Thursday, April 8, 2010

The good, the bad, and the ugly

One piece of advice I like to give to people is the following; if you ever want to feel truly horrible about the way you look, just go into a large establishment with harsh fluorescent lighting that has mirrors everywhere. The images of yourself reflected back to you will be so unflattering you will probably want to stop off at a plastic surgeons office on your way home. The worst offender is Century 21, the discount department store in lower Manhattan. I swear that place has the most horrible lighting on earth, combined with mirrors so fattening that they should probably be placed in a fun-house. It's enough to make you want to run screaming towards the end of the island and take a running leap off of one of the piers into the Hudson river.

The same advice could be given about what I'm doing as I write this: if you ever want to feel truly horrible about yourself as a singer and a musician, just record your very first coaching of a 20th century opera and play it back to yourself later that day. What will help with the horror is if the music is very high and quite rhythmic. Then not only can you be disgusted by your horrible musical skills, but you can also have the pleasure of listening to yourself sound like a badger being skinned alive. Truly dreadful.

I exaggerate for comedic effect, obviously. But seriously, one's first coaching on a modern piece is hardly every pretty. Unless you are one of those extraordinarily gifted singers who has perfect pitch and maybe played a musical instrument very seriously for years before you became a singer (like a friend of mine who learns all of his music by memory just by looking at the score, without making a peep - I hate him.) the first slog-through tends to be pretty gruesome. And today was no exception, especially because during a lot of my role in The Golden Ticket I'm basically screaming at my father, so the music is above the staff and quite syncopated.

Usually for me, I just need one or two goes at it with a pianist and then it all begins to make sense in my head and improves drastically. I don't have the best skills as an immediate sight reader, but I have really good ears, so once my ears can make sense of what's going on and send the messages to my brain, I can sing pretty much anything. Even if it's completely atonal, I can find the pitches using ear and muscle memory (I've had coaches ask me, "HOW are you finding that PITCH??" and I have to reply, "Honestly, I have no idea.").

But today was kind of a nightmare. First of all, my coach had never seen the score before. Some coaches will allow you to give them the score ahead of time so they can get a sense of it, but I work with one of the best coaches in NYC, and she doesn't have time to be spending hours looking at a new score, so usually we kind of learn things together. It actually helps me because then we can figure out how it's supposed to sound at the same time, and with a little repetition, I can get it into my ear and make it into actual music, as opposed to the initial warbling. But let me tell you, no one must ever hear the recordings of my initial coachings. Not only does my ipod with a mike take all the warm overtones out of my voice, but the shrieking of high A's B's, and C's when you don't really know what the next note you're supposed to sing is can be deafening.

But luckily, to lift my spirits, I did get a bit of good news. My friend Will had received his copy of Opera News in the mail, and lo and behold there was a GREAT review of the Agrippina from Berlin in there - and it was even in the magazine itself, not hidden away in the online version! Since it's not available online yet, I'm gonna go ahead and reprint what the reviewer said about me because it kind of made my day:

"In this production, Agrippina was far from the sole attraction: Pendatchanska's two female costars, Jennifer Rivera (Nerone) and Anna Prohaska (Poppea) shared fully in the evening's glory.

Rivera, an American mezzo who has appeared often at NYCO, was equally bold, singing with precision and unrestrained passion. The scenes with Agrippina were rife with oedipal over-tones. In all, her characterization of the young emperor-to-be was the evening's most varied performance, remarkable not least for the skill with which she navigated the terrifyingly fast runs of the Act III aria "Come nube che fugge dal vento."

Whoopee!!! I totally owe opera news a Beer.

And now, back to the shrieking. Talk about terrifying.

6 comments:

Brian said...

Congrats on your review! Your post reminds me of my freshman ear-straining classes. I could do all of the stuff during classes - melodic, rhythmic dictation, sightsinging with Ottman/Piano, the four-part harmony and stuff.

But my freshman first semester ET teacher was also the percussionist prof. When I went to his studio for the sightsinging portion of my semester exam, he said "ok sing a 5th above this pitch"

He tapped a fucking xylophone and all I could hear was "thunk."

He helped me out and sang the pitch so I got my A.

pat said...

Rollercoaster. Brava on the great review. Somehow it usurps the bad and the ugly.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the review, and also on making it this far in your 30-day resolution! You're doing a great job, and your writing is as excellent and your blog as fun to read as ever. Thanks for putting all this thought-provoking stuff out there. Hopefully you'll continue after 30 days are up!

Gige said...

Thanks for this honest testimony. I have pretty good ears too, and a solid background as a pianist and harpsichord, but swear to god, everytime I start working on a new contemporary score with a coach, I feel like I'm learning how to read music all over again. 20 years of training and sight reading and I still can't sing through this, never mind COUNT!!! It's horrible. But somehow, it always "magically" settles in. (well, I think...sometimes it's so atonal it's hard to tell the difference)

Congrats on the excellent review!!!

Katypracht said...

Yay for your fabulous review (!!!) and congratulations on your getting Veruca into shape enough for a couple coachings -- the hardest part is over! :) Ahh.

Safe travels on Sunday, and have fun in Portland!

Diane said...

Jenny,
Congratulations on the great review and keep on writing. I love reading your stuff. Good luck with all your upcoming adventures!