Sunday, December 27, 2009

Time is On My Side

“Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself precisely, endlessly. ... In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. ... And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before. ...”

    This is a theory presented by Alan Lightman in his book Einstein’s Dreams. I have yet to read it from cover to cover, but I am certainly tempted (note to self: New Year’s Resolution - read more books). As each new year passes it just becomes more and more evident that, if you don’t consciously make some changes, life does repeat itself.

    This became utterly clear to me when an agent called with an offer to send me to an audition in Coburg. Déjà vu! The job being offered is basically the one left vacant by me almost two years ago. I had a similar offer to audition in another small town at another small theater for roles too small for my growing voice and maturing stagecraft. Sure, I could do it - I could do it blindfolded and bound. But what’s in it for me? Should I live my life in a circle, moving to some small town every 2-4 years to do more or less the same work, and only advance myself to a certain level and never further? Should I be a cog in the wheel (ha ha, get it? wheel? circle? Oh, I’m good) of the operatic machine? 

    Lightman goes on to write, “In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealousy, every promise not kept.”

    Not every cycle has to be vicious. Take the many circles of a kaleidoscope, for example, reflecting on themselves and revealing only the beauty, no matter how muddled the situation may be. Indeed, some aspects of history repeating itself are appealing. When I manage to make it back to Flagstaff and meet up with old choir cronies, we seem to pick up where we left off. When I up and moved to a new town with no particular plan and even foggier prospects, I wasn’t afraid because I’d done it all before. Around and around like a pleasant ferris wheel ride.

    I’ve already caught myself reliving, recycling and reusing old negative patterns, too, having the same arguments over and over again to no avail, so I am especially proud of myself for saying no to those two auditions - no thanks, that is - making room for positive progress and challenging projects like Rigoletto and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot.

    I’ve just moved into a new apartment, hoping to make it more or less my permanent home, or “home base,” like I’ve always dreamed of having. Flipping my perspective around, I plan to do everything possible to stay in this beautiful yet quirky Altbau dwelling, building my career around my life instead of trying fit my life into a career, making a Möbius strip out of my previous life cycle. The fact that this is all coming to fruition near New Year’s Day is just the sign I needed to feel that I’m headed in the right direction. I even flattened and recycled all my moving boxes, just to give the Universe the firm impression that I don’t plan on moving anytime soon.

    In the words of our 21st century Einstein, Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

    Am I worried about relying on my own intuition - the very same intuition which has let me chase my own tail for all these years? Yes. Won’t I have difficulties finding a job if I turn offers down? That’s debatable. But in the words of the Rolling (get it? rolling? wheel? circle?? This is fun!) Stones:
    “‘Cause I got the real love, the kind that you need. You’ll come running back to me. Time is on my side.”

Thanks for tuning in to the Grahamophone. Happy New Year!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Crazy in Love

  In his Devil’s Dictionary, American author Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) defined love as “temporary insanity curable by marriage...”. Whether Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1827-1886) was insane before being abandoned by her lover on her wedding day, or whether the shock she incurred as a result thereof sent her over the edge, remains a mystery. At any rate, from that fateful day on, she never left her house. She left the wedding cake as it was on the table, ordering that it never be touched. She spoke to no one, books were her only companions, and the door was left slightly ajar, in case her betrothed might one day return. This went on for thirty years, when at last Miss Donnithorne left the confines of her home - to be taken to her grave.

    Sounds pretty crazy, doesn’t it?

    According to Mr. Bierce, one has to be insane to want to marry in the first place. Indeed, there are many female characters in opera who get very bent out of shape if their romantic strategies do not play out as they’d expected - Lucia, Lady MacBeth, Ophelia, to name a few. 

    I am currently rehearsing the title role in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, a one-woman opera by Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1939),  in Krefeld. This town in North-Rhein Westphalia, once known for its booming fabric industry, manufactured the silk and velvet for Napoleon Bonaparte’s garb. Now it is worn down and smells like Miss Donnithorne’s cake must have after about four years. Daily, I walk the drab streets of Krefeld on the way to work. I have discovered a few local yokels, crazy women whom I affectionately call Miss D. I try to imagine what may have driven them mad.  Then I wonder, is my Miss Donnithorne Moment inevitable? Will I notice the instant in which I turn from sane to insane?


    My first Miss D. sighting in Krefeld was a woman who must’ve been about 80 years old. As many octogenarians do, she wore a wig and makeup, except this woman hadn’t adjusted her cosmetics for her age. She had the wig of a 30-year old, fashioned after one of Dolly Parton’s coiffures, and she used the makeup palette of a teenager. Pants tucked into her winter boots and a jacket that was far too big made it look like ‘gangsta granny’ was what she was going for. This was not a good look for her.

    At which point did she cease to recognize the aging process? I applaud her for not using botox or other forms of age camouflage, but the fact is, there comes a time when a person must start looking - and dressing - their age. Eighty is not the new thirty. Did Eliza Emily ever consider herself to be a day older than the age she was on her wedding day, or did time stand still for her, too?


    Every Tuesday and Friday, Krefeld’s Market Street bustles with shoppers going to the fresh farmers’ market at the end of the block and sometimes you get caught up in the crowd. Otherwise, it’s a rather sleepy street with plenty of room for pedestrians. It was on one of these off days when I was walking behind a young woman and couldn’t help but notice her odd behavior. By now, I’ve started to enjoy happening upon these modern-day Miss Donnithornes. In fact, I’ve begun to incorporate their mannerisms into my performance. This woman was so incredibly skinny that she was almost invisible within her parka which came down below her knees. Looking over her bony shoulder with her big, round eyes, she periodically peered out from underneath the brim of her awkwardly large hat to see if I was still behind her. Noticing her nervousness, I tried not to follow too closely. Honestly, though, how much personal space does a woman of her frame require? 

    How might the real Miss Donnithorne have felt, were she walking down a crowded city street for the first time after having been sequestered in her home for years and years? Quite frightened, to be sure.


    It was on Market Street where I encountered yet another Miss D. This one was also 80, or near to it. She was smartly dressed in a coat with a fur collar and a matching fur hat, and typical old-lady shoes. Nothing about her struck me as odd except for the fact that she was pushing her little lap dog around in a baby stroller.     
    The real Miss Donnithorne must have had dreams of starting a family when making her wedding plans. I’m curious if this old woman may have suffered the trauma of losing a child, and since then she’s been pushing little Fifi around in a baby carriage.


    They say that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. I have to recall one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Fisher Kingwhere Jeff Bridges’ character asks one of his new homeless friends, “Did you lose your mind all at once, or was it a slow, gradual process?” The mustachioed, cross-dressing cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter looks at him serenely and replies, “I’m a singer by trade.”

    The Miss D. who has had the biggest impact on me is a woman I saw sitting at an outside table of a café on a blustery, sunny day. Wearing a rather nice ivory-colored jacket, the silvery-blonde haired woman had a pleasant expression on her face, albeit a bit forced. I suspected she might be crazy when I noticed she was bobbing her head up and down periodically, looking nervously at the people passing by. For fear of catching the virus that all my colleagues seem to have had, despite the sun, I chose an inside table on the upper level of the café. I didn’t notice that she’d passed me on her way up, but on her way downstairs returning from the washroom, I couldn’t help but noticing my counterpart’s struggle to appear normal. She looked like someone who was drunk pretending to be sober, as if to say, ‘Look how effortlessly I can descend the stairs,’ all the while holding the handrail for dear life. Maybe she was just a drunk person with a nervous tick. But then, something gave her away. 

    As I was walking past the café a few days later (I’d since seen her sitting there on a few occasions, wearing the same clothes), I gave her a smile - the kind you give strangers when passing them on the street. She reacted as if she wanted to say, “Oh, hi!” but she repressed herself, remembering that the most ‘normal’ behavior would be to just politely smile back. I felt she was aware of her insanity, and was trying hard to conceal it. Because of her nervous tick, she inadvertently gave me the upward nod of the head - the kind you give someone you know, but have no time to talk to. Noticing her mistake (for we do not know each other), she corrected her friendly facial expression to a disinterested half-smile - the kind you give a stranger - thereby exposing the gap from her missing front teeth.

    Her jacket being the same color as my costume, and her hair being the same color as my wig, I felt as if I was looking into the imaginary mirror that has been a pervading element in our rehearsals for the past few weeks. Her piercing glance gave me the impression that perhaps she took me for deranged. Had my Miss Donnithorne Moment come and gone?


    My worries of being bat-shit crazy quickly dissipated the other morning as I was waiting at the light to cross the street. Next to me was a woman on a bicycle, and on the other side of the street a middle-aged couple was waiting to cross in our direction. As the light turned green, we all set in motion. As is common on major streets in Germany, there was a lane intended for bicycles painted red on the asphalt. The pedestrian couple crossed the street, disregarding the fact that they were on the bike path. The woman on the bike shouted as she rode happily into the distance, “Move over! The red lane is for cyclists - forever and EVE-E-E-E-ER!!” 

    In sickness and in health. Till death do us part.


Tune in live to the Grahamophone!

... as “Miss Donnithorne” at Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach, December 12, 17, 29 and January 3.

(photo by Matthias Stutte)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Expecting the Worst Got the Best of Me


My early roots in music were not Verdi, Mozart or Beethoven, nor were they Schönberg, Stravinsky or Bach, and yet somehow I have been blessed with a knack for music theory - a trait seldom bestowed upon the species of ‘singer’. Because most conductors and vocal coaches do not expect this talent from me, they are pleasantly surprised when they discover I have it. It makes their jobs a lot easier, after all. Besides, it will hopefully win me a niche in the market of ‘modern’ music.

Actually, my early influences were country music (from my parents, so I had to hate it at first, of course), the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Billy Joel and Chicago (from my brother), and the Smiths, the The, the B-52’s, Kate Bush, and XTC (from my sister). These bands surely did not attribute to honing my music theory skills, but they definitely had an influence on me becoming the person that I am.  

My sister used to play drums for the Phantom Limbs, a band whose style was described as analytical cowboy despair pop  - go figure. I remember a line from one of their songs entitled “Bleak House”: Hope for the best, but expect the worst.  It’s not the most original statement, but every time I think of it, I hear it in that rhythm with that singer’s voice - and how he goes on to sing, “It’s the home of the human condition....”

We expect things from people, we anticipate outcomes, we visualize scenarios. The following stories are recent accounts from my life which make me think about what I expect from my life and what my life expects of me.

Expectations, Volume I: Apartment Hunting

September 15, 2009

Having not seen my friend Uta for a long time, I had no idea she was pregnant and about to outgrow her surroundings. But luckily, someone she knows knows someone I know, and he happened to think of me when he heard about her apartment becoming available. I was telling everyone I knew that I was looking to move, because in Frankfurt, where the competition for apartments is fiercer than the competition in my line of work, it’s all about who you know (yet another similarity to the opera business).

I’d never been to Uta’s place - we actually hadn’t spent much time together, truth be told. In fact, according to the German standards of relationship nomenclature she probably only qualifies as my “acquaintance.” Nevertheless, we had enough affinity for each other that she chose me to be the first and perhaps only candidate to come look at her place. 

Ever since finding out about Uta’s place, I was referring to it as ‘my’ apartment, even though I hadn’t seen it yet. Every time I rode the tram past ‘my’ apartment (which I hadn’t even seen yet), I would think, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now,” like one of those billboards along the highway in America advertising new housing developments. And then I would dread every one of the 15 minutes I had yet to go until reaching my current abode, feeling like I was traveling farther and farther away from home, even though I was getting closer and closer to the building where my stuff was (home is, after all, where your stuff is, isn’t it?).

Finally the day came to view ‘my’ apartment (which I hadn’t even seen yet). We had settled on 9pm, but I was already in the neighborhood, so at 8:30pm I sat down across the street from ‘my’ apartment (which I hadn’t even seen yet) in Frankfurt’s famous Strand Café for a snack and a glass of wine while I waited for Uta to get home. I ordered the eggplant dip with baguette, expecting it to be a grayish babaganoush. Instead it was a colorful brownish red, with chunks of tomato and a bunch of unexpected herbs and spices - absolutely delicious! Another pleasant surprise was the baguette, which actually turned out to be a few slices of rustic, whole-wheat goodness; much more than just a snack to tide me over. And here I was worried about eating too much white bread. Sometimes you get what you need, not what you expect. I was hoping ‘my’ apartment (which I hadn’t even seen yet) would turn out to be both.

Another seven minutes remained before I had to walk across the street and enter ‘my’ apartment (which I hadn’t even seen yet). Bursting with anticipation, I was counting the times I chewed, so as not to scarf down my food impatiently and arrive five minutes too early. This food was delicious and should be savored. Heck, even if I were five minutes late, Uta wasn’t expecting any other visitors. After all, it was ‘my’ apartment (which I hadn’t even seen yet).

So glad to see Uta again, I barely looked around the place as I walked in. We spent the first half an hour drinking tea and catching up. One look at the wooden floors and the coat closet was enough to convince me this was my new home. The house number of ‘my’ apartment (which I was now sitting in, seeing) is 28 - the same date as my birthday. Coincidence? I think not. 

Everything was working in my favor regarding this apartment. Be that as it may, expecting the worst got the best of me. It took Uta’s landlord almost two weeks to let me know if I qualified as a renter. Even when I called him and he said he was 99% sure, part of me was convinced that that one percent would count against me, as it had so many times before.

Now the apartment is mine. Of course it is - who expected anything less (present company excluded)? Despite its quirks - which I am getting used to - it is still my Utopia.

(Which I haven’t even seen yet).

Expectations, Volume II: The Agent Audition

September 28, 2009

The agent audition is a necessary evil for every so-called professional opera singer. Each one is different, and yet each one is the same. In some way or another, you end up telling a variation of the same story, which is almost never, “That’s the best audition I’ve ever had!” More than likely, you recount tales of cumbersome travel arrangements, dodgy accommodations, not being able to warm up, then waiting for an hour, sometimes two, singing even though you were a) under the weather, b) tired, c) not feeling yourFach that day... .

You sing your aria of choice, then usually one chosen by the agent, who then proceeds to tell you what he or she thinks about your voice, your personality, or even your shoes (I’m not joking). Then they tell you what goals you should have for your life, or what you couldn’t possibly achieve with a voice like that.

My last agent audition wasn’t much different than the typical scenario described above. When I was done, the agent gave me very positive feedback in the form of a very short expression, “Na, das können Sie mit links!” (roughly translated, “Well, you can do that with one hand tied behind your back!”). After a little small talk, he thanked me for coming and shook my hand. 

Still engaged in the handshake, I lingered, waiting for the ensuing critique of my presentation. It was an awkward moment, because apparently the agent had nothing else to say. Time seemed to stand still as I waited for him to say something, anything. 

Nothing. Not even “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” 

In a truly enlightening moment, as I loosened my ambitious but gentle grip, it dawned on me: I’m not interested in what he has to say. I am professional enough to judge my own performance, which on this day, if I do say so myself, went as well as it possibly could have. Having met my own expectations, I kindly thanked him for his time and walked out the door.

Expectations, Volume III: Modern Music (Afterword)

October 12, 2009

Once you comprehend that it was most likely not the composer’s* intention to make your life miserable, learning avant-garde music** becomes much easier.

Tune in next time to the Grahamophone...

... as “Miss Donnithorne” at Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach, December 12, 17, 29 and January 3.

*replace underlined phrase with the name of whomever seems to be troubling you at the moment.

**replace underlined phrase with whatever it is about that person that seems to be troubling you at the moment.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

 During the run of Rigoletto my website hit counter was ticking like crazy. To know that people were returning home from the performance and ‘googling’ me gave me a surge of deep satisfaction. Seeing my name on posters all around town also filled me with a sense of pride, and of course the reactions from the audience after each show were very flattering and at the same time reassuring. 

    Now, a couple weeks later, the Rigoletto posters have been covered up by something new - this week’s movie schedule, the Main River Festival, the Backstreet Boys in concert (yeah, I did a double-take on that one as well). Apart from a few stray clicks, my beautiful website has been left virtually untouched. It’s hard to believe that the production I’d been looking forward to since last fall has come and gone. 

    To make matters worse, it’s my birthday today. Birthdays, like website hit counters, are just numbers, reminding us to tally up our accomplishments. Just today, as a matter of fact, I was sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office flipping through a women’s magazine and came across “30 Things You Should Definitely Do Before Your 30th Birthday.” I think I’d only done one of them - get a Brazilian wax - and that since turning 30. 

    Does this mean that if I haven’t fulfilled a certain task by a certain time that I should just give up on it all together? Do my wishes have to have an expiration date? Do my goals have to be the same as yours? If I haven’t sung at the Met by the time I’m 38, well, I can just forget about this silly singing business. If I haven’t had a child by the time I’m 42, I should just get me to a nunnery. If I haven’t won a game of bingo by the time I’m 67, go ahead and order me that plot at the cemetery. According to freundin magazine, my life is over. But heck, if a Backstreet Boy can still go on tour, anything can happen.

    Tallying up my score for this year, there was a lot left undone, to be sure. Much to my surprise, even though it seems that things aren’t much different, apparently I’ve accomplished quite a lot since my last birthday. 

• I moved to a new town to start a new phase of my life, met new people who encourage, inspire and influence me.

• I had four singing gigs (one major operatic role, one challenging artistic endeavor, and two smaller operatic roles). Oh wait - actually five gigs if you count singing a program of Gershwin songs in a hotel lounge in return for a five-star buffett (please, sir, can I have some more? Why, yes!); six if you count a benefit concert in Barcelona (did I mention Barce-f*ckin’-lona?); seven if you count singing “Oh Holy Night” on Christmas Eve at the church down the street; eight if you count singing Dolly Parton songs with a banjo player in an apple orchard.

•I started doing Bikram yoga. (Speaking of timelines for accomplishments, it was Bikram Choudhury who said - "It's never too late, you're never too old, you're never too sick to start from scratch once again.") 

• I started writing this blog.

If every year is like this year, I will be one happy woman.

Bring on the next birthday!!