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.