Friday, July 31, 2009

29 tumors? They haven't got a chance against a song.

In case any one out there is in need of an enormous dose of inspiration (which includes me, because I am officially OVER this cast on my leg!), please, please, PLEASE give yourself a gift and take a few, short minutes to read this astonishing article about Zheng Cao, an against-all-odds mezzo soprano.

I am a believer.

"Early on, I said that these cancer cells have no chance in my body because every cell is already filled up with music."

Please feel free to donate to the walk taking place in San Francisco on Sunday, and then just sit with her accomplishment for a bit - makes anything seem possible, doesn't it....?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lessons learned

I don't know that I've ever felt quite as much relief for a show closing as I did with the finish of this most memorable and unbelievably special "Barbiere" in London last week. I truly have never experienced anything quite like it, and now that I've had some time to reflect on all that happened, the exhaustion has indeed set in!! I've taken this past week to rest up, regroup and rest! (Did I mention that I've been resting?) I had no idea how many different muscles (upper back/shoulders) would be involved in singing from a wheelchair, as I was left feeling as if I had run a marathon after each show. But sore muscles aside, it was one helluva ride!!!

Let me be clear: without question it is a ride I hope never, ever to repeat - hence my game plan to dive full-force into physical therapy and resume my yoga regime enthusiastically as soon as I possibly can. (Although I have found that there are a number of yoga postures I can actually accomplish with a bit of imagination!) But having said that, it is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything in the world: it has only confirmed in my heart and soul how important the experience of theater can be (both for performer and audience member) and how necessary it is in our lives.

From a personal standpoint, if you had told me one month ago that I would have this particular challenge ahead, I would never have thought that I could do it. And yet, when the challenge confronted me, in a split-second (that damned split-second!), there was no question for me whether to continue or not. Perhaps it's the Midwesterner in me that simply knew I had a job to do, so I said to myself "shut up and just do whatever you have to do to get the job done, already!" To me, that wasn't heroic - it was simply me doing the job I was hired to do. But you throw into the mix the support of so many people - the amazing staff of the Royal Opera House who treated me to the very best of care, the astonishing cast who didn't blink a single eye in rearranging the show to accommodate a Rosina on Wheels, the brazilliant fans who supported me with such gusto and VERVE welcoming me with open arms for each performance, my tireless friends who helped to keep my morale so very high, and not at all the least, my heroic husband who kept me laughing non-stop through this all, literally carrying me through this - and all of a sudden I could do things I never thought possible.

(My exceptional cast who truly helped carry me through each show)

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but it's the simple truth: aside from the pain and inconvenience, I had a real ball with this. The first night that I entered into the stage on wheels, I had NO idea of what to expect, of how to play it, or how it would turn out - the truth is, none of us did. That very first night every single, solitary thing was improvised by the entire cast. (I think that was only possible because #1 - we had rehearsed this show impeccably exploring all the individual intentions and interactions profoundly, #2 - this is a cast who knows this show inside and out, and #3 - every single member of the cast is a stage animal with real theatrical instincts, so we could actually continue to tell the story of these characters, even while completely making things up on the spot.) After the throw of my first dart at the start of "Una voce poco fa", I felt immediately that the audience was going to be with me, and that somehow, this was going to work.

From that moment on, I grew in confidence and made the decision that there was no point in trying to hide the fact that Rosina was on wheels - I simply had to run with it, so to speak. And within the very first phrases of that famous aria, I felt IMMEDIATELY how trapped Rosina actually is. It had never been quite so literal before, but I used that and felt it and played it, and in the end, I fell in love with this particular version! (But let me be clear - I never EVER need to repeat it!!) The overwhelming sense of independence I felt in wheeling myself around, the deep sense of frustration of being trapped and unable to join in the games on stage, and the immense sense of freedom I had as I pulled myself onto the stage in the final moments of the opera, all contributed to making this girl come very much alive to me, and I hope to always carry her around with me.

From a very technical standpoint, once the run carried on, I began to observe how I was singing differently. Yes, I had to pay attention to my support in a different way since I was seated for the entire show, but I realized that because I could rely less on my physical body to "act" for me, I had to resort more and more to simply the voice. Back in my AVA days in Philadelphia, we had a brilliant monster of a Maestro who tormented us with unmatchable expectations and demands. (He worked with Serafin in the "good ol' days" of bel canto with Callas, etc. HA! As if there is an "etc" with Callas! Did I really write "Callas, etc"?!?!) BUT, he would spend literally HOURS on a single page of recitative until we got all the myriad colors to literally burst off the page. "ACT WITH YOUR VOICE NOT WITH YOUR HANDS!!!" It was exhausting, demoralizing work, ("Can't I do ONE phrase right? WHAT MORE DOES HE WANT FROM ME? BLOOD!?!?!?"), and yet in the end, to this day, I can hear his voice in my head as I prepare those recits, and I drew on that voice while in my chair to concentrate even further my "vocal acting" to bring this character to life.

That freedom of acting with the voice is of paramount importance to me and one of the million reasons of why I love what I do. But I also have to say, in the interest of full disclosure, I REVELED in the opportunity to find ways to "act" with my trusty chair and with my enforced confinement. "How to give adolescent attitude with one push of the wheel?" "How to show astonishment with only the pivot of a wheel?" "Normally I should fall to the floor at this point in utter shock, so how I can I accomplish that in this chair?" I loved solving those problems and found that indeed I had a full range of possibilities to play with - and that kind of challenge is something that really gets my blood pumping!

(With my dear friends, Bill & Kevin, who happily took the cast out for a day of sightseeing!)

So in an odd way I will miss my "Rosina on Wheels" and return to "Rosina in Heels" soon enough (although they will likely be modified heels to start with!). But the lessons I've learned from this experience will hopefully fuel all of my performances, and the utter kindness of people has put a permanent smile on my face. How FABULOUS to be a part of a "good news story" in these particular days of news of the other sort.

For now, I've been soaking up the lovely weather here in Aix-en-Provence (even if I'm a bit sick that I can't get out and go hiking or swimming or do a major photo excursion here, but perhaps it's just as well I'm simply resting up.). I'm ready to revisit this amazing journey of "Furore" once again here in the place where Dajanira was born for me 5 years ago - how lovely to return to this spot and bring her journey with me full circle. And then what I expect to be an amazing road trip through Austria (my first!) to debut in Salzburg, which is beyond a dream come true for me. Whether I'll be seated or standing on my one good leg, I don't yet know - I need to see how I feel on the day, try some various positions in rehearsal and play it a bit by ear (something I've gotten quite good at!) But I can tell you it is far easier to sing sitting down than to sing on only one leg - I haven't found way to locate the support I need in that way just yet - most especially for this challenging concert. I'm still not allowed to put any weight on my delicate right fibula, but I'll get there!!

Finally, I want to simply thank each and every one of you for your support - whether in applause, in writing, with flowers or cards - it has touched me deeply. It doesn't escape me how fortunate I am to have had such an active flood of support - goodness knows there are countless people that face difficulties and don't have this kind of outpouring - so I consider myself beyond blessed. Your words have meant so very much to me, and in the end, it is quite true that you are the reason I sing. Thank you.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Research and Inspiration

So one of the great things about enforced rest, is it gives you a chance to catch up on all important things like surfing you-tube. I mean, "doing research" on you-tube. Happily, performances on wheelchairs are documented a fair amount, but obviously not a single one comes close to the perfection of Delores DeLago (I wonder if she is the orginal Donna del Lago??):

A big thank you to Neil Gillespie for capturing a bit of the event on Tuesday night from the sidelines. Neil is not only one of the members of the stellar ROH Chorus, but is also a wonderful photographer and the mind and lens behind the Naked Calendar for Charity, featuring workers and stars of the Royal Opera and Ballet! I'm honored to be included in his list of subject (and relieved to have my clothes on!)

I'm staying quite quiet today, which I need - gives me some time to process the brilliant play we took in last night, "Waiting for Godot". It was a masterful performance from Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan, and certainly helped me see that I don't have it that bad, all things considered! As I say, "It's ALL good!!!" Anyone near London should definitely try to get tickets!!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Let 'er roll"

Well, without a doubt, last night was one of the most memorable, exciting nights in my life. I suppose that makes two in a row for me.

I arrived at the theater around 4:30 and was introduced to my new co-star: a beautiful, sleek "Moonlite Breezy Wheelchair". (Their motto is apparently "Innovate: build for the future". Well, innovation was certainly the name of the game last night. (Hey, I wonder if they need a spokesperson!! CALL ME!) The game plan when I arrived, was to have a member of the directing team push me through the show (thanks for volunteering, Tom!) But the moment I sat in the chair, I felt oddly at home and found that I was actually rather dexterous on the four wheels - and as a result, HUGELY relieved, because the idea of Rosina being DEPENDENT on someone to push her around was something I couldn't wrap my head around.

I got 30 minutes on stage to feel my way around, try a few things out, observe the safety barrier the BRILLIANT ROH team installed at the front of the stage - presuming they preferred their lead singer not to also injure her spine!!! - and to devise a general game plan with the directing team of how to play the big moments, and how to adjust to the impossible. For example, under "normal" circumstances, when Rosina believes she has been betrayed, a storm wells up in her and she completely trashes the set. Well, at this point, it's not only a matter of dramatic choice, but it's a technical necessity for various bits of action that must happen, so we had to find a solution. Last night, Rosina called in Berta (the maid) and in a show of feminine unity, I "conducted" Berta through the trashing of the set! Innovation at work.

I can't begin to describe how sorry I am for my "cast mates" to put them in the position of having to improvise on the spot like that, but I can only send out an enormous THANK YOU to each of them, for their support, for their sheer brilliance, and for their willingness to enter into the theatricality of it all. For me, I can only say that I had a ball. Is that insane? The odd thing about this, is that in a big way, being "trapped" in this wheelchair was a quite literal way of demonstrating Rosina's frustration and HUGE desire to break free. I certainly felt it more last night than I ever have before, and think I found ways to still convey the character and to "act" the part.

As was my intention last night, I hope to continue to perform, but whether it's vertical and on my feet or seated and on wheels remains to be seen - day by day is the current order of business. Again, I certainly don't want to compromise the integrity of the show in any way, but I did feel that last night we still told the story and made beautiful music. As long as that continues, I'm game!!!

I'll probably spend the rest of my life thanking people for their help through this - from the AMAZING fans and supporters, to all my friends and family, to the ridiculously brilliant Opera House Staff, to my manager who has gone WAY above and beyond the call of duty, but most of all to my (sigh) astoundingly wonderful husband. He's got a million things going on himself in these days, and yet he is still treating me with the most delicate of satin gloves, supporting me beyond measure and continuing to make me laugh. Ah, see? It's all good!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rolling right along...

As a friend reminded me, one of the great all-time stage acts involved Bette Midler and a wheelchair. So, I figure, let's give it a shot as well, tonight. Of course, 3 hard weeks of intense staging rehearsals go right down the drain (sorry Mosh & Posh!) BUT it means we get to improvise in character, think quickly on our feet (or wheels as it were), and still aim to tell the story, only this time it has a twist (or fracture) that Beaumarchais most likely didn't intend, but is nonetheless entirely plausible. I've been to Seville and have seen those cobblestone streets!!

Monday, July 6, 2009


Just a quick word to send an ENORMOUS "thank you" to everyone for the beautiful words and sentiments of encouragement! I have been truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of good will, to say the very least, and I can only say that it means so much to me.

Thank you.
Mille Grazie.
Merçi mille fois.
Muchas gracias.

The good news is that the permanent cast is on and it's COLORFUL. (stay tuned for pics)

The other good news is that upon further exam, it IS just a spiral fracture to my right fibula (I think I mistakenly identified the bone as my fibia earlier, but it is, in fact, my fibula), and there is NO apparent damage to any ligaments or to the all-important joint between the tibia and talus. So, without putting much weight on it for the next 6 weeks, it should provide a clean repair.

Tomorrow night will find me in a wheelchair for the show, giving it everything I have, and my hope is that the healing will cooperate and let me get upright and a bit mobile in time for the big live broadcast on July 15. But at this point, it is one day at a time, one show at a time, and trying to find a balance between "the show must go on" and "long term mobility!!!" I promise I will not do anything consciously to put my ankle health in danger, but at the same time, I want to do all I can to REALLY play this part with this astonishing cast (of singers), with these astonishing musicians, and for this unbelievable public! I would hate it if I ruined anyone's outing to the theater.

Thank you for your incredible support and outpouring, and let's see what happens!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

And the show went on!!!

Well, so much to tell about tonight's performance. I don't know that I have ever experienced an evening quite like this one before - but I'm certain that I have invoked a new policy regarding well-wishers!!

From here on out, I declare that no one (please!) ever ever ever wish me again, in the American fashion (despite it being Independence Day), to:


I understand the good intention, but from here on out, wish me "in the mouth of the wolf" instead, ok? That's far less likely to actually happen - although with my luck, you never know!

Tonight was an evening for the memory, to be sure, and it had little to do with my falling down and breaking my fibia. Yes - I broke my fibia. Fabulous. But it had a lot more to do with amazing colleagues helping me through every little step, astonishing music making at every single level, hair raising improvising by myself and my ridiculously brilliant cast, and a lot of patience on the part of the public.

"Hey, London - Thank you!!!"

4 hours in the emergency room (Hey, it could have been worse!), and a look of pure astonishment from the doctor who recoiled in a bit of horror as I said I stayed on my foot for nearly 3 hours performing. Ha, silly me - apparently this kind of injury requires absolutely no weight to be put on to it - so I'm crossing my fingers that not too much damage was done! However - the cast is on, the foot is elevated, the pain killers are kicking in, and all is great!!! I'm sure we'll figure out how to get through these next performances, after all, there is no RULE that says Rosina might not have been suffering from a broken ankle, right? It could happen!!

But before signing off, I have to send out an INCREDIBLE debt of gratitude to my wonderful cast mates (ha - CAST mates!), as well as to the amazing staff of the Royal Opera House who took amazing care of me, and then to simply salute one of the very finest operatic experiences I have ever been a part of. Yes, my ankle is killing me, but someone pinch me, because tonight was oddly sublime!!!

With the incomparable Alessandro Corbelli and Ferruccio Furlanetto, somehow making everything seem ok!

And with Señor Florez who sang an unbelievable "Cessa di piu resistere" all the while being sure to help keep me on my feet. Ah, and the thing that made my night was the flower decoration I found to put on the cast - somehow it helped me swallow the bitter pill of having to hobble my way through this production that I normally run through. Yes, it's the details that count!

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart and the bottom of my cracked fibia, to everyone for your support and understanding in this! Here's to a speedy and complete recovery!!!

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Another opening, another show..." or is it?

Yesterday the Royal Opera House put up the final general rehearsal of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Tomorrow night is the opening.

It is a TERRIBLY foolish thing to rave about a show before the opening, and certainly what happens in the dress rehearsal is not necessarily an indicator of how the opening night will go, much less the run, so I must choose my words carefully. Perhaps I shall just talk about the rehearsal process? Yes, that seems prudent.

(Alessandro Corbelli rehearses the start of act 2)

I have enjoyed my 3 weeks of rehearsals here in London more than I can say. I don't know that it's possible to work at a much higher level than this - although anything, naturally, is possible. I've spoken here about how much I relish the rehearsal process, because for me it contains the possibility of real discovery and an undeniable period of growth as an artist. Sadly, that doesn't always happen, and I often walk home from the theater thinking we are somehow selling the opera short by not digging as deeply as we could, and by not holding ourselves to a higher standard.

Well in this particular, miraculous case, the standards are as high as they come. We have Maestro Tony Pappano in the orchestra pit bringing to life this masterpiece for the first time in his career. I've never sung an opera with him before (only concerts) and I am sure he is as animated as this every time he raises the baton, however, I do sense a particular spark in his eye as he realizes how absurdly fun it is to play this piece. He finds the musical jokes in the piece, revels in the vocal acrobats happening around him, and takes every single, solitary note of this score seriously. It doesn't get better than that.

(Moshe Leiser takes us through our dramatic paces)

We have a production team that is unsurpassed. They are the ones who beg us to serve both "gods of opera: the god of theater and the god of music", and to accomplish that they actually KNOW the music and USE the music and KNOW the play and USE the play. Not one false note is allowed from anyone, and as a result we are playing this for all it is worth. Minute degrees of detail are insisted upon ("Joyce, you're thinking too much about Bartolo in this moment so it's coming across too angry, and we need to see the corner of your mouth lift up so we know you're thinking about Lindoro here.") It doesn't get much better than that.

I could write for 10 pages about my costume, alone, and the amazing designs of Agostino Cavalca (above). He sat in the rehearsals (during the first run of the show a few seasons ago) to observe how I moved, and literally built a costume around my movements so that the costume illuminated a part of the character. Not to mention the brilliant fit and cut and COLORS, and the use of roses in practically every stitch (the petticoats resemble an actual rose when gathered up!)- it DEFINITELY doesn't get much better than that!

What am I missing? There is something else about this show.... Oh. Right. The cast.


(Alessandro Corbelli as Don Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Basilio in a moment that surely will go down in the history of the Royal Opera House as one of the ALL TIME GREATEST MOMENTS on the opera stage.)

I have to say that from day one of my career, I have always felt incredibly privileged to be in the presence of greatness and to not just see the finished product of that greatness, but to actually see the PROCESS. I'm a firm believer that greatness is achieved in the process, in the journey - not just in the ovation. (My first example of that was in my first season in the Houston Grand Opera Studio - my first production was "Salome" with the astonishing Hildegard Behrens pouring her way through the score as if it was her first time. What an example to start with!)

(Pietro Spagnoli relaxes between staging rehearsals as Figaro)

I have had the immense pleasure of watching these four veteran players all work to shed previous accounts of these roles, to ask questions of the situations they had not asked before, and to forge a real "company" to give the impression that we are actually inside the Beaumarchais play, not inside "an opera". Rest assured, to say the singing is first rate is the understatement of the year, but the singing SERVES the drama and the drama REQUIRES the singing to happen. Ah, it's bliss, I tell you - sheer bliss!!!

My philosophy along the way has always been that, in essence, I don't want people to be aware that I'm singing. I want it to seem like the most organic, natural act that simply HAS to happen because the emotion dictates it. I don't want the singing to interfere with the drama, and I don't want the drama to interfere with the singing. I want it all to be seamless and absolutely united. I've often wondered if it REALLY was possible, and I can say that in my experience in these rehearsals, it absolutely IS possible. And God, when it works, it feels SO good. Yeah, it definitely doesn't get much better than that!

(Juan Diego Florez speaks with our director, Moshe Leiser, about the finer points of the drunken soldier)

So wish us luck for the opening that we can continue the journey and bring a splendid Barber to Londontown. (And for those of you in UK - watch your local listings on July 15, as we'll be beamed direct to parks and squares across the UK - the biggest one being at Trafalgar Square!)

Here's to a "dolce nodo" for all!