Saturday, February 28, 2009

Public Display of Opera

  Last month I sold my car -- for a whopping 100 Euros. It was a pretty good deal, considering it was 15 years old, and the cost of repairs began to exceed what I paid for it in the first place. Nevertheless, having a car would’ve come in handy this month, which seems to be the most fruitful of my freelance singing career so far, or at least the most travelled. I’ve been commuting back and forth between Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, making day trips to Wuppertal, Mainz and Berlin. All these kilometers were clocked up on the Deutsche Bahn (for more about my travels, go to the archives: Running to Stand Still).

    I haven’t missed the price of gasoline or the stress of theAutobahn, nor the added adventure of trying to find someone to help me push-start my car. One thing I sorely miss about driving, though, is singing at the top of my lungs. I loved surfing through the stations, trying to find the one that wasn’t playing a Katy Perry song. Futile. So then I’d pop in a tape. Yes, that’s right, a cassette tape. I don’t care what anybody thinks - even if I buy a brand new car someday, I’m going to have it outfitted with a cassette deck.

    I have enough cassette tapes to fill three or four shoe boxes. Mind you, most of these are mix-tapes which dear friends have made for me over the years. My friend Todd and I must’ve made over 20 compilations for each other, trying competitively not to repeat songs we’d put on previous tapes, making personalized covers out of magazine clippings. And of course my sister, my music guru, still sends me compilations, albeit now in compact disc form. Without her, I would never have heard of most of the music I love to listen to today -- they don’t play the good shit on the radio.

    The five cassettes I last had in my car were R.E.M’s Acceleration, Duffy’s Rockferry (both gifts from my sister which I put on tape so I could listen to them in the car), a mix-tape from my sister made circa 1986, a mix-tape from Todd, circa 1990, and the soundtrack to the movie Once (also transferred to tape for road-trip purposes).  On that tape is what has to be my favorite song of 2008: “When Your Mind’s Made Up.”  I absolutely LOVE this song. It builds up more dramatically than any operatic aria I’ve ever sung. It’s in 5/4 time but sounds in no way jazzy (like the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s famous “Take Five”) or cheesy (like “Everything’s Alright” fromJesus Christ Superstar). I love singing along, or rather wailing along towards the end, making up a third harmony. In fact, I always like to harmonize. 

    In my car, I was the fifth Beatle, the third Indigo Girl, the sixth Jackson. On the train, I’m just an oppressed freelance opera singer -- especially when I’ve got my ubiquitous iPod set to shuffle and my favorite song comes on unexpectedly. Bursting with the desire to sing backup vocals, I simply have to sit there, at most tapping my foot with a profound smile on my face. 

    Practically everyone on public transportation has some sort of cable coming out their ear nowadays. I once sat next to a 60-something year old woman, and was surprised to see her pull white earbuds out of her purse. I wonder what she was listening to. Helen Reddy? Nine Inch Nails? Was she, like me, suppressing the urge to break into song? It’s really too bad that people don’t just sing out loud anymore. Surely, there was a time long ago where you just hummed a little tune when the spirit moved you. Actually, in Coburg where I used to live, there is a man who has a portable radio on his handlebars. He cycles through town on sunny days, singing along whether he knows the song or not with his very penetrating tenor. You can hear him coming from clear across the town square. But he’s a bona fide nutso and everybody knows it. 

    There’s a time and place for anything, though. You don’t have to be completely bonkers to sing in public. My friend Patrick and I went busking once in Berlin. We both had guitars, singing classic tunes by Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, the Police, the Rolling Stones, et al, and even that Oscar-winning song from the Oncesoundtrack, “Falling Slowly.” People either walked right on by not registering us at all, some smiled, some even stopped for a minute to listen, and still others actually put some change in our bucket. But nobody thought we were crazy. I decided to see what the reaction would be if I sang something operatic. I chose the shortest, most accessible aria I could think of: “Quando m’en vo” from La Bohème. Apparently, public displays of opera are not as appreciated at the Hackescher Markt as they might be in front of Covent Garden. Not only did the passersby not give me any spare change, they cowered by as quickly as possible, with appalled expressions on their faces. One manager of a nearby restaurant turned up his music even louder to drown out my lyrical outburst. Even Patrick looked as if he were saying, “Can we please go now?” I’m sure they all took me for a bona fide nutso. I thought I sang pretty well.

    This is why I don’t make it a habit to practice on the train, but I am sometimes left with no other choice. Recently, I got a call from a theater to jump in for a role I’d never sung before. With two hours to get there, I grabbed a recording and the vocal score from the library, and with my portable CD player (thank goodness I didn’t throw that away!) tried to find a seat on the train where I could softly mutter along. I’m sure no one thought I was crazy then, because I had the music there right in front of me. Pretentious, maybe, but not crazy. Another theater was considering me for a role in a modern opera and sent me the score along with a recording so that I could determine whether it would be something suitable for me. What with all my gallivanting around, I didn’t have time to study it at home. So there I sat again, on the train, score in my lap, headphones on, humming along as best I could. I wonder if my fellow passengers could appreciate Peter Maxwell Davies’ atonality. 
    Last week I had to go back to Berlin to audition for an agent. She expressly stated that there was no place to warm up or vocalize in that building. A month ago, I could’ve warmed up in the car. What to do? Well, I figured, Berlin already knows I’m crazy. Besides, the platforms in the train station are so loud and full of psychos that my little refrains of “iii-eee-aaa-ooo-uuu” probably wouldn’t disturb anyone. The audition was a success, the day was sunny, and after having visited with a couple old friends, I happily rode the train back to Düsseldorf. 

    The next morning I took the bus to rehearsal. Although I was listening to my iPod, I heard a soft melody coming from across the aisle. Lo and behold, I turned to see a man without headphones actually singing to himself - softly, but beautifully and sincerely. I turned off my iPod and enjoyed listening to him sing for the rest of the journey. Perhaps he had just sold his car, too.

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