Sunday, December 27, 2009

Merry Weinacht and Happy Sylvester

This was my first year away from home for Christmas, and it hasn't been nearly as depressing as I was afraid it might be. I've worked on a bunch of New Year's Eves and not really had my own party as a result, but amazingly, I've never been away from Mom and Dad on Christmas before. But I sort of have facebook to thank for saving me from crying myself to sleep alone in my bathrobe on Christmas night - once again the internets have proven themselves to be useful for more than just listening to my local NPR station from all corners of the globe.

A friend invited me to visit her and her family in Leipsig because she noticed on facebook that I was whining in my status updates about being all alone in Germany for Christmas. So I took the one hour train ride to the beautiful, historical city where Bach himself was busy making Christmas music 275 years earlier. It's kind of overwhelming to stand in the church where somebody like Bach actually stood, and to know that the music that was premiered in that very spot basically set the entire course of musical history as we know it today. I'm not religious, but I think that counts as a religious experience for a musician.

After I returned from Leipsig, I was lucky enough to be invited to Christmas dinner (on the 25th - the Germans have their big family celebrations on the 24th, but this friend happens to be Australian and celebrates like we yankees) by another friend with whom I went to Juilliard, but who now lives in Berlin. It was a dinner party with about 16 guests, and my friend cooked a gorgeous feast of turkey, ham, and stuffing, and fed us gallons of champagne and red wine, so any homesickness I might have felt was washed away by mountains of tryptophans and booze. I stumbled back to my apartment at nearly 2 in the morning, and my first Christmas away from home was complete.

I had another dinner party with some colleagues last night, and I'm always amazed at how often singers get together and dream about what it would be like to quit singing and have a normal life for a change. I was quizzing people about it last night, and the top two reasons that singers feel shackled and constantly stressed by the career are; the vulnerability of having your instrument inside your body and the constant travel. The vocal folds are so tiny and easily upset, and most singers are constantly worrying - to the point of obsession - about how their voices are feeling in any given moment, what might be happening around them to disturb the delicate balance, and being utterly paranoid of being within a 50 mile radius of someone who so much as clears their throat. It's a constant battle that goes on in your head; you're around a person you like, but you notice them coughing or sneezing a little. You, as casually as you can possibly muster, ask them if they are under the weather. They tell you they have a little cold. You instinctively back away towards the nearest restroom so you can scrub your hands til they're pink and gargle a bottle of purell. And all the while you hate yourself for being such a sissy and worrying so much about germs. Most singers would NOT miss that fun little head game they play with themselves. And then there's the travel; the fact that I'm family-less here in Germany for Christmas being a perfect example. And I don't even have my own children to worry about being away from - that adds a whole level of torture to being constantly on the road. Not to mention spouses, friends, elderly relatives, weddings funerals, birthdays - all of which you are often forced to miss because of work.

But in the end, the positives outweigh the negatives for most of us, and everyone finds their own way to make it all work. People wear hospital masks on planes and try to avoid shaking hands. They travel with nannies so their kids can come with them, and they watch wedding ceremonies on skype. They rely on the kindness of friends and facebook to find holiday cheer in foreign countries. And sometimes they quit and find something else that makes them happy. And then they gleefully toss their industrial size bottle of purell out the window.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oh right, this is what busy feels like

I haven't been avoiding blogging because I have nothing to talk about - I just literally haven't had any time to get my thoughts together, much less write them down during this hectic week. But I'm certainly not complaining; rehearsing is my favorite thing to be busy with, especially when it's a really cool show like this one. Not to mention the fact that I actually have a lot of friends here in Berlin, either living here or just in town working here, which is SUCH an incredible luxury! One friend, accustomed to spending lots of time on her own in foreign cities said, "I feel like I've beat the system because I actually have one of 'my people' here!" and I couldn't agree more.

But anyway, back to the matter at hand; rehearsals. We have basically been having intensive musical rehearsals in the mornings and staging rehearsals in the afternoon. What I've learned is that the version of Agrippina that we're doing for this production has never been done before - it's something that Rene Jacobs has put together based on Handel's own original manuscript and various research the Maestro has done. For example, at the end of the second act, Handel wanted to end with a duet between two characters; Ottone and Poppea, but the singers of the time wanted to each have an exit aria to finish their roles, so Handel (sadly, apparently) removed this really beautiful duet and inserted some arias. The duet has now been restored and those arias have been cut. Also, one of the arias that was in the opera when I performed it last time is being cut because it was only added later because of singer demands. The musical rehearsals have been fantastic - we are working together with the harpsichordist and pianist to create recits that are every bit as musically fulfilling as the arias, and are filled with thought and detail. Jacobs' method of performing recits is to have them maintain their rhythmic structure instead of just ignoring the rests and treating them like spoken texts on pitch. Initially, it was a little difficult to adjust to this method since I'm used to basically ignoring the rhythmic values, but the results, when one does it right, are quite extraordinary. The text rings with far more clarity and distinction when the rests are all observed, and every moment has it's own dramatic impulse. Recits are very often thrown away as the thing taking up space between the "good stuff"; the arias. However these recits have a life all their own, and as such, are all incredibly interesting. I had only heard Jacobs recordings, and I didn't know what his exact methods were, I just knew that really liked the results. I feel like I've now been let in on an extraordinary secret.

And the staging rehearsals have been equally wunderbar. The young french director, Vincent Boussard, has already really impressed me by attending every single musical rehearsal (directors often don't come to those) so that he could be perfectly in synch with what we are being asked to do musically and what he is asking us to do physically. The staging process has been quite interactive, with plenty of space for the singers to come with their own ideas, but also a good structure around which we can work. The sets look like they are going to be really cool and with Christian Lacroix designing the costumes, you can imagine how freaking awesome those are gonna be (I had my first fitting with him yesterday, and he said (with his gorgeous french accent) "what a body!" when I put on my tight leggings and high heels costume. I almost keeled over in ecstasy! Christian Lacroix is not only designing clothes for ME to wear, he thinks I have "a body"!! Pinch me, I could be dreaming). I know, I know, I'm always getting all enthusiastic and telling you all how awesome everything is gonna be. I can't help it - it's my American-ness combined with my hyper and overly excitable personality.

And by the way, I know I should be putting an umlaut over the name Handel so it says Händel, but seriously, I can't be bothered to type option u before typing the a every time I write his fricking name! I mean, I'm gonna be writing his name down a million times in the next two months - you guys know what I mean, right? Here are a few for all you purists out there to keep you warm during the winter while I continue to bulldoze the correct spelling of his name; ä ä ä ä ä. Ugh - I'm exhausted - that took me like 10 minutes! You get me, doncha George Frediric? As long as I sing all the notes you wrote at super fast tempos, can I get a pass on the umlaut thing for the time being?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Deja vu, Berlin style

It's kinda like I never left.

I guess I've never spent two months in a place (other than New York) only to return for another two months after only 6 weeks away. As I was going through my day today, it felt much more like coming back to New York after a gig than arriving at a new gig. Which is great - I LOVE not having to figure stuff out! Of course, just because I don't have to figure out where the supermarket is (or what kind of bread I like there) - or where the Staatsoper is for that matter - I still have to figure out how to sing this opera with this group, and that's enough of a challenge for me, thank you!

I've been really excited to have the opportunity to work with Rene Jacobs because I know what fabulous results he gets from his performers, and I wanted to soak up all that knowledge and musicality for myself. After the first day of rehearsal, I can say with certainty that I won't be disappointed. His knowledge of everything baroque is extensive - today he was talking about which of Handel's cantatas Handel himself was either borrowing or parodying for these Agrippna arias, and I found it all fascinating. I was imagining we were going to have a sing through of most of the opera today, but instead we worked extensively on the first few recitatives and arias. The work was very demanding of brain power on my part - something I was feeling a little short of after arriving yesterday morning sleepless from a 9 hour flight. Plus we started at 10 AM, which was 4 AM for me, still running on New York time. However, I have to say I really enjoy working exhaustively on musical choices instead of just slamming everything together, which is what usually happens because of limited time. To be able to work and re-work each phrase is an amazing luxury, especially when you have an expert guiding your way. I can tell I'm going to learn TONS about the baroque style from this experience, and I want to eat up every morsel of information. Handel's totally gonna be my bitch by the time this is all over.

As I was leaving the theater in between the afternoon and evening rehearsals, a young, normal looking guy stopped me and started talking to me in German. I could tell he wanted something from me, so I pretended not to speak German (which, let's be honest, is not a stretch for me). But instead of giving up, he tried in English. He said "I artist. I make paintings. I make painting on your face?" Now, I don't know if he just had some wrong english going on there, but regardless, I politely declined. "Whhhhaaaayyyyy Naaaaahhhhht?" he whined at me. "Well, dear sir, I don't think I should return to my first day of rehearsals at the Berlin Staatsoper with Maesto Rene Jacobs, with some kind of weird dragon or Harry Potter character painted across my face," is what I SHOULD have said. Instead I just looked at him quizzically and repeated "Nein, danke" and went on my merry way. I don't know, maybe he was a just make-up artist and thought I needed a make-over or something, but on the subway ride home, I couldn't stop imagining myself prancing back into rehearsal and scooting past the harpsichord with my face painted all green and sparkly. It would have made an impression, that's for sure.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Out of the frying pan and into the refiners fire

Last night marked my first time singing "The Messiah", the great oratorio by Handel that is performed hundreds, nay thousands of times each Christmas and Easter. Which is why everyone was asking me HOW can this be your FIRST MESSIAH? Well, as I think I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I did sing a couple of the soprano solos in a sing-along Messiah in San Francisco, but it was only two of them, and I was 17 years old, so I'm not counting it. And the alto solos are so ridonculously low - they should really be called baritone solos frankly. But I was meant to be in Richmond, VA finally croaking out my first Messiah, and here's why.

I have two best friends, and one of them - Will Ferguson - is a tenor who hails from Richmond. He has sung many Messiahs all over (you may remember, oh loyal readers, this blog entry when I recounted a particularly embarrassing Hallelujah chorus (for me) when I was watching him sing a Messiah at Carnegie Hall). He has sung several Messiahs in Richmond alone, and so he knows the associate conductor for the Richmond Symphony, Erin Freeman. He was chatting with Erin some time ago about who she wanted to invite to sing the Messiah in Richmond this coming Christmas, and when it came to the discussion about the alto solos, she said she would like to invite this certain mezzo with whom she went to Boston University, but she wasn't sure if she'd be available or interested. "Who is it?" asked Will, and Erin replied, "Jennifer Rivera. Do you know her?" "Know her?? She's my best friend!!!" And he told her he was sure I would be interested, because he knew that I had always wanted to try singing the Messiah at least once in my life. And that is why I'm sure this was meant to be my first Messiah. They even kept in the tenor/alto duet which is often cut, so I got to hang out with my bestie AND sing a duet with him. Not bad for a job.

The performance last night probably went as well as I could have expected, considering the solos are about an octave lower than I normally sing. I mean that literally - if I was marking the Handel role I'm about to go sing in Berlin an octave below where it's written, I would be in about the same range as several of these solos. But I do love the music of The Messiah (If you need a good workout track, try "But who may abide" - once you get to the "refiner's fire" part, you'll WANT to run - also I have been known to run along with "Ev'ry Valley" before - that one just puts me in a chipper mood). My big challenge when I'm singing low is to 1.) not get too nervous and 2.) relax into the notes, and try not to push and squeeze them out in an attempt to make extra sound down there. I think I accomplished both of those things last night, so I really can't complain. I don't think I'll be making any recordings of the Messiah any time soon, but I could see myself singing it again, and maybe trying out some higher ornaments. I actually added a couple of ornaments during the performance that I hadn't sung in rehearsal, which is totally unlike me because I'm generally something of a coward about trying new things in performance, but I've been pushing myself to buck that trend, and actually allow myself some freedom to change things up in the performance. It's like walking on a tightrope - but as long as you get across, you feel great satisfaction.

On a side note, Will and I were models of professionalism during the performance, even though they sat us next to each other on the stage, and we tend to make each other laugh at inopportune moments (example: two years ago, Christmas Eve Mass in a Presbyterian Monastery, me: trying (unsuccessfully) to sight read the alto line in the hymns and carols, him: peeing his pants laughing and hissing "you....have....a master's music.....from JUILLIARD?!" People were definitely giving us the evil eyebrows). One exception to our excellent behavior was after the Hallelujah chorus, when he leaned over to me and whispered, "Got your pants buttoned up this time?" If you want to know what that's about you'll have to read the blog entry I mentioned and linked to up there in paragraph two - it's Halleluiarious. And yes, my need to constantly use Messiah word play for these titles and jokes is totally dorky. What do you want? The title of my blog is Trying to remain opera-tional. My being a dork isn't news. But my singing my first Messiah apparently is.