Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fine Rhein

First of all, it's a really small world. Then, if you talk about the opera world, we may as well all be living in a shoe box. It is literally almost impossible for me to go to a town where there's an opera to have an audition, and not see someone I know. Occasionally that smallness comes back to bite you on the ass (Oh - hello there ex boyfriend with whom things did not end on good terms - yes - now we have to sing opposite each other - uncomfortable much?) but usually it is a welcome and wonderful thing to find people you know and have a shared history with on all corners of the globe.

This weekend was no exception. I heard from my agents that I would be having an audition in Dusseldorf on Monday, which couldn't have been more perfect because a dear friend of mine was singing Pamina on Sunday there, and I had been wanting to find a way to visit her during this trip anyway. In fact, we had already talked about me traveling to Dusseldorf this very weekend just to visit with her before I even found out about the audition. Eureka! Of course, when you are two singers visiting each other, usually dinners have to be cut short so you can get your rest before the performance or audition, no sitting outside, no alcohol, not too much talking, etc. But it was fantastic nonetheless to not only be able to see her perform (in a Magic Flute with a truly excellent cast of singers - I was extremely impressed with every single one of them) but to have a chance to reconnect and tell each other all the stories from the past year and a half of our lives. I wasn't however, expecting to run into not one, not two, but THREE other people I knew at the opera and at the audition, but that's our shoebox for ya.

I have gotten to the point with auditions where I literally do not get nervous at all, which I have to say is really nice. I actually enjoy myself and take advantage of the relaxation to play around with musical and dramatic things, and I certainly sing better when I'm not nervous. And even though I hadn't offered it on my "list" of suggested arias, they wanted to hear some Rossini, so I pulled out Una Voce (not before rifling through my audition binder and making a joke about how it would have been really stupid of me not to have brought Rosina when I was just singing that role in Berlin. I don't know WHY I feel the need to be so jokey in auditions - note to self - you are NOT a stand up comedian) and I have to say I nailed it. It's funny how singing well in any situation - even an audition where only like 4 people hear you - can create a euphoria that lasts for the rest of the day.

Immediately after the audition I headed to Cologne, where I had another audition scheduled for the next day. I didn't really do a ton of sight seeing in Dusseldorf because I was more concentrated on spending time with my friend and seeing her matinee than wandering the streets, but as soon as I arrived in Cologne I grabbed my camera and went exploring. Right when you come out of the train station you see this monster, the Köln Dom, and the size and majesty of it just stops you in your tracks. Especially for an American, because we may have invented super-size when it comes to fast food, but we just don't have architecture this huge that is also this old.

One of the things I'm always going on and on about loving in Europe is the fact that Opera is so integrated into the culture, and it is such a part of life here, that being an opera singer actually makes you feel special and important. First of all, when you arrive in a town, you can just ask your hotel "where is the opera?" and there will be a special building, well marked on the map, that is used just for that. In most cities in America, we perform in some kind of performing arts complex that might show a few operas a year, and it is certainly not referred to as an Opera House. But walking around Cologne in search of the Opera House, I had no trouble finding it because as soon as I got there, every business had the name Opera in it. I don't even think there's one single business in Lincoln Center with the word opera in the title, and there are two opera companies right there! In Cologne I was in the twilight zone of opera businesses - every where I turned there was another one!

The audition in Cologne today also went well (although of course, I couldn't seem to let myself escape without making some dead-pan comment to the people listening about the acoustic of the room not being conducive to coloratura - JENNY - step away from the jokes!!!). Since I was the only person they were hearing, I couldn't very well see anyone I knew, BUT, a friend of mine had just sung Carmen there two nights before, so basically my shoebox rule still holds true.

Now I'm back in Berlin for only a few short days before it's off to New Orleans. That my friends, is going to be something of a culture shock.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Singing for skinnies

I've been thinking a lot lately about weight and how it affects the body and therefore the voice. It's all related to the fact that this is my "body year" where I've been focused on things related to my body and how that is affecting my singing. The conversation was also continued when a friend of mine lost a bunch of weight and found singing more difficult, and we started an ongoing discussion about weight and support, which I continue to ponder.

Of course, if I had a nickel for every time some stranger learns that I'm an opera singer and exclaims, "Oh, but you're not fat!" I would not only be a rich woman, but I also wouldn't feel the urge to strangle strangers quite so often for their rude ignorance. However, weight, and where your fat is actually allocated (because we all have some somewhere) does play a role in what your strengths and weaknesses are as a singer. People who have solid middles - that is they have either a layer of fat around their belly or just a really solid round ribcage, seem to have an easier time with support than those of us who have very small ribcages and skinny middles. When I gain weight it's all in my butt and thighs (thank you pear shaped genes - hello? why couldn't it just go directly to my boobs?) and my waist and rib area seem to stay tiny. This means that I need to compensate for my skinniness by thinking about support in a more specific way.

I've been continuing to have these body movement coachings with John Norris here in Berlin, and I don't want to oversell it and say that the results are mind blowing, but I have been seriously amazed at the vocal results I've been getting with body adjustments. John noticed right away that when I went up in range, I tended to pull out, up, and away from my center of gravity, and he pointed out that because I am so small in my middle, I have to affect some compression of my breath while still keeping my ribs open. I have no fat pressing against me to provide automatic support and compression, and I don't have this solid round ribcage that just stays open because of it's own design. This is not a new concept for me, but his work is very physical and hands on, and the results are immediate. In my session with him yesterday, I sang about 5 really amazing high C's after he dug his fingers into the middle of my ribs and pulled them apart, but pressed down on the top of my head so I could open and still compress. I kept looking at him after each one incredulously, and he would just laugh at me. I was like "Holy crap! There's my voice!! Here's what I'm actually capable of?? Who knew??"

In other news, I did go to Paris this week for an audition (more on that later when the results become clear) and it's looking like I have nailed down a future engagement about which I am VERY excited. Details will be forthcoming. Unfortunately, I spent less than 24 hours in Paris because of flight delays resulting from strikes (those French loooooooove to strike) but there was just enough time for me to remember how romantic and mysterious that city is, and how much I would love to have an opportunity to spend extended time there. Plus I got to speak french, which, after trying to learn german and still speaking occasionally in italian, officially made my brain explode. I'm still picking up the pieces. Aufrevoirderci!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Who needs covers?

This weekend my mom came to Berlin for a little visit while I'm here and in between auditions. She and my dad were planning on coming to see Agrippina in the winter, but I figured that by then, it would be so cold and cloudy that we wouldn't be able to do much sight-seeing. Unfortunately it is the worst weather possible this weekend - cold, cloudy, rainy - highs of like 40 degrees - so we are limiting our activities to the indoors. That included taking in an opera at the Staatsoper last night, and it happened to be one of the performances of Barbiere that I wasn't singing. Some people would say, "Oh- your mom came all the way to Berlin, and she doesn't even get to see you sing Rosina?" but honestly, she has seen me sing Rosina so many times, and having guests when you're in the middle of a run of a show can be really stressful. This way, I get to relax and hang out with my mom without worrying about how my voice is feeling, or if I'm wearing an extra scarf when we go outside in the cold. And seeing the production I was a part of and knowing how I sing Rosina, she can pretty much imagine just what I'd be doing up there, without having to deal with my stress before-hand, and my potential depression afterwards (if I didn't think it went well or something).

So, last night, the star of the show was sick. The Barber himself lost his voice, and they had to find someone else to sing the role with only a day's notice. I knew this was happening because I happen to be friends with the Figaro and he told me. I had to write an email to the Staatsoper asking them for tickets for the performance, so I told them that if the new Figaro needed someone to rehearse with, I would be happy to come in for a few hours and run the Rosina Figaro parts with him so at least he would have some idea where a person would be on stage. The Staatsoper people said YES PLEASE - that would help a lot - so I got to see first hand what it means to literally have someone jump in. The only thing I've ever seen happen in the states that was close was that someone once replaced one of the singers in a show I was in a week before we opened - and at the time, that seemed like very little time to prepare!

The baritone who they hired is a guy named Dalibor Jenis (you can find him on youtube if you're so inclined) and it was clear from our rehearsal together that he had sung Figaro literally hundreds of times. He was so relaxed and didn't seem even slightly phased that he would sing the title role at the Staatsoper that evening in a production he'd never even seen. The "get him ready crew" consisted of me, the director (who told him where to go and played all the other parts), the conductor and the pianist. Basically the director would tell him all the stage directions for one scene, he would run it once with the music (just barely singing obviously, since he had to sing the show later that night) and then we would move on. I kept thinking, "How is going to remember all of this after only going through it one time??" Of course, it helps if you've done the role many times before because there are lots of things that are just standard, but this production has lots of very specific bits that you have to remember because it affects what the other singers are doing.

Well, I am here to tell you that from an audience perspective, had I not been in the rehearsal with him where I saw him learn the stage directions for the first time, I would not have believed that he didn't know the production. Not only did he remember all of the staging, but he was able to incorporate it to such a degree, that he was improvising little acting moments around the staging that were really funny. I was seriously amazed, and I felt like a real tool for complaining about only having a few days of rehearsal. The other singers were amazingly relaxed as well, and if there was a moment where he was in a slightly different place than the other Figaro would have been, they improvised and made it work seamlessly as well. There was also a new Basilio who I had never met before (who I'm sure has done the production a lot before), and the Rosina had not done the show this time around with this conductor because I had done the shows so far that he had conducted. You definitely think of Barbiere as being an ensemble show, and yet, some of the members of this ensemble had never even met each other, and were interacting beautifully as if they had rehearsed together for weeks. Again, I say, I was amazed.

What did I learn from this experience? That I am WAY TOO UPTIGHT!!! I sometimes worry about every detail too much instead of just relaxing and giving myself over to the moment. Being on stage is such an alive experience, and if you don't always know exactly what you are doing, you will figure it out! I think we put so much emphasis on having covers (in the U.S. anyway) who are completely well rehearsed for every single role, that I have this idea that if you haven't rehearsed for a month, you are screwed. I mean, I am a very fast learner of staging, and I know I could learn the staging to any show in a day and do it well. However, you had better believe that if I did that, I would be telling everyone, "oh my god, I had to learn this staging in just one day! Can you imagine?" (see my blog posts on learning this production for example:). But this baritone, cool as a cucumber, never once seemed even slightly worried about a thing. So I guess if you just give yourself over to being in the moment, magic can happen. Really!!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Audience participation

I went to an interesting concert tonight, which made me think a lot about being an audience member, and what music means to each individual, and how they experience it.

I went to see the famous jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who was playing a solo concert in the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall, or the Philharmonie. First, it was great to get to see the Philharmonie, which is such a superb venue with outstanding acoustics. And while I am not the biggest fan of solo jazz piano, I found the experience extremely intriguing.

Keith Jarrett is known for two things (besides being quite an accomplished and amazing improvisational pianist); he is known for the grunting/humming noises he omits while playing, and he is known for having extremely high expectations for the concentration level of his audience, and can explode in anger if someone so much as coughs - forget any other disruptions like cell phones or cameras. Because I don't find that jazz piano music really affects me emotionally the way other music does, I found myself contemplating the idea of the performer having expectations for the audience, instead of vice versa. Usually as a performer, I'm concentrating on fulfilling the audiences expectations to be moved or excited, and it never occurs to me to have expectations for them. Keith Jarrett didn't disappoint anyone who was expecting him to be strict with his audience: He stopped playing at least four times because of noise disruptions - two sounds that may or may not have been cell phones and two coughs, he stood up and gave a little speech about how good music required concentration, and he walked towards the audience and demanded that the person who had a camera (he had seen the red light) hand it over to another audience member before he would continue playing. He said, "I'll wait." and stood there with his arms crossed waiting for said busted audience member to comply (he did after an agonizing 30 seconds or so). He also refused to continue at one point because one of the piano strings was out of tune, and he waited until an audience member who also happened to be a piano tuner offered to come on stage and tune the offending string. The audience went wild for him, giving him standing ovations and encouraging him to play about 4 encores.

I personally, found the experience a little stressful. I had read online that he was really crazy about noises, and listened to the man who gave the speech beforehand asking everyone to remain quiet, so I was kind of feeling nervous about what would happen IF someone made a noise. Then sure enough, during the beginning of the second piece, there was a cough that made him stop, followed by some kind of beeping noise that made him say, "turn off your god damn cell phones please." I felt my shoulders raise and my heart rate increase. I don't like it when people get in trouble! For the rest of the concert I found myself flinching any time anyone so much as rustled their program. It's funny because I am the first person to give obnoxious patrons an evil glare if they are talking too loudly or opening a never-ending candy wrapper during a performance, but the idea that the performer could stop what he was doing and yell at somebody was almost more than I could bear. But at the same time, I was amazed with the level of concentration that the audience was obviously exerting to remain silent and focused, and the concentration was permeating the concert hall creating it's own very interesting energy. Plus, I am totally supportive of the idea that if you expect the audience to rise to your level instead of pandering to them, you can possibly create a new level of artistry. Basically I couldn't decide if I liked what was going on or hated it.

In the end, for me, I didn't find Jarrett to be an especially generous performer, so I didn't really feel such a strong desire to live up to his expectations. What he's doing is amazing, don't get me wrong - improvising intricate jazz harmonics for two hours is an incredible feat, and I absolutely give him credit for being such an outstanding musician and creative artist. But because I didn't get the sense that he was really enjoying himself, I had a difficult time abandoning myself to the music and enjoying myself. It was obviously partly because I didn't "get" the music he was playing, but I think it also had to do with feeling like the environment was ever so slightly hostile. But regardless, it was a VERY interesting experience, and one that really got me thinking. It is an interesting shift to imagine being a performer who essentially says to the audience, "I can knock your socks off - prove to me that you're worth it." Very interesting indeed.

I also couldn't stop thinking about the fact that while some people were obviously so raptly paying attention and were deeply moved by the music, I felt like I could have been watching two monkeys banging on bongo drums and it would have had the same emotional impact. Why is it that when I hear the overture to the Marriage of Figaro I feel like my heart might beat out of my chest, and I could cry at any moment, but when I hear a world renowned jazz pianist I feel nothing? Why is the opposite perhaps true for the man who was sitting behind me who was sighing rapturously at the end of every piece Jarrett played? What is the mysterious part of different kinds of music that has such differing affects on people? I'm sure there's a neuroscientist somewhere trying to figure out these very questions. I, meanwhile, want to go to sleep and dream about Mozart. And somewhere else in Berlin, Keith Jarrett is hopefully falling asleep to the beautiful sound of silence.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Can you tell by the title of my post that I've been going to a lot of operas lately?

There is just so much opera going on in Berlin, it's outrageous. And I've only been seeing operas that people I know are involved in, and I've still been going almost every other night to the opera! The output is just enormous, and of course it can't ALL be completely earth shattering when it's so frequent, but it's comforting to know that I have so many choices of things to see and hear and experience.

Wednesday night I went and saw Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, which was being conducted by a friend of mine. It was a very standard Carmen production - no naked spacemen or anything - but I did get to see Neil Shicoff singing Don Jose. I'm not sure how old he is - I heard maybe in his sixties - but he's just so full of energy and force on stage, it's wild. Would that we could all age that gracefully! Friday I saw The Magic Flute also at the Deutsche Oper, where my friend Heidi Stober was an absolutely stunning Pamina. I know you can be biased when you see your friends perform, but she was definitely the best Pamina I have ever seen. Plus she's so frigging adorable, and she's a mean jump-ropist (something she had to do on a narrow platform in front of the orchestra pit only inches from both the conductor's head and the audience members faces). I liked the production, it was clean and simple and that platform put a lot of the action basically in the audiences lap, which is great for a singspiel that is happening in native tongue. Ah to grow up speaking German and to understand the words to Magic Flute without supertitles - what a luxury that would be! Last night I went and saw Rosenkavalier at the Staatsoper, and it was actually my first time seeing the entire opera. I saw the first act at the Met when I was about 16 but left because I was bored and didn't get it and was confused by all the onstage lesbian action (little did I know at that time how much onstage "lesbian" action I would be performing in the course of my career, but at 16 I was like "why are those ladies making out on that bed?"). Rosenkavalier is definitely not boring if you're a fan of Strauss - which I now am. The music is so profound and it kind of shatters you. And you sit there all night working through the complicated crazy Straussian harmonics and dramatics, only to feel extraordinarily rewarded and overwhelmed by the final trio. The Staatsoper production is really cool - sort of juxtaposing a classical period look with a more modern deconstructed one. I only wished I would have had my own private english supertitles so I could have followed the text more closely.

My Berlin opera tour isn't over yet - wednesday night I will see my first show at the Kommische Oper because another friend will sing Musetta in La Boheme there, and Friday I will be back at the Deutsche to see my favorite Pamina switch over to Nanetta in Falstaff. I have definitely never been to this many operas in one two week period in my entire life.

I also had a really interesting coaching last week with an American who has relocated to Berlin named John Norris. He specializes in doing body work for opera singers - he does some Alexander and other movement and breathing exercises and adjustments, and then works with your body while you sing and helps you align properly to make your best sound. As I have mentioned previously on the blog, I feel like body stuff is the next piece of my puzzle, and this year I've been focused on that particularly. It started with my realization that I was raising my shoulders and that was giving me problems with certain high singing, followed by seeing a video of my performance in Poland and noticing that I was holding onto unnecessary body tension and that releasing it only helped my singing. My session with John was really excellent because not only did he do all these exercises that really opened and loosened me up, but he was able to pinpoint what my body was doing that was constricting my sound in certain moments, and finding ways to release and alter that movement that were kind of mind-blowing. I was singing some really amazing high notes with just a few minor adjustments, and they were easy! I'm going back for another session with him today and I'm totally psyched.

You know, something that I find really addictive about singing is that there is always something to learn, or some way you can improve. You can be considered one of the finest singers in the world, hired by all the major houses, and still learn things in voice lessons and coachings and from directors, conductors and other singers. And as you age, your body and voice change, which gives you constant opportunities to learn something new about yourself and your capabilities. I guess some people would find this annoying - like you're never finished, never perfected, always needing to improve. But I find it stimulating because you always have somewhere to go - the path never ends, and I find learning stuff to be pretty much the reason for existence. So, there ya go, that's my existential / psychological two bits for the day.