Monday, August 31, 2009

Uh Oh

I might be in some deep Shei├če.

Today was my first day or rehearsals, and I got to see what the scoop was here. First of all, as seems to be typical with European houses, they don't hold your hand and show you where you need to be and chew your food for you and spit it into your mouth like you're a little baby bird. In the U.S., somebody usually picks you up at the airport, and even if they don't there's an office you report to on your first day and they show you around, they tell you where to go, they sometimes even give you coupons for some restaurant where you can get 20% off your hot wings.

In Europe they assume you're a grown-up and can figure out where to go and how to get there. Except I want somebody to take my hand and lead me to my special rehearsal room. I don't want to try to explain to the security guard in my weird pigeon German that I have to get to office 222, and have the word I'm using for office actually mean something else, so that she scans her list of keys and solemnly shakes her head at me. And then I want somebody to lead me to the costume shop, the wig shop, and the rehearsal room which are all three not only on different floors, but in different buildings.

No such luck here, but the other mezzo was incredibly nice, and took me everywhere I needed to be, thank god. Because I would have been utterly lost without her. I got to try on my costume, which looks great, and my wig, which is white, so not super flattering on me, but I will recover. Then I realized what deep doo doo I'm actually in.

I am singing performances 3 and 4. The reason is that the house fest singer (the singer that works at this theater year round) was slated for this role, but she also sings Octavian, and there were these two Barbiere performances where she would have had to do Barbiere and Rosenkavalier on subsequent nights, and they didn't think that was a good idea, so they got me, trusty stand in, to sing those two peformances. But it turns out there are only three days of rehearsal, one stage rehearsal, and that's it before the opening. And during those three days, there probably won't be time for me to work with the other singers at all, much less get on the stage or sing with the orchestra, so basically I will watch the rehearsals, rehearse separately with the director, wait two weeks, and then make my debut at the Berlin Staatsoper. If that doesn't sound absolutely frightening to you, then read it again. 3 days of watching rehearsal and two weeks off, followed by a debut at the Staatsoper. It's so beyond frightening that I'm kind of laughing.

Some people are not that into rehearsing. They like the excitement of just going for it, without all the preparation. I am not like that. I like a good solid month of rehearsing, even with a role I've sung before, possibly because I just really enjoy the rehearsal process. I like determining the intricacies of the character, and trying each scene ten different ways. But this should be fun too.

One problem is the fact that in this production (which I found out today is from 1969!!! and still going strong because people love it so much) there is a lot of movement. Today I watched the first act finale, and literally, I couldn't write everything down that was going on. At one point I actually wrote (I'm not exaggerating or making this up) "scuttle around in figure 8's flapping arms like bird." Yup. try to decipher that one. And now try to imagine doing that without rehearsal.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Berlin!! Ich bin hier!!

I arrived in Berlin this morning absolutely wrecked from the 8 hour overnight flight on which I didn't sleep a wink. I cannot sleep on planes unless I have had a previously exhaustive schedule (like the time I flew back to New York from Japan, and was only able to acclimate about half way to the time difference when 5 days later I had to fly to Spain. I slept like a baby on that flight). Oh, and don't even get me started on the whole charging for checked bags business. Delta is now charging $50 for the second checked bag on international flights. Don't they know that I have my packing down to a science where I manage to fit my entire life into two suitcases, both of which must weigh less than 50 pounds? Not to mention the fact the Delta terminal at JFK is a NIGHTMARE beyond words, and no matter what time of day it is, there is always someone about to get into a fistfight with one of the Delta employees. I myself have nearly come to fisticuffs more than once. But that's another blog entry.

I arrived in Berlin at 8:40 AM and was just praying that my hotel was going to let me check in early because after flying all night and not sleeping, my eyeballs feel like there is a layer of sandpaper between them and my eye sockets. The first thing I noticed about Tegel airport - the main airport of Berlin - was that it seemed like it was about the size of the airport in Columbus, OH. It is seriously TEENY! I read in one my books that they are building a really big airport set to open in 2011, and I can see why! The first really stupid thing I did was I wandered outside in a daze to try to find a taxi, and I actually started to get into this regular guy's car who was just waiting there to pick his son up. I think I had read something about how the taxis in Berlin are Mercedes, and in my sleep deprived deliriousness, it didn't occur to me that if there is no sign on top the taxi that says TAXI, it's probably just, oh, I don't know, a CAR. I mumbled something to him in totally incoherent german, and finally I just said in english "are you a taxi?" and he responded to me in perfect english, "No! I'm just waiting to pick up my son. The taxis are over there, with the signs on top of them that say taxi." He pointed in another direction and I felt like a total doofus. Poor guy, just minding his business at the airport, when some blond american starts telling him to open his trunk so she can put her suitcases inside. Oy.

I arrived at the hotel at around 9:45 AM and tried to be as friendly as possible so the hotel clerk would take pity on me, but she didn't seem all that interested in the fact that I was sleepy and told me to leave my bags and come back later, at check-in time. I managed to kill about an hour, but eventually I was so miserable that I just came back to the lobby and sat on the couch in front of the desk looking up at her miserably every few minutes, until she finally probably decided she couldn't stand looking at me any more and gave me a room. I planned to take a two hour nap, but it turned into four. I was so sleepy that at one point someone knocked at my door, and I thought "I should call out to tell them this room is occupied, but I'm too tired. They'll just see my lying here when they come in and go away." Luckily I think they must have been knocking on the door next door because I don't believe anyone actually came inside. Although, I felt like someone had slipped me a roofie I was so tired, so they might have come in and napped beside me and I didn't notice.

When I finally woke up, I showered and decided to get my bearings. I walked over to the Staatsoper, and was delighted to see that the orchestra was performing an outdoor concert in the plaza next to the theater with Daniel Barenboim conducting!

People always ask me "are you getting excited?" when I'm about to go to a new place for a gig. The truth is I rarely feel excited until I get there, and it always hits me at different points. Today it was when I started to near the theater and I heard the music playing and realized what was happening, and then simultaneously walked by a sign with my name on it. Then I started to get really excited. It's real!!! My name's on the sign!!!!

I walked to the apartment I will be renting for the month, although I'm in a hotel for the first two nights because the apartment wasn't vacant until September 1st. A lot of people ask me about how housing works when you go on a gig like this, so let me just explain in case you don't know. Most opera companies in the U.S, with the exception of a few big ones, provide housing for their singers. It seems like in general, the higher the fee the company pays, the less likely it is that they will house you. In europe, you always find your own housing. You figure it all out yourself and just arrive at the first day of rehearsal. Last year when I sang in Italy it was my first gig in Europe, and I didn't even know where the theater was, and I certainly didn't know what to do when I got there. But at least with the Staatsoper I was here for my audition so I know basically where I need to go. Sorta.

My observations about Berlin will have to be saved for another blog entry when I'm more coherent, rested, and better able to form opinions. For now I'll just say that it has an incredibly nice, relaxed vibe that I'm really liking. It's astounding to think that all of East Berlin has become what it is now just since 1989! I will also upload some photos later, but right now my internet time is about to expire, and I really have to go out in search of water. I must HYDRATE for tomorrow's first rehearsal! Guten Abend!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Internet - learn to pray to your new God

After about a hundred billion voice lessons, a master's degree from Juilliard, and countless productions of The Barber of Seville, who would have guessed that the internet and not my voice would be the thing to catapult my face into people's sight lines. Okay, it was my voice that first got me the review that lead to the blog, that lead to today's shout out on The Daily Beast. But still, the internet is a powerful agent, even for those of us whose music comes from before the time of the dinosaurs (that is a highly misleading and unfair representation of opera - there are several operas composed BY dinosaurs, so we shouldn't pretend they are all prehistoric.) Anyway, here's the blurb that appears in today's "The Week in Culture":

"Opera is rarely seen as “cool” anymore, especially on the Web, but perhaps mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera can help bridge the gap a bit. This week, the young singer got a rave review from the L.A. Times for her work in the Bard College Music Festival in New York, and also a shout-out to her witty blog, Trying to Remain Opera-tional. For what it’s worth, the blog is a tell-all look behind the scenes of opera life, from onstage makeouts to world travel. It’s a fascinating and funny read, and in some small way, does its part to increase opera’s cool factor (a tall order, to be sure)."

Seriously - what a crazy juxtaposition. In the opera world, we are preserving an art form that is really old school, and thank goodness, because otherwise no one would know what it sounds like to hear someone make a single sound without a mike jammed down their throat. Yup - I think opera is pretty much the only place you can still hear an unamplified voice in all it's guts and glory. And of course, opera companies are doing great things to bring Mozart into the 21st century, often by updating productions and casting hot young singers that look and sound great. But the internet is this whole other animal that has yet to be fully exploited by those of us in the opera world, and as we've seen in my little case, can spread news like wildfire even to the mainstream public that wouldn't necessarily know about opera.

So, I would like to take this opportunity to ask any of you who may have navigated to this blog from the Daily Beast (maybe you meant to check out the Olsen twins new clothing line but you ended up with me instead - sorry - but at least I washed my hair this morning) to please allow me to convince you that opera IS cool. It is more than cool, it is way badass. Although the fact that I just used the word badass sort of makes me an immediate dork. But I digress. The thing Europeans seem to be more aware of that I hope Americans will start to learn, is that opera can be like seeing a Quentin Tarantino movie with singing. It gives you so much stimulation both visually and aurally, makes you laugh, makes you cry, and something about hearing a voice without a microphone stirs your soul in a way that, in this day and age of constant editing and photoshopping, is not really explainable. Opera still gets to your ears raw, and often it comes out of lips you would like to kiss as well. Plus, it's a known aphrodisiac - I'm not making this up. Okay, I made up the aphrodisiac thing, but I'm probably right.

I will certainly do my best to continue to spill all the juicy details. Stay tuned. And now I really must go because I leave for Berlin tomorrow, and in my highly glamorous and amazing life as an opera singer, I must go do my laundry.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You REALLY never know

Okay, this is getting ridiculous (and by ridiculous I mean fabulous). I had always imagined that I should probably name my first born son Doctorslavit, honoring my incredibly dedicated and wonderful ENT who has seen me through years of being a singer with a deviated septum who likes to pick up sinus infections in foreign countries along with souvenirs. But now I might have to change my plan and name that (as of yet unconceived) offspring Markswed after my new FAVORITE journalist MARK SWED who has now given me not only a fantastic review in the L.A. Times, but has written a follow up post about me and my blog! You can't buy this kind of publicity, people!

Honestly, this comes at such a wonderful time. I'm leaving on Saturday to go to Berlin to make my debut at the Berlin Staatsoper as Rosina. And I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. So having somebody important write something positive about me gives me a little boost of confidence that I can take with me on that transcontinental flight, and if I start to feel scared I can pull it out of my pocket (I'm talking figuratively here - I'm not going to print it out and carry it around in my purse. Well, okay, I might.) and remind myself that there is somebody in the world that thinks I deserve to be there. And that just might be enough to keep me from peeing in my proverbial (or literal) pants.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You NEVER know

One of the things drilled into your brain at music school is the fact that you never know who will be in attendance for any performance, and you must always give everything you've got because at any moment someone important could see you and "make you a staaaaahhhhh". Well, I've never been able to help myself but to take every performance extremely seriously no matter who the audience was or whether anyone "important" may be watching. Sure, I tend to get more nervous when I know that all the major New York newspapers are in attendance, or when someone tells me that one of my singing idols happens to be in the audience (like the time Susan Graham saw me sing Cherubino - mamma mia!!), but I tend to treat every performance with equal importance. It's not so much because I think somebody important will be there, but because no matter who is or isn't there, I feel the same way if I don't think I gave it my all; sucky.

This past weekend was no exception for me- I was participating in the Bard Music Festival by performing on a concert called "Bearable Lightness" which featured light music that was somehow influenced by Wagner, this year's composer of focus. The concert featured four singers and a pianist, two solo pianists, and a musicologist to discuss aspects of the program. The unusual thing about the concert was that it took place at 10. Oh, 10 at night you say? Well that's kind of late but a fun time for a concert of operetta music. And I reply, NO - TEN IN THE MORNING. The festival is packed with tons of incredible music making - so much so, that they have musical offerings all day long on the weekends, beginning at ten in the morning. Have I mentioned that it was at ten in the morning? Yeah, well, that's a tiny bit early for singers to perform. It's funny, all through high school I had choir at what we called zero period every morning - that was at 7 AM - and I never really thought much of it. But now 10 AM might as well be 4 AM for how crazy early it seems to be singing. Add to that the fact that our sound check took place at 8 AM that morning, and you had a very sleepy group of singers. Add to that the fact that for some reason I could NOT fall asleep the night before, and finally drifted off around 3 in the morning, only to wake up at 6 to get into my concert attire, and you had one very cranky mezzo.

However, the singers on the concert were all really superb, as was the pianist who accompanied us. And they all happened to be really nice, supportive, good natured people who make singing an operetta quartet, even at an ungodly early hour, really really fun. Plus Bard college is really near to my parent's house, so I got to have a fun little retreat at home, and Mom and Dad only had to drive a few minutes to come see their daughter sing. So despite my sleeplessness, I had a really good time singing on the concert and made the most I could out of my two little solos, one duet, and one quartet. After the concert I went and had a big juicy hamburger with the 'rents, and then fell into bed and took a long nap.

Then tonight, a colleague and friend forwarded me this article from the L.A. Times written by classical music critic Mark Swed. He attended the entire weekend of music, and wrote an interesting article about his observations about the music making and about Wagner himself. And then, to my surprise, the last paragraph of the article said,

"The festival’s performer list is too long to go into. So I will leave you with just one name of an emerging artist to jot down. You’ll want to hear mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera the first chance you get.

-- Mark Swed"

So it just goes to show - you really never know. Sometimes at 10 in the morning in a little auditorium on a college campus in upstate new york, you can sing a little arietta by Gilbert and Sullivan, and the critic from the L.A. Times might be in attendance. And he just might like you. Sometimes life is strange and wonderful.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Barber of Berlin

So, I found this video on youtube - it's a teaser that shows scenes from the production of Barbiere at the Berlin Staatsoper that I will sing in next month:

I was pretty excited to find this. First of all, because it's always nice to have an idea of what you're in for before you arrive. Second, because it looks REALLY funny, and because it seems like Rosina gets to really flex her comedic muscles. And if you've read my blog during times when I was singing Rosina, you know that I, ahem, like to be a bit of a ham. I know I only have a few days of rehearsal, so you'd better believe I watched this video several times to try to be as prepared as possible. Then I felt compelled to go over the entire score, just to make sure I still remembered it. Having sung 6 productions, it turns out I know it pretty well. Go figure. FEE-GARO, FEE-GARO, FEEEEEEEEEE-GAAAAAAAA-ROOOOOOOOO! (Cue intro to Largo al Factotum or Bugs Bunny)......

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Berkshires, baby

Warning: sometimes I find REALLY positive blogs about how everyone is SO WONDERFUL really saccharine and hard to take. If you're the same, you should probably skip this entry. Although, I have to say, the stuff I'm about to write is all TOTALLY TRUE!! Really - sometimes even I can see how nice things are!

This past weekend I sang my first Dido (as in Dido and Aeneas of Purcell) at the Berkshire Choral festival in Sheffield, MA. This is the third time I've had the pleasure of singing with the Berkshire Choral Festival, and I always really enjoy myself there. First of all, the Berkshires are beautiful.

Second of all, the Berkshire Choral Festival is basically a place where people who adore singing choral music pay to have a choral vacation - where they go to practice and perfect a piece, and the week culminates in their performance of the piece. Normally, when you sing a concert piece, the chorus is made up of paid singers, often times solo singers just waiting for their turn in the spotlight and singing a chorus gig to pay the bills or bide their time until they have the chance to move on. The BCF however is filled with people who just love singing in a chorus so much that this experience is a wonderful and fulfilling vacation for them, and their enthusiasm for music making is contagious. The feeling the night of the performance is so positive and filled with passion and love for music that you can't help but be filled with inspiration.

Third, the people are all so happy to be doing what they are doing, that they are all incredibly nice and supportive. In all three concerts I've sung there, I've never met a single person that was anything other than positive and lovely and kind. There is no "opera drama" or negativity of any kind ever. Just pure, unadulterated enjoyment of music. Who wouldn't want to be a part of something like that?

Fourth, everything I've sung there has been music I have loved outrageously a lot. First, I sang Bach there, second Mozart's Mass in C, and this time Purcell's Dido. The Queen of Carthage might be really sad, but she sings some awfully purty music, and nothing quite compares to the beauty of "When I am laid in earth" followed by the celestial chorus that finishes the opera. If only Dido wasn't constantly complaining about wanting to kill herself, I would have been smiling all night during the concert because I was really enjoying myself. Ah, the exquisite pain.

The lovely people at the festival gave me one of their giant cargo vans to drive around so I wouldn't be stranded in the rural Berkshires without transportation, and I really wanted to get a photo of myself at the wheel of the monster van, but I never found the right opportunity to stop someone and force them to take my photograph. However, if someone could have witnessed my attempting (and repeatedly failing) to try to parallel park the gigantic vehicle just before the concert with my hair and make-up coiffed just so, and practically falling out of the high driver's seat only to have my suitcase spill open and my extra full water bottle go rolling down the hill, they would have noted the extreme lack of glamour that can often actually accompany a singer on their way to a concert. Here I was getting ready to sing the role of the Queen, and I was busy sweating bullets as I furiously spun the steering wheel full right and then full left trying to 50 point turn the massive 12-seater into a spot before practically falling out onto the pavement.

But it was all worth it to get to make music with those smiling, engaged faces, and to get to pull my big van over to the side of the road to snap moments like this one just before the sun set.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It's time

For me to start blogging again.

How do I know? Because my facebook status updates have been getting so long, I'm ready to sell them to the New Yorker as short stories.

Seriously though, why have I barely been writing this summer? Well, I've been embroiled in something that I have wanted to wait to talk about until it was all completely settled. But I really don't know when the ultimate conclusion will come, so I have to just go on with my life at this point and see what happens. In the meantime, here's what's up with me:

I'm going to Berlin at the end of the month to make my debut with the Berlin Staatsoper as Rosina in Barbiere di Siviglia. Then I'll come back the the U.S for a couple of months for a Romeo and Juliette in New Orleans and a Messiah in Virginia, and will then return to Berlin to sing Nerone in a new production of Agrippina conducted by Rene Jacobs. I'm really excited about my entire season, but especially Berlin for many reasons. First of all, it's a big time european company, and I get to sing not one but two roles that I really like there (and that, thank god, I've sung before). Second, the new production of Agrippina allows me to work with somebody I REALLY admire - the former countertenor turned conductor Rene Jacobs. He is super famous - and with good reason. His interpretations of baroque and classical music are intelligent, refined, but also out of the box. Having been a singer himself, he brings a very vocal perspective to the podium - I don't know how else to describe it - and I really appreciate the finished product he comes up with. Now I get to be a part of creation of that product, and I'm really freaking thrilled about it.

I'm thrilled and excited knowing that I will be spending a lot of time in a city I've only heard amazing things about - Berlin - singing with a company that I always only dreamed I might one day be lucky enough to grace the stage of. I'm not ashamed to tell you that I cried tears of joy when I found out I had gotten the gig, and I won't soon forget the elation of that moment. Now it's up to me to live up to my own expectations and deliver the performances that I know I'm capable of. And also maybe utter a few intelligible words of german while I'm in Germany for 3 months. That second one might be a bit of a stretch.