Saturday, February 28, 2009

I just can't get you outta my head

I'll admit it, I'm in a music learning frenzy.

I've actually been really lucky in that I'm usually just learning one role at a time, or maybe learning one role while I'm performing another. Plus, with 4 cherubinos, 6 Rosinas and 6 Cenerentolas, I've had a lot of repeats. But right now I'm in a kind of obsessed state of learning a million and one things, and I kind of like it.

In addition to the Varese pieces which I talked about in the previous post, I am making sure I'm all learned and memorized for a concert of all Mozart music with an orchestra this weekend (3 arias and 3 duets), I've begun learning a new role which I may have to go do in about a month, I have two songs which are the beginning of a song cycle a composer friend of mine has begun writing for me and which we want to get a recording of asap, and I have a couple of new audition arias that I want to bring with me on my upcoming audition trip to europe. Going from Varese to Mozart to bel canto to modern American and back to Varese in one day makes my brain swim, but it also really inspires me. One second I'm practicing floating high B flats and the next I'm practicing belting a middle C in full chest voice. I usually prefer the part of this job where I'm around other people, whether it's working with the conductor on the music or just rehearsing the staging with the cast, but this self imposed solitude with constant learning is actually really making me happy. I've often only been leaving my apartment once a day, to go to the gym (okay, I've only been doing that this week, but I'm DOING it) and otherwise I just sequester myself. When my brain gets full I stop and do something else like catch up on my emails, but then my newly insatiable appetite for learning reasserts itself, and I'm back gazing at sheet music.

I'm usually a horrible procrastinator, but if this keeps up, I might learn the Mozart role I'm singing in France in 2010 by the end of the week.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


There are two different types of difficulties that go along with being an opera singer: the logistical difficulties (for example singing notes and rhythms - at the same time - in a foreign language, while standing on your head) and the emotional difficulties (why god whyeeeeeee didn't I get that job, or whyeeeeee did that person write that terrible review of me or whyeeeee do I have to spend so much time away from my loved ones?). Now, these challenges seem large, but they are far outweighed by the benefits, which Is why I keep on keeping on. But that doesn't mean I don't ever get to whine and complain a tiny bit, just for fun.

Tonight, let's talk about the logistical difficulties. Right now I'm studying a piece by Edgard Varese for singer and orchestra called Offrandes. I'm performing it at Avery Fisher Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra on March 22nd. It is two songs totaling about 8 minutes of music and it is HARD. The tessitura is kinda cray cray - I mean super high and super low at different times, and the music is not exactly tonal. Plus the orchestra is playing all kinds of stuff, but nothing that gives you a good sense of what beat you're on or even what tempo you're in, and they certainly aren't playing any of the notes that I'm singing. And after I've been practicing it for awhile, my throat sorta feels like hamburger meat from half singing half marking crazy high notes repeatedly. That being said, the piece is also REALLY cool because it transports you to an ethereal, impressionist, yummy french place. Plus, actually learning a challenging piece like that is a really satisfying feeling. But it ain't easy to float a high B flat out of nowhere, especially when the orchestra is playing a bunch of A naturals.

Friday, February 20, 2009

What I've been up to

So, for the past week or so, I have sequestered myself at my parent's house upstate to work on recreating my website completely. I created the new website with the help of an existing template (that is to say, I didn't hire a web designer to create it for me) and the work was often painstaking and it took FOREVER, but I am pleased with the result. Check out this link if you would like to see all my blood sweat and tears:

Because I've been getting this website up and ready to go, I've been walking down memory lane as I finally collected many of the production photos from the past few years. I hadn't looked through the production photos at City Opera since they were still on slides, so that should give you an idea of how long it's been since I ordered anything from them. It was funny returning to City Opera after this, my longest absence from the company since I began there while I was still crossing the plaza from my Juilliard classes to attend my first City Opera reheaersals. My last performance with the company was in fall of their last season before they closed for renovations, and I haven't had too many opportunities to visit the place since. I was happy that the security guards at the stage door still remembered me, and one of them quipped, "You still singin'?" I replied, "Yep - even though the place is closed I'm still singing - can you believe it?" Of course we were joking, but City Opera was my home away from home for 8 seasons - and some of my greatest artistic achievements and bestest friendships have come out of that place. It's very quiet right now, but everybody I ran into was hopeful and excited about George Steel, and they are all ready to climb the steep mountain and bring the place back. I saw this sign posted - it was a copy of that blue and red toned photo of Barack Obama that says "HOPE", except Obama's image had been replaced with Mr. Steel's. Not only was the suggestion that if Barack can become president, anything's possible, but also, even in the bleakest financial times, with an inspirational leader, we can all have hope that the future will be better. That scrappy company isn't gonna stay down for long, I can feel it.

Of all the photos I collected, one of my favorites has to be this action shot from Agrippina (taken by Carol Rosegg). Singing Nerone in that production of Agrippina has to be one of my favorite things I've ever done at City Opera (although choosing a favorite at NYCO is like Sophie's choice to me because there have been a lot of goodies). In this particular production, Nero is a chain smoking, coke snorting, drunk, sex crazed teenager. The opera starts with him waking up in bed with his mother, and goes downhill from there. In the first scene, I was playing a game of russian roulette that forced me to put a gun to my head and pull the trigger. It freaked me out every single time, even though the gun was fake and there were obviously no bullets inside, putting a gun to your head and even pretending to shoot yourself is totally alarming - but it certainly had the desired effect dramatically:

But my favorite scene in the opera had to be in the second act, when I entered Poppea's bedroom in a drunk, stoned haze and tried to seduce her by yanking off my pants and singing a lot of crazy coloratura. I got to shake my pants right down during a particularly fast lick of coloratura after leaping onto the bed, and that's what's going on here:

And finally I got to sing one of the coolest arias ever written, "Come nube che fugge dal vento" which happens at the end of the opera when Nero really starts to have a psychotic break. I do look pretty psycho in these photos:

After that lovely stroll down memory lane, I'm back to real life and have to go study some crazy 20th century french music. Wish me luck.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Not curing cancer

As soon as I got back into town I was off and running, with three auditions in three days. I was grateful for the distraction since coming off gigs can be a little difficult for me emotionally unless I have something else to focus my attentions on. Two out of the three auditions went quite well, but on the second day, I decided to throw caution to the wind and start with an aria I’d never really sung in public before just to see what happened. I didn’t crash and burn, but I certainly hadn’t ironed out all the kinks, so I don’t feel like I knocked their socks off. Auditions are such a crapshoot anyway, I figured I might as well take a risk and see if this new aria was a better starter than the one I’ve been starting with for years. Turns out it’s not. Good to know. The best news about the auditions was that I was employing my new relaxed shoulders and upper body high note technique, and it totally worked every time. I actually wanted the panel to ask for my arias with the high notes in them!

I have this funny habit of trying to crack jokes and make conversations with the panelists. I know I’m not the only one who does this because my friend Georgia has told me a lot of funny things she’s said to panelists before – I kind of feel like doing a little stand up comedy routine before I sing to lighten to mood. Also, the panel has always been hearing singers non-stop for hours, which can cloud anyone’s brain, so I feel compelled in this tourettes sort of way to say weird things. My standard cracks usually have to do with the fact that I shouldn’t have worn a dress to sing all these boy parts, or “wow – I got to play two women in a row – how unusual!” Yeah, not funny at all, I know. But this is why I’m an opera singer and not a comedian. Once I jokingly offered to tap dance when they couldn’t decide on a second aria. Wow – I’m really not funny. How embarrassing for me.

On the second day of auditions, somebody remarked to my agent that he was dressed casually, and he replied, “well, it’s just an audition – it’s not like I’m curing cancer or something.” Fast forward to the next day, when I was warming up for my daily audition. I was staying with a friend for a few days while I waited for my subletters to clear out, and the friend I stayed with happens to be an oncologist who works at Sloan Kettering Hospital. She was working from home that day, and while I was singing “La la la la la la” she was fielding calls and emails about blood clots and hemoglobin and stuff. I thought of my agent’s remark from the previous day, and noted that she WAS in fact curing cancer while I was….singing arpeggios. I shared this with her, and she insisted, “what you do is just as important for people’s souls as what I do for their bodies.” I hope she’s right, because I think the two of us might have gone to school for the same number of years. Now she’s a doctor of medicine and I’m a wannabe comedian.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hot weather lessons learned by Cindy(rella)

I finished my last performance of La Cenerentola last night in Fort Lauderdale (where Florida Grand performs their final shows) and I have to say, I had a great night. Few things are more satisfying for a singer than figuring out how to solve a vocal problem and finally nailing what has been difficult up to that point. Sometimes certain aspects of your voice will give you problems, but you will occasionally do those things well by accident, and not really know what you did. However, last night I was actually able to solve a problem I’ve been having with a certain note, and I’m certain that it was not an accident, but that it came from hard work, good advice, and staying calm under pressure. And I thought they were going to have to tie me down after the performance so I wouldn’t float away from sheer joy.

As I have chronicled on this blog, I have found the final note of both Non piu mesta, Cenerentola’s final aria, and Una voce, Rosina’s entrance aria, challenging. I used to be a soprano, and when I first switched to mezzo, I had high notes for days. However, as my voice matured and I learned to sing with my true sound (and not just the tiny part of my voice I had been using as a soprano) I had to learn how to sing high notes in a completely new and integrated way, and gradually my voice has become one sound from top to bottom. Except those pesky high b naturals at the end of those two arias, which for some reason, although I could always sing them in practice sessions and in my dressing room before a performance, remained inconsistent in performances and I could not figure out why. The problem was that when I would sing them on my own I wouldn’t know what to fix, because they would be fine. So I had an idea.

After the third performance of Cenerentola, I just wasn’t happy with the final note. It wasn’t terrible, but I knew I could sing it much better. But again, I had sung 64 beautfiul perfect high b’s in my dressing room at intermission that night and was in great voice, so I had no idea what was going on. But there was someone who had watched me sing every rehearsal and performance from a mere few feet away, and who happens to sing a lot of great high notes himself every night – the tenor singing the Prince, Frederic. So I decided just to ask him to tell me what he observed while standing beside me every night while I sang my aria, and he kindly agreed to talk to me about it. He said that as I sang the first of the three high b’s (there are two lead ups before the final climactic note) he noticed that my shoulders were coming up almost to my chin, and that they kept coming up there for the rest of the high notes. He noticed that my body looked tense. Why didn’t I try a different physical gesture other than lifting my arms and shoulders?

Oh my god, I realized, this is my answer. What is different between the dressing room and the actual performance? I get so excited and hyper while singing that my shoulders come up, I hold a lot of tension in my upper body, including my neck, which is almost certainly constricting my larynx, and making the high notes tight and squeezed. Could this really be it? Could this be the key to years of frustration with this note?

Later in the week we had a brush up rehearsal, and I decided to try this new theory while singing the aria. When the aria gets fast and full of lots of coloratura, I focused on keeping myself relaxed and not using my upper body as any kind of a crutch. When the two first b’s came around, I forced myself to keep my shoulders down. It was a little scary – I was accustomed to bringing them up, but I kept them firmly down and the notes came out anyway. Then when I tacet for a couple of bars while the chorus sings, I walked around in a small circle (which is something the director had said I should do anyway – to regard everyone onstage with me in a final moment of joy), which relaxed my body even further. I turned around and sang a slightly different run up into the high note, kept my shoulders out of it, and BAM it was THERE in spades!!! It definitely didn’t feel like a mistake, I felt like I knew what I was doing – but – things are always different in a rehearsal and in a performance, so still had to find out whether I really had solved this problem.

Fast forward to last night, and I did exactly the same things I did in rehearsal, although understandably, I had a bit more adrenaline and excitement. However, when I did the runs up to the high note and started singing it, even I was surprised by how easy and free it was. I held it for what felt like a long time, and when I finally finished singing, I can tell you that in the final moments of the opera, there was no need for me to act – the joy Cenerentola was feeling at having become the princess was nothing compared to the joy Jenny was feeling at having sung a fantastic high note. “GREAT B!” the tenor whispered to me as the lights went out. “GREAT ADVICE!!!” I practically screamed at him as I all but skipped offstage for my bow. I think I might have even done a victory dance.

Am I crazy for being so happy about a good high note? Absolutely. But striving to improve is one thing that makes every person happy, and the journey is what connects all of us. And maybe relaxing my shoulders can be a metaphor for solving all my problems in life. Or maybe just this one - but that would be enough for now.