yesterday’s lunch was pasta with TARTUFFO and PORCINI MUSHROOMS. Need I say more? Yes: I loved it!

*A little archway on the way to record
*Taking a break

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Day 1: Alcina

So I thought it might be interesting to chronicle here the experience of actually making a recording. Yesterday was the first day we met the microphones for this “Alcina” recording, to be put out on Deutche Gramophone’s Archiv label, with Alan Curtis and his band, Il Complesso Barocco. This is my 4th collaboration with them, and it’s lovely to walk into the first day of rehearsal and see so many familiar faces, knowing that the awkward ‘getting to know each other’ period has passed, so we can get right down to the business of making real music. An element of familial ‘safety’ permeates our rehearsals, assuring me that I’ll be able to afford to take a lot of risks – this is a most welcome thing!

We’ve spent 4 days rehearsing the arias, but quite a lot of time has also been put to dissecting the recitatives – for you see, we sit at a bit of a disadvantage in recording this opera because as a cast we have not had the chance to perform it together on the STAGE, where a real dramatic chemistry would have had the chance to develop. Some of the singers have performed their roles on stage, but in my case, I have not had the privilege (although I did cover the role of Ruggiero some years back). Ideally, I believe you should have performed the role you’re recording many times on stage before daring to preserve it on disc for eternity, but I have a history with Alan of recording roles that I have not inhabited before, and I trust that the two of us will find a very compelling and real character together. I spend a lot of time preparing the recitatives, because I believe it is THERE that you really flesh out the psychology of the character – you cannot simply rely on the arias to inform you of all the different facets and turns of the persona. If the character fails to come alive in the recits, the arias will never catch fire, as they need to.

So the first day of recording roles around, and everyone’s adrenalin is pumping and there is palpable excitement pulsing through the air. I have to say that in my years working with Alan, his orchestra has never sounded better, and his casting seems spot on (maybe that makes me the weak link of the cast!). We started with some of those telling recitatives, and drama flew in with brilliant Italian fervor – one would never have known that we had not previously performed many times together. And what DRAMA! Alcina is such a fascinating character on so many levels, and I’m LOVING getting into the marrow of her character. For example, in her opening recitative, she makes a very interesting word choice in describing the ‘love’ between her and Ruggiero, proclaiming it a “scambievole amor”, meaning a “mutual” or “reciprocal” love. In fact, it is anything BUT, for Ruggiero is simply under her spell, (and she well knows this) but her pronouncement is for all to hear, perhaps to erase any lingering doubt, or simply to try to persuade herself. Her love for him is real (in her eyes), but what a fragile thing it is, because it is false on his side. Her desperation quickly begins to show. See? One little word choice like that makes all the difference!

We recorded her first aria, “Di, cor mio”. Truth be told, I’m quite nervous about this recording, because it’s a bit ‘outside the norm’ for me. Historically, it has been conquered by such icons as Joan Sutherland and Renee Fleming to brilliant effect. And now it’s my turn? Why not, I say! Well, ok, in all honesty, it wasn’t quite that simple:

When I was approached by Alan to record it, I assumed he meant to sing the part of Ruggiero. He hemmed and hawed a bit, and then said, “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of ALCINA.” Pause. [Cue the loud and raucous laughter] He ignored the outburst and simply said, “Joyce, just take a look at the score – the highest written note is an “A”. And don’t forget – we record at baroque pitch.” (Which means a full tone lower than what modern orchestras play in today.) After a quick dismissal I slowed down and began to think a bit. Then I began to think a lot more about it, and said, “Alan, are you really serious? You’re a brilliant scholar and Handel specialist, and this is universally considered one of his GREAT masterpieces: you get only one shot to record it, and you really want the title role to be sung by a mezzo-soprano????? I know you’re a little crazy, but are you INSANE????”

Well, hopefully he’ll explain more of his reasons for this unorthodox choice in the CD booklet, but in the meantime, I had a decision to make. I looked long and hard at the score, factoring in the lower pitch. I listened to Joan. I listened to Renee. (I even eyed the part of Ruggiero with a bit of lust, thinking, “I know this role, it fits perfectly, it’s such beautiful music, why bother stretching myself as Alcina?” Well, never one to shy away from a challenge I decided to go for it. Were I a legitimate soprano, I honestly think I would have passed, because I feel those two have said so much about the character as a soprano, and have sung it so exquisitely, so sublimely – what more could I do? Their interpretations are completely different, but equally engrossing, if for very different reasons.

So I poured through the score, and the more I realized it wasn’t written with a million high C’s, (or E’s, for that matter!) the more seduced I was by this character – she’s a witch, for God’s sake! And that MUSIC! That MAGIC! That bewitching femininity! And how Handel must have loved her! I decided to jump in with both feet into that fire-y coven and not look back. Life is short, right? So I’ve been working my witch-y tail off, and yesterday I felt the first fruits of my labors. What a gift, a joy, a THRILL to sing that first aria of hers, which arrives like a sensual breath of fresh air on the first day of spring. Oh how I love the music of Handel. And you can tell that he penned this particular role with such care and tenderness – I actually feel it when I sing, this attention to each little phrase, each singularly placed note. The fragility and vulnerability she shows in her first aria is simply sublime – and it’s a rare glimpse into seeing this mighty sorceress with her guard down. The orchestra put itself immediately in the mood of the piece, which is a rare achievement on the first day of recording, for usually everyone is walking a bit on eggshells, searching for the rhythm, the groove.

Happily the producer from the Floridante recording is on board again, so I find it comforting to know that I’m in very good hands. The producer listens over headphones in an outside room (or chamber, in this case!), and tells us what we need to fix, until we get it right: a flat note here, an un-Italianate attack there, an ornament that isn’t fitting quite right, or perhaps most important of all – the drama is lacking. As always, it’s a question of balance, and how much to we emphasize vocal ‘correctness’, how much to risk dramatically, and where lies the mystical combination of the two. Happily, I’ve been privileged to do a number of recordings, and through experience I’ve found a way to trust that I don’t have to try TOO hard, but I have to give it everything I’ve got. Personally, I love the challenge of telling the story strictly through the words and the colors and vocal inflections – I hope it makes me a better performer.

That having been said, I do a huge project like this, and I’m immediately struck by the fact that I still have so much more to learn, and must constantly strive for more. What a wonderful sensation! I get the feeling that my enthusiasm for this project, at least on this first day, is overflowing, so I should sign off – there are 5 more arias to go, each one more difficult than the next. Stay tuned!

*Inside the chuch where we record
*Alan Curtis
*View of San Pietro in Tuscania from my hotel window (I know, rough, eh?)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

For the Boys in Blue!

One of my sweetest childhood memories is of my sister and I sitting on our beds, having stealthily stolen the coveted sports page from my older brother, and breathlessly scouring over that morning's "box scores" where the stats from the previous night's game are listed. We couldn't wait to see how many singles Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek had executed, if Amos Otis was that much closer to another Golden Glove victory that year, if Quisenberry scored another league-leading save, or how close George (Brett, that is, but we felt we could just call him, "George") was to capturing that elusive .400 batting average. They were the glory days of Ewing Kaufmann, Whitey Herzog, Dennis Leonard, Frank White, and actual WINNING SEASONS! OH, the youthful summertime BLISS!

Well, a dream came true for me on Sunday when I was able to 'take the field' (no longer the astro-turf of days gone by), and sing the National Anthem for the Kansas City Royals. It was a genuine rush to walk the halls underneath the stadium and see the retired jerseys of the great players who brought us the World Series in 1985, and then to walk up the long corridor to take my place on their field of dreams - distant dreams these days, it would seem, but dreams none the less! You see, my baseball team hasn't been exactly "competitive" for the past, um, let's say decade or so. But I'm still a loyal fan, and there is no mistaking the joy of being in that stadium, now dubbed "The K" in tribute to their legendary owner, and feeling the possibility of a win. (Incidently, the Kaufmann foundation, which he and his wife founded, is the main force behind building what will be the WORLD CLASS Performing Arts Center in downtown Kansas City!)

In this case the odds were against us as we were playing the EEI (Evil Empire Incarnate): those dreaded Yankees. (Shudder) The horrid Reggie Jackson, the sinister Craig Nettles, let's not EVEN talk about Goose Gossage -- OH how we loved to HATE them!! I miss those days, I miss being competitve, and I miss being able to brag about how we shut them down in the 9th inning of the play-offs. (But we DID strike out Alex Rodriguez twice on Sunday, so I'll take!)

What I love so much about baseball, is that it is the ultimate individual sport housed in the ultimate team sport: each player must excel, and each one has his chance to win the game, but it cannot be done without the effort of the 8 other players and the managers. I won't draw the obvious conclusions of how it parallels what I do (they're there in abundance), but I still learn mounds of things from watching athletes perform - it's all there in their eyes - and I relish each chance to take notes.

I was so happy to sing my country's National Anthem for the cheering crowd that day. I thought a great deal about each word I was singing, yearning to feel a sense of pride in my country again, and ultimately was left feeling quite small and humble in light of the sacrifices that my fellow countrymen have made in the name of America. It's not a small privilege (nor responsibility) to perform that song, and I hope that honor will always accompany it.

*Photos by my wonderful neighbor (and Cubs fan) Carly

Friday, September 7, 2007


My sister recently asked me out of the blue, "What's your favorite part about what you do?". I'm not easily stumped or silenced, as most of you who know me can easily attest to, but this question prompted me to really stop in my tracks and search. I knew there couldn't be a wrong answer, but it wasn't a question I could take lightly. After pondering a bit, it was obvious:

I get to be surrounded by unequalled beauty: the beauty of the theaters in which I sing, the beauty of the music I'm continually immersed in, the beauty of the generous people I work with, and perhaps above all, the beauty of the unspoiled human voice, which every so often seems to connect to something unmistakebly divine.

Yesterday, the world lost one of those divine voices, one of those truly radiant souls: Luciano Pavarotti lost his fight with pancreatic cancer.

Was there ever a more beautiful, sun-filled, radiant, natural voice?

Some people love to get into the arguement about what is driving opera today - looks vs. voice, super-model physique vs. impeccable phrasing, size 4 vs. size 44. "It's about theater", we decry! Well, one look at this video, and you have all the theater you need, because it came direct and unflitered from the heart. You see it in his penetrating, haunting eyes, you hear it in his plangeant, melting legato, you feel it through his articulate, perfect diction, and you succomb to it with every fiber of your being:

Una furtiva lagrima

My first encounter with this larger-than-life man was on my Dad's old stereo, playing his favorite Christmas gift that year: a recording of "O Sole Mio". It was the record with Pavarotti smiling that unmistakable BEAMING smile of his on the cover, wearing a large white brimmed hat, and that signature scarf around his neck. It was all Luciano. And that beautiful voice soaring out of our speakers from the scratchy record transported us all to the exotic, distant shores of Italy any time we wanted to go. (And my Dad wanted to go all the time!) I didn't know then that technically this singer was impeccable, I had no clue what good diction or phrasing was, and surely I wasn't aware of the perfection his 'ah' vowel possessed. I only knew it was heartbreakingly beautiful and that it touched me. I also took note of how that single voice could bring the biggest smile to my Dad's face, not to mention to my older sister's face, as much as she rolled her adolescent eyes in protest; you see, we were all hooked.

How many people did he touch throughout his career? How many people did he cause to feel something they had shut off a long time ago? How much beauty did he dole out over the decades, not only through his voice, but through the kindness in his eyes? There are no tables or charts to measure such contributions, but each of us who loved him will attest to his lasting impact, and we shall continue to turn to his timeless, unrivalled recordings where he will live on, and smile with the profound gratitude that our lives are that much more beautiful for having known him.