Sunday, May 16, 2010

Story Time

Let me tell you all a little (true) story.

When I was 9 years old, I had already been singing in musicals for 3 years - I'm pretty sure I came out of the womb with jazz hands. But anyway, there were a lot of opportunities to perform with children's theaters where I lived in California, and I took them all, and I was a full on belter - a baby Patty Lupone. At some point, one of the kids I knew from the musical theater circuit developed vocal nodes, and the doctor told her it was from belting, so my parents figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to get me some voice lessons. My dad hunted around, and discovered that there was a teacher in my town who had had a career singing opera, operetta, and musical theater, and who was supposed to be the best teacher around. But she didn't teach children. Somehow, my dad convinced her to make a special case for me, citing the other kid with vocal nodes, so she finally agreed to teach me on one condition; I had to stop belting and learn to sing properly. Which meant training my "head voice" with the proper breathing and sound producing techniques.

I resisted at first, not wanting to lose my loud, brassy belt voice. But by the time I was 10, I was singing Italian Art songs and Deanna Durbin songs, and loved all the things I could do with my new voice. I decided that if belting was bad for me, and I could sing even louder with this new voice, that what I wanted to be was an opera singer. I didn't really have any idea of what that meant, or what it entailed, but I liked singing with this new voice and wanted to continue. I'm not sure how many 10 year olds decide they want to be opera singers because they like how loud their voice sounds when they sing it, but there you go. Of course, now, all these years later, I feel like I was destined to meet and begin studying with that teacher, because clearly this was what I was supposed to do with my life.

The teacher's name was Thelma Dare Ahner, and I studied with her from the time I was 9 until I was 14 or 15 and started studying in the pre-college division at the San Francisco Conservatory. Not only did she teach me singing techniques that have remained with me all these years, but she also instilled in me a sense of discipline for the every day work that is being a singer. I am pretty certain that had I not met her, I would never have become an opera singer at all, and so I was delighted a few months back when she got back in touch with me through facebook, and we exchanged some emails. She made me laugh when she sent me a note that said, "When are you singing in California? I want to hear you sing before I kick the bucket!" (she'll be 85 this June). And since I didn't have any engagements in California on the books, I bought her a plane ticket to Portland instead. She has never seen me perform in an opera, and I haven't even seen her in many years, so I figured it would be exciting to bring her up here and show her what I've been up to for the last 20 or so years.

I didn't realize it at the time that I was studying with her (because we mostly were singing - not having too much small talk) but she performed in the original Broadway productions of Most Happy Fella and Kismet, and the first Broadway national tour of South Pacific. She knew Rodgers and Hammerstein by the names Dick and Oscar, and she toured all over the U.S. during that golden age of musical theater. She also lived in Chicago where she performed Opera at the Chicago Lyric and toured with the Gilbert and Sullivan Players during the war, beginning when she was only 18 years old. She has lived an absolutely amazing life, and I wish I had been able to spend even more time with her to hear some more stories about her years as a performer, but as is always the case when people come in town to see you in a show, your time together is limited. It was a hugely special moment to have her here observing the life of a traveling performer that I am now leading, and to compare notes and discover how many things we have in common. She saw last night's performance, and loved it.

The last two performances here in Portland, alas, were not as good as the first two for me - it's just what I was explaining in one of my previous posts - you can't control what voice you wake up with or how nervous you'll get or how that will affect your performance that evening, so every night varies. But I had many special moments in every performance, and the experience of being here in Portland was so positive, that I am very sad to leave. However, I really don't have much time to mope, since I'm off to St Louis for my first rehearsal for The Golden Ticket tomorrow. Gear switch; Activate!!!


Kim said...

That's such a great story! :D Thank you for sharing - it made my day!

You are very fortunate to have someone who means so much to you and your craft be able to see you in your success. You are very lucky indeed, especially because it all worked out so nicely. Congrats on Barber and good luck with Golden Ticket! I'm excited to hear how it all turns out.

Agiyo said...

Jenny, the voice problem may have been our uncommonly irritating pollen this year in Portland. A lot of us who are not normally bothered by air-borne allergens have had problems ranging from need-to-nap to respiratory tickles.
In retrospect, it may have just been a bad time of the year for an instrument as finely tuned as your voice.
But we most surely enjoyed having you here!

Anonymous said...

I love that you connected with Thelma as an adult. Great then and now story. Sounds very gratifying for both of you. Fun update.

Lucy said...

A lovely story... and, as often, inspiring/applicable for this non-singer. Thanks!