Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gratitude - Day 154

...so, where was I? Right. Grateful! Very grateful! Let's just pretend that a month has not, in fact, passed, and that it is natural for day "154" to take 30 days to follow day "153", ok? Great. OK! Here we go:

Gratitude - Day 154

I'm grateful for ridiculously talented, colorful, dear friends! Thanks to the generosity of some wedding guests in Italy, my husband and I commissioned a wonderful friend of ours, Kevin Deen, to paint a little taste of Trieste for us to keep in our home in Kansas City. Kevin has long been painting acrylic architectural portraits, and we've always loved his incredibly bold use of color, to say the least. He surprised us with this fabulous gift and now we have a taste of Trieste all the way here in Kansas City! These little souvenirs are what making coming HOME so deliciously wonderful and to be treasured!

Do visit his website - it's an explosion of color and imagination!!! He does cards, small prints, big prints - you name it!

And for the record, I have been grateful for so very many things over the past month - I just haven't had much spare time! More to follow...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Random remarks on resting, recouping and regrouping

Often curious minds pose the question to me: "how on earth do you manage the endless, exhausting travel and the insane, demanding schedule?" The first thought that pounces to mind is, "Well, I'm not a working mom, so I don't have it THAT rough!" But there are definite challenges, and one of the big ones is the inevitable denoument after a big production and intensive period. It's not easy to say goodbye to friends, to pack YET AGAIN the dreaded, ragged luggage, and sadly leave behind the half-full bottle of olive oil that, despite your Herclean efforts, you simply couldn't finish - but that's not exactly a big newsflash, is it?

But let me point out one big positive thing: I am constantly given the opportunity to evaluate myself. Remember the good/bad ol' school days? (Yes, those distant memories?) The cycle of working through a full school year was fabulous because in the end, you received your grades to tell you where you succeeded (or failed), you wrote in your friends' yearbooks to thank them for their eternal, never-ending, "nothing will ever change" friendship, while even your sworn enemies could muster a bit of "well, you're not that bad" sentiment, and the now ill-fitting shoes showed that your body was (hallelujah!) doing it's job to graduate you into adulthood, which NEVER could get here quickly enough! (The stupidity of youth!) After the never-long-enough summer, believe it or not, I was always eager to get back and purchase the new books, meet the new teachers, and, let's be honest here, see if my ex-boyfriend was STILL going steady with PEGGY, that trollup, for whom he dumped me, the unmitigated nerve! What I loved about those cycles was the chance to evaluate the past - and then start OVER! You got a clean slate! Anything was possible come that last week of August!

Well, the work cycles of my life now are generally a bit shorter, but it affords me the chance to sort through what went well, what didn't, what I learned, what I enjoyed, the friendships that ignited, the others that suffered, and I am offered the opportunity to constantly learn. That's a gift for this curious mind. I'm not sure I'd be at all diligent enough on my own to make personal tune-ups if my schedule was a "9-5, 15th-year-on-the-job" situation, which is why in many ways, I embrace the difficulties of my life. Growth is never a bad thing ... unless all those fish and chips do it to your waist line ... but that's another story.

As you likely know, I've just completed one of the most intensive periods of my career so far - although this "period" seems to have lasted the past 18 months, I'm speaking primarily of the WHIRLWIND month that was my London term. It was hectic, filled to the rafters, and as stimulating, exciting time as I could ask for: I learned so much with each and every single performance (and phrase...and note...and syllable...) of Don Giovanni - the last show was nothing like the first, for me; the Wigmore recital was as special an evening as I could ever hope to have; momentum for (gulp!) my Handel disc is in full-swing (thank you fabulous Virgin/EMI team!); and I SURVIVED IT ALL! Saying goodbye to the wonderful cast and ROH team was bittersweet, but I was ready for a rest.

Enter: Ireland. Beautiful, astonishing, relaxing, greeeeeeeen, heavenly Ireland.

Even if my name may hint at Mediterranean blood, I'm green through-and-through. My Father's family came from Gallway and my Mother's from County Claire. In all my world travels, I had never before step foot on the Emerald Isle. What was I thinking??? Where has it been all my life??? I was in Wexford for 4 days of R&R (and visiting my husband who is set to open the GORGEOUS new theater conducting "Tutti in Maschera"!!) and it was HEAVEN. The sun shone as brightly as could be (don't anyone DARE tell me that it is ever different - let me just reside in my happy place, thinking that this paradise is the norm!!!), the people exuded gallons - or let's say KEGS - of charm and generosity, the air was fresh and cleansing, and the brown bread a work of simple perfection. Hiking, laughing, eating, drinking ... and SLEEPING ... that, my friends, is my recipe for recovery.

But, yes - this is my life, so it wasn't exactly all rest. (Please don't scold me!) I needed to also work up a new orchestral piece, which will serve as the vehicle for my KANSAS CITY SYMPHONY DEBUT! I haven't been this excited about a debut in a long time - it means a lot to finally be singing with the orchestra of my home town, the one my Dad used to drag me to against my will, and the one that is skyrocketing to new heights under the direction of Michael Stern and a wildly enthusiastic board. Trust me - Kansas City is about to be put on the map as our new performing arts center rises out of the ground and people start to see what a vibrant arts community we have! The piece is Chausson's exquisitely gossamer "Poème de l'amour et de la mer". Um...it rocks. Um...I REALLY love it. Um...may I please just sing this for the rest of my life, over and over again? The beautiful thing about my preparation for this was that the brand new theater in Wexford houses a rehearsal room that overlooks the sea. I'm not making that up. You see the sea from the piano. It's gorgeous - because remember, it's ALWAYS sunny and PERFECT in Ireland, right? Right! So as I sat at the keyboard and worked on the Chausson, the sea was calling me and serving as the perfect backdrop. Yes, I was "working", but it was also inspiring and invigorating - which could count as R&R, right?

The other reason I loved my trip to Ireland? They seem to have the whole American election thing sorted out:

Couldn't it just be this simple? (Again, just humor me here....)

One final note that may be of particular interest: on Sunday, Sept 28, Virgin Records is launching the, and I say this with all modesty, AMAZING new disc, Lamenti via a mini-film (or something along those lines - I haven't seen it, so I have no idea what it will actually be!) I invite you to a rendez-vous at 18:00 Paris time (noon in NY, 11:00 am in the midwest) to watch the debut of this disc. A few months ago I wrote about a recording session that was some of the most inspiring musical hours of my life. Well, it's finally here: I recorded Ottavia's lament, "Addio Roma" with Emmanuelle Haïm and I could not be more proud to be a part of her project. It's an abundance of riches: the disc boasts contributions from Rolando Villazon, Natalie Dessay, Philippe Jaroussky, Véronique Gens, Patrizia Ciofi, Topi Lehtipuu, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Laurent Naouri, and Christopher Purves all singing laments of Monteverdi, Cavalli and others. It is one of those special discs - listen with a nice glass of red wine, and keep a tissue near-by.

Before leaving you, I wish to share with you a most special video. Having experienced the joy of Ireland, I must balance it with the melancholy that also abides in their hearts. This is one of my most favorite songs ever, and there simply is not a better rendition anywhere. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Have a second to be astonished...oh, and inspired?

Well, actually a few minutes - but who doesn't like to be astonished?


...update: and for the inspiration part: Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, writes about his friend and mentor, Leonard Berstein, in today's NY Times. It's a fascinating read and a real glimpse into the persona that was "Lenny". Again, ENJOY!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Legends and Reality

Tonight, I took my final bow as Donna Elvira in the Royal Opera's Don Giovanni season opener. The relief I felt in closing this particular chapter was palpable as was my enjoyment of this 5th performance: the recits start to crackle a bit more, I could play with the pacing a bit more, and I started to feel her even a bit more "in my bones" - but I've also survived nearly 3 weeks of perhaps the most intensive professional period of my career: new role, recital, cinema broadcast, interviews galore, master class and continual preparation of yet more new music! I do love it, but I also feel that it has been a hell of a period.

But as I took that bow tonight, none of this was really on my mind. What was swirling through the mental cacophony, mixing with that lovely British applause, was the realization that I was participating in a legendary performance. It is entirely possible that tonight was Sir Charles Mackerras's final performance of Don Giovanni. It's not a given, but it's a likelihood, for at 83, he may have other fish to fry, rather than another Giovanni for the Royal Opera. After leading a dynamic, detail-filled performance, he shuffled quietly onto the stage, and I was immediately aware that I was in the presence of a true legend - of someone truly deserving of accolades, applause and genuine respect. I feel so privileged and honored to have discovered this lady with his help, and to have been under the influence of his baton-less gestures and those effusive, joy-filled eyes. It was legendary, and a true gift for me.

Dinner was a must, after toasting all the cast and crew in the dressing rooms, and most of us made our way to a local establishment to toast each other, and relish the wonderful experience of sharing the stage together. Although our Donna Anna was missing, with Simon, Miah, Robert and Kyle, I was in the best of hands both in the opera and around the dinner table.

There is obviously much more to relate of these past chaotic, rewarding weeks, and I'll try my best to get more up and posted, but I have been rather busy, to say the least, during this time in London. A few days rest, and then a new exploration of Chausson in Kansas City are calling me.

In the meantime, reality sets in, time moves forward, and the next project eagerly awaits: thanks to my good friend Renato (grazie, caro!) I just received the following link in my mailbox...I guess this means it's really happening! I couldn't wait to share it, so please enjoy the sneak peak of "Furore", courtesy of emiclassics...

(FYI, the planned release dates are planned as follows: October for the UK, November for most of Europe, and January for the US....stay tuned for more details!)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What a rush!

Well. I made it. I've survived! And not only that, but I've had a complete blast! A slightly neurotic, high-pressured blast, but definitely a blast!

Lift off
Where to begin? I believe that the key to my survival in the past week lay in a full-on attack of mental "conditioning" and vocal "pacing". I've dabbled a tiny bit in the methodology and ideas behind sports psychiatry/mental imaging, etc - which likely requires a separate entry unto itself - but I'm convinced that mental preparation is, at this stage of the game, far more important than the technical work that can be done. I had a very clear plan of what I needed to accomplish in the final brutal week of rehearsals, which consisted of 2 sessions a day, one with orchestra - one simply "staging", no days off in-between, extra costume fittings, little sleep, a public final dress rehearsal the night before my recital with 24 hours to recuperate, and then BAM: opening night broadcast live across the world!

I set a plan to sing the orchestra rehearsals full-out, concentrating 100% on the vocal and musical aspects of the character, and then "marking" (singing very lightly, if at all) the piano/stage rehearsals, concentrating 100% on the character and her subtext and those fabulous, undetectable details. When a rehearsal period is as condensed as this was, it means making the most of every single moment of the rehearsal process - bringing all your ideas to the table and simply going for it without fear of failure.

Now I don't mean to make this sound overly-heroic; I'm not a brain surgeon, for crying out loud. But I don't know that I've ever faced quite such a tall working order before, and because I love London, and love these two venues, I wanted both events to be very special - and to be in a healthy, rested position in order to give it my all.

The Wigmore Hall Dome/DetailHappily, I stuck to my game plan for the rehearsal week, which is NOT an easy thing to do. Panic can easily set in during a rehearsal in which you've decided to mark - the inner dialogue can quickly digress into the cancerous, "But you haven't sung this aria on the stage in costume before, I know you're tired, but you had better sing out and MAKE SURE that 'you have it'!" And faced with the fact that you in SUCH a gorgeous, intimate theater, and the music is just SO - my God, it's Giovanni! - amazing, it's terribly tempting to just throw in the conservative towel and wail away. But I cranked up the discipline factor, shut my mouth, and forced myself to trust the work I had done previously, ignoring the pesky inner demons. The tricky thing is, with a brand new role, you can't be SURE that you've prepared enough - you have to trust and hope!!

Dress rehearsal. Friday night. I had already warned "Sir Maestro", the astonishingly energetic Sir Charles Mackerras, that I would not be singing the entire rehearsal. I new what my trouble spots had been, and I assured him I would sing those out (the places I was getting behind or ahead, flat or sharp, sloppy or lazy!), and of course, I would sing most of the arias. The rest, I marked. (Talk about a bizarre sensation - the house is full of people, and I'm not singing? That was a new one for me!) But it was a very deliberate strategy - the final dress is a REHEARSAL, not a performance and I rehearsed in what I hoped would be the optimal way to achieve a good opening night.

Wigmore Recital. Saturday night. Fingers crossed as I eek out the first vocalizes of the day. It feels fresh. Immediately I can relax, because fresh is good - fresh means I don't have to worry, fresh means I didn't over-stretch myself in the previous week, fresh means I can just SING and ENJOY. Now comes the pay-off, I hope! As is always the case, there is an expectant air hovering over the hallowed Wigmore Hall - especially tonight, considering it is the opening of the season. I meet my pianist, David, and we rehearse the program we know quite well - revisiting tempi, moods, those few rough spots. We're both relaxed and THRILLED to be under the amazing dome that somehow demands nothing less than excellence, but is loving enough to cushion every risk you dare take.

Wigmore Hall - in anticipationThe audience arrives, giving birth to the palpable energy I was feeling earlier, and we start our dialogue; song after song, I relish the words and the melodies of these pieces I love, soaking in the moment, and feeling deep gratitude for the network of friends (both old and new) who have opted to share in the evening with us. This was one of those nights I will not forget - one of those nights that we singers long for and hope for, and when they come, we TREASURE them.

My apartment. Sunday. I don't leave it. I am a zombie. "Where did I put the remote control?"

The Royal Opera House. Monday night. Am I ready? Did I prepare well enough? Can I do this?("Please GOD, don't fall down again like you did in the previous two dress rehearsals!!!") Time to eek out the first few notes again: and....? and....? I feel good! The voice still feels fresh (which also tells me that I'm not over-singing this role, which was a fear of mine at the start.) And then of course, there is the normal chaos in the dressing rooms for an opening night, only amplified 100-fold because it's the opening night of the season, it's a live broadcast, and everyone's adrenalin is pumping like crazy: in comes the sound girl with the microphones (two microscopic things which I wear under my wig - the second one just in case the first one konks out!), the wardrobe lady with a newly altered dress that I hope fits better, the wig lady with my new wig that I haven't really had a chance to adjust to, "Sir Maestro" double checking that I was, indeed, marking in the final dress rehearsal and not just undersinging in the trio wrecking the balance we worked so hard to find, the Assistant Conductor to remind me of the text mistakes I made, some press folks with last minute requests, and the proper administrative folks making the rounds to be sure none of their cast is freaking out too much. Forget the quiet warm-up and final moments to concentrate! I had to rely on a simple folk singer under my window, to relax me to his dulcet strains of familiar Beatle's tunes!

SoloHe's been there every night of the previous week, just like us, and strangely enough, it was exactly the thing I needed to calm me down: "Well he's doing it! He's been out there every night with no rest - what's the big deal?" So I warmed up, took a bunch of deep breaths and went out to find that Don! Of course, I was completely over-loaded on adrenalin and the whole first aria was way out of synch w/ "Sir Maestro", but then I calmed down and just let it play out - I can nail the aria the next time. But there was a good energy on the stage, a GREAT energy from the audience ("Welcome, Sun readers!"), and for the umpteenth time in centuries, Don Giovanni faced death squarely in the eyes, refused to atone, and met his firey death.

THANK YOU to every single person who has cheered me on during this marathon, who have sent such kind remarks, and for my wonderful colleagues and staff who made such a fabulous evening possible! Now I feel like I can settle down and simply PLAY!

I did want to say one other big thank you to a fellow blogger and brilliant writer, Steve Smith for this. It left me a bit speechless, I must say!

Must hurry on back to Seville, now....

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The week from hell!!!!

Is this all really happening? Sometimes I blink, and I feel as if I've been time warped forward to a future time and place with no warning at all. It seems like just yesterday I was cracking open the score of this Mozartian masterpiece discovering for the first time for myself that, well, yes, actually, THIS IS A MASTERPIECE!!! For me, I can greatly admire a work from the outside, nod to its genius and applaud it loudly, but to climb into it, to wander the psychological corridors of its notes and syllables, and then to actually bring it to life? That's a different beast entirely.

I've been gently tiptoeing in Elvira's shoes for a while now, feeling not QUITE integrated into her thought process, struggling with the odd pitch here and there, and feeling a bit outside of the action, mainly because the rest of the cast members seem so adept at their roles and know these characters inside and out. It also dawned on that I had her up on a bit of a pedestal, as in "She belongs to Schwarzkopf. She belongs to Te Kanawa. She is a woman, and I do those 'happy girls' and 'angst ridden boys'!" Also, she's a bit like Carmen, in that everyone has a strong opinion about who she is - and I had yet to claim her for my own.

Well, as I was sitting in the sitzprobe rehearsal on Tuesday - (which is my favorite rehearsal of all, because it's the first time we meet the orchestra, and we aren't doing any movement at all - we simply stand and sing, and every ounce of focus rests on the MUSIC!!! After a long time working on the ACTING during previous rehearsals, it's pure heaven to simply SING again!) - I was swept away by the genius of Mozart, by my wonderful colleagues, and by the great Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the band, who play this music SO beautifully. And while this may sound a bit naive, it was simply by listening to the unbelievable rich and inventive orchestration going on live, underneath me that I started to "get" Elvira. I mean to really get her - not just approximate her antics, but to really start to feel the emotion that drives this lady. As is ALWAYS the case, Mozart paints the emotional content of his character's hearts in the palpitating or soaring or hollow orchestration. He revealed a beautiful woman to me, and one whose shoes should fit, actually, quite well!

Now, here is poetic justice: when I was training in Houston, during my first season, I covered the role of "Siebel" in Faust. I observed the professional cast day in and day out and marvelled at how great they were. The Faust was Ramon Vargas and the Mefistofole was Eric Halverson. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be opening the season of the Royal Opera House as a colleague to those two, I would have passed out on the spot! The morning of the sitzprobe, however, I was able to listen to Ramon carry the endless phrases of Don Ottavio with seemingly no effort, to hear Eric BOOM out the famous strains of "Don Giovaaaaaani" and send real shivers down my spine, to watch Simon Keenleyside craft a truly complex and suavely brutal Don, and simply be mesmerized by my latest discovery of how fabulous this opera is. I decided to shed my preconceptions of this role, make the most of this astonishing opportunity to sing this music, and to simply make it my own. What a difference a change of thinking can make.

I can still remember as if was yesterday - thanks to that time warp thing - watching the film, "Amadeus" for the very first time. It shocked and awed to say the least! Regardless of whether it was historically accurate or not, it accomplished in brilliant fashion the bringing to life of Mozart's music - and along with the use of the Requiem music, the depiction of the final scene of Don Giovanni haunted me for a long time afterwards. To finally take part in this opera, well, it is a true gift.

And a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write, to offer well-wishes, etc. I truly appreciate it, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

(Also there has been no time to take and/or process photographs for the time being - I'll catch up when I can!)

Photo c/o The Royal Opera House

Monday, September 1, 2008

Gratitude - Day 153

I'm grateful for free days!

Yesterday I had no commitments, no phone appointments, no social engagements, no rehearsals, no need to set my alarm, and absolutely no reason to set foot outside my door, which was a good thing considering torrential storms took up residence all day here in London, leaving me time to surf the tele! Boy, did I need it. And boy, did I make the most of it! I actually used the day to mentally prepare a bit for the coming week, which on paper looks - well, insane, actually! But it was time to practice what I've often preached...

One thing I've always aspired to, is the idea that for a professional singer - or, I suppose, for most of us - the secret to success lies in one's thinking and one's mental approach. It has quite a lot to do with how you conquer nerves, how you handle illness, how you "take the stage" and, not insignificantly, how much you ENJOY the process. One's mental approach to this career, I think, can either make or break you. (Athletes have long ago discovered this and apply it to tremendous advantage!)

I've been saying for months now how hard this period would be, how crazy I was to agree to such a short rehearsal period for a huge new role, how tiring it will be to do a recital the day after the final dress rehearsal, etc. etc., and saying these things over and over and over to anyone who would listen. Sure enough, I arrived at the end of last week exhausted, stressed, and thinking I didn't have enough time - no surprise since I had told myself over and over how hard it would be! Well, following my own advice - I mentally "slapped" myself out of it, spent the day relaxing, reminding myself how privileged I am to sing a role in this epic opera here at the Royal Opera House, and remembering that I have prepared to the best of my ability, I'm surrounded by tremendous colleagues, and it will all come together beautifully. (Right?) But only if I ejected the mental stress, so to speak. Sure enough, after a day letting down, I had a tremendous first rehearsal with the orchestra today, and we muddled our way through the first act on stage, so slowly but surely it is all coming together. Funny how a changed outlook improves the enjoyment factor tenfold! (I'm actually starting to understand for myself why everyone raves about how great Donna Elvira is!)

So why the pictures of Lang-Lang? Because the FABULOUS BBC broadcast his wonderful performance from the PROMS on TV yesterday, which I observed in true couch-potato style! After a sublime Mozart Sonata and flamboyant Liszt, I was nearly in tears when he brought out this 9 year old to join him in a delightful Schubert duet, replete with all the delicacy and finesse imaginable! They radiate real chemistry together, and watching this 9 year old connect to something out of this world was the perfect dose of 'Ah....yes...it's all about the music" that I needed! In the end, no one cares about the mental process we performers go through - they want the musical experience to sweep them away - well, at least that's what I want. So the more mental work we can do to clear the path for the music/character/drama, I think the greater the experience for all involved! You can't tell me that these guys aren't feeling it!!!