Monday, October 27, 2008

Opera Kissing

I had a hilarious conversation with a friend of mine on the phone the other night about what it's like to have to kiss someone onstage. We both agreed that it can be totally no big deal or really awkward depending on both people and the situation, and sometimes it can be pretty funny. First of all, there's the awkwardness of deciding when to first start actually kissing each other -because you usually have a couple of weeks of rehearsal in the room before you get to the stage. So, do you start kissing at the very first rehearsal and just get over whatever weirdness there might be, or do you fake kiss (or hug) until you get onto the stage and it starts to feel more like a performance? I' think it's easier to kiss from the first day so it's totally not an issue by the time you get to the stage. But then, how do I tell my romantic co-star that I want to kiss from the first day without seeming like I want to kiss them in real life? Usually I don't say anything and just go with the flow.

Then there's the situation where you are kissing each other and holding it until the blackout. When the lights are on you and you're onstage, you are in your characters, so it's no big deal. But when the lights go out, you're suddenly yourselves again, so how do you extricate yourself from kissing without it being weird? I've noticed I almost always do the same thing (which I'm scared to write about because I'm sure Brian, who is currently playing opposite me, will read this and he'll need to make fun of me when I unconsciously do it in our next performance). I always pat the guy (or girl if I'm playing a boy) on the back like "hey champ, good job there" as soon as the lights go off. Have you ever seen two straight guys hug and do the "straight guy back pat"? That's what I do. I'm surprised I don't ruffle their hair or punch them on the arm. It's my way of trying to normalize a non-normal situation I guess.

I've also had friends who told me that they worked with directors who told them "you need more heat - go make-out/ roll around in bed and get yourselves used to each other." It's something I could see theater people doing, but it would probably really freak most opera singers out. It's funny - theater people don't really see romantic scenes as particularly unusual - imagine what they have to do with each other in movies - but most opera singers I know are squeamish if they have to do anything too involved. I did one show (Lysistrata) where I had to climb all over a baritone, while both of us were pretty scantily clad, and he was wearing a fake erection that kept poking me and threatening to rip my costume (I'm not making this up - Lysistrata is about the women refusing to have sex with the men until they stop fighting war, so the whole second act has the men wearing these fake metal erections under their costumes). But that's nothing compared to some more modern operas I've seen where they have to actually simulate sex. Yikes! That would totally freak me out.

But the best kissing on stage story came from my friend who will remain anonymous, but who gave me permission to tell this story. He was a young guy in his high school musical, and he had never actually kissed a real live girl before. They came to the moment in rehearsal that he was supposed to kiss his leading lady, and the director, perhaps sensing his lack of experience, said to the two high schoolers, "You guys need to go practice kissing." My friend said it was probably the best day of his life, as they dutifully marched down the hall, shooing away the girl's little sister, so they could go find a classroom and "practice". After they spent five minutes making out, they went back to rehearsal, both a little, ahem, wiser. Even though it is totally not okay to ask two high schoolers to do something like that, the thought of this innocent young guy receiving his first kiss thanks to a particularly liberal theater director made me laugh hysterically. No wonder he became a performer!

(top photo is with Brian Downen in Cenerentola and bottom photo is with Keith Phares in Elmer Gantry)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Credit where credit is due

I was emailed a couple of reviews today (I can't bear to look for them myself in case I've been trashed, so I rely on other people to send them to me if they're decent) and luckily they were positive. I had a period of time when I was deathly afraid of reviews - it went with my panic attack before performing anxiety phase, and I would start to panic just opening a paper that might contain a review. Thank god I've calmed down about it, and I know I can't really believe the good ones, or be too happy about them, or I would have to believe and be devastated by the bad ones. However, I found the review of me in the Los Angeles times to be very interesting. Here is what he said:

"The mezzo soprano Jennifer Rivera was a fascinating Rosina-sufficiently opulent and agile in voice; wily, brainy, and pert
in manner but also carrying herself at times with a dignity that suggested the future countess of the 2nd "Figaro" play, "The Marriage of Figaro."

It's not a rave exactly but I'll take it. The thing that I find interesting about it is that he focused on exactly the thing the director (the illustrious A. Scott Parry) and I had many conversations and even arguments about. I ended up doing what Scott wanted me to do, and it seems that, well, he was right. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had trouble doing away with my desires to be a COMEDIENNE with a capital C, and I just wanted to play Rosina for laughs. But he always encouraged me to play her for real, to avoid the easy laughs, and try to understand the truth behind why she is who she is. We even had a big argument the night before the dress rehearsal because he told me he wanted me to be "more of a woman". "Well," I quipped, "then you probably should have hired someone else because obviously I'm just too strong and masculine to do this the way you want it." (I know, I can be bratty sometimes, but we're friends so it was okay). He very gently coaxed me off my ledge, and I agreed that I would do my best to stay true and honest to the character, and avoid "trying" to be funny. Many times Scott asked me to "channel the Countess in Marriage of Figaro - remember who you become!" he chanted. Well, it worked. I wasn't even thinking about that, but somehow the reviewer got it.

I must give credit to Scott - this looks like it's a good review of what I did, but honestly, I kind of fought him tooth and nail about doing it this way. So actually, it's a good review of what he did, and what I created because of what he told me. It takes courage to be a young director and ask a cast who has sung their roles many times to do away with the very things they feel make their characters funny. But he quietly insisted, despite protestations, and he was right. I think this is probably how I'm going to play Rosina from now on, so I owe him big time. And as it happens, he has some very interesting ideas about how he wants me to play the Cenerentola he's directing me in at Florida Grand Opera in a couple of months, so I'm sure I'll be asked to pay up soon enough.

Barber photos

These are photos I swiped off the Orange County Register's website, which had a little slideshow along with the very positive review. I am including them here even though my eyes are closed in every picture except one (what can I say - I have a very active blinker) and I also have really funny expressions in all of them. Sometimes I look at production photos and wonder if i ever look "normal". But at least you can see the pretty costumes and my fun red wig.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Barbiere opening

So, tonight was the opening of Barbiere here at Opera Pacific. It's 12:48 and I just got home. I think it went well - I mean, I guess I can't really be sure, but I know that nothing happened that made me too upset, so I guess that means it was a success. It's funny - my high notes, which is what I'd been worrying about - were fine I think, but I had a few issues with the extreme low notes from the opening night nerves. But all in all, I guess it went well. It's so hard to tell!! And I didn't have anyone in the audience to tell me how I did, so I guess I just have to rely on my own judgement. But yeah. It was good. I think. Or at least it wasn't bad. The audience gave us a standing ovation, so I think that at least the production was successful. Yay us!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

chasing perfection

Yesterday afternoon was the first rehearsal with orchestra. While 99% of the rehearsal went really well, I still sang a sucky high B natural at the end of my aria. In fact, at the end of my second aria, there is a sustained high A, and I held it for a really long time, so the conductor joked "are you holding the A forever to make up for the B?" "Yes", I replied, "is it working?"

I have an ongoing saga with this note - B natural - but only when it comes as the climax at the end of an aria. For example, I sing another sustained B natural in my duet with Figaro which always comes out great, but somehow the one at the end of the aria only comes out well sometimes. Other times, it sounds like I'm singing straight tone and gargling at the same time. And there is no single thing I can do to make certain it works - there are so many factors that seem to affect it; how I'm feeling that day, how I sing the rest of the aria, my level of nervousness, and whether I stress out about the note in the moment or just sing it. I was really beating myself up about this problem (as I tend to do) after the rehearsal, when I had an enlightening conversation with the director.

He was wondering why I thought I needed to be perfect, when perfection is basically impossible. He told me about a study Time magazine did a few years back, where they made a list of the 50 most difficult jobs. Number one was some crazy kind of rock climbing without ropes, number three was neurosurgery, and number two was - yup, you guessed it - opera singing. So when people say "it's not brain surgery" we can reply "that's right - it's MORE difficult." Now, I'm not sure everyone would agree with that, but it was nice to hear someone acknowledge the fact that employing excellent vocal technique, acting - usually in another language, making sure to stay with the conductor and orchestra, remembering your staging, wearing a costume, dealing with the set, and doing it all at the same time is actually really challenging! And expecting utter perfection from ourselves to the point that we beat ourselves up when one little thing goes wrong is totally counterintuitive. I know for me, the biggest reason I usually flub the note is that I am worried I might flub it. I know this because I can always sing it perfectly in my dressing room before the performance, and in my living room when no one is listening. The ONLY times I sing it badly are during performances (and sometimes auditions). So basically, my extreme desire to be perfect is preventing me from the very thing I want.

So, I officially am telling you universe: I don't care what happens when I sing my high B. It is one note of many (and with Rosina, I mean MANY) and I sing the rest of them pretty well. I officially demote this note from "most important" to "least important" and I accept it in it's many incarnations. If it comes out sounding like poop, well then, I am perfect in my imperfection. Life is too short to have a high B natural as your ultimate enemy. Big kisses to you high B - may you stop torturing me so I can get on with the rest of my notes, and in a broader sense, the rest of my life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Smile...or else

Tonight after the dress rehearsal, this "helpful" conversation took place between me and one of the guys in the chorus who had never previously spoken to me:

Him: You sound great!

Me: Thanks so much!

Him: But don't forget to smile.

Me: Huh?

Him: Well, you know, you just look better when you smile.

I found this exchange, which started out so nicely, to be infuriating for several reasons:

1. I was playing a character, so obviously, when she was happy I was smiling, and when she was sad I was frowning. Is he suggesting that I am supposed to smile all the time regardless of how my character is feeling?

2. I realize that sometimes when not in character and not focusing I sometimes frown, but I'm SOOOOO over having to plaster a fake smile on my face at all times for no reason.

3. I have a particular pet peeve about people commanding other people to smile. It happens to me sometimes on the streets of new york, where some guy will pass by me and say "SMILE!" as if I am responsible for pleasing him with my personal expressions.

Why oh WHY do people think they need to "help" other people with "advice"? Here's a tip: Any time you begin a phrase with "Don't forget", you're probably maybe not being so "helpful". But don't forget to smile when you're giving that oh so helpful advice, because at least then you'll look good.

Don't hate me because I'm in paradise

I live a short 5 minute walk from this beach:

And it's 75 and sunny, with a slight breeze. But please don't hate me because I am surrounded by natures greatest splendors in a perfectly mild climate with a gentle wind cooling the lovely sunshine. Hate me because I'm sitting on the couch watching Oprah in this setting. What? I have a tech rehearsal in the theater tonight - gotta conserve energy. Oh come on, I took those pictures, didn't I? I had to be outside for like 20 minutes at least to do that!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Sometimes I'm just so grateful that this has become my life. Of course, there are times when I wonder why the hell I picked this profession because it can certainly make me feel miserable, but more often than that, I have this feeling of awe that I get to have this life. Last night I was driving along the pacific coast highway with the ocean on my left and all these interesting stores and restaurants on my right, having just returned from dinner at my cousin's house. It was a beautiful night and I was savoring the fact that I didn't have to be at rehearsal until 7 PM the next evening (we move into the theater tonight, so our schedule goes to all evening rehearsals). I have to remind myself of this feeling next time I'm in some awful town and am horribly lonely reading a mean review written about me while performing an opera I can't stand. Remind me, someone.

Last night was so fantastic. I happen to have a cousin who lives in Orange County, and I haven't seen him or his wife since before they had their two kids, so I hadn't ever even met the kids. I may be biased because I'm related to them, but they were some of the cutest, nicest kids I have ever met. Sometimes you meet a family and you think to yourself - "god - why is that I want to have kids again?", but this was the opposite. The kids - Elise who is 1 and Ethan who is 3 - were so adorable, happy, friendly, and well behaved, that I think my uterus was actually reaching outside my body and tapping me on the shoulder while yelling "get your ass in gear Rivera!" I was VERY impressed with the parenting my cousin and his wife are doing - they seem to have found the perfect combination of discipline and communication, which makes for very happy, easy-going children. Just look at these faces!

I'm just really lucky that I happen to be paid to work in a place where this part of my family lives, where the weather is beautiful, and where I can smell the ocean from my kitchen. Life's kinda good sometimes, I gotta admit.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

glutton for punishment

I am definitely something of a masochist. Today we were staging the quintet and quartet in the second act of the opera. This is the very comedic scene where Don Basilio enters only to be shoved out by the other 4 principals, and then Bartolo discovers that the Count is in disguise and romancing Rosina while Figaro is trying to shave him, and the 4 of us run around the stage in craziness and mayhem. It is always a very physical scene with lots of running and usually shaving cream flies everywhere and bowls end up on heads, while wigs come off. We were figuring out the traffic patterns of some of the chases, and I looked up at the spiral staircase on stage left. "Gee," I remarked, "it's too bad we can't find a way to have somebody hanging off the staircase in this scene." It was really just a comment that I didn't expect anyone to take seriously, but the director was intrigued. "How could we fit that in?" he wondered.

So, me and my pratfall-loving self started pulling myself up onto the railings and seeing how I could hang off the thing. We tried many different incarnations, but then discovered that if I grabbed onto one of the stairs and swung forward, it looked pretty funny. We decided that if Bartolo was chasing me and I used a stair to swing myself out of the way to escape, it might work. So after several botched attempts, we got the maneuver to work. We ran the scene several times, and I was so excited that I was getting to act like a monkey that I was ignoring the fact that my arms really started to hurt. It was like doing a bunch of pull ups, and then doing a few more. Now my shoulders are killing me, my arms feel like someone tried to pull them off, and my hands have a bunch of callouses on them. BUT it's worth it because I get to do this:


What is WRONG with me? Why do I think that being on a stage in an opera is the same thing as being on the playground in the 4th grade? But unlike 4th grade, I have GOT to remember to stretch first.

equal rights

Something has got me all riled up this morning. I got a few emails from friends yesterday regarding the upcoming vote in California on proposition 8, which will remove from the state constitution the right for gay people to get married. Now, I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but WHAT THE HELL? I cannot, in the deepest recesses of my brain, comprehend why this beautiful thing allowing two people to declare their love, and which affects NOBODY except those two people, would be denied anyone. And why religious and conservative groups are fundraising and putting ads on television to try to get people to vote to overturn this right! I think about my gay best friend who has a boyfriend from another country, and how if they were straight they could get married and the boyfriend would never have to worry about his visa or his green card again. How would this negatively impact anyone? I also have two friends who just tied the knot in California this past weekend. I can't stand the thought that intolerance might yank this away from them. If you can't vote in California, you can donate money to the following two organizations if you are so inclined:

no on prop 8
equal rights california

There are many political issues which can be two sided, and which can be argued from a plethora of opinions. This is not one of them. This hurts no one and gives so many a basic human freedom. Why on earth would anyone think otherwise?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

feeling hot hot hot

Today it was in the nineties, and yesterday supposedly reached 100 degrees in L.A., where I went to see a friend and have a coaching. It's a little shocking to have summer in the middle of October, and yesterday I was dressed in a very new york outfit - a long sleeved dress, leggings and tall boots - and the Californians were all staring at me like "what winter are you preparing for?"

This morning we had a photo shoot, and I asked the director to take some behind the scenes photos of us. My costumes are really truly beautiful and as I mentioned previously I am getting in touch with my irish roots with this fiery red wig. The temperature makes me hot, but wearing a costume made just for me - like couture, as one of the costume makers pointed out to me today - makes me feel as hot as the 100 degree weather. The people in the costume shop here are INCREDIBLY nice and accommodating, always asking me how I feel and if I like the costume and whether I feel comfortable. And the wig and make-up people gave me a whole jar of free eye cream because I was complaining about my puffy under-eye situation. And they made me look so Rosina-ey:

Here's a photo of me with the Count, Brian Stucki and the Figaro, Jeremy Kelly. They are both great, nice guys AND they have mad skills: During the Count's serenade in the first act, Brian is accompanying himself on the guitar!!! Then for the second verse he hands the guitar to Jeremy, who then ALSO plays the guitar, accompanying his second verse! I've never been in a Barber where the tenor played the guitar for himself, much less where the baritone did too. I am very impressed. I can't even accompany my voice students on the piano when they sing Caro Mio Ben in C major. Here we are pretending to sing the trio:

Now, I need to go and get my MSNBC fix. Keith (Olberman) and Chris (Matthews) are totally my peeps.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

throwing the schtick

I arrived to the first day of rehearsals here to discover that the director is someone I have worked with before and who I really like. At the meet and greet, he talked about his concept of Barber of Seville, and how he wanted the action and the comedy to be more character based as opposed to using the same gags that we see over and over in productions of this opera. I was nodding my head vigorously because I thought that was a fantastic way to approach the opera, and I find so many of the old physical jokes to be trite and overdone. Let's rise above all that and do some serious character work, I nobly thought. Until he started to want to cut MY schtick.

I think this is the 6th time I've sung Rosina, and the one piece in which I have really developed my (ahem) skills as a physical comedienne is Bartolo's aria near the end of the first act. In this aria, Bartolo is lecturing Rosina, and she's usually really annoyed to be hearing his lecture once again. There are several physical gags I developed when I sang the role at City Opera, including puffing myself up to look as much like Bartolo as possible and imitating him by lip synching his text, crying hysterically with snorts and gasps, and falling onto the ground several times. I would be lying if I told you that my ego wasn't stoked by the fact that one of the reviews from new york mentioned what a great comedienne he thought I was and compared me to Lucille Ball. So I kept all those gags in all the productions and just kept doing them with more and more vigor, while eating up the cheap laughs and guffaws they elicited.

We got to staging this aria yesterday, and I started in with all my cheap tricks. Wait a minute, the director cautioned - I thought we weren't going to get all schticky in this production? My initial thought was - well, yeah.... but my schtick is... frigging FUNNY! But then I realized that he was right; the bits may get guffaws in the moment, but they leave the characters less human and less likable in the end. Maybe if I want the audience to take the journey with me, I'm going to have to edit out my groaning and snorting like a stuck pig. Oh phooey. That means I have to actually act like a human in this aria, and think about my genuine motivation and basically recalculate everything.

Comedy is a tricky thing, no doubt about it. Physical comedy can be hilarious, but it's the most funny when it comes from a place of genuine human emotion. If I fall on the ground and my dress goes over my head because that's what I think is funny, then it's not actually that funny. But if I really need to grab Bartolo's hand and convince of something, but I miss him, fall on the ground and my dress goes over my head, that's comedy. Maybe that seems obvious, but too often with these oft performed roles, we fall into a kind of comedy rut, and play for the laugh instead of for the truth. But this time, thanks to a savvy director who's got my number, I get to reach inside and find a new honesty. That's fine, as long as I get to fall on the floor at least once.

Friday, October 3, 2008

sing for your supper

Okay, I think my life has officially done one of those full circles.

It's friday night, and we had a full day of rehearsal, staging my aria, my duet with Figaro and some various and sundry other scenes in the first act. However, it's one of those gigs where after the rehearsal is over, everybody seems to go their own way. This is fine, I'm used to this situation, especially for some reason with Barber of Sevilles. And in this opera, I'm staying in a town where no one else is, so it adds to the aloneness of the situation.

As I was driving home, I was deciding between going home to my apartment and going to the italian restaurant where I had felt so at home speaking italian to one of the owners. But it was friday night, and I hated the idea of walking into a restaurant alone on a night like tonight. I actually drove home and parked my car, but I didn't get out. Then I kicked my own butt, restarted the car, and drove to the restaurant.

When I arrived, there was a different brother than the one I had met at the front of the restaurant seating people, so I immediately started talking to him in Italian. He asked me if I was italian (what a compliment) and I explained to him that I was an opera singer, and I had met his brother the other night. "Ah si!!" He had heard about me!

We talked for a minute, and he introduced me to the singer who they hired to sing italian and american standards in the restaurant on friday nights. The singer immediately sat down at my table and started chatting me up in italian. He asked me right away if I was married and explained that he had been married three times. I think he is now divorced from his third wife, but has a girlfriend. I told him I was looking for the perfect man. "Take it from me" he quipped "there's no such thing. And I should know!" He was adorable and I enjoyed listening to him sing Fly me to the moon and Volare.

As I sat there, the various brothers came up and kept talking to me in italian. One of the brothers, the one I met the other night, said he wanted to cook for me. I don't get the feeling that he is always in the kitchen cooking, but I know he went in there and made a spaghetti with seafood just for me, and he brought it to me himself with a flourish. In the meantime, the other brother was constantly checking in on me and bringing me more wine. Both of them sat down to have extended conversations in italian with me, which is very good practice for my italian language skills, which are probably fading somewhat due to lack of use.

After two glasses of wine and a tiramisu, the singer and the brothers said "Now, what are you going to sing??" I usually would not get up and sing in a situation like that, but I felt like it would be rude not to. I asked the pianist what he knew, and we settled on Summertime. After I sang it, and everybody cheered, and the italians yelled "more more!!" the pianist asked me "Do you know Musetta's waltz?" Now, I just got finished singing Musetta a few weeks ago, so I couldn't exactly say no. And because the pianist was playing by ear, I looked down and noticed that he was playing the aria a half step lower than it appears in the actual opera. Woo hoo! This was too good to be true!! The one opera aria he knows, I happen to have just finished singing the role, AND he is playing it in a BETTER key for me!! So I gladly belted out some Quando m'en vo, and easily made it up to the high notes, even after the vino and the dessert. There was a guy and his son seated right in front of the piano who happened to be opera buffs (how unusual) and they made me give them an autograph. Some other patrons, who were seated right next to me, stopped by and said "We were wondering why you were here alone!!!" (Like my singing explained that, but I guess to them it did). The italians were beside themselves, and they comped my whole dinner. I was so glad I changed my mind and decided to push myself to be a little social, because I obviously made some people happy, and I got a free meal in the process. It's amazing - sometimes it's easy to be selfish with our gifts, but sharing just a little bit can be so rewarding.

What I mean when I say my life has come full circle, is that I'm back in California, my home state, spending time with Italians totally because I spent time in Italy earlier this year and learned to speak italian, and I'm somehow singing Quando m'en vo for them, which I wouldn't really know had I not just sung it in Bogota. All the parts of my life are coming together at once, and it's funny and special. Life is better when you take risks. I have to keep reminding myself that, but it's so true.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The best of all possible worlds

Okay, so this place is sort of a paradise. And having become the somewhat cynical and jaded new yorker, I am slightly suspicious of it. How can it be so beautiful? Is the ocean really supposed to be that warm and that blue?

I arrived yesterday in the Orange County Airport, and was immediately shocked by how hot and tropical it feels here. Apparently it's even warmer than normal for this time of year, but it was probably 85 degrees when I landed yesterday. I picked up my rental car, and thanks to my trusty new gps device, found my way to my "bungalow" in Laguna Beach. I had my sunglasses on and the windows all rolled down, and at some point I rounded a corner and saw nothing but white sandy beaches and blue ocean. I thought to myself, "you have to be kidding me." I mean, I grew up in California, so I shouldn't be surprised, but I've lived in dark an dangerous new york city for 11 years now, so seeing people hopping around the beach with their shirts off and playing volleyball made me feel both joyous and nervous. And my little bungalow is about a 5 minute walk from this shirtless volleyball ridden heaven on earth. I have all the fans on in here and I'm still a little hot. Phew - rough life!

Today was our first rehearsal - a musical run through with the conductor. I learned today that 3 out of 6 principals had cancelled in the last couple of months for various reasons, so don't despair if you're a singer with no work - I mean, 3 out of 6 - you never know when something's going to come along! Luckily they found great replacements (that's the singing business for you - there are good singers around every corner) and everyone involved in the production is extremely nice. I had a two hour costume fitting after the rehearsal. It was long, but I never mind standing around and getting laced into corsets when I have the pleasure of wearing costumes that have been made just for me. I've had my share of god-awful costumes, so I was thrilled to see that these are going to be totally beautiful and interesting. Plus I get to wear a red wig, which always makes me feel saucy.

When I finished my day I was too exhausted to cook, so I stopped at an italian restaurant very near my house. The food was really good, so I asked one of the waiters if the owners were in fact italian, and it turns out they are, so I started speaking Italian with one of the brothers who runs the place. As is typical with Italians, he was totally friendly, and especially impressed that I was an opera singer (again - Italians know exactly what that means - there is never an awkward "what does that mean" moment when you tell them you're an opera singer). After offering me tons of free dessert and limoncello, he made me promise to come back, and meet the rest of the family. Who knew I would get to practice my Italian in southern california? I asked him why his family had chosen Laguna to open a restaurant and he replied, "It's very nice here, no?" I answered "Si - e come un paradiso!" and so far, it really is.