Monday, June 29, 2009

For the aspiring ones...

This is a special post to those of you who might be pursuing a wild dream to become a professional musician, to those of you who fancy yourselves supporters of the arts, to those of you who might feel weary and wonder sometimes if it's all worth it or not.

Il Teatro Comunale

Please take a listen to the commencement speech of Robert Levine, the acclaimed concert pianist and scholar, given to the graduating class at the Curtis Institute of Music this past year. It's an urgent charge to champion this thing called classical music that we are all so passionate about and in my most humble opinion, very worth a listen.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New Favorite Quotes

It takes a keen eye and ear to find the freshness in a score that "everyone knows". Or thinks they know. You have to be willing to look at it with fresh eyes, forgetting what you KNOW about it, read it anew, and stand ready to listen as if for the first time.

Watchful Eye

Tony Pappano (the Maestro) and Moshe Leiser/Patrice Courier (the directing team) are the new ears and eyes for this Barbiere.

After a long session on Saturday, the cast of singers and directors were sitting around discussing how to "play" this comedy served up by Beaumarchais and Rossini. Moshe's belief is that the characters have no idea they are "in" a comedy - they're only in these panicked situations. So the conversation turned to how we use the voices to convey the drama - and with his most passionate, dedicated philosophy, honed from years of blood, sweat and tears in the theater, Moshe said,

"Our job is to serve both gods of opera: the god of theater, and the god of music."

The second quote came during our sitzprobe on Friday. This is our first time to meet the orchestra, and we rehearse with no movement - simply singing. I've often mentioned that this rehearsal is my favorite - after weeks of sweating it out in the rehearsal room, running and diving and being tossed around, we get to come back to JUST the music and create a chamber environment with the orchestra. It's heaven.

But this sitzprobe blew all others out of the water. I marveled at the colors that were emerging and the air of suspense in the beginning scenes, and the cacophony that inevitably arrived. Oh it was good. And there was one quote that hit me square between my eyes, and is one that I shall never forget: in the opening strains of "Ecco ridente in cielo" (not the most sophisticated orchestration on earth, granted), he turned to the lowly violas who are usually reduced to only playing "Fa, Fa, Do" - and simply pleaded,

"Guys, every chord change has to be a miracle."

Somebody pinch me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The magic

I know that I am sometimes prone to exaggeration. I'm the first one to gasp out of excitement with a high voltage "OH MY GOD" at the sight of something perhaps just better than average - I'll admit it, I like to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. But then there are times where the hyperbole is merited. Tonight is such a time: Is there ANYTHING that Maestro Tony Pappano cannot do?

In this particular period at the Royal Opera House, he has conducted a hugely acclaimed musical reading of Lulu, rehearsed and opened a star-studded Traviata, is currently rehearsing his first ever Barbiere with a (dare I say it?) not-so-slouchy cast, has played a gala benefit of all Tchaikovsky excerpts from Ballet and Symphony and Opera, and tonight literally threw together an improvised piano recital on the stage of the Opera House, after the 2nd planned program was cancelled. I'm exhausted just writing this, and yet he has been living it out moment to moment these past few weeks with unbelievable gusto and brilliance, to say the VERY least.

I'm DELIGHTING in discovering new facets of the language and the musical jokes found in this score of Barber, thanks to him - he is infusing such verve and brio into the score - a real hot-blooded, Italianate account with subtle, but perfectly perfect surprises. The prelude to the opening of his Traviata on Monday night had me in tears with the mastery and heartache in the wrenching opening strings appearing out of nowhere, not to mention the pulsing textures and colors he elicited all evening from the wonderful orchestra, breaking hearts at each bend.

But tonight I stood on stage with him at the piano and made music. I don't believe he had ever played the Willow Song from Rossini's Otello before, but I swear the piano had swallowed a harp as he made the long introduction weep with the delicacy of that stringed instrument. It was a pure honor to sing with him. BUT. BUT - B U T then he took me completely by surprise, although I should have known better. I suggested we do a few American Songs, and the JAZZ licks that he pulled out of nowhere? I was blown away. There wasn't one single note that was taken for granted - as with his conducting, EVERY SOLITARY NOTE MEANS SOMETHING. It is all important. And so he invited me into the moment, listening, playing, bending, and crafting the music as we went along. It was heavenly.

I'm terribly sorry for the circumstances of the two cancellations that the Royal Opera House public had to endure - it's a tough season here in London, to be sure - but I'm grateful beyond words that I had this little window of music making with such a great Maestro, not to mention with my two colleagues who were outstanding in their wonderful choices of repertoire as well. It was just one of those nights!!

Ah, yes - it was a good moment!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thoughts on the moment

The Eye of London

I love it when Nature nudges me along! My first free day in over two weeks, and out came the sun dancing with the curious clouds in the blue sky, laundry was checked off the "to-do" list and a walk along the River Thames was most DEFINITELY in order! And it was good.

The timing couldn't have been better, for today was Father's Day, and I felt the pull of the tears of sorrow and the nagging melancholy of loss tugging at every corner of my heart - and it was a place I didn't want to stay. One of the numerous gifts my Father gave to me was his infectious, rebellious desire to stay young at heart. That desire, along with the help of the beautiful sunshine, won me over today, as I just couldn't imagine losing the moment of my free day, the inviting sunshine, and this astonishing town that is London. So I took my tears and my melancholy and set out to enjoy the freedom.

Of course a million thoughts were my companion, and the pervasive one today was of my Dad's final days in the hospital. (I believe my premonition was 100% accurate when I declared soon after his death that it would take me a lifetime to digest all that happened in his last few weeks in the hospital.) But today it was one particular moment that crashed back into my mind, and it happened as I found myself at the foot of Sir Big Ben.


The end was near - we all knew it - and the hardest task of the day for me was to actually leave the hospital room at the end of the night, knowing that with the drive home, the sleepless hours lying in bed, and the return drive in the morning, precious hours were being lost. I knew there wasn't anything "to be done" at his bedside, but still, the sense that time was urgently running away from me like a high speed train made me feel desperate. I didn't want to lose one single moment.

How many moments with my Father had I had up to that point in my life? (How many minutes are there in 37 years?) It was actually an absurd amount of time, I suppose. I know that. And yet, at the end, the commodity of those moments took on precious, indescribable value - and no matter what I did, I couldn't find enough of them. And yet, I vividly recall one evening, that as I sat at his bedside in the late hours of night, I turned to face the huge, sanitary, relentless clock that hung over the wash basin in my Dad's room and stared. As I looked back at my Father suffering there in his bed that would violently shake every 30 minutes to break up the fluid in his lungs, my heart pounded as I realized the time couldn't pass quickly enough. All of a sudden I needed it to race ahead to immediately alleviate his pain. And yet, at the very same time, I begged it to stop dead in it's tracks so that I wouldn't have to face the future in his absence.

And though, as we all know, it couldn't do either. It kept its own stubborn pace, ticking away without mercy, without sympathy, and without favor. It didn't chose a side - it remained neutral and simply did it's job.

So why is an opera singer writing about this on her blog? (Maybe it's because she should take more than one day off every 2 weeks and then she'll have a bit more presence of mind?!?!) No, I jest - it's because that "event" at my Dad's bedside was a gift. An enormous, beautiful, surprising gift. (Yet another thing he gave to me!)

Passing by

Of course a trip to Westminster Abbey was in order: evensong at 6:30. A chance to sit with the memories and the lessons learned. The gift that came from that wretchedly beautiful evening in the hospital, was the brash reality that the only moment we ever actually HAVE, is now. I know it sounds a bit "self-helpy", but it really is the realization that I walked away with. At that moment by his bedside, the past didn't exist, (because I couldn't go back and "be there'). And certainly the future didn't exist, (because we couldn't find a way to get there, try as we may). Instead, I took the moment, held my Dad's hand, told him it would be ok, and we were together - there, in that very moment. It was the only moment of repose I found in all of those weeks - when I simply let the moment in. No past, no future - simply NOW. I sat and listened to the Vespers tonight and realized MUSIC is the embodiment of this. Music is only ever alive in the moment - with the breath of the musicians and the eager listening of the audience, it is alive in that moment. The second the curtain comes down, the life on the stage has gone. Yes, it can remain in our memory, but it lives in the NOW.

I think we continually turn to music to bring us into the moment. And consequently, it enables us, it invites us, to sit with things - and to simply experience where we are in that moment. It has the power to unlock things inside of us that beg to be unlocked, which we so rarely dare to face. It gives us the key (if we're willing to accept it) to actually FEEL things that perhaps we stopped allowing ourselves to feel. And it happens in the NOW. It invites us to be alive now.

As a performer, I'm doomed if I occupy myself with the passage that just finished: if I spend my limited brain cells on analyzing if it was good or bad, I'm not present to actually take care of singing well the phrase I'm actually singing! If I'm singing a phrase, and my mind starts to wander forward to the finale of the aria with the high note, I don't have the capacity to FULLY deliver the line I'm currently involved with!! I know it's a delicate balance, as we have to find the pacing, etc, of a scene - and even the entire show - but I'm talking about the inner dialogue that most musicians have of "That was bad - you always sing that flat..." (which impairs your confidence level) or "Here comes the hard part - I always crack on this note..." (which tightens you from head to toe out of fear) OR, maybe even more dangerously, "Here comes the part I always nail!!!" Often, with that last option, you think you're home free, thinking of how great it's going to be, how the audience will roar with approval, and you stop preparing the phrase you're currently singing in the right way - which means, SPLAT, the next phrase will die! That's a very literal example of staying in the moment, but the more I do this opera thing, the more convinced I am of the necessity to approach things this way.

The bonus of course, is that it works even better in life. Living too much in the past or too much in the future tends to breed that monster called fear, I think - and I decided a little while ago that I don't like fear. I much prefer not to entertain that particular poison, as much as I can possibly avoid it. It's not particularly easy, as it requires a lot of retraining, or rewiring of the old muscles, but I have to say, it is the best option I've found to weather the storm.

I can easily slip into the thinking of how terrible it is that my Dad isn't here to share in my life anymore. And it is true - it saddens me deeply on so many levels. (Last Friday in Rome, as the chorus started their glorious entrance, tears came as I thought, "God, I wish Dad could have heard this!") But if I stay in that place, I stop living my life. I stop sharing with others. I'm tangled up and prisoner of the past. I prefer to miss him, think of him, and get out into the sunshine, get out into the moment, under the hands of this irrepressible Big Ben, hear it's thunderous announcement that a new hour has struck, and carry on with the business of life.

That having been said, to all you Fathers out there - Happy Father's Day! Your daughters love you!! Of course I had "the best Dad in the world" - but I also think I'm not the only one to claim that title...

Time to head back to "Seville" in the morning. Not to be too much of a tease, but I fear we are brewing up a rather sensational show here in London....but I wouldn't want to predict the future! I'll stay here in the moment, do my work with my AMAZING cast, (truly - um, amazing!) - and hope that the results bear the fruit of our labors! Tick Tock!!

Beatrice and Benedict on the Radio Today!

I'm afraid the notice is a bit on the late side, but I just found out that "NPR WORLD Of OPERA" will be broadcasting our live performance of "Beatrice et Benedict" recorded last February in Paris! CLICK HERE for more information!

It brings back such wonderful memories of the SUBLIME Sir Colin Davis, and his effortless, gossamer interpretation of this wonderful work.


Friday, June 12, 2009



I have not one more iota of energy, so this will be short - but so very sweet! These past five days have been some of the most satisfying, glorious and electrifying musical experiences of my life. A million grazie's to the incredible Orchestra of Santa Cecilia, to the fabulous Santa Cecilia Chorus, to their banda, to all the technicians, to the lovely people of Virgin Classics for putting together such a fabulous team, and to the indefatigable Maestro Edoardo Muller. Wow.

I will truly never, ever forget this week.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bliss.... what today was. Pure, wonderful, magical, musical, challenging BLISS.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Loving it!

I'm completely wiped out, so not many words here, just a few snapshots of the happenings.

Recording is such a complex process replete with so many emotions: a myriad of observations about music, myself, and these amazing characters; so much intensity of concentration in a condensed period of time; so much JOY to be given this chance to record music I love so very much. I jog up and down the 2 flights of stairs with the Maestro to the sound booth to listen to our latest "take" and we're both overcome with enthusiasm for the music, bubbling over with explorations of colors and character choices - oh, it really is a marvelous thing. Made even more marvelous by the OUTSTANDING (and I truly mean OUTSTANDING) orchestra. The Accademia di Santa Cecilia is a very special group of musicians, and having their contribution on this disc is an unbelievable gift. They bring a real gravitas to this project, and it's precisely what I was hoping for!!

3 days down, 2 to go - my voice is holding up quite well, but it's my body that gets completely and utterly devastated in this process - which of course means the breath becomes a challenge. This afternoon was rough in that regard, but it's astonishing to me each time I feel that I'm wavering, the energy of the music takes hold, and somehow the strength comes!

Let's hope it holds out 2 more days!!! There's still so much excitement to come!!!

An overall view of the Auditorium where we are recording - a beautiful hour was spent here with the video crew doing a promo for the disc. (Yes, this process is not only about the music!) But it was a lovely day and a gorgeous panorama of the city:

The Maestro at work:

One of the band at work:

After hours:

Monday, June 8, 2009


So I am hunkered down here in Roma (how I WISH I had free time here to explore!) deep into my next solo recording for Virgin/EMI records. I would like to blog a bit each day about the recording process, repertoire, etc, but I think that might spoil the news of the release. When I'm at liberty to divulge more, I will. I promise.

But suffice it to say I have a BIG, GRUELING, EXCITING and OVERWHELMING project I'm working on during these 5 days, and we got off to a fabulous start today. I'm with the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia here in Rome, and I could not love their playing any more - such a positive group of musicians who have this kind of music deep "in their DNA" as one member of the wind section told me today. It's true - they really do, and it's making this project an IMMENSE pleasure, with musical values running very high.

I was walking with the Maestro to listen to one of our takes, and we were both like little kids, so thrilled to be a part of this project, so honored to be making music together - so overwhelmed at the task at hand! But as with everything, one step at a time - one note at a time, and all the spare moments are grabbed to rest and keep the mind focused!!

So this week will be quiet from me here on the blog (but not in the studio!). I know I still owe a report on the Lieberson piece, and I will get to it - again, I promise! Please don't take my silence for displeasure of the piece - quite the contrary. It was an incredibly beautiful, moving experience for me!!! But I just need the time to sit with my thoughts on it!

Not this week .... too many notes to think about!!!

Wish me luck!!!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The beauty known as "Flicka"

Frederica von Stade. One hardly knows where to begin.

There is this:

Or this:

Those seem like obvious places to start, but they paint anything but the whole picture. As I was starting out (way back at the infamous Wichita State University!), the opera bug bit me hard, and I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into. To me, singing was MUCH EASIER than the Beethoven sonatas I was slugging my way through on the piano - after all, you just open up and sing the pitches, right? Well, my naive declaration that vocal scales were simpler than Czerny exercises soon crumbled to pieces as I tried to warble my way without cracking through Cherubino's arias. They didn't LOOK that hard on paper - so what was the problem?

As every good vocal student does, I waded my way through countless interpretations of the arias, but in the end, there was only one that I ever wanted to listen to - and dammit, she made it sound so EASY! My anger was short lived, because I learned so much from watching her - and in the end it wasn't the lovely legato, or easy transition through those damned registers - it was her sheer JOY of singing this music. It was her honesty of every single moment. When she was singing, I wasn't watching Frederica von Stade - I was living and breathing with her Cherubino. She simply stood there. She trusted the music. She let it move through her and go out into the world, asking for nothing in return. I was hooked.

Fast forward about 6 or 7 years, and she and Sir Thomas Allen are starring together at Houston Grand Opera in "A little night music." After her devastating interpretation of "Send in the clowns" - where flowing tears were in attendance for every performance, I simply didn't have the courage to speak to her. But destiny stepped in as I was barging my way out the door for a quick lunch break, and nearly knocked her down a flight of stairs - of course, she wasn't alone: she had a huge grocery bag full of bagels and cream cheese for her cast and crew. Of COURSE she did!!!

Well, in GRAND style, I chose that exact moment, as she's precariously balancing her groceries, to blurt out at the speed of light in the most incomprehensible "english" how much I loved her and adored everything she's ever sung and that I think she's amazing and that she's my hero, and "Would you mind signing my Barber score???" Yeah. I played it verrrry cool. And naturally, because she's Flicka, "She said, 'oh sure, honey!" And she did. (I can't remember, but I PRAY I had the presence of mind to hold her groceries for her while she signed.)

Well, here comes the "pinch me" part: since then, I've sung the Squirrel to her Enfant in San Francisco, shared drinks with her and my father after a concert in Kansas City (after which my father promptly declared he was in love. He's not the first man - nor will be the last - to fall for her, I'm sure!), sang Sister Helen to her achingly beautiful Mother in scenes from Dead Man Walking - one of my most treasured memories, and recorded some Mother-Daughter duets (also by Jake!) that should be on the shelves within the year. I recorded them with her just after my Mother had passed away, and I still can't listen to them without falling apart.

So when the San Francisco Opera Guild called to ask me to come pay tribute to Flicka, I didn't care what I would have had to do to get there - it was an event I wasn't going to miss. I sang for her, and can't think of any greater honor for me, getting to thank her personally for her influence on me, and countless others.

As I blew her a kiss at the end, I was terribly moved. For the thing that is never publicized about Flicka, is the VAST amount of Charity work that she does. One of her big causes is the Sophia Project which helps single mothers with children battle homelessness. She tirelessly helps young singers, does benefit concerts and lends her name to so many worthy projects. She also is one of the classiest, most generous people I have ever met. In her speech to the Guild that evening, she thanked by name, all the planners and participants and then spent a large part of her thank you asking for prayers for a young mezzo who is in the fight of her life against cancer. She has a beautiful way of putting all of this into perspective.

So in the end, no words will suffice to sum up the influence Flicka has had on the opera family, and on the world around her. She is an inspiration, a shining light, and a JOY to call "friend".

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

There's no place like home!

Let's go back in time, shall we? Tis the fall of 1987, and I'm starting my undergraduate degree in Music Education at the Wichita State University, a short 3-hour drive down the fast-food littered Interstate-35 from Kansas City, the original "Dirty Dancing" was the big hit of the day, and dry cereal from the dorm cafeteria was the safest menu option of the night. My roommate, chosen at random by beautiful chance, and I hit if off immediately, and lo and behold, she was a wonderfully talented vocal performance major who quickly turned into my best friend. Imagine the serendipity of being able to sing along to the entire Dirty Dancing soundtrack in two-part harmony while driving to the mall in my Plymouth Arrow! Imagine, also, the glee of two young Kansas girls jumping for joy at being accepted into the undergraduate vocal group, "Chamber Singers". (Little did we know the audition was mere perfunctory routine - we were in if we had a heartbeat, but that didn't diminish our elation one bit.) And so began my intensive, unforgettable college education!

I soaked up every musical experience (while skipping a few of those educational "psych" classes along the way), and the inspiration surrounded me at every corner: a demanding, exceptional choral teacher, a glamorous, spiritual voice teacher, and the man who directed me in my first paces on the operatic stage and has remained my guiding mentor all these years. But let's be clear: I was not a star. I was most definitely a reliable chorus member to be sure, securing the occasional solo (the highlight being Aaron Copland's "In the beginning" - oh how I hope to do that piece again some day!), and served the part of the "2nd" 2nd mezzo in our opera productions (singing the second casts of the Mother in "Hansel and Gretel", Marcellina in "Nozze di Figaro" and Katisha in the "Mikado" - oh YES, I can't wait to sing her again someday, as well!) So I was solid, yes, but not a "star" by any stretch of the imagination. I only say this not to ask you to "cue the violins", but simply to put into context from where I have come. I never want to belabor the point that "they didn't think I was great" - I only want to show that I was a "slow and steady wins the race" kind of performer, and all the while I "lost" the big roles to another singer, it simply kept showing me that I still had work to do - I'm convinced it's the reason I don't shy away from hard work while in this career today, and why I feel the job is never actually done.

Fast forward a few (be nice here!) years, and I walk on to the stage of the Wichita Grand Opera to applause - applause coming deep from the hearts of so many dear people. That was a lovely feeling. But it wasn't so much about me, truth be told. The week in Wichita was the chance for me to come home and share with all the huge network of teachers and supporters and friends all rewards of the work I began way back during my time at WSU. I feel them with me every step of the way - the people who gave me my foundation, who instilled in me the responsibility that comes with making music, and the respect for colleagues and for the audience. It was born here in Wichita, and to share that with so many dear people - well, it was a real gift to me.

It was also a blast to follow up my Vienna debut of the same opera with a cast there in Wichita of one seasoned veteran (the beaming, wonderful Stefano de Beppo pictured here), and the rest: Barbiere Virgins! How fun to help introduce them to the joys of this piece, suggest how to perhaps avoid a few of the pitfalls, and to watch their discovery of this magnificent 3 hour show come to life! It was a real pleasure and I enjoyed every moment of it.

But I suppose if we're going to go to the real root of the situation, it was truly born at St Ann's grade school in Prairie Village, Kansas, where I spent the first 8 years of my school-going life. Yes, there were nuns (and I'll tastefully avoid writing in some of their nicknames here, as it might be nsfw!), there were cliques, and there were tears - mostly over Eric, my first, achingly tragic love. Sigh. But it's also where my love for music was born. (I had to have SOME sort of outlet for all the drama I felt over losing Eric to Peggy!!!)

I returned after my trip to Wichita to the 4th grade classroom of St. Ann's where my sister currently teaches music to all 450 kids: she's a real hero in my book. She invited me to visit on their last day of school and answer a few of their questions: "Have you ever broken glass?", "How many languages do you speak", "...And my mom's, um, well, um like her parents, my um, grandparents, um, well they like, um went to Italy once."

It was fascinating indeed to be among the shrunken walls once again, but I loved challenging them to see who of us could hold a note the longest, and inviting them to sing along with me to "Somewhere over the Rainbow". We posed for pictures, naturally - one of the proper sort:

And the next with their best Opera Faces:

The next afternoon I was busy at work in my home, when I was distracted by a very persistent helicopter overhead. A quick glance down the street showed 5 fire engine trucks - all with sirens blaring. "Time to grab the camera and join the festivities," I thought, and sure enough I arrived on the scene just in time to see our valiant KC firefighters lifting a stranded painter over the top of the 15-story building next door to me. Who dares to say life in Kansas is dull???

And in keeping with that theme, I went with a number of dear friends to one of the greatest shows in town - and a favorite haunt of mine, not only to pick up performance tricks, but to also have a ball with my camera:

Yes, it's Missie B's, the premiere drag show in the midwest, at the very least! This lady tore it up singing Jennifer Holiday's "And I am telling you", and I was officially blown away!

Without a doubt, this lady knows how to entertain and leave nothing behind on the stage! Brava!

So my time home, of which there is no place like it, was wonderful, topped off only by great visits with family. These times re-fuel me and keep my feet firmly on the soil, and I treasure them. Having my trip coincide with high school graduations and first missing teeth? Well, that is truly priceless!