Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gratitude - Day 107

I'm grateful for standing ovations of 1! The "Furore" recording finished up early yesterday, and the champagne was popped with members of the orchestra to toast and celebrate, and then everyone went their separate ways, and it dawned on me that I was ravenous. So I stopped by a fabulous Thai restaurant to satisfy my demanding stomach, and this little girl greeted me! She was absolutely beautiful and adorable and friendly and without a small degree of personality, and in essence, she was my "date" for the night - it made the feeling of "this is totally pathetic, dining alone after such a monumental achievement" (which may be an overstatement, but it's how I felt at the conclusion of this project...) slightly less acidic. Instead, she blew me a kiss, brought me my change and wished me a 'bon voyage'. No mistake about it, I was grateful for her smiling face and old-world eyes!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sweet repose? Not on your life!

I love this guy. He sits atop the Town Hall in the amazing "Grand Place" in the heart of Brussels. From the ground he's gnat-sized, but with the welcome help of a big zoom lens, he begins to come to life. It would seem to me that he could launch into a rather heroic aria of fury and vengeance at any moment! Also on the square are astonishing houses built into each other with marble and bronze and swimming in statues. It puts to rest some of my fears that the 21st century is single-handedly inventing decadence; no, alas - it has been around for ages. One of these homes boasts a construction date of "1699". That's three years before Handel's father insisted he entered law school, which he begrudgingly, obediantly did. Thank goodness that didn't last. But all around me is inspiration and atmosphere encouraging me to stay strong, healthy and motivated going into my last day of this project - perhaps, staying rested is the main catch, because inspiration certainly thrives in abundance here.

Part of the trick in having a successful recording session is in the planning: what numbers to attack first, which to save for the end of the day when all participants are exhausted, where to put the pieces that will require the maximum concentration (well, ok, that's ALL of these bad-boys, so take your pick!), and what about the fireworks? Are they best launched into before lunch when energy is still high, or just after lunch when people have rested a bit and may just arrive fresh and invigorated? I've found that just after the morning coffee break seems to be the most promising - we've all had our shots of caffeine, and the afternoon temptation to slip into "siesta" mode is handily avoided!

Yesterday I opted to start with two of the more cantibile, or languid, legato pieces. First up was "Dolce Riposo", Medea's aria from Teseo. It is pure, lyric bliss. It's one of Handel's little gems which he gifted so generously to this world, and it's a rare moment of quiet serenity for this tortured creature, Medea. She speaks from an emotional distance of something which cruelly eludes her, and so Handel paints her line in long, wilting strokes of contained aching, with a quiet recognition of a fate which does not belong to her. My heart weeps for her.

We then stayed in the same atmosphere to address the suicidal aria of Admeto, which follows a RAGING accompanied recitative. I knew I wanted to come back to this recit later in the day - in fact, as the very last undertaking so I could afford to hold nothing back - no worrying about 'saving' some energy or voice for another aria. No - I wanted total abandon. But more on that in a moment: this work requires a bit of suspended energy, for this opening aria (it's how the opera actually starts) finds the main character praying for his eyes to close once and for all, in all eternity - for only there he will surely find peace.

I'll selfishly digress for just one moment to explain why this suffering seems to touch my soul so vividly - first of all, I think Handel's purity and immediacy of line and harmony possess a quality that not only pierces the heart, but enters it without mercy. When he sculpts these aching lines, driving the heartbeat of the base line relentlessly underneath it, there is only one place for it to go - and that is deeply into the heart. I believe that the heart relishes to be "exercised" in this way - for I think if we can access such depth through music, it teaches itself that it's ok to 'go there'. It is our doorway to those things we fight so desperately (and uselessly) to shut down.

I can also quote Placido Domingo: I read somewhere recently in an interview that was centered around his interpretation of "Otello" (which I MIRACULOUSLY saw in Milan - his return performance after having had to leave mid-show a few nights earlier - he was, in a word, miraculous.) Again, I'm they asked him about all the suffering his characters go through and how he handles it, and he responded something along the lines of how wonderful it is to suffer on stage. I'll second that. There is something cleansing and delicious about it - probably because it is essentially removed from "me", but at the same time, I am living it - I'm feeling the heartbreak, the desolation, my pulse races, my muscles clench - good gracious, especially when Handel is the author! And then? The cleansing comes. And I do feel cleansed after experiencing this music. Maybe it's a bit dishonest to arrive here courtesy of fictional characters, but I don't think so - I think it's a gift.

So - where was I? Admeto: suicidal. Yes - that's where we left off. Poor guy - that's a VERY dark place to START a marathon Handel opera! With one stark chord, he is awakened from yet another torturous nightmare where he is relentlessly pursued in torment and near possession plunging him into the depths of hell and despair. The "tempo" (or in this case, "emotional") markings whip violently between "con stupore" to "adagio" to "agitato" back to "adagio" to "furioso" and ending in a spent, desolate "adagio, e piano". Then the only thing left to do is pray for relief - the shutting of his eyes for all eternity. I prayed for death in the morning and dealt with the "horrible larvae" ("orride larve") as a parting gesture at the end of the day!

*Let the discussions for the appropriate and the inappropriate use of chest voice begin*

LUNCH BREAK! Still feeling guilty over my malo-cake binge, I felt in serious need of real nutrition. I happened down a street that consists ENTIRELY of restaurants. I shall henceforth refer to it as the Modern Garden of Eden. A chalkboard with an 'entrecote' special jumped out at me - IRON was called for, and steak it was to be! I sat with a beautiful book, in the middle of this beautiful street, beautiful weather - I rested my voice, escaped a bit in the story, and savored each bite of the steak. I'm sure the shallot butter on top helped it go down more easily, but it was just what my body needed.

Back to the theater, and our trumpet arrived! THIS may be my very favorite trick, or let's say "device" of Handel: just when you can't possibly take it any more, he pulls out his secret weapon - HORNS!!! TRUMPETS!!! BRASS!!! Tonally, there is nothing like it. It's the stroke of genius that elevates Alcina, for example - after nearly 30 da capo arias, just as the evening is waning, and BAM! "Sta nell'ircana" arrives on the scene with brass, and the entire theater jumpstarts to life. Well, we didn't record that gem, but another one a bit more obscure, but WOW did it feel good. I think it's just what the disc needs for that little (or big!) jolt. I was struck, once again, how a stranger can arrive on the scene and with no rehearsal, we can all join in the making of music. Thirds rolled out with little effort, phrasing married without any hint of a prenup, and within the hour, he disappeared again - job accomplished. Life is so funny - it just flits by.

So we have one more day - Tuesday, in which to finish the rest of the pieces. We've done all the big scenes, so I think we're in good shape. A free day to rest up a bit more, and then before I know it, I'll be on a plane - all of this behind me. Then I have a week to think about "wherefore art thou, Romeo???"

Gratitude - Day 106

I'm grateful for technology that enhances the beauty of this world. I've spent a fair amount of time with these little devices over the years, particularly in the past week here in Brussels, as these collectors of sound have been picking up all the sounds and colors and words and textures that we have been creating. I know it's not THAT complicated of a device, but it still boggles my mind that a veritable tangle of metal and wires can capture a wave of sound from instrumentalists and myself, and later it can crash into "your" living rooms, car stereos and ipods. Amazing!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Gratitude - Day 105

I'm grateful for looking up and having my breath taken away.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gratitude - Day 104

So apparently I do not, in fact, have any shame.

Here it goes: I'm grateful for Mallomars. (Or, in this case, "Melo-cakes") Yes, I'm wildly grateful for them and for the insanely short sugar high they bring!

Sugar, Salt and Hops, oh my!

I almost didn't have the energy to get to the grocery store tonight after the long patch session at the theater, and definitely couldn't quite stomach the idea of braving a busy restaurant on my own - there's a giant seafood convention in town, and I couldn't face the corporate vibe. All I craved was to be at home (thousands of miles away, mind you) being sent into the blissful oblivion of raucous laughter morphing helplessly and deliriously into cleansing tears in the most perfect balance as only my husband can do! I didn't have a bad day in the least, however - it was actually a fabulous, thrilling and rewarding day - but I'm simply spent. Like a lot of the world, I'm tired today.

And THAT, my friends, is a dreadfully perilous state in which to enter a grocery store. I had every intention of buying lettuce, broccoli, tuna, mozzarella and cherry tomatoes and indulging in a large, kaleidescope of a salad Barry Sears could photograph as a textbook example of the perfect meal for his next book. Instead - what made the final cut into my shopping cart? I promise I'm not making this up, and because I have a modicum of self-respect, I'm BARELY resisting the temptation to photograph it for blackmail material! (Oh forget it, it's definitely going to be my 'gratitude photo' for the day!)

*Whole grain bread, which has hitherto remained uneaten

*Orange juice, also undigested - it's on tap for the morning

*Kettle Chips of the Sea Salt variety (cue unsolicited endorsement) - completely disposed of

~ and ~

*Melo-Cakes, which are apparently Belgium's slightly inferior answer to "Mallomars"

Now, I'm not one to normally eat Mallomars - in fact, I can't honestly remember the last time I ate one. (The 80's?) And I can't honestly remember the last time a craving for the fluffy sugar bombs overcame me. (Um, never?) But there I was, surely profaning my Mom's legacy of teaching me how to balance a meal properly, as I decided what would be on my personal menu tonight: Sea Salt Kettle Chips, Mallomars, and the lone beer sitting in my fridge: "Orval", a genuine Biere Trappiste! I've officially decided that SUGAR - unrefined, glorious sugar - combined with starchy, crispy, salty, fried carbohydrates - rounded out with a bit of yeast and hops, is, in fact, the official PERFECT meal after a long, draining day.

I'll eat green tomorrow.

So feeling happy, revived and full of quick-burn energy, I'll catch you up: Tuesday night was my second concert of this blazing project of raging Handel arias. It was a very special and memorable evening to be a part of. For those keeping track, I felt quite relaxed about the entire program - simply having gotten through it a few nights earlier gave me the confidence that I could, in fact, make it to the end in one piece, and this knowledge alone was enough to allow me to let go and dare a lot. It was a wonderful feeling. The beauty of Handel is that a single aria is NEVER EVER the same twice - I experimented with different colors, opted for alternate phrasing, changed dynamics, and explored different subtexts for the characters. Most of which was quite organic, but since the concert was also being recorded, for those things that I knew had gone well previously I thought, "why not give the producer a different choice?". The two (and a half?) hours felt very alive and, in fact, improvised, which ultimately is what I always strive for.

The response was overwhelming - again, I stand in amazement that as total strangers, a group of over a thousand ticket buyers and I, as well as the orchestra and conductor, can all come together in one solitary experience - I just LOVE that! I feel as if Brussels presented me with a red carpet, and for that I am most grateful. I will be terribly proud to have this city's name on my disc.

Part of the wonderful EMI/VIRGIN team were on hand, as well as a video crew who is preparing a "promotional video" for the release - and I'll admit, all of this is terribly fun and exciting for me. The project has been so long in the making, that to have it finally coming to fruition feels wonderful. The video group followed me around yesterday for a slew of interviews as well as exploring the city, rain and all, and I felt the temptation to pinch myself along the way. I arrived at the end of the day exhausted, out of anecdotes, and ate a salad in good faith for good health...

Today it feels like the hard work began. Doing part of the recording as LIVE is electric, spontaneous and boiling with energy - I'm unaware that I'm working. It's not about being safe, meticulous or about mathematical half-steps. Today, however, brought the opportunity to address those pesky half-steps, unison pizzicati with a bit more exacting precision. Then it will be up to the producer to find the perfect balance of exquisite musical qualities with the drama and the fire of the stage. It's the first time I've done it in this order (usually I've done the recordings first, followed by live concerts thinking, "But why can't we re-record everything NOW - it's so much more exciting with an audience!") So I feel this has been a real luxury.

First off this morning was an aria that wasn't heard on the concert, so we were starting from scratch. Last time I sang it was in college, in fact - probably quite poorly! The flashbacks were blinding. But I'm thrilled to be including it. Then we worked some of the more complicated, firework-y ones, and that was meticulous, concentrated work, demonstrating for me how far from 'perfection' a live performance can be! The afternoon was devoted solely to two of the biggest endeavors of the project: "Scherza infida" and "Where Shall I fly?" It was one of the most sublime ways to spend an afternoon imaginable. I mean, are you kidding me? The work for me was about color choices, dynamics and highlighting a few tricky passages, but overall, it felt great knowing we were working from a very strong foundation from the concerts. Revisiting Dajanira, the seed of inspiration for this themed disc, has been SUCH a gift.

You know, my brain nearly shorts when I think that two such astonishing scenes could have been created from the pen of one solitary man. Staggering.

But the concentration level and energy output knocked me out. My gourmet dinner was perfectly awful, and yet hit about 13 different spots! I can now call it day knowing there is still a lot of work ahead, but feeling a wonderful sense of accomplishment so far.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gratitude - Day 103

I'm grateful for open doors which come in all sizes, often unexpectedly, and often hold great treasures of opportunity, growth and amazement.

I haven't the faintest idea of what THIS particular open door (or, perhaps more accurately, "open window") holds behind it, but the light certainly carries a tempting invitation!

PS - recording update to come. Today was packed w/ interviews and outings for a promotional video (I know..."puff, puff!") and tomorrow a big patch sensible rest beckons!

PPS - this photo is from the "Grand Place" which is easily one of the most breathtaking squares in all of Europe!

Monday, April 21, 2008

The real world

A friend of mine recently sent me a video from about a brain surgeon (or neuro-anatomist, I believe she is called) who suffered a severe stroke and lived to tell about it, in an immensely inspiring, uplifting 18-minute presentation. TED is a fascinating site that can cause one to lose more time than perhaps they can afford to, but you feel ok about it, because it's profoundly informative and fascinating!

So I was busy losing a bit of time, browsing the site and sampling bits of quantum physics here and world hunger there, etc, and up popped a name of a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a composer and inventor and overall boy-wonder-genius: Tod Machover. (I had the enormous privilege - and challenge! - of creating the deeply satisfying role of "Katerina Maslova" in his opera Resurrection a "few" years back in Houston.)

Anyway, I obviously had to click on the video, and I expected to simply find more whacky inventions and crazy ideas for bringing music to the masses which he has done with incredible projects across the globe - but instead, I was stopped dead in my tracks with tears streaming down my smiling face. It's a 20-minute presentation in which he chronicles some of his pioneering ideas and future projects, building to the crescendo of meeting Dan Ellsey, a man with cerebral palsy, who he and some of his students at MIT have engineered a device for DAN, who is essentially immobile, allowing him to conduct his own composition, enabling him to MAKE MUSIC. I don't know that I've ever witnessed a greater example of why music is essential in our world. It's 20 minutes - I invite you to grab a cup of coffee and maybe a kleenex, and CLICK HERE.


Gratitude - Day 102

I'm grateful for the long awaited spring, manifested so perfectly in nature.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Blossoming furiously

This is perhaps the perfect photo to post about my first concert here in Brussels last night at La Monnaie: not quite in full bloom, perhaps a few rough edges here or there, and while perhaps something unexpected is close to emerging, it is something quite unique just as it is. Ah - blech...I'm trying desperately to make an analogy here, and not finding much success - in the end, I just liked this flawed but beautiful young rose, and perhaps it does share a tiny bit in common to my concert, but I will stop searching for any parallel poetic justification - that's for others to do or not to do...

I had an amazing time last night. So much so, I was still wide awake at 5:30 am. This concert pulses with racing adrenalin from start to finish for me. There is no warming up, no easing into it, no gauging the hall or audience, no coasting - it's 100% impact from the get-go. I don't know that I was quite ready for the intensity - although I certainly should have known better from the theme - no one gets off easy in these pieces! Again, here I am taking a program out for the very first time, which is an enormous learning experience in itself, no matter how well prepared you are: the pacing, energy, voice, the arc of the evening - all of this can only be acquired through performance, and it's really only possible once the wonderful public arrives - for that throws the entire equation off from our impeccably settled rehearsals! It's the energy/public/adrenalin factor! Ah ha - it's the EPA!

What is wonderful about the mysterious, mystical "EPA" factor, is that it charges all of us up on the stage: last night the orchestra was on fire, Christophe and I seemed to be dancing this music together, and everyone felt 100% committed - this is all I can ever ask! It's a thrilling feeling to be swept away like that: it doesn't mean it's a note-perfect performance, but again, that's not why any of us are up there. It can also mean that you get a bit *too* carried away in tempo or temperament, but that is where the lesson of pacing comes learn how far you can go, and if, in fact, you dare afford to go farther. I just love that this is a constant learning process.

I had a few interviews to do today (working way ahead here, as I meet with press people now in order for them to write up feature articles to coincide with the arrival of the disc this winter...which gives me a bit of seasonal whiplash - NOT WINTER AGAIN!), but we were in a cafe having a lovely, interesting interview (which thankfully felt more like a conversation than a rehashing of "where I was born"), and a lady approached the table. I'll be honest, I thought "Wow - this is good timing, maybe the journalist will be impressed that a fan is doling out compliments to me this morning." Well, the compliment was backhanded at best, once she saw fit to inform me that I was terribly tense during the first half - you see, she was in the front row, so she could take note of everything, and she was asking if I thought that would improve as the performances went on. Well, naturally, I hope I improve with every single phrase that I sing - any artist that I know who is serious about their craft feels the same way, and I politely mentioned this to her, mustering a big smile. And while it took a bit of lip biting, I opted not to explain that there is a slight difference between INTENSITY and BEING tense - and I don't know that I've ever sung a more INTENSE program ever before. So perhaps she didn't get my dramatic inflections. But I had to chuckle, for in nearly every moment of my career when things seem to be going well, there is just a LITTLE asterisk included somewhere nearby - people ask me how I stay grounded? It's lovely ladies like today that make me smile and make me realize it's ALL a matter of opinion! I will always do my best, and leave it there for the paying folks to decide if they got their money's worth or not. At the end of the evening, if I gave it my all, leaving nothing behind, I am happy. The rest of the audience greeted me with a standing ovation, and it was the warmest welcome I could have hoped for here in Brussels! Dank u well ~ et~ Merçi beaucoup!

So what happens now? I get a DAY OFF tomorrow! I will be working a lot on the notes I took from listening this morning (where I need more text, more legato, more drama, more rhythm, less emphasis) as well as looking more at Romeo - lest I forget my next job looming on the horizon - and stay relatively quiet. I actually feel quite relaxed going into the second concert knowing that the orchestra and I are starting to really play with each other - and YES, even laughing together! I also know that there is a lot of wonderful material from the first concert, giving us a great foundation to start building something really wonderful. It's such a different way for me to record, being in front of a live audience, and I can feel immediately that it will bring a very special energy and power to the disc - it's that mystical EPA! I won't even attempt to close out my bad poetic attempt here by posting a rose in full bloom - just enjoy the bliss it invites!

Gratitude - Day 101

I'm grateful for reminders of what bliss looks like. Pure, unfiltered bliss which just IS.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Gratitude - Day 100 (!!!) / Furore - Day 1

First things first, I'm grateful for really cheeky cherubs and those artists who make me smile. I'm sorry, but it's impossible to look at these little guys and not appreciate the humor of artists/sculpters of yore! I want to know the story here...and I love an artist's work from years past that makes me feel that way. This intimate pair is tucked up on top of the stage left (to your right, if you're sitting in the theater) of La Monnaie here in Brussels watching "attentively" over all the proceedings - actually, they seem a bit distracted to me! Priceless body language, priceless expressions, cheeky CHEEKY little cherubs!!

So onto the recording. Tonight was the "dress rehearsal" for the concerts which open tomorrow evening at La Monnaie for the Handel Concert/Live recording, "Furore". My "dress" consisted of my beloved "Puccini Hates Me" t-shirt chosen simply on a whim. Actually, maybe that's not true - I think subconsciously I was hoping to get some of the orchestra members to laugh, but I'm not entirely sure I was successful. Regardless, everyone was quite concentrated, so perhaps the laughs will come later. (One can hope...)

We had a 3 hour rehearsal this afternoon, working through the entire program, revisiting tempi, cadenzas, atmosphere, and generally feeling each other out in regards to theatrical temperament and musical ideas. However, the reality is that it can take awhile for a group of strangers to gel, because while they are very used to working together as a group, I arrive on the scene as a complete outsider, with piles of new music, with my crazy ideas - and it just takes time, rehearsal, patience and a bit of daring to find the way to make it all fit together. I think we started finding that in the rehearsal this afternoon.

But it's also this precise encounter that boggles my mind: total strangers can be brought together in such a significant experience through the language of music. THAT blows me away. I don't know any of these players, where they come from, what their ambitions are, what their struggles have been to bring them to this particular spot, who they love, or why music is important to them - and yet I am relying on them to support me and to walk through this with me. I get to make music with them! Anyone who doubts that trust is no longer bankable today need only to look at a musical rehearsal of strangers: it's ALL about trust. (And that's only us players on the stage - it's not even considering the audience, which functions on an entirely different level of trust and surrender!) Once again - the stage teaches.

So we had a 2 hour dinner break which found me hunting at the opera canteen for nutrition (I had been hit on ONE too many times on my Metro ride to the theater earlier, and I was most definitely not in the mood for more of the same during my dinner break!) which was bad news, because the only appetizing option on the chalkboard was a "pasta" dish (and by that I mean a rrrrreally soggy, sorry attempt to marry flour, eggs and water) with tofu. Wow. It was bad. But I needed the energy, so I tolerated about a third of it, grabbed a banana and called it a "meal". A few minutes at the piano, and I was ready to go.

They had the microphones in place, sound checks all set, and we laid down the entire concert in just over 2 hours. One take: done! Of course, I made a million mistakes in the opening numbers - nerves, excitement, over-zealousness, etc. And at the break, I snuck in to the recording booth to hear a few minutes of it, for I had the sneaking suspicion I had been pushing a bit. Upon hearing the take I realized I was not entirely correct - I was pushing a fair amount (which is technically more than a "bit", I believe!) I'm sure it was mostly due to excitement and nerves, but I knew immediately that I didn't want that as a final result, so I made some adjustments for the second part and think I'm closer on track. That's the GREAT part of doing a recorded general rehearsal like this - it's the time to test your limits, work out some of the wrinkles, and get your performance ready for the public. The good news is that I can listen, for sadly I do not have a pair of "ears" out in the theater that knows my voice, that knows my limits, etc and can talk me through it. (My beloved partner and exceptional pair of ears was whisked away by a big theater in NY, go figure!) So it's essentially up to me and my ears, and if I can filter out EVERYTHING that I hear that is BAD (which on first listen, is EVERY SINGLE NOTE), then I'll actually make rational choices and, hopefully, improvements!

But tomorrow night is not about the recording. Tomorrow night is a live concert, and it is my debut at La Monnaie, and I plan to revel in it, bringing everything I have to the table; that means I get the luxury of simply going back to the music, letting myself get carried away, and bringing this project to life under this gorgeous ceiling: (they turned up the lights today so I got a better shot of the real colors...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Blue lips

"Be careful what you wish for..." goes the saying, no? My stay at home last week rushed by me with the force of a full-on Midwestern thunderstorm: powerful, furious and over in a flash. As I was cramming music, laundry and paperwork (taxes filed on time for the first time in YEARS, thank you very much!), I kept saying, "I need two more days! JUST TWO MORE DAYS!" Well, they came - but I sincerely hope at not too steep an expense.

I had arranged to stop over in Geneva on my way to Brussels to work for three days with an exceptional coach quite well-versed in Handel's language of chromaticism, emotional depth and those fierce fleeting passages; we had a wonderful, immediate rapport during Ariodante and I knew working with him would be invaluable for this project. When I hadn't heard from him in the days leading up to my departure, I started to worry, and sure enough, at 6:00 am on D-day I received an email with news that in fact, he was quite ill. I send him ALL my positive thoughts to make a full and quick recovery, and ask you to do the same, should you feel so moved. After a few moments to collect my thoughts, a quick phone call to Continental followed, and I was able to change my flight with relatively little expense. Voilà: two more days at home were gifted to me, and I gladly took them.

It was as if immediate relaxation washed through me, and I was allowed to breathe deeply again!!! While I know that I missed out on some wonderful work, (and sincerely hope that missing it won't affect my performance, for you see, to acquire that final 1-2% of polish on any work is immeasurably important, and I believe is what sets apart the truly great artists. I'll soon find out, won't I?), what I gained in being at home without the stress of rushing to accomplish everything under a gloomy, persistent stopwatch is priceless. I was actually able to attend my niece's 5th birthday party ON her actual birthday. It may not sound like much, but I miss nearly every single birthday, anniversary, graduation, reunion - well, you name it. So to actually be in attendance and take a photo like the following:

well, it quite simply makes my year! Lest we ever forget the unadulterated JOY that accompanies most 5-year olds on their big day, it's worth it to revisit it occasionally. When does that kind of pure bliss become "uncool"? Why does the world ever ALLOW that kind of light to be diminished? That's insanity. Oh, I'm so grateful I got to be there and witness it - I'm still smiling crazy! (And my lips just might still be stained from the blue frosting, as well!!)

I also was able to attend another niece's big night, as she was a backstage hand for her high school's production of "Beauty and the Beast". I was not at all prepared for the high level of excellence - from the great dialects, compelling acting (they each had their physicality down perfectly), and singing in tune without forcing! That thrilled me to no end. Seriously. I was duly impressed. But the thing that really got to me, was watching the chorus members -especially the ones who weren't fighting to be noticed; my eye kept going to a few that were obviously not 'stars' but were singing with their whole heart and soul, as if their very existence depended on it - I could read it a million miles away as if they were backlit with screaming, streaming neon lights. Their eyes were on fire - pure and electric, unapologetic and unashamed; as opposed to a few of the 'stars' who knew all the public's attention was coming to them, who performed as if they deserved such attention - forgetting that applause is something that should be earned. I know they were 'just' school kids, but I also know how seriously they take it, and it nearly brought me to tears to see those stand-outs who had obviously caught the bug - it was making their LIFE to be in this production, and they were giving it their ALL without question. It was such a beautiful thing to behold - and it put me right back into high school, singing in the choruses of "Godspell" and "Brigadoon" as if nothing else in the world existed! It was the perfect 'check-in' I needed before starting this crazy period of "high-profile/pressure" jobs: I never want to forget why I do this. I never want to forget that it's not about getting the attention - it's about doing the work, purely for the sake of doing the work. It's about the music. And THAT is where the fire comes from - THAT is what lights the eye and ignites the heart. I saw it in their 16 and 17 year-old eyes: eyes that haven't lived half of what they THINK they have lived, and yet eyes that point the way to abandon - just like my 5 year-old niece's blue lips! I love being taught by unexpected experts!

The extra days also afforded me the time to stop and smell the roses, or the blossoms in this case:

Not only the blossoms of all the pear trees bursting into bloom across town, but the blossom of the ROYALS boasting the bragging rights to things like: "The best bullpen in the Major Leagues". What? Yes - that's right. My Boys in Blue are having a great April. I'm in Heaven.

But it's also back to work. Yesterday I had the first rehearsal with Christophe Rousset and his orchestra, Les Talens Lyriques. It's really happening! This recording project which has been in the pipeline for some time now is finally blossoming in honor of the long-anticipated Spring. It's always a strange day, that first encounter with a new orchestra. I don't know anyone in the group (aside from one bassoon player), and have only met Christophe once for a quick discussion of the disc. I find it startling to have to try and emit such intimate, wide-ranging emotion in front of a group of total strangers - but that is where music comes in. It unifies, not separates. It allows, not prohibits. It encourages, not discourages. I still found the group a bit quiet - but I also found them quite serious about the music, and this is a good sign. We're spending a lot of time together in the coming months, so I anticipate a wonderful relationship.

Hopefully I'll manage to report often on our progress - as I did during the "Alcina" project. This, however, is a very different format: we record two concerts live, with a few patching sessions. I have no idea of what to expect, for having a live audience will surely CHARGE the performance, but I also know that I never give a perfect, 'recording-ready' performance (...I get lost, I say all the wrong words, sing the wrong cadenzas - I get carried away, let's say...) I suppose that's why we have the patching. But I fully anticipate a palpable energy from the audience to lift me up and hope that translates brilliantly onto the disc.

So I've landed safely here in Brussels (where's my chocolate?), ornaments are in place, characters are bubbling up, this Handel project is ready to be born! Let the fury begin!!

Gratitude - Day 99

OK. So I know I don't always manage to put up a "Gratitude Day Posting" each and every single day - which essentially shatters the "365-day" concept, but it's just a matter of practicality, I'm afraid. I have decided, however, to continue STRIVING for a posting each day; rest assured, I will not stop until I've reached 365 days in total - hopefully it won't take a decade...

Day 99 - I'm grateful for such a beautiful "office" here in Brussels. I get to spend the next 2 weeks in this GORGEOUS theater performing 2 concerts for a recording of Handel Arias. This was the perfect site for poor, jet-lagged eyes, and will, I'm most certain, provide all the inspiration I need while immersing myself in the gorgeous, wrenching, emotional music of Handel.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gratitude - Day 98

I'm grateful for the wonder that is the Midwest. Many people ask me what it is about the Midwest that I like - and this is the most concrete example of what I find so spectacular about it: skies that expand forever, constantly shifting and morphing just to keep you guessing. My favorite time of year is the spring in Kansas City, (except when it's fall, and then that's my favorite time of year!) because of these awe-inducing thunderstorms that roll in and mark their territory. They are such a sight to behold.

Today I was especially grateful for them, because the celestial show gave me a MUCH needed break from cadenza-land of Handel. (I keep changing the cadenzas I want, which means reworking many of the passages and never ever being finished with how I want the arias to go - I am living in a constant state of flux with these pieces!!!!) So, the sideshow was most welcome - especially when I reverted to my youth and tried to pick out images in the clouds. Look what I found:

Creepy, no? But I'm still grateful!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"For one shining moment...THIS is your moment..."

I would just like to call to the world's attention, or at least to the select, loyal readers out there, that not ONLY are the Kansas University Jayhawks the NATIONAL CHAMPIONS of the NCAA College Basketball World, BUT, (perhaps you'd like to sit down for this? Yes, please steady yourself...) the Kansas City Royals are sitting at the top of the American League Central Division Standings with their 6-2 record INCLUDING 2 wins over those evil Yankees from NYC. I think the last time we were on top was 1951? Or at least it feels like it. I'm one happy fan! Watch out, Boston!

Gratitude - Day 97

I'm grateful for experts. Not only did I get an expert handyman to come in and fix a huge hole that had been in our bathroom ceiling for WAY too long (certain repairs just have to wait for room in the calendar, I'm afraid...), but I had an expert piano technician in to give my piano a full check-up.

This piano has been in the family for nearly 60 years - I believe it dates from around 1933; it belonged to my Father's piano teacher, and he inherited it from her when she no longer needed it. It has been asked to play many, MANY notes over the years - from bad sheet music arrangements of the Bee Gees (it was the 80's - give me a break!), loads of Billy Joel songs (I think I had all his fake books!), countless Barbra Streisand ballads, an achingly large number of those horrid Czerny exercises, the glorious valiant (brilliant in my own mind!) stabs at Chopin and Beethoven, and, yes, the occasional full-on-arm-I'll-never-get-this-phrase-right pounding. These days it doesn't rendezvous with the ballads of Debussy and Schubert as much as I'd like, but it has served me quite well in discovering the thrill of Ariodante and Octavian.

The good news is that she's healthy and in good shape internally - but I think it's time to take the plunge and get her refinished. She definitely deserves to be spoiled a bit!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"Sing it, Ella"

I’m in seclusion, and it’s uncanny how good it feels! I have locked myself in my loft after returning home from these past 6 ½ months of near constant travel, and I’m venturing out only for the necessities: groceries, my welcome-home martini party with friends who split my sides open with laughter, and of course my annual run to “Targè”. I’m swimming in laundry, mail, expired catalogues, accumulated receipts and papers from the road … and dust. Lots of dust. (However, now that I've purchased a perverse amount of Swiffers from “Targè”, the dust is history, Baby!)

I try not to think of it too much, but it truly is a bizarre existence for us musicians who make a life out of window seats on the plane and airport “nutrition”. We must function normally and comfortably on the stage in front of thousands of people, greeting many of them - from all different walks of life - after the performance, expending vast amounts of energy in service, and at the center of the momentary, often ecstatic attention. And then: utter solitude. This jagged transition used to confound me as I was thrashed back and forth between the two extremes; however with experience and (I suppose there’s no denying it) age, a certain perspective takes root and begins to supply comfort. I could write for hours on this subject, but I’ll save that for a rainy day – suffice it to say, the balance feels great, and allows me to enjoy both of these elements all the more.

For now, I’m relishing the week-long solitude! I’m savoring being on my own schedule with no one else making demands on my time! I’m delighting in not answering the phone or emails on time! I’m breathing deeply and recharging my batteries!!! It’s heaven! And it is needed.

This short “little” recital tour I just finished with my pianist, David Zobel, (4 cities in 7 days), was at once energizing and uplifting, but as equally exhausting and draining. I LOVE the recital format, as the connection and immediacy with the audience is something I treasure greatly. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, only music to sing – and you sense immediately whether the public is with you or not. I presented a varied program, highlighting a range of styles and composers I so love – opting out of a ‘themed’ program this time around. It meant a huge stylistic challenge for me, but that is the kind of thing that truly charges me up! (Oh, those Chausson pieces!)

We started the tour in NY: this was definitely our most “unsettled” performance, for when you premiere a new program, there are a million different things that pulse through your mind, and relaxing into the music seems a lofty, nearly unattainable goal. However, I really enjoyed myself and was so happy to see many friends and supporters there. (Thank you for coming out and for not laughing too hard when I tumbled! It is true: I am indeed gravitationally challenged.)

Next on the tour stop was Quebec, and it dawned on me only later what a thrilling evening it was. First of all, it was a stunning hall, which meant we could take real risks, and really relax into the line of the music. Later I realized, however, that I didn’t know a single solitary person in the audience that night. It’s been a long time since I’ve performed a show not personally knowing someone in attendance. When they cheered at the end, it was an amazing feeling, because there wasn’t a trace of “Well, that’s my family out there – they’re applauding because they have to!” or “That’s my old friend from high school shouting for me tonight…” It was a good feeling that as total strangers, the wonderful audience and I had a meeting of minds, so to speak – and it was a beautiful, spontaneous reminder of why I do this.

The final stop was in Philadelphia, and it was most definitely a “full-circle” moment for me. I’ve been very candid in the past about how hard my time at AVA was, and while I have the perspective NOW of how invaluable and necessary the experience was, at the time it was terribly challenging, to say the least. I look back now, and I realize that all I ever really wanted was the approval of the Maestro. I wanted his vote of confidence. I wanted him to think I was "good enough". I searched, and waited, and longed for it, but it never really came. Well, he attended the Sunday afternoon recital and he found me afterwards to share his thoughts. He was completely sincere … and it meant the world to me. But the real kicker is that standing on that stage back in my old stomping grounds (which used to feel like a treacherous battlefield) I realized that I simply wasn’t looking for his approval anymore. I wasn’t trying to prove anything, either. I was just singing. That, my friends, felt wonderful. And naturally – because I had stopped looking, it came and fell in my lap! That was a lovely bonus, indeed.

I suppose the lesson for me is that we will never garner real approval from anyone. The onus is on me to believe in what I am bringing forth, to work to give the people their money’s worth – while hopefully moving them in the process. As a performer, if I’m looking for endorsement or sanction from someone, I believe THAT is precisely what the audience receives: a request for validation, rather than license to lose themselves in the story and the music. I’ve worked hard on shedding some of these psycho-babbly (that’s the official term) head games that are so easy to engage in as a singer, clearing out the muck, and just letting the music revel in the attention it deserves. I have my good days and my bad days, to be sure, but what a vast difference that distinction makes.

I had a SUPER fascinating experience on my last day in New York City. (How I love that town!) It was the photo shoot for my soon-to-be-recorded disc, “Furore”: a compilation of Handel arias and scenes to be released later in the year. I worked again with photographer Sheila Rock, who epitomizes the word “artist”. (Any doubts, just take a look at this.) I am not a model by any stretch of the imagination – and having done a few photo shoots now, I fully realize that it is a skill you must learn. I was very nervous going into the day, because the theme of “Fury” implies anger and rage, and I knew it would be tempting to play into the “theater” of the concept and miss the “portrait” aspect – meaning to aim for an intensely compelling photo on the front of the disc to invite people to purchase the album, but not to frighten them away out of horror at the Mad Mezzo foaming at the mouth! Sheila was fabulous in steering me to maintain that balance, discreetly directing me to play up my strengths and avoid my weaknesses. Once again I’m reminded of how REFRESHING it is to have someone be direct and honest with you in a supportive manner – it saves SO much time in the long run, and ultimately serves you, even if it is a challenge to hear that perhaps this or that feature is not your best! But the day was exciting - and it only intensified my anticipation for these upcoming concerts. I sit at my piano here, overlooking my hometown, watching the sun set just out of my reach, going over and over the selections for the concert, scouring the texts and harmonies, and I close the piano lid thinking how fortunate I am to immerse myself in this music. Handel. Simply sublime.

So as the clock presses forward on its seemingly singular mission to rob me of my time at home, I will save this entry, post it quickly, and get back to my solitude. Oh yes, I think it’s time for some Ella to sing some Duke. Oh yes – who could ask for anything more?

As Rosina, Lyric Opera of Chicago
On tour with David Zobel
Quebec, buried in snow and icicles
At the Irish Memorial in Philadelphia
Sunset in Kansas City

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Gratitude - Day 96

I'm grateful to be home where I can wash and dry my clothes in my very own washer and dry them in my very own dryer, where I know very well what cycle to employ, what temperature to call upon, how long to dry which clothes, and exactly how my clothes will turn out - clean, fluffy and back in shape.

I'm NOT so grateful to have to constantly guess with crossed fingers with guest machines, especially those in Europe that always seem to spit out clothes much smaller than what I threw in, or those of the bulk variety found in cities such as NY which seem to take for sport the molesting of certain fabrics. Ah yes, even as I pack to go home, I relish sorting the whites from the darks in eager anticipation for the sheets of Bounce that await the well worn clothes at home (provided I remembered to stock up last time I was home!), and for the easy purr of socks getting their shape back, white and fluffy.

Home. Definitely grateful.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gratitude - Day 95

I'm grateful for all the people who came before me that believed in the necessity of art and worked to realize it in a grand way. I think of the organizers all those decades ago who had the vision of building a center for all the arts, of the people who recognized the value of the project and put up the money, the architects who dared to think outside the box, the politicians who negotiated their way to the votes, the laborers who drove the nails one by one and the artists, technicians and organizers who work night after night come to bring life to the art and the magic. Not to be forgotten: the people who come. Thank you!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Gratitude - Day 94

I'm grateful that I occasionally get special access to wonderful places. Tonight Leo and I spoke during the 2nd intermission of "Ernani" at the MET (HELLO Ferruccio Furlanetto and your gorgeous LEGATO!), on the Sirius Broadcast. To reach the studio, we have to climb to the 6th floor, giving us the chance to overlook the foyer and champagne drinkers during the pause. It's a spectacular place to observe and to view the gorgeous chandelier from a different angle ... so for 'special access', every once in awhile, I'm super grateful!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Gratitude - Day 93

I'm BACK!!!! So I unofficially suspended the posting of gratitude pictures (but not the gratitude!) for the past week or so, simply out of necessity. 5 performances in 4 cities in 9 days kept me a bit occupied. Not only was I grateful to survive the week and to enjoy my concerts so completely, but at the end of it, MAN was I GRATEFUL to see the first signs of spring after my final stop in Philly. It even made up for the fact that I missed the opportunity to find a real Philly pretzel!!! I just stood under this blooming tree and gazed - oh, it felt GOOD!!!! The blue sky, the white buds, the hope, the possibility!!! I'm happy to have my camera out of its bag, to have travelled safely, and to have seen so many friends and colleagues along the way! I'm back, and most definitely grateful!