Saturday, February 27, 2010

Agrippina - The Trailer

Okay, enough whining about how hard it is to be an opera singer (or any type of artist). Here's a look at how much fun it can be!!

Nayo Titzin is a fabulous Bulgarian filmmaker (who happens to be married to La Pendatchanska - what a talented pair!!!), who is making a documentary about the creation of our Agrippina production and the historical characters within. This video is just a three and a half minute trailer, but it certainly makes me want to see the whole film. Enjoy!

Friday, February 26, 2010

The "IT" factor, part two

I've had an interesting couple of days since my last blog post, and this subject elicited such intriguing comments that I thought a follow up post was appropriate.

I woke up very early two mornings ago because my body still wants to be on Europe time, and in an effort to feel productive, I composed a blog post about all the weird circumstances that cause success in this business. The funny thing was, I wasn't really writing the post about my own career per se, since I was in a fine mood about the way things are going for me. But I had been having all these conversations with frustrated colleagues in the few days before I wrote it, and I had been thinking about all the factors that go into creating a successful singer. I was busy feeling just fine about myself, and having fun writing pithy jokes (well, at least I thought they were pithy) about becoming a Buddhist and marrying a movie star, all while still curled up under my duvet cover.

Then, later that same day, I found out a piece of information that made me feel like someone had punched me in the heart with an ice pick. It was a career thing, and I didn't know the whole story, but the information I did have led me to jump to some conclusions that made me really, really depressed. I spent all day in a kind of haze, trying to sift through my own emotions and make sense of them. I re-read my own blog entry, reminding myself that so many of the decisions people in power make have little to do with talent and everything to do with other factors, and that this new information didn't have to change how I felt about myself as an artist. By the end of the day, I had come to terms with the new information, accepted it, and even managed to have a few really interesting and affecting conversations with friends on the subject of being an artist and believing in yourself. I felt like even though the information was difficult and upsetting, it had made me grow a little in my perception of myself.

Then, at the end of the day, I found out that the piece of information I had received had only been part of the story, and when I learned the whole story, the information changed completely, and had nothing whatsoever to do with me. In other words, I had spent all day doubting myself for absolutely no reason. Typical dramatic over-reaction on my part.

In the meantime, my blog post was generating a firestorm (okay, maybe that word is an exaggeration of what my blog was generating, but it sounds newsy, so let me have it) of some really interesting comments from several people about the subject of career success. People from all different facets of the business were weighing in on the tangled and sticky business of career politics, and I found the comments to be extremely fascinating and thought provoking.

Then, I had a great conversation with someone in the business that I really trust, and was given some excellent advice: CALM DOWN. I was reminded of the fact that there is a part of this career that is really like a JOB, and that JOB is controlling our emotions in a way that allows us to continue to do the part we love - the arsty creative part. The job part - the part that's akin to slogging to a fluorescently lit cubicle every day in the snow - is the part where we put ourselves out there as artists, make ourselves vulnerable, get shot down, or squashed, or criticized, and yet we keep going. The "job" we have every day as artists is to continue to believe we have something to say even when it seems like nobody wants to hear it. The daily "work" of an artist is to stay calm in the face of both failure and success, and it really is something that requires an effort every single day. Whether it's keeping yourself from getting overly excited about a fabulous review, or preventing yourself from throwing your computer across the room when a google search reveals that somebody else got a job you really wanted, we all just have to CALM DOWN. And when we find that calm, we can do the single most important thing; make it through another day and start the whole process over again.

I would love to try to find an inspirational video on youtube with which to end this post of a kitten licking a mouse baby or something, but I have some pressing business to attend to. I haven't done my laundry since I've been back from Europe, and it's snowing out, so I can guarantee you that all the washing machines will be unavailable. So I've got to go practice my new CALM DOWN mantra in my building's laundry room. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The "IT" factor

For some reason, I've been having a lot of conversations lately with colleagues and friends about the "IT" factor, and why certain singers seem to shoot to the top, while other, seemingly equally talented singers, seem to have to constantly be scratching to find jobs. Why one singer gets hired to sing the lead role at the Met while another one has to make ends meet by waiting tables across the street at Fiorello's. You would think the obvious answer would be that the one singing at the Met has more talent than the one waiting tables, but that's not necessarily the case. The answer is actually often something much more elusive and uncontrollable: Fate. Luck. Timing. It doesn't sound very glamourous when you put it that way, does it?

This is not to say that the people who do succeed don't have talent - of course they do, or people wouldn't want to listen to them. But the way a singer's career unfolds is very interesting, and having one big job can lead to several other jobs, which can lead to several other jobs, and can mean you're on your way. And in the meantime, a similar singer with a similar voice type who doesn't get that one big job, can get left in the dust, waiting for their big moment. It's exactly the same with hollywood actors - do you really think that Jennifer Aniston is the best, most beautiful actress that ever walked the earth? I'm sure L.A. is crawling with waitresses who are just as good as she is, but who didn't end up starring on "Friends" and then marrying and divorcing Brad Pitt, so who will never find themselves on the cover of US weekly.

A friend and I tried an experiment recently; She turned her computer around so I couldn't see what was on the screen, and played me recordings of three different singers singing the same aria; one who sings at the Met, one who sings regionally, and one who isn't really singing much at all and who has a temp job. She didn't tell me which was which, and my first instinct was that I liked the one singing regionally and the one temping the best, and of course I was immediately indignant, saying "Why aren't these people doing more???" But then I had to remind myself; Fate. Luck. Timing. The sooner you realize you have no control and give it up, the less frustrated you'll feel all the time.

That's not to say that singers should just give up on trying to improve as artists - on the contrary - that's the only thing we have control over, and therefore the only thing we should focus our energy on. But we definitely have to give up on expecting life to be fair, and expecting that just because people who are "in the know" tell us we're good, life will be smooth sailing. And this doesn't just apply to young singers who are trying to make it - many famous singers are always looking over their shoulder at the next young somebody who they fear might be their replacement, and they can get crazy and mean as a result.

My point? Maybe all artists should become Buddhists who live completely in the moment, and accept that now is all we have. Or maybe we should all try to marry Brad Pitt. I mean, he and Angelina are apparently sort of on the outs, so I say strike while the iron is hot, people.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The times, they are a bloggin'

I still remember the time when, in order to look at a review or yourself, you had to go down to the corner store, buy a newspaper, and scan through until you found the few words to describe your performance (okay, I've mostly been an opera singer in the internet age, but I got reviews when I sang Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz with the Santa Rosa Community Players when I was 11, so bear with me). Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, you discover that people all around the world are talking about you, and some people, who are obviously more technologically savvy than yours truly, are even posting recordings of your singing!

I got back from Europe yesterday, and since I'm still on Europe time, I'm awake before absolutely ANYONE in new york city. It's 5 AM, still dark, and the bagel shop on the corner isn't even open yet. So, until this side of the world wakes up, I'm checking my emails and goofing off online. I saw that I had an email from a friend who said he'd found a recording of me singing my aria on the internet. WHAT? The first performance of Agrippina was indeed broadcast on the radio, and people certainly could have recorded it, but I was amazed (and humbled) that somebody posted my aria specifically on their blog. And since the blog is in spanish, I feel especially connected to my spanish roots (everyone always asks me how I got the name Rivera with all my blonde hair and blue eyes, and it's because my great grandfather was from Spain). Here is the link to the post with the recording of my final aria, recorded on opening night.

I had already heard the recording from the radio, thanks to another technologically savvy and generous reader of this blog, and I had one of those moments where, the first time I heard it, I thought. "WHOA - that was the tempo? That was FAST!!" It did not feel so fast to me at the moment I was singing it, but hearing it from the outside made me feel like I should have been wearing a helmet or something. I had also wondered what the B section sounded like, since I was lying on my side, sort of curled into a ball while singing it, and I was happy to discover that I couldn't really hear a change in the vocal production from that position.

I have to admit, typing my name into google and hitting search makes me very nervous. Should I read every blog entry that mentions my name or just stick to the news publications? Should I read the comments?? I wish I didn't have the personality where I am dying for everyone to like and approve of me, because that would make reading all this stuff much easier. Sometimes I just let my mom sift through it and protect me from the mean stuff, but then she has to see it, and I don't know if it's easier to read something bad about yourself or to read something bad about your only kid.

But even with this daunting plethora of information, I wouldn't change anything about the way we now are able to share information with one click, because it allows me this opportunity to connect with everyone who is reading these words, which has turned out to be a huge pleasure and comfort to me as I'm leading this nomadic and slightly insane life. AND it allows my friends in China to hear me singing in Germany. And come on, how cool is that?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Wow. I can't believe Agrippina is over. It was one of those big milestones around which I had sort of been planning a lot of my life, and now it's just....finished.

I was looking forward to the production for a long time for a lot of reasons. First of all, I felt like it was a big step forward in my career to be singing in a new production at the Staatsoper conducted by Rene Jacobs. Second, I happen to really love the opera and the role, and was looking forward to doing it again. Third, I felt like it would be a chance for me to gain exposure with a lot of people in Europe that might not have heard of me yet, and hopefully lead to more chances to work over here. I have no idea if the first and the third of these items came to pass - it's too soon to tell I suppose. But for the second item, I absolutely had a wonderful time with this particular production, and not only was it a pleasure to sing Nerone again, but this might have been the very best production I've ever had the pleasure of taking part in. It was one of those magical situations where every single piece seemed to work on it's own, and also to fit together as a whole. The musical and dramatic elements came together so perfectly, and not only were all the singers incredibly fabulous at their roles, they were all really special and wonderful people to work with and get to know. The production was breathtaking and innovative, and was complemented beautifully by the careful and dedicated preparation of the music. And I'm not just blah blah blahing you with all my superlative adjectives - the reviews were almost all screamingly positive, all the performances were sold out, and the audiences gave standing ovations after every show.

Which are all the reasons why I'm so sad it's all over.

But whoa did I learn and grow A LOT from this experience.

There were a lot of elements that influenced me and taught me things, but there were three main people that I took big lessons from on this production; the conductor, the director, and the star soprano. I guess one could learn things from the people holding these positions in almost any production, but I learned specific things from these three people that I will take away with me and have forever.

From Rene Jacobs, I learned that there is absolutely no substitute for utterly detailed musical preparation, and that constant vigilance regarding the integrity of the music can create rather astonishing results. So often, musical details are lost, one by one, when we singers stand up and start walking around while singing. And in order to retain the careful preparation that occurs during the initial musical rehearsals, somebody has to be hyper-vigilant about the details at every rehearsal. This extreme attention to detail pays off in spades when it comes time for the performance and everybody is a little nervous, or distracted, or has an umbrella that won't open or something. Because no matter what happens to you onstage, the integrity of the rhythm, the phrasing, the dynamics, the coloring - it's all completely ingrained in your body, and impossible to avoid. And this intense attention to detail creates a captivating performance, even during a four hour opera filled with dacapo arias and 10 minute long passages of recitative. I also learned things from the Maestro about baroque style, ornamentation, various historical facts about Handel, and lots of interesting pieces of information about Agrippina specifically. But the thing that I will always treasure and attempt to emulate in my own artistic life is his total devotion to musical greatness through to the smallest detail of every turn of phrase. I want to aspire to that level every time I make music, and will be inspired to do so because of my work with him.

The second person I learned lessons from was the director, Vincent Boussard. I think one of the things that identifies a good leader is someone who can empower other people to find what they have inside of them and let it out. This is exactly what Vincent manages to do, and I think it's why he is able to get such good performances out of his singers - he has a way of making you find what is already inside of yourself, and wanting to push your abilities to the limits of what you're capable of and beyond. Somehow, he was able to help me find a balance between extreme physical use of my body combined with a more intimate, delicate expression of emotion. It takes a very skilled director to help an actor find this balance, and having discovered it in this role, I will continue to strive for it in every character I portray.

Finally, I learned a lot from the wonderful soprano playing my mother, Alexandrina Pendatchanska. You may remember that just before I left for Berlin, I posted a clip of her that I came across on youtube here on my blog, not knowing her at all and just being impressed by the clip. Well, now that I know her, i can say that my being impressed with her goes far beyond the clips on youtube of her singing. She really is the consummate artist, with a voice that seems to have absolutely no limits whatsoever either technically or musically. But the thing I learned the most from her about is how to be a wonderful human being AND a great artist. Alexandrina is the anti-diva; she works incredibly hard and takes her work very seriously, but she is always also looking outside of herself in order to be a supportive colleague. She is a wonderful mother and wife, she constantly invites people over to her place and cooks for them, she has a super awesome pair of leather pants that look smoking hot on her, and she's a PUBLISHED AUTHOR of a novel in her native Bulgarian!!! I admire her for her ability to be a first class artist who is still a first class person as well, and for showing me that kindness and generosity seem to be the key to "having it all" - she is living proof. Talent certainly can't be created, it has to just be in there - but the rest - the ability to care for the world around you in spite of all the talent you might have - is something that you have to learn, and I learned how important it is from watching her.

Well, that was a particularly verbose post that I hope doesn't sound too pretentious or fancy schmancy. I could have probably said this all in one sentence; Agrippina at the Berlin Staatsoper; Worth all the hard work and bruises because it was one of the best experiences I've ever had.

photo of cast taken by Marcos Fink: Left to right; Daniel Schmutzard, Anna Prohaska, Dominique Visse, Neal Davies, Bejun Mehta, Jennifer Rivera, Alexandrina Pendatchanska. Taken on the stage of the Berlin Staatsoper.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


We all make mistakes. And anyone who is constantly participating in a live performance is going to eventually make a mistake. No matter how many hours you practice, how many times you repeat something, inevitably, something will go wrong eventually.

And I HATE that.

Some people just shrug and move on, knowing full well that mistakes are a natural and normal part of live theater. I unfortunately am not one of those people. In fact, quite the contrary - I am one of those people who lies in bed at night after making a mistake in a performance and yells "MISTAAAAAAAAAKE!!! MISTAAAAAAAAKE!!! MISTAAAAAAAAAKE!!! repeatedly in my own head. Kind of like this:

(By the way, the tenor in that clip from the TV show "Scrubs" is named Bruce Sledge, and he happens to be the person with whom I performed my very first love scene when I was 19 years old, at a summer program in California called Music Academy of the West. I was a soprano then, and I sang Nanetta to his Fenton, and we had to roll around on the ground and make out. To make things even more difficult, my parents, not knowing what type of scene we would be performing, were sitting in the third row video-taping the whole thing. MISTAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!)

Anyway, last night's fourth performance of Agrippina was generally quite a good one. The energy was high, people were singing beautifully, all systems were go. When we got to my last aria, the big crazy bravura coloratura one, I was happy with how it was going. I was feeling good and psychopathic and singing all my notes fast and furiously, and then went onto the "B" section which is slow and legato, in contrast to the fiendish fioratura of the "A" section. I am lying on the ground for this section, in between the my mother's legs (don't ask) and I was feeling really in the moment, and playing with dynamics and colors. I was feeling good, like all the elements were coming together. Then in the last couple of phrases, something I cannot explain happened, and for some reason I held one of my notes a beat longer than I was supposed to. So, for the next measure I was one beat behind the orchestra, until I got my bearings, corrected myself, and got back on track for the final phrase. It was so weird - that particular thing had never ever happened before - in all the performances I did of this role two years ago, and in all the two months I've been doing it this time, I have never once held that note an extra beat. I have no idea what synapses didn't fire in brain last night that caused me do to that, and I still don't know now. But it was about 4 seconds of pure agony for me, where I realized I was wrong, needed to keep going while simultaneously correcting myself, and it felt like it lasted for about 4 hours.

The funny thing is, the only people who had any idea that something was wrong were me, the conductor, and the soprano playing my mother, since she has heard me sing this aria a million times while lying between her legs. Even the other singers in the show, who were standing in the wings listening, couldn't tell that anything was off. It was ONE measure in a three and a half hour opera. But I tell you, I was so MAD at myself for this error! How could I have gotten it right in all the rehearsals and made this stupid, useless mistake in a performance? WHY?????? MISTAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE??????????????

But you know what? The true test of a professional in any field is not the perfection they achieve, but how they recover from their mistakes. Because perfection is absolutely impossible and besides that, it's boring. The reason that human beings like to experience live theater is because of the possibilities that lie within the unexpected. And sometimes that even means mistakes. So we have to accept our mistakes, forgive ourselves, and make the next moment even more interesting than the last. So my job is to silence that voice in my head that screams, "MISTAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE" and keep going, so that in the end, people don't remember mistakes, they just remember that the evening was very interesting.

Mistake? What mistake? I was just seeing if you were awake.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Third time's a charm

I think I really like third performances. The premiere is always nerve-wracking and scary, but also has a very concentrated energy and focus. The second performance is often the most difficult, because after all the energy and focus of the premiere, the second can get a little sleepy and uncentered. But usually by the third performance, we've all found our rhythm, are beginning to take more risks musically and dramatically, and are having more fun.

This was definitely the case with last night's performance # 3 of Agrippina (although the second one really wasn't bad - in fact, I sang better in #2 than in #1 I think). For me, I wasn't terribly nervous, and I was focused on getting a few things perfectly right that I felt I hadn't nailed yet. Performing is such a brain game, and I'm always happy when I get further along into the run, because my brain starts to function more like it does in rehearsals and less like it does during the first few performances. During rehearsals I'm absolutely focused on creating something in the moment, and I'm not editing myself. But for the first couple of performances I have to work really hard to get the voice out of my brain that starts telling me, "That note sucked. You look stupid right now. You're supposed to sing this phrase quietly, dummy." And if I make some sort of minor mistake, fuggetaboutit, my brain is running wild, chastising me and at the same time trying to get back on track.

But by the third performance, the voices in my head usually get quieter, and I start to relax into what I'm doing. I'm not even 100% sure someone would be able to tell the difference from the outside unless they knew me extremely well, but for me, the performance becomes much more enjoyable when I'm in the moment making discoveries at every turn. Last night, the maestro had given me a note that I needed to find more places to sing quietly in the first aria, so I was challenging myself to go against my desire to SHOW OFF MY VOICE AND HOW LOUD AND ROUND IT IS just because it's the beginning of the show, and instead, show moments of Nero's psychopathic rage that are boiling on the inside but haven't exploded yet. I was happy with how that went, and I continued to try to find moments like that throughout the show. But there was still one aria that I want to do better next time, and I will continue to think about how I'm going to make that happen. And it will probably involve a lot of singing in the shower - my favorite time for vocal experimentation.

The other fun thing about the third performance is that you start to have more fun with your colleagues. People throw curve-balls at you by changing slightly what they're doing, by approaching you with more intensity on a certain phrase, or walking way over stage left when you're used to them staying center. But these moments are so fabulous because you are reminded that what you are doing is a living art, and that each performance is it's own "masterpiece" (I'm putting that word in quotation marks, because we've all had nights at the opera which could only be described with the word "piece" if it were used in the sentence "piece of crap". This particular production, however, is a nightly masterpiece - and not even in quotations.). I'm actually sad that we only have 2 more performances because this is the kind of production and the kind of cast with whom I could probably perform a thousand times and still find everything interesting. But sadly, we have to say goodbye to this fantastic production in just a few days and go to other places where we will all probably be portraying far less sinister and crazy characters.

Ah, you psychopathic, matricidal teenage boy, I will miss you so.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The long road here

I've been gathering my thoughts in the last couple of days about this production of Agrippina here in Berlin because, well, it was kind of a big deal for me. Let me take you back to almost exactly a year ago today to explain why.

One year ago I was finishing up a run of Cenerentolas in Miami, enjoying the warm sunny weather, but also kind of freaking out. You see, at that point I was a little worried I might need to find another line of work. I had had a busy fall and early winter, but at that moment, I didn't have a single other singing job lined up for the rest of 2009. And this was February. Why this was happening was anybody's guess - this is a funny, fickle career, the economic crisis was especially brutal to the arts industry in the U.S., there happen to be about a zillion very talented people in my fach and not a zillion roles, I probably didn't come over to europe as early as I should have career wise, etc, ad naseum. Regardless of the reasons, I was pretty much having freak-outs on an almost daily basis.

I left Miami and went back to New York and was wondering if I was going to have to get a job waiting tables at the Olive Garden in Parnassus, NJ (for you non American readers who might wonder what that means, it's basically a fate worse than death), when I got a call from a conductor asking me if I could come to Warsaw to sing a production of Lucrezia Borgia in a few weeks. Delighted, I learned the role, hopped on a plane, and had a great time in Warsaw, excluding the time I couldn't tell the difference between the men's and women's restrooms and walked in on some Polish guy at the urinal. While I was in Warsaw, my agent called me and told me that Berlin was looking for a Nerone for the following season, and could I pop on over to Berlin and sing for Maestro Jacobs? I took the five hour train ride to Berlin (my first time ever seeing the town), stayed the night, and got up the next morning and sang for the Maestro on the stage of the Staatsoper. He took me into a practice room afterwards and worked a little on one of the arias and some of the recitatives, and then said, "Yes. I think you will do it. And we'll make a recording."

I walked out of the dressing room and into the passageway underneath the theater and started to cry. Tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of years of pent up excitement and frustration. I walked back out of the theater, put my sunglasses over my red eyes, and took the train back to Poland. I called my mom and dad, I called my agent, and I felt a euphoria that I would imagine compares to getting married or having a child (although I don't know for sure because I haven't done either of those things). I cried off and on all the way back to Warsaw.

Now, here we are, one year later, and I just sang in this fantastic new production at the Staatsoper. Other than the month of March, my 2010 is completely booked, with me going from job to job with barely a day in between, with debuts in several theaters in Europe, a world premiere, a recording, and a lot of new possibilities. What a difference a year can make in a person's life - I'm living proof!

But I wouldn't change a thing about that slow, scary time. Because it made me appreciate in a deep new way, what a privilege it is to earn my living as an artist. It can be terribly frightening, soul crushingly brutal on your ego, and completely fickle and undependable. But it is an incredible privilege and one that I will never take for granted again.

And so I spent this entire two month rehearsal period in Berlin enjoying myself tremendously. I loved getting notes from the Maestro that I had forgotten a rest in one line of recit, I loved having the director encourage me to take something in an entirely different direction than I thought possible, I loved watching the other singers grow and create beautiful portraits of evil characters. I giggled at every single costume fitting and I marveled at the sounds the orchestra was able to make. And while I was terribly nervous as I stood offstage listening to the overture and waiting for my entrance the night of the premiere, I was also happy. I get to do this. This is my life. And it seems like for now anyway (knock on wood), this continues to be my life. And that is truly a thing of beauty.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Premiere

It was great!!!

Of course I made a couple of first night jittery mistakes which I was really annoyed at myself for (and which I'm not going to go into detail about here because I've learned not to do that) but otherwise I felt good about my performance, and felt that the show as a whole went really, really well. The audience reaction was extremely positive, and the rest of the cast gave absolutely outstanding, fantastic performances. And nobody booed!!!! I have been to a few premieres here in Germany, and the audience has ALWAYS booed the director, even when I thought the show was great. But not last night - warm cheers and applause for all the singers, for the maestro, and for the production team!

The performance will be broadcast on the radio, which can also be streamed live online at at 7:30 PM Berlin time, this Sunday the 7th.

I want to write a more interesting collection of thoughts about the performance and about the important lessons I have taken away from this experience so far, but right now I'm feeling tired and overwhelmed from last night, so I will leave you with a few images from the production taken during rehearsals by the extremely talented countertenor, cast member, and photographer Dominique Visse. He is really an all around artist, and I am amazed at the images he was able to capture when he was in between singing his own scenes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Agrippina - first look

Okay, I hesitate to even post the link to this article and accompanying video of some scenes from our Agrippina, because the thing they show me doing at the end of the video seems absolutely.... indecent. I mean, my parents and some young friends read this blog and the only clip this newspaper chose to represent me is one of me writhing on the floor and looking positively not appropriate for viewers under 17. But what the hell - you can see the rest of the production and how beautiful it is and hear some of the outstanding singing. Plus, if you can read german, you can read this article about the lovely young soprano singing Poppea, Anna Prohaska. So here goes nothing - here's the link to the article in today's Zeit online. Happy viewing! And please know that I also appear in this opera standing up and looking as innocent as a lamb.