Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day

  I like a Gershwin tune, how about you? 

    For those of you not in the know, the title of this entry is a line from the Gershwin brothers’ classic song “The Man I Love.” Well, it’s Tuesday, and here’s some pretty good news:  Barack Obama has taken office as the first African-American president of the United States of America.

    ‘Swonderful... We have overcome so many obstacles to have made this possible. Of course, we have a long way to go. The fact that race was even an issue for some voters is still a crying shame. Most tears shed this Tuesday, however, were tears of joy. I myself got weepy on several occasions during this campaign - from the moment Senator Obama announced his candidacy to the moment President Obama was sworn into office. ...Love walked right in and drove the shadows away...

    There were two moments during the inauguration today which were especially moving for me as a classical singer. The constitution provides that a president’s term begins at 12 noon on inauguration day, with or without oath. At exactly 12 noon, the quartet of renowned musicians were still playing. The piece was a  virtuostic rendition of the Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which brought a peaceful hush over the enormous crowd. President Obama sat there, attentive and appreciative of the wealth of talent playing before him (and for him). The serene smile on his face grew maybe slightly wider when his wife Michelle, at 12 noon exactly, briefly put her gloved hand on his shoulder. One could hear a few cheers out of the crowd, but they quickly subsided until the song finished, at which point the uproarious cheering resumed explosively.

    I was amazed at how polite over a million people could be. After all the hatred, incivility and scornful behavior during the elections, the Americans showed that they are capable of respect, reverence and regard. The world literally turned in a new direction underneath their feet, but they still listened to the music. ...I got rhythm, I got music ... who could ask for anything more? ...

    Then it was time to take the oath. As an opera singer who has flubbed up her spoken lines on several occasions, I winced when the “dialog” between President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts didn’t go quite so smoothly. Of the many conditions under which a slip of the tongue can occur, I’m inclined not only to chalk this one up to bad prompting (an epidemic in some opera houses), but also to skirting around the president’s middle name. The elephant in the room was named “Hussein.” The announcer referred to the president as Barack H. Obama, while Dianne Feinstein, head of the inaugural committee, called him simply Barack Obama, then for the first time during the taking of the oath, his full name was used. The subconscious ramifications of the controversy surrounding this name (controversial, of course, only for the hateful, incivil and scornful people) surfaced in this otherwise innocuous repeat-after-me situation. ...Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo, Hoodle ah da wa da, Scatty wah! (scatty what?) ...

    George and Ira Gershwin were born Jacob and Israel Gershowitz, sons of a Russian musician who changed his name upon immigrating to the USA. It was easy for them and other Jewish immigrants to change their names and shed some of their Jewish identity in order to fit in -- after all, their skin was white. Would it have made any difference had our new president changed his name to Billy H. O’Brien? I am impressed that he proudly clings to his heritage by standing by his name.  Even if he would change it, it would serve no purpose, because the world still sees him as a black man. Why this should be a problem for some defies all logic, but for now, that seems to be the way it is. ... In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. Our (hate) is here to stay...

    The Gershwins were lucky enough to have parents who immigrated to the USA already at the turn of the 20th century, avoiding the strife (to put it ultra-mildly) in Europe during the time when George and Ira were writing their greatest hits. Theirs also being an oppressed race, judged not only on their beliefs, but also the size of their noses and the circumferences of their skulls, they were better able to relate to their black neighbors. They had good reason to be touched by a 1925 novel titled Porgy by DuBose Heyward, which depicted life in the black tenements of Charleston, South Carolina.

    Together with Heyward, the Gershwin brothers adapted the novel into the opera Porgy and Bess, first performed in 1935, featuring a cast of solely African-American singers (with the exception of a few minor roles for whites). In fact, the Gershwin estate stipulates that only blacks be allowed to play the lead roles when the opera is performed in the United States (Not surprisingly, the only all-white production took place in Europe under Nazi occupation in the 1940’s, and few other mixed productions have taken place since then). While I love singing “Summertime” as much as the next soprano, it seems to me a matter of course that Gershwin would have reserved this opera for African-American singers. Am I being audacious to purport that this is their story, they’ve deserved it, it belongs to them?

    Wait a minute. ...It ain’t necessarily so!... The more reading I do on the subject, the more it I learn that this opera is not the pride and joy of the African-American opera community. Apparently, there’s not much appreciation for a story which stereotypically depicts its characters -- impoverished beggars, violent crooks and drug addicts. Still, poet Langston Hughes said of the author, “Heyward was one who saw with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive." And biographer James M. Hutchisson thought Porgy to be the first major southern novel to portray blacks without condescension.” I personally find the music magnificent and challenging, and realize that the authors fastidiously researched the lifestyle and dialect before putting pen to paper.  The opinions on the work are mixed, but I conclude that it is not the piece itself which causes the controversy. 

    I happen to know two people personally who are currently singing in Porgy and Bess, both of them idols of mine. I asked one of them (I’ll call him “Porgy”) what his thoughts were on the subject. It ended up being impossible for him to sum his feelings up in a few words, and I do realize what a big can of worms I’ve opened up just by beginning to write this article. I’ve followed Porgy’s career since I met him in 1998. I was Ines to his di Luna in Il Trovatore.Then he was well on his way to the top, if not there already. I remember him telling me about a discussion he had with a (German) opera director who did not want him to play Rigoletto. Why? Well, the woman playing Gilda (his daughter) is white. It just wouldn’t be believable, he was told. Whatever happened to willing suspension of disbelief?  

    Why do I scoff at the notion of racial discrimination in Italian opera, yet support Gershwin’s stipulation for Porgy and Bess?  I guess it’s two sides of one coin being told you can’t play Rigoletto “because you are black” and being offered to sing Porgy “because you are black.” How many sopranos singing Bess have been denied a Butterfly or a Desdemona on account of their race (even though the real reason is seldom given)? These incidents are rare, I hope, and my friend “Porgy” did get to sing Rigoletto, of course. Why? Because he is an exquisite artist who has studied thoroughly. He is an intelligent musician and an expressive singer who channels humanity itself through his voice and stage presence. 

    I know when I hear sincerity in a voice. It is a sound which also resonates in our new president. Let’s go back now to the inauguration and listen to John Williams’ arrangement ... ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free... being played by Itzhak Perlman (Jewish immigrant), Gabriela Montero (Venezuelan), Anthony McGill (African-American) and Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese-American). Is this a presidential inauguration or a United Colors of Benetton commercial? Were these performers chosen on the basis of their race? Are we trying too hard? Hmmm... maybe. But they also happen to be the very best in the business, the most qualified for the job.

    Surely we’ve overcome many a prejudice, and we should rejoice in this day. But the memory of all that has come before cannot be so easily forgotten. ... No, no they can’t take that away from me...So, I return to Tuesday, my good news day, and I’ll try to leave race out of it: 

Barack Obama, the man most qualified for the job, has taken office as President of the United States of America.

Ain’-a that good news?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Happy 70th Birthday, Big Bertha!

 Everything I need to know about the singing business, I learned from my mother. 
    I would love to see the look on her face when she reads that. To be honest, it was difficult to come up with the connection myself. I mean, the woman can’t carry a tune, not even if it were in a bucket. She has very little sense of rhythm, and every attempt to get one -- tap dancing classes, a clogging course -- has dismally failed. Besides, every time I try to describe what it is I do, she sighs and replies, “Well, I just don’t understand that opera business.”
    Little does she know, she has everything it takes to make it in “the biz.”
    First, you need lots of luck. It is a luxury to be able to pursue such a frivolous career as ‘singer.’ If you’re worrying about putting food on the table for your three kids, something like delivering the mail or teaching school or being a secretary seems a bit more reliable. After doing just that for years and years and years, my mother was lucky enough to be able to pursue things she wanted to do -- writing and hiking. In fact, over the years she has even combined the two, having published two hiking guides and a book about the history of women in the Grand Canyon.
    Her identity as an avid hiker is so strong, that my brother, sister and I often refer to her as Hiker Betty or H.B. instead of “Mom.”
    Through hiking she has acquired the Wanderlust necessary for the singing business. You can be content to land a permanent, orfest, contract and stay in one city for a few or several years. If you’re lucky (again with the luck), it’s in a town that you like. But mostly, your singing career will take you from city to city -- just when you get used to the one, you’re on to the next. My mother has been on practically every mountain in Arizona. She’s hiked in Colorado, in Canada, in Switzerland, and in and out of the Grand Canyon numerous times. That might not sound like too much for other avid hikers, but for a country girl from Deerwalk, West Virginia, where moving out  of your childhood home means pitching a trailer in your parents’ backyard, Hiker Betty is quite the adventurer.
    Conquering peaks and traversing treacherous terrain builds up a certain amount of courage after a time. With her gathered courage and a parachute strapped to her back, my mother decided at one point to jump out of a plane. She was 60 at the time. My singing equivalent to the parachute jump may have been my stint singing backup in the country band Miss Behavin’,  or my courageous moment as a rock singer in the Theater Band in Coburg. That little stunt led to me getting roles in many more musicals than I would’ve expected to be cast in. Like my mother reminiscing about her parachute jump, I’m still wondering if that was such a good idea.
    Hiker Betty mentions in the preface of her book that hiking can be analogous to trudging through more difficult times in life. First you’re struggling up a hill, putting one foot in front of the other. Then before you know it, you’ve summited a peak. It’s not always easy to continue singing when you’re “between jobs.” You just have to have faith that you will reach your goal, if you have one. If you’ve ever been on a hike somewhere with a fragile ecosystem (one false step and you could cause erosion), you’ve certainly seen the signs urging you to “Stay on Trail!”
    Opera singers often have to support their singing habit by taking on part-time jobs, or even full-time ones, especially if you’re trying to live in New York City. Though I have dabbled in teaching English, working at the library, babysitting and the like, I have been fortunate (again with the luck!) to stay afloat mostly with singing. While I was still studying however, I had a myriad of jobs, and once decided to take on a position as a pizza delivery driver. It was the only job that fit into my schedule at the university. A few weeks prior to that, a story was on the news about a pizza delivery girl who had been shot and killed by a deranged customer. Having got word of that, my mother called me up and said,   That was the first and last time I ever heard my mother say the F-word. She sure as  @*!#  didn’t want me to deliver pizza! In reality she was worried about my safety, but I like to think it was her way of telling me to “Stay on Trail!” 
    Another lesson I should have learned from that incident is, one should save harsh words for when they are absolutely necessary. That could’ve come in handy during the last meeting I had with my former employer. Live and learn....
    Other than luck, Wanderlust, courage and tenacity, my mother sets a good example by continuing to have fun in her life, surrounding herself with people whose company she enjoys, and steering clear of the ones who bring her down. Mostly, I’ve learned from her actions, not necessarily from her words (this is where she might have trouble in the opera business, since there words must be louder than actions). Still, I remember something she said once, which I often think of when I begin to regret getting into this business in the first place: “If I could do it all over again, I’d just make different mistakes.”
    If another one of her axioms -- “Life begins at 40” -- rings true, then she is, at 70, younger than me. No matter how many mountains she’s been on, Hiker Betty will never be over the hill. And in the singing business, that’s a plus.

Happy Birthday, Hiker Betty!   I love you, Mom!