Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The singer's brain

This is a post that has been percolating in my brain for some time, and I am finally ready to get my thoughts together and write about this very complicated subject.

The other day, when I had my audition for the Deutsche Oper, a colleague and friend of mine whose singing I greatly admire was also auditioning, so I stood backstage and listened to his audition. As I listened to him sing, I was impressed by so many things about what he was doing, and thought his audition was pretty spectacular. As he exited the stage, I, in my american exuberance was jumping up and down and giving him the thumbs up, thinking he was going to be thrilled. Instead, to my shock, all he said was, "Wow - that totally sucked," and he proceeded to detail all the reasons why it was not a good audition. I happen to know this person is extremely self critical, so I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised, but I was thinking - how can I have thought it was sooooo good and he have thought it was sooooo bad??? "Are you insane?" I asked him. "Did you not hear how perfectly you sang that high note and then decrescendoed it into a perfect pianissimo???" He was despondent, "Yeah, but what about x, y, and z," he had a list of his flaws, which to my ears were so miniscule even a voice teacher wouldn't notice them. I just shook my head.

Fast forward to Monday night's performance of Barbiere. It was my second and last performance, which is not a good combination since second performances are always difficult after the excitement of the opening, and last performances often carry with them the pressure of "this is your LAST one - make it GOOD!" As I was singing the performance, I found myself being really self critical and kicking myself for every little flaw, unlike in the opening where I really was having a fun time and enjoying myself. At the end of the first act I was so busy muttering to myself and yanking my costume off as I exited the stage, that I forgot we all take a company bow, and by the time the stage manager got my attention, everyone was already bowing. She sent me on anyway, but by the time I got there half the cast had left, but the few that remained took a bow with me so I wouldn't be by myself. It was really embarrassing and weird. I spent the intermission trying to collect myself, and the second half did go a lot better, but there were still a few moments I didn't like. By the time the performance was over, and a friend of mine who was in the audience came backstage, I was despondent. As soon as he came in my dressing room, all I could say was "That sucked." and his response was: "Are you insane?" When I started detailing all the things that I thought "sucked" about the performance, he kept answering, "Nope - couldn't hear that. No, it didn't sound like that from out there. No, I didn't notice that at all." I was practically shaking him, yelling, "TELL ME THE TRUTH!!!" and he almost had to slap me (think Cher in Moonstruck GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF) and scream "I AM!!!" and he's someone whose opinion I trust. So who do I believe? My own ears and brain, or him (or my other colleague, who said that he did hear one of the things I was complaining about, but the rest he had no idea what I was talking about)?

The next day I sat down and assessed what I thought of the performance. I could come up with one thing I thought was bad, two things that were not good, but probably completely not noticeable if I was being honest, and one thing that wasn't as good as it could of been, but probably nobody would call bad. That is four moments, each lasting less than 3 seconds, in a three hour show. I won't detail what those moments were here, because I've learned that blogging your flaws is really a bad idea, but they were vocal things which I am capable of doing much better than I did. On the one hand, beating yourself up over 12 seconds of material within three hours of singing seems incredibly ludicrous. However, I really believe that continuous striving for "perfection" is important and necessary in this particular job. If you work for x number of years to make sure your voice remains beautiful and even from top to bottom, and then one note really ISN'T, you need to keep working on that. Because why not expect yourself to thrill the audience every time with every note when you know you are capable of it?

Your thoughts are powerful, and they can make or break you. I have been learning to control my brain and my body in new ways, and all my "problem spots" have definitely improved as a result. I've even gotten better about not hating myself too much when I sing notes that I deem imperfect, and allowing myself to accept that every single singer has things that they worry about, and that give them problems. I will probably never be completely satisfied with my own singing, and that's just the way my singer brain works. But I also know that what I have to offer is something worth offering, and that knowledge keeps me getting up there time after time, and allows me to keep striving and growing and changing. And it keeps life interesting, to say the least.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Silent Night

Not holy night, exactly, but I do have to keep my big yapper shut. When I meet people and tell them that I'm an opera singer, they often ask me questions about how I take care of myself, and whether I have to be careful about things like drinking and smoking and general carousing. I always tell them the same thing, which is that of all the vices that can be bad for your voice, the worst is actually just talking. You could go to a bar and drink and smoke all night long, but the thing that will really do you in is if you have to shout above the music all night. It's a curse because opera singers are of course, very communicative people, and love to yap it up good.

This weekend was no exception for me, since I had a dear friend decide at the last minute to come to Berlin for the weekend for her birthday, and I spent the whole weekend talking to her non-stop. My lovely friend Ariana is singing an opera in Gdansk, Poland, and had this weekend free from rehearsals. She decided to come see Berlin, and it was my pleasure to show her around this city that I have grown so fond of. She and I are like two peas in a pod, both adventure loving broads who want to explore every nook and cranny. We even found a great restaurant for her birthday dinner and translated the entire menu (which we found online) using google translator before we arrived. The waitress actually borrowed our little hand written paper so she could inform the other english only speaking diners that certain german words meant things like "pumpkin cream puff" and "catfish with roasted glazed beets." We felt sort of dorky and sort of proud of ourselves at the same time. I did my best to inform her about the history of the various monuments, armed with all the knowledge I learned on my two bike tours. However, my memory seems to be limited to memorizing music and blocking, so I'm sure I was horrendously misinforming her. I looooooved her being here, but I knew the instant she left I needed to shut up until tomorrow evening when I start warming up for tomorrow's performance, so that's what I'm doing.

This week and a half in between the performances has passed like a whirlwind. On Friday I sang an audition at the Deutsche Oper, and after starting with my standard Parto Parto, they asked for Rosenkavalier, which I had just learned so I could have a German aria for any auditions I sang in Germany. It's always weird to perform an aria for the first time when you haven't sung the role, but I think it went well, and I was glad I did it once and now can relax a little about it. The audition was on an empty stage with a tiny upright piano sitting on stage right, which I felt like I had to lean over sideways to hear. On one hand I like stage auditions because I love the opportunity to sing in these famous theaters, but I also find it very difficult to balance how much acting and movement to do when I'm on a big empty stage. In a little room, doing a mini - version of your dramatics feels almost normal, but on the big stage, I kind of want to go all out. Except when I'm singing "I go, I go, but YOU my love must blah blah blah" and the YOU is nowhere to be seen, it makes it kind of challenging. I usually picture the woman who sang Vitellia with me in Italy in her cool black costume lying on the floor (as she was in staging) before I begin. But with Rosenkav, they're definitely supposed to be in a bed, so there's only so much pretending I can do. Ack, auditions. Why can't everyone important just be at my performances? But only the performances I rock in, not the ones I'm nervous or insecure about.

I'm already a little sad that tomorrow will be my last Barbiere. But I'm beyond thrilled that I get to come back here in the winter and sing with the Staatsoper again, in a production that seems to get more and more exciting the more I learn about it. And I've also decided to stay over here in Europe for the month of October so I can do as many european auditions as possible, since I don't have to head back to the states until the beginning of November for my next gig. I've already fallen in love with France and Italy, and now Germany? I almost feel like I'm cheating on Italy with Germany, I'm loving it so much. I guess I'll have to wait and see what it's like in the winter to decide if this could be a long term love, or if it's just a summer fling. But in the meantime, I'm enjoying myself an awful lot.

Some of the things I'm loving about Berlin:

Monday, September 21, 2009

this and that

This week will probably be rather uneventful, although I have a couple of things I wanted to write about from yesterday and today.

Yesterday, I had two of the most diametrically opposing musical experiences one can have - I went to an outdoor karaoke performance followed very soon after by a performance of Wagner's Tannhauser at the Deutsche Oper. Either of these things would have been both funny and fun in some way on their own, but the juxtaposition of one followed immediately by the other was kind of mind-boggling.

I went with a German friend to the Sunday outdoor flea market that takes place in my neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg every week, and while the weather is nice, people gather at a nearby outdoor amphitheater for some karaoke. It's basically this one Irish guy who arrives with this set-up of a computer, a mike and some speakers, and when it's sunny and warm (as it was yesterday), maybe 500 people gather to watch and participate. Most of the singing is truly awful - and I don't just mean like a voice that isn't perfect - I mean like worse than the first episode of American Idol with the people they pass through to the judges simply because they're bad. I, being a performer and a perfectionist cannot in my entire brain fathom why someone would want to get up in front of 500 people and sing horribly out of tune while staring at a computer screen, following the words of some crappy overdone american pop song, but people were way into it! The most exciting performer was this one bearded man who looked to be about 70 years old, and who apparently shows up every week with the same canvas KaDaWe bag. He sang Frank Sinatra's "My Way" - except in German - and he actually had a really good voice, and the audience went wild. He looked like a homeless person, but once he started singing he became an instant celebrity. Call it the Susan Boyle factor.

I went directly from that to the Deutsche Oper where a friend had given me a ticket to watch the premiere of Tannhauser. I am honestly not a big Wagner fan, but I figured I'm in Germany, I should really go check this out and see what it's all about. Before I begin telling you about the performance, I have to tell you a little side story first. The other day, I was having brunch with an Australian friend who lives in Berlin now, and I was telling him that even though a lot of people make fun of the crazy things German theaters are known to do in their productions, I think I would LOVE to be involved in one of these really outlandish productions. I'm always doing all these traditional productions with corsets and white wigs, and I said to my friend (and I quote), "I really want to be in at least one production where I'm either naked or wearing a space suit, just so I can say I did it." Cut to last night, after the scrim rises and the overture begins. The first image we see is a man in a silver space suit floating down from the rafters towards the stage. The second image is of about 30 naked women appearing from a hole in the floor. I kid you not, I predicted the whole thing. Now, the space suit actually turned out to be more of a knight's armor, and the naked ladies all actually had on naked bodysuits, but still. I totally would have done a spit take when I saw my accidental prediction appearing before my very eyes, had I been drinking milk.

So, Tannhauser. Sigh. You know, I see what the appeal is, why people go crazy for Wagner. The music is really rousing and full of these moments that make you feel like the wind has been knocked out of you. My problem with Wagner, the reason it doesn't pull at my heartstrings, is the fact that the singers just have to pump so much sound out to be heard, that they don't have the opportunity to be gentle and subtle. There isn't a lot of room for nuance - at least not when you're performing in a huge theater with a huge orchestra. This is not a criticism of last night's singers or of any Wagner singers - it's just the way the music is composed. Some people find the sheer power and force of it all completely arresting. I find myself aching for the gentle lilt of a Mozart phrase and feeling almost bullied by sound. There were parts of the opera that I did enjoy, and I thought that some of the stage effects were really cool, and I must give a huge shout out to those singers who were able to make huge sounds and still act and move around naturally at the same time - that takes serious skillz. But it just didn't do it for me. I wanted to go back and watch more bad karaoke. However, I do have to say that my lack of enthusiasm was entirely related to the opera itself - not the production. The production and the singers were excellent.

One more thing - today I was asked to drop by the costume shop at the Staatsoper to have some more measurements taken for Agrippina, and the ladies taking my measurements showed me the sketches that Mr. Lacroix has done for my costumes. And can I just tell you: THEY.ARE.AWESOME. There is this one look that I know I'm going to want to steal and take home with me. It consists of these skin tight black leggings over the top of these big stacked-heeled boots, with this military inspired but totally fitted cropped jacket studded with gold rivets, which is over the top of this shredded white collared mens shirt. I'm sure that description doesn't do it justice, but it looks so amazing I can't wait to see what the finished product looks like. And I will pray that my lady booty doesn't look to rubenesque in those tight black leggings.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The lowdown

I thought I would elaborate on last night and the lead up to my big debut. Tonight is saturday night, and why am I at home writing a blog entry instead of out partying it up Berlin style? I'm freaking exhausted, that's why.

I never know what exactly to do with myself on the day of a performance. Usually when there is a run of performances, by a few into it I just start having normal days and doing whatever I would do if I didn't have a performance, within reason. But for the first show, I'm often a little paralyzed and don't feel like just being normal. Yesterday I watched a movie in the morning on my computer (Away we go - it was meh) and around noon I started to feel really nervous. Like panicky hard to breathe nervous. I had this revelation yesterday that what I'm nervous about is.....being nervous. Seriously, most of my rep doesn't really give me anything to worry about vocally or dramatically, as long as I'm calm and feeling normal. But when I get nervous and my vocal cords get all thick and tight as a result, I have to work extra hard to keep my voice sounding normal. Plus the nerves cause me to breathe high, so I have to counteract that by constantly reminding myself to relax. But none of this stuff happens in rehearsals, and I can sing everything without issue at that point. So what I'm nervous about is how my voice is going to act when I'm nervous. I could really do myself a big favor by just, oh, I don't know, not being nervous. But you can't control that I guess, so I do my best to distract myself.

Anyway, I found myself feeling really anxious, so I took myself for a walk and started taking photos of this cool church near my apartment. That did the trick and distracted me for awhile, and got me back to breathing normally. I got back to the apartment and tested my voice out and it felt totally fine - good even - so I allowed myself to relax a little. The nerves came in waves as the day went on, but when it finally got close to curtain, I started to feel much calmer, thank god.

I arrived early to the theater and started warming up, and in fact, I think I actually over warmed up a bit. It's a tricky thing for me because I don't really need to warm up much at all for most of the roles I sing, and over warming up causes my low to feel a little stiff if I'm also a bit nervous. But when I'm nervous I keep wanting to test my voice out and try out my high notes to make sure they're "still there." I found the Bartolo and showed him my cadenza to the lesson aria because he has to react at certain moments and we had obviously never done it together. I went to my dressing room and proceeded to attempt to speak horrible german to the VERY nice make-up and costume ladies, and tried to remain calm.

Before I knew it the overture was starting, and I was taking my place backstage for my first entrance, and I was singing recitative and trying to get laughs. Then soon after that I was sitting there getting ready to sing Una voce poco fa.

Ah, una voce poco fa, Rosina's entrance aria - I have a love hate relationship with you. You start so low and dip down to very low chest tones, then move around frantically with tons of coloratura (and especially with the crazy ornaments I do) and then leap up to a high sustained B natural at the end. Plus, other than the few lines of recit in the first scene, it's the very first thing Rosina does, so you don't have time to calm yourself down by singing other easier things. But at the same time it's a wicked fun aria to sing, and there are endless possibilities, so even after thousands of renditions, I am never bored with it. But it usually freaks me the eff out. It's not just me though, Rossini stuck all three of his leads with fiendishly difficult arias that start their roles, and I'm always backstage with Almavivas and Figaros who are crossing themselves and looking pale and petrified before they step onstage too.

Last night's una voce went very well, all things considered. I took my time, I didn't push in the low, and I managed to sing most of it as well as I could in the moment. As can happen, I sang the high note better in the rehearsals and in my dressing room than in the performance, but I am trying not to dwell on it. Especially since I sang a few other really excellent high B naturals during the course of the evening. But it's hard not to wish for perfection. Sigh. It usually comes when you least expect it, like when you're tired and not really thinking about what you're doing, and suddenly BAM all the notes are awesome.

For the rest of the show, I really had tons of fun. I said to myself, "Self: You are singing on the stage of the Berlin Staatsoper an opera and a role that you really enjoy with lots of comedy and coloratura, two of your favorite things, with a wonderful cast and supportive friends in the audience. LIVE IT!" and so I did.

There were definitely a few moments though where I didn't remember exactly where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing, but somebody always discreetly pointed the direction I was supposed to go. There were even a few parts that I had literally never actually rehearsed - only watched - but they all seemed to go okay. After it was over, I hugged everyone very tightly who helped me get through it and supported me, including the very warm and wonderful director and conductor and all my cast-mates, and received hugs from the few awesome friends who came to the performance and supported me. And then I went out and had a couple of much deserved glasses of wine with my agent, and toasted a satisfying debut.

On a completely unrelated topic, I went on another bike tour today with two of my friends who are also singing in Berlin. Between the three of us, we are representing all three opera houses - my friend Heidi Stober is singing at the Deutsche Opera, and Maureen McKay is at the Kommische Oper. Here are some photos - okay, mostly for my mom and dad - but the rest of you can see 'em too if you want.

Three opera chicks on bikes:

Sneaking away from the tour to take a photo in front of the sign with my name and the Staatsoper looming in the background:

Action shot:

The light was so beeeeeeeyoutiful as the sun was setting:

I took this yesterday of the church near my house just after a plane made that air streak in the sky:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Oh what a night

One debut at the Berlin Staatsoper DOWN!

So, it went pretty well. There are ALWAYS things I can complain about, but all things considered, tonight was a success. I remembered most everything, I didn't have any horrible gaffes, and I actually enjoyed myself quite a lot. Even the first aria, which can kind of be a bitch with nerves, was actually enjoyable. I'll write a more in depth description of everything that happened soon, but I just wanted all of you who've been following my journey to know that tonight went well, and I'm very happy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What's normal?

Normally, in my life as I've known it so far, this week would have been tech week. Tonight probably would have been my final dress rehearsal since Friday is my first performance. But this hasn't been like other gigs I've had, so instead of getting all stressed during tech week and worrying about the whole lead up to the performance, this is what I've been doing instead.

Here I am at a Beer Garden next to the zoo in Tiergarten, the big central park of Berlin. I'm drinking this weird half beer, half lemonade concoction.

This is me having fun inside one of the art installations at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin's contemporary art museum housed in a former train station.

Oh, I've been practicing on my own, singing through the role every so often to keep it in my voice, and going through the staging (in my head) as I walk down the street, and (for reals) in my living room. But I know myself, and the more I can psychologically convince myself that this isn't some big premiere, or debut, but just, let's say, the third or fourth performance in a run of Barber of Seville's, the better off I'll be. So I'm trying to live my life, keep myself normalized, not psych myself out, and keep myself both mentally and physicaly healthy and happy. So far it's working, and after a day of museum hopping and beer guzzling (okay, not really - I only drank half of that lemony thing), I'm ready to get into my bed and sleep in until tomorrow morning. And I should be able to sleep in, because the other project I embarked upon this week was covering the floor to ceiling windows in my bedroom with aluminum foil to keep out the light. I made a joke on facebook that I would either get plenty of sleep or be roasted like a turkey. So far no cranberries have been served alongside my legs, so I'm sticking with the plan.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Biking Berlin

Earlier this afternoon, when I was speaking to my parents on the phone and I told my mother that I was going to take a 4 hour bike tour of Berlin, she said "YOU are taking a BIKE TOUR? When was the last time you were even on a bike?" And she had a point. It was probably when I was about 9 years old.

Nonetheless, I just had this feeling that I really wanted to take a bike tour of Berlin, because it is such a friendly city for bicyclists, and because I wanted to get my bearings and figure out where things were in relation to one another, and learn some history about all the famous monuments I've just been staring at dumbly and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to take arty photos of with my new camera.

Well, let me tell you, not only was it the best thing I've done in Berlin so far, but it was seriously one of the most fun things I've done in a really long time, period. Our tour guide was this funny, bright british guy named Tom, who was full of energy, humor, and a lot of really interesting information. The thing that amazed me initially about this tour was the fact that here we had 20 tourists on bicycles, riding through traffic and pedestrians, and later on in the evening - IN THE DARK - and they didn't so much as have us sign a waiver. In fact, we didn't even pay them until we returned from the tour, which lasted closer to 5 hours. In the litigious U.S., such a relaxed attitude would be impossible. But here in Berlin, they just take it easy.

Anyway, if you are coming to Berlin for even just a few days, run, don't walk to Fat Tire Bicycle tours and take one of these fascinating fun tours. The first thing about it that was just so fun for me was the being on a bike part. Since I haven't ridden a bike since I was a kid, there was something very magical and freeing about gliding around on two wheels. I felt like yelling "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!" a lot, but I restrained myself. I did however, have several very close calls where I almost either had collisions or accidents because of my lack of riding skills. The first time, ironically, we were pulling into the square next to the Staatsoper, and when I was pedaling in between two columns, I misjudged and almost went flying onto the cobblestone street. That would have been convenient; "Tom, be a dear and run inside the stage door there and tell them I won't be able to sing on Friday because I've broken my leg." The second time, I sort of half collided wheels with the tour-guide and veered off into the grass on a down hill slope heading right into the river. When that happened it was dark, which would have added to the problems had I actually fallen into the river, but luckily again, I was able to recover. But seriously, how do they operate those tours every day and not have people falling off their bikes and into rivers?? Or am I just the most un-coordinated bike rider to ever grace the streets of Berlin?

The tour started at the East German tv tower, and went through many sights and historical landmarks, including Unter den Linden, Checkpoint Charlie, parts of the remainder of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and the Tiergarten. In fact, we biked from the east side through the Tiergarten to a Beer Garden where we ate bratwurst and drank beer, then, remarkably, got back on our bikes in the dark and sped back through the tiergarten to finish up the tour. We rode along the river and over bridges, and stopped at all the important points, where Tom gave us the historical context of what we were looking at. I honestly almost didn't go because I thought I would feel stupid being possibly the only person who was there all by myself, but it turned out to be the perfect thing for a solo traveler to do because I was surrounded by nice, friendly, english speaking people and everyone ended up getting to know each other and bonding over the spokes of our matching orange and blue bicycles. It was a really satisfying and fun day, and now I'm going to fall into bed happy and exhausted.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Like sands in the hour glass

So, this is the part of the gig when I start to get ansty.

After the show has opened and we no longer have rehearsals (so my days are big open spaces) I start to feel a little funny. The problem for me isn't how to fill my days - lord knows that I have plenty of things that interest me, and this time I happen to be in a remarkable city with endless exploration opportunities. No, the problem for me becomes the lack of consistent human contact. When I'm in rehearsals every day, even if I'm not socializing outside of rehearsals, I get plenty of human to human time when I'm working. But when the rehearsals stop and I have days and days with no requirements, and I don't have a huge list of people I know, I start to feel a little crazy. If I go two days without talking face to face with another person (other than perhaps people who work in shops and restaurants) I really start to feel weird. Some people can go weeks and weeks - they could enjoy camping in the wilderness alone for a long period of time - I am not like that. I NEED social contact to feel - I don't know - alive. It's really a problem with this job, and it's something I still haven't gotten used to.

I did go to the second Barber performance tonight to watch from backstage. I learned some important things; like the fact that Rosina and Bartolo sneak onstage for their first entrance by hiding behind a chorus guy carrying a bass drum. I also learned that the original tenor has cancelled at least the next three performances, so the tenor who has filled in for the last two will also do my performances. The funny thing is that I actually rehearsed with the replacement tenor more than the original tenor, so for me, it will be no problem. Also, the new tenor is quite tall, which for me is always a bonus! I also discovered that the backstage people at the Staatsoper are incredibly nice, and I have no doubt they will help me if I ever start to go the wrong way or something. I now know how to get from my dressing room to both sides of the stage, and where and how all the entrances and exits happen. I really think it should all be fine - even fun. As long as I don't forget everything in the next seven days.

I also took a trip this afternoon to what is called the East Side Gallery - it is a long piece of the Berlin wall that instead of being disassembled and removed, has become a long canvas for various artists from around the world. I walked along and looked at all the art, and took in what it meant to have a wall that once divided a city, a country, and the world. I didn't even realize until I went back home that today was September 11th, and that the somber but inspiring field trip was probably appropriate. Eight years ago today, I was in the middle of a City Opera production of The Mikado of all things, and two days after 9/11, we had to continue on with our lives, and perform our final dress rehearsal with invited audience, equivalent to a regular performance. None of us wanted to do it - we thought that the frivolity of this Gilbert and Sullivan operetta had no place in the frightening and changed world we now lived in. Except that people needed art to survive - they needed art to allow them to continue to see the beauty and the value in life. They needed to laugh and cry, and we needed for the entire company - from secretaries to costume makers to singers to the General Manager- to stand on stage before the performance began, and to sing all together the national anthem. Seeing the paintings on the former Berlin Wall today made me feel the same way; that art really does something to increase the vitality and aliveness of the human condition, and even in the worst of times, it can bring people together.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Don't drink the poison

Tonight I headed over to the other opera house here in Berlin, the Deutche Oper, to see a concert performance of Bellini's Capuletti ed i Montecchi - otherwise known as Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to see this particular production for several reasons; First of all, the star, Romeo, is a mezzo, and it's a role I'd love to sing one day. Second, the mezzo singing Romeo tonight was Elina Garanca, who is now a superstar and I'd never seen her in person, and third I just wanted to see what the Deutsche Oper looked like.

The D.O. (as the locals call it) is sorta the opposite of the Staatsoper (maybe the locals call it the S.O. but I haven't heard anybody do that so I'm sticking with the whole name so as not to seem like too big of a poser). While the Staatsoper is smaller, more intimate, older and more ornate, the D.O. is a big modern building without a lot of personality. I couldn't tell about the acoustics because the orchestra was onstage with the singers instead of in the pit, and it was a pretty giant orchestra with lots of winds and brass. The singing was excellent, especially Garanca and the soprano singing Juliet, whose name is now escaping me because you had to buy a program if you wanted one, so I refrained.

I actually arrived a little bit late because I miscalculated how long it was going to take me to get there on the subway, and I had to enter after the overture was finished. I had never been in the theater before, and I had to find my seat, and it was dark, so I went to the row I thought was mine and the seat I thought was mine, and it was one seat in, so I pointed at it to the woman who was sitting on the end. She kind of moved her legs a little to let me get by, but when I started sitting down, she started whisper-yelling at me in German that I was going to sit on her jacket. I kind of looked at her like, "why don't you move it, then" and she yanked it up and glared at me. I realized at intermission that I was actually in the wrong seat, so maybe she paid for that ticket as a seat for her jacket, and that's why she was mad, although I think she was just generally a very cheerless person. She was another non-clapper, like the guy who sat next to me at the Staatsoper, but unlike him, she refused to clap at all. She just sat there glaring at the stage with her hands folded on her precious jacket, and then she left just before the intermission and never came back. What is up with the not clapping, Berlin people?? It must just be a strange coincidence that I got next to two non-clappers, because the audience went wild at the end, as they should have.

Funny coincidence about the soprano; I didn't know the names of any of the singers besides Garanca, but when the soprano came out onto the stage I recognized her instantly - not from her face, but from her dress! I actually saw the same soprano sing a concert in Miami with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and she was wearing the exact same dress as she was tonight. She probably thought - what are the odds of the same person being at a random concert in Miami in January and this concert in Berlin tonight? - about a million to one -except I was the one. And the dress was very unusual, which is why I remembered it - it looked almost tie-died, with these cut outs on the side so it was almost like a bikini top attached to a skirt. I'm not describing it well, but it was unique enough that I remembered it immediately. Not that I minded - I have like two concert dresses and I wear them in rotation for everything, so I have no shame about repeats whatsoever. But I thought it was really a crazy coincidence that I would see both concerts. I'm apparently following this woman around the globe. I don't mind, she's a really beautiful singer - if only I knew her name!! It's Ekaterina something I think. Garanca is killer, man -she's like an incredible barbie doll singing robot. What I mean by that is that she's really beautiful and blond like a barbie, and she sings everything so well and so consistently, it's like someone made a perfect opera singing robot who makes no mistakes and never has a bad note. Like not one. Amazing!

Earlier today I went and took a look at Checkpoint Charlie - the one entrance and exit point between East and West when the Wall went up. Between that and the WWII movie I saw yesterday, I've had about all the upsetting German history I can handle for this week. For the rest of the week, nothing but puppies and daffodils, please.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Today was indeed another day

And it was a much better one as well.

Thank you for your words of encouragement and support in the comments (and a few worried personal emails) - it all helps a lot. Luckily however, today was a much brighter, easier day. Maybe I really did just need to make some rain so I could find a rainbow.

I had a lovely rehearsal with the conductor this morning (I brought him a bar of chocolate to thank him for being so nice with me yesterday), followed by a staging rehearsal where they actually let me wear my costume and wig so that I could practice how it all felt during some of the trickier staging moments. I reconfigured the staging a little during part of my aria that was troubling me and it worked much better, and I even almost finished figuring out that cadenza I need to add into the second act. Then while I was having lunch in the cafeteria, I was introduced to the man who will direct Agrippina - the show I will sing here at the Staatsoper in the winter, who was just in town for meetings about the opera, and was very happy to get a look at me as he plans his production so he knows what he has to work with. I was sitting at the lunch table about to shove a sandwich down my throat when the director introduced himself to me, and asked whether I would mind meeting the costume designer, Christian Lacroix. I said of course I would love to meet Christian Lacroix, being that he is a famous fashion designer and I LOVE FASHION! As the director walked away, the singer I was sitting with said to me excitedly, "Chistian Lacroix?? I was going to wear a shirt by him just today - I was this close!!" When I met him, he was so delightfully self deprecating and sweet that I couldn't believe he was the same famous designer whose name I had heard all these years. But he was - and it was funny to have a famous fashion icon look me up and down and assess my body because he's going to make clothes just for me!! Luckily, he seemed pleased with what he had to work with (I can do boy with this body - that at least I know) and he mentioned something about tight jeans tucked into boots, which sounds awesome to me!! I think in my zealousness to meet him I might have also told him I would cut my hair for the production. I'm usually adventuresome and don't mind doing crazy things like that for the right moment, but who knows if I'm going to regret that decision later!

The day ended with a trip to the Sony Center, where they play all the american movies undubbed and without subtitles even, where I got to see the new Quentin Tarantino flick. All in all, not a bad day. Not bad at all.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I'm no superman

Today something happened that I found dreadfully embarrassing, and I thought about not writing about it on the blog. But then I realized that the reason I write this blog is to be as honest as possible about what it's really like to have a career as an opera singer, and today was about as honest as it gets.

I had a staging rehearsal in the morning where we went through my two arias. It went fine, and I only have one staging moment left that I'm still trying to decide on the best option for breath and stamina purposes, but that I will work out in the next couple of weeks on my own. I also met the conductor who is conducting my performances for the first time, and we agreed to meet after the staging rehearsal to discuss the cadenza at the end of the second aria.

The staging rehearsal ended up finishing early, so we had a little extra time to go through some things musically. I hadn't brought my score, but amazingly, the conductor was able to play all of it from memory on the piano(!!!)!!! We started going through a few different parts, worked on the cadenza, and then started working on my first aria Una voce poco fa. I started singing through the aria, and he asked me to repeat one of my ornaments, and then said he didn't like the harmonics of it. I started to work on other options with him a little, and then to my surprise, I started to feel a lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. Concerned, the conductor asked me what was wrong, and I couldn't stop myself - I started to cry. I was just as surprised as he was, and I kept apologizing, saying how embarrassed I was, and how this doesn't usually happen to me. And it really doesn't - the last time I remember crying during a rehearsal - well - I actually can't remember the last time, so it must have been a really long time ago. There have been times when I've cried after rehearsals, in the privacy of my room, but I really can't recall crying during a rehearsal or a lesson or coaching any time in recent memory. I tried to compose myself, and the conductor was incredibly sweet and understanding - but I just couldn't, and since it was almost time to end, we decided to pick things up tomorrow. I was so confused by the incident, I have been thinking about it all day.

The thing that was weird was that he wasn't being mean or aggressive with me, which people certainly sometimes can be - quite the opposite - he was being really nice. He wasn't asking me to do something really crazy or impossible, and he wasn't criticizing me or telling me what I was doing wasn't good. And yet, I just lost it. I think I haven't really been allowing myself to physically acknowledge how stressful I find this situation, and maybe if I had just come in, rehearsed for a few days and done a performance, I wouldn't have had time to even feel stress, I just would have been running on pure adrenaline. However, I've had time to assess the situation, see that there are things that frighten me, and think about how badly I want to do a good job. And I've had just enough rehearsals so that I feel like I need to do what everyone expects of me and get everything right. One of my problems in life is that I am very hard on myself - I have the only child perfectionist syndrome that causes me to expect perfection from myself at all times, and feel extremely disappointed when one i isn't dotted or t isn't crossed. In one sense, it makes me a very responsible artist, because I take what I do very seriously, and have this inner need to always do my best. But in another sense I can cause myself a lot of stress and upset when I chastise myself for anything that is less than what I deem as perfect. Today, my desire to do everything that everyone wants perfectly just built up such a pressure inside of me, that I guess the damn literally burst. And it obviously needed to because I cried all the way home on the subway, I cried on the phone to my parents, I took a nap, and then cried on the phone to my best friend. All triggered by an incident that was frankly not particularly upsetting. But sometimes a person just needs to cry.

The funny thing about singing is that it can be really stressful, but without fail, the more you stress in a performance, the worse you sing. I find that sometimes I build these releases into my rehearsal processes, and it helps me be rid of the stress by the performance. I see this in other singers too - I call it the Susanna factor because for some reason, I always notice that the sopranos playing Susanna in Marriage of Figaro each seem to have one mental breakdown per production. Susanna is a really long, really stressful role, with zillions of things to remember and do all night long. But Susanna doesn't really get all the glory of some of the more glamourous soprano roles (the opera is called the Marriage of Figaro - even though it's about the Marriage of Figaro AND Susanna -but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it), and the Susannas always seem to have one day where they get really upset about something, or they get really sick, or they just plain freak out. But then in every Marriage I've done, the Susannas have all been absolutely magnificent for all the performances. They just had to go through the freak out to get it out of their systems and to get to the good stuff.

So I had my own little Susanna factor moment today, and while I am completely embarrassed that the poor conductor had to witness it, I'm just going to accept that it was just some steam escaping from my kettle, and let it be. And thank god I have supportive people in my life - and even a blog - to help me work it out, put me back on my feet, and start another day tomorrow.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I'm running out of titles for posts

But that doesn't mean I'm running out of things to say! Although as my rehearsal schedule thins out, I might post a little less frequently since I doubt you all want to read about my random tourist experiences in Berlin. I do have a post percolating in my brain about the psychology behind singers and their egos, so maybe on a slow day I'll start to sort through those ideas.

One thing that is cool about being double cast is that you get to experience the production from the audience, and see how things gain a different perspective from the outside. It also helps when you get to see how the audience reacts to certain jokes, and in this case, how a german audience might be different from any other audience. I went to see the opening of Barbiere last night, and the theater was packed. The audience seemed to love the production and the singers, which is always lovely to see. As soon as the overture started, my stomach dropped a little in anticipation of my performance, but at the same time, the whole atmosphere seemed very relaxed, and I realized that the less of a "big deal" I can make this situation, the better off I will be. There is no curtain in this show covering the set, so before the overture started a tech guy in his sneakers and jeans came out onto the stage to adjust the prompters box which was apparently loose. All the lights were on and all the audience members were in their seats waiting for the performance to begin, so after he sauntered in and used his electric drill to tighten the offending screw, the audience broke into spontaneous applause and cheers as he exited the stage. His only acknowledgement of the ovation was a casual wave of his hand in the air as he walked offstage, which only elicited more cheering. The feeling was very positive and relaxed - not at all stuffy as opera can sometimes be.

In this production, there is a lot of coming to the front of the stage and singing directly to the audience- and the theater is small enough that there can actually be some real connecting between the singers and the public.

The show went well - the new tenor did fantasically well, and didn't even seem remotely nervous. I need to take a lesson from him. I had one of those "everyone's a critic" moments when I realized the older gentleman seated next to me was deciding after each aria whether he liked the singer or not, and then either leaning over to his wife and saying "he was good" and enthusiastically clapping or curtly shaking his head at her and staging his own silent protest by folding his arms and refusing to applaud. I wanted to nudge him and say "I'd like to see you get up there and try to sing all those notes" after seeing his reaction to some of the singers, but I restrained myself. I mean, everybody's got opinions, but refusing to clap? Come on. But he was speaking english, and was clearly not german - the rest of the audience, mostly german I'm assuming, seemed very enthusiastic about the show and laughed at all the jokes heartily.

It was all a good thing to experience, to remind myself that the audience (mostly - except maybe the mean non-applauder) is there to have fun, and my job is merely to aid them in that adventure.

Friday, September 4, 2009

more never dull moments

I'm sleepy so tonight's blog entry is going to be a quick post, but I just wanted to update you on the situation here, so you can get a glimpse into how crazy the opera world really is.

I got word this morning that the tenor who is slated to sing the opening performance tomorrow is ill, so they had to find another tenor. It's not like City Opera or the Met where they have understudies for every role - if somebody is sick, they have to fly another singer in who knows the role, and show them the staging as fast as possible. In europe, everything is so close together that even if you're in Spain having a nice leisurely breakfast, you can be rehearsing in Berlin by just after lunch if necessary. Luckily, in this situation, a tenor who has performed in this production before was available, so I was called in today to rehearse with him. He actually remembered pretty much everything, which was quite remarkable since he hasn't done the show in over a year, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to rehearse with another singer, even though I won't sing with him (unless I get a call tomorrow that Rosina is sick too - let's hope not). Tomorrow night should be exciting for everyone involved since they only had a few days of rehearsals themselves, and now they are getting a new tenor. I wish them all in bocca al lupo, and I will write more tomorrow. For now I'm off to bed.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

They should be filming this

Sometimes, I really think a video camera should be following me around and taping me at all times, so when I have days like today they could make a comedy film with the shots.

Today was the one rehearsal onstage with the orchestra, and I was only watching. I wished I was up there doing, but at least I got to see what everything looked like. However, the day was a comedy of errors for me.

It was raining today, so I decided not to walk the 35 minutes and to attempt to take the Strassenbahn. It's so confusing - there is the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn, but the Strassenbahn (which also starts with an S and ends with Bahn by the way, so come on, it's confusing) is like an aboveground tram that sort of links the subways stops I guess. In Germany, they trust you, so you don't need a ticket to get on board, but you do need one in case they are randomly checking. Can you imagine them just trusting everyone in New York? But anyway, I had to figure out how to buy a ticket once I got on board, and it was way too much work for me considering the fact that the instructions were also in english. But I managed it, although with the timing, I didn't quite make it to the theater at the top of the rehearsal.

When I entered at the stage door, I heard through the speakers that they had only gotten to Figaro's aria, which was good because Rosina's first entrace is just after that. I walked quickly through the underground tunnel to the part of the building that contains the stage, and tried to find my way into the actual theater. I knew where the stage was from my audition, but I didn't know how to get into the house, and it was kind of complicated - little doors and little rooms linking the audience to the backstage. I finally found myself in the lobby, and could still hear the music, but through the doors now, and he was getting to the fast part of the aria. I opened the first door I came to, and saw that it was some box way stage right - that would be no good, I wouldn't be able to see all the entrances and exits. So I started trying to open more doors towards the center. Except the Staatsoper theater has this bizarre set up where the doors to the house only open from the inside - on the outside they are completely without handles, and therefore impossible to get in. I guess before the performances some usher comes around and opens them, and because germans are SERIOUS about their opera, they don't want latecomers to even be ABLE to get in. So here I was, racing around trying to open these doors with no handles, all to the soundtrack of "Figaro qua, Figaro la, Figaro su, Figaro giu," just trying to make it into the theater before my entrance. I raced down to the orchestra level, and found several more doors with no handles until I came upon one that was open and raced to my seat just in time for the aria to be over. Just the sight of me racing from handle-less door to handle-less to the tune of Largo al Factotum would have made good tv.

I sat in the theater and watched the show - my impressions were that I was thankful that there is basically no set (it's an open square made out of curtains, and that's it) because it meant I wouldn't have to contend with any stairs, which is always a nightmare without rehearsal. I watched the first act, took a break, and came back for the second act. We arrived at Rosina's second aria, and at the end of this aria, in this production, they have added an extremely long and detailed cadenza for Rosina to sing while she bounces back and fourth between her lover the Count and her guardian Bartolo. This particular candenza is very long - for comedic purposes - and completely acapella. A couple seconds after the orchestra stopped playing and she started her cadenza, my cell phone started ringing. The things that make this horrifying (more than normal) are 1. I was sitting in the third row directly behind the conductor, 2. My iphone ring is something called "piano riff", and it's like that tune that the piano plays before you sing "I got the blues", so it seemed even more obtrusive than just a ring 3. This was my aria, my moment that I was supposed to be watching and instead, I was apparently receiving a phone call from BB King. I tried to reach in my bag and turn it off but it was buried too far in there, so I leapt up, knocking over my water bottle with a thud, and raced out of the theater as fast as possible. Later, several people who were sitting behind me asked me why I raced out so quickly because they hadn't heard the phone ring. I was utterly and completely mortified - one of my WORST nightmares is that my phone would ring during a performance, and I usually take great pains to not only turn it to silent, but to turn it off, and even remove the battery if I can. I'm PARANOID. But I guess in my race to open doors without handles, I must have forgotten to turn it off, and had the distinct pleasure of being completely humiliated by my own stupidity. Mortifying.

But the silver lining to this day was that I spoke to the director, and while I won't have the opportunity to rehearse with my colleagues, I will get to run all my parts in the show in a rehearsal room, with the director walking the other parts, and I will even get to wear my costume and wig for this "run-through". That is a big bonus because there are a couple of times I have to take an outer piece of the costume on and off quickly and that's the kind of thing my nervous fingers tend to bungle without practice. Finding that out was a relief. I also managed to snag a DVD copy of a performance of this production, so honestly, I should be fine.

This, incidentally, is the view from the kitchen window of the apartment I've now moved into. The church bells ring several times per day, and I feel a great calm when I hear them. I swear to god I didn't set up this shot, I was just making myself lunch (the strawberries were great, those other little berries I bought because they reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, but they were really weird tasting) and I thought - I have to photograph this!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Never a dull moment

I'm coming to you live from a bar/restaurant/internet cafe a few blocks from the apartment I've rented for the month of September. For some reason, the internet in the apartment decided to quit today, and even though I spent 2 hours with 2 germans trying to fix it, alas, it was not fixed. So for now, I have to come down the street and log on. If I look to my right, I see a group of 9 people huddled in the corner tables of the restaurant with handheld video games and a computer having some kind of group video challenge. They are all just sitting there looking at their little nintendos (or whatever they are - I'm video game illiterate) and not saying a word. Now that's community. I'm drinking a german pilsner from the draft and eating something - I'm not 100% sure what it is because my german still sucks.

The last couple of days have been both delightful and scary. Mostly I've had a blast - the only scary part is when I think about what's going to happen on the 18th of September (my first performance). So far, I have had a total of one hour and 45 minutes of rehearsal with just me and the director, and otherwise I've watched the entire opera about twice. A couple times yesterday and today the director had me jump into some of the ensemble scenes, since this will be my only opportunity to interact with the other singers. They will leave after the performances and go to their respective homes, only to return the night before the next performance. Basically, this experience is going to prepare me for if I ever get called in on a moments notice to fly somewhere the next day and sing a performance without rehearsal because someone is sick. This is certainly the least rehearsal I will ever have had for a performance, but it's the role I've sung the most often, so I guess it balances out.

Yesterday, when the director put me into the finale of the first act, I surprised everyone by basically knowing where to go. It was surprising even to me because I had only seen them run the finale twice, and I had never walked it myself. But I have been double cast a few times before, and I have this method that allows me to memorize the blocking without ever actually doing it. I just need to imagine the entire scene in my head and picture myself doing all the moves. Then somehow, the moves enter into my memory and I'm able to stand up and do them. It only works if I know the music - everyone's parts, not just mine - extremely well, so I can basically rehearse in my head while I'm walking down the street. It also helps that this happens to be an incredibly nice and supportive group of colleagues, and they quietly remind me where I'm supposed to be whenever I'm in earshot. Which is good practice for them, because they will probably have to incorporate those whispers into their performances on September 18th. I know I'm always talking about how wonderful my colleagues are, but honestly, if I had to generalize I would say most opera singers happen to be really nice supportive people. That's been my experience anyway.

Tomorrow I will watch the final rehearsal, which will be on the stage with the orchestra. I could probably actually do the rehearsal - I think I have a good idea about most of the staging now - but since the conductor who will conduct the first two performances is not the same conductor that will conduct my performances, it doesn't really make sense for me to sing a rehearsal with him. So I will watch, listen, and learn as much as a I can. And maybe between now and the 18th I will take up praying.

In an unrelated story, I got a mention today from my very favorite opera blogger, Opera Chic. She not only plugged my story in The Daily Beast, but she pointed out the fact that I share a name with a Mexican pop singer who recently gained some infamy for making a sex tape. So now when you google my name, "Jennifer Rivera sex tape" is the third or fourth entry that google wants to send you to. Incidentally, if you've never checked out Opera Chic's blog, she's pretty much the coolest, smartest, most erudite yet funny blog about opera on the web. So check it, baby.

P.S. I'm SO HAPPY that I have all these new readers who are also commenting on my blog entries. It gives me great joy to share all of this with you, so please keep the comments coming! One of the weird things about this job is that I'm having all these great and sometimes crazy experiences, but I'm so often all alone. Knowing that I'm sharing them with people makes everything a little more interesting. Plus, when something really horrible happens to me, I can immediately console myself by saying, "God - I'm such an idiot! I can't wait to write about this on my blog!"