Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Oracle of the Onion: Melons! Coupons! Oignons!

Everybody has their weak spot. Mine seems to be my right ear. My sinus passages are thinner on that side and, well, sometimes gunk gets up in there, doesn’t drain properly and voilá - ear infection. So, here I sit with half an onion strapped to my head (supposedly onions draw out infections). Since I used one of my hippy sashes to affix the vegetable to my ear, the get-up makes me look like some kind of fortune teller.

In my darkest hours (mostly in winter) I have consulted fortune tellers, just so I could hear them tell me that everything was going to be okay. In that respect, they were right - I’m still singing for a living, I’m not living underneath a bridge and, although I haven’t yet met my one true love (or have I?), I don’t have any enemies. None that I mind having, anyway. 

Just this week, one of my favorite horoscope columns (the only one I read, actually - Free Will Astrology by Rob Breszny) also mentioned this time of darkness:

“Not all darkness is bad. You know that. Sometimes you need to escape from the bright lights. It can be restorative to sit quietly in the pitch blackness and drink in the mystery of the Great Unknown. The same is true for silence and stillness and aloneness. Now and then you've got to retreat into their protective sanctuary. Dreaming big empty thoughts in the tranquil depths can heal you and recharge you. The magic moment has arrived for this kind of rejuvenation, Virgo. “

Well, I am most certainly sitting in the dark (because winter), drinking the mystery of the great unknown (also known as Cabernet Sauvign-unknown). And you cynics think horoscopes are inaccurate!

In addition to fortune tellers and horoscopes, I’ve begun working with a career coach who is helping me focus my energy on the things I want to achieve. Much like the half an onion strapped to my ear, I was a bit skeptical about this kind of approach. A lot of what goes on in the singing business - in fact, everything that goes on in the singing business - is not up to me. Unless I strap a tambourine to my foot and sing on the sidewalk with a bucket in front of me, there’s no way to make money in this business alone. Sometimes the criteria for getting work are so very arbitrary, it’s hard to believe that I have any influence in it at all.

I have enough experience with self-promotion to know that most of my efforts come up fruitless -- this position has already been filled, that opera has already been cast, we’re hiring someone we’ve already worked with, you’re too small/tall experienced/inexperienced old/young whatever.... Still, rather than focus on what could possibly go wrong, each week my career coach and I come up with about five things that I can do to make progress. That’s totally doable, and if necessary I can write each thing on each one of my fingers to remind me (yeah, yeah, I have ten fingers, but one hand is writing, isn’t it?)

Lo and behold, the weirdest things have started happening. My coach assigned me to contact certain people about certain things, and although I got mixed responses from my efforts, I’ve been getting offers, or at least chances, from completely different people, from unexpected directions. All the more unsettling that I should get an ear infection right now.  Because, according to one froo-froo holistic healing website, an ear infection is a symptom of this:

“You are stagnating because you have not been open to new information or you do not like what you are hearing. You need to accept what is presented to you in order to relax and flow with life without resistance.”

Maybe the ear infection is just a gentle reminder that I am on the right track, because I’m hearing that my efforts have not gone unnoticed, that 2015 is going to rock (details to be revealed as soon as the ink is dry), and that I am being presented with plenty of opportunities -- some to be accepted and some to be turned down. The wisdom lies in knowing which is which, I suppose. 

Speaking of choices, I’ve tried heating the onion - the warmth is indeed very soothing for the ear - and I’ve tried leaving it raw, since the pungent fumes seem to help the mucus flow (I know, too much information), but all in all I think only my intuition and a doctor’s professional opinion will be able to tell whether I’ll be well enough to sing the concert I have to sing tomorrow, which, to be honest, is something I probably should have turned down. Perhaps before accepting my next offer, I should consult a fortune teller.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

It's Never as Good as the First Time: Of Premieres and Other Demons

"Love and Other Demons"
Photo: Heiko Sandelmann

Sade said it best:
“[The] second time won’t live up to the dream ... It’s never as good as the first time.”

While Sade was singing about sex, a premiere opera performance shares those “first time” qualities. You spend weeks - maybe less, maybe more - leading up to it. You’re nervous. You’re worried if it’s going to go well. You’ve never done it before - at least not with this piece, this person, in this place, at this time.

The first time counts... 

It’s the real thing - not a rehearsal, not a fantasy. Maybe you’ve been talking about how marvelous it’s going to be, but now it’s happening. And hundreds of people are going to be watching (here is where the opera, hopefully, differs from sex). Once you start, there’s no going back. The bull is in the pen, and the Toreador must penetrate or be penetrated (this is not the case in opera, unless of course you are premiering “Carmen”).

There should be nothing more exciting than the first time, but those of us who have “performed” know that that’s not always the case. Maybe you’ve got other things on your mind, maybe you’re having a bad day, maybe you’re just not in the mood.

Unlike a romantic tryst, most operatic premieres can not be postponed on account of your disposition. Even if you’re vital to the piece, in most cases you can be replaced in as quickly as an afternoon’s time. This could apply to sex, too, but let’s just hope desire goes beyond just appendages and orifices and extends to connection of two human hearts and souls. Still, I’d think twice about feigning that headache.

The first time is awkward...

You’re self-conscious, suddenly aware of each and every flaw, wondering if your wig is coming unglued or if your cellulite is showing.

The first time is messy...

Fluids of all kinds when and where they shouldn’t be flowing. Just ask anyone who’s had to kiss Name-withheld-for-obvious-reasons on stage. Or how about that spitball that always manages to nestle itself right on your ... high F?

If you’re lucky, the first time is followed by a second and third time and many subsequent performances. In the case of my most recent premiere, the second performance was cancelled due to faulty equipment -- the revolving stage was in a jam that not even a Viagra could fix. So we all reconvened for a third time, two weeks after the premiere, feeling timid, trying to remember what it felt like; a bit devoid of passion and making a few new mistakes, we still had a feeling of confidence, and in the end a gush of exhilarating applause (yeah, okay, actually it was a bit meager - only 235 people in the audience, but size doesn’t matter, does it?).
When it’s over, it’s over. The first time only comes once, no matter if it was awkward and messy, or exciting and beautiful. Sade sings, “Were they as tender as we dare to remember? Such a fine time as this, what could equal the bliss of the thrill of the first kiss?” Will your premiere performance lead to bigger and better things (what was that about size?), will it just fade into oblivion, or will you reap the fruits of your labor? At any rate, it’s never as good as the first time.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Wait, what? Opera is dead?

Are those two soap opera
stars trying to kill me?

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: you can’t always believe what you read! 

Shaking my head after reading Chiara Bottici’s article from March 3, 2013 on the online version of Al Jazeera’s opinion page, I’ve come to the conclusion that either the author is drastically misinformed, or she has fallen victim to a horribly trained editor. I have every confidence she has no ill intentions.

“Check your sources,” my journalism teacher would’ve said!

If this article had been written by a junior staffer at my high school newspaper, for which I was the Features editor, I could’ve excused its lack of depth and deadline-on-a-school-night inaccuracy. But it was written by an assistant professor of philosophy and published on a reputable site. Somebody should’ve known better. 

In her article “The death of opera: a funeral eulogy” (as opposed to a birthday eulogy, a wedding eulogy or perhaps a bar mitzvah eulogy? ... Oh, dear. Where’s my red pen?), Ms. Bottici claims the assumedly dying art of opera has been replaced by the soap opera. 

The author leads people (who might not know better) to believe that Ernani is Verdi’s most successful opera. It may have been in its time, but it’s hardly well-known now - I’d bet most opera singers couldn’t even tell you its plot. And even people who’ve never been to an opera can whistle the refrain of the famous “Libiamo” chorus from La Traviata, the tenor aria from Rigoletto, or the trumpety triumph song from Aïda heard at soccer games across Europe. Although she goes into massive detail about Ernani, she fails to mention which soap operas succeeded in wiping out 400 years of operatic tradition.

Assuming she’s not talking about As the World Turns or Days of Our Lives, shows which have been around since the 50’s and 60’s and are therefore not newsworthy (again tipping my hat to or pointing my finger at the editorial department), let’s  surmise that she’s talking about more recent dramatic television series such as “Mad Men” or “Downton Abbey.”

Whereas Mad Men successfully explores American themes through plots comparable to the literary works of Saul Bellows or Dorothy Parker  (talk about “sophisticated intellectuals,” Ms. Bottici), what is Downton Abbey other than a thinly-plotted daily soap with exquisite sets, costumes and good actors? And just for good measure, they throw in the occasional historical reference like the First World War: Oh, Mr. Crawley was paralyzed in battle, but it’s more convenient for our plot if he can walk and make babies...It’s a mircale! Then, oops! He died, how sad, the end. (Sorry for the spoiler if you haven’t finished season three, yet).

Ms. Bottici purports that soap operas have replaced opera because they’re alive and affordable. Granted, tickets to the opera can be expensive - the author cites decent seats as costing around $400. Later in the comment section to her article, however, she claims to go at least once a month. While I’m thankful to her for supporting my art form, I wish she would have spent part of her apparent fortune paying someone to put her thoughts into a more succinct article. I think she has sabotaged her own intentions, confusing us with stories of the actual Risorgimento rather than illustrate opera’s resurgence that is happening now.

For someone who supports opera, she’s not doing society any favors by resuscitating the stereotypes: opera is long, boring, expensive, elitist, incomprehensible, whatever. In New York City alone, where the author evidently lives, one needn’t pay $400 to go to a performance. There are standing room tickets for $20 - maybe not the best idea for a 5-hour Wagner opera, but there are shorter pieces. Tosca is only about two hours long, for example, and you get a break after just one hour. Many Hollywood blockbusters are clocking in around three hours these days. Incidentally, I sat through Django Unchained and Lincoln back-to-back (which would’ve cost me more than $20 in NYC) -- six hours, and you don’t hear me complaining. Many movie-goers have been subjected to Wagner without even realizing it. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan, so it seems. There are free opera concerts in the park during summer months, bi-monthly Opera on Tap events in Brooklyn and around the country (yes, as in beer on tap. And opera. What’s not to like?).
Lastly, the fact that 3 million people across the globe gathered in movie theaters to watch last weekend’s simulcast of Wagner's Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera for six hours (my ticket cost 29 Euros, by the way, and we had a better view and acoustic impression than even the most expensive seat in the Family Circle), is just further proof that opera is relevant, accessible, affordable and far from dying.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What are the chances...?

What are the chances that a 
Christmas cactus blooms during Lent?

• What were the chances that today would be sunny? 
80%, supposedly, but after months of cloudy skies and yesterday’s little blizzard, it seemed like a frickin’ miracle.

• What were the chances that I would be second in line at the consulate for my 8:30 appointment, and actually get in and out of there in about 30 minutes? 
Slim, considering non-US citizens had been standing in their much longer line for an hour by the time I got there. Luckily it was sunny. 

• What were the chances that I misunderstood part of the instructions which led me to believe I could pay with a personal check? 
Good, because I’ve been under the weather - way under - and not thinking clearly these days.

• What were the chances that I wouldn’t have the equivalent of $110 (which is actually €82.29, but in some tweak of inner-consular mathematics it was €88) or a major credit card on my person? 
I would say, rather excellent, since I don’t keep my credit cards together with my cash (which proved to be a clever move when my bag got stolen a year and a half ago), and see above.

• What were the chances that the U.S. Consulate General does not take the EC Karte (European debit card) as a form of payment?
Even better.

• What were the chances, that I would be standing behind a fellow opera singer in line at the cashier window (as well as outside) and that said opera singer happened to be carrying his score with him at the time so that this would be obvious to me?
You have no idea how many opera singers there are wandering around, but the chances that two of us would be standing next to each other in line at the consulate... Slim, very slim.

• What were the chances that I would work up the courage (i.e. audacity) to ask my fellow opera singer, a perfect stranger, if he happened to have €13 I could borrow?
Pretty good, because otherwise, I would have had to exit the consulate, walk 1.2 kilometers to the nearest cash machine and back (it was sunny, but it was also freezing) and go through the whole security rigamarole again.

• What were the chances that I would miscalculate, have to chase upstairs after my fellow opera singer, and grovel for another €10?
At this point, I’m thinking anything is possible (and he’s thinking I’m a bag lady).

• What were the chances that, en route to the cash machine to pay him back (by way of the 17-minute subway ride to the main station and a coffee), we would discover we not only have mutual friends, but we have mutual good friends?
The world is getting smaller....

• What were the chances that I got to repay karma almost immediately by giving a random woman at the subway stop the change she needed to buy a ticket?
A small, but clear sign.

• What were the chances that this encounter with my fellow singer, someone who is only a couple years older but far more operatically experienced than myself, would snap me back into a time when I was amongst the people I to this day love the most, reminding me of who I used to be before I was filled with insecurity, fear and self-doubt. Reminding me that I have everything it takes and more to survive in this business.
I don't know, but I'm feeling pretty lucky.

• What are the chances that I’ll get to sing with my new friend on stage? 
Slim. But after today, I’m willing to take my chances.

Thanks for the loan, Scarpia!

Now, what are the chances that I’ll get my new passport in time enough to fly to Madrid for performances in three weeks? 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Must the Winter come so soon and stay so long?

Must the winter come so soon?
Night after night I hear the hungry deer
wander weeping in the woods,
and from his house of brittle bark hoots the frozen owl.
Must the winter come so soon?
Here in this forest neither dawn nor sunset
marks the passing of the days.
It is a long winter here.
Must the winter come so soon?

Giancarlo Menotti from Samuel Barber’s opera, Vanessa

There are reasons for seasons, meteorologically speaking of course, but all creatures are slaves to their own rhythms, inwardly or out. It has indeed been a long winter here, and it just so happens to coincide with my time between jobs. Perfect. This was supposed to be, for me, a phase of rebuilding, polishing my act, learning new roles, devising a master plan, really making use of the time at hand. 

Allowing for the usual period of post-production depression, having just returned from a wonderful time in Hannover working with really great colleagues, I wasn’t too hard on myself for the month of December. A couple concerts came up around the holidays, which gave me a bit of motivation and cash, and I even wrote another blog entry for the first time since July. Any second now I was going to get to work on building my business. And learning Spanish. And redecorating the kitchen. And exercising, of course.

Rubbish. These are things for Spring, are they not? Winter is for hibernating, isn’t it? Aw, hogwash! I’ve got nothing else to do. Now’s as good a time as any! In between performances in November, I managed to go to yoga 2-3 times a week. Now I’ll surely go everyday, right? Right... in my dreams, as I slumber until the spirit moves me to wake up, or until a call from the Deutsche Oper am Rhein jolts me out of bed at 9:30 to jump in that very night for Barbiere di Siviglia. If only I had that kind of adrenalin rush every morning, then maybe I could actually get something done.

But what exactly is it that I am supposed to do? Learn Spanish? Okay, I signed up for a course. Redecorate the kitchen? I ordered some colorful Mexican oil cloth to adorn my cabinets. Exercise? I defeated my pig dog big time yesterday when I dragged my ass to Bikram yoga, almost turning around to go back home, whimpering as I walked up the steps to the studio only to plod on and have one of the best classes ever (life’s small victories). Practice? Yes, I suppose, I’m chugging away fleissig for my next role --rehearsals start in April....

You may ask yourself, how do I work this?
You may ask yourself, where is that large automobile?
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house.
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife.

Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

Is that it? It’s still not enough. It’s not enough to fill the time in this ever so discontented Winter. It’s not enough to for me to say, I deserve that trip to Barcelona I just took with my friends so that I could please just see the blue sky for more than 20 minutes. It’s not enough for me to say, Sure I can come out tonight for a quick drink because, to be quite honest, nobody is scolding me for not getting anything done today. I feel like I haven’t done enough.

As we are creatures bound by the rhythm of the seasons, we are also animals trained by the concept of task and reward. That which makes me so successful when I  have a task makes my life miserable when I have none, for I am a faithful servant but a terrible master. I am meticulous, I am eager. I am punctual, I am righteous. This is my time to work and to reap the rewards. But there is no work, and I’m weary of inventing it.  Cleaning house? Filing taxes? Are these the most exciting tasks life has to offer me right now? So yes, why not Barcelona (it was lovely, by the way)? Why not do whatever I want, when I want? 

Perhaps it is because I am from the Desert, I am not trained in the ways of hibernation. I do not know how to Chill. The Fuck. Out. The life of a “so-called professional opera singer” (put that phrase in quotes into a search engine and you’ll get my life story), a freelance one at that, is not governed by the rules of working hours and weekends. Yea verily, we have our strongest moments between 7:30 and 11p.m. When the need arises, it’s going to arise at that time of day. But in the interim, our friends with ‘normal lives’ and ‘day jobs’ are going to demand our attention during these precious eventides and weekends.

And so the task is at hand, despite the season, despite the workload, to reap the rewards we have yet to sow. Oh, heck... isn’t harvest in the Fall? I have completely lost track. Who cares? Even if you don’t feel worthy of a night out on a Wednesday evening with friends, take it. Even if you don’t ‘deserve’ a day off, it’s all you have -- enjoy it. Do not stay home and brood as I have done. It is a long winter here, and next one will come too soon.