Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Oh my god how much longer

Until my 30 day self imposed purgatory is up?????

It's not purgatory - I like writing my blog. I really liked interviewing my friend Kate last night, and some of my entries where I thought I had nothing to say and just started writing actually ended up surprising me. But seriously - forcing myself to blog every day was a terrible idea. Now I've started putting it off and putting it off until well after midnight and then I drag myself to the computer, only to realize that I have absolutely nothing of interest to say. And then I think: how many more days did I tell myself I would do this?

Also, remember a couple of weeks ago when I was whining about the fact that I wasn't busy enough, and wished I could be working again right that second? Well, now that I am realizing that I leave in a week and a half, and will be gone for 4 months straight with no breaks, living in three different weather seasons, three different time zones, and two different countries, I am wondering WHAT THE HELL I DID WITH ALL THAT FREE TIME?? I guess I took a little vacation - that's okay I suppose. But now I am faced with packing up my apartment (sigh - I just painted and redecorated my bedroom, only to say goodbye to my cool new digs), and figuring out all the stuff I'll need for the next FOUR MONTHS!! I almost always get to go home in between gigs for at least a day, and three back to back gigs with no break in between is totally unheard of. And just what I've been wanting - so settle down Rivera, pack your boots and your sandals, your jackets and your tank tops, and a whole bunch of opera scores - and get back up into the saddle.

On a side note, my interview last night with Kate got me thinking about how I would answer the questions I asked her, and a big one for me is what roles I am totally dying to sing. The answer for me is; Oktavian in Rosenkavalier and Idamante in Idomeneo. I'm just putting that out there in the universe - I am willing ready and able to sing those two rascals, so bring it on world. Got it?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kate Aldrich

So, I'm trying something new and different tonight, because - why not? A very good friend of mine, who also happens to be my next door neighbor (literally, our doors are inches apart) is the wonderful mezzo Kate Aldrich. If you haven't heard of Kate yet, you will very soon. This season, she will be heard as Carmen at the Met (replacing Gheorghiu), Rosina at La Scala, Cenerentola in Pesaro, Carmen in Chicago, and Oktavian in Munich, just to name a few.

Kate and I worked together when we were recently out of school, and she also went to grad school with my best friend Georgia. But we reconnected a couple of years ago when we were both singing in Torino, and she really took me under her wing when I arrived, since she had already worked extensively in Italy, spoke fluent italian, and I was basically standing around looking like Eddie Murphy in "Coming to America." Since that time, her career has taken off to an even higher level, and I thought it might be interesting for you readers to hear the perspective of a singer on the brink of major stardom (she would be rolling her eyes if she heard me utter that phrase, but dude, it's true). Plus, she and I are so rarely in town at the same time, I thought it would be great to take advantage of this moment.

So we're going to format this blog post as an interview - and I am sitting in her living room right now (where you could drill a hole in the wall and see my living room) and asking her questions. However, she is recovering form a cold right now and trying to rest her voice, so even though we're in the same room, I'm asking her the questions out loud, and she's responding by sending me IMs on skype with her answers, which I am then cutting and pasting into this blog entry.!!

Jenny: How old were you when you took your first voice lesson?

Kate: 16

Jenny: and when did you decide - for realz - that you wanted to be an opera singer.

Kate: I didnt really decide to be an "opera singer" until I was in college- and even quite a way through college. Actually in high school I was pretty into my rock band, and almost didn't go to college for singing because I didn't want to leave my band (before you ask- the name was Liquid Daydream...). I went to college with the idea that I could keep singing the art songs that I was working on in school, and keep singing in a choir, because that was what I had done classically up until then. When I was in college I had my first exposure to opera, and I was very resistant at first- I wanted to say that it was too much, over the top etc, but I think I was afraid of it because I knew it was going to rock my world completely. I was also singing in a jazz group, and almost went that route for a while.... By the time I went to grad school, I was thoroughly intrigued, and had the good fortune to have been accepted into the Handel Project at the Manhattan School of Music led by Will Crutchfield, and it was there that I learned the full spectrum of what might be possible in terms of music making and creativity and mastering the art form. Then I was hooked, and the more I did from that point on, the more I KNEW it was the only way that I could artistically express myself.

JR: What was your first BIG job and how did you get that job?

KA: My first big job was l'Arena di Verona. I was in my second year at the Pittsburgh Opera Center (what is now the Pittsburgh resident Artist program) and Mauro Trombetta, who was the artistic director of the Arena di Verona at the time was in Pittsburgh to give us master classes. He was interested in me, and asked me if I had ever looked at the opera la Forza del Destino... My inside voice was "what's il forzo del destino what? by who?" and my outside voice was "Of course I know of it, but I haven't ever looked at it..." he asked me to take a look, and so of course, in that way that only young artists can, I got the score 5 minutes before he even asked me about it. I looked at it, and it was really right for me. The next time I saw him, I told him that I had looked at it. He asked me what I thought of the role, and I told him that it felt really good in my voice. This was his response: "OK- so- my secretary will send you the details, but the performances are August 9th, 19th and 22nd. I will give you her number so you can be in touch with her...." I was blown away, and wondered if maybe something was lost in translation... In fact I didn't even fully believe it until I saw a few months later that my name was listed on the roster... I had no idea even what l'Arena di Verona was about... I asked my italian teacher if she had ever heard of it, and she laughed at me. I will never forget the first performance there, which was, basically my professional debut. I had to walk up a million steps and mix in with the chorus so the public didnt see me until I broke through to sing my first phrase.. I will never forget seeing the audience with all their candles getting lower and lower on my horizon as I walked up the stairs. It's one of my most vivid memories professionally to date... but then of course I forgot everything after the time that I began to sing in that opera!! Something about being picked up and swung around by a super, chorus members pushing me here and there, other cast members whispering where to go... I had never rehearsed with the supers, chorus, orchestra, or set, let alone on the stage...

JR: But obviously that was a success - and that lead to you spending a lot of time in Italy and becoming fluent in Italian (which I am completely jealous about, by the way). Okay, now talk about some of the big moments in your career thus far that you know were really turning points - that specifically changed things and lead to newer, bigger things

KA: The Aida with Zeffirelli (that Kate did soon after the Arena di Verona project) because I was just beginning my career and here was this opportunity to do something major, for DVD, for TV, with Zeffirelli, in an opera that I had never planned on singing, at least not for 15 years!!! It is very hard to explain how that job affected me and changed me, and the stresses that went along with it. how it was at times a dream, and at others really scary.... I think that Scott Piper and Adina Aaron (the Aida and Radames from the production) are the only people that can really understand what that was. In hindsight we were rock stars in Italy for a brief time, and part of something historical. It was so incredible to be able to work with someone like Franco Zeffirelli at such a young age. He taught us so much... From him I learned to take risks and then come back within the margins, also to put myself whole heartedly into the dramatic staging of the opera. I think a lot of what we were going through emotionally at that time is visible in that live DVD recording...

Operalia, and meeting Placido Domingo. The competition is incredible because not only do you get to sing for so many incredible judges, but you get to meet all these fantastic singers. So many people that I met that year are out and about singing all over the world. But the best thing was meeting Placido Domingo. He was really instrumental in getting my career started. After Operalia he invited me to Los Angeles Opera to sing Fenena in Nabucco, and then I returned for 2 other seasons, plus made my Washington Opera debut. I got to sing by his side twice, and be conducted by him twice. It is thrilling to watch him work, and fascinating to see that he gets nervous too!

Singing Norma at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna with Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato (she did that the same year we were in Torino together, and I was actually able to see it!!! See youtube video below). I got the call 3 weeks before we were to debut. I was singing in Torino in Lucrezia Borgia, when my agent called to see if I "wanted" to sing the Norma in Bologna with Dessi and Armiliato and Pido. There was going to be a DVD. she was debuting in the role... I was thrilled- Adalgisa is one of my favorite roles, and I had never sung before in Bologna. From that one contract I have gotten so many others in Italy from Barbiere at La Scala to Maria Stuarda in Palermo, to Cenerentola in Pesaro.

The Benvenuto Cellini at the Salzburg Festival. I was called also very last minute to step in for Kasarova. I was in Tokyo at the time, and they asked if I could come in 3 weeks to sing the role of Ascanio. Of course I had never sung it, and of course I said yes on the condition that they let me go to the US to be at my sisters wedding. I COULDN'T believe it but they said yes. I had this amazing opportunity to sing a great role in a fantastic production by Phillip Stoelzl, and we got to make a DVD. AND I was able to be at my sisters wedding!!!

JR: Now that you're at the top level and singing places like the Met and Scala, how do you deal with the pressure? Do you read reviews, and if so, how do you internalize them and keep them from affecting how you feel about yourself?

KA: I would lie if I said I DON'T read the reviews-- but I try to take them with a grain of salt. If you read the good ones you have to read the bad ones. You can learn from them, but they can also be dangerous if you take them too personally, good or bad. It's hard to give a definitive answer other than to say that you have the "you" which is the musician, and then there is the "you" who is YOU. That is what you cannot lose sight of when reading any kind of reviews, good or bad, or getting a great job and feeling on top of the world... Having good friends and loved ones also helps, because they always remind you that it's your turn to do the dishes, or that you cant forget to call your brother on his birthday.

JR: What's your dream role that you haven't yet sung but really want to?

KA: Romeo in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi, Giovanna Seymour, Anna Bolena

JR: and what's your dream role that if there were no such thing as fach and voice type you would want to sing?

KA: I have a little bit of Norma and Tosca envy but I will never sing them as far as I can tell.
Don Jose (Carmen), any male villain, Violetta in Traviata, and actually I would like a go at playing an ingenue. I haven't really done that. Like a really standard one- like Mimi or something like that...

JR: tell me (and the readers) one thing you like to do for fun that is weird (besides sitting in your living room and communicating with your next door neighbor via skype chat)

KA: cooking is my favorite thing to do on the road. Im a big fan of eating. and drinking. Im good at eating and drinking. I like doing crafty things, like knitting. Shopping, skyping, reading, biking (when the weather is good) yoga (my newest obsession), and just being a homebody.

Now we have to go because American Idol has been on pause this whole time and we need to see it. And also, we need to look at stuff on our own separate computers and not talk to each other - a typical night in an american household. Huge thanks to Kate for spending her evening sharing herself! I hope you all enjoy learning about this very interesting and down to earth artist!

Monday, March 29, 2010

30,000 hits

When I started writing this blog two years ago, I honestly wasn't sure what would become of it or me. I don't even remember what possessed me to start writing it, because although I've always enjoyed writing, I was never someone who kept a journal, or who wrote anything down regularly. But I had a feeling that going to Italy was going to be sort of a life changing experience, and I knew that if I was writing something that was actually published on the internet that anyone could see, I would be more likely to try to make it somewhat eloquent and interesting. And oddly enough, it worked. I blogged nearly every day that I was there, it was a life changing experience, and the few people that were reading what I was writing at that point told me they enjoyed what I had to say.

Then the blog took on a life of it's own, especially after this past summer, when suddenly it received it's very own publicity. And then I realized that I had been writing regularly for nearly two years, and it was something other than singing that I had started developing a passion and identity for. In fact, for the first time this past winter, I started writing short stories and essays for no other reason than that writing had become a cathartic release for my creative energies. Plus I wanted to write down some stories and essays about my life that were (at this point anyway) too intimate to want to share with the entire world.

And now I can say with some certainty that I am officially a writer. Not a professional writer, not a published writer, but a writer nonetheless. Which is oddly liberating, because if you asked me what I "WAS" at any moment prior to this realization, I would have said that I was a singer, and that's all. Being a singer had become so all encompassing that I couldn't see myself as anything else. Of course, I had always been a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, a teacher, a student - but the one thing that always defined me was my singing. I honestly never did any other single activity for any length of time. Sometimes having only one major thing that defines you can be a blessing - I certainly knew what I wanted to do with my life and for my career well before many of my peers, and this knowledge gave me a lot of confidence and assurance. But the problem with having one thing that defines you is that it's impossible to be defined by just one single thing during every moment of your life. And when that one thing is brought into question, when you're no longer sure if that one thing can define you - well, it can be a searing moment of disillusionment and even despair. In fact, you realize that letting just one thing define who you think you are is actually incredibly dangerous and certainly disappointing,

It's not that blogging allowed me to say, "aha! I'm not just a singer, I'm also a writer!!!" But it did allow me to realize that I am actually many things. I have capabilities to do things I didn't ever imagine, which means there are probably a lot of other things I could create and accomplish as well. It made me realize that any attempt to define the essence of who I am by something I do only serves to limit the possibilities of all the things I'm actually capable of. Am I a singer? Yes. Am I a writer? Yes. Am I an astronaut? Well, not yet, but nothing is impossible.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What to do with 30 mil?

It was reported in the NY Times this week that a single donor is giving the Metropolitan Opera 30 million dollars with no restrictions. They don't have to do a specific production or name a wing after anybody, they can just have it and do with it as they please. That's a lot of frigging dough. My first thought was 30 MILLION DOLLARS!!! CAN YOU IMAGINE WHAT CITY OPERA COULD DO WITH 30 MILLION DOLLARS?????? I can't help it, I'm an underdog supporter by nature, and I spent a few evenings of my life singing up a storm in that "other" theater that is not the Met, so my heart goes out to them when their big brother next door gets such a big donation. The scary thing about the Times article was that Peter Gelb said "it's not enough to save us" because the Met is having big financial problems. I thought YIKES when I read that - if the Met is having such financial problems that a sum like that doesn't put a dent in things, we should all be worried about where things are headed.

I've been thinking about what I would do if I had 30 million dollars to burn. I would certainly want to support some arts organizations, so kudos to the donor for putting her money where her mouth is. But what about starting a new, smaller opera company somewhere in or around New York City? Or putting the money into re-opening one of the struggling opera companies that had to close in the last couple of years because of the economic downturn - like Opera Pacific or Baltimore Opera? Or creating a new arts organization in a community in the U.S. that has none? Or - and this is a big passion for me - starting a huge educational program to get more arts in the schools - that's our future audience, and the only way we can hope to have arts in this country continue to thrive!

Or taking the money and retiring in Tahiti? These are all very valid possibilities.

But the funny thing is, I don't think I would stop singing. They always say that if you won a huge amount of money in the lottery and you would still keep your job, you must be doing the right job. So I guess I'm okay for now. But one day I would LOVE to RUN an opera company, and a huge windfall wouldn't hurt my chances. So universe, if you're listening; please send me 30 million dollars. I promise not to spend it all in once place.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

High School Musical

The reason that I'm only just now getting today's post in, well after midnight, is that I was out all night dancing at a Rave. Just kidding. I was actually attending a high school musical in Saratoga Springs, NY. But the fact that I said I was attending a Rave just totally shows that I am now totally an old lady.

When I sang one of my first professional Cenerentolas almost 10 years ago at Lake George Opera, I was lucky enough to have been placed in the carriage house of this really nice family who had two little daughters, who were I think 5 and 8 years old at the time. They would come knock on the door to my little apartment above their garage every day, and while their parents kept telling me, "we can tell them to stop if they're bothering you!!" the opposite was true. I've always felt a huge connection to children, especially little girls, so their daily visits were absolutely brightening my days there. And I developed a great friendship with that family, and have watched their adorable little girls grow up into poised and beautiful young ladies. Tonight Kate, who is now 17 (!!!!) and looking into possibly majoring in voice in college (!!!!!!!!) was performing in her high school musical, and I was lucky enough to receive an invitation. She has become an incredibly articulate, poised, thoughtful young lady, and I was very proud of her up on that stage tonight.

Watching the musical (It was "Bells are Ringing") got me thinking about the tradition of musicals in high schools. For me, having the chance to be in the choir, the musicals, and all things music and drama nerdy were my saviors, and what allowed me to have any social life whatsoever. But the high school musical also seems to bring the entire school together, as well as their parents, for a shared night of singing, dancing, and fantasy. For that night, kids who otherwise might not be the most socially acceptable or popular get to feel shiny, bright, and loved by everyone. Plus no one ever leaves the high school musical in anything other than a good mood. It's a really nice tradition we have here in the U.S. - but it made me wonder; what is the equivalent in European high schools? Schools in France, Italy, and Germany certainly don't perform musicals every year at their high school, so what do they do to bring together the nerds, the jocks, and the drama weirdos for one social status-free night? Do they all get together and sing the Bach Magnificat? It just wouldn't be the same as everybody walking out of the theater whistling "when you're a jet, you're a jet all the way." I'm always going on and on about how great everything is in Europe, but tonight reminded me that we have some good stuff here too.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Oy. Whoever told me they thought I should try blogging every day (Dad) may have had a higher estimation of my brain than is accurate. Trying to think of things to write about every day when I'm not in rehearsals OR a foreign country is really a challenge. I totally need to put my thinking cap on, and let's face it folks, I'm lazy by nature. Sure, I'm happy to blog when the fancy strikes me, but I'm not sure I have enough deep thoughts to put into the world every single day.

That being said, I remember some time ago I was reading Joyce DiDonato's blog, and she had written an interesting entry about different trouser roles that she had sung or would be singing, and how their characters differed. That was actually the one time I commented on her blog, begging her to pleeeeeeeease write an entry about the character of Rosina, because she is obviously THE expert and her Rosina is incredibly charming.

Well, I'm about to go sing my 275th Rosina (I'm exaggerating, but it seems like a lot) and it will be the first of three different Barbiere producitons I will sing this year. So tonight I'm going to put my thinking cap on about Rosina. I might have written some stuff on this subject last time I sang her, but I can't be bothered to go through my whole history and check, and unfortunately I never got into tagging my blog entries, so if you're one of the 3 people who read my blog before this year and I'm repeating myself, I apologize in advance.

Rosina is tricky. She can be really unlikeable in that same way that Norina (Don Pasquale) can be unlikeable if you aren't careful. It's a ridiculous double standard really, because it's so easy to apply the word BITCH to a strong woman and dismiss her. But it's just the way it goes, and I've both been in and seen many a Barber production where the Rosina comes out to bow, and even if she sang like a goddess, the audience is like......crickets.....crickets........ And then Figaro comes out to bow after her, and they're like "AAAAAAAAAAA!!! BRAVO FIGARO!!!! WE LOVE YOU AND YOUR CRAZY ANTICS!!!" It's depressing frankly.

So how to make the character of Rosina somebody that the audience cares about? I think it all sort of hinges on how you decide to perform Una Voce Poco Fa, her first aria. It's tricky, because it's basically Rosina's first real entrance, and the aria isn't exactly easy, and you're always nervous. But I think it's important to capture a few nuggets of her personality in that first scene; First; her girlish and genuine infatuation with the Count. That's something you can portray in the beginning of the aria. She can't seem too knowing or too grown up in that part - she should be like a love struck teenager, genuinely thunderstruck by this handsome dude that's been lurking outside her window singing her love songs. I choose to sing that first part rather simply. Then, of course, we have to see her cunning, and her willingness to manipulate. But in the fast part, instead of playing the "I become a viper" of the text as bitchy, insolent, and therefore un-charming, I think it's fun to play her sexy, womanly nature - to show the innocent crush of the beginning of the aria maturing into her demonstration of what she thinks it means to be an adult woman, in touch with her sensuality, vitality, and charm.

After Una Voce, I think her relationship with Figaro is another important aspect of her character. She's not just buddies with Figaro - most likely, the two of them would end up together if their social stations permitted. So the duet with him should remain extremely flirtatious and again, Rosina should be demonstrating her ability to charm the pants off anyone.

I know for a fact that one of the challenges for me in playing this role is that a) I'm an extremely strong woman from 2010, and it's very easy for me to play her too forcefully like, "Shut up you dumb men or I'll pull out my paddle and spank all of you," and b) I play pants roles so often, I can float out of the feminine and into the masculine way too easily. I was lucky enough to have one particular director, my friend Scott Parry, who was able to call me out on these things, and who really challenged me to go against my personal instincts and make her something other than what I was used to. And boy did I argue with him! After the first dress rehearsal when he told me I was still not feminine enough, I totally shouted in his face, "WELL, MAYBE YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE HIRED SOMEONE WHO IS 5'9" AND WHO PLAYS BOYS A LOT THEN." But I took the note, and by the time the opening rolled around, I seemed to have uncovered a new dimension of her character that I hadn't really been tapping into before. And when the review came out in the L.A. Times, Scott got to say, "Seeeeeeee? Maybe you won't yell at me next time I give you a note...." because it said:

"Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera was a fascinating Rosina -- sufficiently opulent and agile in voice; wily, brainy and pert in manner but also carrying herself at times with a dignity that suggested the future Countess of the second "Figaro" play, "The Marriage of Figaro."

Which brings me to the third aspect of her character that Scott pointed out to me, and which I agree is very important; the fact that she becomes the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. We all know that character well, and that she is so dignified and regal - and Rosina in Barber needs to suggest what will occur in her very near future. Which sucks, because then you have to acknowledge the fact that the Count, who is so sweet and into her during this opera, becomes the asshole baritone who is trying to get into the other soprano's pants during the entire next opera. Oh well, we'll always have the memories of when you were a tenor and were still nice. Which is probably one of the few times I will utter that sentence. Am I right people? I'm totally kidding - almost without fail, some of the nicest singers I have worked with have been the tenors playing Almaviva with me (Brian Stucki, John Tessier, Brian Downen - there aren't a lot of nicer singers than those guys really).

Okay, I've blathered on enough about her. Hopefully I can make the people in Portland, OR like me a little bit. Or maybe in the opposite direction, we'll do a production where I actually get to spank people or something. That could be fun too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I have absolutely nothing to say today. Some days are just like that. Instead, here's a video of me singing. I love writing, but as they say; Don't quit your day job:

This is the love duet from the world premiere of Elmer Gantry (Nashville Opera) with Keith Phares as Elmer and yours truly as Sharon Falconer. Fun fact; Keith was actually my college boyfriend. Luckily, we have remained friends all these years since, otherwise doing this scene would have been AWK-WARD. When I was pulling this from youtube, I noticed that one of the comments asked whether this was the same Jennifer Rivera who runs the blog. Yes. It's me. Thank god there are no other singers who share my exact name. I mean, except that Puerto Rican pop singer Jenni Rivera who made the sex tape. I want someone to comment on one of her youtube videos asking if she writes a blog. Now that would be awesome.

Elmer Gantry was composed by Robert Aldridge with libretto by Herschel Garfein.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's still Wednesday in California...!

Oops. So, I got really involved in painting my bedroom, lost track of time, and forgot to write my blog. In my defense, I had already thought about what I was going to blog about, planned it out in my head, and even discussed it with my friend Will. It's just that when I start a project I become unbelievably insanely focused on finishing it, and only just now when I ran out of paint did I stop and yell, "Oh no, my blog!!"

The only time I wasn't painting today was when I was having coffee with a friend of mine named Ted Huffman. I knew Ted from back when we were all studying singing together, but I always suspected he was secretly a genius. I was proven right this summer when I saw a production he had directed of Der Kaiser Von Atlantis. Except he didn't just direct this production, he actually started the festival where it was being performed, the Greenwich Music Festival, from scratch (over the past several years), and now his productions are getting written up in the New Yorker and reviewed in Opera News. And thank god, because his ideas embody just what I was talking about in my blog a few days ago about the BAM Dido that I saw; if you take excellent music making, and combine it with good directing and clear ideas, you can make an artistic creation on the highest level. You absolutely don't need a set that weighs a ton and that you need tractor trailers to transport around.

But Ted had yet another great idea. He decided to have this production of Kaiser made into a film. The production was presented in a church theater, and I don't know what the budget was, but it wasn't very big. But the impact of his production of this opera, which was composed by a prisoner of a Jewish concentration camp, was huge. He started with nothing, and now he has a fully fledged music festival, several great productions under his belt, and a very interesting film that will soon be premiered at a film festival in Pleasantville, NY. Opera companies should take note: Great things are possible with insight and ingenuity!

Okay - now I've got to remove the big easy chair and huge painting that are lying on my bed so I can sleep. And then I have to wake up and buy more paint.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Okay, I have to say that blogging every day is starting to get difficult. This is a real challenge for me when I'm not in some foreign country making a fool out of myself and living to tell the tale. This is just me, living in my New York apartment, not feeling particularly exciting or full of insight.

All that said, the subject on my mind today is "nesting." I didn't really have a word for it before today, but I was having lunch with a friend, and explaining to her that I had this inexplicable desire to paint a room in my apartment. The reason it's inexplicable is because in a couple of weeks I'll be leaving again, and I won't be back for 4 months, and then I'll only be back for a week or two before I'm away again. So why do I want to decorate my apartment? So my subletters can gaze at the nice shade of sandstone that I have painstakingly applied to my walls? "No, Jenny - you're just feeling like nesting!" my friend Leah explained to me. It's natural to want to make your home nice - if that's something that interests you - even when you're away from that home more than in it. It's almost instinctual. And, as Leah pointed out, it's another way to express your creativity. But it can feel so pointless sometimes to buy those nice window treatments when you know you'll soon be staring at the cream colored venetian blinds in the Marriott Residence Inn once again.

It's a real conundrum for a lot of singers; what to do about a home? If you're working regularly, you are probably in your home for at the most two months out of the year, and that's usually spread out with a few days here, a few days there. Some people forgo having a home altogether, and just live as nomads on the road. I however love the feeling that there is a place I can call home, where at least my stuff is hanging out, so that I can come back to it and bask in that feeling of security you get when you're wrapped in the duvet cover that you picked out (at Ikea, but still, I picked it). I spend so much time in other people's apartments, or worse, totally sterile hotels, that there is something really soothing about being someplace where I get to decide which wall to put the couch against.

Right now I'm trying to decide what to do with the next year and a half of my life. Since I have a lot of jobs in Berlin, and since I love that town so much, I am really considering a move over there for at least 6 months to a year. But that also REALLY scares me, since so much of my feeling grounded comes from being in the place that I have lived for so long with so many people I know. But Berlin has the excitement of being someplace new, with endless possibilities, and new friends, new jobs, and a closer connection to so much more work available in Europe.

In the meantime, I guess I'll go ahead and paint my bedroom. Even if I only get to enjoy the feeling of having mossy grey walls for a couple of weeks, it's better than nothin'. And then my subletters can lie in my bed and complain to each other about what bad taste I must have to have chosen such a weird color. Too bad, suckers. They're MY walls. So there.

Monday, March 22, 2010

where have all the reviews gone?

This weekend I was sifting through the internet to look at some of the reviews of projects I have friends involved in. There were two operas in New York that I was interested in - L'Etoile at City Opera, and Dido and Acteon with Les Arts Florissant at BAM, as well as Elmer Gantry in Milwaukee and Carmen in Pittsburgh. I have dear friends involved in all of these projects and was curious to know what the press would be writing about the various opening night performances.

I was quite surprised to discover that upon googling each of these projects in the News tab of google, I was able to find three reviews of Gantry in Milwaukee, two of Carmen in Pittsburgh and just one each of the two projects in New York City. When I sang L'Etoile at City Opera last time, there were at least 8 reviews that came out in various print and online news sources, including all the major New York papers - the NY Times, the NY Sun, the Wall Street Journal, and the NY Post. Granted, it was considered a new production last time, having never been performed in NYC before, but I was shocked to find only one review of the production this time around, especially considering it's a rare opera, and City Opera is only performing 5 pieces this season. I was equally perplexed by the fact that a brand new production at BAM with such a distinguished group as Les Arts Florissant would also elicit only one review. The fact that there are more people reviewing opera in places like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh than in New York City speaks well of the latter locations, but is not so promising for New Yorkers! What does it mean that the cultural capital of our country isn't really covering opera in the same way as smaller towns, and should we be worried? The now defunct New York Sun gave me some of the most AWESOME reviews of my career - and now it's just a distant memory. As Tina Fey would say; What the what??

It's bad enough that while we have two major opera companies in this town, one of them seems to always be struggling financially, and was on the verge of closing down permanently at one point. Having spent a lot of time in Berlin this year, where there are three thriving opera companies and many other smaller companies, I honestly felt really jealous for all of us New Yorkers. And now the opera companies we have seem to be getting such dwindling coverage - what does it all mean for the future of opera?

Certainly blogs are a big future for opera - my constant addiction being the effervescent and eloquent opera chic. And it seems to me that in Europe musical events are covered to a very extreme degree in both the regular media and online compared with what we have over here. Somehow, we have to keep the interest alive over here in the public at large, so the media will want to cover the cultural events. But how?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why can't it always be like this?

I went last night to see a performance at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) of Les Arts Florissant performing two short operas; Acteon of Charpentier and Dido and Aeneus of Purcell. Les Arts Florissant is a wonderful group of singers and instrumentalists founded and run by William Christie, renowned specialist of Baroque music. The tickets were given to me by the director of the production, who was also the director of Agrippina in Berlin.

I could describe the whole thing to you, but honestly, I think Anthony Tommasini does a really god job in his review that appeared in the New York Times. But suffice to say that the production was really moving and extraordinarily effective. But it was definitely not expensive - the only set was a large mirror, there were no props, and the costumes, although elegant, were quite simple. The simplicity yet excellence of the production sparked a conversation between me and my friend about why more regional opera companies who are strapped for cash don't employ this same idea for their productions. Does Carmen always have to be done on a rickety set from the 1970's with rented costumes that smell horrible and look worse and oversized wigs and drag queen makeup? Too often with regional American companies, the aesthetic of the performance is about something that looks traditionally like what people might think an opera is "supposed" to look like, and the quality suffers as a result. But would an audience in timbucktoo, US appreciate a Carmen staged with a big mirror as the only set piece?

I say yes, but only if the direction was as clever and as good as the production I saw last night. Of course, it certainly didn't hurt that the performers have all trained under one of THE baroque music specialists of our time, and so the musical values were so high that the performance was bound to be very moving if only from a musical standpoint. But I have to say that the simplicity of the production only added to the excellence of the music making in this case. If an audience in a regional U.S. town is expecting a Barber of Seville with fans and stucco garden sets, it's true that they may be a little taken aback by a sparse set and more natural looking costumes in the first few moments. But I truly believe that a well directed, well lit opera becomes a visceral experience for an audience, and even if they were expecting something more "traditional" they will be moved to change their opinion by the end of the night. That's what I would focus on if I were running an opera company. That and education - but that's a whole other blog post.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

good things happening to good people

A few years back I was singing Cherubino in a production of Nozze di Figaro at New York City Opera. The cast was wonderful, and I was particularly impressed with the Brazilian baritone singing the Count because he was a beautiful singer, a great actor, and just an incredibly nice guy. He was one of those kind, gentle people that you just want to be around because they have such a lovely energy. I remember thinking - WOW - this guy is so GOOD! Why isn't he more famous??

We became friends, and he also subsequently worked with my best friend Georgia several times in a row, and they also became good friends. Then one day when they were working together in New York, he told Georgia that he was doing an unusual audition; for a Broadway show! The audition was for Emile in a new production of South Pacific, and he figured it was a pretty big long shot, since he had never in his life been in a musical of any kind (unlike a lot of Americans who got their start singing by performing in school or community musicals). But Georgia and I both thought he would be perfect for the role, and low and behold, the casting people agreed with us. If you follow musical theater here in the U.S., then you know where this story is going; he was cast in his first broadway show, he did spectacularly well, and he went on to win, among other awards, the Tony award for outstanding lead actor in a musical.

Georgia and I went to his opening performance as his guests, and we were blown away by his abilities to transfer his operatic talents so seamlessly to a broadway stage. We also noticed Peter Gelb sitting in the same row as we were, and I leaned over to Georgia and whispered, "Paulo is TOTALLY getting a Met contract after this. Just watch!!!" And I was so right.

His name is Paulo Szot, and the reason that I'm telling you this story is that Georgia and I and some other friends had dinner with him last night, after having not seen him for quite a while. He's now starring in the production of The Nose at the Met - which has been his very successful Met debut - and since I had the opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal, I can agree with the reviews that said he was absolutely wonderful in the role. But the thing that's the most refreshing about him is that he is still the same exact calm, kind, warm person that he was when we performed Figaro together all those years ago, despite the fact that on his piano sits a Tony award and a photograph of him hugging Liza Minelli. He remarked to me, in his sweet Brazilian accent, "Who would have thought I would get to the Met from Broadway? But that's what happened!" and it honestly couldn't have happened to a better person. It's so gratifying to see people who deserve to have success because of talent both achieve that success, and wear it so well. And I can tell you that when Paulo was a struggling Brazilian opera singer, he never in a million years imagined that his introduction to the Metropolitan Opera would be through his singing "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine."

So you really never know what path your life will take, how you might achieve your dreams, or even how big you can dare to dream. I'm sure he never imagined Liza Minella would be presenting him with an award along side Patty Lupone, but that's what happened. It's just nice to see good things happening to good people.

Friday, March 19, 2010

review rant

My question of the day is the following? Why are there some reviewers who seem to HATE singers so much? It's like they are personally offended by what they deem our shortcomings, and are really mad at us for them. I read one review recently where the reviewer seemed SO PISSED that he couldn't hear the singer. As if it were the singer's fault. I mean, dude - we're singing as loud as we can! We aren't purposefully whispering just so you won't be able to hear us!! I'm not saying that reviewers shouldn't criticize what people are doing, but there are some that do it gracefully and fairly. I happen to think Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times is a good example of someone who is a very fair reviewer, and who I think genuinely seems to like singers. I never get outraged on any singer's behalf when I read his reviews, even if he didn't particularly like something. There was one reviewer who left the New York Times who used words liberally like "shriek" and "screech". I mean, come on - that's a little dramatic, don't you think?

I used to literally have panic attacks before I would open up a newspaper and look at a review about myself. That is totally ridiculous - it's one person's opinion, and I shouldn't care so much. But I felt this very visceral fear about the unknown of what might and could be said about me, regardless of how I felt I had sung in the performance. And the funny thing is, I've gotten very few horrible reviews, but somehow I developed this fear- like waiting for the other shoe to drop. And the more successful you become, the more likely it is that there will be reviews that completely rip you to pieces. I've always wondered if people like Renee Fleming are bothered by bad reviews or not, since they have so little impact at this point on her stellar career. And now with all the blogs that exist, there are more people telling the world their opinion of you than ever before.

I had a boyfriend once who refused to read any reviews about himself at all, period. We were actually in a show together once, and happened to be on an airplane flying across the country when we saw that someone had a paper with a review of our show. I read the part about myself out loud to him (and it was one of the few really terrible reviews I've gotten) but he didn't want to know what it said about him. I thought that showed remarkable self control - I don't think I would have been able not to look. But poor him - because the review of me was so bad, I spent the last three hours of the flight crying on his shoulder. As far as I know he never looked at the rest of it to see what it said about him (the reviewer pretty much crucified everybody, so it was probably for the best) and as far as I know, he still doesn't look at reviews. My mom always says. "what you think about me is none of my business" and if you take that advice regarding reviews, I bet you'd be a much happier person. Unfortunately, I'm overly curious and can't seem to do that. Maybe some day my self control will improve and I'll lead a calmer existence. But until then, I'll just have to stick to; "What you think of me is none of my business. But quick, tell me anyway."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

opposites attract

As I've stated in previous posts, when I have too much free time, I can get a little cray-cray. In fact, a good friend of mine pointed out that my need to PLAN PLAN PLAN things when I don't have enough other stuff to occupy my brain is actually something of a menace to society at large, and the only job suitable to me during these periods is dictator of North Korea. So I figured it was about time I started doing something productive and musical. The only thing is I'm kind of a last minute music learner - that is, I rarely feel motivated to learn music unless there is some time pressure to get my brain interested. And since my next opera is Barber of Seville, I realized I'd have to buck my usual trend and do some actual ahead of time music learning!

In the last couple of days I pulled out some music I have to learn for upcoming projects and realized that the two pieces I was looking at were almost hilariously diametrically opposed to one another. The first is the incredibly serious, depressing, and moving Kindertotenlieder of Mahler, which I will sing with an orchestra in Austria this fall. Just reading the poems about the death of the narrator's children makes me want to close the score up and curl up in the fetal position and cry. But the other role I have to learn is Veruca Salt in The Golden Ticket, the new "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" Opera which will have it's world premiere in St Louis this summer. The opera is about children so horrible that we as an audience are happy when they self destruct and disappear one by one. My character in particular is so repugnant that when she falls down a deadly chute reserved for "bad nuts" I'm pretty sure the audience is going to applaud.

I've been sitting here trying to find lessons one piece can teach me about the other, but you know what, that would really be stretching things. I'm not gonna get all high fallutin' on you all and suggest that the gravity of the Mahler will inform my deep and insightful performance of Veruca Salt. Nope. I'm gonna relish playing that bratty, entitled kid, and I'll clap right along with the audience when I jump in the bad nut chute to my squirrely death. Then I'll go to my dressing room and soberly study kindertotenlieder. Or maybe play poker backstage. We'll see.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Laura Claycomb

I have no idea why, but today I was thinking about how I might be able to create a website for young artists entering into this business to help them navigate the treacherous road that is having an opera career. I think a lot of young and aspiring singers seem to be reading my blog, so I was just brainstorming (in my own head) about ways to expand my help for them. Or perhaps warning them to run screaming from this career as if their houses were on fire. I hadn't really decided which. Then I suddenly had this recollection of someone telling me that one soprano, by the name of Laura Claycomb, had put some advice for young artists on her website. I've never met Laura, never heard her sing, but her name just popped into my head, so I checked out her website to see what she had up there.

And WOWIE WOW! She has written about basically every single subject a young up and coming singer could want to know about with complete honesty and frankness. I am just so impressed that purely out of the kindness of her heart she has decided to share this information with the world, because frankly, most singers aren't willing to discuss subjects like agents and PR publicly with as much honesty and insight as she does. And besides all this, I listened to her sound clips, and she's really a world class artist, and one who hasn't necessarily taken that most traditional route that I mentioned in an earlier post. But she has obviously thought a lot about this career and what tools you need to make it, to all of our benefits! So, I know it's kind of a cop out, not having had my own original thoughts for the day, but I'm sending you to her website. If you're a fan, you can listen to her sing (and check out her crazy ass out of this world high E at the end of Caro Nome), and if you're a singer or an aspiring singer, you can use her website as an invaluable tool. I swear I'm not just trying to give her PR or something - I've literally never ever met her - this is completely a case of admiration from a far via the internet (and based on reading her writing I have this idea that we would be friends if we ever met)! Anyway, here ya go: Enjoy!!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

City Opera rebooted

Today I had the very strange experience of watching a dress rehearsal for Chabrier's L'Etoile at the New York City Opera. It was strange because the only time I've ever had any experiences with this production were the two times I performed in it, when it was first seen at City Opera, and then at Cincinnati Opera. I had never actually seen this production from the outside, and I also hadn't been in City Opera since I last sang there and since the massive renovations have taken place. The first strange thing was seeing big pictures of my face in the the L'Etoile costumes - first outside the theater on a life size poster, then on the video playing in the lobby. I was entering the theater with a friend of a friend, and was explaining to him how I had sung in this opera, and just as I said that I pointed up to a big video screen and said, "oh look - there I am." It was surreal.

I spent my formative years at City Opera - I sang in over 80 performances during a total of 8 seasons from the time I was still a student until the last season of the former management. And L'Etoile in particular was my first starring role with the company, and the first really big thing I did in New York while no longer a student. I adore this particular production of L'Etoile because it's fantastically absurd and full of energy and life. And for some reason, I have made several friends who have turned out to be incredibly important in my life during both productions of L'Etoile. So, I'm a little attached to the piece, to say the least.

It was great to get to finally see the whole opera from beginning to end from the outside. I had tons of moments where I said to myself "Wow - that's what that part looked like???" It was also really nice to see the new and improved theater - the renovations seem to have worked quite well because the seats were more comfortable and spacious, there were nice big aisles (where you were formerly trapped inside 3,256 seats on either side because there were NO aisles - NIGHTMARE!!), and the notoriously horrible acoustics seemed to me to be greatly improved.

But I also really miss City Opera, I have to admit. I grew so accustomed to taking the subway to Lincoln Center and entering through that stage door on 62nd and Columbus. I was lucky that when the management changed, I managed to find other interesting places to work and was able to move on - some people weren't so lucky. But I miss Suzy and Tom in wigs and make-up, and my favorite Supernumerary Raven, and my favorite house director Albert, and even the dinky little break room with the broken down snack machines. And they're all still there, even while I'm off galavanting in Europe, eating bratwurst and drinking Hefeweissen. I'm just glad City Opera seems to be finding it's footing and sticking around. It's an important part of New York's cultural scene, and a good place for young American singers to get their starts.

Here's one of my favorite photos of me from L'Etoile:

Monday, March 15, 2010

pep talks

I've been giving a lot of them lately - to myself, but also to a lot of my friends in the business. It's a difficult time to be an american opera singer, and there are so many talented people who are either struggling to make headway in the careers they are having, or who are struggling to find work at all. After one such pep talk today, I started thinking about the way american opera singers in particular define success. On the one hand, we are lucky to have an established "track" that one can follow - if I had to elucidate the path that most people define as successful, I would guess; conservatory (or school of music), summer program, young artist program, competitions, get an agent, regional opera work, Met/Chicago/San Francisco and BAM - YOU ARE NOW A SUCCESSFUL OPERA SINGER!! Other artists, like visual artists for example, don't have such a clear and distinct path to achieving the standard notions of success. But the problem with this "clear" path is that when someone veers off the track, or takes another route, or doesn't arrive at the pinnacle - singing at one of the major "A" houses - they aren't looked on by the general operatic community as successful, and so they don't consider themselves successful. They beat themselves up and wonder why they can't seem to break beyond whatever step they might be stuck at.

When I start getting overwhelmed by this idea of "you are only successful if a, b, or c" I am inspired by a friend of mine who is not an opera singer, but a cabaret artist. My friend Kim Smith came to New York City from Australia only knowing one or two people, but bubbling over with a huge passion for performing. He had trained in musical theater in his native Australia, but he didn't want to be on a sitcom or in a broadway show necessarily - his passion was for writing and performing Weinmar style Caberet shows. Not exactly the easiest field in which to find your path. Because there is no specific "path" for how to make a name for yourself in this particular field, Kim had to do everything himself - he had to find a venue, write his own show, publicize it himself, get an audience in there, and perform it- and the end result wasn't going to make him a millionaire. But the first time I saw him perform, not only was I astounded by his talent, intensity, and passion, but was equally impressed by his commitment to make it all happen completely on his own.

We opera singers can often become complacent - sitting around and waiting for someone to hire us. But Kim inspired me because he took matters into his own hands, and put on his own show, and it was fantastically effective and moving. Since he has been in New York, he has continued to create his own shows, although because he is so talented, people have taken notice, and he has begun to receive awards and have offers from presenters. He has become successful in his field by any standards, but he also still maintains a day job to pay his bills while continuing to perform. The thing is; he never had any doubts about what he wanted to do, and he made it happen. And no one who sees his shows ever has any doubts about whether he is "successful" or not - they are too busy admiring his ability to make them laugh and cry during the same song. We opera singers often ask ourselves - "Am I even an opera singer if I'm not performing in an opera?" but Kim never wonders whether he is or he isn't a cabaret artist. He just is, and we see him, and we know.

Okay, so what we do as opera singers is definitely a little different, and we do have to be part of a team, and we need directors, conductors, and orchestras in order to create the music that we love. But does all that mean we have to doubt ourselves and our own success as artists based on whether or not we're doing what we think is the definition of success? I say NO. I say we take a lesson from my friend Kim, and realize that making your own success is far more satisfying than trying to fit into some mold of what we're told success means. He should inspire us all.

Kim Smith will next appear at the Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Gallerie in New York City on April 1st. Please visit his website, for details.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

outside looking in

I bet you thought I wasn't going to make today's quota being that it's 11:04 PM NYC time, but here I am for my daily blog entry.

So, yesterday I was in the shower singing una voce poco fa, and I started to notice that when I began to sing with emotion, my eyebrows were going crazy. (The crazy part is actually that I was in the shower noticing the movement of my eyebrows, but let's leave that for a minute so I can get to the point). It lead me to start thinking about our bodies and our faces, and what happens to them when we sing and act. Singing opera is SUCH a weird thing to be doing, it's not surprising that our bodies and faces can inadvertently contort when while we're in the act, but how much is too much? I love Cecilia Bartoli, I think she's a goddess, but I know some people criticize her for her facial acrobatics. When she does it, it really doesn't bother me, but when I do it and see it on video, I want to vomit on the screen and run screaming from the room. And in the last couple of videos I've had the chance to watch of myself, I have noticed that a few things were going on with my body and face that I had absolutely no idea were happening. Maybe nobody cares about these tiny details but me, but I do care, so I decided to do a little experiment.

I set up my webcam on the top of my piano yesterday, and sang una voce right into the camera several different times. I tried it once in the full acting mode and noticed my eyebrows were having a field day. I tried it once purposefully trying to emote without my eyebrows, and it looked a lot better. Then I tried singing it without the idea of emoting - just how I would practice if I were thinking about vocal technique and without any "feeling" and my face was very placid. I tried a couple more times, once focusing on a certain point on the wall, and once seeing some kind of images in my brain but imagining them in the air in front of me. I watched all the videos to see what was what.

Why all this fuss? Well, I think that the things we do physically that are unconscious can possibly take away from our ability to transmit our emotions out of our brains and into the audience. It's so easy to think you are emoting when you're actually only emoting for just you - maybe even with your eyes completely closed. Just because you're feeling it on the inside doesn't mean you are transmitting it to the outside, and that's a rather selfish way to perform. And I actually think that at the moments when I'm feeling things very deeply only on the inside is when my body and face do unconscious and unnecessary things. And I made this discovery by webcamming myself and seeing what was going on up close and personal with my errant eyebrows.

The funniest part of this whole story is that I wasn't exactly sure how to use the camera in my computer for anything other than chatting with my parents on skype, so I had to google "how to make a video using your webcam," and what I discovered is that most people who want to know how to do that are up to NO good. I can tell you that very few of them are seeing what their eyebrows are doing when they are singing an operatic aria.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

30 day challenge

Wow, that last post was kind of a whine-fest, eh? Waa waa, you have free time, poor baby. No wonder there were so few comments, you were probably all pulling out your tiny violins and playing them for poor old me. But you know what I decided? When I have time between gigs, what I need to do is challenge myself in some way to keep my brain active. The reason I personally am in a better mood when I'm working is that I thrive on challenges, and rehearsing and performing opera is always that. Writing is also a challenge, but it's not such a big challenge when I'm feeling inspired - it just flows. But recently my dad asked me if I ever thought about blogging every day, and I replied, "Noooooooo, Dad! I can only write when I am in-spaaaaaaahed." But what if I forced myself to get inspaaaaahed every morning? In the book The Artists Way, which is about tapping into your own creativity to the fullest, the author suggests that you write something called "morning pages" every morning to get your creativity flowing first thing. I tried that and I think I was able to do it for about a month and then I stopped feeling it. But that was before I had started blogging, and my writing has changed a lot since then. So my challenge to myself this month is to blog every single day (gasp) for 30 days and see what it does for me. Which means, people, that sometimes I end up blogging about some really boring crap. Or maybe I will become funny again, because lately I feel like I've been sort of not so hilarious in the ol' blog entries. But I'm gonna try the experiment to see if it kicks me in the butt a little bit.

The subject kicking around in my head today is justice and fairness. "Whoever told you that life was fair?" my mom is fond of saying to me (she's good at keeping me grounded). And yet I still get absolutely incensed when I see an injustice occurring, especially when it happens to someone I care about. This week I witnessed what I think anybody would agree was a great injustice happening to a friend of mine - someone incredibly talented, hard working, and kind - who had an opportunity that should have belonged to them yanked out from under them. My first reaction was to fly into a rage ( I was in the process of doing my laundry when I found out and those dryer doors got some abuse) and then I started to feel sort of despondent, asking myself why we even BOTHER when talent isn't rewarded?

I called my parents (as I often do in times of stress and confusion) and they made a good analogy. This business (or any artistic endeavor in which you are trying to make a living and not just doing it for fun) is basically a lottery. If you are talented enough, you are allowed to buy a ticket, but once you buy a ticket, it's basically up to fate whether you win the lottery or not. You might win $5 or you might win ten million, but it's all a matter of chance. Will you meet the right person, who will introduce you to another right person, who will decide you deserve being pushed to the top? Will you get sick the night of your big debut at a huge house and blow it? Will you sing your audition before lunch when the intendant is hungry and in a bad mood or after lunch when he's full and feeling better? If you want to be in this business, you have to be willing to buy that lottery ticket and leave your fate up to something way beyond your control. BUT you have to keep working at your craft to even be allowed to buy a new ticket every day. And of course, many people believe that our attitude and energy have a huge affect on what our fate turns out to be, so those things are important too.

I guess the lesson is always the same - as trite and cliched as it sounds - that you have to decide when you succeed and fail, and not leave it up to the outside world to determine that. Does success for an opera singer mean singing at La Scala or does it mean challenging yourself to improve in some small way every day? Does success mean making a recording or being able to sing a high C for yourself in your living room, as perfectly as you can? Does success mean having an article about you written in a magazine or teaching third graders who hated opera something that makes them interested in it? I'm saying all this for myself, by the way, not in order to sound all grandiose and patronizing. In the same way that success in an artistic field can be all about perception (did a 5 year old splatter paint on that canvas or did Jackson Pollock create it? knowing the answer will almost certainly affect how you feel about it the painting), success for oneself is about your own self perception. It's something to remind ourselves of every day. I certainly need to.

Whew! So much heavy stuff!! I REALLY need to find the funny again. Well, I have 30 consecutive blogging days to try.....

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Free time = doing time

For most people, the one thing they wish they had more of was free time. If they just had more time off, they would get so much accomplished, go on vacation, relax, spend time doing the things they loved. Except when the thing you love doing the most is also your job, free time SUCKS.

Don't get me wrong - after I've been working for awhile, I'm quite happy to have a week off, where I can see my friends, get my life organized and relax a little bit. But after about a week, I start to go stir crazy and get a little depressed. I have too much time on my hands to do things like worry about my career (and my personal life) and I wish some job would magically appear and whisk me away and make me busy again. I've gotten much better about organizing my time and reminding myself that the way for me to stay happy is to stay productive, but I'm not going to lie, it's a challenge. It's amazing to me the difference in my general level of happiness when I'm working as opposed to when I'm not working. Last year I was at an audition in Germany when I ran into a colleague that I had met before but I couldn't figure out where. I was asking him if he had worked at company x or y, and he sarcastically quipped, "oh no, I really don't work that often. Only a couple of jobs per year - just enough to keep me going. Emotionally I mean - not financially."

He was being darkly humorous, and I laughed when he said this - but I laughed because it is so true! I should be thrilled that I have a month where I don't HAVE to work, and that I have enough money to live on. Most normal people could think of a million things they would do with this time. But most opera singers I know just don't like it. Because when going to work is so much fun, it's when you're not going to work that you start to feel like you're in jail. So many people make analogies about their offices being like prison - but for me it's the opposite - when I don't go to the "office" is when I feel scattered and hopeless. I even get annoyed when I'm working but I have too many days off. You can ask the director of Agrippina how many times I jokingly asked him, "am I even IN this opera??" because I hated the fact that I would sometimes have two days in a row without rehearsal.

This "obsession" with work (and I put obsession in quotes because I don't really want to admit that's what it might be) is probably something that some people would call unhealthy. Or maybe some people would tell me to get a life so that I have other things in this world that make me happy. But I DO have a life - I have fantastic friends and family, many many things other than singing that interest me, and could totally amuse myself all day with a paperclip, a record jacket, and a glass of pomegranate juice if it came down to that. I just really love going to rehearsal and jumping around and singing and diminuendoing a phrase and interacting with colleagues. What can I say? It's a really, really fun job.

But to put it all in perspective, I happened to see the movie The Hurt Locker earlier this week. I saw it the night before it won the Oscar for best picture, and found it incredibly moving. It's a movie about soldiers in Iraq who diffuse bombs, and who spend every single day walking the line between life and death. Of course we all know that this is happening intellectually, but the reason the movie was so good was that it was able to put you psychologically into the head of someone whose desperation and fears go beyond what we all feel every day because they literally fear for their lives every moment. The movie shook me to my core and demanded from me "Why on earth do you ever think you have problems? How could you ever feel fear, or nervousness, or depression when there are people out there in the world dealing with THIS?"

But then, that's life, isn't it? We live inside our own worlds, our own problems, and sometimes we can step outside and gain some perspective, but only sometimes. The rest of the time we just have to be content with whining about things like free time and not getting to sing enough dimenuendos, and hope that life jolts us back into humanity with enough regularity that we can be happier more often than we're complaining. And hey, I can always go sing some dimenuendos for the crazy lady that seems to live on the corner near Riverside Park. She often gives me the thumbs up. Or the finger. And I can find a reason to be grateful for both.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Honesty is such a lonely word

Or is it? I don't mean to dorkify myself by quoting Billy Joel (although I fully admit that I did really enjoy listening to his Live from the USSR CD in college) but I've been having some interesting discussions lately with people about whether or not it's prudent to be an opera singer who writes a blog about all her fears and vulnerabilities. Performers are supposed to be confident - confidence gets you hired - so who would be stupid enough to talk about being freaked out or insecure on the internet where everybody can read it??? Me, apparently.

Last week I was blogging about the "IT" factor and had a lot of interesting comments, many of which came from an anonymous source, whose only clue to their identity was that they are a "principal singer at the top level". Okay, so why would a famous singer feel the need to be anonymous when commenting on my blog? If that person is already at the top level, they should be able to relax and say whatever is on their mind without the fear of repercussions, right? No way! People who are savvy about the business know that you have to present an image from all angles, and that revealing your true thoughts can often do damage to this image, which you must protect because a lot of people's salaries now depend on YOU, the product! Yes, it's sad that singers are now products (which is partly what this commenter was noting) but of course that's the case in every entertainment industry, especially with the media playing such a huge role in any artists success in any field. So anonymous has to stay that way in order to protect him or herself and all the people whose salaries he or she might be helping to pay with their fame.

But what about me? I'm not paying anybody's salaries yet, that's for sure. I'm lucky if I'm paying my credit card bills (but that's more a result of my own addiction to shopping and not necessarily an indication of my earning potential) but there could be a time where I have to become more of a product to sell cd's or tickets or limited edition t-shirts with the slogan, "Trying to remain opera-tional - blogging for punny opera nerds!" So what do I do about this need I have to be honest with myself AND in my writing? Well, the honest answer is that I don't know. But what I'm hoping will happen is that this honest and open dialogue is able to become a part of my product. That one of the reasons people enjoy hearing me sing is that they have a little insight into who I am and what my innermost thoughts and fears are, and that insight actually gives them another angle on my artistry. I hope that I will both be able to continue to succeed in my career at a higher and higher level, and that I won't ever have a PR agent who says, "OH MY GOD SHUT UP!! STOP WRITING THIS DOWN FOR THE PUBLIC AND GO TELL IT TO A SHRINK!!!" Because my writing has become a creative outlet for me, and if I had to be something other than what I am, (which is a slightly neurotic if somewhat eloquent and ultimately relatively confident human being) I don't think I would be particularly inspired to write. So I just open up and let you see my beating heart, and hope that everybody is cool with that.

I've gotta go. My future publicist is chasing me with a big red delete button.