Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 Wrap Up

I'm finishing up my year by gearing up to sing a concert with a slight case of laryngitis. I guess it's not technically laryngitis, it's just swollen vocal cords resulting from singing and talking too much with a cold that was lodged in my throat, but it's still singing while hoarse. Yippee! The concert isn't until tomorrow, so I'm hoping I'll wake up and miraculously be cured. If not, that's why god invented drugs.

Looking back on this year, I think it's been pretty fantastic. I've written over 100 blog entries, so I even have a record of all the times - from fabulous to crappy -and it's easy for me to notice what I've learned this year. So here goes - my list of lessons from 2008.

1. Attitude isn't everything, but it's not nothing either.

This is a lesson that I'm continually learning, but it came into even sharper focus this year. And if I were going to teach a class to aspiring opera singers about things to know about this crazy biz, I would definitely have to stress the fact that your attitude and general demeanor in professional situations is pretty much as important as your talent and abilities. People that are genuinely caring and generous with their colleagues are rehired (and the genuine part is important - it doesn't seem to work with phonies). The second, and somewhat complimentary part of this equation is being cautious and careful of what you say and who you say it to AT ALL TIMES in professional situations. True, it becomes exhausting. But when you're somebody like me who tends to blurt out whatever comes into her head at the moment it appears, it's a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of every day. I can think of so many instances in the past year (some of which are recounted on this blog) where I spoke before I thunk, to less than stellar consequences. 2009 is my year to be more aware of not only what I say, but my general attitude in all professional rehearsals. I don't want every emotion to read as easily as a trashy novel on my face, and I want to stop blurting out all my faults and insecurities to anybody who will listen (except of course on the blog, where I will continue to make fun of myself until it gets boring). Seriously - I really think that the attitude you present in rehearsals is AS IMPORTANT as the other obvious requirements like ability and preparedness. Sometimes extreme talent can overcome personality (think about some of the stories about the misbehavior of certain stars) but why risk it? Being kind and considerate and careful can be a job just like learning notes and rhythms, and if it doesn't come naturally, don't forget, neither does warbling in an operatic voice. It takes years of repetition and practice, but the results are what getcha hired.

2. Success is somewhat arbitrary

This one is either very liberating or very frustrating depending on how you choose to think about it. But for me, this realization has been somewhat liberating. I finished a book not long ago called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell ( I mentioned it in an earlier post before I'd actually read it.) Gladwell's assertion is that extremely successful people are talented and smart, but they're not the MOST talented or the smartest people, they are merely the people whose circumstances were extraordinary enough to allow them to succeed. He talks in the first chapter about the Canadian Hockey League, and points out that a very high percentage of the professional players are born in either January, February or March. Why? Because during the time of year that the hockey scouts recruit the best 6 year old players to go on to the advanced track, the ones born in the first three months are simply bigger than the rest of the kids. That's it! The key to being a successful hockey player in Canada is having the skill, plus being born in the right month! It's so easy to apply this to opera singing, when the fact that being in the right place at the right time a few times in a row (and having the talent to back it up) is what leads to successes on all different levels. And realizing that I don't have control over these extenuating circumstances, makes me realize how idiotic it is to convince myself that this or that milestone that I haven't yet reached is because I'm just not good enough. This doesn't mean I don't continue to push myself to be the best artist I can be - it just means that when I don't get chosen for something, or get hired by a company, I don't have to beat myself up for "not being good enough". I just have to accept that the circumstances weren't in my favor that time and move on. This is almost as obvious as the "being nice works" one, but somehow I really understood it this year, and I feel lighter and happier because of the realization.

3. I like this job

As I've discussed on this blog a few times, I went through a tortuous period of extreme stage fright for a couple of years, and during that time, I was constantly questioning if maybe I should think about another career. But 2008 has probably been the most fulfilling year of work so far (well, it actually started for me in the fall of 2007) and I've actually been enjoying myself tremendously again, and realizing that I'm dreadfully lucky to have this for my job. 2008 started out with Elmer Gantry, which is the first time I've actually "created" a brand new role for a world premiere, and not only did I enjoy the hell out of singing the role of Sister Sharon, I made some life long friends in the creators of that piece, and I got to play a really meaty character that went through a big transformation and died a fiery death! I had my first experience working in Italy / Europe, which is chronicled in great detail on the blog, so I don't need to go into detail. But in a nutshell, it was so fabulous it pretty much changed my life. I sang a soprano role in Colombia, and even though I probably won't revisit Musetta, I was really genuinely happy to get to be in a La Boheme at least once in my life. And I ended the year by finally feeling like I understand and enjoy playing Rosina, and the role is one I'm actually looking forward to doing again instead of worrying about it or dreading it like I once did. There were lessons about acting and taking direction, musicality and vocalism, and style and language that were invaluable and all encompassing. And I made more friends - real, true, dear friends - this year, than in any year in recent memory. All in all, the year was quite amazing, and I'm sorta sorry to see it go.

But I'm entering 2009 with an unusually optimistic attitude, and more of a zest for life than I'm used to experiencing. I'll take it.

And as my final post for 2008 comes to an end, I'd like to ask for your comments. I have no idea how many people read this blog, what they're getting from it, and what else they'd like to know. So please comment - tell me what you think and who you are and if you have any requests. Happy New Year - I raise my electronic glass to whatever happiness may be just around all of our corners.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion

Last night, in a whirlwind, I got to do something extremely fun; be a guest on a Prairie Home Companion. This was my 3rd time on the show, and each time was very different. The first time I landed on the show it was by coincidence and fluke. I happened to be performing at a fundraiser for the new york public radio station WNYC because someone I went to college with works there and asked me to do it for free. Garrison Keillor was the main act, and after he heard me sing, he said "if you want to come on the show, have your agent contact us and we'll get you on there." Well, I thought he was just being nice, and my agents don't even know what PHC is as far as I know, but I went to the website and sent an email to the general email address, and sure enough, somebody wrote me back and said they'd love to have me on the show!! So I went on and sang a couple of arias, a fake coffee commercial that Garrison wrote, and a duet with him from The Music Man. Then they asked me to come back on Christmas Eve (2005) and that was probably one of the most fun gigs I've ever done because Garrison wrote a Guy Noir sketch which centered around me! I played a disgruntled opera singer and not only did he rewrite the words to 3 arias (which I had to learn that day) but I got to play opposite him in a sketch that involved sword fights, chainsaws, and all kinds of craziness. Last night was a little calmer because I was a last minute addition to the show, and he didn't really have time to write a whole sketch for me like last time. But it was still pretty crazy for an opera singer who is used to rehearsing!

The morning started out with me receiving an email from the music director Rich Dworsky - I still hadn't been told what I was singing, and was waiting to hear if my suggestions were accepted. I had a hard time thinking of the right Christmas songs that would be classical and would suit my voice, so I suggested the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria (which I hadn't sung since I was a kid, but that was okay) and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which I could sing legit enough I figured. But this email said that Garrison wasn't crazy about pop tunes, and couldn't I sing something more classical? It also gave me his phone number and told me to call him, which I did around 9:15 AM. I gotta say, talking to Garrison Keillor on the telephone is a surreal experience. I mean, last week I was in my parents car listening to him tell stories on his show, and now I'm talking to him on the phone. Bizarre. He told me he wanted to rewrite the words to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ("because I'm a writer you know, that's what I do," he wryly joked) and I said sure. He also asked me about rewriting some of the arias from The Messiah to put in a script, but didn't tell me why or for what script. An hour later I had received via email "Have yourself a merry little christmas/ Let your meals be light / From now on let's try to curb your appetite" and the rest of the hilarious rewrite. And a few minutes later came a rewrite of "He shall feed his Flock" from the Messiah that began, "He shall feed his cats with cans of tuna / And he shall clean their litter boxes every day, every day." Now if you know The Messiah and you're imagining that to the tune of He Shall Feed His Flock, you're laughing already. And even though I had no idea what script this would appear in, or if I would have more of a part, I looked over everything, got myself ready, and headed off to Town Hall.

I arrived at around 1 in the afternoon for my soundcheck, but Garrison was still at his apartment writing for another couple of hours, so we practiced the Ave Maria, the Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with the new words, and the Messiah piece even though we had no idea where it would go. "Are there any sketches about Cats?" I asked, hoping to get some clues. Nobody knew. After we rehearsed, I hung around hoping to hear news about scripts, and a bit later got called down to the stage again. "Garrison wants you to sing with the blue grass singers in their medley" I was told. So I marched back to the stage to rehearse whatever this was going to be. These awesome musicians had this medley of traditional Christmas carols intermixed with this song I had never heard. They wanted to know if I could just improvise a harmony with them. WHAT? Anybody who knows me knows I hate singing harmony, and I definitely am not good at IMPROVISING harmony! But they somehow convinced me (they told me I could sing the melody on the carols - I just had to figure something out for the other parts) and Rich, the music director was helping me figure out this high descant to sing about them. I have to say singing those carols with them was really enjoyable - I just sang softly and tried to blend with their voices, and it was a really lovely experience. As we were rehearsing, Garrison breezed by and said (while walking past) "Just have Jennifer sing the carols, not the other parts." Phew! No more harmonic improvisation for me!

Then somebody handed me the Guy Noir script, where the Messiah Cats song was located. Unfortunately, I didn't have an actual acting role like last time, I just appeared and sang my song. I waited for my turn to rehearse the script, but my pianist had left for the afternoon to get some work done, so I sang it without piano and hoped for the best. One of the challenges of working on that show is trying to fit the typed out lyrics he gives you into the music because the syllabification is always different and if you get one syllable off, you're screwed (on live radio). I sort of hung around because I thought Garrison might need to hear me sing his new lyrics for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but he was so behind he had to go up to his dressing room and write his monologue, which I don't think he'd started yet. When Rachelle, my pianist got back, we tried the Messiah piece one more time ( I messed up the syllables the first time, which freaked me out) and went upstairs to wait for the rundown, which finally arrived about 10 minutes before the broadcast was supposed to start. I saw that my cool trio with the bluegrass singers had sadly been cut due to time constraints, and that Ave Maria was basically the last thing on the programs. Yikes! I have to sit in the FREEZING theater until the end and then belt out Ave Maria?? Live???

So the show happened, and everything seemed to go fine. I didn't mess up any of my syllables, the audience liked his new lyrics, and Ave Maria, even though it got moved to another spot in the program on the fly, still managed to come out okay. Of course my parents and Georgia (who were in the audience at Town Hall) were wondering why I was so nervous that I was shaking, but it wasn't from nerves - it was because the theater was like a meat locker and I was actually shivering! But in spite of all of that, everything went fine, and I had a great time as usual. And doing anything that is being broadcast live gives you even steelier nerves that you might have already had.

The show will be available at the Prairie Home Companion website after today's rebroadcast. Check it out if you are so inclined.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Tonight I went to see my friend Will perform the tenor solos in the Messiah with the Oratorio Society at Carnegie Hall. He was terrific - it was as if the piece was written for him - and I would have been brimming with pride if only my stomach wasn't exploding in discomfort. "Comfort ye" he sang, but alas, I couldn't.

See, I found this old pair of jeans in one of my winter clothes boxes that I was going through, and even though they were way tight, I decided to squeeze into them and look hot hot hot for tonight's concert. Except I didn't realize that sitting through an entirely uncut Messiah with very tight pants around my waist would basically give me gastrointestinal horrors. So during the intermission, I carefully placed my coat in my lap and undid my pants to give myself a little relief.

I felt much better and was enjoying the concert in relative comfort (ye) until we came to the Hallelujah chorus. I completely forgot about the tradition that requires everyone to stand up when we get to that part, and the patrons in the seats all around me shot up as soon as the first chords were played. I was left with my coat in my lap wondering if I could possibly get away with staying seated when I noticed the people behind me looking down at me with disdain. I reached under my coat to try to discreetly button up my pants, but I discovered that zipping and buttoning really tight pants is way harder than undoing them.

With all the people around me standing up and therefore able to see my every move easily, I had to sort of stretch out into a half reclining position, reach under my coat, and suck in just to get the zipper up. The button was even harder because I had to wriggle side to side to get it closed. When I finally managed to get everything properly fastened, the Hallelujah chorus was half over, and everyone around me was furrowing their eyebrows at me like I might be a pervert. But I stood up anyway and smiled as if nothing was wrong. And as soon as the piece was over, I sat back down and unfastened those suckers like there was no tomorrow.

Now I'm finally home and free of those treacherous jeans. Now that deserves a Hallelujah.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Deja-vu - another Barber opening

The Barber in Tampa opened last night, and it did almost feel like just another performance of the Barber I had already begun in California. Don't get me wrong, this is a very different take on Barber in every way, but this role is beginning to feel so familiar and - GASP - so comfortable, that performing the opera is actually a pleasure! I remember talking about Rosina this summer, and complaining about how I didn't really like singing the role because I found it difficult and not terribly rewarding. But I have to say, as a result of these two productions and the things I've learned from both of them, I've changed my mind. I sincerely enjoyed myself last night!

When we started rehearsals here in Tampa, I found myself arguing with the director yet again (I can be SUCH a frigging know-it-all!). I had just come from this Barber in California where I started out arguing with the director, but which I thought really worked beautifully in the end, so now I was on board with his interpretation. And the director here wanted me to do everything completely differently, to be very broad with all my comedy moves, and to not be afraid to flail my arms and legs and fall on the floor repeatedly. I had just been convinced by director Scott to avoid anything that looked broad (actual note from Scott during Bartolo's aria: "Don't imitate Bartolo or mouth his words!") - and now I was being asked by director James to do the opposite (actual note from James during Bartolo's aria: "can you imitate him more and mouth his words?"). I knew Scott's way had worked, so I was resistant to James's way. But judging by last night's audience reaction, I now know that BOTH ways work. The audience was in absolute hysterics thanks to the broad buffo staging- I mean, they were practically rolling in aisles, they were laughing so hard. And this was a very important lesson for me to learn: There is more than one way to skin a cat. Just because something works one way, does not definitively mean that even the exact opposite won't work if it is crafted in the right way. But if you're going to do something entirely differently than you're used to, you really have to commit to it 100% or it definitely won't work. I have to be more trusting with directors and learn to just try their ideas even when I'm dubious because sometimes they really do know what they're doing.

So now I've learned that there are two ways I can play Rosina; I can play her in a way that is more feminine and dignified, or in a way that is more comic and broad. Maybe next time I sing the role, I can play around with finding a way to combine both sides of her, and that will be yet another characterization. But I've definitely learned that I should get better at taking direction. That's probably not a big surprise to anyone who knows me.